Italian Fascist Design, Part One

Design as Theater, Part One

Designing for Dictators

The history of Italian fascism is one of a movement begun in misadventure, characterized by misjudgments and mistakes, ending in farce. If it is defined by any one term, however, that word would be “theatricality.” In his instinctive understanding that the “crowd” loves nothing more than theater and its costumes, Il Duce, Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) provided Italy with an extreme example of how politics becomes aestheticized through the drama of fashion. His erstwhile follower, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) took note of his strutting but well-dressed role model and re-fashioned his own motley crew of fanatical admirers into a goosestepping nightmare of intimidation. Their mutual point of inspiration was a well-dressed middle-aged Italian poet whose claim to fame was an extreme addiction to sex and fashion. It is not often that one thinks of fascist leaders such as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as leading indicators of modern fashion, but fashion design played an important role in what Susan Sontag called the fascination of fascism. Part of the fascination, or to deploy a better word “aesthetics” of fascism, as Sontag pointed out, was the uniform; and the idea that a uniform might be riveting and awe-inspiring was the brainchild of Italy’s famous poet and dandy, Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938). Five foot three inches tall, D’Annunzio was famous fin-de-siècle dandy whose sartorial appetites were as extensive and as adventurous as his many lovers. As much as he loved women, the poet loved clothes so much so that his exquisite wardrobe was featured in a 2010 exhibition at New York University. In the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò gallery, the exhibition, Gabriele d’Annunzio: Living Life as a Work of Art, showed a wide range of outfits suitable for all occasions, worn by a man considered to be one of the best dressed ever. Six years later, there was another exhibition in Florence, also devoted to his wardrobe and an extensive catalog, Il Guadaroba di Gabriele d’Annunzio, showed an astonishing array of outfits.

Gabriele D’Annunzio

According to his biographer, John Woodhouse, the poet or the “warrior bard,” as the Italians referred to him, sunbathed and swam in the nude but when the occasion arose no one was better prepared. As Woodhouse noted, for a simple visit, “D’Annunzio had brought with him a dinner-jacket, six white suits, thirty or forty shirts, and eight pairs of shoes.” It should be noted that he traveled with his own sheets. Colin McDowell noted that the diminutive writer probably used his wardrobe as an instrument of seduction. As the writer noted, his ploy was successful: “Excited by violence and total abandonment, in and out of the bedroom, meant that wherever he was he always had a stream of besotted women at the door waiting to be seduced.” Writing for The New Republic, Jonathan Galassi stated, “Short and physically unprepossessing, some said ugly, he nevertheless possessed an androgynous intensity that was irresistible to many, and had constant affairs, often several at once, throughout his life. D’Annunzio seems to have been an almost involuntary seducer. Today he might be called a sex addict; indeed, there is an aura of needy exhibitionism to much of his behavior.”

Romaine Brooks. Gabriele D’Annunzio The Poet As Exile (1912)

After serving a single term in the Italian parliament as the “candidate for Beauty,” D’Annunzio was forced to flee to Paris to avoid debt collectors–clothes are very expensive and the poet was a compulsive spender of money, not to mention that his compulsion to acquire made him determined to conquer any woman in his path. As Galassi noted, few could resist him, even a woman who did not like men: “According to the American whiskey heiress and saloniste Natalie Barney: “He was the rage. A woman who had not slept with him made herself ridiculed.” Among his many conquests was the American lesbian artist Romaine Brooks, who painted his portrait.” Clothes, as they say, make the man. When he reached middle age, D’Annunzio was many things–poet, dandy, lover of women, and then the Great War offered him new opportunities. The poet was prescient enough to foresee the military significance of the airplane and he shared with the Futurists a love of war. Yearning for this glory and longing to be a knight of the air like Louis Blériot, D’Annunzio became a fifty-year-old daring pilot who dropped leaflets. The Italians joined the allies two years into the War and perhaps that is why their wishes to “redeem” certain territories in Easter Europe were ignored by those writing the Treaty of Versailles. The background of the desire of Italy to redeem its lost territories must be attributed to the fact that boot-shaped Italy was stuffed with independent republics and independent cities, a legacy from the Medieval and Renaissance period. The Napoléonic Wars had resulted in the further dismemberment of Italian territories, which were given to Austria and France. Even after Italy had become a fully formed nation in the late nineteenth century, bits and pieces where Italian speakers lived were still under the control of hostile nations, including Trentino, Trieste, South Tyrol, parts of Istria, Gorizia, and Dalmatia. Being on the winning side of the Great War would seem to be the ideal time to reunite all the Italian territories into the still young nation. However, from an Italian point of view, justice was not done and the authors of the Treaty summarily turned the port city of Fiume to the new nation, Yugoslavia. The righteous indignation of all those who believed in Italia Irredenta flared up.

In his 1920 book, The Solution of the Fiume Question, D. Dárday wrote of the unhappiness of the “Fiume Italians” struggling under Hungarian rule before the War. Having been pushed to the bottom economically, these unhappy Italians became part of the “Fiume Question” which involved not the Italians or the former Hungarians but the interests of the British Empire. Dárday, writing during the time of the Treaty of Versailles expressed concern that this important coastal port city which was the “key to the Adriatic” should come under the control of “any Mediterranean power.” The author was concerned about the British controlling the “international trade route to the East Indies.” There were two “exits” from the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and the Suez Canal and the power that controlled the city could disrupt British trade. Dárday wrote, “We must therefore regard it as out of the question that Fiume and its sea-board should ever become the possession of that Italy which has a considerable naval power at her disposal; and we regard it as equally out of the question that the Treaty of Peace should afford Yougoslavia (sic) an opportunity, through the possession of Fiume and its sea-board, of developing into an important Slav naval power in the Mediterranean.” As can be seen by this short pamphlet, Fiume was too important to fall into the wrong hands, and yet the territory of Istria once belonged to the Republic of Venice and it seemed that surely the time had come to return the large city to Italy. However, the Italians were not the dominant population group, that would be the Slavs, nor there they the most powerful. The pressing problem was not how to reward Italy but how to give self-determination to the ethnicities of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. A new nation was formed out of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and the territory of Istria. As would often happen after the fall of Empires, artificially conjoined peoples would be uncomfortable with their new neighbors. While the unhappiness of the Italians of Fiume is somewhat in doubt, there was no doubt of the anger of the unrewarded Italians.

Enter Gabriele d”Annunzio. The poet had enjoyed a very satisfactory war, joining the Italian air force (such as it was), imagining himself a knight of the sky, all the while living in luxury in a palace in Venice. He did pay a price for his bravado, losing an eye in an air raid. The War ended with Italy managing to lose important and humiliating battles while emerging on the winning side and coming away empty-handed. D’Annunzio realized that it was up to him to redeem Italy by reclaiming the long-list territories. His target was Fiume. The new state of Yugoslavia was still too young to fend off even the attack of one-eyed poet and in 1919, D’Annunzio struck. Looking back one hundred years later at what seems a quixotic endeavor, we can see that he serves as a warning to history: never underestimate the power of a celebrity and the ability of people to engage in magical thinking. This magical thinking or the radical imagining of a modern Italy was Janus-faced. On one hand, there was desire, particularly on the part of the Futurists, to shake off the burden of the Italy of the Renaissance, and then, on the other hand, there was a demand to reconnect with the primal energy that formed the Roman Empire. The result was a “myth of national regeneration.” Roger Griffin lists these powerful desires in his book, Modernism and Fascism, including dreams of combining the old and new Italies into “two Italies,” or more simply, the “new Italy,” or the “true Italy,” or the “Great Italy,” or the “Third Italy,” or the “new State,” which would create a “new civilization” for the “new man.” In other words, even before the War exacerbated the grievances of Italy, a strong nationalism emerged. But this nationalism was critical of the old Italy which had proved to be unable to cope with the forces of industrialism and modernism. D’Annunzio had been part of the early twentieth-century discourse on refashioning Italy in terms of modernity, and his literary writings were part of the same impulses that drove the Futurists, led by Filippo Tomasso Marinetti (1876-1944).

The Arditi in action

Thus from the very beginning, there was a curious union between the avant-garde, literary and artistic, and politics and, in this fevered post-war climate, a poet was the perfect improbable leader. Despite his vaunted status as a poet, D’Annunzio marched off to Fiume in strange company. As in Germany, the streets of Italy were populated by discontented and disillusioned former soldiers, angered by defeat and humiliation, still longing for the good fight they had been promised. Writing in Cabinet in 2015, Renaldo Laddaga described “the assault troops known as the arditi. During the war, the arditi had refused all weapons that would weigh them down: they preferred grenades carried in pockets and daggers held between teeth as they raced toward the enemy trenches, which they rarely reached. They liked to be called “alligators,” were partial to cocaine, and, among them, homosexuality was commonplace. No leader had been able to take for granted the loyalty of these highly volatile men. And now that the war was over, like the German Freikorps, they found no place for themselves in a society where the exhausted majority expected to return to a peaceful civilian life.” The celebrity poet considered which world he would conquer. He thought of marching on Rome itself but decided upon Fiume as being symbolic of all Italy had lost and all that Italy should fight to regain. Gathering his forces, including Marinetti, who was finding Mussolini too conservative for his post-war activist ambitions, D’Annunzio began the Impresa di Fiume or the Endeavor of Fiume on September 12, 1919. There is a sense of opera bouffe–two poets and a couple of thousand ex-soldiers who bit on knives while attacking–but the occupation of Fiume was the opening gun of something that would develop into Fascism. Despite the comic nature of the invasion, the new Soviet Union recognized the Italian Regency of Carnaro.

The Arditi at rest

The citizens of Fiume were excited by such a colorful and energetic occupation and happily accepted the charismatic ruler. Even the Slav population initially enjoyed the experience. The Italian government looked askance upon the inconvenient action of D’Annunzio and refused to accept the “gift” of this city. The allies were not happy with the strange invasion by a notorious poet and the Italian government promised to settle the domestic contretemps and laid siege to the city, waiting for the public euphoria to die down. D’Annunzio had no intention of actually ruling Fiume but found himself in charge, along with a group of avant-gardists who were also unsuited to the practicalities of running a government. For the poet, being in charge meant being on stage. In A History of Fascism, 1914–1945 Stanley G. Payne explained the lasting importance of D’Annunzio’s presence in Fiume. He was, in a very real sense, the personification of the Italian imaginary of the New Italy, which, from the poet’s point of view, had to be manifested through style rather than substance. Perhaps he was driven by his undying obsession with fashion or perhaps he was seized with a new vision of how a new modernist politics could be conducted. One of the most important new books that greatly influenced the political thinking of fin-de-siècle Europe, In 1896 Gustav le Bon wrote The Crowd. A Study of the Popular Mind, in which he noted the breakdown of history and the vacuum that had been left behind. He began his book by saying, While all our ancient beliefs are tottering and disappearing, while the old pillars of society are giving way one by one, the power of the crowd is the only force that nothing menaces, and of which the prestige is continually on the increase. The age we are about to enter will in truth be the Era of Crowds.” Le Bon wrote with foresight on the subject of the “psychology of crowds:” “The most striking peculiarity presented by a psychological crowd is the following: Whoever be the individuals that compose it, however like or unlike be their mode of life, their occupations, their character, or their intelligence, the fact that they have been transformed into a crowd puts them in possession of a sort of collective mind which makes them feel, think, and act in a manner quite different from that in which each individual of them would feel, think, and act were he in a state of isolation. There are certain ideas and feelings which do not come into being, or do not transform themselves into acts except in the case of individuals forming a crowd. The psychological crowd is a provisional being formed of heterogeneous elements, which for a moment are combined, exactly as the cells which constitute a living body form by their reunion a new being which displays characteristics very different from those possessed by each of the cells singly.”

If Gustav Le Bon can be thought of as the predictor of twenty-first-century politics, not to mention, the theorist of the phenomenon that would sweep both Mussolini and Hitler into power, then D’Annunzio could be termed the stylist of political aesthetics. During a time when the last monarchs had just been deposed, he was aware that politics was a form of theater where the common people were involved. It was now impossible to simply decree or dictate; one had to woo, more importantly, one had to excite, one had to sway, one had to enthrall. The crowd would now call the future into being. Of course, there was no one more suited to wooing than Gabriele D’Annunzio, a bald-headed five foot three libertine who had conquered the actors, Eleanor Druze, Sarah Bernhardt and the lesbian Romaine Brooks, not to mention countless other women, including a wife and three children stashed somewhere. As he did when he was courting, D’Annunzio dressed for the occasion, and the occasion was governing an important and strategic port city. As Stanley G. Payne wrote, “..D’Annunzio succeeded in creating a new style of political liturgy made up of elaborate uniforms, special ceremonies, and chants, with speeches from the balcony of city hall to massed audiences in the form of a dialogue with the leader. In other key contributions to what soon became ‘Fascist style,’ D’Annunzio and his followers adopted the artiti’s black shirts as uniform, employed the Roman salute of raising the right arm, developed the mass rallies, brought out the hymn Giovinezza (Youth), organized their armed militia precisely into units, and developed a series of special chants and symbols..” His fashionable troops, clad in black and silver uniforms, were called “The Centurions of Death,” although the black fez was a softening note.

A 1921 postcard from Fiume featuring D’Annunzio in his Uniform

In order to understand the importance of the proto-fascist fashion statement in modern uniforms, it is important to remember the fate of the military uniform during the Great War. The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire marched off to war in costumes glittering with absurd epaulets on the shoulders, chests festooned with an array of medals and shiny helmets topped with bobbing plumes. The officer corps, the aristocrats, were installed in the Calvery and rode magnificent horses, and, when not riding, the soldiers advertised their status through the billowing thighs of their trousers. The riding pants narrowed at the knees to allow them to be tucked comfortably in tall glossy leather boots. The counter point to the anachronistic uniforms of the European Empires was the dust-colored khakis of the British military. The British army wore small vestiges of a more colorful past: leather belts and tall boots and a swagger stick, but the uniforms were practical and could be worn in the field without attracting the attention of snipers who could hone in on the glint of a Calvery helmet. D’Annunzio gathered together bits and pieces of past and present and future in the uniform he wore in Fiume. There is a practicality to the basic suit with its long belted jacket with deep and large pockets. The belt holds a long white-handled dagger pointing down to the puffy Clavery pants and the tall riding boots. In a photograph taken in Fiume, D’Annunzio appears in his uniform and we can see that the epaulets are flattened and buttoned down and the chest adornments are played down with black tabs on the collar and details of rank on the lapels and uniform sleeves. The deep cuffs carry the party insignia and the strangely informal hat, a Tyrolean cap, the hat worn by the Alpine Corps, was tilted jauntily on his head. The insignia on the front was accented by a feather slated backward, pinned to the side. Of course, for a man of fashion, this modern uniform was a combination of the past, a bit of nostalgia, a nod to tradition, and the practical present. However, its strong details are definitive and striking.

The uniform was an obvious fashion statement, designed to mark the fascists as both political and military forces, stating that ruling would be done with force. The spectators, those who would be controlled, would be impressed by the visuals of the knife and the tall shining boots, hinting of a nearby horse. The crowd had to be evoked and stirred up but the crowd also had to be managed and controlled. As D’Annunzio spoke from his balcony, haranguing the crowd, he trained the masses to be like attentive animals, cocking their heads attentively, waiting for the key words, the familiar phrases, and the rousing chants in order to be stirred as they had been trained to do. As Jonathan Bowden wrote in Counter-Currents Publishing, “..Fiume represented a direct incursion of fantasy into political life because there is a degree to which D’Annunzio combined elements of performance art in his political vocabulary. There’s no doubt that he thought of politics as a form of theater, particularly for the masses, and this is because he was an elitist, because as an elitist he partly despised the masses except as the voluntarist agents of national consciousness. He theatricalized politics in order to give them entertainment without allowing them any particular say in what should be done. This idea of politics as performance art with the masses onstage but as an audience, an audience that responded and yet was not in charge, because there’s nothing democratic about D’Annunzio from his individualistic egotism as an artist all the way through to his sort of quasi-dictatorship of Fiume. He represented a particularly pure synthesis and the violence that was used and so on was largely rhetorical, largely staged, largely a performance, partly a sort of theater piece.”

