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The Rules of Modernism

Roger R. Remington studied graphic design at Rochester Institute of Technology as well as the Universitiy of Wisconsin-Madison. In 2006 he became Massimo and Lella Vignelli Distinguished Professor of Design at RIT – the first endowed professorship in the school of graphic design. Remington primarily considers himself a teacher, focusing on graphic design history, theory, and methods. In 1982 he began serious research, having written two books and publishing several pieces on the subject of graphic design since then.

Unjustly, art is often an afterthought when one considers what constitutes 'History.' Being one of the most open forms of expression, however, Art is perhaps the clearest way to study social aspects of history. In Roger R. Remington's book American Modernism : Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960, Remington discusses the Modernist movement in American Art between World War I and World War II. The author not only analyzes the unique elements of Modernism as an art form, but how historical events inspired the movement, and how these elements reflect common philosophies of the time. Not only does the reader learn the change in art, but how art became a powerful tool “to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade and perhaps even to amuse.” 1
To begin with some historical context, early 19th century art in America was centered around Victorian style. Victorian Era art reflected qualities of medieval painting – very ornamental and romantic, designed to appease the senses while not portraying anything significant. The transition to Modernism would occur in 1880, when the Industrial Revolution would inspire a mass glorification of technology; a period which Remington refers to as the “American Mechanical Paradise.” 2 The proliferation of technology at the turn of the century was hitting society hard, and fast. In 1913 French author Charles Pegay wrote, “The world has changed less since the time of Jesus Christ than it has in the last thirty years.” 3 As lifestyles began to change dramatically, art naturally reflected this change – Victorian principles had to quickly make way for what was then known only as “the new.” The impact of the Industrial Revolution would begin to manifest itself in art by means of architecture. The 19th century modern marvel known as the Crystal Palace in London showcased new methods of producing cheap but strong glass, and was seen as the symbol of The Industrial Revolution until 1889. In 1889, the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower sent shock waves through America and Western Europe. The architecture of the Eiffel Tower was a death knell for the Victorian Era, as well as a rallying cry for welcoming Modernism. In the early 1900's, Modernism was taking baby steps in both architecture as well as typography, until World War I acted as the catalyst for a global flourishing of Modernist movements.

World War I was quite literally world-changing in its own merit – a global war of unprecedented scale, expenditure, and destruction; and the desires of post-World War I society was well summarized by the Harding administration – a return to normalcy. To understand why the Modernism movement was so natural, one must understand the principles of Modern Art. The inspiration for modernism is embodied well in the words of painter Hans Hoffman, who described Modernism as “the ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”4 Modernism discarded the ornamental style of the Victorian Era and replaced it with a simplicity and practicality that was needed in a war-torn world. America had been damaged, and there was no time for romantic and sensual art in the reconstruction of the country. Modernism in the late 1910's was mostly seen in changes to typography. Fonts were becoming simpler, bolder, and more practical. Printed page design was made to be absorbed quickly by viewers; made to get a point across quickly and effectively. America was also the perfect society in which to nurture “the new” as it was a new country itself. Many European immigrants fled from their tradition-heavy homelands to America, a country that was too young to even have tradition. The Modernism movement helped form a strictly American culture by enticing immigrants from many cultures to freely mix their new ideas.

The 1920's and 1930's were the climax of American Modernism. Modernism was perfected to a tee during the 1920's, or rather, the Roarin' Twenties – a very controversial decade in American History. The relief of the end of World War I led to what is often called a degraded society. Morals were low and vice was high as people were just happy to be alive, free from the daily stress of global calamity. Modernism reflected such values in it's desire to be consumed quickly. Instant gratification was the goal of the average citizen and Modernism provided just that. Modernism finally took a definite shape as Modernists began to agree on what exactly did and did not constitute modern art. Contrary to most artistic movements, a piece of art had to fit a universally accepted criteria before it was considered “modern art.” As artists began to make this consensus on what Modernism exactly was, another unique feature of Modernism began to emerge – it's unity. Artistic movements usually manifest themselves in different ways across different mediums – paintings, texts, sculptures, etc. – but the principles of Modernism could be applied to everything from architecture to advertising. As graphic design was becoming accepted as a serious profession, art colleges began to teach that “all art and design lived in a matrix of craft that one learned by doing, and that all arts should be unified.” 5 By the end of the 1920's a piece of “modern art” cold be identified by anyone using a checklist, containing elements such as; the use of systematic methods rather than intuitive ones, the use of geometric shapes, the use of primary colors, the use of sans-serif typefaces, the use of photographs and diagrams, the application of planned visual hierarchy, and the application of continuity in page flow, to name a few of the most standard “rules.”

