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twenty-two-year-old Cassandre seemed to understand that this new machine built environment was distanced far from the outdated references to nature drawn by Bonfils or the uncertain visions by the other “official” poster artists.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.

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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.

Image result for jan tschichold the new typography

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.

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 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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The Fate of Fonts, Part Four

History of French Fonts, Part Two

Cassandre and the Fonts of Art Déco

A. M. Cassandre, as the artist sometimes signed himself, was also known more simply as “Cassandre.” Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (1901-1968) burst on the Parisian scene as Cassandre with a prize-winning poster design for the Bûcheron furniture company. As can be seen by the lettering in this work, Cassandre’s career as a poster designer would be pivotal for his dual career as a font designer. Although the Bûcheron poster was influenced by Cubism and Futurism, the font he modified for the lettering was an ancient one, known as Capitalis quadrata. Capitalis quadrata was also known as capitalis elegans. Capitalis quadrata was a Carolingian (medieval French) revival of inscriptions carved in stone during the Roman Empire. The script may have been suitable for carving but writing it by hand was an awkward experience. Therefore Medieval scribes saved this difficult quill manipulation for titles and, laboriously, for coping Latin inscriptions. The Carolingian Empire under Charlemagne was a revival of the Roman Empire and the difficult font was selected deliberately and deployed semiotically to evoke past glories.Image result for cassandre au bucheron

Not only was capitalis elegans in the French bloodstream, it was also not as antique as it might seem, as this font is the ancestor for today’s square capitals. However, it must be admitted that the use of an ancient Roman font for a very modern poster was perhaps too hybrid for the modern era. After this excursion into thick letters inspired by the past, Cassandre confined himself to the more modern and sleek sans serif styles. Trained as an artist, it is clear that Cassandre brought an artist’s mind to the problem of modern design. But he also designed with a strict eye to mathematics and proportion. Every element of each poster was determined by an underlying “grid” of proportions, invisible to the eye of the intended audience but visible in the organization that made his layouts so effective. A Russian émigré, Cassandre seemed to be able to move easily among a number of artistic circles, which, no doubt, enabled him to remain inspired and open to new ideas.

According to the Rochester Institute of Technology,

Cassandre moved among the circles of the 1920s Parisian Avant-Garde which included the symbolist composer Eric Satie (1866-1925), the absurdist writer Apollinaire (1880-1918), and the Cubist painter Fernand Léger (1881-1955). Following the Art Deco premiere at the 1925 Exposition, Cassandre joined with designer Jean Carlu (1900-1997) to form a group of artists whose mission would be to advance Modernist aesthetics in all applications of design and thought. The Union des Artistes Modernes (UAM) was born of this common goal. Charles Peignot, joined the group’s membership with the likes of writer Jean Cocteau (1887-1963), Nobel laureate André Gide (1869-1951), architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965), decorator Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), Maximilien Vox, and other artists who specialized in the design of jewelry, textiles, furniture, and lighting. Peignot later clarified the group’s purpose: “Together we tried to break away from the style that survived the first World War. It is not surprising that I tried to accomplish in my field what my friends were doing in theirs.”

Charles Peignot (1897-1983) was the artistic head and aesthetic guiding spirit behind the venerable French typefoundry Deberny et Peignot and was in search of artists who would join him in bringing the ossified field of designing fonts back to life. The three collaborators, Peignot, Vox, and Cassandre, produced Les Divertissements Typographiques, a publication designed by Vox to show off the new fonts designed by himself and Cassandre to potential buyers and publishers. The next unexpected juxtaposition famous artists occurred in 1929, when Charles Peignot acquired the rights to the Sans Serif typeface, “Futura,” designed by the German artist, Paul Renner (Renner will be discussed in the next post). The Futura font was a favorite of Vox, who asked Peignot to purchase it. Peignot was not particularly interested in the font, but debuted the character in 1931 under a new name, “Europe,” to give Futura a more international and less German origin. As Peignot said, “As to type fonts, a new internationalization is taking place.” The same year he acquired Futura, Peignot issued a new font he much preferred, the Bifur by Cassandre. Cassandre, an experienced poster designer, understood the importance of letters–not words, but the letters or fonts that composed the words–to the overall design. The words had to convey more than information, they had to convey the concept of the idea of the overall design and its message. For example, in the famous series of posters he did for Dubonnet, the letters of the brand name go from empty to full, just like the “little man” he depicted. The little man filled with color as he drank, a metaphor for the satisfaction one derives from drinking Dubonnet.

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The play between the lettering evolving from outlines to fully filled in shapes in the Dubonnet posters was part of Cassandre’s other trademark for the Jazz Age, his Bifur typeface. The Bifur is a witty exploration of the expanding shapes of the alphabet letters being filled in. The empty spaces in between the lines, the negative shapes, like the interior space of the D, were being emphasized through a series of “curtain lines” in the guise of straight marks that modestly cover the openness. The significance of Bifur is, of course, its evocation of the Jazz Age, but conceptually, the font is quite brilliant. An artist–not a calligrapher, not a font designer–was at work. Cassandre worked with an idea, a concept, seeing the sans serif alphabet in a new way, as a series of spaces caused by a series of lines. In other words, he saw the letters in terms of figures breaking the purity of the plain ground. Once the line or the mark is placed on a plane, then space is created in the mind of the viewer. However, readers had been conditioned to “see” letters as flat objects, of little importance in themselves, existing only as elements that form words that needed to be read. Therefore the words are looked at, viewed, while the individual letters were visually glossed over. What Cassandre achieved was to activate, not just the characters but also the spaces between the lines that were integral to the making of each shape. As Stephen Eskilson wrote in his book, Graphic Design: A New History, Second Edition, “Type such as Bifur are conceptually tied to Cassandre’s poster aesthetic, inasmuch as it uses strikingly stylized shapes in order to grab the viewer in the blink of an eye. Broadly speaking, most Ar Deco types are so easily associated with the look of this era they did not develop longstanding or universal appeal.” However, one could argue that the main interest of the Bifur is not its Art Deco designation but its visual play between “dressed and undressed,” “finished and unfinished,” and other clever binaries.

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This 1929 font can be seen his Nord Express posters in which the interiors are whisked away by the speed of the train which carried away the delicate lines, leaving the solid forms behind, legible to those who understood the new Art Deco font designed by Cassandre. In the poster, the nascent possibility that letters could travel was activated by the artist who was always thinking of new ways to use a straight line.

Cassandre occasionally wrote of his creations, explaining his concepts but always in a rather elliptical fashion, careful to not give away his design secrets. The essay he wrote on the Bifur font was a case in point. Published in the Arts et métiers graphiques when the lettering was unveiled, Cassandre’s essay tended towards to poetic:

Bifur is a word, a single word. But a star word. It enters a page like a leading ballerina sweeping into the radiance of a spotlight while the other dancers sink into the background on either side. Bifur was not designed by a freakish imagination ; on the contrary, I worked out a precise problem and then endeavoured to resolve it while staying strictly within the bounds of typography. I want to stress the fact that Bifur is not an ornamental letter. Bifur was conceived in the same spirit as a vacuum cleaner or an internal combustion engine. It is meant to answer a specific need, not to be decorative. It is this functional character that makes it suitable for use in our contemporary world. Initially, a letter is a pure form, but it is gradually distorted by the woodblock carver’s chisel, the scribe’s alcoholic pen, the etcher’s needle used by the first punch-cutters who delighted in imitating the pen. I have tried to restore to the letter that which originally belonged to it, and to it alone. Therefore, it Bifur looks unfamiliar and strange, it is not because I have dressed it up eccentrically but because, in the midst of a fully clothed crowd, it is naked. I have simply tried to revive the word’s original power as an image. Reduced to its barest expression, its simplest form, the word becomes more “photogenic” to our tired retinas, I believe. DANGER. Bifur was designed to function like a railroad signal-a peremptory stop sign. If by accident it does not function as it should–if it is mishandled, say, by an inexperienced typographer-disaster is inevitable. Bifur was designed for advertising. It was designed for a word, a single word, a poster word. As Blaise Cendars once said in reply to a questionnaire on advertising, “I wish that you would find–you who are today calling on writers-a spontaneous poetic genius who will come up with a simple, gigantic word that can take its place above Paris along with the gigantic Bébé Cadum poster.” Bifur was cast to print that word.

Acier of 1930 and Acier Noir, the font of 1935, also played with the half full and half empty theme, where each letter was fully formed but its lines were either left as outlines or its contours were filled in. Cassandre used color to fill in the empty shapes or the negative space that lay within each letter, activating unused possibilities.

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But the most familiar font is the “Peignot,” designed by Cassandre, and is the most identifiably Art Deco font of all. The delight of Peignot, his most popular font, is its indulgences in the occasional curved line and the gently rounded edges that replace the sharp elbows of his early fonts. Most distinctive are the font’s sudden extensions, swooping off at the will of the artist-writer and the combination of the two cases, upper and lower in the same word, again at the whim of the designer. In creating new typefaces or fonts, Cassandre was part of the post-war urge to create a style of lettering that expressed what it meant to be modern. Is important to stress once again that Peignot was designed for the Deberny et Peignot foundry, which was dedicated to keeping pace with changing times. In addition, the work Cassandre did for the firm was aimed or targeted, not so much at book publishers but more often to advertisers looking for a distinctive font.

