Today we celebrate two invaluable chronicles of UK graphic design history: Commercial Art magazine (over the years also known as Commercial Art & Industry, Art and Industry and Design for Industry) and Ruth Artmonsky, publisher of books about design history and practice. I wrote about her excellent book on E. McKnight Kauffer’s book jackets in 2021, and her latest gem is Commercial Art: The Journal That Charted 20th-Century Graphic Design.
Under the independent imprint Artmonsky Arts, she has released 33 historical monographs on graphic design ephemera, some with her designer, Brian Webb. Artmonsky’s story is unique and her passion for graphic design is curiously fever-pitched.
Her background is in statistical and occupational psychology. After earning a degree in economics and social work, Artmonsky began her career assisting a psychologist in Wandsworth Prison. She picked up a second degree in psychology while working at the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, and then set up a career and testing service for colleges in London. In 1977 she helped to found Saville and Holdsworth Limited, a consultancy that developed psychometric tests for business. After starting in a spare room and a garage, the enterprise became a roaring success and spawned offices around the world.
“It’s really helped being a psychologist,” she says, “because although I wasn’t a lunatic fringe psychologist or a therapist, I’m interested in the human angle of advertising.”
Her work involves collecting and compiling design documents and artifacts that she presents as brief but thorough histories. I was surprised to receive her recent volume, but not surprised that she would focus on this periodical. Commercial Art in its original incarnation, which premiered in 1922 and lasted in other forms for over 30 years, was the UK’s equivalent of PRINT and the German Gebrauchsgraphik. It was where Paul Rand learned as a young man about the existence of the Bauhaus for the first time (and his unrequited wish to attend).
Yet rather than a simple showcase, it was a crusader for the art of design when the distinctions between commercial and fine art were blurring. Nonetheless, its editorial policy was to feature work of its time that would assist advertisers in promoting products and ideas. The magazine was eventually bought by The Studio Publications, the leader in promoting the decorative and applied arts.
Anyone reading this who aspires to chronicle a segment of 20th-century Western design must have Artmonsky‘s modest but essential library of books. And while you are ordering, thank her for this invaluable detour from the fields of psychology and statistics.