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1941 2 February cover by George Giusti. _WWII theme_jpg.jpg


Modernism is a trend of thought which affirms the power of human beings to make, improve and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. The term covers a variety of political, cultural and artistic movements rooted in the changes in Western society at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Broadly, modernism describes a series of progressive cultural movements in art and architecture, music, literature and the applied arts which emerged in the decades before 1914. Embracing change and the present, modernism encompasses the works of artists, thinkers, writers and designers who rebelled against late 19th century academic and historicist traditions, and confronted the new economic, social and political aspects of the emerging modern world.


The Modernists

Modernist everyday objects.

Modernist magazine advertisements of the mid 20th century.

By 1930, Modernism had entered popular culture. With the increasing urbanization of populations, it was beginning to be looked to as the source for ideas to deal with the challenges of the day. Popular culture, which was not derived from high culture but instead from its own realities (particularly mass production) fueled much modernist innovation. Modern ideas in art appeared in commercials and logos, the famous London Underground logo being an early example of the need for clear, easily recognizable and memorable visual symbols. One of the most visible changes of this period is the adoption of objects of modern production into daily life. Electricity, the telephone, the automobile—and the need to work with them, repair them and live with them—created the need for new forms of manners, and social life. The kind of disruptive moment which only a few knew in the 1880's, became a common occurrence. The speed of communication reserved for the stock brokers of 1890 became part of family life.



The posters of Cassandre.

Adolphe Mouron Cassandre (1901 – 1968) was an influential Ukrainian-French painter, commercial poster artist, and typeface designer. Cassandre became successful enough that with the help of partners he was able to set up his own advertising agency called Alliance Graphique. Serving a wide variety of clientele, during the 1930s, his creations for the Dubonnet wine company were among the first posters designed in a manner that allowed them to be seen by occupants in fast-moving vehicles. His posters are memorable for their innovative graphic solutions and their frequent denotations to such painters as Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso. In addition, he taught graphic design at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs and then at the Ecole d'Art Graphique.


Peignot is a sans-serif display typeface, designed by Cassandre in 1937. It was commissioned by the French type foundry Deberny & Peignot. The typeface is notable for not having a traditional lowercase, but in its place a "multi-case" combining traditional lowercase and small capital characters.

With typography an important part of poster design, the Cassandre company created several new typeface styles. Cassandre developed Bifur in 1929, the sans serif Acier Noir in 1935, and in 1937 an all-purpose font called Peignot. In 1936, his works were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City which led to commissions from Harper's Bazaar to do cover designs.

The Posters of the Work Progress Administration

The silkscreen posters of the WPA.

In stark contrast to the opulence of Art Deco was the poverty generated by the Great Depression in the United States. Interestingly enough, some of the most beautiful graphic design work comes from the Work Progress Administration, which was a work relief program that provided jobs and income to the unemployed during the Great Depression in the United States. It built many public buildings and roads, and operated  large arts projects. Until it was closed down by Congress in 1943, it was the largest employer in the United States - indeed, the largest employer in most of its States. Only unemployed people on relief were eligible for most of its jobs. The wages were the prevailing wages in the area, but workers could not work more than 20 - 30 hours a week. 

Further reading and images


Editorial Design between the two wars

Fortune magazine covers.

In the 1930s and 1940s, new media such as television and radio appeared one after another, but advertisements using paper as a medium had the best results in terms of their penetration rate which is why editorial design held its primary place among mass communication media throughout this period. 

Herbert Bayer for Fortune magazine.

Another important factor were the European designers who, forced out of Nazi Germany, arrived in the US and brought with them their visions to fashion, advertising, photography or art. Many of these new arrivals from Europe quickly came to hold key designer positions at American magazines such as Life, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue or Look magazine, to which they brought a fresh aesthetic that was different from what had been prevalent in American culture to that date. And one of the most important of these publications is Fortune magazine which had the foresight to bring Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer into their creative team.

Fortune Magazine

Fortune magazine, double spreads of information graphics.

Fortune Magazine was founded by Time co-founder Henry Luce in February 1930, four months after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that marked the outset of the Great Depression. Briton Hadden, Luce's partner, wasn't enthusiastic about the idea, but Luce went forward with it after Hadden's October 15, 1929 death. Luce wrote a memo to the Time, Inc. board in November 1929, "We will not be over-optimistic. We will recognize that this business slump may last as long as an entire year."

Single copies of that first issue cost $1 at a time when the Sunday New York Times was only 5c.[3] At a time when business publications were little more than numbers and statistics printed in black and white, Fortune was an oversized 11"x14", using creamy heavy paper, and great art on a cover printed by a special process. Fortune was also noted for its photography, featuring the work of Margaret Bourke White and others. Walker Evans served as its photography editor from 1945-1965. An urban legend says that art director T M Clelland mocked up the cover of the first issue with the $1 price because nobody had yet decided how much to charge; the magazine was printed before anyone realized it, and when people saw it for sale, they thought that the magazine must really have worthwhile content. In fact, there were 30,000 subscribers who'd already signed up to receive that initial 184-page issue.

Economic and social influence aside, Fortune magazine's creative staff set a trend in magazine and editorial design, from page layout to usage of photography, illustration and typography which is still in use widely today.

Further reading and images

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