Graphic Design in Postmodern Art

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Topic: Art & Design
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Introduction

Starting from the 1970-s, Postmodernism dominated over various spheres of culture. It was spreading around the world through newspapers, television, and magazines. The traditions and norms of the society were revised, some of them completely pushed away. This was the time of common skepticism toward modern values. Among the fundamental ideas of Postmodern philosophy was the importance of critical theory. Graphic design was not an exception; it fell under the spell of Postmodernism along with other forms of art.

In graphic design, Postmodernism is perceived as the rejection of previous styles and traditions. A lot of Postmodern artists present evidence for this notion: take, for instance, Wolfgang Weingart, who subverted old standards in typography and thus started the New-wave movement. Since the 1980-s Postmodern art is primarily associated with the devices that Weingart and others developed, such as multi-layered, skewed, stepped type, and other confusing patterns (Jobling and Crowley 271). However, despite this “mainstream” understanding of Postmodern art, it must not be forgotten that some movements borrowed from history, for instance, the retro and vernacular direction. Postmodern art can be more diverse than it is usually imagined.

Many critics of Postmodernism believe that it was connected with particular economic and social conditions and entirely determined by them (Jobling and Crowley 272). While this could not be considered entirely untrue, it should be noted that any other art style, however traditional it may be, is determined by the historical context of the time. The main point is that each artist interprets the reality and answers the challenges of time in their unique way, and these ways are the very thing that we are interested in.

Overall, Postmodern art should be explored and understood in its historical context and, while acknowledging that it rejected the standards of the previous time, we must not forget that Postmodern art is a complex issue, and it cannot be simply defined as “the destruction of traditions.”

New-Wave Typography

New-wave typography, also known as Swiss Punk typography, can be defined as an approach to typography that deliberately ignores traditional arrangement, including the use of different typeweights in the same word, changeful spacing, and typing at the angles other than the right one. New-wave is believed to be strongly influenced by Punk philosophy, an aggressive non-conformist youth movement that emerged from London in the 1970-s (Rabinowitz 36).

New-wave style appeared in Switzerland and then spread to other countries; the start of this movement in connected with the name of Wolfgang Weingart. Weingart arrived in Basel to study at Basel School of Design in 1964 after having completed his apprenticeship in typography and studying art. As Weingart later recalled, as an apprentice he was forced to memorize standardized “answers” to the problems of design presented in typographical manuals. This fact made him reject the standards, and he strived to prove that typography can be art (Poynor 20). During his student years in Basel, he was influenced by Ruder and Hofmann. Being already a faculty member, Weingart challenged the formalism and strict order of typography. He started developing his style without the prevalence of the right angle (Meggs and Purvis 465). “Weingart rejected the clean precision, right angles and high legibility of the International Typographic style and began to create more intuitive and playful work” (Rabinowitz 36).

He experimented with weights, indentations, and letterspacing. Weingart also made geometric figures composed out of text passages a trend (Rabinowitz 36). To highlight something significant in a headline, he usually typed it white on a black rectangle. When asked to name the types of typography used by him, “Weingart listed ‘sunshine type, bunny type, ant type, five-minute type, typewriter type,’ and ‘for-the-people type’” (Meggs and Purvis 465). In 1972 and 1973, Weingart designed 14 covers for Typoghraphische Monätsblatter magazine, which was a kind of an introduction of his ideas to the Swiss and international public. Weingart promulgated “Gutenberg approach,” according to which designers, like the typographic printers of Gutenberg times, should be directly involved in all the stages of the printing process to be sure that their initial vision is implemented in the final product (Meggs and Purvis 465-466).

Weingart’s approach affected American art as well. His student April Greiman brought the new style to San Francisco. She extended the range of New-wave’s techniques, using photomontage, overlapping, digital techniques, bright colors, bold patterning, and stepped shapes (Rabinowitz 36). After studying in Basel, Greiman founded a studio in Los Angeles, thus spreading New-wave on the West Coast (Meggs and Purvis 467). His other student was Dan Friedman. Friedman developed his own approach, expanding the range of New-wave methods (Poynor 21).

