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.

MoMA Signs Off with Brancusi

Brancusi’s 1930s marble Fish

MoMA is taking a four-month break while it reinstalls its collection in its expanded 53rd Street home. For nearly a year before it closed its doors, MoMA provided a beautiful gathering space devoted to a much-loved modern master in a beautiful show Constantin Brancusi Sculpture.

Always packed with admirers, you could frequently hear visitors that turned the corner and entered the gallery exclaim, “Wow!”

There they all were – Brancusi’s marble The Fish sculpture that seemed to be swimming, the soaring Bird in Space, and the primal tall oak Endless Column.

1910 marble Maiastra, a mythical Romanian bird with a pedestal created from another sculpture

Everything was drawn from MoMA’s expansive collection. Every viewpoint joyfully represented what contemporary audiences love about Brancusi’s work. View it in our Flickr album.

Hard to believe that the epic Maiastra was created in 1910 or that this innovator grew up as a woodworker in the rural Romanian countryside and walked across the continent to relocate to Paris to be where the early modernist practice and philosophy were percolating.

For a fun look at how it all began for Mr. Brancusi, watch the film that MoMA created using footage shot by his buddy, Man Ray here and also listen to a jazzy playlist of Brancusi’s favorite songs and atonal orchestral hits of the day.

Brancusi’s work is the epitome of Modern to the contemporary eye, but it wasn’t always that way. One of the most beloved pieces in the room was initially considered a blasphemy to art when it was first exhibited in the 1913 Armory Show in New York.

Listen to MoMA tell the story:

MoMA on 53rd Street reopens on October 21. MoMA PS1 in Long Island City remains open.

The Long Run at MoMA

Frank Stella’s 1984 mixed media painting

Is it a premonition of what we will see when the Museum of Modern Art reinstalls its massive collection later this year?

The Long Run, on display through May 5, is an epic recasting of the galleries normally used to display contemporary and recent the most recent chronology of Modernist works. MoMA’s curators disrupted the chronology by pulling unseen works from storage and using them to show what artists with relatively long careers (think O’Keeffe, Rosenquist, Stella) were producing later in life.

1980-1989 wire sculpture by Lee Bontecou

The work is spectacular and compelling – wire “drawings” suspended from the ceiling (Gego and Bontecou), engaging installations (Fischl & Weiss and Joan Jonas), wall-size paintings and drawings (Joan Mitchell and Robert Morris), and personal meditations (Brătescu and Martin).

Walk through the show on our Flickr album.

The beauty of the show is that MoMA has mixed famous with not-so-famous geniuses and selected works that exemplify how artists switched it up mid- to late-career.

1975 self-portrait by Philip Guston

It seems that many successful artists feel compelled to take a new tack somewhere along the line. They just rethink their desire to crank out the same old thing.

A few examples that this show demonstrates: Guston left pure, pretty abstraction for biting, messy satire of himself and society. Agnes Martin left the gritty Seaport district amidst the junk-as-art era and began creating spiritual masterworks in Taos. Stella abandoned minimalism to maximal, wild impact.

Some galleries have loose themes — urban landscapes (Oldenburg monuments, O’Keeffe monoliths) and mixed media “found” art (linking 1930s Kurt Schwitters and 1980s David Hammons). But mostly visitors enter each white space confronted by works they’ve never seen before.

1999-2000 installation Things from the Room in the Back by Peter Fischli and David Weiss

Most visitors are confounded by the Fischli & Weiss installation.  Many wonder whether it is a place inside the museum that’s under construction, because it appears to be scattered plaster buckets and paint pans. It’s actually a witty “fool the eye” sculpture that the team hand-crafted from polyurethane.

One of the most magical experiences is the Joan Jonas installation with twinkling crystals, sparkling facets, and mystical mountains – a poetic experience reflecting her lifetime of exploration, collaboration, media experimentation, and life work.

If you have the time, watch this video of the seminar about this amazing show and the longevity of the creative drive:

Remember: MoMA will be closed for three months from June 15 to October 21 for the reinstallation of the museum.

2010-2013 Joan Jonas video and crystal sculpture installation Reanimation