The Daily Heller: A Guide to ’60s Design, as Seen Through Myopic Eyes & Rose-Colored Glasses (Part 1)

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Every generation has a formative period. As a “Baby Bloomer”—what I call the tail end of the “Baby Boom” of postwar children (now in their 70s and 80s)—the mid- to late-’60s was a defining cultural, political and social era. Years ago, when my memory was still at 90 percent of its capacity (don’t ask what it is today), I wrote this recollection mixed with historical research and interviews on the design phenomena and language of this time.

(Author’s caveat: Despite being only Part 1 of 2, this piece weighs in at 5,000 words.)

Introduction: Innocence, Maturity, Anarchy
After ingesting sufficient quantities of stimulants, a cartoonist I knew in the ’60s would often entertain his acquaintances with parodies of those late-night TV commercials for cut-rate nostalgic record albums. I remember this one as though it were yesterday:

“Not available in any store at any price,” he wailed in an irritating AM announcer’s voice. “Farkas Records presents the greatest protest songs of the ’60s. Civil Rights! Antiwar! Feminism! Gay Lib! Prison Uprising! Relive the March on Washington with your favorites by Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary, The Buffalo Springfield, and Country Joe and the Fish! On three records or two cassettes! And there’s more. If you demonstrate now you’ll get an extra television bonus: 10 great consciousness-raisers by Bob “The Times They Are A Changin'” Dylan! When do we want it? Now! So call (212) P-R-O-T-E-S-T today!”

Though his intake of hallucinogens made the cartoonist somewhat extraterrestrial, none of us who enjoyed his stoned wit would have called him clairvoyant. Yet 20 years later his precognition was borne out by a similarly grating commercial for a disc of ’60s tunes on TV. The truth is, many of us have secretly bought this record set, proving a strong allegiance to the Aquarian age. While nostalgia can be a sweet diversion, for some it can also be a rather bitter obsession. So say the members of the newly constituted Society for the Advancement of Time, whose motto is “We will end the ’60s in your lifetime.” They fervently believe that nothing is more revolting than revivals of ’60s kitsch.

Such intolerance is why I approached reviewing design of this decade with trepidation. After all, what graphic images do the ’60s conjure, if not kitsch? Psychedelics—gaudy posters printed in dayglo colors illuminated by stroboscopic lights; ethereal Beardsley-esque drawings; and Peter Max’s nauseating kaleidoscopic visions of nirvana. This response is indeed knee-jerk, but nonetheless valid. Every era produces clichés, and in the absence of total recall they become the foundation on which memory is built.  

My perception of the ’60s is so profoundly shaped by the artistic reactions to the decade’s social turmoil that it is difficult to accept that the design aesthetic emanating from the “youth culture” was an exception, not the rule. While a decade is a convenient measure of cultural accomplishment it is also an arbitrary one. Events and their repercussions are never so neatly categorized. Therefore, it would be wrong to say that the ’60s were exclusively an era of psychedelia, Hippies, or Yippies. In fact, such manifestations prevailed only during the latter half of the decade and faded away by the early ’70s. Perhaps it would be better to analyze design according to generations, but this too is imprecise. If we are to believe the design annuals published during the ’60s, the underground generation did not exist at all. 

Throughout the decade, juries for the New York Art Director’s Club, The Type Directors Club, and the Society of Illustrators virtually ignored anarchic underground art and design. With the exception of a few psychedelic record album covers, Milton Glaser’s Duchamp-inspired Dylan poster, some posters and a cover or two from Evergreen Review, the only “counter-culture” representation was “over ground” work that borrowed underground graphic conceits. Not until 1972 was a real underground paper selected for the AIGA Cover Show (incidentally, the underground was all but dead by 1973).

Surprising? Not really. The professional organizations were comprised of an old guard and a few young Turks (mostly males, I might add), but not the underground amateurs who practiced “design” as a means of personal and collective expression. Perhaps the content of the underground papers and comix were too raw for the conservative juries. During the ’60s, so many members of The Society of Illustrators worked for the government and armed services that it wasn’t until 1972 that SI mounted an antiwar exhibition (curated by Alan E. Cober and Lou Myers). More likely though, underground artists couldn’t afford the entry fees, or didn’t care about such trivial pursuits if they could. Design, after all, was not the issue—changing the world was. And though a few underground “layout” artists rejected the anarchic clutter and ultimately became professional, most remained uninterested in formal design or classical typography.