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The post-war printers were very competitive and sought to develop their own unique signature fonts to attract customers. Creating a new font was not a task to be undertaken lightly. In a highly complex craft, largely lost today, a “punch” or the outline of the letter in steel was carved out and was then transferred to a copper matrice, an hours-long painstaking process done by only a few skilled professionals. The individual letters, capitals and lower case as desired, done in multiples, which are reusable for years. One can witness the arbitrariness and adventuresome nature of Peignot in which the capitals and lowers cases can appear at will within the same word. The 1920s were a golden age of experimenting with fonts and creating a modern design, suitable for the post-war period. With the invention of the distinctive typeface that became the visual signof the Jazz Age, Cassandre was one of the more successful of the Art Deco designers in that his work was probably circulated the most within popular culture. His covers for Harper’s Bazaar will be discussed in a later post, but his Surrealist designs for the late 1930s defined the decade before the Second World War just as strongly as his work in the twenties characterized Les Années Folles.

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In France, the invention and creation of new fonts for advertising and design were for the purpose of branding products and, therefore, of suggested a specific lifestyle. In the case of the Peignot font, the target reader was assumed to be sophisticated and knowledgable of all things fashion. This extremely moderne lettering appealed to an elegant upper crust, who needed to be tempted to purchase the latest luxury goods. It was Cassandre, who designed the still-used and very famous logo for Yves Saint-Laurent in 1961. In contrast to the merchandising role for fonts in France, in Germany, the font was fraught with political peril as will be discussed in the next post.

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

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The Fate of Fonts, Part Three

History of French Fonts, Part One

Cassandre and Deberny et Peignot

When an artist heaped with honors in his lifetime, including the being promoted an officer of the French Legion of Honor, ends his career with suicide that is a terrible tragedy and a great loss to the art world. But before the inexplicable end, this artist was the famed author of the visual culture of the post-war period. Born to French parents in the Ukraine, Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron (1901-1968) shunted back and forth between France and Russia, until in 1915, the family moved to Paris permanently, thus missing the upheavals of the Russian Revolution. The young artist attended the local art academies in Paris, moved to Montparnasse in the 1920s, but did not take the expected path towards fine art. Instead, Mouron gravitated to a new and emerging field–modern graphic design, making his bones first as a prize-winning poster designer. In these early years, he adopted the pseudonym of “Cassandre,” which appeared from time to time with his last name or as “A. M. Cassandre.” Eventually, as he became famous, Mouron became the one the only and uniquely “Cassandre.” The artist first gained fame when he designed an orange-gold and black poster for a furniture company, Bûcheron, (the poster designs of Cassandre will be discussed in a later post), radiating diagonal lines that seemed to announce not just chairs, tables and bureaus but also the arrival of a new era of geometric shapes. Prominently displayed in Paris, this obvious and striking example of modern design won first prize at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs of 1925. The poster and the prize it won caught the attention of Charles Peignot, the head of one of France’s oldest and most innovative typefoundry, Deberny et Peignot, a new combination of two firms, which had just merged in 1923. Under the guidance of the artistically minded leader, Peignot, the role of the foundry expanded from manufacture to font design. Cassandre was invited to join Peignot and one of the other new designers, Maximillien Vox (Samuel Monod) (1894-1974), in the task of creating modern typefaces suitable for the modern machine age.

In his book, Modern Typography. An Essay in Critical History, Robin Kinross wrote, referring to the “black art,” or typography, “One might argue, with this distinction in mind, that ‘modern typography’ is indeed a duplication of sense because when printing becomes typography is also when printing becomes modern. Printing becomes modern with the spreading of knowledge about itself: with the published description of its practices; with the classification of its materials and processes; with co-ordination of dimensions of materials, enabling their exchange and better conjunction; with the establishment of a record of its history.” He continued with a discussion of the beginning of modern type or the beginning of sans serif. “Sanserif, as a printing type, made its first appearance in a specimen of 1816 (of William Caslon IV), though it became established as a recognized style of type only in the 1830s in England..” Matthew Carter commented in Eye Magazine on the contribution Kinross made to an understanding of the importance of printing, fonts, characters to modernity, “Robin Kinross dates modernity – implicit in the very idea of printing – as an explicit attitude that began in about 1700, when printing began to be used as the means to describe itself. Here, ‘printing’ is the practice, ‘typography’ the ordering of that practice by instruction, and in the manuals of Moxon (1683-84) and Fertel (1723) typography became articulate and therefore modern.” In other words, Kinross asserted in 1992, a certain self-consciousness about information and how it is dispersed begins to stir. In 1683, Joseph Muxton published, Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing, which not only wrote done a tradition passed down orally, he also wrote what would become a handbook for printers for the next two hundred years. In in the mid-seventeenth-century, the typographer began to separate himself from a “printer,” such as Joseph Muxon and became more aware of design. But the marriage of typography and design, or perhaps more precisely, the transformation of typography into design came in the late nineteenth century. “The familiar account, which I think has much truth in it, is that out of the Arts & Crafts rebellion emerged the figure that we call the designer—the typographic designer, the book designer. This person attempted to order the processes of production in printing and attempted to reinfuse the aesthetic element, the dimension of material and visual surplus—pleasure—which printers could no longer provide as an inbuilt part of what they were printing,” Kinross wrote.

Kinross focused primarily on British printing, but some of the most distinctive fonts that emerged from the modern period came from France. It is possible to argue that although English artists precipitated the shift into typography as an art form, it was the French and the Germans who took the next step. Leading the way in France was the firm of Deberny et Peignot. The history of Deberny et Peignot was an interesting one, starting unexpectedly with the famous author Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). Balzac paused, at the beginning of his writing career and became a businessman before he became a famous writer. According to B. R. Tolley’s article “Balzac the Printer,” in a 1959 issue of French Studies, from 1825 to 1828, he was a publisher, a printer, and a typefounder. As Tolley wrote,”Balzac used his commercial experience and technical knowledge in his novels.” The detour into publishing seems an odd one for Balzac, but he was an author who saw the opportunity to turn this field to his advantage. Balzac had experienced some success as a writer in the early nineteenth century, and, indeed, his definition of “success” was to become rich by churning out books rich with entertaining soap opera. Balzac admired Sir Walter Scott, who had turned the writing of historical novels into a lucrative business. Balzac, however, as an observer of the “human comedy,” and was more interested in observing the contemporary age and was one of the literary pioneers in the new genre of “realism,” meaning the recording of modern life. In The Politics of Style in the Fiction of Balzac, Beckett and Cortáza by M. R. Axelrod, the author noted that “Balzac’s approach to Realism, like his mentor, made a business out of literature. In his own way, he was the ultimate bourgeois writer..” Indeed, when he hadn’t become famous by the time he was twenty-six, Balzac ventured into the printing business, convinced as Alexrod put it, that “his fortune would be made and leave him plenty of time for writing.” Using money borrowed from his mistress, Louise-Antoinette-Laure De Berny, and his mother, Balzac partnered with André Barbier, a typesetter. The publishing venture, located on the Rue de Marais-Saint-Germain in Paris was to publish the works of La Fontaine and Molière, not to mention those of the struggling author, failed, and Balzac was advised to make money to cover his debts by purchasing a printing press, a financial move that only put him deeper in debt.

The Imprimerie H. Balzac was willing to publish anything and, like a true capitalist, the author purchased the typefoundry of Jean-François Laurent to establish control over all aspects of his enterprise. Alexrod wrote, “Becoming a printer in order to save his publishing, he finally became a type-founder in order to save his printing, by purchasing a bankrupt type-foundry.” But none of those businesses succeeded, mainly because Balzac spent all the profits on his mistresses, plural. His partner, Barbier, abandoned the failing enterprise, leaving the writer with the consequences of his own bad management and bad judgment. Balzac concluded his ill-fated business career over 100,000 francs in arrears, and the author refused to descend into a bourgeois fate of declaring bankruptcy. Fortunately, in 1828, he was able to turn his debts over to his mistress and to foundry owner, Laurent. The nineteen-year-old son of the aristocratic Louise-Antoinette-Laure, Alexandre de Berny, became the new partner and, not wanting to mix nobility with business, renamed himself “Deberny.” As any reader of Balzac understands, the author’s ignominious experience as a failed printer and bankrupt businessman became materials for his mature works. But during his checkered career in publishing, Balzac printed some 168 pamphlets, newspapers, and books, and some sources say this number was as high as three hundred.

