Making The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design

In The Moderns, a vibrant era in American graphic design history is catalogued for the first time through the work of over 60 designers, both well-known and relatively obscure. Theo Inglis talks to authors Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio about the project and the variety of work – and practitioners – in the book, united by a shared sensibility

Towards the end of the first tumultuous half of the twentieth-century, fascism and the advent of the Second World War forced many of Europe’s leading designers to emigrate. Their working methods, philosophies and ideas had been forged on the continent, during decades of societal upheaval and amid scores of radical and avant-garde movements in art and design, all of which aimed to dispense with the old and focus on the new, the modern.

The majority chose to flee, drawn by the promise of excitement and prosperity across the Atlantic, in big modern cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In many cases, their ideas and work proceeded them to America via books and magazines.

Legendary American designer Paul Rand famously discovered Modernism and the Bauhaus on the page, in European magazines he came across in bookshops and libraries, rather than at his still relatively unprogressive New York art school. But it was the physical presence in America of these Modernist European émigrés, to teach, write, and most importantly work, which was to have a hugely significant impact on the still nascent world of graphic design globally.

The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design by Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio. Courtesy of Abrams

The rest, so they say, is history. Of course, graphic design developed internationally after the end of the war, with crucial and critical developments taking place in many countries.

But the mixture of fleeing Modernists, a new generation of young designers and a prospering economy resulted in midcentury America being the place where arguably the most exciting and significant graphic developments were occurring.

The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design (Abrams) certainly makes a strong case for this being entirely accurate, but also shows that it was by no means a period of uniformity and that there are still many stories to be told.

The Moderns comes in at a hefty 336 pages, with a generous 785 full-colour illustrations, and begins with a concise introduction which sets the scene and successfully contextualises what follows. The main body of the book is made up of short biographic profiles of over 60 designers (with a few design duos included), of which 18 are the aforementioned émigrés – featured first – and 45 are “homegrown”.

This set-up is democratic; each designer has a maximum of one page of text devoted to them, regardless of their relative fame. Following these texts is a selection of each designers’ work, usually showing a diverse range of clients, industries and media. The deconstructed nature of the book also means that, despite its size, it is easy and enjoyable to digest.

Advertisement designed by Irving Harper, [Coconut Chair,] “From a Collection of New Nelson Designs to Be Shown in April,” Herman Miller, 1956. Permission of Herman Miller, Inc
Another benefit of the book’s overall structure is that it feels like a big compendium of individual mini-monographs. The work is the real star of the show, rightly so, but the person behind it isn’t forgotten either. Readers get a good sense of who each designer really was and what motivated them – and there is also a photographic portrait of each person featured (excluding the elusive Charles E. Murphy).

These photographs are a poignant touch in a world where, thanks to the internet, historical design work is so often decontextualised, autonomously floating around the web. Seeing these portraits reminds us that behind every design was, of course an individual – with their own experiences, quirks, methods, interests and philosophies.

Magazine cover designed by Lester Beall, Scope, Upjohn Company, vol. 2, no. 2 (June 1946). Lester Beall Collection, Cary Graphic Arts Collection, Rochester Institute of Technology

Individualism is one of the key themes of the book – which is appropriate given that it covers a golden era in America, a nation built on the idea of the individual. As Heller pointed out to me, “we had become a new nation built on all the spoils of war”.

Despite classifying some sixty-two designers as ‘The Moderns’, this label becomes an umbrella under which to celebrate variety and eclecticism as well as a shared overall sensibility.

Through the designers featured, D’Onofrio says that he and Heller “hoped to prove that the group selected had varying viewpoints and unique styles and sensibilities, yet [was] bound together by governing principles…. Ultimately,” he adds, “we wanted to tell a visual story of what American Modernism looked like – a melting pot of Modern design”.

In their introduction the authors provide further categories through which to classify the different designers beyond the more functional “émigré” and “homegrown” distinction: ‘rational moderns’, ‘exuberant moderns’ and ‘eclectic moderns’.

The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design by Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio. Courtesy of Abrams

Heller says this was in part a way of showing “an overall aesthetic that evolved from the Bauhaus, Modern Art and the Swiss – you can see so many crossover influences but most shared common roots”.

Although the number of designers included in The Moderns is impressive, inevitably there are both omissions by choice and necessity (D’Onofrio points out it was never meant to be “a monolithic encyclopaedia of Modernism”). The decision to only include graphic designers working commercially in America “from around 1937 with the founding of the New Bauhaus to 1970, the height of the International Typographic Style” means that the list of potential designers becomes more manageable.

