Winter 1991

Wheels of fortune

Fortune magazine was a visual encyclopedia of American business life

Fortune was launched when the conventional magazine had no systematic type style and the role of the designer, if there was a designer at all, was confined to the application of decorative vignettes and ornate type. Fortune, however was no follower of convention. The first issue of February 1930 included a design manifesto, probably by the magazine’s first art editor, Thomas M. Cleland, which began with a statement of rationalist intent: ‘The design of Fortune is based upon its function of presenting a clear and readable text profusely illustrated with pictures, mostly photographic, in a form ample and agreeable to the eye.’ There followed a discussion of typography, proportions, paper and printing methods, all of which had been selected with the intension of going ‘beyond the technical limitations of most periodicals’ and combined to give a generosity of presentation ‘which shall be in accord with the best principles of fine bookmaking.’

Fortune was aimed at America’s business elite. Launched as the depression hit its deepest trough, this monthly celebration of the power of US capital was a brazen gamble on the part of its impresario publisher, Henry Luce. Self-confidence bordering on arrogance, however, was to be the magazine’s hallmark, manifest in its great size (11 ¼ x 14 inches), in the weight of its 200-plus pages, on a heavy, uncoated stock specially chosen to take the saturated colour printing, and its high cover price (‘One dollar a Copy’, set proudly in 24pt on the masthead) Luce promised that his magazine would be ‘a beautiful a magazine that exists in the United States. If possible the undisputed most beautiful.’ In its early years, Fortune certainly amplified the best in US craft typography, exploring the limits of the possible applications of traditional type structures to magazine design.

Cleland’s format conveyed an impression of tasteful restrained abundance a protestant aesthetic of beauty in economy. A simple two or three column grid, using only three gradations of type size for heads, stand first and body copy, was surrounded by wide margins. The design’s sole concession to decoration was the tromp l’oeil border round the titlepiece and cover illustration. Inside, the gravure-printed colour photographs and illustrations were framed by a 4pt solid black border, a radical departure of the elaborate photographic vignettes of commercial magazine design. Colour was used at its best in the pictorial maps and diagrams, which illustrated the key information and documentary features. Type was in Baskerville, printed by letterpress and deeply impressed into the page.

Like F. W. Goudy and W. A. Dwiggins, Cleland belonged to the generation of American typographers schooled in the classical roman tradition. His choice of Baskerville, the most precisely cut of the eighteenth century transitional fonts, was a clear indication of his aesthetic sensibility. Baskerville, he wrote, was ‘free from archaisms and familiar to modern eyes yet had none of the condensation and ‘meanness’ of later faces’. For Cleland, the face had a classical yet technocratic grandeur, which could reconcile the pretensions of US big business with the practical occupation of making money.

Fortune’s art editor for most of the 1930s was Eleanor Treacy, who gradually eroded the monumental symmetry of Cleland’s design to create a more fluid visual dynamic. Treacy commissioned magnificent industrial photography from a new wave of photojournalists influenced by the style and content of constructive photography. Among the most prolific and accomplished were Walker Evans and Fortune’s full time photographic editor, Margaret Bourke-White.

Treacy’s successor, Francis (Hank) Brennan, arrived in 1938 from Condé Nast, where he had worked with M. F. Agha, the Russo-Turkish art director who had introduced elements of the new typography to Vanity Fair and Vogue. Brennan complained that Cleland’s bookish format ‘could not easily accommodate such devises as bleed pages, asymmetric lay-outs, the growing use of charts and diagrams.’ He stripped the ornate border from the cover and with new art director Peter Piening he introduced a harder-edged, less formal design for the March 1942 issue. For the next three years almost the whole of Fortune’s content was dedicated to the war effort. Stencil faces, News Gothic and Futura italics, together with a renewed emphasis on charts, diagrams and maps, gave visual expression to the performance of the working front.

Through its intensively researched editorial, Fortune became an encyclopaedia of science, industry and cultural and political life. It was the design, which set a new standard in the communication of complex information, that established its purpose. After 1941 the magazine led corporate America’s embrace of European modernism, employing the talents of German, Dutch, French, and Italian émigrés to create remarkable synthesis of visual and literary journalism. Abstract conceptual covers and illustrations were commissioned from Ferdinand Leger Hans J. Barschel, Edmund Lewandowski, Herbert Matter and Ladislav Sutnar. Herbert Bayer produced a series of diagrams to explain complex scientific subjects which he called ‘patterns for intelligent visualisation’, but which Brenan referred to simply as functional graphics, designed as integral parts of a given story.

Piening took sole responsibility for art direction in 1943 and was succeeded in late 1945 by fellow German, Will Burtin. Burtin had served a traditional print apprenticeship before attending the Cologne Werkschule, where he was introduced to the new typography. At Fortune, however, he rejected traditional functionalism for an approach in which ‘individual job requirements led quite naturally to their own visual expression.’ As he was to describe it in Graphis magazine in 1949, ‘I attempted to prove my contention that the character of a material and its interpretation, illustration, text, technical data, type character, size, page units, colours and shapes, are part of one integrated entity.’ But this process, he explained, ‘asked for a measure of discipline difficult to define. If followed sternly, it resulted in rigid, mechanical design . . . instinct and creative urge put to work at the proper place seemed to be most necessary implements.’

Burtin’s solutions to the problems of communicating complex data combined visual clarity with high drama. Drawing on a knowledge of montage and photograms and on the superb technical draftmanship of the Fortune art department, together with designers of the calibre of Bayer, Gyorgy, Kepes and Lester Beall, he created both flat and three-dimensional flow charts, tables, maps and exploded diagrams notable for their use of simple formal elements and colour. This was Fortune’s richest period of graphic experiment, though not its most commercially successful.

The emphasis in US business had undergone a subtle transformation immediately after the war, with a shift in interest from the industrial power to management and marketing finesse, and the rise of a highly conservative corporatism. In 1948 Burtin’s design was considered more suitable to a look through rather than a reading magazine and Luce criticised the editorial content as insufficiently staunch in its backing of ‘the American enterprise system.’

A substantial redesign was begun in 1949 by the Dutch designer Leo Lionni, assisted by Walter Allner, a graduate of the Dessau Bauhaus who was to become art director from 1962 to 1974. The new format was introduced in September 1951 and was to remain substantially unchanged until 1969. Its ordered type and modular arrangement of pictures was in clinical contrast to Burtin’s exuberance. However, Lionni’s restraint was better suited to Fortune’s new emphasis on the management profile and corporate review, and on readability.

Fortune’s wheel has come full circle, and in the preface to the September 1951 issue entitled ‘The function of Form’ Lionni echoed Cleland’s initial message: ‘Though the functions of magazines, and consequently their forms, are as variable as their titles, the first function of any magazine is to get itself read.’ Lionni aimed to ‘avoid the kind of false modernity that is sometimes accomplished by graphic tricks’, intending the design to ‘be functional rather than merely looking functional.’ Thus he spurned sanserifs and chose instead Bodoni Italic for heads and century Expanded for body text. The visual dynamic was primarily symmetrical and the editorial structure was reorganised to present a clear beginning (news and reviews), middle (features) and end (round up). In summary, Fortune became more like a conventional magazine, although until its remaking as a small-format title in 1972, it retained much of its grandeur, its immense graphic sophistication, and its intellectual ambition.

For more than 40 years Fortune easily maintained its stature as the great American magazine. Given the huge resources and talent that went into its making, resources of a magnitude today commanded only by television producers, it is unlikely that its visual and journalistic achievements can – in print – ever be repeated.

First published in Eye no. 2 vol. 1, 1991

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