When the Avant-Garde Took over Corporate Branding

Entrance to the show at Bard Graduate Gallery

With the world turned upside down by World War I, artists in the European avant-garde eagerly embraced new ways of looking, thinking, and creating.

Museum-goers are familiar with the innovative edge that Constructivism and Bauhaus thinking brought to painting and architecture, but few realize it extended so directly into corporate identity and industrial sales in those post-war years.

Bard Graduate Center tells this previously untold story through a young man’s collection who was at the center of it all in its exhibition, Jan Tschichold and the New Typography: Graphic Design Between the World Wars, on display through July 7.

Cover of 1923 Bauhaus exhibition catalog by Herbert Bayer. Courtesy: MoMA.

Recent grad Jan Tschichold, a talented young typeface designer calligrapher steeped in the art of fifteenth-century letterforms, took a quick trip to the Bauhaus in 1923 and was blown away by what he saw coming out of the print shop and the minds of artists at the interdisciplinary hothouse.

Being a works-on-paper kind of guy, Jan was entranced by the book designs and letterheads – modern san serif letters, asymmetrical page layouts, and letters used as design elements on the page. In particular, he saw an essay by Moholy-Nagy that coined the term “new typography”.

El Lissitzky’s 1920 children’s book About Two Squares, which teaches post-revolutionary ideals through interactions of abstract shapes. Courtesy: MoMA.

These rule-based design principles clearly appealed to him, and Jan soon began corresponding, organizing, sharing, and exhibiting with an energetic network of innovators like Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, and El Lissitzky. Starting in 1925, Jan was the most vocal proponent of this “new typography.”

“Graphic design” was starting to become a “thing” and Jan found himself in the center of it. Jan began collecting anything with asymmetrical layouts, eye-catching photo-montages, and letters running wild — postcards, catalogues, book designs, business cards, brochures, promotional catalogs, and posters.

By 1928, Jan had seen and designed so much ground-breaking work that he decided to write a book that would summarize how any graphic-arts practitioner could blow up past conventions of graphic design, letters, and photography and repurpose them for industries and pop culture.

Title page of Jan Tschichold’s 1928 book, “The New Typgraphy,” which had essays by Moholy-Nagy, Dexel, and others.

Jan’s book, Typographische Gestaltung, went viral among the 80,000 members of the German print workers union, showing everyone how to juice up advertising layouts, movie posters, and industrial brochure designs in a more modern way.

German industries were just beginning to make a comeback after the war. Brochures about pumps, valves, and machinery all had a modern twist that created an identity for corporations to make a comeback. Inexpensive designs on paper — what a way to make a statement! What a way to glamorize and sell ergonomic chairs, new motorcycle engines, lathes, and metal parts!

“Dwelling and Workplace” poster – an event identity campaign by Johannes Molzhan for the 1929 exhibition by Deutscher Werkbund, the German design association. Courtesy: MoMA

Curator Paul Stirton’s show shines a spotlight on this early move toward modern corporate branding, identity, industrial brochures, and the day-to-day business of simply selling things. Just like today, even avant-garde designers had to make a living!

One of our favorites is Dadaist-in-chief Kurt Schwitters’ marketing brochure to explain his design agency’s services for corporate logos, brochures, and and other types of design.

Eventually, Hungarian and Czech designers started adopting what Jan was advocating. His influence largely bypassed the United States and the English-speaking world (except by osmosis), since it took decades for his book to be translated into English.

1930 marketing brochure by Kurt Schwitters to potential corporate clients. Courtesy: MoMA

Perhaps one of the most intriguing features of this show is that nearly everything on display is from Jan’s own collection, which is labeled as in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. But ironically, much of the corporate marketing stuff on display here (and seen for the first time!) almost didn’t survive.

Jan amassed acres of his colleagues’ work in the Twenties, but had to leave the majority of his collection behind when he fled Germany in the run-up to World War II and ultimately landed in the United States.

Strapped for cash, Jan happily sold his poster collection to MoMA in the 1930s, but in the 1950s, MoMA said no to the rest of Jan’s remaining collection. Who needed that much work on paper from the Twenties when you were collecting wall-sized post-war American abstraction?

Jan Tschichold’s 1927 movie poster “The Woman Without a Name,” for Berlin’s Pheobus-Palast.

When Philip Johnson heard that MoMA refused to take Jan’s letters, catalogs, books, postcards, and other ephemera from Europe’s greats, he tracked down the California bookseller who acquired it, paid $350 for 800 pieces, and donated it to MoMA.

So, although MoMA’s closed for the summer, you can still see a capsule collection by a 20th century innovator that’s never been displayed as a whole before.

Take a look at our favorites on Flickr and watch the curator’s talk here.

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