For a more accurate picture of ’60s design we look not to the raucous manifestations of the youth culture but to the professional annuals, magazines and exhibition catalogs documenting the advertising, promotion, product and periodical design of the mainstream. From these documents we learn that the real emblems of ’60s design were not the nuclear disarmament sign or the Woodstock logo but the rejuvenated marks for Bell Telephone, the American Broadcasting Company, Chase Manhattan Bank and Mobil Oil. The ’60s, certainly the first half, marked the maturation of American graphic design. 

Growing Pains
The experiments that characterize ’60s graphics actually began in the mid-’50s. Before the advent of mega design firms, the advertising agencies, in-house design departments and type shops were laboratories for adventuresome (yet decidedly professional) designers to test the limits of their materials and push their clients’ expectations. The loosening of strict convention was encouraged, in part, by clients demanding more eye-catching advertising and promotion—and by the new graphic arts technologies, especially photocomposition, which saved time, money and ultimately offered greater creative license.

Optimism underlies this creativity. The Postwar middle class luxuriated in the relative peace. Corporations were not generally viewed as insatiable profit mongers nor environmental criminals. Rather, simply stated, American business and industry—from box manufactures to oil companies—fostered technological advances, which encouraged market surpluses, which in turn stimulated national pride. A citizenry that had stoically endured wartime deprivations happily embraced the new bounty. And advertising, corporate and magazine designers helped promote this to the world.

If graphic design is indeed a metaphor for the social condition, then the significant work of the late ’50s and early ’60s suggested equilibrium. The best magazines and advertising were sober, witty and self-assured. Corporate identity was rational. The grid, as an organizing tool, underscored this new rationality. Ornamentation, which had symbolized bourgeoise excess earlier in the century, was in many areas rejected for clear and intelligent concepts. As the objectified photograph took center stage, romantic and sentimental illustration became less appealing. The best aspects of the European Modern movement’s dictum that form follow function was adopted. But this ideal was not indiscriminately used. America was not chaste like Switzerland nor regimented like Germany, but rather boisterous and passionate. And so were American designers. 

“Instead of a consistent national style,” Alvin Eisenman said in a speech before the 1959 Typography USA seminar sponsored by the Type Directors Club, “we seem to have a consistent national variety.” Indeed, ’60s design was an amalgam of diverse and contradictory approaches—of action and reaction.

Schools of Thought and Deed
The influence of European emigres (Herbert Bayer, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Ladislav Sutnar, Gyorgy Kepes, Herbert Matter, Leo Lionni, Alexey Brodovitch and Will Burtin) and the native American moderns who established themselves in the late 1930s and 1940s (Paul Rand, Lester Beall, Bradbury Thompson, William Golden, Alvin Lustig and Cipe Pineles), most of whom were active during the ’60s, contributed directly and indirectly to three paramount American design methods: rational (or modern), eclectic (or historical)—both having developed during the ’50s—and anarchic (or underground). Two other aesthetics, the traditional and sentimental, the former adhering to classical aspects of book and type design, and the latter linked to pre-modern layout and illustration approaches, were eclipsed by the others. 

Under each rubric, however, are disparate subsets, as well as individuals who are not conveniently pigeonholed. For example, under rational/modern are the strict formalists. Representing the International School: John Massey, Rudolph DeHarak and Massimo Vignelli, who practiced objectified, systematic design. The exuberant moderns: Saul Bass, Lou Dorfsman, George Lois, Gene Federico and Herb Lubalin, who were known for their ability to humanize design and make type speak. The eclectic moderns: Robert Brownjohn, Ivan Chermayeff and Thomas Geismar, Tony Paladino, Jim Miho and Bob Gill, who routinely broke the rules and veered away from a single style. The crypto moderns: such as the corporate identity firms of Walter Landor and Lippincott and Margulies, who made generalized identity systems using ambient forms. And straddling the fence between eclectic and modern were the magazine moderns: Henry Wolf, Alan Hurlburt, Peter Palazzo, Marvin Israel, Bea Feitler and Ruth Ansel, who used rationally designed formats as a means to exuberantly present a wide variety of subjects.

