100+ years of graphic design

we’ve been around for a while now, but certainly not a century yet!

DwigginsThe studio has been thriving since 1992. I mean I have begun a series on great art directors of the past, starting at the turn of 20th century transitioning to the modern era, the influence of which continues to this day. First, William Morris, then Czech artist Alphonse Mucha who flourished in the brief period known to art history as Art Nouveau. A decade or so later the term “graphic design” was introduced by William Addison Dwiggins, an American type designer, calligrapher and illustrator who did much to reform book design after his collaboration with publisher Alfred Knopf. Read more

William Morris: Arts and Crafts

Acanthus wallpaper, 1875 by William Morris.

The man who did so much to inspire members of the literary circle called The Inklings, of which JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis were members, and establish the fantasy genre died at age 62 in 1896, after which an eminent doctor wrote, “I consider the case is this: the disease is simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men.”

Multi-talented people are often scattered, their energies divergent, but fame in his own time as a poet, interior designer, architectural conservationist and committed socialist testified to the immense vitality of a man who even when ill at the end of his life had the will to explore yet another area of design: printing and typography. Read more

Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau

what we think of as modern art today began in 1860, then careered onwards through the next century

Aristide Bruant, 1892 by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were its first influences. Art Nouveau in 1900 was a kind of prelude to the 20th century version. The painters most closely associated with it, Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard and Gustav Klimt, became so through their posters and decorative work, not their paintings.

It was a movement purely concerned with design, with elaborate surface decoration and curvilinear forms. The trends that followed by comparison were bare. Its importance to the printed page due to the inclusion of letterforms in printing and signage, as well as its contribution to the fields of fashion design, textiles (William Morris) and furniture (Charles Rennie Mackintosh), influenced subsequent graphic design greatly. A technical breakthrough, stone lithography, allowed designers freedom from dependence on the rectilinear restrictions of letterpress printing. At the same time, Japanese prints became popular, which freed the use of space. Read more

El Lissitzky, revolutionary pioneer

the Soviet avant garde

Contemporary designers are often unaware of Constructivism and its impact on contemporary graphic design, probably due to Josef Stalin’s efficiency in eliminating all evidence of it in the Soviet Union.

“Books on all branches of knowledge,” 1924. Poster by Aleksandr Rodchenko.

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Alexey Brodovitch, design leader

Brodovitch-Harpers-08-40I’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. Read more

Art Deco: only a sideshow

Chrysler-BuildingAfter World War I an eclectic popular style appeared in France characterized by ornamental and decorative craft motifs, and Machine Age* materials, but waned after World War II. The modernism that dominated afterwards emphasized function over form, so Art Deco was considered pretentious, even kitsch, though its enduring popularity attests to human love for ornamentation. Yet it was another kind of response to the demands of mass production and new materials, rectilinear and optimistic about progress.

It owed something to Art Nouveau but had a more ordered design (see “Alphonse Mucha and Art Nouveau”). Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan-influenced architectural features, Sant’ Elia’s futuristic skyscrapers, Cubist ideas and classical Greek revivalist images influenced its development. At the right, New York’s iconic Chrysler Building, constructed in 1928 to 1930, displays Art Deco symmetry at the apex of its influence.

*The first half of the 20th century, basically, sometimes including the latter part of the 19th century, 1880 to 1945.
The typeface Bifur, designed by Adolphe Mouron Cassandre in the 1920s.

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Cassandre and the poster

Dubonnet poster by Cassandre, one of a series.

Cassandre was the pseudonym of Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, born in Ukraine of French parents at the turn of the 20th century. As a young man he moved to Paris, studied at a couple of art schools, then soon found work for a printer designing posters.

In time he formed an advertising agency with partners, served a wide variety of clientele in the 1930s and became best known for his travel posters. His work for Dubonnet was among the first to be designed especially to be viewed from moving vehicles, and memorable for references to painters such as Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso. Read more

de Stijl: Mondrian, Oud and
Van Doesburg

Composition No 10, 1939-1942, Piet Mondrian.

De Stijl means “the style” in Dutch, an appropriate moniker for the art movement that established the style of 20th-century design.

Its origins in the Netherlands were providential and timely because during World War I the country was not only neutral, and spared of the upheaval and destruction, but also isolated as a result.

Thus de Stijl was able to set the stage for the postwar period. Its leaders were painter Piet Mondrian and architect JJP Oud. Its influence, however, can be credited to its theorist and prophet, Theo Van Doesburg, painter, poet, architect and pioneer of modern graphic design. Read more

The Bauhaus and
The International Style

Bauhaus-publicationWilliam Morris had initiated the craft approach to design in the 19th century, but looked backwards romantically to a pre-industrial age. The tremendous violence and chaos at the start of the new century asked for innovative solutions. Designers responded by accepting industrial technology as here to stay.

Germany, defeated in World War I, experienced a surge of artistic experimentation in the aftermath. The Bauhaus school followed Morris’s argument that form and function should be united in the service of social needs. Though apolitical, it would be closed by the Nazis as a centre of communist intellectualism, inadvertently dispersing Bauhaus ideals worldwide. Read more

Paul Rand and the symbol

No Way Out, 1950 movie poster by Paul Rand.

Piet Mondrian and de Stijl freed contemporary design of its former restrictions, despite the criticism of rigidity it sometimes receives (see “de Stijl: Mondrian, Oud and Van Doesburg”).

American graphic designer Paul Rand was one of the freed. His reputation rose early for page layouts as a young art director for Esquire and Coronet magazines in 1937, and only increased with time; fame came in the 1950s and ’60s with logo designs, many of which are still in use, for IBM, ABC, Cummins, UPS, Enron, Westinghouse and NeXT.

Paul Klee’s and Wassily Kandinsky’s work initiated his development. Thanks to a meeting with László Maholy-Nagy, Rand was inspired to study art criticism and became profoundly influenced by the work of pragmatic philosopher John Dewey who emphasized the need for a “functional-aesthetic perfection.” One of Rand’s subsequent ideas was to test for recognition even when the work was blurred or mutilated. Read more

Herb Lubalin, eclectic typographer

Lubalin-MotherThe 1970s decade is called the “pivot of change” in the 21st century, particularly with reference to economic upheaval (so what else is new?), as well as the “Me” decade by novelist Tom Wolfe because socially it marked a move from communitarianism in the ’60s to atomized individualism. Think sideburns-plus, bell-bottoms, platform shoes, Led Zeppelin at first, disco later. Read more

Saul Bass, logos and film titles

what makes a good designer?

From top left to bottom right: Bell System, Avery Dennison, AT&T, United Airlines, Minolta, Continental Airlines, Quaker Oats, United Way, Warner Communications, Kleenex.

Saul Bass once said, “If it’s simple simple, it’s boring. We try for the idea that is so simple that it will make you think and rethink.” Read more