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An early article on Balzac as a Printer

Four decades later, in the waning years of the Second Empire, Gustave Peignot (1839-1899) acquired a foundry with the idea of manufacturing fonts or letters. For decades Peignot systematically acquired other foundries (and their font collections), building a business large enough and solvent enough to support the father and his five sons, including Georges Peignot (1872-1915). Georges made all the “aesthetic” decisions, from the artistic selection of fonts to business moves that guided the firm in the direction of innovation. One of the most important decisions he made was to not only acquire already existing typefaces from other firms but to also create new fonts. Starting with emerging style, Art Nouveau, he hired the Swiss architect, artist, and designer, Eugène Samuel Grasset (1845-1917). Today Grasset is best known as a designer in stained glass and is famous for his distinctive Art Nouveau posters, especially in America. In fact, although he is almost forgotten today, Grassat was an extraordinarily versatile artist, a well-known furniture designer for Charles Gillot and the decorator of the famous Chat Noir cabaret. His fame would have been a magnet to the twenty-five-year-old and ambitious Peignot, who approached the artist and informed him of his ambition to update the moribund business of typography. In fact, he told the startled artist, he wanted nothing less than a revolution that would separate France readers from the old and outmoded Didot and Garamond fonts. He wanted an Art Nouveau font. The artist himself had already attempted to get his own font engraved but no foundry was interested. When he saw Grassat’s drawings, Peignot was impressed with the rejected Art Nouveau font and incorporated the “Grasset” font in 1898 into the family business. The “Grasset” font was based on an old font, dating back to 1471, the alphabet of Nicolas Jenson. The foundry offered the new font in thirteen sizes and based the letters directly on the work–the drawings–made by the artist. The Grassat font was introduced at the Universal Exhibition of 1900 in Paris, the event that introduced the new style of Art Nouveau to the public. The contemporary Art Nouveau version was an immediate success and the striking design foregrounded a nearly forgotten art form, the creation of fonts.

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1940’s French type foundry drawer from a Deberny Et Peignot typesetter’s chest

Georges Peignot was very important to the history of modern French fonts because he recognized the need to update letters and understood that characters needed to express their own time. The other field of visual culture Peignot opened was the culture of name recognition through typography. The Art Nouveau fonts he sponsored, such as those of Georges Auriol (1863-1938), whose “Auriol” font was used ten years later for the Paris Métro, became distinctive typefaces, which “branded” certain experiences. To walk under the distinctive Hector Guimard Métro entrances was to commit to using a new form of transportation that needed to be announced by a distinctive look. The Métro used the most modern font available and the Piegnot fonts became the visual metaphor for Art Nouveau. These Art Nouveau fonts were highly specialized and worked best in selective venues. For example, the fonts of Grasset or Auriol were used only for certain kinds of decorative or “fantasy” books. For serious printed works, only the historic Garamond and Didot (acquired in 1912 by Peignot) fonts were appropriate. Peignot continued to commission artists to create new fonts until his death in 1915 in the Great War. Four out of the five Peignot brothers died in this conflict, leaving behind the memory of the important foundry, honored in Paris in the Rue Quatre Frères Peignot and a surviving young brother.

Like his father, Charles Peignot (1897-1983), the only heir, was artistic and left the business end of the foundry to those better suited to running a manufacturing establishment. In the early twenties, the main competitor for the Peignot company was the old business of Balzac, Deberny, and the two firms understood that it would be more profitable to combine forces. In 1923, Deberny et Peignot came together, combining Deberny’s traditional fonts and the modern fonts of Peignot into one enterprise with Charles Peignot as the artistic head of the new firm. Peignot began an eight-year partnership with Maximillian Vox in 1924, promising to work with the artist to actualize Vox’s “typographic conceptions.” Vox speculated, “It is not impossible that France, with its innate sense of proportion, will see the birth of 20th-century type.” Referring to the history of the role Deberny et Peignot played in revolutionizing fonts, the designer also paid tribute to Georges Peignot, stating that he was “the first French typographer who did not think of his job as confined to supplying the printer with little pieces of metal.” When the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes opened in Paris in 1925, it was clear to Peignot that the day of Art Nouveau had passed and the machine age called for a sharp and clean line of modern fonts, to rectify the excesses of Art Nouveau. It was at this point that the printer made contact with Cassandre and asked for an Art Deco font. And so the long winding road brought Balzac and Cassandre together in an improbable association in the firm Deberny et Peignot.

In the next post, the modern fonts of Cassandre will be discussed.

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

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

Thank you.

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The Fate of Fonts, Part Two

The Fate of Fonts

Typography in the 1920s, Part Two

Printing and its old-fashioned fonts had long been viewed as problematic, and, in the nineteenth century, the English designer, William Morris, set out to revive what had once been an art form with the famous Kelmscott Press. His “reform” of mass-produced books was a prelude to the modern movement in typography that actually originated in England before and after the Great War. As Robin Kinross wrote in Modern Typography: An Essay in Critical History,

The movement took up Morris’s fight for high standards and for an awareness of aesthetic qualities in printing: as at least one of its leading members reported, the sight of a Kelmscott book had provided the shock of excitement that started a life-long engagement with typography. But the reformers dissented from Morris on the question of the machine..Furthermore, the legacy of Kelmscott, as taken up by the private presses, had, there, become ossified in the cult of the ‘book beautiful’ or had degenerated in weak imitations of the original conception. The advent of Art Nouveau, and its degeneration, had brought further confusion, especially to a trade printer trying to keep up with fashion. In the face of this situation of decline, the compromise made by the reformers was to accept the machine and provide it with good typefaces. For the book-centred reformers, ‘the machine’ meant above all the Lanston Monotype composing machine, which in Britain was dominant in the sphere of book-printing; line-compos- ing machines predominated in newspaper production..

Kinross was right in pointing out that the task of printing books had gone beyond the scope of the printer and, by the twentieth-century had to become part of the work of designers. The newness of the emerging field can be traced by the uncertain nomenclatures surrounding a new need that no one knew how to name. “The post-war reformation was to be largely the creation of such ‘advisers’, bringing to the printing trade the elements of design. ‘Design’, that is, both in the sense of an aesthetic awareness and in the sense of rational coordination of production,” Kinross stated.“The difference was between the merely modern, seen against a backward trade or ossified bibliophile context, and the consciously modern or the modernist.” In other words, in England and in Germany, the old tradition of hand lettering, which had been replicated in old fonts, was being replaced by a rather belated admission of the role of the machine in printing. The hand had to be banished. By the early twentieth century, another element was presenting itself: the role of typeface in presenting what we would term today as “branding.” In other words, there were some products or services that were difficult to present visually, such as the London Underground.

The massive subway system needed to be united by more than rails under the Underground Group. As Oliver Wainwright explained in The Guardian, the subways, plural, were united into one, under a single “brand,” and in 1916, a calligrapher Edward Johnston (1872-1944) was asked by Frank Pick, head of the Group, to create a typeface that was modern, distinct and yet unobtrusive. The result was a font that was based on the sharp-edged lettering on Trajan’s column, the capitals the artist considered “held the supreme place among letters for readableness and beauty,” as “the best forms for the grandest and most important inscriptions.” The stripped down, lightweight and legible capital letters were san serif, something a bit new in the early twentieth century. In his article, “London to the Letter: Meet Edward Johnston, The Font of All Tube Style,” Wainwright credits Johnston for drawing attention to the way in which such clear and clean fonts could be read with ease. The London Underground script, as it is known today, seems to lift and fly with the speed of the cars rushing past, a prime example of a brand fitting the function of what it represents. One hundred years later, this font is still timeless and irreplaceable–just like Trajan’s column.

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London Underground Font

Johnston had a close associate, the younger designer Eric Gill (1882-1940) who was inspired by the trim look of the sans serif font to create his own font, known as Gill Sans, in 1928. A bit thicker than Johnston’s Underground lettering, Gill Sans is one of the best-known fonts today and was recently redone in 2015 for the contemporary eye, redesigned as the Gill Sans Nova and the Joanna Nova series. As the owner of these fonts, the Monotype corporation explained, “These are contemporary digital typefaces – with a wide range of weights, alternate characters, and extended language support – that pay homage to Gill’s original designs.” The creative director of Monotype, James Fooks-Bale, said, “The Eric Gill Series is what I’d like to refer to as a living narrative, not static and we’re a small part in its evolution since the 1920s.” Like Johnston, Gill’s font would become part of English transportation when Gill Sans was adopted by “London & North Eastern Railway in 1929 as its official typeface for publicity and posters, later appearing on trains themselves. Then Gill Sans really spread its wings, because at nationalisation in 1948 it was adopted by the British Railways Board for its station signage, rolling stock lettering, timetables, and publicity.”

As a 2013 article at UK Time explained, “The British Railways station signs worked so well because Gill Sans is a very dictatorial font, ordering you about in a no-nonsense way. As such, the signs were perfectly suited to the post-war period in Britain, the last time that men in bowler hats were in charge of everything before the 1960s came along and the whole structure of society was blown apart. How reassuring it must have been for a train traveller of the 1950s to know that when arriving at Barnstaple, or looking for the Way Out, they could be in no doubt at all that they were indisputably at Barnstaple, or the Way Out would be precisely where indicated.” Gill Sans was used until the British Railways were privitized in 1965 and Gill’s work was replaced by the Rail Alphabet.

