Joseph Binder’s Ships and Planes
The modern poster had its start in Paris a few years before Viennese designer Joseph Binder (1898–1972) was born. Yet he became one of its later pioneers, introducing a cubist-inspired style that employed sharp edges of color to define forms. Binder emigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. His long-running campaign for A&P Coffee (1939) and emblematic posters for the New York World’s Fair (1939) and particularly the U.S. Army Air Corps (1941) defined a modern American graphic style.
After 1950 he was art director for the U.S. Navy Department in Washington, DC., during which time he was commissioned to design a campaign for “life in the peacetime NAVY.” His imagery revealed his interest in ships and planes.
Binder opened a design studio in Vienna in the early 1920s. It was large because the original drawings for the six-foot, four-inch by 12-foot, seven-inch posters had to be produced in actual size, and covered a whole wall. From 1925 to 1929 he was a freelance designer for the Julius Meinl Company, Vienna’s leading importer of coffee, tea and related products, for whom he created advertising, trademarks and labels. His unifying vision, dubbed the Meinl style, was celebrated by the leading design publications, Studio and Gebrauchsgraphik.
Binder believed that style was a transmission code. He developed an emblematic hard-edged style that he encouraged others to freely mimic. “I am here to introduce this style,” he announced at a lecture in New York City in 1938. “In the short weeks I am [here] I want to furnish an explanation of exactly what ‘modern commercial art’ means.” But at the time his mission was difficult. American advertising was governed by copywriters who preferred the word to the image and distrusted modern graphic approaches. Binder’s first major assignment for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency was a successful, albeit lackluster, series of billboards for Ballantine’s beer, and many of his early American assignments were to comp experimental ideas that never saw the light of day. Undaunted by the reluctance of American business, Binder eventually secured some profitable accounts.
Among his most well-known commissions, the “Air Corps U.S. Army” poster, which won first prize in a Museum of Modern Art competition, signaled a new utilization of space. Noteworthy for its minimal imagery and simple graphic forms, today it is dated only by the silhouettes of propeller-driven aircraft. A yellow wing set against a grayish blue sky offsets the red, white and blue Air Force logo. The entire image is stylized to ensure memorability. Binder did not self-consciously try to “be of his time,” a trap that many lesser stylists fall into, but his works are nevertheless clearly tied to their epoch.
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.”
Today Binder’s works may appear dated, but his method is an appropriate learning tool. In 1964 the psychologist Rollo May, Binder’s longtime friend, summed up his practice: “Most artists have an antagonistic point of view toward Western society and its civilization. Binder’s work has the feeling of relationship with modern sciences. … Binder always had a positive point of view toward modern science and technical development in relation to his aims in artistic achievement … where all established conceptions are stripped from word until the essence of the word is clarified. I feel it is this essence in Binder’s art which is so apparent.”
PRINT’s Summer 2015 Issue: Out Now!
The New Visual Artists are here! In this issue, meet our 2015 class of 15 brilliant creatives under 30. These carefully selected designers are on the scene making the most cutting-edge work today—and as many of our previous NVAs, they may go on to become tomorrow’s design leaders. Why not get to know them now? Check the full issue out here.