A Heretic’s History of Graphic Design

81gRXNqesML._SL1500_A self-proclaimed “outlaw,” Art Chantry presents a history and appreciation for the alternative, hidden, or otherwise “poorly documented” language of mainstream American graphic design in Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design (Feral House), a formalized collection of opinions and essays taken from his Facebook page. As opposed to championing the “great men” of high design, Chantry, who designed posters and album covers for such bands as Nirvana, Hole, and the Sonics, prefers to elucidate the work of the greatest bottom-feeders: sign painters, surfers, punk rockers, and the like.

Chantry defends such contributions as religious flyers, smiley face graphics, self-help book covers, stock photography, pin-ups, MAD magazine, corporate graphics, band posters, and science fiction typography. The book’s cover is so poorly designed that it threatens to discredit this “heretic’s” reputation as an expert in his field. But, to design snobs especially, I recommend forging ahead. What lies within is a juicy and insightful anthropological study of American visual language, put together with entertaining low-brow visuals and accompanied by a markedly nonacademic, raucous read. Short, focused chapters work like easy essays that can be read out of order during design breaks.

Here are the major themes of the book:

Great Men v. Bottom Feeders

Chantry contends that graphic design has taken on a higher reputation over the past 30 years to become an “art form” in its own right, and thus institutionalized in academic art departments. The narrative presented in these design schools upholds heroes such as Rand Paul (“Saint Paul”) and Milton Glaser, and David Carson. But homegrown American graphics come in all stripes. Graphic design is not a “muse-driven masterpiece created by a single person in an edition of one,” says Chantry. The roots of vernacular visual culture are commercially driven, brewed by laymen and -women. Chantry proves that highly influential graphic design emerges from a radically plural environment, where the dominant learning style is “monkey see, monkey do.” The influences behind great design go back for generations, and are generally picked up outside the formalism of art school.

2046515228_f35b88fd78_oThe Secret Brotherhood of Graphic Designers

Signs are an ancient and pragmatic art form. There were billboards in ancient Rome. Seventeenth and 18th-century Japanese advertisers made “kanban,” sculptural signs for illiterate buyers at market that illustrated shops for tea, shoes, carpentry, calligraphy or candy. Now these practical old signs are highly collectible as folk art. Functional visual messaging is a basic need of humankind. Chantry argues that modern graphics truly began with the “brotherhood” of sign painters. The best signs have a certain “personal style,” a useful sales technique that we now identify as marketing. Interestingly, the tradition of sign painting became unionized and organized into craft guilds of “commercial artists.” In hard times, itinerant sign painters could always find work. (Woody Guthrie supported himself this way.) A legion of self-taught sign painters who learned their trade through mail-order schools, hoboed around America creating networks, inadvertently exposing distant corners of the country to the art of advertising.

Who really designed the ubiquitous smiley face?
Who really designed the ubiquitous smiley face?

The Acrimonious History of the Smiley Face

When a graphic becomes a pop star, the design industry immediately tries to identify its genius creator. Chantry thinks this approach is lazy, for he believes that graphic design is a language spoken by the entire culture. The most important design, he claims, develops through groupthink, and is then copycatted by individuals who take singular credit. For instance, Harvey Ball, a freelance designer from Massachusetts, takes the credit for creating the smiley face logo, a campaign to boost employee morale for the State Mutual Life Assurance Company. The simple yellow graphic was so popular that the lapel pins flew out of the office and into the streets, pirated by countless other companies and individuals. But the story is not that simple. That smile graphic was preceded by at least a few other regional occurrences—WMCA in New York City and a University Federal Savings & Loan bank in Seattle, Washington. Apparently, the smiley graphic made by Seattle designer George Tanagi was such a hit that, from 1967 to ’68, everyone from the lowly hippie to the wealthy suburban housewife was wearing one. Even Nirvana lifted that very same smiley graphic directly from a local strip club, which used it with the tagline “Have an Erotic Day.”

Malcolm McLaren used Situationist-style graphics in his album cover design for the Sex Pistols.
Malcolm McLaren used Situationist-style graphics in his album cover design for the Sex Pistols.

Sex Pistols and the Repeated Rebellion of Parent Design Trends

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is Chantry’s ability to analyze style movements as they shift in response to cultural paradigms. For instance, he asserts that Victorians created the very first Industrial style and that Art Nouveau and Art Deco were reactions against its mechanized aesthetic. Curvy and organic “handmade was a direct middle finger” to the Victorian era, which romanticized machinery and scientific tools. In another chapter, Chantry connects the French art movements—Dadaists and Situationists—to the development of punk rock graphics in England. Radical French artist Guy Debord had the idea that reality is predicated on a “shared culture” passed down through many generations of tradition. If left unchallenged, he believed, those traditions corrupt, causing imbalances with terrible political repercussions. Wishing to divorce himself from that shared culture, Debord intentionally designed chaotic acts and artworks to confuse and alienate the rhythms of daily life. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, he and his Parisian gang of subculture hipsters created “situations” which infamously smashed cultural norms. By the early ’70s, Malcolm McLaren was in college in Paris and studied these Situationists. Deeply influenced, McLaren went back to England and developed a British brand of “no-culture” art, sort of confusing rebel fashion with real rebel ideals, and using Situationist-style graphics created by Jamie Reid to promote bands like the Sex Pistols and related products. Thus, punk aesthetics caught on like wildfire and McLaren made a whole lot of money on the enterprise. (Interestingly, about the same time, similar crude anti-art graphics by Tomata Du Plenty popped up in Seattle, Chantry’s home base.)

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I contend that the accidental “art” of our time that will be most studied by future historians will be from advertising and Hollywood movies. Not only will this material be readily abundant and intriguing to future generations, it will also represent (quite embarrassingly) who were really were. As sophisticated and complex as fine art can be, it represents the taste of the 1% and certain subcultures, not the over-arching under-cultures that make up the majority. Chantry understands this. He makes an astute and bawdy lay-historian, with a voice totally appropriate for his archetype–the independent, entrepreneurial, freelance designer, making visuals and hunting for jobs in the Wild West of our shared commercial reality. He accepts that graphic design is not art, but politics, economics, and fashion, boiled down into a tasty, and sometimes toxic, roux of visual signs.

Karen Tauches is a local designer, artist, and curator.

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