British Railway Car with Gill Sans signage

In Just My Type: A Book About Fonts, Simon Garfield wrote, “Oddly enough, Gill Sans is itself a curiously sexless font..In his autobiography, Gill explained that sans serif was the obvious choice when ‘a forward-minded bookseller of Bristol asked me to paint his shop fascia.’ The long wooden sign in question, for Douglas Cleverdon, led to something else–after seeing a sketch of these letters, Gill’s old friend Stanley Morison commissioned him to design an original sans face for Monotype. Its impact was instant and is still reverberating..It was the most British of types, not only in its appearance (spare, proper, and reservedly proud), but also in its usage, adopted by the Church of England, the BBC, the first Penguin book jackets and British Railways (where it was used on everything from timetables to restaurant menus). Each showed Gill Sans to be a supremely workable text face, carefully structured for mass production.It wasn’t the most charming or radiant, and not perhaps the most endearing choice for literary fiction, but it was ideal for catalogues and academia. It was an inherently trustworthy font, never fussy, consistently practical.” However, to return to the beginning of this paragraph, why did Garfield use the unexpected phrase, “oddly enough” to comment on the sexlessness of Gill Sans?

Perpetua, unlike Gill Sans, has serifs

The great design historian, Steven Heller, reported for Wired Magazine that Gill wrote about his penchant for bestiality and incest and produced pornography, even while designing the Perpetua font, in his diary. The combination of creating elegant fonts and exotic sexual tendencies, which, as the author observed wryly, earned “him posthumous scorn.” The author of the biography, Eric Gill: A Lover’s Quest for Art and God, that revealed Gill’s most interesting life, Fiona MacCarthy, considered the link between the artist’s work and the artist’s personal life: should one be judged by the other? For her article in The Guardian, she discussed a less known aspect of this work, his sculpture. Gill was as adventurous in his public sculpture as he was in his personal life. By 1910, a decorous time in the British arts, the sculptor and soon to be famous font designer, was exploring forbidden topics and producing heretofore rare subject matter. As MacCarthy wrote,

He was already working at the extremes of the domestic and the risqué; his placid mother and child carvings contrasting with the sheer effrontery of such works as Votes for Women, an explicit carving showing the act of intercourse, woman of course on top. Maynard Keynes bought the carving for £5. When asked how his staff reacted to it, he replied: “My staff are trained not to believe their eyes.” This was also the period at which Gill was making the almost life-size sculpture he entitled Fucking. This carving was over protectively rechristened Ecstasy when bought for the collection at Tate Britain, having been discovered abandoned in a boathouse at Birchington-on-Sea. Is it relevant or is it a distraction to know that the subject of the carving is Gill’s younger sister Gladys and her husband Ernest Laughton, entwined in a position of – well – ecstasy, and that Gill’s own incestuous relationship with Gladys was then in progress, continuing for most of their adult life? To me it is significant in stressing the artist’s dependence on the known and familial: his passion was the personal, he would not use outside models. It certainly deepens understanding of the element of voyeurism in Gill’s work.

The biographer’s 2006 article, “Written in Stone,” discussed Gill’s fonts only briefly, but mentioned that, during 1924, he created the Gill Sans series in a “ruined Benedictine monastery at Capel-y-ffin in the Black Mountains of Wales. Here he designed his brilliantly workmanlike typefaces for Monotype, typically throwing his reservations about machine production to the winds. Gill Sans, the sans serif typeface used on the covers of pre-war Penguin books, is rightly lauded in the current V&A Modernism exhibition as the first British modernist type design. What is striking,” MacCarthy wrote, “is that once the immediate commotion over Gill’s sexual aberrations had died down, there was a new surge of interest in his work.” in fact, the reissue of an updated version of Gill Sans, took place ten years later. Like the recent renovation of Gill Sans, the Underground font was also slightly altered. As the London Transport Museum reported, “In the 1970s, London Transport looked into the suitability of using Johnston or its replacement with a more modern letter form. In 1979, Eiichi Kono, a young Japanese designer working for Banks and Miles, revised the original Johnston with slight changes to the proportions to some of the letters and created bold and italic fonts. The New Johnston type is still in use across the network today.” Whatever one might think of Gill the man, it is clear that he followed the creed of his mentor, Johnston, that a font should demonstrate “Readableness, Beauty, and Character.”

But, for the purposes of this series, the question must be asked, why raise the issue of the artist’s life and Gill’s work in fonts? On one hand, there is an interesting contrast between the straightforward Gill Sans and the tangled life of the artist, but, on the other hand, the disturbance about his character underlines how important fonts are to our lives today. For German artists, fonts became deciding factors in their lives. At the same time, Eric Gill was working on his sans fonts in a remote monastery, his German counterparts were creating letters that would put their lives at risk. The next post will examine the dangers of making fonts for the wrong person–Adolf Hitler–at the wrong time.

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 One

The Fate of Fonts

Typography in the 1920s, Part One

Until the 1920s, a printer’s font was selected and combined into words with the intention that the words were going to be read. This assertion may seem axiomatic at first, but, in the modern era, fonts were rethought as elements of graphic design because texts had become an object to gaze upon and not to be closely scrutinized. The Art Deco revolution towards modern fonts went hand-in-hand with the changes in magazine layout which, thanks to print technology, could incorporate images seamlessly and artistically. Free from the stifling grid, artists could reconsider the arrangement and relationship of text and image by equating them in importance. Once the text–letters–fonts–became part of an overall design, it became clear that fonts had to cease their independent existence as letters and become objects in their own right that were a part of the overall design. Old fashioned fonts with their combination of thick lines and thin lines and the accompanying array of bristling serifs simply did not work well with the new dynamics of twentieth-century design. Typography was part of the literate modern world that included books and magazines and advertising and bill boards and posters all demanding attention, and like the rest of the world, old typefaces needed to be updated into modern fonts.

Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, who went by the professional nom de plume “Cassandre” (1901-1968), was a famed poster designer and, as one of the pioneers of Art Deco graphic design, was well aware of the need to signify “modern” with words or fonts as well as shapes and formats to the potential consumers of modern stylish products. A Ukrainian exile living and working in Paris, he experimented at will, often using his own fonts, Bifur, for his graphic work for his clients, free to be creative and unhindered by local political needs that he would have encountered in the new Soviet Union. Because he was the co-founder of his own agency, Alliance Graphique, the designer had the good fortune to experiment without the government interference that would later plague the German designers. The German colleagues of Cassandre began with the same clean slate as he had but, by the early 1930s, seemingly innocent fonts became entangled with national identity.

Bifur Font by Cassandre

Germany was the home country of the famed inventor of movable type and the printing press, Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468). Before Gutenberg improved the already existing movable type, printed pages were pressed onto inked woodblocks with raised letters carved out. These white pages with elaborate letters marching across from one side to the other, from top to bottom, or incunabula, very rare and prized today. The printing press could have been invented in Holand or in Germany by the middle of the fifteenth century, but it quickly replaced the manuscript. Called “mechanical writing,” the pages produced by Gutenberg’s very excellent press looked back to the past, to the handwritten manuscripts with hand lettering that dated back to Medieval times. In addition, many, if not most, of the early manuscripts were liturgical in purpose. In fact, in order to pay off his debts, according to Graphic Design History, Gutenberg printed papal indulgences and Bibles. The consumer or reader would not accept a new “book” if it did not look like a manuscript with all of its handwritten authority. The printer replicated the Textura Quadrata, or the “blackletter” font. Almost five hundred years later, Germany was still using the blackletter font for nearly all official printed materials, from magazines to books to government documents.

Old Type Guttenberg A font

One of the oddities of modern German was not just that the nation kept a font for hundreds of years old but also that capital letters were used to designate nouns, making any page an uneven jumble of large and small letters with on design logic. As early as the 1820s, there were attempts to reform and update the printing of German, using capital letters for the start of sentences and for proper names only as like the rest of the European languages. By the early twentieth century, it was simply absurd to continue the tradition of replicating the handwritten manuscript lettering of the Medieval period, which was calligraphic, dense and elaborate, and one of the self-imposed tasks of the Bauhaus was to update calligraphy and remake fonts into something suitable for the modern era. Students at the Bauhaus were required to take two semesters of typography and letter design. Their teacher, Joost Schmidt, broke individual letters of the alphabet to their basic elements: a circle, a square, and a rectangle. The goal was to create a universal or international alphabet. The word “international” is significant in this context, for the Bauhaus, as has been noted in previous posts, made itself an outlier in Germany by stressing a neutral international identity over a specific and proud national identity. However, in 1923 when László Moholy-Nagy arrived at the Bauhaus in 1923, the politics of identity seemed far away. The designer concentrated upon the concept of typography as an instrument of “clarity” in the service of the “message.” It is clear that the whole of the graphic design resources of the school was oriented towards reform and those efforts at updating including fonts. In the newly inaugurated the Druck und Reklame (printing and advertising) workshop, Herbert Bayer (1900-1985), a former student at the Bauhaus, was head of this new department.

