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Breaking the Grid


The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was the major technological, socioeconomic and cultural change in the late 18th and early 19th century that began in Britain and spread throughout the world. During that time, an economy based on manual labour was replaced by one dominated by industry and the manufacture of machinery. It began with the mechanisation of the textile industries and the development of iron-making techniques, and trade expansion was enabled by the introduction of canals, improved roads and then railways. The introduction of steam power (fuelled primarily by coal) and powered machinery (mainly in textile manufacturing) underpinned the dramatic increases in production capacity. The development of all-metal machine tools in the first two decades of the 19th century facilitated the manufacture of more production machines for manufacturing in other industries.


What started it all: James Watt's steam engine.

The effects spread throughout Western Europe and North America during the 19th century, eventually affecting most of the world. The impact of this change on society was enormous and is often compared to the Neolithic revolution, when various human subgroups embraced agriculture and in the process, forswore the nomadic lifestyle.

The first Industrial Revolution merged into the Second Industrial Revolution around 1850, when technological and economic progress gained momentum with the development of steam-powered ships, railways, and later in the nineteenth century with the internal combustion engine and electrical power generation. At the turn of the century, innovator Henry Ford, father of the assembly line, stated, "There is but one rule for the industrialist, and that is: Make the highest quality goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible."

Breaking the Grid: Printing techniques using movable type had restricted graphic design to an inflexible grid: Anything that was to be mass printed in great volume needed to adhere to a system whereby type was set in consecutive rows of parallel lines. Illustrations, maps and the like were hand drawn and engraved, only allowing for limited, costly editions due to the wearage of the engraving plates. The mass productive milieu of the industrial revolution manifested itself in a unique invention called lithography and this technique was to set type free from the bondage of the compositor.



Lithography stone, the lithography press, and a portrait of Alois Senefelder.

The term "lithography" dates back to the end of the 18th century, when Alois Senefelder invented the technique of printing with stone plates. This novel method - originally intended for the reproduction of music notation - quickly spread throughout the art world. Munich became the center of this printing technique, which was to be come extraordinarily important for 19th century art and for advertising of the age as well.

Lithography is a printing process that uses chemical processes to create an image. For instance, the positive part of an image would be a hydrophobic chemical, while the negative image would be water. Thus, when the plate is introduced to a compatible ink and water mixture, the ink will adhere to the positive image and the water will clean the negative image. This allows for a relatively flat print plate which allows for much longer runs than the older physical methods of imaging (e.g., embossing or engraving).

Within a few years of its invention, the lithographic process was used to create multi-color printed images that held all manner of cropped, embedded and bordered images as well as free running type, a process known by the middle of the 19th century as Chromolithography. A separate stone was used for each colour, and a print went through the press separately for each stone. The main challenge was of course to keep the images aligned (in register). This method lent itself to images consisting of large areas of flat colour, and led to the characteristic poster designs of this period. Many fine works of chromolithographic printing were produced in America and Europe.


Victorian portraits.

Yet another invention which greatly affected visual communication procedures was the invention of photography: This is the process of making pictures by means of the action of light. Light patterns reflected or emitted from objects are recorded onto a sensitive medium or storage chip through a timed exposure. The process is done through mechanical, chemical or digital devices known as cameras. The first photograph was an image produced in 1826 by the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce on a polished pewter plate with a camera. The image required an eight-hour exposure in bright sunshine. In partnership, Niépce and Louis Daguerre refined the existing process. In 1839 Daguerre announced that he had invented a process called the Daguerreotype. William Fox Talbot had earlier discovered another means to fix a silver process image but had kept it secret. After reading about Daguerre's invention Talbot refined his process, so that it might be fast enough to take photographs of people.

Daguerreotype by James Presley Ball, ca.1845

The Daguerreotype proved popular in responding to the demand for portraiture emerging from the middle classes during the Industrial Revolution. This demand, that could not be met in volume and in cost by oil painting, added to the push for the development of photography. Daguerreotypes, while beautiful, were fragile and difficult to copy. A single photograph taken in a portrait studio could cost USD $1,000 in 2006 dollars. In 1884 George Eastman developed film, to replace the photographic plate so that a photographer no longer needed to carry boxes of plates and toxic chemicals around. In July of 1888 Eastman's Kodak camera went on the market with the slogan "You press the button, we do the rest". Now anyone could take a photograph and leave the complex parts of the process to others, and photography became available for the mass-market in 1901 with the introduction of Kodak Brownie.


