The Art Deco Posters of Cassandre, Part Two

Cassandre and Travel Posters

By Land and By Sea

The history of the luxurious trains that once traveled over the European continent is difficult to find. One can only imagine that the history of the “sleepers” or wagon-lits was a short one. Such elegant trains, capable of taking long journeys, days and nights, fed the passengers by day and laid out their beds at night. These opulent trips were for the wealthy and for those with ample amounts of leisure time and these trains usually traveled between a glamorous destination to an exotic place of equal fame. But those days, which began after the Great War, ended with the beginning of the Second World War–barely two decades during which legends were born. The famous Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, told the story of British passengers on a trek to the “mysterious east,” between the wars. These aristocrats were disturbed by a murder in the night. The famous detective Hercule Poiret, a passenger, of course, solves the mystery but ends his revelations with frustration–all the passengers were guilty and he was unable to bring them to justice. This book has been made into a number of films, one in 2017, and the viewer will notice that Anthony Lambert was correct to remark in his book on travel, The 50 Greatest Train Journeys of the World, that, after the Great War, the luxury trains were revived with considerable “less ostentatious.” Before the War, he wrote, “..the train for the Trans-Siberian International Express was the sensation of the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1900. Each carriage for just eight people was in a different style–Louis XVI, Greek, French Empire, Chinese–and each had a music room with a full-sized piano, a library with books in four languages, a hairdressing salon finished in white sycamore, a gym with weights, exercise bicycle and rowing machine, a chapel car and a fully equipped darkroom. By 1914 CIWL had 32 luxury trains in service, but most ceased operation during the First World War, to be revived afterwards in usually less ostentatious form.”

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

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

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

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

Image result for Etoile du Nord history+french travel poster

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

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

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

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

Second Class Smoking Longue on the Statendam

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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The Art Deco Posters of Cassandre, Part One

Cassandre: The Face of Art Deco

Posters and Fonts

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

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

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

Posters for Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes

by Charles Loupot and Andre Girard and Emile-Antoine Bourdelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dubonnet Man (1932)Image result for dubonnet cassandre

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

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


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

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

Thank you.

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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.

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 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.

[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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