Under the eclectic banner the subcategories run the gamut from historical revivalist to idiosyncratically playful. Push Pin Studio represents the most devoutly eclectic (and most profoundly influential), having revived the denigrated styles of Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and by having reintroduced narrative illustration to the design equation. Peter Max and Tom Daly (Daly & Max) and Phil Gips (Gips Danne) did likewise through their use of stylized illustration and rare wood types. Quite a few art directors and designers also fit into this general category, among them Bob Cato and John Berg, whose CBS record album cover design was arc typical; Harris Lewine, who had a liberal view of what made a good book jacket and so hired both eclectics and moderns to design them; Neil Fujita and Robert Scudelari, who did book jackets that knew no stylistic constraints; Otto Storch, whose format for McCall’s was alternately the paradigm of the new ornamentation and a paean to functionalism; Art Paul, whose approach to Playboy was a departure from gridlock; Arnold Varga, whose advertisements for Joseph Horne Co. updated old forms, including decoupage; and Ed Benguiat, who brought a 19th-century spirit to 20th-century typography.

To further confuse matters of categorization, some of the modern pioneers became eclectic when it suited them. Despite Herbert Bayer’s execration of Victorian ornamental typefaces in advertising as “… bad taste under the disguise of functionalism par excellence,” he designed posters for Aspen, CO, using ornamental typography combined with modernistic collage. Bradbury Thompson routinely used 19th-century engravings from Diderot as a foil for his modern typography. And Herb Lubalin, the master of talking-type, also did his share of Victorian layouts—when, of course, the subject called for it.

Patterns resulting in these ’60s aesthetics developed along generational lines. Many of the graphic designers who began working before World War II were Depression-era kids from immigrant or otherwise poor families, exposed to commercial art in high school as an alternative to more mundane labor. By introducing his students to the great European graphic designers, Leon Friend, the head of the graphics department at Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School beginning in the late 1930s, taught them to do creative, not just routine, agency work. Modern design symbolized a break from their parents’ old-world ties. And for those who pursued the field after high school, pioneer instructors such as Howard Trafton at the Art Students League and Herschel Levitt and Tom Benrimo at Pratt Institute in New York opened more doors to the expressive realms of graphic design. 

For the generation that graduated high school after the war, other leading schools with European faculty members offered more advanced courses of study. They include Yale University in New Haven, MIT in Cambridge, and the Art Institute in Chicago, which proffered the neo-Bauhausian approach. The Choiunard School of Art in Los Angeles and The School of Visual Arts in New York were spawning grounds for eclectics; and Cooper Union in New York graduated some of the decade’s leading moderns and eclectics. These same schools also graduated some members of the “third” generation, too.  

For members of the first two generations, graphic design was a dialectic—the proponents of modern versus advocates of variegated form. As the root of postwar American design, European modernism attracted those interested in more than just mechanical commercial art. As a teenager in the 1930s Paul Rand was introduced to the Bauhaus and speaks for many of his contemporaries about its influence: “I was intrigued with that kind of work, which focused on ideas and not banalities; which stressed painting, architecture, typography and showed how they interrelated.” Rand and others fought for radical notions of commercial art within the business fraternity, thereby snatching design out of the print shop and forging a real profession.

Belief in the rightness of form was key to this revolution, but not at the expense of wit and humor. Some practiced economy, promoted the virtues of white space and imbued their work with measured expression. Others rejected expression entirely, favoring a systematic Swiss method of visual organization being successfully applied to corporate communications, product and exhibition design when order was imperative. But as for more ephemeral posters, record and book jackets … well, here is where the revolt begins.

Jan Tschichold, the author of The New Typography in 1928, wrote in 1959 that “a certain Swiss approach of today … for which I do not feel responsible, is the exemplar of a most inflexible typography which makes no distinction between the advertising of an artistic performance or of a screw catalog. Nor does this typography allow for the human desire for variety. It has an entirely militaristic attitude.” Some designers entering the profession in the ’50s agreed that Swiss purity ran counter to the requisite that design of these more “playful” media be jovial.

The Push Pin style was the most visible example of design pluralism. It began as a visceral response to Seymour Chwast, Reynold Ruffins and Ed Sorel’s urban influences, notably the comics. Yet according to Milton Glaser, who also helped found Push Pin Studio in 1955, it was a reaction to absolutism in design: “We frequently find corruption more interesting than purity,” he says. “Much that is ideologically sound is also thoroughly uninteresting … ideological things rob people and objects of their energy.” Owing to Push Pin’s skill at self-promoting their eclectic revivals, their unique inventions were warmly accepted by publishing and entertainment industry clients. Likeminded designers who objected to rigidity also turned to the “big closet” of historical precedents for inspiration. While some used these artifacts as a springboard to achieve unprecedented work, others flagrantly stole fully realized ideas. Underscoring an increased need for source material, the Bettmann Archive in New York, that incalculable storehouse of printed ephemera, did whopping business. And in 1963 Otto Bettmann and Peter Max were co-curators of Bettmann Panoptican, an exhibition designed to show how the archive contributed to the range of what was then dubbed the “New Romantic” style. 