The Director of the art school, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) asked Bayer to design a unique and distinctive typeface that would be the “face” of Bauhaus. The selection of Bayer was a judicious one. The artist had been asked in 1923 by the State of Thuringia to design their new bank notes for a series of million marks bills. Shockingly enough, his design used sans serif type, but two years later, the same government withdrew support from the Bauhaus. Two years later, when Bayer returned in 1925, the school was in a new home, Dessau, and had a new frame of reference. Bayer became head of the typography workshop and decided to create a single font face that would be “universal.” He made a bold leap away from the traditional German blackletter and designed a lower-case only alphabet in which the simplified and reduced font without serifs. which became associated with the Bauhaus and with artistic design. Each letter was constructed with great economy, an arc here, a straight line there, nothing else was necessary. In contrast to the traditional justified right side, Bayer justified only the left side and allowed the right side to be “ragged.” His Universal alphabet did not become “universal,” but the future of fonts would be sans serif, which, like Bayer’s lower case only fonts, was a rebellion against the serif sprouting fraktur and its forest of capital letters. At first, when it came to politics, Bayer proved to be surprisingly open to the blandishments of the Nazis when they came to power. His neutral attitude towards the party of Adolf Hitler was surprising, given that it was the Nazi party that had pushed the Bauhaus out of Weimar, however, for their part, the Nazis were equally flexible in their willingness to hire the former Bauhaus star to do their bidding.

Herbert Bayer’s “Bauhaus” font

As Alice Rawsthorn wrote for The New York Times, “In the 10 years from 1928, when he left the Bauhaus to open a studio in Berlin, until his departure for the United States in 1938, he produced posters, brochures and other promotional material for a succession of government projects. Bayer later tried to erase this period from his biography, describing it as ‘my advertising purgatory..'” It seems that Bayer, like many artists needed the work and could not afford to be political. In the early years, the Nazis cloaked their more evil intentions under programs of rebuilding, but those in power took a dim view of modern art and design. The author continued, “Bayer rapidly became one of Germany’s most prolific commercial designers. But by the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime was increasingly repressive and many of his friends, including the Gropiuses, had left the country. Bayer remained, and worked on high-profile government projects, including the propaganda exhibitions ‘German People, German Work’ and ‘Germany.’ Disapproving though the Nazis were of Modernist design, they were willing to use it whenever it seemed expedient.” However, it was impossible for a modern artist to say in favor with the Nazis indefinitely. By 1938, Bayer had fallen from favor. In 2014 Rawsthorn wrote, “Bayer was desperate to leave Germany, but too broke to do so until Gropius arranged for him to curate an exhibition about the Bauhaus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He left for the United States in August 1938…Looking back on his life in Berlin, Bayer admitted to being ‘appalled how blind’ he had been to the horrors of Nazism. He also acknowledged the folly of thinking that designers, artists or anyone else could isolate themselves from politics, as he had tried to do.”

It would be safe to say that Bayer’s alphabet is still the face of the Bauhaus, but, even though his font existed only as a design its impact lingers on. As Sarah Archer wrote in 2015 on a change in the Google font, “Bayer set out to create a typeface that was “universal” and could be deployed in a variety of creative ways, at different scales. Each element was lowercase so that the typeface could be adapted to typewriters, books, posters, and signage — in other words, all the ways in which we interact with type on a daily basis as we navigate the world. The premise that each letter was the same “weight” in typographic terms, that is, the same thickness, meant that each character was interchangeable and thus the process of design and implementation was simplified. Bayer’s original design now exists as Bayer Universal and inspired the related typefaces, Architype Bayer and Architype Schwitters. Google’s new face, “Product Sans,” faintly resembles Bayer’s Universal Alphabet in its heavy, rounded forms, each of which seems to “fit” in a circular fashion over the footprint of the other.” Archer explained the suitability of a “universal” alphabet for a universal search engine like Google: “Why do this at Google, and why now? Bayer and Tschichold, along with their Bauhaus colleagues like architect Walter Gropius, addressed the struggle to reconcile the human, tactile, and affective experiences of design with the aesthetics (and recent ravages) of the Machine Age. How could people expect to navigate a world that was made of cold materials on a giant scale? Though the concerns of World War I-era Europe seem less pressing now, the spirit of those worries is as relevant as ever: our connections to other people, in ways both good and bad, are mediated by technology, gadgets, and data, from our physical location on earth to the way we “appear” online to others. Google’s breadth and scope essentially makes its array of products the 21st-century equivalent of Modernist architecture or mass production: Google is everywhere, unavoidable, greatly beneficial if used right, and it requires the finesse of forward-thinking, humanist designers to make it accessible.”

New Google font in 2015

Herbert Bayer, like his mentor, Walter Gropius, was successful in America where he lived a safe life in a nation where he could enjoy artistic freedom. The goal of the designers of the 1920s was a simple one–to make fonts legible and readable. In other words, while Cassandre was being creative with fonts in France, his German colleagues were reforming nothing less than how their countrymen read and their inventions were out of necessity. In the next part of this topic, the fate of the other designers and designs in England will be discussed.


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

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Temples of Desire: The French Pavilions of Art Deco

Architecture of Commerce

Selling Art Deco

From Spring to Fall of 1925, The International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris captured the attention of Europe and visiting dignitaries from America. Like the decade itself, this Fair was both forward looking and backward glancing. After the Great War, there was a general desire to return to normal, to “order,” as Jean Cocteau put it. What the writer, and other commentators who shared his sentiments meant, was a turn towards conservativism and caution. The Twenties was a decade of consolidation in the French art world, a digestion of the troublesome avant-gardes of the pre-war that had to be tamed and recycled as “modern art.” Designers, however, faced more complex challenges. Their bête-noir was Art Nouveau and its now old fashioned elaboration. After a terrible war, such decadence seemed obscene and such exuberance became unbearable in a new age of machines. Kenneth Frampton described Hector Guimard’s famous Métro entrances, which marked the Paris subway stations in these terms: “Constructed like the Crystal Palace out of interchangeable, prefabricated cast iron and glass parts, Guimard created his métro system in opposition to the ruling taste of French classical culture…Guimard’s system flourished, emerging overnight like the manifestation of some organic force, its sinuous green cast-iron tentacles erupting from the subterranean labyrinth to support a variety of barriers, pergolas, maps, hooded light fittings and glazed canopies. These surrealistic ‘dragonfly’s wings’—to quote a contemporary critic—received a mixed, not to say chauvinistic, press, the verdigris colour of their iron supports being regarded as German rather than French.” Frampton was describing one of the three types of entrances designed by the artist–the delightful “dragonfly.”

By the 1920s, the time of such flights of fancy had passed. Art Nouveau and its attachment to nature were simply out of step with the Machine Age. Guimard himself noted, “Nature is a great book from which to draw inspiration..Having myself undertaken this study, I discovered three principles which should have a dominant influence on every architectural work: logic, harmony, and feeling.” When he spoke in 1902, a naturalistic design for the Métro entrances was precisely what the Parisians needed. As Marianne Ström noted in her book, Metro-art in the Metro-polis, “The underground has long been synonymous with anguish, fear, and repulsion. It evokes images of funerals, the dead, and hell-fire, sanctuaries (Lascaux and Altamira) and sorcerers.” She could have added the fact that, in Paris, the underground was an ossuary, the graveyards of millions of unknown city dwellers from hundreds of years. Guimard’s entrances were a welcome touch of beauty that would have welcomed tentative visitors to the new mode of travel. But after the war, such superstitions were stripped away and the public accepted the mechanical and technology, even under the earth. Slowly, one by one, Guimard’s one hundred forty-one lovely passages between light and darkness were removed and it was not until the late 1970s that their artistic value was recognized. Only eighty-six remained after the frenzy of modernizing in the 1960s and 70s.

In Architecture of France, David A. Hanser noted that “..Guimard created a new style in which modern, unconventional materials (iron, steel, brick, glass block, glazed tiles) were used openly and mixed with traditional materials, and in which asymmetry predominated..To some, Guimard’s ‘Metro Style’ was modern; to some it was nightmarish; to others, it represented bad taste..” Also very modern in 1901 was the fact that “Guimard’s entrances were made from a kit of relatively few prefabricated parts of cast iron that could be assembled in a wide number of variations.” Despite the advanced materials and building techniques employed, the entrances, as the author pointed out, caused controversies. Guimard was from Belgium, and the French took a dim view of such a foreign invasion and the architect bowed out of the project by 1902. The Art Nouveau stations themselves continued to be built until 1913, but after the Great War, in ten years, the world had changed and a new style, a rejection of Art Nouveau–Art Deco–arrived.

It should not be assumed, however, that Art Deco was a wholesale rejection of the past. Far from it, Art Deco philosophy rejected its near relative, Art Nouveau, but looked back to a very specific time period for inspiration. As Jared Goss, the historian of French Art Deco noted, the Art Nouveau artists were themselves not particularly good craftspersons and did not understand the relationship between art-for-art’s-sake and mass production. The style became a statement of luxury for the few but could not be easily refitted for broad consumption. According to Goss, “..the commercial failure of Art Nouveau was a national embarrassment, as other nations seemed able to succeed at expanding into a wide consumer based without sacrificing quality. Art Deco Designers rejected the sacrifice of quality for the sake of “art” at the expense of execution and “looked back to the preindustrial past, when guild-trained artisans, with their combined mastery of conception and execution, set international standards for excellence in the applied arts. Because the last generation of artist-craftsmen lived during the reign of Louis-Philippe, many designers chose to relate their own work to that style, although some looked also to the earlier eras of Louis XV, Louis XVI, the Directoire, and the Empire. Indeed historical connection became central to the mission of the Art Deco designers.”