D’Annunzio in Fiume in 1920

Mussolini would copy this new and strident uniform as soon as D’Annunzio was forced from power, retiring to resume his decadent life of poetry and women. Mussolini would also copy the new title that the poet had given to himself, Il Duce, he would appropriate the artifice of speaking from a balcony, and he would learn from a libertine that politics was entertainment, theater, an exercise in spectacle, an enterprise steeped in aesthetics.

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Remembering Louis Vuitton Trunks

The Traveler, the Logo, and the Wardrobe

We all pack, wrestling with tiny cases, usually with long handles and wheels, stuffing clothes, cosmetics, and computers into a designated number of inches that can fit between the seats of an airplane aisle, jam into an overhead bin, or roll under our narrow seat. Decisions must be made–a change of clothes or something to sleep in, a pair comfortable shoes or rain gear–depending on the climate or circumstances, but more often than not we will leave something behind or realize–too late–the wrong choice was made. Our twenty-first-century angst is largely misplaced. If we forget an item, we can easily go to a store and replace it. In fact, if we were sensible, we could board a plane with a nice tote bag and shop upon arrival, but we are in the habit of traveling with our own possessions and we plan our itineraries around our outfits and it is not for nothing that the first “carry-on” bag was called a “suit case,” or a case for a suit. What we would not give for a Louis Vuitton (1821 – 1892) in our lives, our very own layetier, a professional packer. Photographs show a rather scowling visage but Vuitton had no reason to be so somber. He turned his knowledge of packing a box full of clothing into an international enterprise that would symbolize luxury.

Louis Vuitton (1821-1892)

In today’s do-it-yourself world, the idea of servants is a guilty pleasure played out on Downton Abbey. It is always a surprise to hear of specialized servants who do one thing very well, but Vuitton had learned the fine art of traveling with an appropriate selection of one’s clothes, which meant that packing a container was a specialized craft. One of the remarkable facts about Vuitton, the inevitable beginning in every retelling of the origin story, is his three-year walk from the village of Anchay in the Jura region to Paris. He left his family in the rural region and must have felt so strongly about not being a farmer that he was willing to invest in his faith that something better must be waiting for him in the city. His biographer, Fergus Mason, who wrote, Vuitton: A Biography of Louis Vuitton, that his mother was a hat maker, a milliner, who supplemented the family income by making and selling hats for the surrounding countryside. Mason noted that the village of Anchay is still as off the beaten path now as it was almost two hundred years ago. We can assume that the three years were not years of steady walking but a journey interrupted by brief jobs which gave him food and shelter and enough money to continue down the lanes to his destination. We can imagine that his months and years of being on the road gave him a knowledge of packing efficiently–indeed, Vuitton must have grown from an adolescent to a young man during these years–for any weather and any occasion. How else can one explain how a country boy who may have been a jack of all trades was taken on as an apprentice Layetier-Malletier, according to Sidonie Sawyer, by Monsieur Maréchal in 1837.

As Sawyer pointed out in “Louis Vuitton, the Original Box-Maker,” “In those days, box-making and packing was a highly respectable craft, as the maker and packer had to specially make all the boxes to fit the goods they stored and personally loaded and unloaded the boxes in clients’ carriages. It took Vuitton only a few years to master his craft.” This vocation had probably existed for hundreds of years and in fact, The word “layetier” appears around 1582, from its origin “laie” laot, small chest of the Middle Age where are kept jewels, documents, items of value, and clothes..” In her 2004 book Louis Vuitton: Un saga française, Stéphanie Bonvinci, wrote of the origin of specialized boxes used for traveling. The original box seems to have been small and specialized but undoubtedly there were always large boxes used for transporting personal goods and we can assume that ordinary people did not have either jewels or documents of anything of value, much less an assortment of clothes. From the start, therefore, the ancestor of the nineteenth-century trunk was a luxury item used by the wealthy, the powerful and the important. Centuries later, Monsieur Maréchal undoubtedly had the same clientele–the rich and the important–and it is clear that such containers were made to order, specialized for certain contents and sized according to the capacity of the vehicles used in the conveyance from one site to another. In the 1830s, the number of people in private or public life who needed such services would have been limited and the name of “Louis Vuitton” as an excellent packer could have easily come to the attention of the Emperor Louis Napoléon.

Two silk day dresses (1850)

Emperor Napoléon III had a wife, Empress Eugénie, who was a leader in fashion. By 1852 when Vuitton was appointed Layetier to the Empress, the gowns for the elite women were, for lack of a better word, voluminous, of delicate materials, and could not be crushed or folded. Although Charles Worth had made his mark in 1851 in the Great Exhibition in London and would not open his enterprise in Paris until 1858, the Metropolitan Museum of Art owns two lovely silk day dresses dated 1850 with full skirts and puffed sleeves, delicate collars, and fabric folded like a shawl over the bodice. Later, hoops and crinolines would be added to the outfit to expand the skirt, making the wearer bloom and blossom like a large moving flower. The famous 1855 portrait of the Empress and her court of ladies, Portrait of Empress Eugénie Surrounded by Her Maids of Honor, demonstrated the most fashionable look of the era, courtesy of Charles Worth. One can only imagine the skill of a Louis Vuitton in the fashioning of boxes to enfold without crushing the many outfits of an Empress on the move from estate to estate. In fact in 1854 only a few years after he had become the official packer to the most important woman in France, Vuitton opened his own firm at 4 rue Neuve-des-Capucines as an important Layetier-Malletier. The sign outside his shop read, “Securely packs the most fragile objects. Specialising in packing fashions,” thanks to the recommendation of Charles Worth, who liked how Vuitton packed his garments.

A year earlier an even more exclusive Layetier-Malletier, re-named Goyard, took over Maison Martin, founded in 1792 by Pierre-François Martin. When François Goyard purchased the business it was called Maison Morel. True, Bally was founded even earlier in 1851. According to the story of this long established firm, Martin was box maker to Duchess de Berry. In fact, by the late eighteenth century, box making and trunk making and packing the containers was a well-known profession. If anything, the hats and dresses of that century were even more complicated than those of fifty years later, and this firm also manufactured fabrics that were waterproof, that is, canvas, both oiled and plain. In the nineteenth century, both Goyard and Vuitton would design logos for the fabrics that covered their trunks and in another odd coincidence, Goyard moved his shop at 4 rue Neuve-des-Capucines to 233, rue Saint-Honoré in 1854. According to Bonvinci, a specialty fabric, the“goyardine” canvas” was created in 1872. Twenty years later Edmond Goyard, the successor to his father, took the Y in the name and turned it into a chevron design that was handpainted in a series of dots on the canvas.

The precise history of this family and the business seems to be in the possession of the official account of the firm itself and the dates and details vary. For example, Goyard described the fabric and the logo as if they were invented at the same time: “When Edmond Goyard created the Goyardine canvas in 1892, he was inspired by his family history: the piled up dot pattern clearly hints at logs driven by his ancestors, and, although its appearance is similar to leather, the Goyardine is made with the same natural coated cloth mixing linen and cotton that the Compagnons de Rivières used for their garments. At once hard-wearing, soft and waterproof, the Goyardine proved a true technical revolution at a time when other trunk-makers were using plain linen cloth. Like all family secrets, the exact manufacturing process of the Goyardine remains strictly confidential. Though it was originally hand-painted, the current process requires a ground-color application, followed by three successive layers of etching colors that create its trademark slightly raised pattern.”

The idea of a logo was a fairly new one and undoubtedly helped to brand the elite Goyard goods. In fact, the year of the origin of this distinctive design, 1892, was also the heart of the Gilded Age. In the novel What a Lady Wants: A Novel of Marshall Field and the Gilded Age, Renée Rosen wrote in 2014, “The day after their visit to the House of Worth Delia and Abby visited several boutiques along Saint-Honoré. There they purchased dozens of handkerchiefs from one shop and fans and hair combs from another. The following day she and Abby shopped for their bloomers and corsets before ending up at Louis Vuitton on rue Neuve des Capucines. By the end of the week, after their fittings and alterations at Worth, Delia realized they were never going to get everything home in their luggage. So they went to Goyard’s at the corner of rue Saint-Honore and rue de Castiglione, where they purchased half a dozen steamer trunks. While they were there, Delia made arrangments for Edmond Goyard himself to pack their new wardrobe after Worth finished with their gowns. Four an a half weeks later when they returned to Chicago, Delia found her new dresses handing in her closet looking every bit as perfect as they had when Worth presented them..”

Damier Canvas with registered Trademark for Louis Vuitton

These tiny dots had a story of their own. Like Vuitton, the origins of the Goyard family were rural and humble, and, like Vuitton, the story of this family also involves traveling and transportation. The name “Goyard” is derived from a tool that was used to remove thorns or small branches from stakes or logs. The business of the family was to transport logs cut to firewood size from the countryside to the city of Paris. The log moving business probably dated from the early 17th century when a physician in Paris, a doctor with a scientific mind, Louis Savot, realized that a fireplace–a special place for an indoor fire–could be built with three sides which funneled the smoke upward and allowed the heat to enter the room from the opening. Savot built the first modern fireplace in the Palace of the Louvre itself. It was here in the interior of the fireplace that the logs would be placed and burned. The story of the Vuitton logo begins a few years later. In Luxury China: Market Opportunities and Potential, Michel Chevalier, Pierre Xiao Lu wrote “In 1888, he produced his first classic signature pattern damier, a checkerboard print of light and dark contrasting brown squares. From the damier, came his most identifiable and popular selling canvas Monogram in 1896.” It was Georges Vuitton (1857 – 1936) who created this famous logo described, in another official source, as “in tribute to his father, Georges Vuitton creates a canvas design with alternating LV initials, diamond spikes, stars and four-lobed flowers. The monogram canvas patent is registered in 1905.” It is clear that the two box makers knew each other and the two firms have co-existed peacefully ever since, although the name of Louis Vuitton is far more well known.

What distinguished Louis Vuitton was his reinvention of the trunk itself. As the accounts of wealthy travelers attest, the women (and probably the men) traveled with multiple trunks. For a very long time, these trunks had been designed with circular lids, raised to a slight incline, like a speed bump of today. This dome was convenient when it rained as the water could flow off the top, but the shape was very inconvenient, necessitating placing the various trunks side by side. Interestingly, the meticulously packed trunks resisted efficient packing themselves. The reason for the domed lid was the fact that the wooden boxes were covered in leather which could resist water but could not tolerate it but for a short time. Vuitton traded this porous leather for a sturdy waterproof canvas and a well-made wooden trunk with a flat top that could withstand a waterfall of rain, thanks to waterproof fabric. To make sure that water did not penetrate the boxes, Vuitton covered the wood with gray Trianon, a waterproof canvas, his first attempt at creating a trademark “look” for his now distinctive trunks. But by the mid-1850s, the design had become so renowned that Vuitton took steps to thwart copies with a new canvas that was beige with brown stripes, then he created the Damier Canvas which had an early version of the logo: “marque L. Vuitton deposée.” And now his flat-topped trunks could be stacked, one on top of the other. Given the large size of the trunks used for dresses–the size of small wardrobes–layering the traveling containers in a pyramid saved space.

The Trianon gray trunk is shown below

1870s Louis Vuitton Grey Trianon Canvas Trunk 1

Fergus Mason pointed out that Vuitton was a keen observer of what people who traveled needed and their needs changed in an increasingly industrial world of trains and ships that were comfortable if not luxurious enough to allow the wealthy to travel more frequently and for pleasure. Europeans preferred trunks to the heavy suitcases, toted by the stalwart English. Louis Vuitton and his designs won a bronze medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1867, but he was beaten by a London firm, H. L. Cave. But he also won a gold medal for the high-quality Damier fabric and for his idea of patenting a design. Finally, he won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. In between, France had lost a war with the rising nation-state, Prussia. The city of Paris was invaded and occupied by soldiers who looted when they could, including Vuitton’s workshop, which was destroyed. Vuitton moved from rue neuve des Capucines to the rue Saint-Honoré where one of the Parisian stores is located today. The main workshop has been and is still in Asnières-sur-Seine, on the banks of the river for easy shipping of the products from the suburb to Paris by a Louis Vuitton barge. Asnières is perhaps best known as the site of one of Georges Seurat’s best-known paintings, the Bathers at Asnières (1884). It is interesting to think that if Seurat had shifted his gaze a bit, he might have included the Vuitton workshops. The trunks handmade by craftspersons were almost always custom made for the individual customer and crafted as a result of consultation about the needs of the client. It is to be assumed that one of those interviewed by the trunk maker would be the lady’s maid or the gentlemen’s valet, who after all, did the packing and unpacking. The round hatboxes for women’s hats were supposedly sized for the well of the spare tire of an automobile and could, therefore, be taken on short journeys. For long trips on a train or a “steamer” or an ocean liner, an assemblage of trunks could be gathered together for the voyage. Men and women of a certain class were expected to dress for dinner and the ladies would be decked out in their finest jewelry. For the elegant travel at the turn of the century and well into the 1930s, trunks had to be designed to hold personal toiletries, jewelry, guns, dresses and matching shoes, top hats and boots, because there could be no shopping on trains or ships.

Louis Vuitton Showroom

This assortment of luggage would be kept on baggage cars or in baggage holds in a ship, meaning that the contents of haute couture clothing and bespoke tailoring would tempt thieves. Louis Vuitton was very aware of the need to protect the contents with a lock that could not be broken into. An article on the famous Vuitton lock stated, “The founder was attached to changing all of the less practical aspects of luggage in those days. First came the shape of the trunks, then the issue of security. Louis concentrated on a project: helping the closing system of trunks evolve to make them impenetrable and inimitable. He worked with different types of locks, going from one supplier to the next, always seeking a more ingenious system and the best way to counter the new problems of the era. In 1896, after years of research, he arrived at a breakthrough… In an era where travelers transported all of their personal effects in wardrobes and trunks that would attract envy and, unfortunately, thieves as well, this trunkmaker dared to create the only lock that was supposedly unpickable. This was no accident. The creation of the unpickable lock is due to a subtle balance of tradition and innovation, enlightened dreams and down-to-earth pragmatism. With one lone key for one lone bag, the public still had to be convinced of the truthfulness of Louis Vuitton’s claims. Georges, his son, would take on Harry Houdini: the dare was to get out of a box closed with a Louis Vuitton lock. With an onlooking crowd, Houdini wasn’t able to escape, and the lock’s efficiency was proved. The trunkmaker thus issued a response to the new demands of the day. The cover’s lock was ensured through a three-point system that would secure the trunk. Numbered and stocked, the keys were linked to the individual client who would receive a unique lock number. Today, of course, Louis Vuitton produces more bags than trunks, but the lock is still the brand’s signature. Since 1901, it’s adorned every bag as well.” This account has been challenged by Fergus Mason who said that Houdini never accepted the challenge, and this bit of fact has been cited by other authors as wellImage result for louis vuitton locks houdini

Louis Vuitton Padlock and Key

For a more adventurous traveler, far away from the comforts of a stateroom, there was the bed-trunk for a sleeping on a safari.

history of Louis Vuitton

The bed-in-trunk can be seen in 1888 in the courtyard of the Asnières workshops. The group photograph shows the patriarch, Louis, with next generation, Georges, who would invent the famous LV monogram to prevent copying of the fabric. The child stretched out on the unfolded bed is young Gaston L. Vuitton at the base of a delivery cart. Gaston, the third generation took over the firm in 1936. He also collected the older models of the Vuitton custom-made trunks, starting the foundation of the museum collection housed in Asnières. According to one of the official websites for Louis Vuitton, many explorers of the fin-de-siècle were patrons of the firm. “In 1868 the bed-trunk were ordered by the military officers for campaigns and exploratory trips. And 1905 the bed-trunk used by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza. This French explorer of Italian origin remains linked to Congo. After a first exploratory mission from 1875 to 1878. During his second mission 1880-1882, the diplomat to sign a peace treaty with Makoko Batéké (thought of as the king of Congo in France). For his third mission in 1905, Pierre de Brazza Savorgnan is appointed by the Minister of Colonies to investigate abuses committed against Congolese. Before his departure, he commissioned a series of trunks, of which two were bed-trunks, each adapted to his size.” (corrected translation) A decade or two later, it was Georges who promoted the idea of a luggage rack for the back or top of an automobile, where the luggage could be stacked. The assortment below includes a trunk two suit cases, a hat box and two specialized containers. Cars for the wealthy were long and low and could accommodate such a load of prestigious luggage.