He also was the initiator of Weingart’s tour to the United States in October 1972, when the latter presented his approach to the prominent schools of design (Philadephia, Cincinnati, Providence, New Haven, Princeton, and Columbus). Willi Kunz was influenced by Weingart as well, and he took part in spreading Weingart’s ideas in the USA. American design was strongly affected by New-wave and received a lot of critique from the elder generation: older designer “saw the new wave’s stylistic elements and effects as obstacles to the client’s message” (Poynor 26).

However, by the time Weingart’s ideas became mainstream, i.e. the mid-1970s, Weingart himself was all into a new direction. He started exploring the specificities of a film image and experimenting with collages, moving away from the merely typographic design. He developed a new technique of layering the images that were created as film positives, uniting them as one negative (Meggs and Purvis 465).

The Memphis and San Francisco Schools

The surge of changes, provoked by New-wave, covered the world and triggered the creation of various art unions, which worked to spread the new ideas. Among them was the Memphis group, a community of designers and architects that was founded in Milan, Italy in the early 1980-s. The group was noted for its unique design of furniture, fabric, tools of ceramics, metal, and glass. San Francisco school appeared under the influence of the Memphis group.

The Memphis group was led by Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007), a prominent Italian designer while Christoph Radl was the head of the group’s graphic design section. One of the versions states that the artists selected the name of their union after Memphis, the ancient Egyptian city that once was the capital of the Pharaohs, to demonstrate that their style combined the elements of both contemporary and ancient art (Meggs and Purvis 471). According to the other version, the name was taken from Bob Dylan’s song Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again, which was playing during the meeting, when the future Memphis members decided to create an art group (Poynor 28).

The central idea of the Memphis artists was that pattern and texture prevailed over the function of their products. They used exaggerated geometric shapes, garish colors, and printed geometric and organic ornaments on plastic laminates (Meggs and Purvis 471). The same geometric patterns were used in Memphis graphic art (Poynor 30). Laminates were a notable feature of Memphis art: they were often decorated with the prints of some ordinary views, such as fast-food restaurants, milk bars, ice cream parlors, coffee shops, mere kitchens and bathrooms (Poynor 28). The Memphis designers made references to the cultures of earlier times, such as shaping the legs of tables and chairs as Greco-Roman columns with the use of marble and granite. For them, the design, not the function, of an object was its reason for existence. The style of Memphis group had a strong impact on postmodernist art over the world (Meggs and Purvis 471), not only on design but on graphic art as well (Poynor 30).

The designers of San Francisco experienced a serious influence of the New-wave tendencies. The style of San Francisco evolved quickly, and soon the city gained the glory of a major center of design (Meggs and Purvis 472-473). Michael Vanderbyl, who was a prominent New-wave representative in California, created a number of works in the so-called “international style,” particularly the mailers for Simpson Paper, which resembled the style of the Memphis group (Poynor 31).

Among other prominent artists are Michael Manwaring and Michael Cronin. Despite the fact that San Francisco artists had particular common patterns, shapes, intuitive arrangements, personal feelings are clearly seen in their works. For instance, Michael Cronin frequently uses certain forms that serve as containers for color. Michael Vanderbyl unites the elements of postmodern vitality with the clarity of typographic print. Michael Manwaring used color and graphic forms as a headline in his posters, thus connecting consumer products to lifestyle values (Meggs and Purvis 473).

The design tendencies created by the Memphis group, San Francisco school and the American architect and designer Michael Graves became an international source of inspiration and were dominating in both design and architecture during the 1980-s (Meggs and Purvis 472-475). Postmodern design organizations, including the Memphis group, played an essential role in the liberation of designers from the need to sign contracts with firms, and brought them the freedom to pursue their own ideas, not depending on the commercial reasoning of business owners (Raizman 355).

