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Graphic Design 20th Century by Alston W. Purvis and Martijn F. Le Coultre
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003
Abrams Games: His Life and Work by Naomi Games, Catherine Moriarty and June Rose
New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003
Bauhaus, Modernism & the Illustrated Book by Alan Bartram
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004
American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960 by Roger Remington with Lisa Bodenstedt
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003
Wim Crouwel Alphabets by Kees Broos and David Quay
Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2003
It has been over twenty years since A History of Graphic Design
by Philip Meggs was first published. To many the book—and the numerous
courses on the subject established in its wake—marked the coming of age
of graphic design history as an academic field. This view has been
reinforced by a flood of books on the subject, a torrent of articles in
design magazines, several major exhibitions, and even some conferences.
Yet, despite this apparent abundance of riches, the field of graphic
history is still in its infancy.
Only a few books on graphic design history manage to live up to the
standards routinely expected in more established history fields. What
follows are some rough thoughts, sparked by several recent titles, on
what is needed in graphic design history.
There are several categories of graphic design history book.
1. The picture book. This is a book that eschews text
in favor of as many images as possible. Its rationale is that graphic
design is a visual activity and thus it is best to show work rather than
to talk about it. Graphic Design 20th Century by Alston Purvis
and Martijn F. Le Coultre (New York: Princeton Architectural Press,
2003) is an example of such a book. Its principal strength is its over
500 images, many unfamiliar and all reproduced in full color, usually
one to a page. Each image is identified by the designer’s name,
nationality, and birth and death dates; date of publication; printer;
dimensions (in centimeters); and country of origin. On a few rare
occasions the captions go beyond this dry data approach to add
intriguing tidbits of information. For example, the caption to Jan
Toorop’s famous poster for Delftsche Slaolie [Delft Salad Oil] says that
the it was so famous that “when the Dutch refer to “Salad-Oil-Style’
they mean Art Nouveau”.
The main weakness of Graphic Design 20th Century is its text by
Alston Purvis. It is cursory, erratic and incomplete. Some examples:
the text jumps—in this order—from World War I propaganda poster to the
invention of the Linotype and the Monotype to the typefaces of Morris
Fuller Benton and Eric Gill to the 1909 Manifesto of Futurism in three
paragraphs; the paragraphs on Dadaism and Constructivism do not indicate
the dates of their beginnings; individuals and movements such as The
Beggarstaffs and the Amsterdam School are not explained; and the
discussion of Art Nouveau somehow manages to ignore France. There are
also simple mistakes and spelling errors: e.g. Morris Fuller Benton did
not design Century roman for Theodor Low de Vinne [sic]. The intended
shortness of the text—it is only 41 widely-leaded pages long—is no
excuse for these shortcomings.
The book is divided into chronological chunks, each of which is
separated by a divider focusing on a single typeface (and type designer)
that is, presumably, representative of its time. These breaks are not
always well chosen. Why Apollo and Shelley Andante for the 1960s and
1970s rather than, say, Snell Roundhand and Souvenir? Another complaint
is that all of the type samples, regardless of the era they are paired
with, are digital versions.
Unfortunately the images (apparently taken from the collection of
Martijn F. Le Coultre, though nowhere is this explicitly stated) that
comprise Graphic Design 20th Century are almost all posters and
thus, even with the addition of the section-break type specimens, the
book fails to live up to its broad title.
At heart there is nothing wrong with the picture book approach to
graphic design history. Images are the life-blood of the field and the
more we see the broader and more nuanced our interpretation of that
history will become. In that respect the unfamiliar posters by Heinl
Fischer, Dick Bruna, Dea Trier Morch and others in Graphic Design 20th Century
are invaluable. But books such as this should accept their limitations
and play up their strengths. Change the title to Poster Design 20th
Century. Drop the quick-and-dirty overview in favor of short biographies
(where known) of the various poster artists. Include more background
details in the captions (there is plenty of room on most of the pages).
Drop the type specimens. If some kind of section break is needed try
using photographs of life from each period: the Marne during World War
I, the 1968 March on Washington, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989,
and so on. The posters need context more than they need typefaces.
2. The narrow-historical survey. This is the type of
book that is needed to both broaden and deepen the initial boundaries of
the field as laid out by Philip B. Meggs in A History of Graphic Design.
