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Neshan 38

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A History of Aggressive History Magazines

Steven Heller

Graphic design evolved during the late nineteenth century from a sideline of the printing industry into an autonomous field. The missing link in this evolution is trade magazines. Initially they established standards for printing, typesetting, and bookbinding yet viewed ornamental design as ephemeral. However, by the turn of the century, trade magazine editors were forced to analyze and critique new advances. These magazines did not just reflexively report the current trends instead some aggressively codified key methods and mannerisms that defined the profession. 

Trade periodicals also cautiously tweaked the status quo. In the late 1890s The Inland Printer introduced a variant of French Art Nouveau to America and this unconventional curvilinear style challenged accepted taste. The Inland Printer became the clarion for American Art Nouveau in the same way that a hundred years later Emigre was the clarion for digital post-modernism. 

At the turn of the century, European art – Impressionism, Expressionism, and later Cubism – influenced the design of letterforms and illustrations. Late nineteenth century poster designers in France, Germany, and England adopted modern concepts of art. 

Maitres de l’Affiche (1895-1900) was the first periodical devoted to the late nineteenth century French poster art. Maitres was a model of how trade magazines could integrate art, commerce, and aesthetics into a single editorial entity. Consequently, the advertising poster was an ideal theme on which to build a trade magazine because it integrated art and craft, which could elicit stories about type, image, and message applicable to all graphic design genres. Early twentieth century magazines, such as The Poster, sprang up as the advertising industry became more integral of commerce. Although most were not as conscientious about the quality of their reproductions as Maitres, there was one magazine, the Berlin-based Das Plakat (The Poster)  was a more historically influential review than any of the others. 

Founded in 1910 by Hans Josef Sachs a chemist by training, dentist and poster collector, Das Plakat was the official journal of the Verein der Plakat Freunde (The Society for Friends of the Poster). Its purpose was to champion art poster collecting, increase scholarship among amateurs and professionals, and promote the advantages of poster art to would-be clients. In the process it covered the poster scene by raising aesthetic, cultural, and legal issues too. As well a survey of significant German (and international) work, the magazine addressed plagiarism and originality, design in the service of politics and propaganda, and representation versus abstraction, raising the discourse of poster art from purely trade to cultural. Through the years its influence on designers increased, so did its circulation.  

Sachs was inspired by German advertising artists known as the Berliner Plakat who practiced a new style called the sachplakat (object poster) that transformed the bold linearity of German Jugenstil into a reductive graphic language. In 1906 Lucian Bernhard invented this method with his poster for Priester Matches showing only two large wooded matches. It became the hallmark of sachplakat characterized by the rejection of ornament in favor of an unambiguous brand-name as headline. Sachplakat monumentalized the ordinary whether a pair of matches, typewriter, shoes, or light bulb. 

Sachs acknowledged the European Modern avant garde but never wholeheartedly embraced its more radical tendencies. Yet by Das Plakat’s demise in 1921 commercial artists and typographers were indeed influenced by Futurism, DeStijl, Constructivism, and Dada, and some of the keepers of tradition gradually began to apply these methods to their quotidian work. Nonetheless, it took an acute visionary to truly see how avant garde ideas could be efficiently applied to commerce, and therefore it was not until 1925 that a mainstream printing and design trade magazine, Typographische Mitteilungen, the monthly organ of the German Printer's Association in Leipzig, shocked the professional nervous system by sanctioning the most radical approaches. 

Under the guest editorship of Jan Tschichold Typographische Mitteilungen showcased graphic design and typography from the Bauhaus, DeStijl, and Constructivism as functional for use among the widespread profession. It was the first time that the German printing and graphics industry was offered a full dose of the type and layout, later know as The New Typography. 
 
TM, founded in 1903, did not intend to radicalize design. The magazine’s regular editorial policy showed little regard for radical schools or movements. The magazine’s basic menu included conventional German Black Letter typography with occasional moderne examples of letterheads, logos, and book covers sprinkled through its monthly issues. TM nonetheless allowed Tschichold an unprecedented opportunity in his issue titled “Elementary Typography” to showcase the form-givers, El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwiters, Theo Van Doesburg, Karel Tiege, among others. Tschichold’s October 1925 issue was a kind of October revolution of its own right, given the strong dose of avant garde dissonance and asymmetry. 
 
The most cosmopolitan and far-reaching was Berlin-based Gebrauchsgraphik, founded and edited by Dr. H.K. Frenzel in 1923 just as the devastating postwar economic inflation was causing severe privations. Gebrauchsgraphik was a bi-lingual (English and German) chronicle of “new” international graphic art styles distinguished by the guiding notion that advertising art was a force for good in the world. Frenzel held the idealistic belief that commercial art educated the public because “He saw advertising as the great mediator between peoples, the facilitator of world understanding, and through that understanding, world peace,” Virginia Smith explains in The Funny Little Man. (Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, 1996).
 
Frenzel understood the psychology of the mass mind, knowing that stimulation would be achieved through novel, sometimes challenging visual approaches. So he used the Bauhaus ideal as a model for integrating graphic and other design disciplines into one overarching practice, and promoted designers who exemplified this ideal, like Herbert Bayer who was showcased in Gebrauchsgraphik’s portfolios and on covers. 

Frenzel’s advocacy for the new stopped short of making Modern design himself. His magazine toed the line between what the public would find acceptable and unacceptable regarding legibility. Perhaps for this reason Gebrauchsgraphik survived through the early years of the Third Reich more or less unscathed. Yet Nazi dictates ultimately transformed the magazine by forcing out “degenerate” Modern design. After Frenzel’s death in 1937 (purportedly a suicide) Gebrauchsgraphik’s new editors cautioned gebrauchsgraphikers to “avoid Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, and Futurism” thus severing those ties to the avant garde that Frenzel had proudly established. 