Image result for louis vuitton trunks

The son and heir of Louis Vuitton, Georges, took the company to the twentieth century. A decade or two after the age of exploration, it was Georges who promoted the idea of a luggage rack for the back or top of an automobile, where the luggage could be stacked. And it was Georges who designed the famous LV monogram that became the motif of the signature fabric that covered the trunks. On one of the many company oriented websites, his son explained the design of the logo: “First of all, the initials of the company – LV – are interlaced in such a way as to remain perfectly legible. Then a diamond. To give a specific character to the shape, he made the sides concave with a four-petal flower in the centre. Then the extension of this flower in a positive image. Finally, a circle containing a flower with four rounded petals.”


For the past few years, Louis Vuitton, the business, the brand and its many speciality items of luxury have moved into the realm of art, deemed worthy of museum exhibitions. On one hand, such exhibitions blur the line between art and commerce but on the other hand, the idea of a trunk as a work of art is the entry of a timeless design being respected on the level of art and of craft being considered an accomplishment suited for history. But, as was seen in Moscow in 2013, the manifestation of commerce in the service of art can cross boundaries of good taste and judgment. In November of 2013 Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber wrote of the “Shameful” trunk in Red Square. The offending trunk was an enormous replica of Louis Vuitton luggage on a plinth, an unwelcome object injected into a World Heritage site, its bulk obscuring the iconic buildings of Red Square. According to Tetrault-Farber,

Outrage from all echelons of Russian society began as workers completed the installation on Red Square on Tuesday. By Wednesday afternoon, workers had already begun dismantling the structure, which was set to host a six-week exhibition of Louis Vuitton’s luggage..The move comes after several Communist deputies criticized the Kremlin for allowing the suitcase — which is nine meters tall and 30 meters long — to be set up on Red Square. “This is a sacred place for the Russian state,” said Sergei Obukhov, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, RIA Novosti reported. “There are some symbols that cannot be trivialized or denigrated.”..The installation, which blocks the view of the Spasskaya Tower, the Kremlin walls and Saint Basil’s Cathedral from certain angles, was intended to honor the 120th anniversary of the GUM department store, located across from the Kremlin, with the “Soul of Travel” exhibition..Both the Kremlin and opposition parties, factions that rarely agree on anything, are united by their disgust with the infamous suitcase. But the opposition has nonetheless tried to capitalize on the Kremlin’s apparent mishap, which allowed a French corporation to occupy Red Square with a blown-up version of a luxury item that the average Russian cannot afford.

The Trains section of the exhibition (Photo Grégoire Vieille / Louis Vuitton Malletier)

The Trains section of the Paris Exhibition 2015

Two years later in 2017, the company had better luck in Paris with the “Volez, Voguez, Voyagez” exhibition of the firm’s most iconic designs and custom trunks. In the Palais Galliera, the fashion museum of Paris, six hundred of the company’s twenty-three thousand objects were on view. In writing for Forbes about the “star” of the exhibition, the trunk, Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle, reported on the craft of box making, saying that “their manufacture that reproduces the same gestures as 162 years ago: a bespoke wood structure and the application of cement, canvas, lozine, malletage and metal corners and screws. Just like carpentry, they involve cutting, fitting, splitting, sharpening and assembling, with poplar used for the barrel, beech for the reinforcement strips, camphor wood for the interior to keep pests away and rosewood for its pleasing fragrance. These protective cases were designed with care to perfectly envelop the contours of their precious contents like a glove with the aim of ensuring the safest journeys, perfectly thought out just for the traveler’s items that they were made to hold.” In fact, the Louis Vuitton exhibition was about the work of a father and son team who followed the advances in travel and adapted the necessary containers for the clients, following them on their journeys. As the author noted, “the brand closely accompanied all the new modes of transportation: cruise ships, trains, cars and planes. Steamships went into operation in 1830, the railways in 1848, the automobile in the 1890s and commercial airlines in the 1900s.” It could be asserted that by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Louis Vuitton line achieved its final form. Although today, the trunks might be specialized for chef’s knives rather than the huge ball gowns of a French Empress, the basic design developed by Vuitton set a paradigm and almost two hundred years later remains on of the few objects that have come through time as is–no modifications necessary.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

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Eileen Gray, Architect: The E.1027 House

The E. 1027 House

The Architect as a Woman

The story of this building, innocently named E.1027, reads like a novel–with heroes, villains, vandalism, and victims. The beginning of this saga was ordinary enough, a famous designer decided to design and built a home. The extraordinary element was not the desire to have a home on the Mediterranean coast but the fact that the architect was a woman. Even in the early twentieth century, the term “woman architect” was not just a pejorative term but was also a contradiction in terms. The woman in question–to add insult to injury–was untrained in the field of architecture. To make matters worse, this house, identified by a letter and four numbers, was astonishingly brilliant..for a woman who was not even an architect. The fact that an extraordinary home had been designed by a woman, furnished by this woman with her original furniture designs, and that the structure presumed to rise up on a hill and look down upon the blue sea perhaps sealed its fate.

E. 1027 Restored 2015

From the start, the provenance of this home was muddled. By 1929, Eileen Gray was fifty-one and was a well-established designer. Located on the Mediterranean shore at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, the house has no apparent access from either above or below and it tiered white structure sits alone, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea from a high vantage point, nearly invisible from those looking up from below. E.1027 would be the first of three houses she had designed. The house and the overall modernist design was probably the shared vision of Gray and her lover at that time, Jean Badovici, a Romanian architect. The name of the house marks out the collaboration: E for Eileen and 10 for J the tenth letter of the alphabet, 2 for B the second letter of the alphabet and 7 for G, combining the names of the architects. Even though both designers wanted a house in a modern, rather than the traditional Mediterranean style, the work bears the trademarks of Gray. She built E. 1027 for Badovici. Gray bought and paid for the land and the house, putting everything in his name. She followed his suggestion to erect the home on columns and to give it a flat roof, by now the standard vocabulary of modernist domestic housing. otherwise, it was she who camped out on the site for three years and monitored every aspect of its design and its construction. The original idea was for the two of them to live in the house but as many couples find out, building a house together often leads to a breakup and, in the end, Badovici occupied the home with a new girlfriend, while Gray went on to build her own home. She would feel the pain of the loss of this project for the rest of her life.

E-1027 Villa in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France

But E. 1027, even in its apparently romantic setting, was far more down to earth and much more personal than the typical home inspired by modern design. When the villa was completed in 1929, the pair had produced what amounted to a discourse on architectural design, based, not upon theory per se, but upon how people lived in a home and how the various rooms of the dwelling were used. As Gray explained, “Entering a house should be like the sensation of entering a mouth which will close behind you.” Their joint article in L’Architecture Vivante, which devoted a special issue to explaining this remarkable building. For example, in the article titled “Maison en Bord de Mer,” the architects explained that the doors to each room were placed outside of the sight lines so that each room appeared to be free and alone; inspired by the traditional architecture of the region and by the habits of the traditional women on the coast, the kitchen was separated from the house proper, the entrance experience was ambiguous with an atrium for the entry but upon entering the covered space, the visitor faced a blank wall and was forced to seek the entrance. The couple described the furnishings in detail including the use of a cork sheet on the glass-topped tea table so that the placement of cups and saucers would be silent. One of the more interesting words they used in describing the home was “considerate.”

Here, in E. 1027, a guest or permanent resident could find physical comfort, something that was often lacking in Bauhaus houses, and privacy and psychic peace were prized over open public spaces. One of the architects–it is disputed which one–designed doors and windows that could be opened, closed or adjusted according to the changeable climate on the Mediterranean Seaside. It is in the interior decor that Gray’s presence was most clearly felt. On the floors were her distinctive rugs, color blocked with abstract shapes, scattered in the rooms near her signature furnishings, the now famous Bibendum chairs, and familiar side tables next to beds and sofas. Throughout the home, from room to room, there is comfort and convenience and a meticulous attention to detail everywhere–Gray’s trademarks of mindfulness. Each piece of furniture was approached with an understanding not just of its customary and received function but also of the possibilities for facility and use. She created a small four drawer cabinet so that each drawer could swivel outward at a different angle, an innovation that meant that all drawers could be open and their contents accessed at the same time. A new chair, called the “Transat,” short for transatlantic, designed in 1925, appeared in E. 1027. Gray produced only twelve of these chairs, and nine still exist today: four were built in sycamore wood and the other five are lacquered. An homage to the deck chair on a transatlantic ocean liner, the sling seat was produced with canvas or pony skin or leather. This prototype chaise longue was ideal for relaxing with its low-slung design but also upgraded to elegance–if the occasion called for it–by shifting from humble canvas to more formal animal hide.

Transat Chair

Perhaps because Eileen Gray’s furniture was not designed for mass manufacture but was elevated be extreme handwork or by a design that an unexpected turn, each of her designs was precious and unique. She probably never had a general audience in mind and certainly appealing to the larger public was not her goal. Gray had a tendency of think and create within a narrow intellectual band or certain artistic circles compared to her male modernist colleagues who wanted to reform the world. In many ways, the name of the house, E.1027, was, like her creative furniture, an inside joke of metamorphosis. The Michelin Man became a comfortable chair and the wooden deck chair, a rugged fixture on a ship, became cool and comfortable for life at the beach. As distinctive as her designs were, a work by Gray could be astonishingly flexible. For example, the most famous iteration of the Transat chair was part of a commission of 1931 for the Maharaja of Indore.

Bernard Boutet de Monvel. Portrait of the Maharaja of Indore (1934)

Maharajadhiraj Raj Rajeshwar Sawai Shri Yeshwant Rao II Holkar XIV Bahadur (1908-1961) arrived in Paris to ask prominent artists and designers and architects to design furnishings for his new modern palace in India, named the Garden of Rubies. Educated in England, the Prince went on a shopping spree, ordering from a diverse group, including the famed furniture maker, the traditionalist Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, the modernist Le Corbusier, who was his opposite number and Eileen Gray who forged her own path. This remarkable collection of furnishings designed by the most famous artists of the era disappeared to Asia and was forgotten until the 1970s. The particular Transat chair commissioned by the Maharaja consisted of a black lacquer frame tipped in chrome details and a lounging sling of horizontal sections of brown leather. The top element for the head and shoulders is separate and attached so that it could be adjusted for comfort. This version of the Transat was that of a bedroom chair designed for relaxing or napping, rather than taking the sun on a beach house veranda or watching the ocean on rolling ship’s deck. In 2014, this version of the now famous chair sold for $1.5 million dollars.

The Transat Chair in the bedroom of the Maharaja

E. 1027 had its version of the Transat chair which was also placed in the bedroom, paired with the Bibendum. The original photographs show the chairs, which faced the low double bed, poised on a series of overlapping Gray designed rugs. The importance of looking at E. 1027 in its original state as recorded in black and white photographs is stressed because it can be clearly seen that behind the bed and to the right of the bed are plain white walls.

The Bibendum Chair (left) and the Transat Chair (right)

As is true of modern architects, Gray was comfortable with blank white walls as is seen when the back of the house is viewed. In contrast to the front of the house, which faced the sea, the of the sides and back of the home are plain blank solid walls, broken by a slice of narrow vertical windows.

Back of E. 1027

The front of E. 1027 is designed with an awareness that it was seen by observers from above. E. 1027 rose on tall columns a full story above the ground with only a quarter of the structure—the entry—set on the foundation. Most of the exterior is broken up by a series of balconies and verandas, protected by canvas curtains, and all is open to the Sea. And again, even in the front, large segments of solid unbroken white surface sit comfortably. The exterior stair cases and the cantilevered elements speak for themselves, important contrasts to the stretches of white walls. But the spare design and open walls would be defaced, because once Gray moved out in the early 1930s, the house fell into the wrong hands. These harmful hands were those of Le Corbusier, who, for some reason, apparently became obsessed with a home he could not possess. His actions are hard to fathom. Le Corbusier and Gray knew each other and admired each other’s work, but something went very wrong. Unfortunately, in 1938 and in 1939, Badovici invited Le Corbusier to stay in this home. The architect was rumored to be jealous of Gray’s architectural achievement. Her design philosophy was directly opposed to his and to that of the other modern architects. “The poverty of modern architecture stems from the atrophy of sensuality,” Gray said in an interview in 1929 for L’Architecture Vivante. She stated that she was opposed to what she called “this intellectual coldness.” In addition, Gray remarked that “the machine aesthetic is not everything..” adding that “their intense intellectualism wants to suppress that which is marvelous in life.”

E. 1027 Balcony

Nevertheless, Le Corbusier did not seem to take Gray’s assessment personally and when he first visited E. 1027 in 1937, he wrote to her saying, “I am so happy to tell you how much those few days spent in your house have made me appreciate the rare spirit which dictates all the organisation inside and outside. A rare spirit which has given the modern furniture and installations such a dignified, charming, and witty shape.” But in his next visit in 1938, as if to attack her work, Le Corbusier proceeded to paint a series of murals over every blank interior space he could find. Even in his best days, when he was still Charles Jeanneret, the architect was a mediocre painter and, in the 1930s, his style of painting was a truly uninspired pastiche of Picasso crossed with Surrealism in a mashup of garish colors. He settled into E. 1927 for a long and destructive visit and executed eight badly painted murals on every blank wall he could find on the inside of the home. In a 2014 article, Alastair Gordon wrote, “Between 1934 to 1956, Badovici had the house to himself and frequently invited Le Corbusier and his wife to visit. This is when the imposition, the so-called “rape” of the house began. There’s a group of grainy photographs, recently uncovered, that shows Le Corbusier lounging around the house in his underwear, or naked, or in pajamas. The snapshots must have been taken some time before World War II and there’s something vaguely pornographic and onanistic about the way he’s lying on the divan in the living room, touching himself, drawing something on a table while his foot is propped on a stool, or posing in front of one of the murals, further indicting himself.”

Corbusier in E.1027

Certainly, it is true that Badovici, who owned the house, gave permission to the architect to paint the murals and presumably valued the results because, rather than painting the out, he preserved them during his lifetime. Gray was furious. How is one to judge such an act? The fate of many carefully designed buildings, created by famous architects, has ranged from unsympathetic remodelings to outright destruction, but there is something particularly unpleasant about the actions of Le Corbusier. First, the question could be asked—was what Le Corbusier did a deliberately sexist act? And this question can be answered with another question: is there another case in which one male architect painted over the work of another male architect? And, second these questions might solve a problem long puzzling historians, where did Badovici’s contributions end and Gray’s vision begin? Would Badovici have allowed Le Corbusier to vandalize his own work? One can suggest that, given the extent of the vandalism, which was all over the house, Badovici was not the principle author of E. 1027. To his credit, he did admonish Le Corbusier but did nothing to stop him or to remedy the situation.

Le Corbusier Mural at E.1027

The issue of sexism has been pursued even further because the murals by Le Corbusier were salacious, that is sexual in nature, and because he painted them in the nude. But the indignities that the house was to endure were only beginning. Two years later, the Germans occupied France and their allies, the Italians, moved into the home and enjoyed rowdy drinking on the verandas. Then the Nazis moved into E. 1027 and used Le Corbusier’s murals for target practice. After the War, Le Corbusier continued to stalk the house, writing Eileen Gray out of history by spreading the false information that it was Badovici who was the true builder. He insisted on living near E. 1027 and even built his own small structure nearby. When Badovici died in 1956, Eileen Gray loyally buried him, but when the Union des Artistes Moderne honored him, the organization excluded her from the credit for E. 1927.

