An L.A. View of Meggs's N.Y. School of Design
Everyone will approach the fifth edition of Meggs’ History of Graphic Design through their own personal filters. Steve Heller’s already done his overview of the print and digital versions. Paul Shaw may pick up his Blue Pencil to correct factual and editorial errors. Marxist and feminist critics might deal with the two Martha Stewart Living images used in the final chapter and repeated in the epilogue. And as always, students will view it as time taken away from their portfolio projects.
My own agenda is relatively open-ended. I admire and respect Meggs’. As an instructor, I’ve used it as required text over the years for a variety of reasons. For starters, it’s had ample opportunity to revise and refine as well as update itself since its first iteration in 1983. And, as I inform my students at the outset, they’ll read Meggs’s history; they’ll hear my history of what I deem most relevant, both in and beyond the book; and—through our classroom discussions and project assignments—they’ll begin to formulate their own, subjective history of design.
I hail from New York and currently teach in Los Angeles, at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University. And I emphasize local designers more than Meggs does, and encourage students continue to immerse themselves in the roots of wherever else they may be in the future. So that’s my regional agenda.
With that in mind, rather than tackle all 600 pages, I’ve decided to micro-crit a single chapter, the one titled “The New York School.”
Meggs’ History of Graphic Design’s second, fourth, and fifth editions.
This chapter focuses on America from the 1940s to the ’60s, when European modernism’s rigid restraint gave way to more intuitive and individualistic problem-solving modes. The text’s been tweaked and tightened a bit, but basically it remains the same as it was in the fourth edition. The chapter heading has stood steadfast from the beginning, despite objections from those who cite the emphasis given to Saul Bass and Alvin Lustig, who—although they were born in the Big Apple—produced their most important work in the City of Angels.
For me, the more egregious slight to Southern California is the absence of the Eameses. Charles and Ray were essential to the development of midcentury modern industrial and graphic design, and heirs to their legacy such as Sussman/Prejza are prominently featured in later chapters. This exclusion is all the more sad inasmuch as this volume may be the last one, due to the increasing difficulty in securing reproduction rights. And speaking of reproductions . . .
Top: U&lc page, actual color. Above: from the fourth edition
A Marilyn Monroe spread from the fourth edition (left) and the current edition (right)
Most of the nearly six dozen images are well chosen. Paul Rand, who pioneered American modernism, naturally opens the chapter with seven images. George Lois has six. Lustig and Bradbury Thompson have five. And Otto Storch, Henry Wolf, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and others make up most of the rest. But Herb Lubalin is the clear winner, with a total of 13; he had 15 in the last edition, but two pages of his newsprint U&lc pages, which ran in sickly greens, have mercifully been dropped. And a Marilyn Monroe spread from Lubalin’s Eros has been color corrected to match the original spread’s Pop Art–pink flesh tone.
Top: from the fifth edition. Above: Ramparts cover by Dugald Stermer
Other visuals have undergone minor adjustments. For instance, the Asian in DDB’s “You don’t have to be Jewish…” ad for Levy’s bread has been replaced with the version featuring an altar boy, perhaps in consideration of today’s increased awareness that race doesn’t necessarily imply religion. But I’m shocked and amazed that one glaring image mistake from the fourth edition has been repeated: two lines of magazine caption text are clearly visible under Dugald Stermer’s draft-card-burning Ramparts cover (see above). But I turn problems such as this into lessons on the importance of examining actual artifacts whenever possible.
From the fifth edition
West magazine spread by Mike Salisbury
Rolling Stone spread by Mike Salisbury
To wrap up, I have another, West Coast–centric image complaint on a book I’ll almost unreservedly continue to recommend. This one’s about “The New York School” chapter’s treatment of L.A. native Mike Salisbury. The book describes how his groundbreaking designs “intensified the layouts” of West magazine and gave a “visual energy” to Rolling Stone. However, the two representative spreads he’s given are in black and white, which dilutes and drains them of all their vibrant vitality.
I have ways to deal with this as well, such as by inviting Salisbury to be a guest speaker. In fact, he’ll be presenting to my Art Center class in Pasadena this Thursday evening, November 15th. The event is free and open to the community. Here are the details. So if you’re in the area, you’re welcome to see graphic design history presented live, and in color.
In Design Dialogues, Steven Heller interviews Philip Meggs and 33 other important design minds.
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