The downside of the New Romanticism was eclectic folly as ornamentally excessive as the theoretical approach was sterile. The basic problem with both extremes was described by Paul Rand in “Modern Typography in The Modern World,” an astute article that originally appeared in 1952 in the British journal Typographica 5: “We have inherited from the great esthetic revolution of the 20th century the task of bringing to fruition the new ideas and forms which it introduced. This task is not only arduous but less rewardingly glamorous than was participation in the original dramatic and dynamic insurgence. Consequently, many designers and typographers have shirked this task. Some have contracted the revolutionary habit of novelty-making—neglecting other aspects of design and indulging in a sort of perpetual juvenilism. Other designers, unable to escape the academic habit, have too soon crystalized the theories of the esthetic revolution into a set of rules and dogma.”

Actually, by the ’60s strict modern canons were anachronistic—vestiges of the social and moral issues of a bygone age. Even those designers most sympathetic to the Bauhaus were charting their own courses. John Massey, who for 26 years was Director of Communications for the Container Corporation of America, said of his influences, “I have always believed that the Bauhaus tradition had in its breadth enough facets and opportunities to include a great variety of images and approaches.” The firm of Brownjohn Chermayeff and Geismar opened their New York office in 1957 and soon epitomized an American late modern diversity. “We were uninterested in nostalgia,” says Tom Geismar, “but were not reluctant to use it when appropriate. In fact, often on Saturdays we would go to Coney Island to photograph signs and buildings for use in our work.” And many savvy young designers did what Henry Wolf, then art director of Show magazine, confessed to in a speech before the 1962 “Eyes West” design conference in San Francisco: “… you swipe from many sources, and the combination of the sources evolves a style for yourself. Paul Rand swiped from Paul Klee and I swipe from Paul Rand and yet Rand doesn’t look like Klee and I hope, sometimes, I don’t look like Rand, because I also swipe from others.” 

The Birth of an American Style
The most provocative confluence of modern and eclectic ideas occurred in the advertising of the ’50s and early ’60s. Advertising was in a state of war with two rival factions battling for supremacy. On one side, the veteran agency journeymen who, as slaves to copywriters, made uninspired use of type and image; and on the other, a coterie of younger “designers” who used bold, economical forms to elevate the level of communication. Taking a cue from editorial, print advertising became more conceptually acute. Ideas replaced cliched slogans, and thought-provoking imagery supplanted boring product shots or puerile cartoons. Though the new eventually won, the old still lingers.

Many of the art directors/designers participating in the ’60s print advertising revolution contributed to the ’50s hot-house mentality. Helmut Krone’s ad for the New Haven Railroad (1955), titled “The Clearest Road Into New York,” prefigured his breakthrough Volkswagen ads; given its witty concept, Krone’s railway ad did, in a simple picture and clever slogan, what similar ads took paragraphs to say. Hershel Bramson’s ads for Smirnoff Vodka (1956), with exquisite photography by Bert Stern, were among the first to show a product eclipsed by an abstract and moody image. Continuing the creative tradition started by Paul Rand in the ’40s, Robert Gage’s campaign for Orbachs (1957) wed action, rather than stiff, fashion photography to expressive typography. Saul Bass’ dramatic newspaper ad for “The Champion,” a totally black page with a tiny halftone and small handwritten scrawl in the center, prefigured his later metaphorical movie posters and logos. Applying an editorial sensibility to CBS radio and television ads, Louis Dorfsman proved that “smart message” advertising highlighted by expressive typography could have profound impact. Likewise, Louis Silverstein’s ads for The New York Times expertly employed the “candid” journalistic photograph. And Herbert Matter’s photomontages for Knoll’s advertising showed how far abstraction could be pushed in the service of commerce. By the beginning of the ’60s these experiments in advertising form and content had proved successful.

The struggle between advertising and editorial departments for reader/viewer attention continues, but in the early ’60s the tide began to turn in favor of advertising. Evidence provided in the Art Director’s Club annuals suggests that while many noteworthy periodicals were published during this period, advertising was no longer visually or conceptually subservient to magazine content. Indeed, for the better part of the decade, advertising was such an influential design medium that for many of the editorial art directors interviewed for this article, it was the model.