Meanwhile Le Corbusier arranged for the home to be sold to a woman described as “wealthy” “Swiss” and a “woman.” The house had been empty for four years and Le Corbusier instructed her to keep the house as it was, murals and all. Unhappy with the rundown condition of the home, she turned it over a drug addicted doctor, who sold off Gray’s valuable furniture. Gray herself was forbidden to enter her own former home and her own work of art. Le Corbusier watched over the house he never owned and in 1965, fate caught up with him. Now in old age, he was an overweight alcoholic, ill-suited to athletic pastimes. While swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in front of the white house high on the hill, he had a heart attack, dragged himself to the shore and died. In 1956, the drug addicted doctor, who gave wild parties, was murdered by vagrants on the premises. As would happen when in the hands of an addict, the house was in a state of disrepair and was abandoned after his death. For years, off and on, squatters were the main residents of E. 1927. Finally, in 1975, because of the murals by Le Corbusier, the house was considered worthy of preservation by the French government. A year later in 1976, Eileen Gray died. She did not live to see the beautiful restoration of her masterpiece, murals and all in 2015, nor did she live to see the name “Eileen Gray” resurrected and respected.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

Eileen Gray, Designer of Art Deco, Part Two

Eileen Gray (1878-1956)

Art Deco Furniture Design, Part Two

The story of Eileen Gray, who vanished from history, leaving behind some of the most famous and iconic designs of the early twentieth century, is a strange one. She possessed many names, Kathleen Eileen Moray Gray, but used only two. Marked by fame, followed by erasure, this Irish designer shifted from Ireland, her home country, to England, to Paris, back to London during the Great War, and finally back to her expatriate life in Paris. Unlike the British Isles, Paris was the best city for an ambitious designer and one of the few cities open-minded enough to support a business run by a woman. Although Gray worked with several men, she was not overshadowed by them nor, on the other hand, was she connected to a fellow artist. Therefore, unlike Sonia Delaunay, for example, there was no masculine fame to connect her to art history and gradually, she slipped from view, barely living long enough to be rediscovered. And yet, in her own time, Gray, like Delaunay, was a success, running her own business and designing for the wealthy and famous. The peak of her career was the decade before the Great War and the decade after the War, the period when she transitioned back and forth between design and architecture. By the 1930s, Gray was beginning her withdrawal from a world where she once led in innovation. Her furniture was left behind, part of elegant homes of the famous, and it was the fame of the clients that assured the survival of the art of Eileen Gray.

One of her early clients was Madame Mathieu Lévy, who designed the “Suzanne Talbot” line of couture dresses, hats, and other accessories. Today Lévy’s name is rarely uttered, and her work is displayed under “Suzanne Talbot,” a brand connected more to hat designs in the 1920s, she was one of the best-known couturiers of her time. Like Eileen Gray, the fashion designer was very interested in non-European cultures and her objects and clothing were difficult to “place” in fashion history. Madame Mathieu Lévy’s work was not obviously Art Deco in that it was not connected to late Cubism, but, in common with some aspects of Art Deco, her response to the culture of the twenties was one of global eclecticism. Ironically, like Gray, history has left Lévy stranded, and today she is one of the lesser known designers. But, in her own time, Lévy was among the numerous famous female designers of the years before the Second World War. She commissioned Gray, who also did not quite fit into a precise slot, to furnish her apartment on rue de Lotta. Because Gray designed labor intensive lacquer pieces for the apartment, this project took several years, with various sources citing periods from 1917 to 1921 or from 1919 to 1922. The time period of the commission was an unexpectedly fraught one, for a disruptive war would change the world of design from one of handcraft and art to one of industrial design, making it a challenge for Gray to fulfill the client’s brief: to make the apartment as up to date, as modern, as cutting edge as possible.

Dragons Chair (1919)

Today the most famous of her early hand-made works for Lévy is the Dragons Chair (Fauteuil aux Dragons) that dates from 1917 or 1919. The Dragons (or Dragon) chair took two years to craft. This small chair was only twenty-four inches tall and, when the brown leather chair came up for auction, Christie’s described it as “small.” Once owned by Yves St.-Laurent and sold from his estate for $28 million, the arms of the Dragons armchair are a pair of carved and spotted wooden snakes which wind around and become the feet of the chair. Christie’s described the complicated and unique chair: “In the form of unfurling petals, upholstered in brown leather, the frame in sculpted wood, lacquered brownish orange and silver and modelled as the serpentine, intertwined bodies of two dragons, their eyes in black lacquer on a white ground, their bodies decorated in low relief with stylised clouds.” The Dragons Chair had an equally unexpected companion: a dug-out canoe, its exterior lacquered in brown and its interior covered in silver leaf, repurposed into a day bed standing on twelve pointy feet. This Pirogue sofa bed, created after the Great War was made of brown lacquer with a tortoise shell overlay. The animal-like bed made sense of the arms of the Dragons Chair which were also brown lacquer, animalistic in that the arms wound themselves up and down the sides of the chair, becoming its legs. These very special pieces of furniture were homage to the client’s interest in Tribal Art in Africa, and frequently the so-called Dragons Chair is called the Serpents Chair. But during and immediately afer the War, the art scene shifted decisively. Gray had returned to England in 1915 to serve her nation and she had come into contact with the waning movement of Vorticism. Dedicated to machines and asserting the primacy of the British claim to the Industrial Revolution, Vorticism was a preview of the post-war machine aesthetic.


Rue de Lotta Apartment

The dedication to handwork and the insistence of Eileen Gray that household furnishings could be works of art changed after the Great War. Once the fighting stopped and the Treaty of Versailles was finally concluded, the international arts community regained contact with one another and the ideas of the new Russian Avant-garde and the Dutch De Stijl, not to mention the new German movement of the Bauhaus, began to circulate. Although Eileen Gray altered her aesthetic completely, the change was gradual. In 1922, she opened her own shop to show her own unique products. The elegant store, named Jean Désert was optimally located in the fashionable street, Rue )Fauborg Saint Honoré. At the 14th Salon des Artistes Décorateurs in 1923, Gray unveiled an entire room, a boudoir, with walls, ceiling, and sets of folding screens covered in white lacquer. The canoe daybed reappeared, complete with a fur throw for a texture contrast, placed near a long low table bearing ornaments and, on the other side of the room, a low carved wooden stool, called a “console,” with a concave seat that played off, curve for curve, with the swooping day bed. All three pieces of furniture appear to be floating on a white floor as if Gray had created a dream taking place in a cloud. By the mid-twenties, we see a fully mature artist not only changing her style but also hitting her creative stride.

Interior of Gray’s Rue de Bonaparte apartment

At this point, Gray was still making her lacquer designs but she was also transitioning to the new technology of bent stainless steel. In the photograph of the Lévy apartment, the new modern post-war chair was on right side the fireplace, opposite the Dragons Chair and the size difference is apparent. Making furniture by hand with laborious craft techniques is easier on a small scale while putting together a manufactured elements meant that the chair could be significantly bigger. In 2014 Richard Storer-Adam explained the origins of one of Gray’s early industrial pieces of furniture, the Bibendum Chair. He wrote, “The Chair’s back and armrests consists of two semi-circular, padded tubes encased in soft, black leather. The name that Gray chose for the chair, Bibendum, originates from the character created by Michelin to sell tires. The Michelin Man is called “Bibendum”, a word taken from the slogan “Nunc est bibendum” meaning “Now is the time to drink”. In this particular case, to “drink”, or absorb, bumps and obstacles found on the road. He was originally shown depicting bicycle tires, so he looked quite mummy-like.”

Marius Rosillion. The original Michelin Man (1898)

The author continued, “The frame of the Bibendum Chair, including the legs, are made of a polished, chromium plated, stainless steel tube. Stainless tube was a new highly innovative material. The first stainless steel was created in 1913 by Harry Brearley who created a steel with 12.8% chromium and 0.24% carbon.” The fact that Gray had created a chair designed from bent steel tubing in 1926 puts her chair squarely into the time period when Marcel Breuer and Mies van der Rohr were designing their tubular steel chairs, between 1926 and 1927. The Bibendum Chair is dated 1926, and yet Gray’s design is usually left out of the histories of modern chairs. Perhaps the two plump enveloping rings, stacked half-circles framing the round equally comfortably padded seat, was simply too comfortable. Chairs by Mies and Breuer were stunning to look at, but, like the famous Red and Blue chair of Gerrit Rietveld, were hard to sit in. The platform of the chair, which does not have the traditional legs, is another version of the E.1027 side table: two verticles resting on a half circle.

The E. 1027 house, which will be discussed in the next post, was an important site for Gray’s post-war chrome, glass and lacquer furniture that is multi-purpose and adjustable in ways that was unique in modern furnishings. The beautiful and spare Rivoli tea table of 1928 is a case in point. While Gray’s chairs are perhaps better known, this tea table allows us to view Gray’s work in its own right, without reverting to the inevitable and diminishing comparisons to Mies or Rietveld. The tea table, designed for her own home, was imagined from the point of view of functionality as the starting point for the components. The components or the elements of the table were then stripped down the bare minimum necessities, free of decoration and of opulence or of craft. Imagine the table as a drawing, a blueprint, with the ruled lines being transformed into a chrome structure that could slide to open wider or slide to become more compact. These are the verticals and horizontals but, in a move, now familiar in Gray designs, she imposed contrasting circles, in this case. two round serving trays mounted on rotating arms at two levels, so that those standing and those sitting could reach over and retrieve a tea sandwich or a petit-four. The Eileen Gray website that sells her furniture today described the tea cart in its alternative function, as a “Small dressing table. Polished chromium plated tubular steel frame. Cabinet fitted with two pivoting drawers and one hinged door. Top and cabinet in high gloss lacquer in various colours..Eileen Gray decided to have a special table to serve her guests tea in her new house E1027. She wanted to do this ‘elegantly while standing; serving tea sifting at a low table is rather awkward’; while at the same time displaying the cakes, tartes or fruits in an ‘interesting way.'” When folded in half, the lacquer panels of the table drop down and form what is now called a “waterfall” effect with the top lacquer panel. Few modern designers thought in terms of function in the sense of actual functionality. In other words, since, Louis Sullivan said, “Form ever follows function,” form has always come first, with function, as its supposed impetus, following along behind. Gray reversed the formula and based her form upon her own experience as a user–this is the kind of table she needed. The tea table could serve in a bedroom as a dressing table, in a bathroom as a toiletries table or in a living room to serve tea. It could be as accommodating or as compact as the room or the occasion demanded. The main surface was obviously for the tea service and the adjacent narrower surface was for the food. The host could preside over the table or s/he could let guests help themselves. Louis Sullivan’s assistant, Frank Lloyd Wright, in contrast, would fix furniture to the floor so the owners could not disturb his placement. Gray invited the client to invent uses for her designs, which are statements of functional modernity.

Rivoli Tea Table (1928)

As was noted, the laborious hand-made art objects that were one of a kind gave way over time to the machine moderne of the 1920s, but her penchant for repeating shapes continued for the furniture she designed for mass production. But as shall be noted, Gray did not share the adherence to architectural theory or modernist philosophy that drove her male colleagues. She used standard geometric shapes that were universal, like the radical architects, but her thought processes were quite different. It is possible to conjecture that Gray’s decade-long experience in working with individual clients and responding to their needs gave her a very different understanding of the role of modern design in a machine age. Her new post-war products were sold out of her own store, Jean Désert, named after an invisible male who supposedly was the owner and desert because Gray admired North African landscapes. However, in her old age, Gray gave Zeev Aram, of the Aram Store in London to reproduce her furniture. The authorized editions of the table are always manufactured in chromium plated steel tube and always have a signature stamp and an identification number. Both the chair and the table can be seen in the newly restored E. 1027 home, completed in 1929 and, after decades of vandalism, was brought back to its original condition in 2015. The next post will discuss this re-discovered architectural masterpiece.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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Eileen Gray, Designer of Art Deco

Eileen Gray (1878-1956)

Art Deco Furniture Design

If Cassandre gave the Jazz Age its distinctive graphic style, then it was a woman, an architect and a designer who gave the decade its most memorable piece of furniture, still in production today. The E. 1027 side table, designed in 1927, is one of the few objects from Art Deco that is ageless and timeless and transcends its period and is still sold as “modern” furniture. The chrome frame does an efficient double duty–the lower level, an almost-closed circle, and the upper circle, elevated by a verticle slide that allows the height to be adjusted, is filled in with glass. The design is simple geometry–two circles and two straight lines–elegance in and of itself. The ingenuity of the operation, cleverly concealed and modestly articulated along the verticles, allows the table to be raised or lowered according to the height of the accompanying piece of furniture. This bent tubular steel table dates from 1925, coinciding with similar work by Mies van der Rohr and Marcel Breuer. Like Gray’s Bibendum chair, the table is made of circles, one at the top, a circle of bent steel topped with glass and at the bottom there is a broken circle as the base of an adjustable table that could be slide under a bed or pushed near a chair. The two circles are held together by an elegant long thin rectangle. The height could be adjusted with an elegant chain attached to a pin which can be slotted into the desired hole so that one could use it as a side table or as an over the bed table for having breakfast or an afternoon tea. The famous side table is one of those rare products that has never been altered. Indeed, in her own right, Eileen Gray was a rare individual in those days—a woman who became successful in fields that were owned by males: art, design, and architecture. The entrance of a woman into the field of architecture during the early decades of the twentieth century would be considered an effrontery to her male peers, but perhaps because she was an outsider, Eileen Gray simply walked into the discipline without any formal training and designed one of the most famous houses of the twentieth century, the E1027, after which her famous table is named.

E. 1027 Adjustable Side Table

Eileen Gray lived in multiple worlds, shifting with ease between the domain of the arts and the terrain of the wealthy, the class to which she was born. During the Jazz Age, Paris was one of the cultural centers where lesbians were allowed to live openly and productively, contributing to society with literature and art. As a member of the group of creative women, Gray was wealthy enough to accessorize her Garçonne look with elegant coats designed by Paul Poiret and stylish hats by Jeanne Lanvin that covered her short bob. The fashionable designer roared around Paris in a fancy car, accompanied by one of her lovers, the singer, Marie-Louise Damin, known as “Damien.” Damien owned a pet panther, who rode in the back of the car.

One of the modern artists of lacquer, the Irish artist learned of lacquer while she was a student at the Slade School in London. In 1900, according to her biographers, Jennifer Goff, Gray found a display of lacquer first at the Victoria and Albert Museum and later at the shops in SoHo, where she found a restoration shop on Dean Street. The owner Dean Charles took her on as a pupil. Two years later in 1905 Gray, resumed her education with the restorer. Discussing the 1688 book, A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing, Goff wrote that “Gray would eventually import all of her pigments from China. The colors which were popular in the manual included ivory black, lampblack, verdigris, umber, indigo or yellow ochre. The manual advocated the use of only the best varnish which also could be used for varnishing light colors such as white, yellow, green, sky red, silver or gilded. A black ground was advocated, through grounds could also be, though rarely, white, which in the seventeenth century imitated porcelain.” This last sentence was interesting in its reference to the color white and the rarity of its use as a ground color, for some of Gray’s most famous work of the 1920s would be in white. From London, Gray traveled to Paris to continue her training in the difficult and labor-intensive craft of lacquer working.

Using her early work as an introduction, Gray apprenticed herself to the Japanese lacquer artist, Seizo Sugawara, a man as young as she was. Thanks to this specialized training, she was part of a modern revival of this ancient art form. For years, partnering with Sugawara, Gray perfected the demanding methods of producing perfect lacquer pieces. As Goff pointed out, as early as the turn of the century, France had been involved in an arts contest with Germany, which was especially strong in crafts and design. Thanks to the government’s interest in competing with an old foe, designers felt emboldened to form a Société Nationale des Artistes Décorateurs to promote themselves and their art. In this pre-war period, the Sociéte was a precursor of the Bauhaus in its concern with industrial design. After the Great War, France resumed the competition with other nations in the world of modern design and it was in the year of the famous exhibition, the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 that Gray joined the Société. The moment of modern Art Deco design had arrived, and, although the design achievements of this period discussed in traditional art history texts tend to be limited, the twenties was a golden age of design innovation. In a nation that used lacquer only for conservation purposes, this resurgence of an ancient craft attracted the attention of well-heeled clients and Gray herself became an established designer who specialized in the painstaking craft of lacquer which she transformed into a stunning art form. As the Phillips auction house noted, “Gray was devoted to Asian lacquer, which she first encountered in 1900 as an art student at London’s Slade while wandering the halls of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. From 1908 she worked in the medium with mentor Sugawara, originally a maker of Buddhist lacquer shrines. Whereas her modernist peers advocated a rejection of timeworn methods, Gray embraced those traditions, lacquer paramount among them: it grounded her high-flying experiments in form.”

