Thursday, 4 March 2021

Taschen History of Graphic Design

This is Volume 1 (of a two part survey) covering the years between 1890 and 1959.  Taschen books is a curious enterprise developed around the production of trilingual, affordable, and quality printed monographs on Fine Art and Architecture, marketed internationally from their home base in Germany.   Another strand to the business is based around popular culture, pornography and erotica with a sideline in kitsch. Beginning with Helmut Newton’s elephantine photobook, Sumo in 1999 there have been a succession of increasingly lavish and glitzy limited edition volumes of art and photography with a queasy preference for the meretricious and compromised from the cult of celebrity to the fashion industry. Predicted to fail, they found a ready market among art speculators for whom they became a lucrative investment vehicle.  It’s easy to be offended by some of these books but it has to be acknowledged that Taschen also deals with subjects and artists largely ignored by others.  Many fascinating, once obscure, illustrators and designers have been brought into the mainstream as a result of Taschen’s editorial choices. The decades of devotion to Christo and Jeanne-Claude have been exemplary.  Given such a remarkably wide coverage of the visual arts, any absences leap out, leaving open the question of why are there no books about Frans Masereel or Otto Nückel, Christian Schad or Joseph Beuys?

As for the book itself - it comes on a grand scale, 15 inches tall with 480 pages.  It’s a visual history organised in decades with text kept to a minimum.  My first question on opening a book like this is how many of these images have I seen before?  All too often lazy picture researchers turn up the same old selection of crowd pleasers - happily that’s not the case here.  The result, by some distance is the best sequence of imagery, drawn from the widest range of source material that I’ve seen, from as far afield as Brazil, Japan, Turkey and New Zealand.  As the years march across the pages, they’re punctuated with double page case studies of famous practitioners, campaigns and brands. Featured designers range from Talwin  Morris to Max Bill and Rodchenko to Alex Steinweiss.  Space is given to the graphic legacy of contemporary art movements (Vienna Secession, Futurism, Dada, De Stijl) alongside examples of their influence on the mainstream. The endpapers and title pages feature taxonomies of disparate imagery arranged around common themes (eyes, hands, letters of the alphabet etc.). It’s a rare pleasure to enjoy such a treasure of unfamiliar examples of graphic excellence.


Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Paris Métro 1931

Every decade in the first half of the 20th. century one or other of Europe’s colonial powers would mount an exhibition to celebrate and legitimise their imperial dominions and plunder.  The principle audience was a domestic one but it also offered an opportunity to remind rival powers of France’s global reach.  Years of planning and a purpose built exhibition building was essential to do justice to the scale of the colonial project and L’Exposition Coloniale opened in May 1931. A subsidiary aim of the exhibition was to portray the French colonial presence as enlightened and benign as if colonial subjects were almost equal partners in a global French nation.  We may look back and see a shaming exercise in imperial condescension and national self-aggrandisement but that’s not how the French public would have seen it.  For them it was a powerful reminder of France’s high standing as an international player.  Reinforcing patriotic values at a time when a gathering economic crisis was threatening the stability of a nation rapidly fracturing into political extremes of Right and Left.  Outdoor exhibits were displayed in the Bois de Vincennes and a more scholarly presentation of indigenous arts and crafts was housed in the newly constructed Palais de la Porte Dorée, about which we posted in February 2015.

The public relations staff at the Paris Métro got swept along in the general fervour and marked the occasion with a lavish presentation book proclaiming the wonders and achievements of Parisian public transport, expensively packaged within a metallic finish board cover.  Inside were tipped-in reproductions of specially commissioned paintings of Métro-related subjects and tables of statistics demonstrating the superiority of the Métro over its international rivals. The endpapers were graced with air-brushed Art Deco-styled imagery of the Métro in action that added to the air of luxury the publishers were striving for.  It was not something to be casually handed out to the general public but almost certainly reserved for honoured guests, foreign diplomats and senior officials as a corporate souvenir gift.


Wednesday, 10 February 2021

1959 Ford Galaxie

Throughout the 1950s, car designers in Detroit stretched and expanded their vehicles in all dimensions while applying ever more extravagant chrome decoration.  Every piece of trim and every bodywork moulding was designed to emphasise the sense of horizontality. This brochure depended on the talents of illustrators to bring the car to life and inspire some excitement in the reader.  Photography still had its limitations - an accomplished illustrator could subtly glamourise the product with discreet exaggeration and an imaginative way with colour.  A wedding theme runs through the imagery and we see the menfolk drool over the external finish while the women are swooning over the spacious interior.  There’s a touch of Hollywood about the wide-screen visualisation that places the viewer inside the vehicle while the ethereal bridesmaids dance in attendance.  Detroit was a city of ad agencies that specialised in serving the auto industry and the illustrators they engaged would often go on to stellar careers elsewhere, armed with the depth of their experience in keeping one step ahead of the camera with their transcendent visions of automobile perfection. By launching the car as the Galaxie, Ford was capitalising on public interest in the space race - galactic space is the infinity of space. The name survived for 15 years until it was retired in 1974. 1959 Ford models would go on to win a gold medal at the Brussels World Fair for styling elegance - an unusual accolade for Detroit industry.


Saturday, 30 January 2021

Reliance Building, Chicago

The Reliance Building in the Chicago Loop was constructed between 1891 and 1895 on the site of an existing five storey bank building at the intersection of State and Washington. It was a laborious process that involved demolition of the ground floor which had been acquired with vacant possession while retaining the upper floors until the leases expired.  Supporting the upper section required extensive jack-screwing while a link with the street level had to be maintained for access. The new building would rise to its full fifteen storeys as the upper floors were vacated and demolished.

