In the third of our series of extracts from new book, 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, the authors look at ‘the vernacular’…
#92 The vernacular
The Italian Renaissance was prompted by a rediscovery of the art of Greek and Roman antiquity. Ever since, artists have been mining the past for sources of inspiration. One genre is often overlooked: ubiquitous artefacts, done by local artists, that are so modest they do not attract attention. Impervious to nostalgia, they remain practically invisible until someone begins to collect them.
In the early 1970s, architect Robert Venturi took his Yale University students to Las Vegas to study the urban forms of that typically American phenomenon, the strip mall. They discovered the ‘forgotten symbolism’ of the commercial structures along the main highway, and introduced in the process the idea that vernacular designs can be beautiful – even the marquees and signposts advertising cheap motels and gambling halls. His 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, turned the study of vernacular forms into a trendy academic topic.
Spread from Learning from Las Vegas showing casinos, from the Contemporary Art Consortium @ the IFA website (not featured in 100 Ideas)
From then on, in the United States, vernacular designs were no longer safe from the scrutiny of graduate students, social anthropologists and collectors. Treasure hunters prowled flea markets looking for once-commonplace objects, from gas-station enamel signs to cardboard store mannequins. The distinctive typographical features and design particularities of these humble commercial articles eventually found their way into the mainstream visual vocabulary.
In New York, Tibor Kalman was their enlightened champion. In Minneapolis, Charles S. Anderson embraced the working-class aesthetic of naive industrial logotypes and made it his own. In the middle of Delaware, House Industries, a type foundry, has gathered an impressive collection of calligraphic fonts from labels, posters, cans, boxes and architectural renderings of yore.
Outside the United States, vernacular designs are just beginning to be exploited. Until now, innovations and new technologies, not cultural archaeology, were engines of creativity for young designers. But recently, avant-garde practitioners in France, Belgium and Germany have discovered homespun treasures, some hiding in plain sight. Police badges, artless crests, naive logos and industrial signs are favourite visual references of the award-winning Flanders team Randoald Sabbe and Jan W. Heespel. Their posters promoting cultural events make provocative use of forgotten graphic artefacts.
Also trendy today are two-colour posters and flyers in basic red and blue, their typographical signature reminiscent of cheap playbills from the 1940s. Florian Lamm in Leipzig, Germany, and Vincent Perrottet in Chaumont, France, are turning vernacular reproduction techniques, such as Ben-Day dots (enlarged screened patterns), blurry halftone reproductions, split fountain colour printing, and new artworks inked on top of recycled posters, into sophisticated aesthetic statements.
Infatuation with arcane forms of advertising art is no longer restricted to a few connoisseurs. But French cheese labels, Irish road signs, cigarette packs from the USSR, German candy wrappers, Greek restaurant menus and cigar boxes from Spain have yet to release the forgotten symbolism of their graphic codes.
This essay is taken from 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, published by Laurence King; £19.95 and available from laurenceking.com. Two other extracts from the book have also been published on the CR blog – the chapter on the Big Book Look of the 1950s (here) and the use of ‘shadow play’ (here).
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