The Graphic Designers Who Shaped The US

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The Graphic Designers Who Shaped The US

Words by Mr Ashley Clarke

20 September 2017

In their new book, The Moderns, Messrs Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio celebrate the best of 20th-century US graphic design.

“Virtually all of the good design in our world today is either an adaptation of the visual language of modernism or a reaction against it.” So say co-authors and design experts Mr Steven Heller and Mr Greg D’Onofrio in their new book The Moderns, a pleasantly polychromatic directory of modernist graphic designers of the 20th century. Graphic modernism’s roots may be in Europe (see Bauhaus and De Stijl), but it was in the USA that modernist design most infiltrated everyday life through its marriage of art and commerce. The venerable talents featured in this book, via 900 vivid illustrations, were the designers behind the advertising boom of the Mad Men era – men and women who might have executed Don Draper’s ideas onto billboards and posters across the USA.

While much of the book focuses on home-grown US talent, plenty of space is devoted to many graphic designer emigrés. Such as Mr Josef Albers, one of the jungmeisters (young masters) of German design in the 1920s, who moved to the USA to escape the Nazi invasion a few years before Bauhaus founder Mr Walter Gropius did the same. Mr Albers was later seen as instrumental in bringing a European modernist sensibility to the States with his austere monochrome designs for Mr Enoch Light’s album covers in the 1960s.

This is not an encyclopaedia of all those who joined the movement, but a selection of those who we believe were most instrumental in bringing modernism into American graphic design

The Moderns also makes a point of highlighting female graphic designers. Take, for instance, Ms Elaine Lustig Cohen, who, after her late husband Mr Alvin Lustig’s death in 1955, took over his business and planted herself firmly in the so-called man’s world of graphic design. A 28-year-old widow, she used the leverage and contacts her late husband’s name afforded and established herself as a revered modernist in her own right, working on everything from gallery posters to the cover of the directory for the House of Seagram. “My gender may have been an issue for other designers, but not for my clients,” said Ms Lustig Cohen on what it was like to take over her husband’s design practice.

Another of our favourite profiles from this weighty opus is the prolific Mr Erik Nitsche, whose work was heavily influenced by family friend Mr Paul Klee. Mr Nitsche designed sets and curtains for the musical All Aboard in the early 1930s, but, after getting sick of Hollywood’s pretentious preoccupation with class, he packed his bags for New York, where he made his mark on fashion publishing, painting lushly variegated covers for Fortune, Vanity Fair and House Beautiful.

Messrs Heller and D’Onofrio are keen to stress that while The Moderns is a great starting point for learning about history’s most influential graphics geniuses, it is by no means an exhaustive list. “This is not an encyclopaedia of all those who joined the movement, but a selection of those who we believe were most instrumental in bringing modernism into American graphic design for the purpose of selling products and ideas in the commercial and cultural arenas,” they write in the book’s introduction. In a sense, then, The Moderns is a collection of bite-sized biographies of the men and women who helped capitalism take over the world. However that makes you feel, it’s still a solid addition to the coffee table.

The Moderns: Midcentry American Graphic Design (Abrams) by Messrs Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio  is out now

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