In the years just before the Great War, Gray, now well known for her unusual art, acquired the French designer and art collector, Jacques Doucet, as one of her new clients. Doucet was at a turning point in his life and he suddenly decided, in 1912, to sell off the 18th-century contents of his 18th-century apartment and to become avant-garde. The story of the Doucet about-face is one of the legends of stylistic change. In 2014 Louis Bofferding wrote for Architectural Digest that “Eighteenth-century French antiques defined the taste of the Belle Epoque, and Doucet joined the throng. He commissioned society architect Louis Parent to build an 18th century-style mansion, completed in 1907, on rue Spontini in the 16th arrondissement. With the aid of Georges Hoentschel, the influential decorator-dealer, Doucet then conjured interiors replete with exquisite treasures.” In fact, Doucet had been collecting eighteenth-century furnishings for decades and this home was expressly built to display his treasures. And then something remarkable happened. A mere five years later, Doucet suddenly put his entire collection on the auction block, and, in a four-day extravaganza, the buying frenzy made him the equivalent of seventy-five million of today’s dollars. The auction was apparently an act of mourning on the part of the famous dress designer, grieving over the death of a woman he planned to marry. However, Doucet recovered and purchased a new home on the avenue Foch. Turning his back on the past, he hired the most trendy designers from Paul Iribe to Eileen Gray to design the furnishings. Apparently inspired by this new start in modern Jazz Age surroundings, Doucet married a younger–much younger–woman.

But it was his librarian future Surrealist André Breton who persuaded him to purchase Picasso’s painting, Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907). This painting had spent most of its life rolled up under the bed of the artist and had been shown publically only once, in a 1916 exhibition during the Great War. In 1924, Doucet purchased the now famous painting, which was eventually installed at his wife’s home. In 2004, Les Demoiselles, now at the Museum of Modern Art, was cleaned. According to The New Yorker,

John Elderfield thinks that Doucet’s restorer may have varnished “Demoiselles,” whose installation, on a landing at the top of a grand staircase in Doucet’s apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine, left it somewhat vulnerable to bibulous dinner guests. There is no doubt that it was varnished, or revarnished, in 1950, by a conservator at moma, which had acquired the painting in 1939. “I do think it was done with preservation in mind.” James Coddington, the Museum’s chief conservator, said tactfully, “but in fact that doesn’t necessarily preserve it. This is a classic, robust, straightforward oil painting. Picasso used really high-quality paint, and he was very good in his craft. To remove a varnish does expose the picture to potential hazards.”

Much more compelling and modern, however, was his commission of an unusual work by Marcel Duchamp in 1924. The Rotative Demisphère, is one of his machines, a revolving disc inscribed with a spiral, which, once set in motion, gives an art viewer something to look at. “Olfactory art,” as Duchamp termed traditional art, was merely attractive, an act of good taste that nourished the senses and not the mind. Therefore, Duchamp argued one might as well look at a spinning line for all the intellectual nourishment “art” gives.

Sadly, Doucet had little time to enjoy his acquisitions. Just a few months after the apartment was completed, Doucet died in 1929. It has been said that his wife tired of the relentless gazes of the implacable five nudes, Les Demoiselles, glowering from the top of the stairs and sold the painting to the Museum in 1939.

Les Demoiselles d”Avignon (1907) at the top of the stairs

at 33 rue Saint-James, Neuilly-sur-Seine

An Irishwoman in Paris, Gray was a successful businesswoman, creating products for an aristocratic clientele and group of collectors. Part of running a business meant advertising her wares, which, in that period, would be done discretely in sites such as the 1913 Salon des Artistes Décorateurs, where Jacques Doucet saw her screens. During this period, Gray went beyond mere pattern or decoration and created narratives with mythological and mystical themes played across her screens. Competing in the heady company of Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Amedeo Modigliani, and Picasso, Eileen Gray contributed several pieces for the new décor for Doucet’s new decorative project, including a remarkable example of what was, at that time, her signature work, a red four panel lacquered screen, Le Destin. Doucet also commissioned several of her most famous earlier works for his new home. The Table modèle bilboquet is usually dated between 1915 and 1917. This premodern work is an early version of the E.1027 table in that it also is composed of two circles, one at the top and one at the bottom, both supported by four squared off legs, made of an ensemble of multiple wooden squares. The bilboquet in question is a simple game for children. The skill involved consists of a ball attached to the stick with a cord. The handle has a cup at the top and the ball is released from its perch, still on its leash, and is caught by the cup. The game is illustrated on the edge of the black lacquered top in red and silver, at the client’s request.


When Doucet came to Gray’s studio, she was working on a symbolic theme, Le Destin, which the collector understood to be a work of art and demanded that she sign the screen as a painter would sign a painting. Gray and Doucet came together at the height of the pre-war surge in design in which artists were stretching beyond Art Nouveau and searching for new modes of expression. Many examples of Gray’s work that were displayed at the Doucet homes were from the pre-war period or were made during the War itself. Le Destin, completed in 1914, the brilliant red folding screen, sold to Doucet, showed two silver and blue men, drawn in the style of a Greek vase on the front, while the back was a swirl of sharp cut curves, with some arcs filled in with slices of black and silver.

Gray, who was widely read, found inspiration as much from literature as from works of art. While this pre-war period of her early work can be described as the end-point of Art Nouveau because each piece of furniture was a unique exquisite work of art, the beautiful Lotus Table, also made for Doucet, was obviously inspired by Egyptian sources. Moreover, this unique green lacquered table with its golden lotus legs was distinguished by four hanging black cords ending in green tassels, topped by red beads, was designed over a decade before the discovery of the tomb of King Tut in 1925. The red lacquer Charioteer Table, which dates to the same year as the red screen, stood in the entrance foyer of the Doucet home at the bottom of the stairs. A floor above, Les Demoiselles loomed.


During the pre-war period, Gray custom-made, with her own hands, each and every piece of furniture for wealthy clients, giving herself unsparingly to perfection, no matter how long it took. This artist-crafted quality meant that each piece of her furniture is a work of art that was exclusive, non-replicable and non-repeatable, adding to the exquisiteness of her products. Sadly, few of these remarkable works of art are extant. During World War II, much of what she had made was warehoused in Toulon but the site was bombed and the art was destroyed. The Doucet collection is not only all the more precious because of this loss but also because the Great War interrupted the artwork of Eileen Gray. Gray returned to England in 1915, taking Sugawara with her, and even drove an ambulance as her contribution to the war effort. In London Gray would be exposed to a new form of Cubism or its antithesis, Vorticism. The further discussion of her artistic development will be discussed in the next post.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Art Deco Posters of Cassandre, Part Two

Cassandre and Travel Posters

By Land and By Sea

The history of the luxurious trains that once traveled over the European continent is difficult to find. One can only imagine that the history of the “sleepers” or wagon-lits was a short one. Such elegant trains, capable of taking long journeys, days and nights, fed the passengers by day and laid out their beds at night. These opulent trips were for the wealthy and for those with ample amounts of leisure time and these trains usually traveled between a glamorous destination to an exotic place of equal fame. But those days, which began after the Great War, ended with the beginning of the Second World War–barely two decades during which legends were born. The famous Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, told the story of British passengers on a trek to the “mysterious east,” between the wars. These aristocrats were disturbed by a murder in the night. The famous detective Hercule Poiret, a passenger, of course, solves the mystery but ends his revelations with frustration–all the passengers were guilty and he was unable to bring them to justice. This book has been made into a number of films, one in 2017, and the viewer will notice that Anthony Lambert was correct to remark in his book on travel that, after the Great War, the luxury trains were revived with considerable “less ostentatious.” Before the War, he wrote, “..the train for the Trans-Siberian International Express was the sensationof the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900. Each carriage for just eight people was in a different style–Louis XVI, Greek, French Empire, Chinese–and each had a music room with a full-sized piano, a library with books in four languages, a hairdressing salon finished in white sycamore, a gym with weights, exercise bicycle and rowing machine, a chapel car and a fully equipped darkroom. By 1914 CIWL had 32 luxury trains in service, but most ceased operation during the First World War, to be revived afterwards in usually less ostentatious form.”

While Poiret and his train of murderers sped towards the “Orient” in comfort if not splendor, this journey–aside from the murder–was still quite an elegant and expensive affair. Today, such travel no longer exists, we no longer take the time to indulge in travel; we travel to reach a proscribed destination and prefer to skip everything in between. In his book, Night Trains: The Rise and Fall of the Sleeper, Andrew Martin looked back on that fleeting time, now replaced by cheap short airplane flights, with nostalgia. He wrote of an equally famous train. There was a reason, he noted, why the “Orient Express” went by an English name. “..if Britain has stood apart from the network of European sleepers its upper classes were once its main customers. This was because Britain was the richest nation. In the late nineteenth century, most of the passengers on the premier train de luxe referred to ‘the Orient Express’ rather than the ‘Express d’Orient’ and in 1891 the Anglicised version became the official name.” Martin continued, discussing the transplant of the American Pullman service to the Continent. “In 1903, Georges Nagelmacker’s son, René, married the daughter of a British businessman called Davison Dalziel..Dalziel then joined the W-L (wagons-lits) board. Three years later, Dalziel purchased the British subsidiary of the American Pullman company. In 1925 he became chairman of Wagons-Lits and granted it the right to use the Pullman name..” In Lambert’s Railway Miscellany, Anthony Lambert described the blandishments of the Orient Express to its fin-de-siècle customers.

Its most famous train was the Orient Express, which first ran between the Gard de Strasbourg (now the Gard de l’Est) in Paris and Constantinople on 4 October 1883, cutting the journey time betweeen them by 30 hours. The carriages were paneled in teak, walnut, and mahogany and decorated with Gobelins tapestries. Passengers sat on leather seats, slept in silk sheets, drank out of crystal and were served by waiters in powdered wigs, tail coats, breeches, and silk stockings. The wigs were abandoned when a passenger complained of powder in his soup. The train became associated with diplomats, couriers with diplomatic bags, spies, crooks, and courtesans. The ambiance of the famed continental express like the Orient Express was thought so redolent of illicit sex that a celebrated brothel near Parc Monceau in Paris re-created the decor and sounds of a Wagons-Lits sleeping-car.

These night trains were called “blue trains” after the famous night train from Paris to Nice. Andrew Martin wrote of this famous journey in The Guardian and in February of 217 said, In the past 18 months, I have been exploring the remnants of what might be called the first, and most picturesque, form of European integration. I refer to the network of luxurious sleeper trains run from the 1880s to the 1970s by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. The best known of these was the Orient Express. On this, and any Wagons-Lits train, sleeping-car conductors had to speak at least three languages, and all notices were written in French, German, Italian and English. Chicest of all was the Blue Train. It ran from the Gare de Lyon to Ventimiglia or Sanremo in Italy, but Nice was the principal destination.” As he pointed out in his book, the wagons-lits were Pullmans but not sleepers..They never graduated to complete dark blueness, but were–with some exceptions–painted blue below the waist and cream above. These cars were used on such day trains as L’Oiseau Bleu..the Flèche d’Or..the Sunshine Pullman Express or the Étoile du Nord..” that traveled between Paris and Amsterdam from 1927. As exciting as the evocative names of these trains were the posters by Cassandre. These iconic posters, the Pullman series, were the visual symbols of luxury travel summoning up the mysteries of going to sleep on a swaying train only to awaken at a new destination.

Steven Ricci wrote in Cinema and Fascism: Italian Film and Society, 1922–1943 that in the 1929 Italian silent film, Rails (Rotaie), the leading characters, a young man and a young woman gaze longingly at a Cassandre poster but they are too poor to escape their impoverished condition. Then, in a narrative twist, they find money and use this bit of luck to board a train, without knowing its destination, and ride to a better life. Of course, it is worth it to use the found money to purchase tickets for “a first-class sleeping compartment.” Even today, there is something magical about the term “night train,” which in France were blue. The famous series of travel posters of the 1920s marked the shift of Cassandre away from ambers to the blues, a color that, when related to these new trains, spelled excitement and speed. Therefore these colors, black and blue and stripes of fast white, became the building blocks for his posters for transportation—trains, ships, and airplanes—in an age of luxury travel for the demanding rich. These famous posters, such as that for the French ocean liner Normandie, brought him lasting recognition, but Cassandre started with a series of posters for trains almost a decade earlier. In his 1927 poster Étoile de Nord, an advertisement not just for the fast train to Amsterdam or Brussels but also for the luxury of the Pullman car—an American invention—where one can retire and sleep after enjoying an elegant lunch or dinner. Through the plunging diagonal lines, the eye is led to speed quickly above the necessary informative words to the silver tracks racing across a black rail bed towards a blue destination, marked by a white star.

Image result for Etoile du Nord history+french travel poster

Cassandre makes us believe that it is as though one has leaped forward, transported by the sheer force of the relentless rails. The Nord Express poster of 1925, like the poster for furniture, was based upon futurist lines of force with the strong diagonals of an imposing speeding black train heading towards a vanishing point were guided by the wires overhead. The dark train to Berlin and to destinations beyond is black and sleek, with darts of white intensifying opaque engine reduced to streaks of speed. For Cassandre, black would become the color of the unnatural and the mechanized, punctuated against his signs for nature itself, the sky or the sea which are blue. The viewer was instantly placed in the path of the ship or on standing on the platform as the train rushed by. Those who viewed these posters were put on the outside, positioned in a deliberate position of wanting to travel, longing to fly away.

In writing of this poster Beverley Cole and Richard Durack noted, that until this time, the locomotive had not been considered an aesthetic object. Even the Futurists failed to see its design potential, but Cassandre understood “a new attitude to poster design” and what it “should do..He aimed to communicate, clearly and forcefully, a message about his client’s product rather than advance his own personal style.” With the “product” in mind–that is the train itself, symbolized, interestingly enough, not by the luxury of sleeping in a splendid compartment, by the powerful locomotive. As the authors of Railway Posters 1923-1947: From the Collection of the National Railway Museum, York wrote “Gradually, however, the power, beauty, and precision of the locomotive began to be appreciated, and the poster emphasis changed from the places a train served to the train itself. The train became a symbol of movement and power aimed at stimulating an enjoyment of travel for its own sake. The text is included in the design to add to its impact.”

Image result for Etoile du Nord history+french travel posterWhile the luxury trains crisscrossed the European continent, huge ocean liners plowed the seas. At first, these liners were merely large steam-powered ships built to deliver mail and to connect the far-flung corners of the various empires. By the turn of the century, the British had developed a specialty of ferrying passengers between Europe and America, dividing their massive liners among the classes. Migrants poured out of the poorer European nations, particularly in eastern Europe, and landed, via, third class, at Ellis Island. The names of some of these ships were legendary: the ill-fated Titanic and the tragic Lusitania. The great shipping corporations that launched these liners, White Star and Cunard had to pause in these leisurely and sometimes dangerous voyages when the Great War and its submarines made ocean travel for military purposes only. For example, the first version of the famous ship of the Holland America Line, the Statendam was being constructed in Belfast, when the War broke out and construction was halted. The ship was confiscated–requisitioned–by the British who renamed it as the Justicia. The Justicia was passed from the Cunard line to the White Star line which transformed the would-be liner into a troop ship. Although it was painted with a dazzle design, the Justicia was torpedoed in 1918 by a German U-boat. Miraculously, the ship wtayed afolat after two torpedoes, but it was stalked by the U-boat wich delivered two more torpedoes. Still underway and attempting to escape, but finally after two more torpedoes, the Justicia rolled over and sank. According to the Great Ocean Liners,”After only about a year of service and having never carried a single paying passenger, the Justicia was gone. She was yet another loss in the terrible carnage known as World War I. Today, the Justicia remains where she once went down, 28 miles north-west off Malin Head. The wreck, which lies in waters 68 metres deep, is in quite good condition and is sometimes visited by sport divers.”

The Nederlandsch-Amerikannasche Stoomvaart Maatschappij or the Holland American Line was founded in 1873 and has been one of the longest serving ship owners in the world–meaing it has been in continuous service for one hundred fifty years. We recognize it today as the Carnival Cruise ships but the company began by sailing between Rotterdam and New York. One of the policies of the corporation seems to have been to have few names which were used over and over. The second Statendam was launched in 1929 just over a decade after the first Statendam had been torpedoed six times before dying heroically. According to Gare Maritime, which named the ship–rightly as it turns out–“unlucky,” “The new Statendam was to be slightly smaller than the lost vessel, at 29,511 tons. They were visually similar, but with her cruiser stern and shortened forward superstructure, the 1921 liner could easily be told at a glance from the earlier ship..When the 697 foot vessel made her maiden crossing in April 1929, after a delay of at least 14 years, she represented the last flourish of Edwardian elegance on the North Atlantic run, with her interiors being entirely pre-war and, in the era of the Bremen and Ile de France, a bit anachronistic. The original direct drive turbines, with which she had been designed, had been replaced by gear turbines and resulted in what was referred to as “the most efficient power plant afloat,” so in that regard, at least, the Statendam was as up to date as H.A.L. could make her. In fact, the power plant aboard the Nieuw Amsterdam was an enlarged version of that on the Statendam. The Statendam carried 1,644 passengers in four classes (First, Second, Tourist and Third) and proved to be popular as both a liner and an cruise vessel, but her service life was to be a short one. Laid up at Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in December 1939, she was caught in the crossfire between Dutch forces and the Nazis in May 1940, and burned out after being struck by several bombs. She was scrapped in August of that year.”

