Spain: forgotten man of European design

For decades Franco kept a lid on Spanish design. David Crowley welcomes a history of its pioneers

Spanish design seemed to appear from nowhere at the beginning of the 1990s. The regeneration of Barcelona for the 1992 Olympics was lauded as a triumph of the imagina­tion, as was Javier Mariscal’s cheeky identity for the event (encapsulated in the wonder dog mascot Cobi). The city’s new bars were temples to fashion where design tourists could worship postmodernism in the comfort of an Alfredo Arribas stool. Even Antoni Gaudí, the architect of Barcelona’s most eccentric Art Nouveau buildings, was offered up to the world as a ‘new’ discovery. The explanation for Spain’s undoubted design creativity seemed simple: Franco, the right-wing ruler of the country, had kept a lid on talent. With his death in 1975, the lid had blown off.

There was some truth in this. After the Civil War which propelled Franco to power, Spain was hardly a conducive environment for great art and design. Censorship and oppres­sion was used to keep opponents at bay and the government was stacked with po-faced members of Opus Dei, right wing lay-Catholics. Traditional aspects of Spanish culture – like bull­fighting and flamenco – were heavily promoted as ‘authentic’ national expressions whilst Pablo Picasso and Jorge Semprun were persona non grata.

At the same time, commercial interests were given a relatively free hand, particularly from the late 1950s when Franco gave up his puffed-up dreams of national self-sufficiency and opened the door to multinationals like Coca-Cola and Nestlé. Design writer Javier Gonzales Solas put it succinctly when he described Franco’s Spain as “a world where irrationality had curtailed the rhythm of development, which was moving faster beyond its borders”. So when democracy came at the end of the 1970s, it is perhaps not surprising that independent-minded design was one of its progeny. But what was design like before? Was there any?

Emilio Gil’s handsome new book provides some answers to these questions. An archaeology of graphic design produced in Spain between the end of the Civil War and the 1970s, it focuses on the work of 15 pioneers who shaped the profession there. Often untrained as designers but skilled as artists, they represent the first gener­ation to set up consultancies, as well as working as art directors for small publishing houses and advertising agencies. Gil has done a remarkable job of gathering much original art-work as well as swathes of published designs. Relatively few of the images in this book will be familiar to readers outside Spain. Perhaps only Manolo Prieto’s silhouette of a bull advertising Veterano brandy – a familiar feature on bottles and on Spanish highways from the 1950s onwards – can truly be called an ‘icon’.

Although this material will be unknown to readers, the hundreds of posters, advertisements and brochures on this book’s pages will not be alien. Pioneers of Spanish Graphic Design offers the readers the uncanny sense of the ‘strangely familiar’: ‘Swiss’ asceticism features alongside the kinds of visual puns favoured by Madison Ave; chic Parisian moderne designs appear next to surreal collages in the Eastern European manner. Most of the Spanish designers featured were well connected, often travelling and working abroad or were active in international groups like the Alliance Graphique Internationale. Josep Artigas – head of the advertising department at Nestlé’s Spanish offices – moved to Lausanne in the mid 1950s where his work took on a harder edge: anthropomorphic products and calli­graphic lettering were replaced by abstraction and sans serif faces. Even the work of those who were less cosmo­politan captures a desire to escape the narrow confines of Spanish conservatism, sometimes with great poignancy. Gil’s book contains a number of unpublished cover designs for prestigious foreign magazines like Graphis. Few achieved this accolade: their cover designs stake out hopes rather than achievements.

If heights of Swiss design were scaled by individuals like Artigas, American culture penetrated more deeply into Spanish society in the 1950s and 1960s. Press advertising, marketing and new sales techniques all called upon the services of graphic designers, some employed in the large foreign advertising agencies that opened Spanish branches at this time. But perhaps it was the wave of pop culture – the products of small publishing houses (benefiting from a relaxation of censorship after 1965) and record labels – which was a greater stimulus for graphic design. Daniel Gil’s book covers for Alianza Editorial, founded in Madrid in 1966 by José Ortega Spottorno, stand out. Gil, like many of the other pioneers in this book, had made a ‘grand tour’ to Northern Europe in his early career that included a spell at Ulm with Otl Aicher and a visit to Khruschev’s Russia (hardly a sign of loyalism in Franco’s Spain). Gil designed more than 4,000 covers for Alianza, a publisher with a backlist that reads like a highbrow history of European intellectual life. Without relying on the ‘standard’ devices favoured by book designers – large colophons, colour coding – Gil achieved the rare balance of diversity and harmony. Keeping the range of symbols which feature on Alianza’s covers to a simple lexicon of heads and hands, cuts and folds, Gil was always attentive to the different effects of print: oversized letters or images blown up to the point of distor­tion captured a McLuhanesque fasci­nation with the effects of the media.

These pioneers – on the evidence of their work as much as their bio­graphies – appear as liberal and inter­nationally-minded as their colleagues elsewhere in Europe in the post-war decades. This makes one wonder about their relations with Franco’s anti-intellectual and often paranoid regime. After all, his government ministries were keen to exploit their talents (‘Keep Spain Clean’). Not directly addressed by Gil or Anna Calvera in her perceptive introductory essay, this issue sometimes emerges in the captions. In 1963 Julián Santamaria was press-ganged into producing designs which commemorated the end of the Civil War (and, by implication, the victory of the Nationalists) 25 years earlier under the banner of ‘Peace’. This was the ‘price’ that Santamaria had to pay for producing a series of informal Christmas bill­boards on a Madrid street one year earlier without official permission.

David Crowley is deputy head of Design History at London’s Royal College of Art.

Pioneers of Spanish Graphic Design is published by Mark Batty Publisher; $58.

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