The premier journal, Commercial Art (and later Art and Industry) in England was far ahead of America in its embrace of the avant garde, and provided one of the earliest English language introductions to the Bauhaus. Few American design pundits were so bold as to advocate advertising or commercial art as utopian -- it was realistically viewed as capitalist tool. Nonetheless, American magazines that were often favorably compared to Gebrauchsgraphik, Advertising Arts and PM (later renamed AD), advanced the practice of progressive graphic design that had been brought to America, in part, by émigré European designers.

The premiere issue of Advertising Arts on January 8,1930 was the first mainstream attempt to integrated Modern art into an admittedly antiquated commercial culture. Although Dada and Surrealist art journals had published in the United States in the twenties, this perfect bound monthly supplement of the weekly trade magazine Advertising and Selling, offered ways to institute design programs in everyday practice that it they noted was “adopted by radicals.” The magazine became a vortex for progressive American graphic and (the newly christened field) industrial design. Yet Advertising Arts is not to be confused with the radical European design manifestoes that introduced The New Typography. The modernistic design (i.e. Modernism with the edges dulled) proffered in its pages was a tool of the capitalist concept known as style obsolescence. As devised by advertising man Earnest Elmo Calkins, programmed obsolescence was a means of exploiting “modern art” to encourage consumers to “move the goods” and sell.

Advertising Arts debuted during the throes of the Great Depression. Editors Frederick C. Kendall and Ruth Fleischer had a mission -- to encourage innovation while celebrating advertising designers who manipulated consumers to consume. So rather than publish the usual diet of trade gossip and technical notices, Kendall and Fleischer made their magazine into a blueprint for the marketing of modernity. Its writers passionately advocated contemporary art as industry’s foremost savior. In “Modern Layouts Must Sell Rather Than Startle” author Frank H. Young summed up Advertising Arts’ ethos this way, “Daring originality in the use of new forms, new patterns, new methods of organization and bizarre color effects is the keynote of modern layout and is achieving the startling results we see today.” 

Advertising Arts promulgated a uniquely American design style called Streamline. Compared to the elegant austerity of the Bauhaus, Streamline was an bluntly futuristic mannerism based on sleek aerodynamic design born of science and technology that included ornamental flourishes symbolizing speed. Rather than the right angles of European modernism Streamline was characterized by aerodynamic curves. Planes, trains, and cars were given the swooped-back appearance that both symbolized and physically accelerated velocity. Consequently, type and image were designed to echo that sensibility. 

PM (Production Manager) later re-christened AD (Art Director) did not advocate the Streamline aesthetic with the same fervency as Advertising Arts but did championed both Modern and modernistic methods. Founded in 1934 by Dr. Robert Leslie, a medical doctor by training, type aficionado by choice, and co-founder of the Composing Room Inc, a leading New York type house, PM was a trade magazine imbued with missionary zeal. Leslie and co-editor Percy Seitlin committed to explore design with a blind eye towards style or ideology and gave progressive designers a platform that underscored the viability of The New Typography in American advertising and graphic design. The small 6” x 8” bi-monthly journal explored a variety of print media, covered industry news, and often celebrated the virtues of asymmetric typography and design. 

Three years after starting PM Leslie opened a small room in The Composing Room office as the PM Gallery, the first exhibition space in New York seriously devoted to graphic design and typography. The magazine and gallery had a symbiotic relationship; often a feature in the magazine would lead to an exhibition in the gallery or vice versa. 

By the April-May 1942 issue the editors ran this solemn note: "AD is such a small segment of this wartime world that it is almost with embarrassment, and certainly with humility, that we announce the suspension of its publication...for the duration. The reasons are easy to understand: shortage of men and materials, shrinkage of the advertising business whose professional workers AD has served, and all-out digging in for Victory." The magazine did not resume publishing. After World War II graphic design was intensely covered in dozens of trade magazines published in countries where industry and design were integral bedfellows. But the most significant of the postwar graphic design clarions was Graphis. This Zurich-based, multi-lingual, international magazine founded 1946 by poster designer Walter Herdeg was an outlet for iconoclastic designers and illustrators from around the world, especially Soviet Eastern European countries. In addition to a handful of significant design and typography magazines published from the late forties through the early fifties that emphasized art, commerce, and indigenous trends – including Word & Image in England, Print and CA in the United States, and Graphik and Nouvum Gebrauchsgraphik in West Germany. 

But the most ground-breaking, Portfolio (from 1949 –51) truly celebrated interdisciplinary design. Edited for three issues by Frank Zachary and designed by Alexey Brodovitch Portfolio defined a late-Modern sensibility that viewed the concept good design as weaving throughout culture as a whole. Portfolio leveled the field between high and low art and so doing changed the fundamental definition of a trade journal. Portfolio was not merely a professional organ but a mainstream design magazine with its roots firmly planted in culture.

Early graphic design trade magazines are missing links in the development of the profession. Although current periodicals have come a long way since the late nineteenth century periodicals, the common editorial mandate to analyze, critique, and showcase contemporary achievement is what makes these journals integral to graphic design history.

Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of SVA NYC's MFA Design / Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program. He is the author of over 170 books on design and popular culture and a columnist for the New York Times Book Review and Atlantic magazine online. He is the author of The Daily Heller and the recipient of the 2011 Smithsonian Institution National Design Awards. sheller@sva.edu

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