Alexey Brodovitch is remembered today as the art director of Harper's Bazaar for nearly a quarter of a century. But the volatile Russian emigré's influence was much broader and more complex than his long tenure at a fashion magazine might suggest. He played a crucial role in introducing into the United States a radically simplified, “modern” graphic design style forged in Europe in the 1920s from an amalgam of vanguard movements in art and design. Through his teaching, he created a generation of designers sympathetic to his belief in the primacy of visual freshness and immediacy. Fascinated with photography, he made it the backbone of modern magazine design, and he fostered the development of an expressionistic, almost primal style of picture-taking that became the dominant style of photographic practice in the 1950s.
In addition, Brodovitch is virtually the model for the modern magazine art director. He did not simply arrange photographs, illustrations and type on the page; he took an active role in conceiving and commissioning all forms of graphic art, and he specialized in discovering and showcasing young and unknown talent. His first assistant in New York was a very young Irving Penn. Leslie Gill, Richard Avedon and Hiro are among the other photographers whose work Brodovitch nurtured during his long career. So great was his impact on the editorial image of Harper's Bazaar that he achieved celebrity status; the film Funny Face, for example, which starred Fred Astaire as a photographer much like Avedon, named its art-director character “Dovitch.”
Despite his professional achievements and public success, however, Brodovitch was never a happy man. Born in Russia in 1898 of moderately well-to-do parents, he deferred his goal of attending the Imperial Art Academy to fight in the Czarist army, first against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then against the Bolsheviks. In defeat, he fled Russia with his family and future wife and, in 1920, settled in Paris. There, despite the burden of exile, he prospered; in 1924 his poster design for an artists' ball won first prize, and in 1925 he won medals for fabric, jewelry and display design at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts (the landmark “Art Deco” exposition). Soon he was in great demand, designing restaurant décor, posters and department store advertisements.
He came to the United States in 1930 to start a department of advertising (later known as the Philadelphia College of Art). There he trained students in the fundamentals of European design, while embarking on numerous freelance illustration assignments in Philadelphia and New York. In 1934 Carmel Snow, the new editor of Harper's Bazaar, saw his design work and immediately hired him to be its art director. It was the beginning of a collaboration that was to revolutionize both fashion and magazine design, and that catapulted Bazaar past its arch-rival, Vogue.
At Harper's Bazaar, where he was art director from 1934 to 1958, Brodovitch used the work of such European artists as Man Ray, Salvador Dali, and A.M. Cassandre, as well as photographers Bill Brandt, Brasai, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was the first to give assignments to emigré photographers Lisette Model and Robert Frank. Starting with a splashy, sometimes overly self-conscious style largely borrowed from his early counterpart at Vogue, Dr. M.F. Agha (AIGA medalist, 1957), he gradually refined his page layouts to the point of utter simplicity. By the 1950's, white space was the hallmark of the Brodovitch style. Models in Parisian gowns and American sports clothes “floated” on the page, surrounded by white backgrounds, while headlines and type took on an ethereal presence. At his best, Brodovitch was able to create an illusion of elegance from the merest hint of materiality. Clothes were presented not as pieces of fabric cut in singular ways, but as signs of a fashionable life.
Besides his achievements at Bazaar, Brodovitch's legacy as a publications designer includes the short-lived but influential magazine Portfolio, three issues of which were published in 1949 and 1950. A flashy, innovative quarterly aimed at the design profession, Portfolio contained profusely illustrated feature on Alexander Calder, Charles Eames, Paul Rand, Saul Steinberg and others, as well as articles surveying the graphic variations of cattle brands and shopping bags. As art editor, Brodovitch helped conceive the magazine's contents, as well as creating its distinct design with the help of die-cuts, transparent pages, multi-page fold outs and other elaborate (and expensive) graphic devices.
Throughout his career, he continued to teach. His “Design Laboratory,” which focused variously on illustration, graphic design and photography and on occasion were offered under the auspices of the AIGA, provided a system of rigorous critiques for those who aspired to magazine work. As a teacher, Brodovitch was inspiring, though sometimes harsh and unrelenting. A student's worst offense was to present something Brodovitch found boring; at best, the hawk-faced Russian would pronounce a work “interesting.” Despite his unbending manner and lack of explicit critical standards—Brodovitch did not formulate a theory of design—many students under his tutelage discovered untapped creative reserves.
Even at the height of his powers, however, Brodovitch's personal life remained linked to loss and disappointment. His family life was evidently unhappy. In addition, a series of house fires in the 1950s destroyed not only his country retreat but also his paintings, archives and library. In the 1960s after he left Harper's Bazaar, he continued to teach but did little design work. He died in 1971 in a small village in southern France where he had spent the last three years of his life.
Today Brodovitch's legacy is remarkably rich. His layouts remain models of graphic intelligence and inspiration, even if seldom imitated, and the artists, photographers and designers whose careers he influenced continue to shape graphic design in the image of his uncompromising ideals.
Copyright 1988 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.