Book cover designed by Elaine Lustig Cohen. General, Marchese Usted, by Salvador de Madariaga, Iberica, 1959. Permission of Elaine Lustig Cohen

While the likes of Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Massimo Vignelli are featured (obviously it would be amiss not to include them), there are many obscure designers included; in fact, some who have never been featured in the design history books before.

Indeed, a book of this kind could very easily have been full of familiar work rather than a worthwhile expansion of “the canon”, D’Onofrio says that the pair “worked hard to change that and made a conscious effort early on to find and choose the best work of lesser-known designers and the lesser-known work of well-known design pioneers.”

Folder designed by Dietmar Winkler, International Conference on Single-Cell Protein, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1967. Architecture and Design Collection, MIT Museum, permission of Dietmar Winkler

The questions of why some of the great designers featured in The Moderns have been less well known is an interesting one. Heller suggests that “it is all about self-publicity and the lack of it too. Some designers, like Rand and Lester Beall, were promoted by magazines and exhibitions early on in their careers.” He also points out that they all “were not hyped the way some designers are today”.

Another obvious point is that the best known and most written about designers from this era are all men. The Moderns reflects the sexism of the times – only eight of the 62 designers are women – and the texts reveal the barriers that female designers faced.

Magazine cover, Junior Bazaar, Hearst Magazines, New York, January 1947. Art direction: Alexey Brodovitch and Lillian Bassman; Photo: Ernst Beadle. Courtesy of the Collection of Vince Aletti

Magazine designer Cipe Pineles was repeatedly turned down for membership of the Art Directors Club until her then partner William Golden (also featured in the book) refused their invitation to join until they allowed Pineles in too.

It is also revealed that Lillian Bassman while working as Alexey Brodovitch’s assistant at Bazaar was expected “to produce anything he wanted … nothing of my own”, while in a similar vein Elaine-Lustig Cohen explains that her role in the studio of her husband Alvin Lustig as that of “office slave”.

Designers like Lustig-Cohen and Ray Eames clearly don’t deserve to be stuck in the shadows of their husbands, but the inclusion of two relatively obscure husband and wife design duos – John and Mary Condon and Donald and Ann Crews – suggests that there were also cases of progressive men and women working together as collaborative creative equals.

The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design by Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio. Courtesy of Abrams

“We tried hard…. Their work was not seen or chronicled in magazines as much,” Heller explains of researching female practitioners from the time. “And some, who were, just disappeared. So, in a sense, it was harder to research. In another sense, the women played secondary roles until the late 60s and 70s. If we were to include Europeans, we’d find more women. If we were to include more eclectic designers, we’d have more women.”

“Women are not the only minority,” D’Onofrio adds, “there’s also African Americans, Asian Americans, husband and wife studios and more.”

Then, as now, the design industry was dominated by white men but the effort in The Moderns to include people from different backgrounds is very welcome, and has obviously required more research with extensive interviews feeding into the writing and biographies of the individual designers.

Magazine cover designed by Ray Eames. California Arts & Architecture, February 1943. © Eames Office LLC, Arts & Architecture © David Travers, used with permission

Unlike Heller, who has been involved in almost 200 books throughout his prolific career, The Moderns is Greg D’Onofrio’s first book, but the culmination of much of the work he has done in his career so far. He teaches graphic design history at the School of Visual Arts in New York and is one half (with his partner Patricia Belen) of the design company Kind Company and Display, a public online archive of modernist graphic design.

Since 2004, Kind Co has designed and managed websites highlighting the work of some of the designers featured in the book, such as Alvin Lustig and Elaine Lustig-Cohen.

Book jacket designed by Donald and Ann Crews. Jazz Country, by Nat Hentoff, Harper & Row, 1965. Courtesy of Donald Crews

The Moderns is billed as “the first comprehensive survey” of midcentury American modernism. Given that it is such a critical moment in graphic design history, this is both surprising and something of a challenge for any author to rise to.

But it’s one that Heller and D’Onofrio have managed to pull off – and in doing so they have brought to light some of the diversity and eclecticism of the era.

The book celebrates the achievements of many designers who have been undeservedly forgotten or remained unsung and will seriously strengthen our understanding of a key period in the development of what was only just being referred to as ‘graphic design’. Here, the roots of our contemporary creative world can be seen developing in a burgeoning and exciting post-war industry.

As a fan of what is frequently labelled ‘mid-century modern’, I’ve hoped for years for a book that would do the graphic design of the era justice and really scratch below the surface. Luckily, The Moderns absolutely doesn’t disappoint.

Theo Inglis is a freelance graphic designer and writer, @Theo_inglis and theoinglis.co.uk. The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design by Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio is published by Abrams; £40. More details at abramsandchronicle.co.uk, themodernsbook.com

The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design by Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio. Courtesy of Abrams

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