Rather than simply argue over the shortcomings of this now-standard
text, we need smaller, more detailed histories that either reinforce
Megg’s narrative or challenge it. American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960
by Roger Remington with Lisa Bodenstedt (New Haven: Yale University
Press, 2003) held out the promise of being such a book, but comes up
The first problem with American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960
is its structure. The starting date of 1920 and end date of 1960 seem
purely random, having little connection to any specific events either in
graphic design or in the world at large. This randomness is accentuated
by Remington’s decision to break his material into decades rather than
chronological chunks that correspond to significant shifts in graphic
design. By trying to squeeze the material into ten-year intervals odd
disjunctions occur. For instance, in the chapter on the 1930s many of
the images are from the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s (see pp. 53, 57, 58, 61,
62, 66, 67, 69, 70) and even the text dips into other decades (eg. the
influence of Graphis and Herbert Spencer’s Typographica).
The bigger problem, of course, is that Remington’s narrative fails to
develop any flow or sustained argument, something that is most evident
in his final chapter where he attempts to trace the fraying of
At the beginning of each chapter Remington has admirably tried to place
graphic design in a wider historical and social context, but the effort
feels forced. The background information is spotty, jumbled, and often
wrong. The chapter on the 1920s is illustrative. Remington opens by
declaring that “The 1920s was a decade of change, contrast and
continuity”; then sprays facts about average annual income, Lindbergh’s
1927 crossing of the Atlantic, the Eighteenth Amendment, the Chrysler
Building, Babe Ruth, John Dillinger and “Black Tuesday”; and finally
concludes with the erroneous assertion that, “As was true of everything
in the country, the stock market crash ended most advertising and design
activity for the time being.” In fact, the economy did not grind to a
halt in 1929 but instead deteriorated over the next several years, not
hitting its low point until March 1933. The statistics about average
annual income are misleading since from an agricultural perspective the
entire decade of the 1920s was a depression; the economic boom only
occurred in urban areas.
Even if one can forgive a specialist design historian for being
superficial about general historical trends and events, the same cannot
be said about design matters. American Modernism is chock-full
of errors, both factual and orthographic. A small sampling of the
factual errors: D.B. Updike is described as “a scholar from Harvard”,
Goudy’s first typeface is said to have been designed in 1903, Remington
implies that Mayakovsky visited the United States in the 1930s, a
showing of “popular type fonts among printers and advertisers of the
1920s” includes three that were not created until the 1930s, and Yale in
the 1950s is erroneously credited with “being unique because many of
the faculty were practicing designers”. The spelling errors are more
numerous: Frederick Goudy, Edmund Guess, Rudolph Koch, Koch Antigua,
Stephan Salter, René Clark, Ernest Caulkins, George Trump and so on.
In his attempt to describe the 1920s as being divided into advertising
and commercial art in one camp and book design, printing and typography
in another he cites the private presses of Frederick Goudy, R. Hunter
Middleton and Melbert Cary, Jr., none of which are germane to his
argument. Although Goudy’s Village Press was still technically active in
the 1920s its heyday was before 1910, Middleton’s Cherryburn Press was
not established until the 1940s, and Cary’s Press of the Woolly Whale,
despite being founded in 1928, published most of its books in the 1930s.
Similarly he groups together Rockwell Kent, George Salter, Will
Bradley, Maxfield Parrish and Edward Penfield as “important illustrators
of the period”. This is a bizarre group since the heyday of Bradley and
Penfield was before 1905 and that of Parrish before 1920. But most
damning is the fact that Salter did not even arrive in the United States
until 1934! Thus, Remington’s excellent point about a split in American
design in the 1920s is undermined by his “facts”.
What makes this type of muddle so dangerous is that it taints the rest of the book. This is unfortunate since American Modernism actually has some good information, though most of it will be familiar to those who have read Remington’s earlier books, Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design (1989) and Lester Beall: Trailblazer of American Graphic Design (1996).
His writing on the “nine pioneers” and their contemporaries, including
fresh faces such as Morton Goldsholl and Richard Edes Harrison, is the
most confident part of the book.
