The Daily Heller: Joseph Binder, a Smooth Operator

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Joseph Binder (1898–1972) was one of the pioneers of the “Viennese style of two-dimensionality.” His pictorial language of smooth sculpted graphic forms dates back to 1922. He was a trained lithographer and typographer who studied painting at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts under Berthold Löffler, a contemporary of the Secessionists Kolo Moser, Josef Hoffmann and Alfred Roller. These early Moderns were teaching at the same school with the goal of spearheading an artistic renewal that was to have an impact on advertising and commercial art produced after the First World War.

As I wrote in PRINT, Binder exported his style to the United States when he and his wife, Carla, took up residence on Central Park South in Manhattan. Binder built his design philosophy on the fundamental idea that “the artist should contribute to the development of the Modern style instead of indulging in realistic representation of past periods and vain attempts to imitate the works of former times.” He believed that the new industrial style was descended from painting, but its function was “to convey the essence of the advertising message in the shortest and most impressive way. … It is the artist’s task to transfer the clear and constructive shape of the objects as he sees them to the two-dimensional surface. … Realism should be left to photography. The artist must not compete with the camera. … Therefore the artist must abandon realistic representation and take up styling.” Modern design was, therefore, not in competition with technology, but enhanced by what the machine could achieve.

Stylization was chiefly based on geometric forms—which is necessary for reducing and abstracting any object from a tree to a human head. “Every form in nature has a very strong and definite construction, for it has ‘grown,’” Binder wrote. “Every plant has gradually and organically developed. … The fine artist renders in his picture the atmosphere and pictorial value of a pine or a palm. But the designer must understand its proportions and emphasize its natural construction. On the other hand, he must reduce the complicated details of the object which make the picture distinct.” Binder also believed that color was an important aspect of styling, and taught his students that the artist must “surpass the optical effects of nature with a limited number of colors.”

Binder was most popular in the U.S. for his Ballantine’s Beer, A&P Coffee, United Airlines and Jantzen swimsuit ads, and other campaigns. His two most beloved posters showed a wing of an American Air Force fighter plane in dark blue, with a prominent yellow circle and red star gliding into the eye of the viewer. He also created the emblematic image for the 1939 New York World’s Fair that features the unforgettable Trylon and Perisphere, rendered as the epitome of perfection.

By the 1950s he was the principal designer for U.S. Navy recruitment graphics. His style was well-suited for portraying the Navy’s heroic military might. Despite some very visible clientele, he was never the subject of a monograph, although he did publish Color in Advertising, which included some of his own work alongside other contemporary designers’ examples.

DesignAustria has contributed to the increase in Binder documentation with two books on him in their design|er|Leben series by Anita Kern, who has done an excellent job chronicling Atelier Binder in Vienna and his freelance practice in New York.

Binder’s influence in Austria and the U.S. was profound. Although he pretty much left his Austrian simplification behind when he emigrated, his realistic, smooth flatness—alternately witty and refined—defined the pictorial Modern movement for some time during the war and Postwar periods.

(The images below are from his Austrian period; those above are from his American.)


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