One of the foremost designers was Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879–1933), who, by 1920, shook off the heritage of the past and moved out of Art Nouveau and into Art Deco. While he had been influenced by the arts and crafts movement in general and Art Nouveau in particular, he criticized its mode of production, saying, “A clientele of artists, intellectuals, and connoisseurs of modest means is very congenial, but they are not in a position to pay for all the research, the experimentation, the testing that is needed to develop a new design. Only the very rich can pay for what is new and they alone can make it fashionable. Fashions don’t start among the common people. Along with satisfying a desire for change, fashion’s real purpose is to display wealth.” In other words, despite the apparent luxury of Art Deco objects, each object was designed for mass consumption, or, at least, for educated consumers. In addition, it should be pointed out that Art Deco designs, with their simple lines and geometric aspects, were far better suited to being manufactured than the complex configurations of Art Nouveau. The straightforward shapes of the “moderne” also lent themselves to a “downgrading” of materials used so that the Art Deco “look” could move down the economic chain, so to speak, and attract the vast and lucrative middle-class market. Ruhlmann pointed out that “Whether you want it or not, a style is just a craze. And fashion does not come up from humble backgrounds.” In other words, the designers and the objects in the various French pavilions were intended to educate the public, advertise a new style, and sell merchandise. The Fair was an opportunity to educate the French public–potential customers–on the superiority of Art Deco as modern “taste.”


The organization and arrangement of the Fair’s shops, holding an extensive range of merchandise, were laid out in vertical lines, suggesting, to the contemporary eye, an outdoor shopping mall. As the Panorama of the Place des Invalides suggests, a magic carpet of shopping meccas, spread out at the feet of the Fair goers, all to tempt them to shop and to be informed and to learn about the latest styles from famous designers. Christopher Green explained, “In 1925, as in 1900, the middle class were the dominant force in French society; it was they, especially the lesser middle classes known in the 1870s and 1880s as the ‘new strata’ who brought back to power the Radicals in the 1924 Left coalition, the ‘cartel des gauches,’ after half-decade of right-wing dominance in the Chamber from 1919, and brought back with them the rationalist libertarian values of 1900-1914. Indeed, the 1925 Exhibition is one testimony to a mid-twenties desire to remake the image of a new modernity the Belle Epoque, imagined as a time of realized ambitions and sated appetites..” The importance of the “lesser middle classes,” who “worked with their hands” and “aspired socially” was the consumer base for the Art Deco artists. In Art in France, 1900-1940, Green explained that the pavilions appealed to “..the lesser middle classes (who lived in) scaled-down versions of the comfortable households of the bourgeoisie rich. It was its lavish appeal to this kind of social emulation that made of the 1925 Exhibition a popular as well as élite success.” The major sites of desire were the pavilions of the leading department stores of Paris–each structure dedicated to the targeted consumer, females with discretionary income, considered the prime customers of these temples of fashion, art, and design.

In their book on Art Deco, Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl discussed the extensive layout provided for the French buildings in the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.“The French section comprised two main areas, almost perpendicular to each other, one of them marked by the Seine between the Pont de la Concorde and the ALms Bridge, the other one, leading alongside he Avenue Nicholas II, the Alexandre III Bridge, and the alley bisecting the section cutting across the Esplanade des Invalides from north to south. On the quays of the right bank of the river and the Cours-la-Reine, the visitor would successively encounter the foreign and the French pavilions, then the French Village and the colonial pavilions. On the left bank, some more pavilions, miniature toys presented in a model village, the transport gallery, and the amusement park. On the Esplanade, symmetry, and variety, order and life, obtained by an extremely considered arrangement of buildings, predominately assigned to France. Lastly, in order to connect the two parts of the Exhibition, separated by the Seine and for fear the public would not be tempted to cross from one bank to the other under the summer sun, the Alexandre III Bridge was transformed, from two lines of shops into a kind of Rialto. It was, like certain bridges of the Middle Ages, a street spanning a river..”

The four pavilions of the four great departments stores of Paris were wedged into four corners of the Esplanade des Invalides. The Pavilion for the Printemps department store celebrated the fame of the establishment which had arisen from the urban renewal project of Baron Georges Haussmann in the 1860s. In 1865, the founder, Jules Jaluzot, surveyed the new terrain of Paris and selected the 9th Arrondissement as the site for his new enterprise. A former employee of Le Bon Marché, Jaluzot understood the importance of foot traffic and recognized the convenience of being near the Gare St. Lazare and the covered “passages” or mini malls of the Grandes Boulevards. From the beginning, one of the characteristics of Printemps would be the huge display windows, reminiscent of the old fashioned markets on the streets. The “store” was really an assortment of buildings, starting with a building on Boulevard Haussmann and expanding to several other adjacent structures, all of which were destroyed by a fire in 1881. The original “stores” were expanded when rebuilt, rebounding to greater elegance. Under Jaluzot, the newest department store in Paris, became the most innovative, initiating the idea of a “sale” (les soldes) of older merchandise. Customers were offered a bouquet of violets on the first day of spring and, in the windows, elegantly dressed mannequins–an art form in and of themselves–wore the latest fashions. With the new owner, Gustave Laguionie, who purchased the store in 1905, came more innovations. Laguionie topped the main building with a stunning dome, complete with a terrace. Today it is still possible to sit on the roof terrace and have a meal while surveying all of Paris. The famous dome of the original Printemps roof was made with reinforced concrete, which incorporated glass creations by the artist Réné Lalique. In 1912, another much-copied innovation for Printemps was begun when René Guilleré, the founder of the Société des Artistes décorateurs, suggested the firm initiate a department dedicated to displaying and selling artisanal objects and unique furniture pieces. These art works would be designed by the most fashionable designers of the day, including Guilleré’s wife, Charlotte Chauchet, who would go on the design the interiors for the Pavilion in 1925. Faced with a second fire in 1923 that destroyed the Art Nouveau façade, spiral staircase, and mosaic tiles with their flower motifs were destroyed, Laguionie rebuilt the famous dome, reconstructing it as a stained glass masterwork, again by Lalique. And the “Printemps Haussmann” had another innovation to present: special displays for Christmas in the windows, which were now thought of as sites for installations of merchandise arranged with the care of a museum curator. The notion of holiday window displays was quickly copied by New York department stores.

The Pavilion for the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925 had to be a celebration of the survival and renewal of Printemps, rising like a phoenix from the fires, an advertisement for the first department store to display furniture and design. The architects were as famous as the store itself: Henri Sauvage (1873-1932) and his collaborator Georges Wybo, was was the chief architect of the store itself. Sauvage had been one of the pioneers of Art Deco architecture but also excelled in functionalist architecture and in decoration. He and the architect of the Le Bon Marché Pavilion used the cast iron support columns of the station at Les Invalides which was under the building to support the structures above. As the book, The Architectural Drawings of Henri Sauvage: Architectural works, c. 1905-1931, reported, “Given the fragility of the Invalides Station roof on top of which the building was erected, its was necessary to bear the load on the existing supports by means of reinforced concrete girders carrying the cantilevered pavilion posts.” The Pavilion was dominated by a remarkable frustoconical “dome” that expanded outward from its clipped-off top, enabling the architects to encompass the entire template allotted to them by the officials of the Fair. In fact, as Victoria Charles and Klaus H. Carl pointed out that the architectural use of “..reinforced concrete dominated the event.” They added that while architects had used concrete in a utilitarian mode, it could “assume, on the contrary, a certain elegance. Even if the Exhibition did not help the new concept of construction progress on a technical level, the date is marked in the history of its diffusion. It accustomed the eyes to its bond spans, its simple shapes, and its large cantilever overhangs. It established its recognition.”

The dome, which quoted the one on the store itself, was built by the Etablissements Perret Company and made of vitreous cement, manufactured by Jean Séailles and his partner Eugène Freyssinet. This kind of cement was a relatively new product, used by Séailles to coat the sides of the Printemps swimming pool in the store’s Salon d’Automne. L’architect magazine of 1925 described the process: “In order to occupy the maximum volume, the architect has ultimately been required to completely fill the imposed template. The result was a very simple envelope which was very richly coated with precious materials. Indeed, all the bases are executed in vitrified cement called “Lap d’Or” of which we have already seen a first application in the Spring Pool. The cement designs are nipped with filaments of gold drowned in the mass and crowned by a cornice with a mosaic of black and gold sandstone. The reinforced concrete roof lined with straw compressed in its lower part, to maintain the freshness of the premises in summer, it is covered with large glass lenses cast, executed by Lalique and giving a little impression of big pebbles with a general tone light chamois. Light hidden concealed fireplaces throw their fires on the facades and the cover.” The magazine elaborated further adding that René Lalique, the artist-decorator, designed “the reinforced concrete roof lined with compressed straw (solomite) with colored glass lenses resembling pebbles.” The effect, as the magazine suggested, was as if colored stones were shining from a journey tumbling down a stream of rushing water. The book on Sauvage described the “gold and black mosaic tiling cornice” made by Gentil and Bourdet and that the wrought iron main door was made by Mozer. The author and editor, Jean-Baptiste Minnaert, noted that “at night the facades of the pavilion were spot-lit.” The book’s section on the Pavilion continued, “The Pavilion did not always get good press. Criticism was leveled at the lack of harmony between the openings requested by the Primavera studios and the interior decoration, decided upon later. The interior layout program, the home of a great artist, was a disconnected suite of juxtaposed rooms. The Pavilion has since been demolished.”

