Alexey Brodovitch, design leader

I’VE WRITTEN ABOUT constructivism in a previous post, and the Russian avant garde designer El Lissitzky (see “El Lissitzky: revolutionary pioneer”). After him another Russian, Alexey Brodovitch, influenced a whole generation in his evening classes in Philadelphia and New York called Design Laboratory over a 25-year period.

He is most famous as the art director for the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar from 1938 to 1958; some of his work there appears at right and below.

The story of Brodovitch’s life is colourful, beginning with birth into a wealthy family, running away from home as a youth to join the army several times, being badly wounded by the Bolsheviks, then escaping to Paris where he gradually became one of the city’s leading designers.

The Popular Magazine, November 1909, illustration by NC Wyeth.

An offer came from America to teach, and to bring American design up to European standards, considered to embody a more modern spirit. The beautiful nineteenth-century romantic realism of illustrators Howard Pyle and NC Wyeth had dominated the scene up till then.

Brodovitch shared the Bauhaus tenet that students should develop as individuals, discovering their own inventiveness while perfecting technical skill (see “The Bauhaus and The International Style”). Influence on major influential photographers was immense, and his art direction contributed clarity and a rare sense of excitement to the printed page.

As a design leader in the modern era, he successfully resisted the art deco clichés that Paris was immersed in when he arrived, thanks to an innate sense of economy and an antipathy to ornamentation (see “art deco: only a sideshow”).

Below left is a page from Harper’s Magazine in 1916, and to the right is an ad from The Ladies’ Home Journal in 1921 for some perspective on American graphic design before World War II. By contrast, see Brodovitch’s 1929 ad design for Athélia in Paris below.old-mag-pages

After winning a poster competition in Paris in 1924 (Picasso took second place), Brodovitch was hired by Athélia, the design studio of the Parisian department store Aux Trois Quartiers, to design and illustrate catalogues and advertisements for their luxury men’s boutique, Madelios. Brodovitch was aware that many of the customers were fairly traditional in their tastes, so he balanced out his modern designs with classical Greek references.*

Harper’s Bazaar cover, 1956 by Alexey Brodovitch.