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For a graphic designer who accepted the Modernist principle of the unity
of the arts—that graphic design and typography share the same
theoretical base as architecture, that they arise from the same mindset
and occupy the same visual landscape—the new architecture of lower
Manhattan stumps me. At Ground Zero, the 7 World Trade Center corporate
Tower #1 by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM) has nearly topped out and
has secured its first tenant; Tower #2, just announced, will be by
British architect Norman Foster, designer of the controversial Swiss Re
London tower shaped like a steel pickle, and Santiago Calatrava's
soaring white glass bird for the WTC Transportation Hub, is set to fly
by 2009. What is comparable to all this development in graphic design
and typography? Is there a unity of the arts in the post-Post-Modern
Early Modern theorists stressed the oneness of style: Le Corbusier said
in 1923, “Style is a unity of principles animating all the work of an
epoch, the result of a state of mind that has its own special character.
Our own epoch is determining, day by day, its own style." Gropius went
further in recognizing, "the common citizenship of all forms of creative
work and their logical interdependence on one another in the modern
world." Alvin Lustig, whose early death deprived Yale of a serious
design theorist, hoped for "the kind of relationship that existed in
earlier periods between objects—the great symbolic spark that jumped
between a candle stick, a Gothic cathedral, or a tapestry." So, today,
where is that spark? Is there any resemblance, or any "interdependence,"
among designers of buildings and designers of pages and letterforms?
In his 1928 manifesto of the modern spirit in typography, The New Typography,
Jan Tschichold named Adolf Loos, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier as
architects expressing the spirit of modernism. In this interesting work,
he advised German printers to achieve the modern spirit by rejecting
“old style” faces and using the nondescript sans serifs in the type
case, such as Venus. But the modern impulse stirred in designers, and
new sans serifs appeared. The types of Jakob Erbar (Erbar type 1926),
especially Paul Renner (Futura type 1927) and Rudolf Koch (Kabel type
1927) became widely popular from their first appearance.
Graphic design repeats in miniature what architecture does monumentally. In my new book, Forms in Modernism; A Visual Set. The Unity of Typography, Architecture and the Design Arts,
I pair similar approaches in the treatment of form by architects and
designers. Early in the 20th century, the “stripped” Looshaus building
in Vienna and the “stripped” sans serifs revealed a turn from ornament
to “abbreviated” or “abstracted” bases—the bones of the letter. Further,
Tschichold claimed asymmetry as the logical order of text resulting
from its hierarchy and function. In posters and book design, sans serif
type, photography, rules and bars replaced fleurons and ornaments,
illustrations, borders and centered type. Bold and big, using all the
page and its white space, this practice of asymmetrical composition
became a key principle in modern graphic design, proselytized by the
Bauhaus as well.
In my book, I show that fashion and furniture move in the same spirit of
a period on the personal scale. Such design is part of the visual
landscape, or “visual set” of the early modern period. Madeleine Vionnet
and Mies van der Rohe both rejected axial symmetry and centrality. Mies
exhibited his now iconic Barcelona pavilion in 1929, the same year
Vionnet showed her wedding dress. It revealed its construction in the
metallic cord seams following the fabric around the body to gather in an
asymmetric focus on the left hip. (See Fig. 1, Fig. 2) Vionnet didn't
study Mies; she sent her assistants to the Louvre to draw Greek drapery.
There's no causal connection, influence or even awareness of each
other's work. (Even to fantasize about a meeting between them is
alarming. One can only speculate that they might both have served the
same rich clients.) But by 1929, both had discarded tradition in favor
of a new spirit. And both used luxurious materials—Mies, marble and
onyx; Vionnet, ivory silk panne velvet—allowing the intrinsic elegance
of materials, their refinement and proportions, to work.
In American modernism, typography also followed architecture. The Empire
State Building had been constructed in record time at the beginning of
the 1930s. American Type Founders issued an elongated, condensed titling
face called Empire, named after the building. Huxley Vertical type and
Slimline type also appeared in the ’30s. Both elongated letterforms to
the maximum, condensing them to narrow, anorexic stems—skyscraper types.
The period exaggerated thinness and tallness, and models and stars
showed how it looked on the human figure. (See Fig. 3, Fig. 4, Fig. 5).
Tall buildings evolved and became New York's corporate style
architecture: Helvetica type emerged as its counterpart in the 1950s.
(See Fig. 5, Fig. 6) Skidmore, Owings and Merrill has designed much of
the New York landscape since its iconic Lever House of 1951—Chase
Manhattan Plaza, the green Citicorp building in Queens, Union Carbide
headquarters, hospitals, many educational renovations and additions.
There is also 101 Barclay Street (1983), a white building immediately to
the north of 7 World Trade Center. It is identified by modest brass
titling over the main entrance. Together, the two SOM buildings, 7 World
Trade Center and 101 Barclay Street, occupy a massive stretch of glass.
To their south will be Tower 2 by Foster and the WTC Hub of Calatrava.
What will be their graphic counterparts?
We can recognize that new concerns have replaced striving for purity of
form. Foster's London tower takes its shape from environmental goals:
admitting natural light and fresh air, conserving energy. Its tapering
form minimizes gusts of wind, often problematic around city skyscrapers
(the original WTC plaza was non-navigable, if you remember). The
aerodynamic form permits staggered light wells to open vistas between
floors, as well as move fresh air upward and warm air outward.
Social concerns like housing, so central to early modern thinking, have
become people concerns again, but more empathetically. Santiago
Calatrava says of the wing like forms of his World Transportation Hub:
"The building is built with steel, glass, and light. They will all be
equal building materials—the light will arrive at the platform, and
visitors will feel like they are arriving in a great place, a welcoming
place." He showed he could do this in the 2004 Athens Olympic Stadium
Complex. In contrast, Le Corbusier planned to screen tenants to admit
those worthy of living in his Marseille apartment building.
The union of type and architecture does exist. Recently, the Cal Trans
building in Los Angeles, designed by Thom Mayne, incorporated the
building's address in a stunning projection of huge architectural
numbers from the facade. (See Fig. 7) Thom Mayne's firm, Morphosis, won
commissions to design the Cooper Union addition on Third Avenue as well
as the Olympic Village in Queens.
The tallest building in the world is being built in the Kingdom of
Dubai. New museums, commercial and government buildings and condominiums
come from Gehry, Gwathmey, Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and celebrated
architects worldwide. It's hard to eep track. With type, new faces and
new versions of old faces are available from many sources: Adobe,
Emigre, Linotype, Monotype, Hoefler, Manfred, Markus, Tobias or Phil.
Globalization leaves the neat concept of unity of style in shambles.
Or perhaps it has been transformed into something more complex, more
profound than we now can see. We can't identify it because it is too
close. Can someone see the common spark?
About the Author: Virginia Smith's book, Forms in Modernism: A Visual Set
(Watson-Guptill) places typography in the theoretical context of other
design of the Modern period, especially architecture, with examples from
couture and furnishings. She is a Professor Emerita of Baruch College
of CUNY and a practitioner and observer of graphic design and design
When I started out, I worked for a designer who told me that there was a
little regret in every job. At the time, I thought this was a negative
But now I realize that if you don’t see that there are things that
you could do differently or better, you won’t keep striving to improve.
who aren’t afraid to question themselves and their work are the ones
who ultimately get better and succeed.
Section: Inspiration -
mentoring, advice, emerging designers, students
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