As modern artists perfected their craft, the graphic designer took the stage at the dawn of the 1930's. Between the Great Depression and World War II, Modernism had ascended from an art form into a tool. Graphic designers were hired excessively by both business men and government officials. Graphic designers used the practical simplicity of modernism in the commercial industry, using their talent to make extremely effective advertisements. Aside from such timeless characters as Betty Boop and Uncle Sam, graphic designers were responsible for such equally timeless logos as Ford automobiles and Chase banking. Graphic designers were used similarly for effective propaganda, most notably concerning World War II. The growth of this commercialism amongst modern-artists-turned-graphic-designers during this period turned modernism into what Remington calls “commercial art.” 6 Commercial art had touched virtually every industry in existence by the end of the 20th century, and modernism had well made its mark in history. The practical commercial applications of modernism still resonate today, usually in the form of advertisements. The Modernist movement was on the home stretch with America's entry into World War II. During World War II graphic designers were commissioned for various symbols and logos to be used in the military, whilst maintaining their dominance in the business world. As World War II came to an end and the American economy returned to a comfortable state, the stage was set for the fading of Modernism and the emergence of “Postmodernism.”

American Modernism : Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960 is the first book to take a comprehensive look at 20th century America through the Modernist art movement. Remington describes that, “there are many ways in which the history of a profession can be viewed.” 7 Remington uses chronology to exemplify not only how history affected art, but how art affected history. Modernism is found in pop culture, education, architecture, advertisement, propaganda, and business design. Modernism was so embedded in the culture of mid 20th century America that a chronological view of art reflects an extremely accurate view of society itself.

Remington is an American-born citizen who carries a genuine passion for studying the active role of art in society. He pioneered his profession, making it difficult to compare him to any others. He is given merit, however, by his reputation; consistently invited to speak or teach as a guest to both national and international colleges. Remington's research is serious, extensive, and well documented; evidenced by his two other books and several essays on graphic design. This particular book may be prone to over- glorification of his home country, America, or perhaps even an artistic bias, which would be difficult to discern. Being published in 2003, this book may be excessively patriotic – a reaction to rising international tension, particularly in the middle-east.

American Modernism : Graphic Design, 1920 to 1960 provides a very consistent and holistic overview of mid 20th century America, as well as a plethora of colored illustrations representing all details of the Modernist art movement. It takes a unique view on the subject by focusing on the profession of graphic design itself, and how it evolved during this time period. Remington is very precise in tracing the evolution of typography, “provid[ing] a good overview of ... the digital revolution's impact on 'fontography'.” 8 Despite the extraordinary amount of research and documentation, it is difficult to give Remington too much credit since mid 20th century America is such “well worn territory.” 9 The era of the World Wars is revolutionary, and consequently has been combed by historians for decades. It is safe to assume then, that Remington did relatively little work in compiling this book. It is also worth noting that Remington never examines the downside of modernism or gives solid evidence for its decline after World War II.

Remington's book indeed covers nearly a half century of American history in great detail, however this accolade may also be a curse to the reader. With a movement as extensive as Modernism, there is simply too much information to relay effectively in such a relatively small volume. Consequently, Remington had to sacrifice details of certain areas to provide proper details in other areas. A primary example of this would be the extreme focus on the evolution of typography while lacking information on the style of photography graphic designers preferred using – especially while noting how important and prolific photography was to Modernism page layouts. Credit is indeed due for the 250 colored illustrations compiled conveniently into the single volume. By pictures and picture captions alone a reader can see not only how styles changed, but how graphic design affected almost every area of life. There was also an excessive amount of text spent on citing various random lesser artists and personalities when such text could have been spent on more holistic details on Modernism itself.

The art produced during the mid 20th century Modernist movement was the birth of a truly American culture. Modern artist who's homes were in Europe after World War I were suppressed not only by the aftermath of war but artistically by the heavy traditions that were prolific throughout Europe. America was a young country with no strong culture and open borders, Modernist immigrants took this opportunity to come spread their new ideas in a society that might actually absorb them – and it did. American art during the mid 20th century didn't affect the rest of the world so much as the rest of the world affected American art. American was perhaps the last country to accept the Modernist movement. Modernism was inspired by the consequences of war, and America experienced very little of that. What America did do, however, once Modernism began to flourish, was champion the graphic designer and apply Modernism practically to advertisements and propaganda. The commercial style Modernism that emerged during the 1930's was good at communicating quickly and effectively, a style still useful in niche advertisements and niche government jobs today.

American Modernism was a very natural and inevitable movement that guided society through the trauma of two world wars and an economic collapse. Modernism helped to define a strictly American culture, and made its mark in commercial advertisement that is still popular in advertisement today.

1. Remington, Roger R. American Modernism : Graphic Design 1920, 1960. New York: Yale University Press, 2003. 13.
2. Remington, Roger R. 27.
3. Remington, Roger R. 43.
4. Remington, Roger R. 66.
5. Remington, Roger R. 97.
6. Remington, Roger R. 145.
7. Remington, Roger R. 192.
8. Hamlett, Phil. Library Journal. San Francisco: Turner & Assocs. 2004. 104.
9. Scott, Whitney. Booklist. 2004. 1017