As is evident, the Pavilion was the work of many hands and many designers, all brought together to create a striking and controversial building which, if nothing else, had been created to attract attention. The design or designs were exquisitely elaborate and it is doubtful if any of the artists were familiar with the idea of ornament as a “crime.” Alphonse Gentil and François Bourdet, who designed the elaborate tiles for the cornice were architects, classically trained at the School of Fine Arts in Paris and yet they were also entrepreneurs, who created their own company in 1901, Gentil, Bourdet et Cie, creating exterior embellishments in sandstone and ceramics. Their intention was clearly architectural elaboration and the pair began as Art Nouveau designers, as did many of the other designers, who worked on the Pavilion. Although Gentil was Algerian, Bourdet hailed from Nancy, the capital of Art Nouveau, where both artists were well-known crafters of Art Nouveau vases. With the greatest of ease, after the Great War, they shifted their designs towards Art Deco. The point is that the department store pavilions were all small jewel boxes masquerading as architecture. Given that all the artisans, who collaborated on this and the other structures for les grands magasins were veterans of Art Nouveau, they were not part of the new generation which eschewed ornament. The outsides of these glittering gazabos of shopping promised rooms full of the most fashionable and desirable wonders—a lure that the plain white walls of Le Corbusier were incapable of achieving. Fabrienne Fravalo wrote in 2009 in an article entitled, “Primavera, the Art Shop of the Printemps Stores,” that the theme of the Pavilion was the “house of an artist.” He noted that, in comparison to the contributions of other department stores, this pavilion was very original, so much so, it was disparaged as being a “hut,” because of the cone shaped roof. But this “hut” was encrusted with precious decorative coatings, not to mention the huge planters overflowing with draping flowers. As Fravalo wrote (in translation) for L’historire par l’image:

Evoking a temple, this unusual building houses an interior that is both modern and refined, designed according to the wishes of Spring and that of an artist. Its design made by the different workshops of Primavera contrasts rather strongly with the exterior aspect, as shown by the view of the vast living room. All the furniture in this room meets a spirit of modern comfort: the wide divan, the carpets with geometric motifs, the small coffee table with clean lines, the piano on columns where a large lamp with the shade pleated. Inviting to contemplation and aesthetic reverie, the art objects arranged in this reception room accentuate yet the elegant and refined atmosphere. The interior layout of the Primavera pavilion, a true demonstration of the creative possibilities of the Spring workshops, also clearly reveals the guiding principles of the department store: to offer guests a harmonious, comfortable and designed as a whole. Thought differently according to whether it is addressed to a man or a woman, the decoration also takes into account his profession: the 1925 pavilion thus corresponds to the dwelling of a male artist. The decorators pay as much attention to the furniture as to the accessories: from the wallpaper to the lamps, to the glassware, ceramics and statuettes, all the elements are important.

The conceptual juxtaposition of Le Corbusier’s all white undecorated Pavilion at the Fair and the fully dressed and “clad” department store pavilions pointed to a contradiction in terms within the practice of architecture itself. If one follows the reasoning of Mark Wigley in his famous book, White Walls, Designer Dresses. The Fashioning of Modern Architecture, the color white, which “dressed” the walls of “modern” architecture, was related in concept to the reform dresses and to the simplified designs with sharp edged cuts by radical designers, such as Coco Chanel. But in rejecting ornamentation and decoration and period styles, the radical architects also insisted that they were rejecting changeable fashions. But Wigley, following the trail of references dropped by the architects in their writings, saw a “psychosexual economy of fashion” buried in the subtexts. In addition to refusing to use ornamentation and decoration and references to the past, the modern architects were rejecting color or polychrome exteriors as form of “clothing” or a “cloaking” of the surface. As is known, the unadorned surfaces of the modern buildings of the architect Adolf Loos shocked the Viennese public with their “naked,” meaning unclothed or “undressed” exteriors. For many observers of the older generation, a “naked” building was obscene and scandalous, akin to a nude body walking down the street.

Le Corbusier preached the superior “morality” of white as a chaste and pure color but Wigley commented that the “..whole moral, ethical, functional and technical superiority of architecture is seen to hang on the whiteness of its surfaces.Although white surfaces were put forward by modern architects as superior to decoration and polychromy, Wigley argued that the insistence upon white was a “very particular fantasy. it is the mark of a certain desire, the seemingly innocuous calling card of an unspoken obsession.” If one accepts the notion that white architecture, such as Le Corbusier’s Pavillion L’Espirt Nouveau at the Exposition, was the architectural the equivalent to putting on a plain but beautifully tailored crisp white shirt, then the Pavilion of Printemps was a statement of fashion and decoration and other marvels that appealed to (female) fantasies of accumulation and acquisition of adornment. While the architect dons a white shirt and wears a black suit, the female consumer changes her outfit every day and follows changing styles devotedly. The contrast in attitudes towards fashion is a gender dialectic that was played out in the built environment. Le Corbusier was so disturbed by the excesses of Fair architecture and the unbridled decoration of Art Deco that he wrote L’art décoratif d’aujourd’hui (1925) in protest, putting forward his opposing philosophy. But these four department store pavilions at the Paris Fair had to be “clothed;” it was necessary for them to be wearing the latest styles. In contrast to the wealth of display on the outside–the contributions of many designers and artists–a white building displays a prim hygiene.

As Wigley noted, “The white surfaces that traditionally mark cleanliness do just that, they mark rather than effect it. The whiteness of supposedly hygienic spaces originated with the garments and cosmetic powders that were periodically changed in order to take sweat of the body out of sight but not remove it. Putting on a new shirt was equivalent to taking a bath… Cleanliness was the visual effect that marked one’s membership of a social class rather than the state of one’s body. The look of hygiene was a kind of label that classifies the person who wears it.” The Printemps Pavilion wore its exterior decorations like a collection of metaphors, all signifying the interior contents which collectively were advertising a modern way of life for a very modern and aware individual, the artist who is always on the cutting edge, a denizen of style.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Art Deco as Product Design

Defining Art Deco as Consumerism

The Artist and Product Design

In the spring of 1925, the city of Paris hosted the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Decorative Arts and Modern Industries), which was a trade fair. The emphasis was on merchandise was carriers of design and art with the goal of demonstrating the post-war dominance of French artistry and French taste. Aside from being a national gesture of using art as part of a conflict arrière, the Exposition fitted neatly into the financial boom of the 1920s when money flowed as freely as wine. The Great War had been a period of deprivation and sacrifice, and, by the mid-twenties, a social shift had taken place. This change in culture accompanied the artistic modifications of the avant-garde to a more platable and more purchasable tamed Cubism and the release of women and the rise of new attitudes and new life styles. Mass media, advertising, and film, spread new styles and new ideas and, in the process, created a new person: the consumer, the buyer, the individual who desired something new and attractive. Made for the modern consumer, part of a now large middle class, the Paris Fair of 1925 was an enlarged and sprawling department store.

Ticket to the Exposition

What made Art Deco “Moderne” was quite simple, it banished the curved lines of nature and ushered in the lines made with mechanical drawing instruments, meaning the circle or a curve was allowed as long it was clearly machine made. Like the radical modern, Art Deco looked back to the past but in a different way. Le Corbusier meticulously traced his architectural theories and, consequently, his architecture, to the rationalism of the classical age of Louis XIV. The trajectory of the modern was a straight progressive line, based on the logic of a teleological purification. Art Deco was more rooted in the eighteenth-century sense of the decorative among the aristocrats, who prized high elegance and accepted the motifs of other cultures filtered through a French sensibility. In addition to the telescoping of the past and present, the old and the new, Art Deco also became the style in which new technological advances, from cars to radios, expressed their novel modernity. Writing for ArchDaily, Luke Fiederer said,

During its six month run, the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs attracted roughly sixteen million visitors, creating massive international demand for the style to which it ultimately lent its name. In accordance with the organizer’s aims, the Exposition also established France as the arbiter of taste and fashion in the interwar era; Paris itself was put on display as the world’s most fashionable city. But the ramifications of the Exposition Internationale would spread far beyond Paris. Though several similar world’s fairs would follow in subsequent years (including two more in Paris in 1931 and 1937), none would have such a resounding impact as the one which took place in 1925. Time would eventually move past the frenzy of Art Deco that followed the 1925 Exposition, giving way to Modernism in the wake of the Second World War – but no single event would ever have such a profound effect on global design sensibilities ever again.

