THE O,s AND THE ARTS Most fans will say there's art in baseball: no-hitters, triple plays...But sometimes baseball is about other kinds of art, as well. It's the little things that count A graphic designer puts the old in the new park

April 03, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

When Baltimore graphic designer David Ashton first set foot in Oriole Park at Camden Yards last year, he felt at home instantly. "God, this is my place," he thought. "This is a terrific place."

As he toured the stadium with Janet Marie Smith, Orioles vice president for planning and development, Mr. Ashton instinctively understood how to complete the unfinished stadium's vintage atmosphere. He made quick thumbnail sketches that later became the basis of his proposal.

Mr. Ashton's proposal was selected from among the submissions of several larger graphics firms. And those early renderings became the visually irresistible grace notes that bring the stadium alive today: The two-faced clock, enveloped in aluminum scrollwork and perched between two twirling oriole weather vanes, is no digital atrocity, but an instrument that romantically retells the time of baseball's early days.

The home-plate entrance sign's stainless steel letters, forged by a blacksmith, were faceted to sparkle like diamonds in the

afternoon sun. In the outfield, the lattice-work advertising frames and their contents recall the graphic "name and claim" directness of period advertising.

Black and orange swallowtail banners and pennants flutter, wrap around poles and snap in the brisk spring air.

In sum, everything Mr. Ashton designed for the new stadium tingles with unpredictable motion. And though he, as well as the stadium's architects, drew deeply from baseball's architectural history, Mr. Ashton sought to evoke a feeling utterly new and exciting.

"I don't want them to think of it as a theme park, or nostalgic trip," Mr. Ashton says in his gravelly, deliberate voice. "I want them to think of it as a fresh place, with some neat things to look at. . . . In my opinion that's what baseball is. It's not just hits or runs; it's the hot dogs, summer, grass, weather vanes, pennants. It's how you walk to your seat, the usher you get to know, the people that spill a Coke on you. If that gets too controlled, it's lost."

Originally, Mr. Ashton did not welcome the idea of a new stadium because he feared the B & O Warehouse would be torn down. But, the warehouse stands, and the stadium is "probably the finest piece of architecture we've built in this city since . . . the late '50s. It's really beautiful," he says.

Working quickly, and adhering to the period tone set by the stadium's architects, HOK Sports Facilities Group, Mr. Ashton turned into art the utilitarian necessities required by his three-headed boss -- the Maryland Stadium Authority, the Baltimore Orioles and ARA Services, the stadium concessionaire.

Mr. Ashton also added a sense of visual continuity to everything from tickets to paper napkins. The dapper uniforms worn by ushers, the cups and saucers in the Camden Club, the dugout roof designs, the canopy over the stadium's main entrance -- all show the benefit of the designer's keen eye. So do the stadium parking guide, seating chart and sign painted on the B&O warehouse's brick facade, inviting one and all to Boog Powell's barbecue stand outside the stadium. Even the Sony Jumbo/ Tron video board graphics have been improved under Mr.

Ashton's guidance.

"David has been able to take the palette of things we had in front of us and turn them into something very beautiful," Ms. Smith says.

"My concept and philosophy is just keep it simple," Mr. Ashton says. "It really works in business as well as in lifestyle. . . . Simplicity takes a lot of work. It's a discipline."

For Mr. Ashton, 52, simplicity is also a religion. He was born in Rising Sun and was raised as a Quaker in nearby Fountain Green. His artistic guideposts were established early, within the simple structure of a Friends Meeting House in Darlington. There, year after year, he absorbed the clean, modest lines of Quaker architecture and decorative arts. This early experience "had a lotto do with the development of my design sense," Mr. Ashton says.

With his angular, early American hero's face, eyes that seem to change from blue to green and hair as blond as it is silver, Mr. Ashton seems to have stepped out of a Mathew Brady portrait. His Confederate gray wool vest, mattress ticking shirt, worn mauve jeans and boots complete the living history portrait.

Through elementary school he attended a one-room schoolhouse and spent a lot of time with his grandparents, dairy farmers who "spoke with the 'thee' and the 'thy.' " Mr. Ashton's talent surfaced early and was neither discouraged nor encouraged. "My art was kind of understood. I just did it," he says.

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