A few weeks ago, I wrote an article on the competition that happened between Caslon and Baskerville. The popular opinion of the 1700s chose Caslon as the typeface of choice, despite the fact that Baskerville was closer to the next big evolution in type design: Modern type. Apparently this wasn’t the last time this would happen.
It seems that what is considered “safe” at the time has a large influence on popular typography. In 1951, Helvetica, having heavy roots in the already commonly used Aksidenz Grotesk, was the baby in a family with distance roots in rebellion and innovation. While the movements that led up to the advent of Helvetica where born out of a German Constructionists rejection of serifs and embrace of radical geometric visual clarity, by the time Helvetica rolled around, the revolution of sans serif type had already been widely accepted and popularized. With such typefaces as Aksidenz Grotesk, the main issues of readability had been addressed within the sans serif grouping, and the power of sans-serif typography as a one trick pony had already been dispelled in large part. Geometric sans-serif typography had arrived, and it was here to stay.
So it was that Helvetica, while wildly popular even to this day, was not so much of a revolution, but rather the completion of a rebellion coming to its close as an accepted part of society. However, the 1950s gave birth to more advances in sans-serifed type than the relatively small one provided by Helvetica. 1952 saw the advent of Hermann Zapf’s Optima, and this threw a bit of a wrench into the works.
Optima was a direct reaction to the previously established evolution of the sans-serif. Geometric unity and clarity had been the driving force behind sans-serifed type, and despite the taming of the excessive stylishness of Aksidenz’s predecessors stark geometry, Helvetica and its influences where still very uniform in stroke and contrast. Then a calligrapher got creative. Optima, while still very much a sans-serif typeface, was crafted in such a way as to include much of the stroke variation that was common in the many serifed Roman typefaces.
So it was that the next logical revolution of type was born. Sans-serif was born out of a reaction against Roman type, and Optima was born out of a reaction to sans-serif becoming mainstream in a way that lessened the power of its grandfather’s rebellion. Optima combined much of the hand penned look and visual texture of the classical serifed Roman type, while still retaining some of the visual clarity of the popular sans-serif movement. Optima was the Baskerville of the 1950s.
Yet designers choose, by and large, Helvetica. Even to this day. Certainly, since the advent of Optima and the explosion of sans serifed type design in the 1950s, many different iterations of sans serif type are commonly used and practiced today. Yet the sweeping movement of the International Style, and of Swiss constructivism still looms large over many corners of the design world. The lesson here is clear. There may not be anything new under the sun, but the next major evolution of type design will certainly be a reaction against the current trends. And we will be slow to adapt it. Is this a problem?
Patronage. To artists, its a word that holds much power and emotion. To some, it means the chance to have a constant source of funding, support, and lifeline by which to sustain doing what you love. To others, it means a bastardizing of the system, instituting power, influence, control and shelter where their should be none. But regardless of the one’s view of patronage, the power patronage can have to make or break someones career, and indeed the movement of art and society as a whole is historically undeniable. It has sustained art, repressed art, and progressed art throughout the history of man, leaving in its wake undeniable influence on the cultures it touches.
However, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, where independent thinking and the individual spirit have always been ingrained in our minds, it seems that patronage is something that has not touched is grubby paws in our art and design. At least not on a large scale. American’s have always been free to create what they want, having ample avenues to do so, right? Well, no, actually.
In the 1930s, patronage took root in American art and design in a huge way. In the intermission between world wars, where art movements flourished and economic and political unrest shaped the course of many people’s lives, America found itself in uncharted territory. The economic down-turn that occurred in 1929 as a result of fiscal irresponsibility soon turned into the Great Depression that last for over a decade, until WWII production finally resurrected the economy. During this time, unemployment soared to over 30%, and America turned to its government for help. (Eskilson 265) The government answered: “We’ll hire you!”
So the (in)famous Works Progress Administration was implemented under FDR, and the mass populace started their new, government funded jobs. However, artists and designer got their own special branch of the WPA. The Federal Art Project (FAP) was born to specifically focus on funding artists to do government related projects. While many of them could be argued went into very pay-check focused filler jobs such as murals for public schools, there was a smaller movement of poster design that led to some very interesting and influential pieces of design history. A break down of the work delineation is as shown below here, in this poster from 1936.
Eskilson explains that “The FAP viewed the poster as a democratic art form, on that could reach out to people from all walks of life, especially those not of the elite, who were for most part excluded from the study and appreciation of fine art.” (265) It is very interesting to see what happened in this environment. Given freedom in their pursuits, European modernist movements that were previously downplayed by corporate, conservative America began to appear in interesting and beautiful ways. Constructivism and Art Deco starred in the new breed of American posters, proving a pivotal step in American design, in catching up with the current design practices around the world.
During this time the sophistication experimentation in poster design brought America to relevance within the design world. The posters produced for the FAP built on Art Deco and Constructivism in a heavy way, while advancing American messages and typographic style in a big way. One of my favorite examples is the poster below, from Lester Beall.
