In the early 1920s American products were either nondescript or laden with ornament to camouflage a mass-market look. Although mass production was the foundation on which the modern American economy was built, many cultural critics felt that items coming off the assembly line lacked good taste. American industrialists, who could easily afford to aesthetically improve their products, were apathetic, if not resistant, to the idea of spending cash on looks. What they did not resist, however, were marketing strategies that would ensure greater profits. So following a brief economic downturn in the early 20s and subsequent boom, industry frantically tried to find a new means of stimulating even further sales. It was the profit motive, not any transcendent utopian ethic or aesthetic ideal, that paved the way for commercial Modernism in the United States, which was introduced to American advertising in 1925 by Earnest Elmo Calkins (1868-1964), an advertising pioneer, design reformer and founder of Calkins and Holden Advertising Co.
Earnest Elmo Calkins: A trusted name in advertising.
Dreary yet revolutionary: The advertising bible.
After seeing an array of cubist and futurist graphics, packages and point-of-purchase displays that he discovered in the pavilions of the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, Calkins wrote to his staff in New York: “It is extremely ‘new art’ and some of it too bizarre, but it achieves a certain exciting harmony, and in detail is entertaining to a degree. [Everything is] arranged with an eye to display, a vast piece of consummate window dressing.” What was so different from most American advertising art was the noticeable rejection of realism in favor of abstraction. Illustration was not representational but through symbols, metaphors and allegories exuded a “magical” atmosphere. Boxes and bottles were no longer mere utilitarian vessels for their contents, but rather represented the essence of what the product symbolized to the consumer. Calkins summarized it this way: “Modernism offered the opportunity of expressing the inexpressible, of suggesting not so much a motor car as speed, not so much a gown as style, not so much a compact as beauty.”
When art was moderne.
Modernism was a bag of tricks the artist could use to set an ordinary product apart. And advertising artists were indeed quick to appreciate the possibilities of Modernism since realistic art had reached what Calkins termed a “dead level of excellence.” It was no longer possible to make an advertisement striking, conspicuous and attractive by still pictures and realistic groups. Spearheaded by Calkins and Holden, and later adopted by such progressive agencies as N.W. Ayer and Kenyon and Eckart, commonplace objects—toasters, refrigerators, coffee tins—were presented against new patterns and at skewed angles; contemporary industrial wares were shown in surrealistic and futuristic settings accented by contemporary typefaces with contempo names like Cubist Bold, Vulcan, Broadway, Novel Gothic and more. Layout inspired by the European New Typography also became more dynamic in its asymmetry. Modernism offered an aura of cosmopolitan culture and avant garde style and signaled the spread of an aesthetic coming-of-age of American adverting.
Realism and idealism.
Color, which was comparatively rare in magazine advertisements in the mid-1920s, was another aspect of department-store Modernism introduced as a raucously decorative component in windows, which until then had been prosaic displays of products. The new windows borrowed primaries from De Stijl and the Bauhaus and combined them with bright purples, greens and oranges. In addition, “Modernism to the general public came to mean silver and black,” explains Frederic Ehrlich in his book The New Typography and Modern Layout (Frederic A. Stokes, 1934), one of the most astutely written critiques (posing as an instructional manual) of Modern practice published in America at that time. Ehrlich was referring to the metallic silver papers and black silhouettes that were ubiquitously used in window displays as well as later in magazine advertisements, menus, etc. The new silver alloy, Aluminum, symbolized the Machine Age as vividly as pictures of factories, crucibles and gears.
Touches of brightness made refreshing ads.
True Modernism is good taste! And here is the key distinction between the radical forms of European Modernism that are heroic and romantic today, and the commercial application introduced in the 1920s: The former was intended to violently disrupt the status quo and improve the visual environment, while the latter had no loftier purpose than to revolutionize the buying habits of the American public and so stimulate the economy.
Mysterious and moody.
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About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →