running words around
design education and visual communication
authored by chris m hughes

American Modernism 1920-1960

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Design students here in the UK can write essays on Muller-Brockmann and Jan Tschichold but struggle to name any American modernists other than Paul Rand and Saul Bass.

So it's a joy to be reading R. Roger Remington's comprehensive 'American Modernism - Graphic Design 1920-1960', which is beautifully researched and designed, and introduces a new audience to the seminal work of Lester Beall, Herbert Bayer, and Herb Lubalin, as well as Milton Glaser and both Rand and Bass.

The text, supported by more than 100 colour reproductions and copious captions, traces the evolution of a distinctly American style - an improvised mix of constructivism, industrial typography and pioneering conceptual ideas.


The emergence of Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century is succinctly presented, and dramatically introduced with a great quote by Claude Debussy - 'The age of the aeroplane demands its own music'. The influence of Bauhaus and Constructivism is then explored, and connected directly to the creative energy fuelled by the refuge which America provided for exiled European designers during the rise of Fascism.

Remington dutifully examines each decade in turn, charting the development of technique and style alongside the political and social contexts in which 'commercial art,' as it was then called, were produced.

This includes war propaganda, economic regeneration, the rise of popular magazines, and the cultural revolution of the 1950s - the Beat Generation, television, and corporate advertising. Crucially, much of the creative output of the time in particular is clearly seen as developing in tandem with, rather than following, the International Style in Europe.

At its zenith during the advertising age in the late 50s, American Modernism is seen as tapping into the 'improvisational zeitgeist that characterised both the progressive jazz of the time, and the writings of the Beat Generation'. Nicely put. Remington presents a convincing case that it's during this period that the term 'graphic design' finally starts to mean something in the commercial world.

Posters for the Rural Electrification Administration, 1939-1941, Lester Beall. pp64-65.

Westvaco spread, Bradbury Thomson, Herbert Bayer, Ben Stahl, 1944. pp110-111.

'Man with The Golden Arm' sequence, Saul Bass (1955) and 'First Generation' by Lou Danziger, (1965) pp124-125.

Dylan poster, Milton Glaser (1967), and Merrell Co. advert by Herb Lubalin (early 1960's) pp168-169.

The final chapter examines the aftermath of this burgeoning creativity - pop art, the rejection of modernist rules and the emergence of postmodernism as exemplified by Paula Scher, April Greiman and David Carson.

My only bone of contention is the omission of two American designers who contributed much to the post-war visual culture otherwise so exhaustively covered in this book - Blue Note designer Reid Miles, and the film poster pioneer Bill Gold.

The sleeve notes state that American Modernism is destined to become a classic text in the study of design and visual culture. It already is.