Sunday, September 23, 2007

Four books on Avant Garde Design

I wanted to mention a few design related titles that I have found recently that are very worthy of note. The one thing besides photography that has really been an obsession for me lately has been Avant Garde and Russian design. The following books delve into graphic design that was challenging the norm from the 1920's until today.

The first is a small book called, Letters from the Avant Garde: Modern Graphic Design by Ellen Lupton and Elaine Lustig Cohen. Published in 1996 by the Princeton Architectural Press, this book was created parallel to an exhibition called The Avant Grade Letterhead that was organized by Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, and Smithsonian Institution and appeared at the American Institute of Graphic Arts in March of 1996.

The works under discussion in this book are the different letterheads that were created by the likes of El Lissitzky, Theo Van Doesburg, Kurt Schwitters, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Le Corbusier and many others. The book is broken into chapters which concentrate on the different avant garde movements. Dada, futurism, Dutch Modernism, Bauhaus, De Stijl, and Constructivism are all discussed and each chapter features many reproductions of original letters as illustrations.

I like this book a lot but it perhaps suffers from being too much of a specific subject for most audiences. The paper letters are reproduced as objects so this book serves as the next best thing to starting your own collection. Most of the examples given derive from the collection of one of the authors, Elaine Lustig Cohen.

The next book is also very specific, Stenberg Brothers: Constructing a Revolution in Soviet Design published by the Museum of Modern Art in 1997, this was the catalog from an exhibition of the same name.

The Stenberg Brothers, Vladimir and Georgii, were responsible for an amazing but short career as designers of mass produced posters used to advertise films in Russia. While they achieved great design for theatrical sets and costuming, books and even architecture, it is their film posters that are under examination in this book.

One of their talents as designers was their ability to create the sense of motion and of the passage of time in their pieces as they juxtaposed or “collide” disparate images. Their most well known pieces were for Dziga Vertiov’s The Man with the Movie Camera made in 1929 reflects the relationship of Bolshevism to “the machine” as a way to achieve utopian societies through technology. In the poster, a camera tripod and camera meld with a woman’s high-stepping torso. Half of her face becomes the camera and lens, though the center of which is a wide and staring eye.

The career as I mentioned was rather short lived as, like many artists working in the Soviet Union at the time, they fell out of favor with Stalin’s decree of social realism being the only mode for representation. Georgii was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1933 when he was struck head on by a truck. His wife, who was also on the motorcycle survived. Vladimir, Georgii’s brother and design partner, insisted that his brother’s death was a murder committed by the KGB and the Soviet secret police. Vladimir later died in 1982.

Unfortunately out of print, this is a fantastic resource for anyone interested in Russian design from that period. Its design was created by Michael Bierut and Sara Frisk of the prestigious design firm Pentagram (see Pentagram Papers posting here at 5B4). Copies can be found through ABE or Bookfinder.

Next is a German book from the Museum Folkwang and published by Plitt Verlag in called Glaube, Hoffnung - Anpassung. This title’s subject is what was happening in Soviet imagery from 1928 to 1945.

From the 1920’s onward, photography was playing an even more important part in the poster design and montage that was appearing in the work of artists like Gustav Klutsis, Rodchenko, Valentina Kulagina and Vavara Stepanova. Photography was deemed to be the medium best suited to describe the vital economic and sociopolitical developments within this new socialist country.

Margarita Tupitsyn who is the author of this book, has done several other titles relating to Russian design with titles on El Lissitzky, Kazamir Malevich and one on soviet photography published in 1996. 1996 and 1997 were apparently great years to publish books on this subject as three of my four titles here appeared at that time.

The book features many illustrations of photography and graphic design in black and white and color and although rather conservatively designed it has good reproductions and there is a nice feel to the whole production. The essay is translated into English which appears in the back of the book, so English speakers will not be deprived of Tupitsyn’s fine essay which brings into context the works in relation to the events particularly as they related to Stalin’s implementation of the “five year plans.” A side note in relation to 5B4, the poster design and title that I used to use as the logo for 5B4 before I switched to the graphic of the book spines came from a poster which was advocating the completion of one of the “five year plans” in “four years.” Hence, "5 - B - 4." I am not an advocate of Stalin’s practices, I just thought it was a fantastic design and appropriated it for my own nefarious use. That being said, Mr. Whiskets on the other hand, is an advocate of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer. I will have to watch my step as he is very capable of having me purged and subsequently retouched out of all of the archive photos of 5B4.

The last book for this posting is by the prolific author of over 80 design related titles, Steven Heller. Merz to Émigré and Beyond: Avant Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century published by Phaidon in 2003 is a very substantial 240 page book that surveys “the paper stage” of avant garde periodical publishing from the 1920’s to the 1990’s.

What is great about this book is that it reproduces the magazine covers and content as the full objects complete with drop shadows. I made the mistake of leafing through this on the F train while on my way home (from the Strand bookstore of course) and I had a fit of involuntary barking from excitement when I came across a two page spread that reproduces almost an entire issue of USSR in Construction that Rodchenko designed in celebration of the revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. This 38 page magazine spread is a fascinating and dynamic use of montage and collage from 1940 which uses slipsheets and gatefolds integrated into the design.

Also stressing typography, this book follows the development of the use of type up through recent magazines such as Émigré, Raw and even handmade “fanzines” that were popular in underground music movements. This book weaves the hundreds of illustrations around an extensive essay by Heller and as with most of his books, his extensive knowledge, even in obscure territory, is the draw. The dedication to this book is to Elaine Lustig Cohen who was the author of the letterhead book which was the first title featured in this posting.

I will be doing more postings soon about work and books created in this same time period. My recent obsession has led me to a number of great discoveries worth writing about. Stay tuned.

Book Available Here (Letters from the Avant Garde)

Book Available Here (Stenberg Brothers MoMA)

Book Available Here (Glaube Hoffnung - Anpassung)

Book Available Here (Merz to Emigre and Beyond)