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Alexey Brodovitch before leaving Russia.
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
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
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,
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
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
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