Advertising: Less is the Key
The ’60s were the golden age of print advertising because creative teams of art directors and copywriters worked, more or less, in harmony. Television had not yet seduced these talented partners away. Art directors—the best art directors—were also graphic designers. They understood the nuances of type and made ideas come alive through its intelligent handling. But even more significant, the canard that advertising had to talk down to the consumer was rejected with one simple word: Lemon.

“In the beginning, there was Volkswagen,” wrote Jerry Della Femina in his bestselling memoir (1970) of the ad business, From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor. “That’s the first campaign which everyone can trace back and say, ‘This is where the changeover began.’” The changeover was the 1959 Volkswagen “Think Small” campaign art directed by Helmut Krone for Doyle Dane Bernbach. In an era when advertising accentuated mythic perfection, this was the first time that an advertiser admitted to the possibility of imperfection. Not only that, but given the promethean car mentality, the Volkswagen was already an underdog. The copy said that once in a while VW turns out a lemon, and if we do, we get rid of it. “No one had ever called his product a lemon before,” continues Della Femina. “It was the first time anyone really took a realistic approach to advertising. It was the first time the advertiser ever talked to the consumer as though he was a grownup instead of a baby.” 

The campaign was also so visually distinctive that it became the quintessential American ad. Krone allowed ample white space to frame a modest Futura Bold headline, and the matter-of-fact photography dispelled the idea that automobile photography should be high gloss. It was also the first time that advertising copy was allowed to be conversational and have widows to avoid artificially filling out lines. Perhaps anticipating some residual ill feeling from World War II, the VW logo was kept small.

Virtually everything Doyle Dane Bernbach touched turned to gold. For instance, another momentous campaign was for Levy’s Rye Bread, art directed by William Taubman. Though the difference in the taste of rye breads is negligible, the sudden rash of posters showing either a Black or Chinese child, and an Indian or Chinese man happily munching on a sandwich under the headline “You Don’t Have to be Jewish to Love Levy’s” is as memorable today as Doyle Dane’s classic ’60s “We Try Harder” campaign for Avis.

During the ’40s and ’50s, endearing trade characters were ubiquitous. By the ’60s many of these pixies and gnomes were replaced by more sophisticated concepts. About one famous change, Della Femina recalls that “They were trying to sell Alka-Seltzer with this little Speedy creep. Well, one day they moved the account over to Jack Tinker, and the first thing Tinker did was to kill off Speedy, or if they didn’t kill him they had him arrested in the men’s room of Grand Central station … and they came up with a great campaign, ‘Alka Seltzer on the Rocks.'” To make a chalky-tasting medicine into a refreshing cocktail was a stroke of brilliance. So was Mary Wells’ inspired paint job of Braniff’s planes by Alexander Calder. In the days when the public was more conscious of novelty than safety, Wells’ refurbishing gave Braniff the kind of visibility that put them on the map. This was the age of smart ideas and great execution.

Advertising was a somewhat genteel profession until the street-smart sons and daughters of immigrants broke into the ranks. George Lois, whose agency Papert Koenig Lois churned out many gems, was one of these brash, tough-talking wunderkinds. He was also a remarkable art director who would conceive a great idea, through force of will sell it to a client, and then make it typographically sing. He did this with the campaign for Wolfschmidts Vodka, in which the bottle of the tasteless liquor is seen chatting with some tasty additives, such as a lime and tomato. Not all his campaigns were successful, but all had a certain irreverence that made advertising relate more to the human experience.

The ’60s were the decade of public service (pro-bono public) advertising. Since the advertising business communicated directly to the American mainstream, it accomplished more than the counter-culture to raise the consciousness of the white middle class to the problems of those Americans being discriminated against in housing, education and in the workplace. Harnessing commercial advertising techniques, Young and Rubicam’s “Give a Damn” campaign for the Urban Coalition was exemplary of the new confrontational public service message. It was bold yet did not scare off its audience. It also conditioned viewers to relate to public service ads with even more startling imagery, such as Doyle Dane Bernbach’s rat control ad, art directed by Burt Steinhauser, which shows a life-size rat with the headline “Cut this out and put it in bed next to your child.” So effectively did it castigate congresspeople who voted against a bill that provided rat control that when the bill finally passed, Steinhauser received a letter from President Johnson that said “your … advertising must surely have played an important part in persuading the Congress of the necessity for this vital legislation.” Advertising was indeed flexing its muscle.

INTERMISSION: Part 2 Next Week