Because of its dominance in consumer goods, ranging from ash trays to fashion to rugs to liquor cabinets, Art Deco became the style of choice for the interwar generation, the Jazz Age, Les années folles, the decade of the Flapper, the decadence of the Lost Generation. The embeddedness of Art Deco in a consumer culture is significant because the “modern” of radical architecture and furnishings was embedded in a social theory of utopian socialism with the goal—not only of providing pleasure but also of providing pre-fabricated affordable housing furnished with affordable mass produced furniture and household objects. Therefore, there was a clear distinction between classes: pure theory based modern styles was an attempt on the part of the intellectuals to aid the working classes, but Art Deco was for the well-to-do, the sophisticated members of high society who could afford superfluous luxury goods and could afford to buy beauty for beauty’s sake.

Crowds at the Exposition

In fact, Grace Glueck of The New York Times scorned the style: “…Art Deco — a conservative but catchy fusion of earlier neo-classical styles like Louis XVI and Empire laced with Cubism, Futurism and late Art Nouveau — was all the rage. Sumptuous materials were its hallmark..” The art critic was making a larger point that the Fair woke up, not just America, but the rest of the world to the lucrative significance of design. More importantly, it could be added that art and design had become a modern mode of manifesting an international presence. The Americans, feeling that the nation had nothing of note to offer to the Parisians, turned down the invitation to participate, but observers were present, taking mental notes, as it were, and by the end of the decade, an American version of Art Deco would manifest itself in the skyscrapers now rising from the bedrock of Manhattan Island.

After the Great War, by the 1920s it was clear that much of the pre-war avant-garde, the bright colors of Fauvism, the sharp edges of Cubism, the fascination for speed from Futurism and the strong designs of Orphism, the exoticism of the Ballets Russes, and the fanciful dresses of Paul Poiret had been absorbed into the visual culture and had been disgorged as applied art. While the theme of the 1925 Fair was supposedly a form of industrial design, the actual standard for admission was simply “new inspiration and real originality,” encouraging artisan objects rather than manufactured objects. Stressing spectacle and focusing on glamour, the Exposition re-centered France as the capital of luxury goods and was what we today would term “feel good,” a sensation greatly valued after a terrible War. The Germans, invited belatedly, did not make an appearance but history shows that the Bauhaus machine-inspired industrial designs would consign the luxury style of Art Deco to historical dust. Art Deco was fated to suffer the fate of “style,” its day would pass; but the Bauhaus designers offered more than a style–they offered a lifestyle, one that would define the “modern.”

But the future was not known in 1925, and, despite its generational loss in the war, France asserted itself as the national leader among nations in modern style and cutting edge design. Absent dissenting voices from Germany or America, France reigned supreme. Designer Maurice Dufrène created the Rue des Boutiques along the Pont Alexandre III, providing a strip mall for consumer goods. The publicity for the event announced, “The new art has created a new artist.” This new artist is described as an “ensemblier” who, as the writer stated, “Is not a technician but a designer who has studied all the arts and all the crafts going into the composition of the interior.” Many of these new artists were connected to the major department stores in Paris, each of which was represented by their own Pavilions, underlining the Fair’s unabashed commercialism. This analysis comes from Simon Dell who wrote an important essay on “The Consumer and the Making of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes , 1907–1925” in 1999. The essay highlights the significance of the many pavilions built by the French to showcase their wares, allowing the objects to be displayed in domestic or department store type settings, exhibited to their best advantage, with the intention of arousing the desire to purchase in the hearts of the consumer. Dell pointed out that the Fair exhibited a significant shift from simply making or producing artifacts to what he termed “the presentation of consumption.”

Louis Cartier and Maurice Couët. Clock (white jade, onyx, diamonds, coral, mother of pearl, gold)

The genius of the designer as one who produced an assemblage or a total work of art meant that the well-heeled consumer had to move into an Art Deco home, furnished with new Art Deco furnishings from floor to ceiling and was required to wear coordinating fashions. The word for the Exposition was “ensemble.” The visitor should be consumed with desire for the new, not just one desire but a series of cascading and interlocking desires that led the viewer, soon to the be consumer, from one created “need” to another. This combination of retail and art was potent. The designs by the artists-craftspeople were so beautiful and exquisitely made they were simply irresistible. There was a psychological aspect to the elegant pavilions, their seductive way of presenting objects clearly proffered to the affluent–the mode of installation and display made people imagine themselves through design. Donning an Art Deco dress or sitting down at an Art Deco desk or purchasing an Art Deco lamp became part of a self-fashioning of a persona: the consumer was expressing him or herself through the acquisition of objects of desire. It is important to think of the Exposition as an exercise in mass social education. The middle class was being knitted into the fabric of the upper class and its tastes in order to create a knowledgeable buyer and consequently a reliable customer. The goal of this consumer was not just to purchase a luxury item or indeed to express him or herself through consumption, rather the end point of the project was to demonstrate what Pierre Bourdieu termed “distinction,” the ability to distinguish oneself from those who were not “in the know.” As Bourdieu stated,

Consumption is, in this case, a stage in a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or ex­plicit mastery of a cipher or code. In a sense, one can say that the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir), or concepts, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes for perception. A work of art has meaning and interest only for someone who possesses the cultural competence, that is, the code, into which it is encoded. The conscious or unconscious implemen­tation of explicit or implicit schemes of perception and appreciation which constitutes pictorial or musical culture is the hidden condition for recognizing the styles characteristic of a period, a school or an author, and, more generally, for the familiarity with the internal logic of works that aesthetic enjoyment presupposes. A beholder who lacks the specific code feels lost in a chaos of sounds and rhythms, colours and lines, with­ out rhyme or reason.

In his important book, Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste in 1979, Bourdieu stressed the “aristocracy of culture” as signified by a grasp of “culture” that could be “symbolized.” This symbolic culture was manifested as a displayed knowledge of how to comport oneself, how to act, how to speak, how to move through the world with what he called “habitus.” For Bourdieu, this “habitus” is part of the class structure or the social system which divides classes, not so much by economic differences but by an understanding of social codes or the ability to read crucial signals. If, as Bourdieu, pointed out, one lacks the ability to recognize the “codes,” one revealed through ignorance that one did not belong. This innate class knowledge, once granted on to those born into a certain social sphere, was now for sale at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes.

Horrified by the appearance of the new style, eventually called Art Deco, Le Corbusier preached, “Trash is always abundantly decorated; the luxury object is well made, neat and clean, pure and healthy, and its bareness reveals the quality of its manufacture.” Not only was the architect echoing Loos, he was also channeling William Morris who decried the false ornamentation of manufactured products for the middle-class home. Over fifty years later, Le Corbusier observed that the cheap consumer goods were festooned with elaborations while the truly elegant objects were clean simple designs that need nothing more than their pure form. The “Decorative is disguise,” he proclaimed. In keeping with Loos, Le Corbusier also assumed that design, like art, would evolve from a state of impurity—that is decoration—to a state of purity—that is the objet-type or the rational object. In representing the theories of the modern, Le Corbusier was alone—Germany refused to participate, complaining of the late arrival of an invitation, and America, the recognized home of the industrial and the mechanical, declined, stating a lack of development in the decorative arts. Only the Russian Pavilion could match the edginess of Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau as an example of functionalism and constructivism. But in terms of proselytizing in the French language, the Swiss architect became the main bulwark against creeping impurity. Art Deco, which took modern shapes and forms and repurposed them as a new décor, was, in his view “the final spasm of a predictable death.”

Le Corbusier’s Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau

In some ways, his prediction was correct for the unadorned work of architecture or stripped down object became identified as “modern,” while Art Deco had to wait decades before being recognized as a style in its own right, not a “fallen” version of modernism. A style of luxury, targeting connoisseurs prone to avant-garde aspirations, Art Deco or Art Moderne, was simply erased after the history of the interwar era was written after World War II. In its own time, however, Art Deco ushered in a new age of commercialism and commodities, announcing a new style that swept away Art Nouveau which demanded a new wave of redecorating to conform with the age of the automobile. Like its more serious and theoretical cousin, modernism, Art Deco insisted that art must be of its own time, but, unlike the modern style of the Bauhaus and Gropius and Mies van der Rohr or the Purism of Le Corbusier, Art Deco evoked an ethnic and historic mix of references.

Post card of the Eiffel Tower at Night

If Le Corbusier had visited the Fair at night, he would have been treated to the sight of the Eiffel Tower, normally unadorned, decked out like a Christmas tree with some 200,000 light bulbs if six different colors that were coordinated to create different light shows, including the logo of the sponsor, Citroën. The prominent position of the automobile company looming over Paris might explain why Citroën was not interested in sponsoring Le Corbusier’s Pavillion. The plan to hold an exhibition based on the machine predated the Great War when French critic Roger Marx said in 1909 that such an event would “bring to an end the scorn to which the machine has been subjected, and end the longstanding antagonism between architects and engineers..” The real story of the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes was the famous pavilions, the stylish containers of objects of desire, bound inside of Art Deco styled buildings that were–alas–temporary, where the consumer could be overwhelmed by a desire to possess. The next post will discuss these elegant pavilions.

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

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