Allocating credit for the innovative design features of the Reliance is problematic.  Chicago firm of Burnham and Root was the lead architect but a key role in terms of engineering was taken by the developer, William Hale, who under another hat was the founder of the Hale Elevator Company; his fortune grew with the height of the buildings.  Hale took charge of the technical challenges of demolition and rebuilding the lower floors while securing the upper floors. John Root died in 1891 during the first phase of construction and is generally credited with designing the innovative steel frame plus the ground floor but it was his replacement, Charles Atwood who took charge of the design and construction of the upper floors including the glazed white terra-cotta cladding. Atwood also takes the credit for the huge bay windows that comprised a pair of fixed windows flanked by opening sashes to either side for ventilation. Burnham raised the finance, marketed the building to tenants and was the public face of the project.

When the Reliance opened in 1895 the first tenant was the Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department store - they occupied the first two floors while the upper floors were subdivided and let as office space, consulting rooms and dental surgeries.  Critics and commentators hailed it as a landmark in the evolution of the Chicago Style but it’s reputation was rapidly overshadowed by the next generation of much larger and taller buildings. By the end of World War 2 its fortunes were in steep decline - professionals moved out, a mix of wholesalers, light industry, and a menswear store moved in.  By 1980 most of the later tenants were moving out without being replaced and the fabric of the building was decaying at speed - the terra-cotta façade was discoloured and cracked and the cornice had to be removed to protect the public from falling masonry.  By this time its importance was forgotten by all but the most dedicated enthusiasts for Chicago architecture. A campaign was launched to rescue the building from neglect and with growing public support and funding a detailed restoration began.  This would conclude in 1999 when the building reopened as an hotel (The Burnham) with its dazzling terra-cotta brought back to life.  Staircases, elevators and circulation areas were returned to original condition so far as regulations permitted.  In recent years the hotel changed hands and the new owners rebranded it in line with others in the chain which is how it came to be landed with the fatuous name of Staypineapple - a moniker that seems like an insult to the dignity and reputation of the building.  The rationale for this decision can be read here.  Warning, contains language that some might find offensive.

Enhanced views from inside the Reliance offer the same sense of optical plunge that Boccioni recorded in The Street Enters the House (1912) - an expanse of glazing that invites an onrush of visual information at an intimidating velocity.  More practically, the occupants enjoyed the optimum quantity of natural light in all weathers.  Books consulted are 1)  Jay Pridmore,  The Reliance Building (2003) and 2)  Dan Cruickshank,  Skyscraper (2018).  Cruickshank’s exhaustive and immensely rewarding account of the Reliance is at the absolute centre of his history of the evolution of the skyscraper - highly recommended.


Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Postcard of the Day No.102 Mazamet, le Kiosque des Journaux

This is the sort of postcard I’m always looking out for - a modest building fully stocked with newspapers and magazines in a melancholy square in a small town in south west France.  It’s a midwinter scene and the only sign of life is a young girl, hands clasped, wearing a beret and an air of resignation that suggests she may be the photographer’s daughter pressed into accompanying her father on a weekend expedition.  In the distance there’s a flat-bed delivery lorry but everything else points to a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon.

To my astonishment, when I took a dive into Streetview, there it was. Almost unchanged after nearly a century - the finials and decorative ironwork fringe still in place in September 2019 when the Google car passed by.  Paris Match has replaced Le Petit Parisien and l’Illustration and the Franc has given way to the Euro but, despite the temporary nature of kiosks, there it stands - a triumphant survivor, still selling the printed word and image in the digital age.


Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Bridges of Paris: 1 Viaduc d’Austerlitz

While most Paris Métro lines (with the notable exception of line 6) burrow underneath the Seine, line 5 crosses over the Seine between Quai de la Rapée and Quai d’Austerlitz by courtesy of the graceful Viaduc d’Austerlitz, a single arch steel bridge built in 1904, slender in appearance but rich in decorative ironwork.  On the north bank the bridge approach is via a curving steel ramp that lifts the tracks to the required height. At the other end the bridge extends over the Quai d’Austerlitz and the roadway before plunging into the roof space of the Gare d’Austerlitz - the only terminal station in Paris where the Métro platforms are situated above the station rather than safely interred beneath.  The view from downstream includes glimpses of the clock tower at the Gare de Lyon and the offices of RATP, the nerve centre of Parisian public transport.  There are houseboats tied up alongside the Quai d’Austerlitz - in an early series of The Spiral, the stocky figure of the eternally compromised Gilou (aka Escoffier) could be seen there, going aboard for a critical meeting with an organised crime boss to whom he would offer his services as an informer from inside the police.

Jean-Camille Formigé (1845-1926) designed the bridge with the engineer, Louis Biette. Formigé is no household name but he left a distinctive mark on the city around the turn of century.  He designed the Pont de Passy (1905) and the extended viaducts that supported Métro line 2 on its aerial sections through northern Paris. His taste for decorative moulded reliefs can be seen on all these structures. The nautical themed coat-of-arms for the City of Paris with its anchor and trident, is stretched and extended and draped with fronds of seaweed and undulating fish, then repeated at intervals across the Viaduc from the main arch to the balustrades.  Robustly carved bulls’ heads surmount the stonework of the massive abutments to amplify the sense of structural strength.