It is worthwhile to note that the process of silkscreen printing was pioneered in New York during the influence of the FAP, which has left an indelible mark on the design industry, and continues to this day.
Dada and Constructivism. Their very names sound like opposites. Dada stands for random order and chaos, Constructivism for a strict structure of post-war reactions, in geometry and layout. Yet, as I alluded to in my earlier article, there are some very interesting correlations between the two, where it seems that the purveyors of the two movements would have little in common.
First of all, it is worth noting that these two movements met in a specifically meaningful way in Germany. After being left in ruins from WW1, the Dada movement took hold in the reconstructive process, having served it purpose as a protestor. During the 1920s, when Russian Constructivism took over, a few of the key players in the Russian movement actually came to German for awhile, in reaction to the two countries efforts after the war.
So it is that Dada and Constructivism begin to share some very similar story-lines in the period between World Wars. To begin with, it is interesting to note that the basic philosophies behind both movements are very similar. They both view the artist and designer as an “engineer”, first and foremost. (Eskilson 225) This comes from the fact that, while initially different in aesthetic, they were reactions resulting from the destruction of the war. Inasmuch, both movements wished to distance themselves from art as a “fine art”, and focus much more on the construction of something new, whether that was geometric structure or random chaos.
So it was that both movements laid hold of the very latest in technology and design at that time: photomontage. This revolutionized the power of the photo in the world, and both movements saw it as potential for extending their movements. Collage and chaos, obviously, already fit well within the aesthetic of the Dadaists, and the power of juxtaposed photos suited the political and structural interests of the Constructivist’s.
As with so many things, there are rarely cut-and-dried distinctions between movements and time periods, as the flow of time in history has a way of leaking influences and thought patterns into every corner of the mind. And so it was with the synaptic synergy of the thoughts that drove both Dada and Constructivism in German, during the 1920s.
In the years that followed World War One, Russia underwent some very transformational and eventful years. After the collapse of the imperial government of Russia, there was a power vacuum left for the likes of Lenin and Stalin to fill. The Bolshevik Revolution that ensued as a result of Lenin’s rise to power carried with it a very strong political shift from the Monarchy that had reigned before. Heavily influenced by the philosophies of Karl Marx, the influences of communism and socialism were the driving factor in the revolution. There was a violent push against those viewed as rich or ruling-class in Russia, in an attempt to distribute wealth equally to all, in an attempt to elevate the status of the common working man.
Out of this context sprung the Russian Constructivist movement. Heavily tied to the political ideals of socialism, and influenced by the De Stijl and Cubist movements towards geometric exploration, this movement went a long way to propel the ideals of the political revolt across the breadth of Russia. The approach that most of the Russian Constructivist movement used when approaching politics was very propagandist. Many of the front-runners of this movement, such as Alexander Rodchenko, approached the message of the Bolsheviks not as something to be lusted after, but rather as one’s duty and debt. This approach even permeated (perhaps ironically) the advertising of the day. A great example of this is Rodchenko’s Dobrolet poster from 1923, shown below.
Through the use of the new technology such as photomontage, the Russian Constructivists were able to bring some new visual life to their propaganda, while still maintaining their message and approach. Hannah Hoch’s Cut with a Kitchen Knife Dad through the last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultrual Epoch of Gemany displays a great mix of Dada influence on the strongly political photomontage, created in 1919.
The strong political bent of Russian art and design during the interim period between wars is undeniable. So much so that the geometric explorations of the Constructivist movement became synonymous with the political ideology that was sweeping Russia, in a way that most artists and designers during this time felt was inseparable. Most Russian Constructivist viewed geometric exploration and structure to be vitally tied to the formation of a new political system and structure.
And then El Lissitzky happened. Lissitky was still a Russian Constructivist by origin, and politically aligned himself with the Russian ideals of Lenin. His work dealt heavily in both the geometric structure and exploration, as well as the photomontage of the Constructivist movement in Russia. His political ideals, also, while sometimes abstracted, still show through in his work. A fine example of this is his Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, from 1919-20, shown below.
However, Lissitky took a different, and incendiary stance on the geometric aesthetic of the Constructivist movement. Lissitky posited that “Constructivist aesthetics could be separated from their political origins in Communism.” (Eskilson 215) He took the rather unique view that Constructivism could be a movement primarily about the progression of art, not ideology. It is not that much a surprise then, that this angered some of the staunch political artists of the day, such as Gustav Klutsis and Rodchenko.
So who was right? From a design standpoint, considering some of the great pieces of design that Lissitzky made under this bipartisan banner, I would have to tend to agree with Lissitzky. However, it could be argued that his viewpoint did weaken some of the strength that the Russian Constructivist movement had before it split off with the “International Constructivist” movement. The geometric aesthetic had been, up until that point, strictly Russian and strictly Communist, for the most part. When the aesthetic “branding” as it were became diluted by less political pieces, the brand of Communism that had spread itself so effectively through Russia would have been weakened some. As with currency, so with design. Inflation keeps on moving.