Second Class Smoking Longue on the Statendam

Cassandre, who was very popular in Holland, illustrated the ill-fated ship in its brief glory days. The title was unexpectedly long: For Real Comfort New Statendam Spring 1929/ Holland-America Line, 1928 and the poster itself was a return to the familiar ambers of the past. The extensive and official website for Cassandre discussed this poster at some length: “One of Cassandre’s many posters for streamers lines, the Statendam design of 1928 brings us back to the theme of ocean travel-a theme the artist delighted in, constantly renewing himself, constantly varying not only his point of view and angle but also his style, from the almost diagrammatic handling of SAGA to the objective realism of Normandie. The comparison between SAGA, with its planes treated as flat surfaces, and Statedam, where the close-up technique is used to give concrete reality to the picturesque, is especially revealing. Cassandre’s determination to “stick to the wall” is evident in the vastly simplified modelling of the funnels and ventilation cowl (their designs is so manifestly simplified that it avoids the pitfall of trompe l’oeil) and in the rhythmical treatment of the smoke in successive waves ; it is also apparent in the spare lines of the ringing. This poster is a prime example of Cassandre’s attention to tonal values. The color scheme, which is limited to blacks, grays, sepias and ochres, enhance the plasticity of the image and brings a wonderfully sober equilibrium to the composition. The Statedam design is clearly a refinement of an earlier design for US Lines which places more emphasis on color and three-dimensionality.”

By 1932, the debts to Cubism, especially to Fernand Léger, as seen in his 1929 poster for the Dutch liner, Statendam, were digested, with nods to Surrealism—the color gradations–were played down. The strong contour lines carved out not just shapes but were used to demarcate a powerful negative space that enhanced the rhythm of movement and speed, thrusting through the flat space of the poster for the Normandie. This beautiful ship would suffer a fate similar to that of the Statendam.


Born at a bad time, the Normandie was the last of the best. And the most famous poster designed by Cassandre was for this ill-fated and famed ocean liner. For elegance in travel, nothing matched the French ocean liners of the 1920s and 1930s. Until the Second World War halted this last great age of ocean travel, the Normandie was the queen of all the ships at sea. One hundred years later, the 1935 poster for the Normandie, now a modern icon, is often identified with the style of the 1920s. In the 1935 masterpiece poster for the Normandie, the sky is always blue and the sea is always green and the (mechanized) black prow cuts through the (natural) waves, leading a flock of white gulls, as it sets world speed records. The artist foregrounded the modern technology on the front of the ship, dramatizing the power and speed of its huge engines while allowing the passenger cabins to flare out at the edges. Heralded by the French flag, the ship is tipped with streaks of red, acting as explanation points.

Built optimistically for the remaining rich in 1935, the Normandie defined the Depression, but the luxury liner sailed four years only and managed only sixty-one and a half voyages. The “half” voyage ended when the liner docked permanently in the New York harbor in 1939, halted by the guns of yet another war. Its tragic fate seemed to have been preordained. As James Hinton wrote for The New York History Blog, “Five days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the French crew were removed from Normandie. France was technically a German ally under the Vichy government, and as such the U.S. exercised the right to seize the ship as belonging to an enemy belligerent. The ship would be renamed the USS Lafayette, in honor of the French General who had helped make U.S. independence possible during the revolution. The U.S. Navy took possession of the vessel and began her conversion as a troop transport.” Unfortunately, the conversion, as Hinton recounts was complex and the work done on the ship proved to be careless with terrible consequences.

Tragically, this haste set up the conditions for a disaster. Work spaces were not properly cleaned or prepared for lack of time to do it, and unsafe conditions became the norm. At 2:30 PM on the 9th, a welder in the first class lounge was performing work next to life preservers that should have been moved ahead of time. The work would ignite these life saving devices. The ship’s modern firefighting system should have prevented the tragedy, but it had been disabled during the conversion and was unavailable to be brought to bear. The New York Fire Department responded within 15 minutes, but were horrified to learn the French fittings on the Normandie/Lafayette were not compatible with their hoses. Less than an hour after the fire broke out, the ship was a raging inferno..The loss of the Normandie alongside of New York’s pier 88 would in many ways mark the end of an era. While ocean liners would remain the principle means to cross the Atlantic until commercial jet liners became available, few liners would be constructed in the post war period. None of these ships would approach either the speed or size of the Normandie.

So ended the era of travel for the sake of traveling. So ended the idea of taking journeys that were, in and of themselves, memorable experiences. Like a dim memory of a lost past, cruise ships take passengers from one site to another, entertaining them non-stop between countless feedings, with no notion of any one simply enjoying being on a ship at sea. An era has come and gone, flaming out in war after a brief interlude. Like French culture itself, Cassandre also paused in his advertising career and waited out the war. The culture was changing, the Depression gripped France in the 1930s, the age of Art Déco seemed hopelessly decadent and out of reach. Cassandre had to wait and see what the second half of the century would bring. The designer would be written about in a monograph by his long-time friend, designer Maximillian Vox, as “a thinker and an engineer, a lover of nature and a reader of books; such he was then, such he is now. A puritan in our midst, a worshipper of all things beautiful.”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

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The Art Deco Posters of Cassandre, Part One

Cassandre: The Face of Art Deco

Posters and Fonts

One of the major artists to emerge at the International Exposition of Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 was the man who won the first prize for his graphic design, an artist known as “Cassandre.” The significance of the very modern work of Cassandre, the nom de plume of Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (1901-1968), was that this artist created a new visual vocabulary for Art Deco. His visual linguists were distinctive and unique, fully identifiable, even now a hundred years later, and are still identified with “Art Deco.” The importance of this early achievement of a visual identity for an event and for a movement can be measured by a simple comparison between the poster designed by Robert Bonfils (1886-1972 ) for the Exposition. Bonfils, a distinguished artist from the pre-war era is best today for his work during the Great War when the French efforts towards public information and anti-German propaganda were concentrated in print and graphic designs. Bonfils did a series of strong and frankly propagandistic woodcut prints for the Great War effort, depicting German soldiers as rapists and looters–dangerous barbarians everyone. But nearly a decade later, his curvilinear style seemed out of step with the theme of industrial design and the tribute to the machine that powered the post-war world.

Robert Bonfils. Poster for Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes (1925)

But the Bonfils poster, of which there was a blue version, was but one of several posters commissioned for the Exhibition and all designs for the quartet inhabited an indeterminate in-between zone. The artists had left the pre-war Art Nouveau ethos but seemed to be on a vague path of non-direction with a distinct lack of style. These muddled and muddy efforts showed no trace of the ruling style of the day, Cubism, and carried no memory of the panache of Art Nouveau. Mired somewhere in a long-lost past, these posters utterly failed to indicate the presence of a new way of life that had emerged after the Great War.

Posters for Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes

by Charles Loupot and Andre Girard and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle

The twenty-two-year-old Cassandre seemed to understand that this new machine built environment was distanced far from the outdated references to nature drawn by Bonfils or the uncertain visions by the other “official” poster artists. Far from being involved with the publicity for the Fair itself, his prize-winning poster, Au Bûcheron, had been designed for the furniture maker, Bûcheron, an establishment still in business today. In the twenties, the furniture store was located on the exclusive rue de Rivoli, an address signifying the high-end nature of its elegant wares. The trademark for Bûcheron, designed by Cassandre, was the lumberjack, wielding his ax and chopping down a thick tree. The natural aspect of a traditional laborer working in the great outdoors implied authenticity, even tradition, but Cassandre canceled out any lingering landscape suggestion with futurist style diagonals darting down towards the stump of the falling tree. The orthogonal wedges encompass the woodcutter and the tilt of the tree, echoing the mechanically straight lines of Art Deco. If there are indications of nature—the folds of the man’s clothing and the grain of the exposed wood—they are subsumed to the striking and forceful design created by Cassandre, who greatly admired Picasso. The Bûcheron delivery truck were all marked with the logo of the woodcutter, instantly recognizable as an updated Art Deco version of Cubism. By the 1920s, Cubism was in the hands of the Salon Cubists and Art Deco Designers who were leading the geometric style to its second post-war life.

As the Au Bûcheron design driving around Paris, elevating his fame, Cassandre made a statement that indicated that he understood the role of graphic design in the streets. He stated, “A Poster is to be viewed on the street. It should integrate architectural groups and enrichen the spreading facades. It should enliven not the individual advertisement board or building, but rather the huge blocks of stone and the vast area as a whole.” The statement is an interesting one, because, for years, the art of wall posters had been neglected by artists. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was more famous for his posters than for his paintings and his curvilinear designs for the Moulin Rouge cabaret, for example, became instant collector’s items as soon as they were pasted to the wall. The design revolution had moved to the magazine, the book and the questions of graphic design in these small formats. Cassandre’s achievement was to update the public poster, which, unlike those of Toulouse-Lautrec, was moving and needed to be “read” and understood when mobile. As Cassandre explained, “A Poster unlike a painting, is not and is not meant to be, a work easily distinguished by its – manner – a unique specimen conceived to satisfy the demanding tastes of a single more or less enlightened art lover. It is meant to be a mass-produced object existing in thousands of copies like a fountain pen or automobile. Like them, it is designed to answer certain strictly material needs. It must have a commercial function. I need not emphasize that my principal and constant care is to renew myself ceaselessly.”

Cassandre knew Paris well. A native of the Ukraine, he had been fortunate enough to have visionary French expatriate parents who sent him to study in Paris when he was only fourteen. He studied art at the stiffly conservative École des Beaux-Arts, where Édouard Manet was a student and then at the Académie Julien where Mary Cassatt attended. One of the ironies of the career of Cassandre was that he drifted into graphic design in order to earn a living, under an assumed name, so that he could also pursue his more serious calling, that of a fine artist, under his real name. The next significant poster designed by the young artist, who was finding unexpected success announcing the new post-war style, was for the newspaper, L’Intransigeant, also in 1925. The shouting profile is that of one of the many newspaper boys who stood on street corners, peddling the latest issue of the newspaper. The open mouth is a pre-radio announcement that newspapers delivered the latest news, the newness and the timeliness of the stories in print is symbolized by the diagonal wires. dangling with white ceramic insulators, flying out of the verticle telephone pole that delivered the messages to the “ear” of the vendor who then opens his mouth and the news pours forth. The direct lines linking message and print and announcement are the stylized lifeblood of any newspaper even today. One is tempted to draw comparisons with Alexandre Rodchenko’s famous photomontage, Books, for the Lengiz Publishing House in 1924. The shouting faces, one female (Rodchenko) and one male or boy from Cassandre, both face the same direction, both use diagonal lines, and one can assume that the French artist was aware of the work of his Russian counterpart. It is also probable that the client, the editor of a right-wing evening newspaper, Léon Bielby, had no idea of the resemblance. Commissioned to design a poster that reflected the ambitions of L’Intransigeant and the words Le Plus Fort–the strongest–emphasize the striking black and ochre design. One can also note that Cassandre effectively reversed the “megaphone” motif of Rodchenko because the wires can be read in reverse–as spinning outward, conveying the latest events in an echo of the open mouth.

The Black and ambers of his color scheme of the early famous posters would prove to be a one-off for Cassandre, who preferred black and blue for his main colors, but the success of his design would set his life course. Cassandre would become one of the most famous designers of the interregnum. And indeed, after his experience with a rolling advertisement, the artist, now an accomplished poster designer, took over the Pi Volo aperitif campaign and made what amounted to a logo for the company that was so successful that it is still a resonant and recognizable sign for aperitif today. The motif of a bird plunging its open beak into a glass of amber drink was inspired by the sound of the “Pi Volo haute.” Cassandre translated the words into sounds and recognized that the brand name could also mean “magpie fly high.” The witty play on words became a witty poster, packed with visual repetition: the bird’s eye with the fixed pupil in the center was echoed as the dotted “i” of the word “pi,” another playful jest. In English, the joke is even more amusing–the “dotted eye (dotted “I”), waiting for the viewer to catch on to the word play. The repetition continued with the shape of the bird itself, a tight U, like the bowl of the glass. The V of “Volo” is the same V as the bird’s beak. The colors of this poster reflect back on the past with the amber glass of wine, but the blues and grays point to the future of the poster designer, now ready to take on another aperitif.

Cassandre refused to follow in his own footsteps, repeating himself and considered the brief from a company that manufactured a “drink,” or something for the young customers who wanted party refreshment, so to speak, as a break from the ochres and ambers that nodded to Cubism. He designed for Dubonnet from a perspective quite different from that of Au Bûcheron but picked up from the new direction of Pi Volo. The new client for the aperitif, Dubonnet, was the concoction of a French chemist, mixed for the French Foreign Legion and its soldiers, who needed to take doses of quinine. Bitter tasting Quinine is still used to combat malaria, and Dubonnet, a heady mix of various herbs and spices and the peels of fruits, masked the quinine. With or without quinine, Dubonnet, a propriety family recipe, is a light drink that is ideal for opening a meal or for leading off an evening. Its advertisements became famous thanks to the talents of Henri-Toulouse Lautrec, who made posters an art form, and Jules Cheret, who made this snappy little drink fashionable. Following in the footsteps of collectible posters, populated by alluring available women, Cassandre interjected humor in the persona of a squared off little man always in profile, always at a table, always enjoying his Dubonnet. Dubonnet was probably as famous for its posters as it was for its beverage, a wine aperitif that would be mixed into the new drink of the Jazz Age, the cocktail.

Following in the footsteps of collectible posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and Cheret who populated their designs with alluring available women, Cassandre interjected humor in the persona of a squared off little man. The serious and sober little man was always shown in profile, always sat at a table, and always enjoying his Dubonnet. Like Magritte’s Everyman, Cassandre’s drinker of Dubonnet also always wears a bowler. In his most engaging poster, the artist created a series of sequential images, functioned as cells in an animated film. In the first scene, the middle-class gentleman, drawn in sharp outline, is sitting his squared-off chair in front of his squared-off table. He raises his glass full of wine and gazes at it. At this stage, the hand and arm holding the drink and the front half of his face and hat are black. Down below, the letters DUBONNET are divided between full and empty. DUBO is black and NNET is empty of color. In the second poster, our man begins to drink, head tilted back, wine pouring down coloring his torso black. An N has also become dark. In the final frame, now totally black, the man is holding the bottle of Dubonnet, pouring himself another drink. He is all black, with only the white of his eye shining brightly as he watches the liquid flowing into a white glass. The emptiness of the white glass is signaled by the empty white edge of the table, but all the letters are black. The background color also shifts from a pale pinkish tint to a lavender shade. At the end of the story, the little man is surrounded by a copper field of orange-gold, but his throat, is white, waiting for the next drink. This distinctive poster illustrating the power of drinking a delicious and refreshing drink is still famous today.

The Dubonnet Man (1932)Image result for dubonnet cassandre

In The Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising, John McDonough and Karen Egolf discuss the way in which the lettering works with the content at some length: “In this poster, the product name, the visual, and the creative use of type interact to communicate the advertiser’s message. In the first panel, an outline illustration of a man poised in anticipation of his first sip of the liquor is only partially filling in, his right arm extended and holding a full glass. Design and typography reinforce each other, as Cassandra has placed the extended arm above the first four letters of the band name. The type starts to tell the story, with the D. U, B and O of the brand name filled in like the character’s arm and the other letters shown in outline type. In the second panel, the man is shown drinking the beverage, with part of the outline at the top filled in. The type beneath now shows the product name with an additional letter in as well, DUBON–suggesting “bon,” French for “good.” In the third panel, the entire outline of the figure (now shown replenishing his glass) is completely filled in as are the letters that spell Dubonnet, suggesting that the imbiber is now fully satisfied.”

Cassandre continued his poster career. The artist who created two posters that eternally advertise aperitifs, almost a century later, went on to characterize luxury travel available to the fortunate few in tje dark years of the 1930s. The next post will discuss the railway and shipping posters that still make us want to travel.


