Writing History: What We Have, What We Need

Filed Under: Inspiration , history , Article , Voice

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 short.

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 Modernism.

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 bookshelves.

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.

About the Author: Paul Shaw is a calligrapher and typographer working in New York City. In his 20 professional years as a lettering designer, he has created custom lettering and logos for many leading companies, including Avon, Lord & Taylor, Rolex, Clairol and Esté Lauder. Paul has taught calligraphy and typography at New York's Parsons School of Design for over 10 years and conducted workshops in New York and Italy. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe.