Formless, Tasteless, Immortal: Flair Magazine, 1950-51

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Two of the most groundbreaking, extraordinarily designed art and culture magazines premiered in 1950. Both strove for their own versions of transcendent elegance. Both were aggressively innovative in pushing the limits of print technology. And both folded after one year, primarily due to lavish production values exceeding revenue.

Every designer already knows about the first one: Portfolio, the supreme achievement of Alexey Brodovitch’s career. Lesser recognized but also deserving in its own way, is Flair. Both happened to feature the artists Saul Steinberg and Alexander Calder. But editorially, they were very different. Portfolio’s focus was on Bodoni, Ben Shahn, cattle branding, and the graphic arts in general. Flair, in contrast, was more expansive in range and boldly brazen in high society snob appeal. It covered foreign travel, Dior fashions, and home decor tips from the Duchess of Windsor. Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau contributed pieces, as did Simone de Beauvoir, Tennessee Williams, and George Bernard Shaw.

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Designers were divided. Look‘s Merle Armitage called it “formless and tasteless.” Henry Wolf, then at Esquire, recalled it as a tour de force in a 1995 Print feature on Flair. All issues had card-stock covers with die-cut peepholes to visually titillate the buyer, with occasional embossing for a tactile bonus. As with Portfolio, it skillfully and meticulously incorporated complex, innovative devices for its readers, such as bound-in booklets, panoramic gatefolds, cutout windows, and a variety of inks and papers.

Fleur Cowles, its dynamic founding editor, conceived, birthed, and passionately devoted herself to Flair. Without budgetary restrictions, no extravagance was spared: when she decreed that all copies of May’s “Rose” issue should have a floral fragrance, they did. For the premiere issue she scripted the first of its ever-evolving cover logos, which floated above a golden sparrow wing drawing of one of her brooches, duplicated in die-cut outline and set against a scarlet red background. Inside, her editor’s letter was printed in gold ink on delicate blue parchment. It declared that “…a magazine need no longer be stolidly frozen to the familiar format. Flair can, and will, vary from issue to issue, year to year assuring you that most delicious of all rewards – a sense of surprise, a joy of discovery.” Mission accomplished, although some discovered it was difficult to maneuver through.

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Cowles recounted her bold aspirations in her memoirs: “If a feature would be better in dimension than on flat pages, why not fold half-pages inside double-page spreads? If a feature was significant enough, why not bind it as ‘a little book’… giving it a special focus? If a feature was better ‘translated’ on textured paper, why use shiny paper? If a hand-set offset printing or hand-fed gravure suited a photographic essay better than letterpress, why not use it? If a painting was good enough to frame, why not print it on properly heavy stock? Why not bind little accordion folders into each issue to give the feeling of something more personal to the content?”

All her questions were definitively answered, much to her dislike, after 12 monthly issues. The entire enterprise hemorrhaged millions… and that’s in 1950s dollars. Unlike Portfolio, it accepted advertising, but the ad-to-edit ratio was only about a quarter of the standard. Custom paper binding, press adjustments, and such drove expenditures to nearly four times the 50¢ cover price for its 100 pages; quality die-cutting was particularly demanding at the time. Yet Flair remains Cowles’ main claim to fame. As she put it herself in her memoirs, “Whatever Flair lacked in longevity it made up for in publishing immortality.”

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Ditto for Federico Pallavicini: If he’s remembered at all, it’s for Flair’s vibrant graphic aesthetic. Cowles discovered him while researching the latest in graphic design and print processes in Europe, where he’d been a pastry shop window display designer. He later went on to work as an art director with Elizabeth Arden cosmetics, an interior designer for Helena Rubinstein, and a theater set and costume designer.

By design standards, Portfolio may represent Modernist perfection, but Flair had the looseness and unpredictability of everyday living. Brodovitch was impeccably precise, Pallavicini was exuberantly flighty and flamboyant. Trained as an artist, he also contributed frothy, decorative cover and interior illustrations that added a welcome whimsy to the pages (see above).

The first eight issues were art directed by Louis-Marie Eude, and they were the most adventurous and accomplished. When Hershel Bramson took over for the final four, the newness began to feel routine. But in 1953, as a last-ditch salvage effort by Cowles, Pallavicini completely designed a new, 230-page hardbound “Annual.” Although text type treatment was uneven, overall it’s exceptional in its open-ended execution.

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Flair_best-coverAlthough back issues have become costly, Rizzoli has re-released The Best of Flair, first published in 1996. It’s a luxurious coffee table hardcover, sumptuously printed and durably packaged in a red, cloth-covered box. It really does include the highlights of the run, primarily from the Eude issues and Pallavicini book. It also richly evokes, in both form and content, the country’s liberation from wartime austerity and hopes for a revitalized future in the print medium. And finally, it’s an excellent opportunity for a unique, pre-digital experience: having the visceral, hands-on pleasures of interactivity with a landmark work of midcentury publication design.

As of today, one-half of 1950’s “monumental momentary magazine” legacy has been successfully resurrected. So all we need now is a deluxe, complete, slipcased three-volume Portfolio reprint.

Anyone?

All images © The Best of Flair by Fleur Cowles, Rizzoli New York, 2014.

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