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.

[email protected]

The Fate of Fonts, Part Seven

The Fate of Fonts

Typography and Danger in Germany, Part Three

In the history of the Nazification of all things “German,” the suppression of the modern fonts might be a footnote to the destruction of modern art if it is mentioned at all. However, as was pointed out in earlier posts, the font, particularly the fraktur font or the traditional German blackletter font had a deed and strong hold on the imagination of the people as being part of their “identity.” The Nazis were nothing if not thorough, the entire culture in all its manifest details came under their purview. The goal was to completely Germanize, if you will, Germany, which had been slipping into decadent and non-German ways, falling prey to the dubious delights of jazz and allowing “degenerate” art to be hung in the finest museums. There were internal enemies that Adolf Hitler and his allies had every intention of rooting out in order to establish a Volksgemeinschaft or a racial community. On one hand, the Nazis were very clear on who the enemy was–the Jew–but there was less clarity on how this purified racial community should be represented. Many Nazis liked and collected “modern art,” and it was some years before it was finally determined that art had to be classicizing and naturalistic. Modernism in art originated, not in Germany, but had invaded Germany, coming from other, alien sources, incompatible with the soil of the nation, the Heimat, the homeland. Above all, modern art was foisted upon the naïve art world by Jewish dealers, intent upon polluting the purity of Germany. Font selection for the Third Reich was no different from the official art style–it took years to decide upon and disseminate the official Nazi font.

One might ask the question of why so much emphasis was placed upon the font in Nazi Germany. Surely Germany already had a “national” font that connotated “Germany” and “Germanic” in fraktur. In fact, in the minds of many, even today, fraktur was the “official” font of Nazi Germany. However, the actual story was more complicated. Outside of the elegant printed Bibles of the fifteenth century, most books were printed in the difficult to read Gothic style known as Textura. In Germany, a cruder version, called Schwabacher, was the favored typefont. For Emperor Maximilian, such an unartistic font was unacceptable for his planned library of beautifully printed books. The new font for the Emperor needed to be both German and legible, incorporating the humanism of the Antiqua style, which was a Renaissance version of the ancient Roman lettering. The Emperor’s font designers turned to history and used the calligraphic bastarda handwriting. This distinctive font, “a mixture of Gothic and Roman, and blending the qualities of both,” according to H. Liebaers in Mostly in the Line of Duty: Thirty Years with Books, had been the official font of the Burgundian court. Bastarda was, as was often the case in early printed books, a version of Medieval handwriting, cursive, adapted to a formalized font, as designed by the court calligrapher, Leonhard Wagner. Sadly, only four of the proposed series of books were published but they were illustrated by artists such as Dürer and Cranach, with Dürer’s Unterweysung giving lasting fame to fraktur.

The contest between Fraktur and Antiqua was also a religious one in Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant version of Christianity. The Protestants used Fraktur, while the Catholics used Antiqua. In contrast, the general readership, especially in the scientific community, the preferred font was Latin. The state of affairs–multiple fonts, each having a different connotation, continued well into the twentieth century. The introduction of the modernized fonts, such as Futura or the Bauhaus font of Herbert Bayer complicating font matters in Germany. It seemed as if Hitler himself would solve the issue–tradition or modernity. Surprisingly, Hitler, who had little use for Modernism, came down on the side of the modern, stating in 1934 that fraktur was not appropriate to “an age of steel and iron, glass and concrete, of womanly beauty and manly strength..The script called Gothic is replaced by the script we have called Latin.” Hitler’s proclamation was particularly interesting, with all his emphasis on gender implications, in light of the preceding semiotics of the dueling fonts. According to the book, Smallest Mimes. Defaced Representation and Media Epistemology by Paul Majkut, “Antiqua was deemed ‘un-German’ and Roman fonts were castigated as ‘trivial’ because of their ‘light’ fonts. Fraktur, like all Blackletter scripts’ dark, dense strokes, was viewed as representing German character marked by qualities of substantiality, gravitas, fortitude, and intellectual depth.”

In the book, Nazi Culture: Intellectual, Cultural and Social Life in the Third Reich, George Lachmann Mosse explained that the Nazis were no ordinary political party. The Nazis were a cultural force that wanted to envelop all aspects of German life with National Socialism. “This society,” he wrote, “would not allow for the differentiation between politics and daily life which many of us naturally make..Hitler’s aim was to construct an organic society in which every aspect of life would be integrated with its basic one could be allowed to stand aside. Politics..was..the concrete expression of the Nazi world view. This world view as held to be the very crux of what it meant to be German, and therefore, politics was the consciousness of race, blood, and soil, the essence of the Nazi definition of human nature..Such a total view of politics meant–as it was called after January 1933–Gleichschaltung, “equalizing the gears” of the nation.” This “equalization” of a complex culture was a massive undertaking, which aimed at nothing less than a complete rebuilding of Germany in a very compressed period of time, from 1933 to 1939. During this six-year sequence, and it was a sequence, various elements of the society were brought in line with the Nazi way of thinking. As Mosse wrote in his book, “What developed between 1933 and 1939 was the level of effective enforcement, not the kind of culture which was to be enforced.” This is a book of primary documents that show the various proclamations over time, adding up to a loyalty to the Nazi regime that preceded the actual politics. In other words, once they were trained to be obedient to the will of Hitler, the German people would fall in line with any laws or demands that presented themselves, regardless of their contents or implications.

It was to be expected that art, in all its manifestations, would fall under the notion of “enforcement.” Individuals who worked in the arts were required to join the Reich Chamber of Culture (Reichskulturkammer) long before any official policy emerged. Therefore, artists were positioned in waiting, so to speak, dependent upon the demands of the regime and trained into obedience. As Mosse wrote, “..we are dealing with an emotionally charged and unified ideology which was translated into fact by 1934..This new Germany was to be built upon the foundation of the “new man,” and this man, in turn, was the product of the correct world view. The world view or ideology (and the terms can be used interchangeably), was all-inclusive: a true instrument of reform. Originating in the wellsprings of man’s nature, it was pushed outward into all aspects of human life. Because this world view arose from the depths of the human soul, its expression must be cultural and not material..That is why Hitler himself put such a high valuation upon artistic endeavors, and his own artistic ambitions must have played a part in this emphasis..The ‘new man’ must be culturally centered, creative person who through his creative drive activates his “Germanism.”

Der Stürmer Christian blood.jpg

At first, it seemed as if fonts had escaped the attention of the Nazis. The neutrality was surprising given that before they ascended to power, the party had used the fraktur font for all of its publications. However, once in office, a compromise was reached and a standardization for fonts was apparently decided. As Gideon Reuveni wrote in Reading Germany: Literature and Consumer Culture in Germany Before 1933, “Fraktur became the German national typeface and all official publications, newspapers, and textbooks were required to use it. The decision did not eradicate rounded typefaces. In the 1930s we find abundant use of Antiqua fonts in books, advertisements, and magazines.” Reuveni speculated that the decision to allow two fonts to coexist was an economic one. It is also known that non-Germans found the fraktur font difficult to read and that Hitler wanted Europeans and Americans to be able to follow his career and triumphs with ease. German designers had long been on a crusade to modernize and to usher Germany into the modern era. In addition, the conquered territories seized by the Nazis in the late 1930s all used Antiqua and all needed to be communicated with through printed materials. So, for the meantime, practicality dually reigned with ideology.

For the modern artists of the twenties and thirties, the objection to serifs comes from the fact that the serif was the result of handwriting with a pen, which leaves traces at the ends of each letter. It was indisputably clear to the artists that times had moved on and that design must reflect this decades-long evolution. For font designers, the goal was to replace the hand with the machine, which was incapable of such idiosyncrasies. When Jan Tschichold (1902-1974) entered the field of book design and page layout, there were fonts aplenty but they were applied without regard to the page or its shape, much less the content of the text itself. “The essence of the New Typography,” he said, “is clarity.” Shaking off “beauty” for the doctrine of “form,” Tschichold was closer to László Moholy-Nagy in his holistic conception of book design. Impacted by De Stijl, he insisted on certain rules for printing according to strict geometric principles. He rejected the idea of arranging the print on the page as if there were an imaginary central spine or focal point ruling from the middle. For Tschichold, the form is the content of the printed page. But, following the logic of De Stijl, he insisted upon the balance of asymmetry in which logic and order become possible. As he declaimed in 1930, “Standardization, instead of individualization. Cheap books, instead of private-press editions. Active literature, instead of passive leather bindings.”

Image result for jan tschichold the new typography

Tschichold followed the thinking of Adolf Loos and thought that fonts should not be decorative and should divest themselves of ornament, such as serifs. Like Renner, he came to the conclusion that the “grotesque” or sans-serif fonts could be the source of modern typefaces. By paying attention to the needs of the content itself and by purging the page of its imaginary center, the designer can then arrange blocks of text in proportional relationship to the size of the page which needed to be standardized. The arrangement or layout design can be asymmetrical and balanced and harmonious, not in terms of the Renaissance middle or central axis, but along the rules of abstract painting. But he cautioned that typography is not painting and is led by another logic. Tschichold called his “rules,” or philosophy, “asymmetrical typography,” by which he meant layout. He insisted upon the importance of the blank white page which becomes part of the design. In his book, he dealt briefly with color, maintaining the common combination of Black and White with Red as the accent. His own fonts were heavier than Futura, but Tschichold always insisted upon modernity. He argued that the traditional German ‘blackface’ could never be “comfortable” in the modern world and “must be totally excluded as a basic type for contemporary work.” He objected to the “emphatically national, exclusivist character of fraktur” now “retrograde” in a transnational world. Tschichold asked, “Do other typefaces express anything? Is it really a typeface’s job to express spiritual matters? Yes and no.” The designer argued that since each typeface must express its age—a common sentiment in German in the 1920s—this is an age of clarity and truth, in search for “purity of appearance.” In his book, the artist insisted,

None of the typefaces to whose basic form some kind of ornament has been added (serifs in Roman type, lozenge shapes and curlicues in Fraktur) meet our requirements for clarity and purity. Among all the types that are available, the so-called “Grotesque” (sanserif) or “block letter” (skeleton letters would be a better name) is the only one in spiritual accordance with our time. To proclaim sanserif as the typeface of our time is not a question of being fashionable, it really does express the same tendencies to be seen in our architecture. It will not be long before not only the “art” typefaces, as they are sometimes called today, but also the classical typefaces, disappear, as completely as the contorted furniture of the eighties.

Like Paul Renner (1878-1956), Tschichold relied upon simple geometry to construct his plain “essential” letters. That said, the main contribution of Tschichold was his new rules for layout and design in a modern age. Hand drawn illustration was rejected in favor of half-tone photographs, and he freed design from the tyranny of the center and replaced the image of the artist with that of the engineer who reformed fonts without reference to aesthetics. Tschichold and Renner knew of each other’s work and knew each other as professionals. As principal, Renner hired Tschichold in 1925 to teach typography at the Münich Meisterschule für Deutschlands Buchdrucker (Master School for German Printers). These two masters of the font and the new book layout were part of a larger and wider effort in Germany to modernize, including the Bauhaus in Dessau. But in 1933, the Nazis seized control of the German government and everything changed for artists. Their crimes were numerous and ideological, ranging from being modern to being Jewish to being “international,” that is not German.

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For Renner and Tschichold, their faults were more political than cultural. Renner had long held socialist beliefs, for moral reasons, which was not a problem during the prevailing socialist Weimar Republic. Tschichold, like many intellectuals of the twenties and thirties supported–naïvely as it turned out–the Communist Revolution in Russia. In other words, for both artists, politics aside, their “cues” or their inspirations came from the incorrect sources, the Eastern Europeans and the Russians. For the Nazis, the Slavs were an inferior race and their artistic ideas and styles had infiltrated Germany, polluting its purity. Tschichold would be the first to be arrested. Indeed, as soon as the Nazis were in power, the tide turned against Renner, who was one of the early artists to be arrested as “subversive” by the new government. Because both artists were interested in the work done by the Constructivists in Russia, they were accused of being “Bolsheviks,” a term that would later be used to persecute these designers. Although unlike Renner, Tschichold had not created a widely-used counter-font, like Futura, his adherence to Constructivist design made him a “cultural Bolshevik” in the eyes of the Nazis, who found a Mondrian painting which they thought was a safe and spied various printed and artistic materials linked to Constructivist works. Tschichold was arrested and held for six weeks. Renner protested and was also arrested in 1933. To make matters worse, Renner, in what turned out to be an ill-advised move, published Kulturbolschewismus in 1932, a strong statement opposing Nazi ideas and policies. This outspoken opposition was particularly risky for, in that same year, the Bauhaus in Dessau was closed by the local Nazi government. He arranged for George Trump to be appointed principal of the school to be appointed in his stead, thus avoiding the fate of the Dessau Bauhaus.

Book image

The website explained the impetus of this dangerous book: “In his brilliant essay “kulturbolschewismus?” (culture bolshevism?) Renner demasks the Nazi’s campaign against modern art and architecture as false, racist and dangerous. the title refers to a term that was popular among conservative ideologists and the national socialist party to denounce modern art as “non-germanic”. and Renner puts a provocatively oversized question mark after it! In 1932, Paul Renner was unable to find a German publisher for his explosive essay, but finally it was published by his Swiss friend Eugen Rentsch. The response was a mixed one: while Thomas Mann wrote a letter full of praise to Renner, the brown newspaper “der völkische beobachter” published a spiteful review. after the Nazis seized power in March 1933, Renner was arrested, his office searched, and he was sacked from his post at the meisterschule. He spent the next 12 years in “inner emigration”, painting. Soon after its publication, “kulturbolschewismus?” had to be withdrawn from the German book market. few original copies seem to have survived.”

But according to Keith Houston in his book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks, after his arrest, “Tschichold reacted strongly to his ill-treatment at the hands of the Third Reich and repudiated his earlier work, detecting ‘fascist’ elements in the strictures of Modernism.”Alarmed that so many of his students were showing up in Nazi uniforms, Tschichold slipped out of the country and found safety and new employment in Switzerland, where he spent the rest of his life. When he was released, Renner went into what was called inner exile and refrained from criticizing the font now and forever identified as Nazi. But, as it turned out, fraktur was actually not the font of the Nazis: this misunderstanding probably dates back to the early use of fraktur in Nazi publications. That said apparently confusion among fonts must have continued for some time, inside Germany. Order had to be imposed. Order, of course, had to flow from Hitler himself who had long preferred the antique, the ancient, and its evocations of the Roman Empire, after which the Thousand Reich was modeled. Despite its “German-ness” the fraktur font had to be eliminated in favor of the Roman heritage because in his disorganized mind Hitler determined that the Romans were a part of the Nordic race–despite their southern roots—and were prescient in their hostility and opposition to the Jewish faith. Hitler banned fraktur. The question is how did Hitler justify jettisoning a “German” script in favor of a font alien to Germany? The answer, as it always would be, was to blame the Jews.

In 1941, Martin Borman decided that the Fraktur font was a bit too Gothic and had it officially replaced with Antiqua. Ironically the fraktur font, once considered quintessentially “German,” was declared to be too “Jewish.” He stated, “To regard or describe the so-called Gothic script as a German script is false. In reality, the so-called Gothic script consists of Schwabacher Jewish letters. Just as they later took over possession of newspapers, Jews resident in Germany when the printing of books was introduced took over book-printers, and thus the strong influence of Schwabacher Jewish letters came into Germany.”


Strangely, the heading of the stationary is the fraktur font. Nonetheless, Borman’s letter continued,

For general attention, on behalf of the Führer, I make the following announcement: It is wrong to regard or to describe the so-called Gothic script as a German script. In reality, the so-called Gothic script consists of Schwabach Jew letters. Just as they later took control of the newspapers, upon the introduction of printing the Jews residing in Germany took control of the printing presses and thus in Germany the Schwabach Jew letters were forcefully introduced. Today the Führer, talking with Herr Reichsleiter Amann and Herr Book Publisher Adolf Müller, has decided that in the future the Antiqua script is to be described as normal script. All printed materials are to be gradually converted to this normal script. As soon as is feasible in terms of textbooks, only the normal script will be taught in village and state schools. The use of the Schwabach Jew letters by officials will in future cease; appointment certifications for functionaries, street signs, and so forth will in future be produced only in normal script. On behalf of the Führer, Herr Reichsleiter Amann will in future convert those newspapers and periodicals that already have foreign distribution, or whose foreign distribution is desired, to normal script.

