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Quentin Fiore Massages the Medium

Quentin Fiore designed and, with Marshall McLuhan, co-authored The Medium Is the Massage, an icon of the 1960s and required reading for everyone involved in what McLuhan dubbed the “electric age.” McLuhan was a philosopher and seer whose books—The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Making of Typographic Man, and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,—explored the evolution of technology and its effects on conscious and subconscious behavior. Revered by some, McLuhan was called a fake, a charlatan, and worse by critics who argued that his ideas were either simplistic, obtuse, silly, or contradictory. McLuhan argued that contradiction was an essential part of the contemporary condition and, moreover, that contradiction was a metaphor for television, a medium which allowed a person to ponder two or more ideas at one time.

The hardcover edition followed the paperback: A McLuhanesque turn of the screw.

To briefly state his theory, and thereby lay a foundation for Fiore’s graphic design, McLuhan believed that the invention of print and printing shattered community by allowing the oral tradition to become obsolete. He argued that writing and reading were solitary acts that adversely effected tribal unity, memory, and imagination. Electronic media, and television specifically, was destined to return us to a Global Village, allowing individuals to once again take an active role in the communications process. His mantra was “the medium is the message.” Media, he argued, are extensions of human activity (just as the wheel is an extension of the foot). Television, he said, allowed for greater individual participation. McLuhan, who believed that humor was paramount to conveying his message and was a passionate punster, said that electronics made “all the world a sage.” Marvin Kitman, who acerbically reviewed The Medium Is the Massage (the title is a double entendre on “mass age” and McLuhan’s notion that media are so pervasive that they work us over like a masseuse) referred to it as The Tedium Is the Message. At least at first, the criticisms of the book’s contents and visual presentation overwhelmed the praise.

But this should not eclipse the historic nature of Fiore’s work. The Medium Is the Massage was called the first book for the television age. The New York Times critic Eliot Freemont Smith said that the large format of the hardcover takes on “the aspect of a T.V. screen.” Fiore designed it as a kinetically flowing collection of word bites, iconic images, and clear and crisp typography. He underscored and highlighted McLuhan’s ideas with what amounts to a series of literary billboards, or what McLuhan impishly described as “collide-oscopic interfaced situations.”

Fiore was known for his abstract book jackets and covers.

The Massage heralded a number of firsts: The first time that a paperback led the hardcover version into the marketplace. The first time such intense visual pacing was applied to American bookmaking. The first book coordinated by a “producer,” Jerome Agel, who takes credit for orchestrating the sound and music. But most important was the close conceptual relationship between the designer and writer—like El Lissitzky and Mayakovsky, Heartfield and Tucholsky, Guylas Williams and Robert Benchley. Though Fiore and McLuhan were not in constant contact with each other during this period, Fiore was in sync with McLuhan’s thinking, so much so that the visual or concrete presentation of McLuhan’s sometimes complex ideas was made totally accessible. The Massage was an experiment in bookmaking that had an impact on other designers but only subtly changed the way that books are made today. Yet it did open unexplored avenues for Fiore.

Fiore, who was born in New York in 1920, had been a student of George Grosz (like Paul Rand) at the Art Student’s League and Hans Hoffman at the Hoffman School. His interest in classical drawing, paper making, and lettering attested to a respect for tradition. He began his career before World War II as a letterer for, among others, Lester Beall (for whom he designed many of the modern display letters used in his ads and brochures before modern typefaces became widely available in the U.S.), Condé Nast, Life, and other magazines (where he did hand-lettered headlines for editorial and advertising pages). Fiore abandoned lettering to become a generalist and for many years designed all the printed matter for the Ford Foundation in a decidedly modern but not rigidly ideological style. Since he was interested in the clear presentation of information, he was well suited as a design consultant to various university presses, and later to Bell Laboratories (for whom he designed the numbers on one of Henry Dreyfuss’ rotary dials). In the late 1960s he also worked on Homefax, a very early telephone fax machine developed by RCA and NBC. It was never marketed, but Fiore coordinated an electronic newspaper that would appear on a screen and be reproduced via a sophisticated electrostatic copying process.

Criticized for being disjointed and chaotic, but still iconic.

Fiore’s acute understanding of technology came from this and other experiences. In an article he wrote in 1971 on the future of the book, Fiore predicted the widespread use of computer-generated design, talking computers, and home fax and photocopy technologies. He also predicted the applications of the computer in primary school education long before its widespread use; accordingly, in 1968 he designed 200 computerlike “interactive” books for school children to help increase literacy skills. McLuhan’s philosophy was a logical extension of Fiore’s own practice.

His second coproduction with McLuhan, however, was, by Fiore’s own admission less successful than The Massage. According to a once sympathetic critic, the book—War and Peace in the Global Village: An Inventory of Some of the Current Spastic Situations That Could Be Eliminated With More Feed-Forward—was a “crankish, repetitive and disjointed tome in which McLuhan’s puns had become a nervous tic.” McLuhan based his book on the bewildering idea that war is a result of the anxiety aroused when changing metaphors in perception fail to yield up familiar self-images. Fiore’s design was a combination of disparate imagery and text, which tried with little success to reign in McLuhan’s now-humorless meanderings. Fiore also worked on a book with another futurist, Buckminster Fuller, titled I Seem To Be A Verb, which (prefiguring certain contemporary information-anxiety books) could be read from front to back or back to front.

Jerry Rubin’s bookend to Abby Hoffman’s “Steal This Book.”

Fiore had a wonderful experience with a book that was universally panned by the critics, Jerry Rubin’s Do It!, its title conceived by Fiore (and later, one suspects, adopted by Nike). For this he worked directly with the former Yippy, typographically emphasizing certain ideas in a manner vaguely reminiscent of the Dadaists and Futurists. Photographs were also used as icons and exclamation points, strewn through the text to add sight and sound to an idea or a pronouncement. Fiore was as loose as possible while still working within the constraints of bookmaking. For Fiore, however, this was the most appropriate way to convey the information at hand. Looking back at these books today, Fiore says they were just “jobs,” each requiring special treatment. That three of these became icons of their age was purely an accident.

After these experiments, as before, Fiore continued to apply himself to a variety of assignments using appropriate methods. In 1985 he returned to drawing and letter design as the illustrator for the Franklin Library’s version of Moby-Dick, but his ’60s work is that bridge between the old and new, the beginning of the “end” of the classic book.

Adapted from an essay in Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design (Allworth Press, 1997).

For more Steven Heller, check out Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility‚ one of the many Heller titles available at MyDesignShop.com.

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