Autumn 2006

Moderne times

Why has France’s influence upon European graphic design been underestimated and neglected?

Even for the French, graphic design history plays second fiddle to painting, sculpture, cinema, cuisine and couture. Yet France’s advertising (publicité) and typographic (graphisme) legacies are by no means insignificant to a broad popular culture. In fact they had a huge influence on commercialism of the early twentieth century, particularly the United States’ shift from post-Victorianism to modernity during the early 1920s. So why has it taken so long for an inclusive history of French graphic design to be written (and translated into English)?

Perhaps because it has been overshadowed by the scholarly attention paid to German, Russian and Dutch avant-garde Modernism. Or maybe because after World War II French graphisme was considered less world-altering than Swiss design (despite the fact that key International Style typefaces, such as Univers, were designed in France). Over the past two decades important texts have been written about Spanish and Italian design, so why has similar attention not been paid to the accomplishments of French graphic designers?

Whatever the reasons, judging from the chapters devoted to France in current English-language design history textbooks, in addition to eighteenth-century type design and late nineteenth-century Art Nouveau, the most celebrated French graphics are those luscious posters representing the moderne or Art Deco style by A. M. Cassandre, Jean Carlu and Paul Colin, which, for better or worse, have since the late 1960s been fetishised by collectors and turned into pastiche by airbrush jockeys. Hence, little is known about France’s significant contributions to Modernism, as well as its contributions to pre-Modern and postwar typography. But now, thanks to Michel Wlassikoff’s The Story of Graphic Design in France, the historical imbalance is being rectified through a thorough harvesting of historical fact. The Gingko Press edition has a fine English translation by Lisa Davidson and Sally Laurette (although, annoyingly, many proper names for well known designers are still spelled as though transliterated in French).

Wlassikoff charts a fascinating and lively chronology from 1500 (Diderot and d’Alembert’s classic pictorial Encyclopédie) to 2005 (books designed by m / m (Paris) and Frédéric Teschner), with many engaging highlights along the way. In fact, the evolution of French graphics from rococo to postmodern is a fairly steady path of innovation, even though the later postwar period is virtually ignored in American and English design histories. [ . . .]