Retro and Vernacular Design

Later in the 1980-s, some postmodernist art groups transformed into retro and vernacular design. Retro recreated the style of the previous epoch and interpreted it with the postmodern arrangement, color, and distortion of angles. Though similar to retro, vernacular style accepted old clip art and commercial and applied it to the appropriate context and content. The latter also employed the formats of past, no matter how distant one, including such things as packages, labels, cigar boxes, and baseball cards. Among the primary styles that had an impact on vernacular design were Art Nouveau, Futurism, and Art Deco (Ryan and Conover 62).

Retro emerged in New York with the works of Paula Scher, Louise Fili, and Carin Goldberg. They brought back the graphic of the earlier 20th century, beginning from Vienna secession and up to modernist European typefaces that were widespread in the 1920-s and 30-s. However, their approach to texture, color, and space is not copied but original. The artists demonstrated such features as mixing fonts, using various colors for printing at the same time, and using wide letterspacing.

It is worth noting that typography in their art does not play a secondary role; conversely, it is in the centre of an image and becomes expressive and figurative. Paula Scher’s style was influenced by Russian constructivism in the area of typography though she did not copy it absentmindedly; Sher uses distinctive color and space. She also experienced the influence of Art Deco (Meggs and Purvis 475). Scher’s ability to incorporate the elements of Futurism, Constructivism, De Stijl, Art Deco, Bauhaus, and Pictorial Modernism, and to turn them into what her clients wanted made her a prominent figure (Poynor 79).

Retro became renowned nationwide in the United States after 1984 when Scher created a studio along with Terry Koppel, and 1985, when Scher presented two folios designed by her. The 1920 and 1930-s typefaces started to be extremely popular among designers. During the 1980s, retro was a defining style in the country (Poynor 79). Its main area of domination was the design of book jackets. Louise Fili, art director of Pantheon Books, and book jacket designer Carin Goldberg borrowed a lot from historical sources while creating their works. Though this approach brought commercial success, it was criticized by some historians as “an abuse of history,” commercialization and wrong interpretation of historical sources (Poynor 79).

Fili’s annual vacations in Europe brought new inspiration for her work. In 1989, Fili left Pantheon Books and opened her own studio. After World War II, the mainstream tendency was to switch to more practical styles and techniques, and Fili followed that tendency (Meggs and Purvis 475).

The main consequence of the popularity of retro and vernacular styles in design was that they brought designers a freedom to be as intuitive and unique as they please, and freedom to reject the modern standards of earlier times. It allowed designers to bring forgotten patterns from history and include them in their products. Designers were experimenting with extraordinary ideas, creating posters and book jackets that look handmade, despite the fact that computer was used in the process of production. Starting from the mid-1980s, designers become more and more interested in involving computer into their work (Meggs and Purvis 481).

Conclusion

Postmodernism evolved in the second half of the 20-th century as a movement that was meant to revise the values of previous times. In graphic design, it expressed itself as a breakup with the art traditions of modern. Such were the ideas of Wolfgang Weingart, the founder of the New-wave movements, who rejected the old typographic patterns and began to experiment with a font, spacing, indentations, weight, and angles to prove that typography could be a form of art. Through his students and media, the New-wave was spread globally. The followers of the movement were the Memphis group in Milan and the San Francisco school. Such unions of artists were independent of business owners, and this fact allowed them to develop their ideas freely, without commercial concern. Retro and vernacular art borrowed patterns from historical sources to interpret them in a new way. In general, Postmodern art is a complex phenomenon that cannot be defined as the mere rejection of traditions.

Works Cited

Jobling, Paul, and David Crowley. Graphic Design: Reproduction and Representation Since 1800. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. Print.

Meggs, Philip B. and A.W. Purvis. Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2012. Print.

Poynor, Rick. No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism. London: Laurence King, 2003. Print.

Rabinowitz, Tova. Exploring Typography. Clifton Park, New York: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2006. Print.

Raizman, David. History of Modern Design. 2nd ed. 2011. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall. Print.

Ryan, William E. and Theodore E. Conover. Graphic Communications Today. Clifton Park, New York: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2004. Print.