Designing Oscar: How a British Art Director Brought Pop-Up Books and Church Bells to the Big Show

In a Wrap magazine special, designer Arnold Schwartzman shares his favorite Academy Awards designs

Arnold Schwartzman's Oscar designs
Diane Garrett

This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap magazine.

It took an odd sequence of events for Arnold Schwartzman to end up designing posters, programs, menus and more for the Academy Awards. A British art director who’d gotten his start with the London music show “Ready, Steady, Go” in the 1960s, he moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to take a job as head of design for the company run by his friend, legendary designer Saul Bass — and while he didn’t like that job, he stuck around and accepted another gig for which Bass recommended him, making a short documentary for a Holocaust museum.

The film, titled “Genocide,” grew into a feature and won the Oscar in 1982. That got Schwartzman an invitation to join the Academy — and when Bass died in 1996 after designing a number of Oscar posters, Schwartzman took over the job, as well as creating the look of other Oscar-related print material and supervising the show’s trailers.

See video: Neil Patrick Harris Teases Oscar Musical Number … And Magic Tricks: ‘I’ve Said Too Much’ (Video)

“It’s amazing how it all happened,” said Schwartzman, who also served as design director for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and in 2002 was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. (He’s two steps below being a Sir.)

A retrospective exhibition of Schwartzman’s work, including his work for the Academy, opens at the Christopher Guy Showroom in West Hollywood on Feb. 19. Prior to that exhibition, the 79-year-old designer shared some of his favorite Oscar designs with TheWrap.

"How Movies Began" pop-up book
Diane Garrett

“I think the Academy still has a couple hundred of them. I ran into somebody the other day who told me they loved my popup book, and when I asked where she got it, she said, ‘Somebody from the Academy gave it to me.’ I thought, ‘I’m supposed to be getting 50 percent of the sale of those.’”

Oscar postcards

“The year they moved to the Kodak Theatre, I had the idea of doing postcards of all the venues where the Academy has been since the beginning. The hardest thing was to get a picture of the Academy Theatre, which was in their old headquarters on Melrose. I don’t even remember where I got it from. I know the Academy didn’t have one.”

Governors Ball dance card

“I was doing the Governors Ball menu — and it being a ball, I thought of doing it in the style of a traditional dance card, where you fill in the names of your dance partners. I looked all around the country to find these little pencils that you could use to write with, but [then Academy executive director] Bruce Davis came back to me and said, ‘No, people will be going around asking for autographs.’ So we nixed that.”

Governors Ball menu

“As I child I just loved British cigarette cards. So I did a series of cards for the program — but they said I had to be politically minded and cover all the bases. So I had Walt Disney, and Irving Thalberg, and Daryl Zanuck, and Mary Pickford, and Hattie McDaniel, and Clark Gable and Charlie Chaplin and Edith Head …”


“This one I kind of went crazy with. They gave me carte blanche to go through the archive, but then of course I had to get permission from the various people. The hardest was the sheet music for ‘It’s Great Not to be Nominated,’ by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen. It was a real job getting permission for that one.”

Oscar program

“I was very friendly with the Oscar production designer, Roy Christopher, who said, ‘Come see what I’m doing.’ I loved his sketches, so I reproduced them in the program. And when he showed me this model, I thought, that would make a wonderful popup.”

Sunday at the Oscars poster

“When they decided to move the show from Monday to Sunday, they said, ‘Can the design say that?’ And growing up in England, on Sunday there were church bells everywhere, so I thought the clapper could be an Oscar. When I took it to them, they said, ‘We love it, but it’s got religious connotations.’ And I immediately said, ‘Oh no, it’s not a church bell, it’s a liberty bell,’ and I got away with it.”

2000 Oscar banners

“Of course, when it was 2000 I thought of ‘Metropolis,’ so I used the idea of the rings.”

Arnold Schwartzman

Arnold Schwartzman won a Best Documentary Feature Oscar for his first film, “Genocide,” and also directed “Echoes That Remain” and “Liberation.” A found member of the Academy’s Documentary Branch, he is currently working on a doc about his hometown of Margate, England.

Except when noted, all photos courtesy of Arnold and Isolde Schwartzman.

A Wild Year comes down to the wire