The Arts and Crafts Movement


Posters advertising Arts and Crafts exhibitions during the 2nd half of the 19th century

The Arts and Crafts movement is a major English and American aesthetic movement occurring in the last years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. Inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, it was at its height between approximately 1880–1910. It was a reformist movement that influenced British and American architecture, decorative arts, cabinet making, crafts, and even the "cottage" garden designs of William Robinson or Gertrude Jekyll. Its best-known practitioners were William Morris, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, and artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. The Arts and Crafts Movement began primarily as a search for authentic and meaningful styles for the 19th century and as a reaction to the eclectic historicism of the Victorian era and to "soulless" machine-made production aided by the Industrial Revolution. Considering the machine to be the root cause of all repetitive and mundane evils, some of the protagonists of this movement turned entirely away from the use of machines and towards handcraft, which tended to concentrate their productions in the hands of sensitive but well-heeled patrons.

Yet, while the Arts and Crafts movement was in large part a reaction to industrialization, if looked at on the whole, it was neither anti-industrial nor anti-modern. Some of the European factions believed that machines were in fact necessary, but they should only be used to relieve the tedium of mundane, repetitive tasks. At the same time, some Art & Craft leaders felt that objects should also be affordable. The conflict between quality production and 'demo' design, and the attempt to reconcile the two, dominated design debate at the turn of the last century. The need to reverse the human subservience to the unquenchable machine was a point that everyone agreed on. Yet the extent to which the machine was ostracized from the process was a point of contention debated by many different factions within the Arts and Crafts movement throughout Europe. In order to express the beauty inherent in craft, some products were deliberately left slightly unfinished, resulting in a certain rustic and robust effect. There were also socialist undertones to this movement, in that another primary aim was for craftspeople to derive satisfaction from what they did. This satisfaction, the proponents of this movement felt, was totally denied in the industrialized processes inherent in compartmentalized machine production.

William Morris

William Morris (1834 – 1896) was an English artist, writer, socialist activist and pioneer of eco-socialism, one of the principal founders of the British Arts and Crafts movement, best known as a designer of wallpaper and patterned fabrics, a writer of poetry and fiction, and a pioneer of the socialist movement in Britain near London and the Eco-socialist movement of the later twentieth century. He went to school at Marlborough College, but left in 1851 after a student rebellion there. He then went to Oxford University (Exeter College) after studying for his matriculation to the university. He became influenced by John Ruskin there, and met his life-long friends and collaborators, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Philip Webb there as well. He also met his wife, Jane Burden, a working-class woman whose pale skin, languid figure, and wavy, abundant dark hair were considered by Morris and his friends the epitome of beauty. These friends formed an artistic movement, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. They eschewed the tawdry industrial manufacture of decorative arts and architecture and favoured a return to hand-craftsmanship, raising artisans to the status of artists. He espoused the philosophy that art should be affordable, hand-made, and that there should be no hierarchy of artistic mediums.

The versatile craft of William Morris.


Book pages and covers printed by the Kelmscott Press.

In January 1891, Morris founded the Kelmscott Press in Hammersmith, London, in order to produce examples of improved printing and book design. He designed clear typefaces, such as his Roman 'golden' type, which was inspired by that of the early Venetian printer Nicolaus Jenson, and medievalizing decorative borders for books that drew their inspiration from the incunabula of the 15th century and their woodcut illustrations. Selection of paper and ink, and concerns for the overall integration of type and decorations on the page made the Kelmscott Press the most famous of the private presses of the Arts and Crafts movement. It operated until 1898, producing 53 volumes, and inspired other private presses, notably the Doves Press. Among book lovers, the Kelmscott Press edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, illustrated by Burne-Jones, is considered one of the most beautiful books ever produced. A fine edition facsimile of the Kelmscott Chaucer was published in 2002 by The Folio Society.


The Glasgow School

The Glasgow School was a circle of influential modern artists and designers who began to coalesce in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1870s, and flourished from the 1890s to sometime around 1910. Glasgow experienced an economic boom at the end of the 19th century, resulting in a burst of distinctive contributions to the Art Nouveau movement, particularly in the fields of architecture, interior design, and painting. Among the most prominent definers of the Glasgow School loose collective were "The Four": acclaimed architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the painter and glass artist Margaret MacDonald (Mackintosh's wife), MacDonald's sister Frances MacDonald, and Herbert MacNair. Cumulatively, The Four defined the Glasgow Style (a syncretistic blend of Celtic and Japanese art), which found favor throughout the modern art world of continental Europe. The Four, otherwise known as the Spook School, ultimately made a great impact on the definition of Art Nouveau.

Posters and sketches by Margaret McDonald.

Children's book illustrations by Margaret McDonald.

Design work by architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.




Utagawe Hiroshige, Japanese woodprints of the 19th century.

Eclecticism, according to Hume, is "the borrowing of a variety of styles from different sources and combining them". Significantly, Eclecticism hardly ever constituted a specific style in art: it is characterized by the fact that it was not a particular style. In general, the term describes the combination in a single work of a variety of influences — mainly of elements from different historical styles in architecture, painting, and the graphic and decorative arts. Eclecticism was an important concept in Western design and architecture during the mid and late 19th century, where many oriental styles and techniques, such as Japanese wood printing, were suffused into existent western art traditions, especially through the advent of tourism. Thus, when examining the design trends of this era we should bear this all important concept in mind in order to understand the new bifurcations that made their appearances in the hitherto fairly consistently and linearly developed canon of Western design.

A fascination with the Middle East that went under the term "Orientalism" can also be shown as a example of 19th Century eclecticism.


Art Nouveau

Art Nouveau is a style which does not result from European history alone. It is of experimental character, a mixture of baroque, oriental and classical elements, in parts strongly influenced by Japanese art, wanting to express the break with traditional forms, on one hand reflecting the spirit of the Belle Epoque and influencing it at the same time. Characteristic for Art Nouveau is the absence of any straight line and any right angle. The lines seem to bend infinitely, the forms swell and contract. It is the nature serving as model: Being a decorative art by origin, the artists preferred ornamental structures imitating flowers and leaves. Most works of the Art Nouveau resemble living organisms. The curved vegetable lines create an impression of lightness and charm. Many artists of the Art Nouveau used these curved forms of vegetation: The most favourite flowers were the lily, the iris and the orchid, but they also used oriental subjects such as palm branches, papyruses, seaweed. Stylistically represented were animals, too, especially insects and birds abounding in colours: dragonflies, peacocks, swallows, swans. Moreover, the artists appreciated the female body as a decorative element, especially with long open hair, flowing in long and soft waves.

Art nouveau package design.

Art nouveau in architecture and crafts.

Art Nouveau arose at the end of the nineteenth century and persisted until the First World War. It was a reaction against the prevailing practice in architecture and applied arts of using conservative design motifs from Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Classical and other standard historical styles. As a movement, Art Nouveau sought to find a new, modern style that escaped from the formal, rigid past by emphasizing natural, organic forms such as plants and flowers. Generally speaking, earlier works of Art Nouveau tend to be more lush and dramatic, whereas later examples are more likely to be more subtle and stylized. However, the style's manifestations differed dramatically from one European country to another.



Secessionist design from glass to metal to textile and paper.

One of the most prolific and complex centers of turn-of-the-century applied arts is Vienna. There, the artists and architects of the Secession sought to rebel entirely - that is, morally, aesthetically, intellectually and politically - against standard practice in the fine and applied arts. Among the leaders of this group was Gustav Klimt. An influential movement that came out of the Secession was the Vienna Werkstätte, or Vienna Workshop. The workshop was a collaborative effort based on the concept of completely original artistic designs executed in fine materials being mass-manufactured for the public at a very high standard. Implicit in this was the idea that the artist could have an important influence on everyday, practical, functional objects.



Posters were popularized by the mid-19th-century invention of lithography, which allowed coloured posters to be produced cheaply and easily. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was noted for his poster art, which often advertised Parisian cabaret performers. Poster art flourished with the rise of the Art Nouveau style, as seen in the work of Alphonse Mucha. 

Alfons Mucha

Alphonse Mucha posters.

Alfons Mucha (1860 - 1939) studied art in Prague, Munich, and Paris. He became the principal designer of posters advertising the stage appearances of Sarah Bernhardt; he designed sets and costumes for her as well. His many opulent posters and magazine illustrations made him one of the foremost designers in the Art Nouveau style.


Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 - 1901) was born to an old aristocratic family. He developed his interest in art during lengthy convalescence after both his legs were fractured in separate accidents (1878, 1879) that left them permanently stunted and made walking difficult. In 1881 he resolved to become an artist; after taking instruction, he established a studio in the Montmartre district of Paris in 1884 and began his lifelong association with the area's cafés, cabarets, entertainers, and artists. He captured the effect of the movement of dancers, circus performers, and other entertainers by simplifying outlines and juxtaposing intense colours; the result was an art throbbing with life and energy. His lithographs were among his most powerful works, and his memorable posters helped define the possibilities of the genre. His pieces are often sharply satirical, but he was also capable of great sympathy, seen most poignantly in his studies of prostitutes (e.g., At the Salon, 1896). His extraordinary style helped set the course of avant-garde art for decades to come. A heavy drinker, he died at 36.

The rise of a new profession called Graphic Design

In the late 19th century, graphic design emerged as a distinct profession in the West, in part because of the job specialization process that occurred there, and in part because of the new technologies and commercial possibilities brought about by the Industrial Revolution. New production methods led to the separation of the design of a communication medium (e.g., a poster) from its actual production. Increasingly, over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, advertising agencies, book publishers, and magazines hired art directors who organized all visual elements of the communication and brought them into a harmonious whole, creating an expression appropriate to the content. In 1922 typographer William A. Dwiggins coined the term graphic design to identify the emerging field.

The "wood type" poster, also called a Broadside, was one of the earliest forms of advertisement and began to develop as a medium for visual communication in the early 19th century. These posters, or broadsides, influenced the development of typography in an entirely new direction from its previous applications in book design since they were meant to be read from a distance and required larger type to be produced, usually from wood rather than metal - hence the name "wood type poster."

As more labor saving devises and novelty items became available, competition between companies for consumers also increased. “The trade catalog developed as a result of and along with the industrial revolution. The growing factory system enabled workers to do twice to ten times the work of a single individual. Production rose, leading manufacturers to substantially increase their market territory to stimulate demand. The trade catalog became a critical means by which the resulting demand was met.” (Rhoda S. Ratner; Head; History, Technology, and Art Department, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, October 2000)

Mail order catalogs were one of the most popular forms for shopping, particularly in the United States where a sizable portion of the population lived with scant access to big city centers and shops. And the design of mail order catalogs formed a whole new area for layouts and usage of typography.

During this time advertisements started to appear in weekly newspapers in England, the USA and eventually throughout the Western world. These early print advertisements were used mainly to promote books and newspapers, which became increasingly affordable with advances in the printing press; and medicines, which were increasingly sought after as modern people rejected traditional cures. 

The newly formed profession of graphic design began to put together its advertising and editorial strategies through the design of newspaper advertisements and catalog pages. These were new areas into which some of the tenets of book design from the pre-industrial revolution days could be applied. However, much needed to be re-thought, re-formulated in order to accommodate the needs of industrialization. Much was sacrificed, given that the "designer" of the new era was no longer the actual producer of the artifact as had been the case before mass production; but much innovation was also added into what eventually matured into an entirely new visual domain with its own rules and standards.

As time went by newspapers in the 1850s and 1860s appealed to the increasingly affluent middle-class that sought out a variety of new products. The advertisements announced new health remedies as well as fresh foods and beverages. The latest London fashions were featured in the regional press. The availability of repeated advertising permitted manufacturers to develop nationally known brand names that had a much stronger appeal than generic products.

This big change from individually crafted artifacts - be they books or furniture or clothing or crockery - to mass produced and mass sold items, is what brought about the need for a new profession which took its trajectory from the typographic tradition of book designers that we have followed in the previous pages. However, big changes occurred as this old tradition was adapted to the needs of advertising whereby the mass manufactured merchandise was marketed and sold. Many of these changes were formulated during the 19th century itself, but even more were added over the following century which is the actual period in which the design professions, including graphic design, really did come into their own - turning from quasi-craft based operations into fully fledged professions that were acknowledged to be sophisticated enough and intellectually demanding enough to require special higher education level training, such as would be provided by institutions like the Bauhaus school.

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