Late Modernism

You can’t understate how badly Hitler and his thugs screwed up the world. From 1880-1930, German design ruled: Wiener Werkstatte, Plakatstil, Jugendstil all came from Germany. And the Vienna Secessionists were Austrian, which is German anyway. But the Nazis scattered the top artists and crushed countries with rich artistic traditions, like Czechoslovakia, Poland and France. With this scattering of talent went their ideas. Modernism, largely the domain of Europe since the start, exported its looks throughout the world. It came late to America, really after WWII. The 1940s brought the first wave of American Modernists like Paul Rand and Alex Steinweiss in New York and Lester Beal in the Midwest with their memories full of Moholy-Nagy, Ladislav Sutar and Herbert Bayer. Alex Steinweiss invented the album cover in 1938, at the age of 23. All records then came in a plain brown wrapper. He saw that as a canvas, and convinced his bosses at CBS to let him design a few covers. It was a huge success in helping sales and the industry has never looked back. That simple idea revolutionized the record business and spawned an entire new field of illustration-album cover art. Steinweiss was the early master, mixing sharp graphics, colors and a distinctive Steinweissscrawl lettering. Record covers are something of a lost art with CD’s. The canvas is maybe just too small, compared to the 12-inch spaces artists had with LP’s. Big business in America emerged. Business meant money, and that meant prosperity. Now that the war was over, governments set about the task of rebuilding their economies, educating their citizens, and encouraging consumption and travel and all the grease that makes the wheel go around. An International Style developed, spurred on by businesses needing advertising and corporate identity. In America, in the 1950’s, a Corporate Style emerged. Firms realized in a big way the power creative professionals have in shaping their clients’ personas. Every piece of communication — ads, collateral, direct mail, internal communications and stationery — is a company’s opportunity to define itself. Herb Lubalin injected freshness in pharmaceutical advertising, proving you can do great work in any category. Gene Federico did the same thing in fashion with crisp, pure graphics, free of clutter. Lexey Brodovitch supervised the work at Harper’s Bazaar, cultivating and nurturing many young photographers, such as Richard Avedon. Television became the monster medium by mid-century. Advertising fed the beast with money, just like it had for radio and publishing in earlier generations. At CBS, William Golden led the art direction for nearly 30 years, until he died in 1959. Louis Dorfsman was one of his proteges. Today, Dorfsman is a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio on W 53rd Street. William Paley, the founding father of CBS, established this museum. Many young art directors entered the business through CBS and its print work to sell TV. Outside the world of commerce, there was a Revival in turn-of-the-century design: Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco idioms were reintroduced. Businesses sneered at it, but Revival found a happy home with record album covers and entertainment posters. In the best modernist tradition, it looked ahead. Revival in many ways foreshadowed post-Modernism. Type was widely used as a design element. Push Pin studios, founded by Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, reached its zenith. That was on the east coast. Opposite, San Francisco was the cradle of a Psychedelic movement that spread throughout the U.S. and then Europe. It started as the voice of the American youth in 1960s, but was then appropriated by merchandisers. The Art Nouveau influence is apparent, with Indian motifs thrown in. It was in music, art and literature, clothing, and jewelry. The type was often very difficult to read: think Grateful Dead posters with compressed, 3-D type.


In England, Frank Pick was an amazing creative director for London Transport. He commissioned artists from everywhere to do posters, like the photographer Man Ray. The clarity and aesthetic appeal of Pick’s subway (called the Tube) maps are timeless — in fact, the maps are still used today. During the war, the government commissioned top modernists like Abram Games and others, whose posters were very contemporary. Designers sometimes combined painting and collage. Used the posters for mass communication, mainly to educate the public.


There was a time when the Swiss rocked, especially with their travel posters. You wouldn’t think of Switzerland as a hotbed for creativity, but a confluence of circumstance and luck made it the arena for stunningly beautiful work, especially in travel posters. However, although the likes of Stoeklin, Cardinaux, Mangold, Baumberger and Morach hailed from the mountainous country, they had studied in Paris and Munich. Earlier, the great Art Nouveau artists Steinlen and Grasset had also done their best work in France. The Swiss posters were very similar to Bernhard’s German object posters, but more dimensional and less flat. Stoecklin became known for a style in which the product ID is the only type on the image, like the PKZ posters.

Design or International Typographic Style

The Swiss International school emerged in the 1950s. It was modernistic with its flush-left sans serif type and minimal ornamentation. In fact, former Bauhaus-mates Théo Ballmer and Max Bill joined Armin Hofmann in propagating the program. It became very widespread. The Swiss style lays out a clear, orderly presentation of information that suppresses the designer’s personal aesthetics for a grid-based solution. For 40 years, Ernst Keller pioneered then led the Swiss International charge, teaching advertising layout at the School of Applied Art in Zurich. Today, the grid format is an essential tool in every designer’s bag. By knowing it, a designer is assured of nothing less than a job well done for every project. You can’t go wrong. Once you have laid out a project in this style, you can allow inspiration to strike from there. But be a Swiss Miss (or Mr.) and you’ve covered the assignment.


There was little in terms of radio and newspapers in Poland, and even less in terms of TV. Posters became the medium of choice, with the communist government’s support. The 1950s-70s are the golden age of Polish posters. These cats grabbed the mystical and unknown from Art Nouveau and Symbolism in funky ways. Their surrealistic style in turn influenced American psychedelic artists. In Japan, master designers like Ikko Tanaka influenced 80s post-modern & New Wave.

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