The captions in American Modernism are extensive. In general
this is a welcome feature, but many times the notes read as if they were
taken from a classroom slide show. The obvious is often described (“The
words say ‘down’ and the arrow points down, which makes this poster an
example of useful repetition.”) and at other times unnecessary opinions
are interjected (re: a 1939 cover for Harper’s Bazaar by Alexey
Brodovitch: “It was an eye-catching cover filled with irony and
ambiguity.”). Some captions seem to miss the point of the design
altogether (e.g., Remington says of Joseph Binder’s December 1937 cover
for Fortune magazine that “It represented in visual terms the optimism
of the business world that was evident at the end of the 1930s as the
American Depression began to wane.”; actually, the illustration is a
subtle evocation of a Christmas tree.)
American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960 is not unique in
its flaws. It is typical of many books published in recent years which
fail to tend to the basics. While occasional typographical errors (e.g.
“led” instead of “lead”) are understandable, misspelled names of
individuals, companies, typefaces, movements, concepts, etc. are
intolerable. They not only display a lack of rigor and attentiveness to a
text, but they can sometimes lead to misunderstandings (e.g. Oswald
Cooper instead of F.G. Cooper; or [Nicolas] Jenson and [Anton] Janson).
Accurate dates (wherever possible) are even more critical. They provide
the framework on which theories of cause and effect, influence and
inspiration are hung. An incorrect date is often more than a minor
irritation. It can undermine an entire argument.
A broader historical context in which to view graphic design must not be
superficial. Events outside of the arena of graphic design must be
explicitly linked to developments inside (e.g. W.A. Dwggins’ type
designs of the 1940s became “experimental” because Mergenthaler Linotype
had to convert its factory for use in the war effort, thus making it
impossible to issue any new typefaces). It is imperative that the
careers of designers are considered as a whole and that work from
different stages and for different types of clients not be lumped
together haphazardly. A recent book that succeeds as a limited design
history is Dutch Type by Jan Middendorp (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2004).
3. The designer monograph. At one end of this category
is the scholarly study of an individual, replete with footnotes and
other academic paraphernalia, while at the other is the designer promo, a
book whose principle intent is to impress the designer’s current and
potential clients. The latter is usually scorned by critics while being
lapped up by other designers. Beyond their self-serving nature, designer
promos are notoriously unreliable as historical documents. However,
they are still useful to the design historian since they provide the
same thing that picture books do: lots and lots of images.
Abrams Games: His Life and Work by Naomi Games, Catherine Moriarty and June Rose (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003) and, to a lesser extent, Wim Crouwel Alphabets
by Kees Broos and David Quay (Amsterdam: BIS Publishers, 2003) fall
between the twin poles of promotion and arid scholarship. They are very
different books, but both are positive additions to the design history
The Games book contains a personal reminiscence of the British designer
by his daughter, an overview of his career by Catherine Moriarty, an
essay on his work for Jewish causes, and several useful appendices. All
of these elements work together to provide a rounded portrait of a
designer who is often undeservedly overlooked. Naomi Games’ portrait of
her father not only provides the biographical context in which to
understand his career and work, but it reminds us of how important
changes in technology are in determining style (even in the pre-digital
era). At first the idea of a separate essay on Games’ work for Jewish
causes seems unnecessary, but it turns out to be a valid decision since
Games himself separated the work he did to earn a living from the work
he did as a “calling”. June Rose’s essay also calls attention to the
anti-Semitic climate in which Games often had to work and the effect
that had on his career.
The heart of Abram Games: His Life and Work is Catherine
Moriarty’s essay. In general she does an excellent job of examining
Games’ work in relationship to his British contemporaries (such as H.K.
Henrion and E. McKnight Kauffer) and the circumstances of Britain from
the Great Depression to the Swinging Sixties. Games’ working methods and
the thinking behind many of his designs is often illuminating. The few
glaring mistakes that Moriarty makes are due to her lack of familiarity
with graphic design practices. On several occasions she treats Games’
working methods as unique—such as the practice of making numerous tiny
detailed roughs in color—when in fact they were part and parcel of many
designer’s daily activities at the time. (This points up the
difficulties involved in writing design history where most practitioners
lack the skills to do proper historical research while most academics
have only a second-hand notion of how designs are made and how designers
and clients interact.)
The appendices in Abram Games: His Life and Work include a
detailed list of all of Games’ posters, a selective list of his
exhibitions, a list of his major awards, a chronology of his life, and a
bibliography of writings by and about him. This material is invaluable
to the design historian.
Wim Crouwel Alphabets is a much more modest book than the others
discussed here, yet it is one of the most satisfying. It consists of an
essay by Kees Broos on Crouwel’s career involving letters and alphabets;
a conversation between Crouwel and Broos about this work, mainly
posters; and some comments by David Quay on the fonts which The Foundry
has digitized from Crouwel’s alphabets. (There is also a brief biography
of Crouwel in the back.) Crouwel, one of the key principals in Total
Design, a studio that was at the center of modern design in Holland in
the 1960s and 1970s, is best known outside of Holland for his
experimental Neu Alphabet of 1967.
Broos’ essay and, especially, his conversation with Crouwel, provide
valuable insights into the thinking of a modernist designer in the
post-World War II world. The influences on Crouwel in the 1950s are
varied. Along with the New Typography of the 1920s there is Swiss
Typography as well as contemporary Dutch currents in painting and
sculpture. The alphabets, all hand drawn and painted, were created by
following various systems. In Crouwel’s reminiscences we discover a less
dogmatic, yet still disciplined, side of modernism—sometimes his
decisions were based on personal whim even if executed according to a
narrow set of “rules”.
Each of Crouwel’s works are identified by title, client, dimensions,
reproduction process and date of publication. This information, combined
with Broos’ essay which situates each of Crouwel’s works within his
overall design career, makes Wim Crouwel Alphabets a much more
useful book than one would expect from the narrowness of its subject
matter. Given that the more comprehensive Wim Crouwel—Mode en Module by
Frederike Hugen and Hugues C. Boekraad (1997) is only in Dutch, this
small book is the best way for English-speaking readers to learn more
about a key figure in modern design.
4. The personal essay. There are an increasing number of books by
graphic designers (usually book designers or typographers) about their
profession that function as part discursive history, practical critique,
and memoir. Because they are not intended as pure design history it is
difficult to hold them to the same standards as books such as American Modernism: Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960 or Abram Games: His Life and Work. Nevertheless, these books can be useful additions to the graphic design history ranks.
The newest example of this genre is Bauhaus, Modernism & the Illustrated Book by Alan Bartram (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), a companion to his Five Hundred Years of Book Design
(2001). The earlier book examined the development of book
design—focusing on page layout—from Gutenberg to Bruce Rogers. This new
one, centered on the period from 1920 to 1970 but beginning with the
16th century, looks at how printers and book designers have integrated
text and image. In both books Bartram’s history is primarily personal,
rather than comprehensive or scholarly (though he is well informed);
that is, in each book he writes as if he was sitting with the reader at
home, discussing, one by one, the books on his shelves. The result is an
amalgam—often charming, at times irritating—of fact, opinion,
explication and criticism.
What is wonderful about Bartram’s books is that they invite argument
rather than carping. He is a scrupulous author (and his own designer) so
there are almost no errors of fact nor misspellings. Instead there are
decisions of inclusion and exclusion; and sharp (but not intemperate)
opinions, clearly stated, that make one want to engage Bartram in
conversation. This especially feels encouraged by Bartram’s own
willingness to take on icons and iconic works.
One of the benefits of books like Bauhaus, Modernism & the Illustrated Book
is that they are “double” histories in that, along with the stated
history there is an unstated one. The reader not only learns about the
development of the modern illustrated book, but, along the way, also
gains some knowledge of the author’s own history as a designer.
Each entry in Bauhaus, Modernism & the Illustrated Book
includes the usual basic bibliographical information (title, author,
publisher, date) for each book as well as the name of its designer and
the scale of reproduction. In the table of contents shelf marks from The
British Library for each book are also supplied. This level of care
makes it possible to accept Bartram’s casual writing style as an
indication of accessibility rather than a sign of sloppy thinking.
This essay is part of "Centennial Voices," a series
initiated as part of AIGA's Centennial celebrations to spark
conversations about the past, present and future of design within the
design community and beyond.
Section: Inspiration -
communication design, identity design, personal essay
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