One should never seek consistency in the mind of those who are unbalanced, but, in the end, the fraktur font won. It seems that fraktur was used locally or internally when the Nazis were fighting to achieve power but that once the “empire” began to be built, the Antiqua came to the fore. Notice that serifs were beside the point and that Hitler never warmed to fonts associated with Communism and socialism. Despite the fraktur font being condemned as Jewish, as was stated earlier, this font is still linked to all things Nazi and to this day, the font carries with it all the horrors of the crimes of its former owners.

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The Fate of Fonts, Part Six

The Fate of Fonts

Typography and Danger in Germany, Part One

One of the heroes of the modern font was Paul Renner (1878-1956), a founding member of the Deutsche Werkbund when it was established in 1907. In many ways, he was temperamentally conservative, not a revolutionary outside of the realm of the visual arts. Renner spent most of his adult life in the Munich area, and, as the century progressed, he could not progress with it either culturally 0r artistically. Ironically, the designer who would change German typography for the twentieth century hated jazz and was suspicious of abstract art, had little affinity for twentieth-century technology, such as film, and had already reached middle age when he began to reinvent fonts. Nevertheless, as a graphic designer, who specialized in book design, Renner recognized that it was necessary for the design of the book’s outer cover to be coordinated with the typeface on the interior pages. In Germany, where a revolution in book design was going on, the exterior of a book was often a very modern, its title announced with a striking graphic design by an important artist, while the interior–jarringly incongruously—was the stilted bristling Gothic style, hyper with serifs. And in this golden age of book design, when the design was a total experience, such a discrepancy was not artistically bearable. Renner, a widely read intellectual, quoted the poet Göethe to explain his mission: “We should direct our view outwards, away from ourselves, into the world, not into the distance, but onto those things that are near, within a hand’s reach.” With that pragmatic philosophy in mind, Renner, who in his own way was a very modern functionalist, took it upon himself to reform German printing.

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Following the Great War, there was a sense of change, as if Germany had taken a new road away from its imperialistic past and towards a new century. For artists and designers, the task was to create Formgefühl, loosely translated as a sense of form. In the context of the 1920s, this “sense of form” would be a new visual experience that stood for and symbolized this new emerging time. A serious thinker with a philosophical bent, Paul Renner set out on a road to reforming the German publishing industry that was a winding one, weaving between book design and painting and the catastrophic economic situation in Germany. The traditional German font, the Bruchschrift, was the font of German kultur, the source of German identity, as codified in official documents, serious books, government-issued texts, and public manifestations of authority from posters to money. After the war, the links between the German people and authority, signified by the bourgeois education in kultur, was broken by a collapse in the belief system that had held up the Kaiser and the nobility, religion and the military. As these sectors of rule and kultur, upon which historic “Germanness” was built, lost their sheen and their pride of place in German life, the inherent “authority” embedded in the evocations of handwriting in Bruchschrift lost authenticity as well.

By the early 1920s, Renner, who was part of the luxury or beautiful book business, had forged a strong idea of what book design should be like. Illustrations, he thought, were unwelcomed interruptions in the total experience of the pages and the way they were viewed or should be experienced when the book was open. And at first, having been educated in the German gymnasium, the educational source of kultur for education, Renner was unconcerned about the continued use of the traditional fraktur font and saw no particular need to replace it. But as the decade progressed, Renner began to complain about what he termed “the inflation of historicism,” that was holding German design back and stuck in the nineteenth century. In contrast to those who believed that the famous Deutsche Schrift was an authentic national heritage and, that in this period of change and tumult, this culturally identifying icon should be retained, Renner pointed out that the Gothic script itself was, in truth. not German at all but French, while the lower case of the popular Roman alphabet was historically developed in Germany. What he sought was die Schrift unserer Zeit or “the type of our time.”

As if to prepare for the role he was preparing to take–challenging the traditional “broken script” (Gothic), Renner wrote Typography as Art in 1922, using the traditional German font, Unger fraktur. Changing an already established font, unless one owned a press, was an expensive and time-consuming proposition and such a step was a genuine investment and a major gamble. Printing type consisted of a font family, manufactured in a number of “punches.” These metal forms, each one a letter, had to be handmade in a very long and labor-intensive process not to be undertaken lightly. For a printing firm, a new font and a new set of punches would have been an expensive change, and unless a firm was inclined towards experimentation, there was little incentive to create new fonts which then had to be sold to a prospective client. Clients, book publishers and the like, tended to be conservative and risk-averse. Printing a new book in a new font meant disrupting the sensibilities of the reader and, unless a firm was printing in a very specialized avant-garde field, most firms would not be interested in either making new punches nor in investing in new fonts. Fortunately for Renner, a German version of Charles Peignot existed, Georg Hartmann (1870-1954), who purchased the Bauersche Gießerei (“Bauer Foundry”) of Frankfurt in 1898. This firm, like, Deberny et Peignot, embarked on a mission to approach designers and ask them to create a new typeface.

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As a member of the Werkbund, Renner was deeply involved in modern graphic design and had studied the earlier work of William Morris in England. Morris’s font was based on the tradition of handcraft and the importance of the artisan, but, as was the case with other twentieth-century designers, Renner was faced with the reality of the machine. Like Morris, Renner was concerned with the role of the worker in a modern society, who was being phased out in favor of automation. And although he was apolitical and steered clear of Weimar Republic politics, as a devout Christian, he was also concerned about his fellow human beings. As Charles C. Leonard wrote, “Morris envisioned a simple social system, wherein the self-interested artisan produces quality work. Renner’s formula, derived from the Deutsche Werkbund, was more complex. The machine enables quantity, the enlightened worker assures quality, the capitalist provides the capital investment in the equipment and materials, and the artisan provides the spiritual investment in the work itself. Quality becomes an essential aspect of industrial success, a position from which the improvement of working conditions can be negotiated, and the means of assuring the ongoing value of machine-made goods.”

When Hartmann and Renner joined forces and in 1924, Renner could finally design a new font for his own time, Futura. Renner understood that all fonts should retain some connection with the handwritten script but he also was determined to pay homage to the machine. He designed his font in a two-step process, first as a handwritten family of fonts. Next, the fonts would be turned over, so to speak, to the machine process, which would wipe out any trace of the hand. If and only if the font was stripped of the hand, then could it also be freed from its history and enter into the modern age.The sans serif type fonts were one hundred years old, and, because the simplicity and the lack of serifs these fonts, were called “grotesque,” a term of disparagement. In his useful book, Paul Renner and Futura: The Effects of Culture, Technology, and Social Continuity on the Design of Type for Printing, Charles Leonard pointed out that Renner believed “Type reveals not only the character of whoever designed it. It also reveals the character of the people who use it, just like the handwriting of the individual.” And he added, “Each populace has the script it deserves, for each time period, the script that corresponds to its nature,” meaning that he was conscious of the “German soul,” as he put it. “The Task of Our time,” as Renner said, was to create a new visual culture which would bring historic Germany into the new century via a new font. He proposed that the traditional Bruchschrift or the traditional German script be replaced with Futura, which would reconcile the hand-craft of printing with the technology of mass reproduction.

Paul Renner, Futura,Typeface 1927

Futura Typeface

Renner was but part of a trend in German design and another sans-serif font appeared in 1924 or 1925, designed by Jacob Ebar (1878-1935). This trend to the “grotesque” san serif fonts, along with the work being done at the Bauhaus by Herbert Bayer, not to mentiom other less well-known font designers, would be the hallmark of modern font design. But, along with the architects and other designers, who sought the purified form, Renner was also searching for the origins of the letter, its purified ontology, freed of historicism and of its cultural baggage. This font should still be resonant with the spiritual inheritance of the reader, who needed to recognize the familiar in order to understand the word. The Roman alphabet was, for the West, the Ur alphabet, and this ancient form of writing would become the basis for the Futura font, simple mechanical and suited to the age of mechanization being free of any trace of the artist’s hand or individual marking. Renner designed the Futura font with a ruler, a T-square, a compass, and a triangle, putting the Roman letters under geometric duress and discipline. Debuted to the public in 1927, Futura, still popular today, can be either light or bold and developed easily into an entire family of related variations—oblique, extra bold and so on. The letters are reduced to their most simple forms. The lower-case J, for example. is a straight line with a dot on the top. The upper-case Q is a plain circle with a small slash at the bottom. The letters, based on basic geometric forms, the circle, the triangle and the square, are all the same stroke width and weight. Its intrinsic beauty lies, as its creator wished, in the elegant purity of perfect ideal forms. Futura was the original alphabet of the Romans transformed for twentieth-century use.

The Futura font had fifteen alphabets, four italics, and two display fonts. Remarkably, given the number of talented designers involved in font reform in Germany, Futura became “the most widely used geometric sans serif family,” according to Meggs’ History of Graphic Design by Philip B. Meggs and Alston W. Purvis. Over the decade, Renner wrote two more books in addition to Typografie als Kunst was followed by Mechanisierte Grafik; Schrift, Typo, Foto, Film, Farbe in 1930), and finally Die Kunst der Typographie was published at the edge of the Second World War in 1939 and was set in his trademark font, Futura. It would seem that schwabacher or the “black writing” of traditional Germany had been swept away by the tide of modernity. But, as the next post will point out, to every action there is a Hegelian reaction or antithesis. In this case, in the 1930s, the reaction would be, not Hegleian, but Hitlerian. The next post will continue this discussion.

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The Fate of Fonts, Part Five

The Fate of Fonts

Typography and Danger in Germany

The debate about the appropriate typeface was not a new one in Germany. Introduced to the printing press as a substitute for handwritten Medieval manuscripts in the fifteenth century, the fraktur or Gothic script, fell gradually out of favor as the classic Roman script, Antiqua, rose in popularity because of its comparative legibility. But, because this heavily serifed font was associated with the German inventor of the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg (????- 1468), the German principalities held on to the black letter script out of national pride. The concept of “national” pride became more significant in the nineteenth century when the German principalities came together as one nation, united under Prussian domination in 1870. German nationalism had been awakened by the struggles with Napoléon I and only intensified with the Franco-Prussian War, which coincided with the unification of Germany. It could be said that “Germany,” in its early years, was defined in opposition to France, which had been occupied by the Romans. Out of war and a mélange of principalities, a modern Germany emerged, needing a new identity. One aspect of Germanic identity that was particularly significant to Germans was the fact that the Roman army never succeeded in going east of the Rhine River. Germany remained German, never Romanized nor classicized. Therefore, part of what defined “Germanness” was its ancient “Germanic” history, and its distinctive alphabet, the Bruchschrift, was a visible and always present signifier of a Teutonic heritage. Ironically the reason for the prominence of fraktur was its outmoded historical presence, a very old alphabet that had long since been abandoned by other modern nations–except for ceremonial purposes. By the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, there were already arguments for Germany joining the international community and abandoning what was now an idiosyncratic font. But there were factions that felt buffeted by the winds of Modernism (France), and, especially after the Great War, felt that it was more important than ever that the Bruchschrift be retained. The post-war debate about Germany’s national font and its fate was a metonymy for larger concerns and deeper questions: What, in the wake of a humiliating defeat, was the meaning of “Germany?”

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The Fraktur Script

It is difficult to know if the strong feelings that surrounded a historical font were due to the sheer newness of Germany or it these reactions to the possibility of using Antiqua were out of a genuine concern for German history. Bismark, the first Chancellor of Germany, once declared that he refused to read “German books in Latin letters.” Bismark’s nationalism pointed to the uncomfortable fact that the Roman font was already being used in Germany, but his sentiments were also nothing new. The poet Johann Wolfgang von Göethe had many publishers, but one of them, Johann Friedrich Unger, also took a stand against the Roman typeface for the poet’s writings. ”Why should we Germans renounce our originality? To please foreigners who learn our language?” he asked, “Does any nation do the same for us?’‘ The nineteenth-century argument carried over into the twentieth century and the discourse on the fraktur font centered on national identity. In 1910, the proto-fascist Adolf Reinecke wrote The German alphabet. Its Origin and Development, its Expediency, and Its National Significance (Die Deutschen Buchstabenschrift) or The German Alphabet, for short, stating that “Fraktur is more compact in printing, which is an advantage for fast recognition of word images while reading. Fraktur is more suitable for expressing the German language, as it is more adapted to the characteristics of the German language than the Latin script. Fraktur is still prone to development; Latin script is set in stone. Fraktur makes it easier for foreigners to understand the German language..” In other words, Fraktur was uniquely German. Even though the font was an old one, it was not antique, like the Roman script which was decidedly not German. This alien Latin lettering was the psychological equivalent of the Roman army invading the territory of the ancient Germanic tribes.

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Roman Lettering carved on Monument

The debate over German identity resumed after the interruption of the Great War with renewed urgency. At first, there was a genuine desire to acknowledge the new century and the new machine age. Designers working in Germany were not part of the old debate and entered boldly into a new age with reform in mind. Although the phrase “New Typography” is credited to Bauhaus master Laszlo Moholy-Nagy in 1923, we also think of Paul Renner, Herbert Bayer and, most significantly, of Jan Tschichold (1902-1974), a calligrapher from Leipzig, when considering the introduction of a truly modern–as opposed to the merely legible Roman font–alphabet. Tschichold was the son of a sign painter and grew up with letters and lettering and was educated in the practical or applied arts at the Academy for Graphic Arts and Book Production in Leipzig. Although he was only seventeen when he entered, Tschichold was so skilled a calligrapher he was appointed an assistant for the evening classes in lettering at age nineteen. Being someone who was an artist, he was a rapt student of the flourishing excesses of German fonts and was particularly fond of the very elaborate “Maximilian grotesk.” But then his life changed. Tschichold attended the famous Bauhaus exhibition in Weimar in 1923 and was impressed with the forward-looking vision of the school and its artists. As his biographer, Ruari McLean pointed out in Jan Tschichold: A Life in Typography, “Curiously, the Bauhaus artists tended to use type as a component of abstract art rather than for communication. Their typography was wild, sensational, eye-catching, but in terms of legibility, impractical..the typography (by Herbert Bayer) is all in sanserif, and entirely without capital letters–a good example of theory ignoring practicality. Capital letters, like punctuation marks, are functional, since they signal the beginnings of sentences, proper names, different meanings of words, and so on. To omit all capital letters simply makes printed matter a little more difficult to read.”

Design for a Bauhaus Exhibition Poster

Herbert Bayer Bauhaus Poster

It is probable that Tschichold was attracted by the modernity of Bauhaus typography and recognized that a dialogue on a new typography had been opened among artists. He approached the conversation on from the standpoint of the son of a sign maker, who understood that the need to communicate should outweigh the role of design. In fact, he had already been working in a new position, which he termed “the previously unknown profession of typo­graphic designer,” for the firm, Fischer & Wittig. Far from being the invention of Moholy-Nagy or El Littizky, the idea of the “layout” for a page had filtered down to publishing firms where Tschichold had become a “book artist.” But as Robin Kinross pointed out, spurred by Moholy-Nagy and El Littizky, he looked east, past Germany to Russia at the ideas of Constructivism. His first book, titled Elementary Typography (elementare typographie) was a gathering of contemporary writings from avant-garde artists on modern design, rethinking letters and words, and pages as works of art and design. This anthology of theories and arguments from leading modern artists, particularly from Russi seems to have been aimed towards the printing trade or profession as if to spread ideas from one community to another. Like Renner, he understood the need to bring German printing into the international community, and, in 1928, he wrote his own highly influential book, predictably called The New Typography. Sadly, this important book was not translated into English in the late 1960s by McLean when she was writing his biography. This author described the original published version, which was “a working text for compositors and printers. Nevertheless, it has both elegance and originality, qualities which recur in nearly everything that Tschichold designed. The flexible case, in black linen with silver blocking on the spine, is pleasant to touch. The text pages, in a contemporary (non-artist designed) sanserif, are printed on a non-shiny off-white text paper. The typography is not assertive (as was so much Bauhaus typography) but expressive and practical, and the book begins unforgettably with a black frontispiece.

Inside pages of The New Typography

Finally, under the supervision of Kinross, The New Typography was published in English in 1995,

The fate of the “new typographic artists” in Germany will continue in the next post.


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