An L.A. View of Meggs's N.Y. School of Design

Everyone will approach the fifth edition of Meggs’ History of Graphic Design through their own personal filters. Steve Heller’s already done his overview of the print and digital versions. Paul Shaw may pick up his Blue Pencil to correct factual and editorial errors. Marxist and feminist critics might deal with the two Martha Stewart Living images used in the final chapter and repeated in the epilogue. And as always, students will view it as time taken away from their portfolio projects.

My own agenda is relatively open-ended. I admire and respect Meggs’. As an instructor, I’ve used it as required text over the years for a variety of reasons. For starters, it’s had ample opportunity to revise and refine as well as update itself since its first iteration in 1983. And, as I inform my students at the outset, they’ll read Meggs’s history; they’ll hear my history of what I deem most relevant, both in and beyond the book; and—through our classroom discussions and project assignments—they’ll begin to formulate their own, subjective history of design.

I hail from New York and currently teach in Los Angeles, at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University. And I emphasize local designers more than Meggs does, and encourage students continue to immerse themselves in the roots of wherever else they may be in the future. So that’s my regional agenda.

With that in mind, rather than tackle all 600 pages, I’ve decided to micro-crit a single chapter, the one titled “The New York School.”

Meggs’ History of Graphic Design’s second, fourth, and fifth editions.

This chapter focuses on America from the 1940s to the ’60s, when European modernism’s rigid restraint gave way to more intuitive and individualistic problem-solving modes. The text’s been tweaked and tightened a bit, but basically it remains the same as it was in the fourth edition. The chapter heading has stood steadfast from the beginning, despite objections from those who cite the emphasis given to Saul Bass and Alvin Lustig, who—although they were born in the Big Apple—produced their most important work in the City of Angels.

For me, the more egregious slight to Southern California is the absence of the Eameses. Charles and Ray were essential to the development of midcentury modern industrial and graphic design, and heirs to their legacy such as Sussman/Prejza are prominently featured in later chapters. This exclusion is all the more sad inasmuch as this volume may be the last one, due to the increasing difficulty in securing reproduction rights. And speaking of reproductions . . .

Top: U&lc page, actual color. Above: from the fourth edition

A Marilyn Monroe spread from the fourth edition (left) and the current edition (right)

Most of the nearly six dozen images are well chosen. Paul Rand, who pioneered American modernism, naturally opens the chapter with seven images. George Lois has six. Lustig and Bradbury Thompson have five. And Otto Storch, Henry Wolf, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and others make up most of the rest. But Herb Lubalin is the clear winner, with a total of 13; he had 15 in the last edition, but two pages of his newsprint U&lc pages, which ran in sickly greens, have mercifully been dropped. And a Marilyn Monroe spread from Lubalin’s Eros has been color corrected to match the original spread’s Pop Art–pink flesh tone.

Top: from the fifth edition. Above: Ramparts cover by Dugald Stermer

Other visuals have undergone minor adjustments. For instance, the Asian in DDB’s “You don’t have to be Jewish…” ad for Levy’s bread has been replaced with the version featuring an altar boy, perhaps in consideration of today’s increased awareness that race doesn’t necessarily imply religion. But I’m shocked and amazed that one glaring image mistake from the fourth edition has been repeated: two lines of magazine caption text are clearly visible under Dugald Stermer’s draft-card-burning Ramparts cover (see above). But I turn problems such as this into lessons on the importance of examining actual artifacts whenever possible.

From the fifth edition

West magazine spread by Mike Salisbury

Rolling Stone spread by Mike Salisbury

To wrap up, I have another, West Coast–centric image complaint on a book I’ll almost unreservedly continue to recommend. This one’s about “The New York School” chapter’s treatment of L.A. native Mike Salisbury. The book describes how his groundbreaking designs “intensified the layouts” of West magazine and gave a “visual energy” to Rolling Stone. However, the two representative spreads he’s given are in black and white, which dilutes and drains them of all their vibrant vitality.

I have ways to deal with this as well, such as by inviting Salisbury to be a guest speaker. In fact, he’ll be presenting to my Art Center class in Pasadena this Thursday evening, November 15th. The event is free and open to the community. Here are the details. So if you’re in the area, you’re welcome to see graphic design history presented live, and in color.

.

In Design Dialogues, Steven Heller interviews Philip Meggs and 33 other important design minds.

4 thoughts on “An L.A. View of Meggs's N.Y. School of Design

  1. Paul Shaw

    Whether the Eamses considered themselves graphic designers or not does not influence whether they should be included in histories of graphic design. Such histories include numerous people who were not graphic designers (e.g. F.T. Marinetti, Lewis Carroll, William Henry Fox Talbot) because they had an impact on graphic design. I would argue that the Eamses belong in such histories because of their exhibition work (notwithstanding Charles’ blindspot about capitals). Exhibition design is an area barely touched upon by Meggs et al.

  2. Ramone Munoz

    Dear all, especially Michael Dooley,

    There seems to be an on going reluctance to include the Eameses in the discussion of Graphic Design. My dear friend Lou Danziger was of the same opinion… that this was not really their strong area expertise, and yet, if we consider the contribution they made to the graphics field from a broad perspective, innovative educational films, exhibitions, and especially the creation of an environment, their studio, where so many young designers passed through and were inspired to become top designers in many fields including graphic design, I think that we could at least say that they were very instrumental in “generating” graphic designers who had the good fortune of rubbing shoulders with such all-around inquisitive and creative people. I just looked at the show on women designers at the Autry Museum. Very much worth seeing. It featured the work of a few top LA Based graphic designers including Greiman, de Brettville, and, four magazine covers by Ray Eames. The covers were really a joy to behold, all produced in the 40′s for Arts and Architecture.

    We seem to be moving away from the era of the of the individual design star. My students at Art Center, where I teach, prefer to work in teams and mostly want to work in environments where the focus is on the project rather than the individual creative epicenter like a Raymond Loewy. This makes it more difficult to know who was responsible for what. That’s what I always enjoyed about looking at amazing exhibition “Mathmatica”… it felt like the product of a socialist effort and it had a kind of timeless style about it.

    Creating an environment, an incubator where all the arts can thrive and interact with each other, including graphic design, should be mentioned in books on graphic design history. Hopefully we all feel like the children of ma and pa Eames… moving forward ourselves with a little bit of their creative attitude towards everything we do.

    please forgive any creative mis-spellings.

    Ramone Muñoz
    Instructor,
    Art Center College of Design

  3. deborah sussman

    charles and ray were not really “graphic designers”. although ray produced wonderful things, they were much closer to the world of art at the time, than to what we consider “graphic”. her handwriting was art and she did some good covers for “arts & architecture” magazine. she also made wonderful assemblages which graphically explained what they were doing.

    her aesthetic was a major influence on me.
    however, charles had a bias about typography: in the mathematica historical exhibit, he insisted that all bios of major mathematic practitioners had to appear IN CAPS ! because, he said, they were bigger than lower case.

    no argument, including the tradition of books set in l.c. for readability, could convince him that ALL CAPS are harder to read.
    but he won.

COMMENT