In the second of our extracts from the new Laurence King book, 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne look at ‘shadow play’…
#53 Shadow play
One of graphic designers’ most enduring obsessions is to try to escape from flat land. They would like to free images and text from the confines of the two-dimensional plane. Hungarian-born László Moholy-Nagy worked all his life to solve this vexing problem. Using photography and controlling light and shadows by means of lenses, mirrors and filters, he imparted a sense of depth but also movement to otherwise static graphic elements.
In 1929, for the cover of a brochure titled 14 Bauhausbücher (14 Bauhaus Books), Moholy-Nagy photographed metal type on a composing stick at various angles and collaged the prints together in such a way as to create a strange visual amalgam. Not only did the words pop up, they also defied the laws of perspective. Pairing letterforms with their distorted shadows, he realised, could transform the surface of paper into a window opening on an otherworldly realm.
Moholy-Nagy would have loved the work of American artist Ed Ruscha, whose monochromatic ‘word compositions’ are often associated with an odd play of light and shadows. Inspired by the typographical environment of Los Angeles, his paintings are a cross between film title sequences and roadside advertisements. Mighty Topic, painted in 1990, is set in blocky capital letters, while its slightly fuzzy shadow appears on the wall behind in upper- and lower-case italic. In addition, it is projected at a steep angle, an optical absurdity. Yet, strangely enough, the image does not give the impression of being erroneous. On the contrary, it comes across as a faithful rendition of the kind of visual incongruities that give so much character to the southern California landscape, its billboards, motel signs and oversized gas station marquees.
In 2004, for a poster for the Châtelet Theatre in Paris announcing a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, Rudi Meyer created a ghostly illusion involving type and shadows. A large cutout ‘T’, seen in perspective, projects across the page a long forbidding shadow in the form of a cross. The angle of the ‘T’ and that of the cross do not match, a detail one might not consciously notice yet which contributes to the eerie impression of the composition.
Le Fou poster by Rudi Meyer rudi-meyer.com, not included in 100 Ideas
Shadow play is often used in scenography, so it is not surprising that during his seven-year tenure designing posters for the Châtelet Meyer created many such graphic illusions. His poster for Le Fou, in which bold letters cast crazy shadows on the page, makes a passing reference to 14 Bauhausbücher, with some of the words arranged on what looks like a composing stick – as they are in the Moholy-Nagy topsy-turvy photograph. The overall impression is both bizarre and wonderful.
This essay is taken from 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, published by Laurence King; £19.95 and available from laurenceking.com. We will be posting one more extract from the book next week. The previous post, on The Big Book Look of the 1950s, is here.
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