The Industrial Revolution introduced a number of innovations in material and technical goods, a progressive trend of thought in the minds of the populace, cultural movements toward mass consumerism as the prices became affordable to a rising class of people, new forms of art using new materials, new literary styles and new architectural approaches all bringing a number of massive changes to the daily life of all individuals living in the modern world. All this innovation and change had to have an effect on the emerging world of graphic design.
It was during the Art Nouveau period that the modern era of graphic design, and the subsequent focus on Modernism, was born. According to legend, painters James Pryde and William Nicholson, related by marriage and working under the title of the Beggarstaffs, began using colored paper cut into basic shapes to create Japanese inspired designs that were easy to mechanically reproduce (Chwast 2000). This innovation neatly coincided with a general shift in society in favor of the wonderful possibilities of industry. To reflect this social interest in the capacity of the machine, designs became even more machine-friendly, adopting the simple and sometimes harsh lines of industry, bolder forms, simpler shapes and more functional design. Like the deceptively simple constructions of Japanese art, though, these bolder lines and sharper angles were not intended to dictate a world of harsh regularity.

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These blockish forms introduced into mainstream society were only the early roots of Modernism which was made popular by the Bauhaus movement. Modernism is “the name given to the new forms that appeared in all of the arts – in paintings, sculpture, architecture, music and literature” (Pile 2005, p. 323). In introducing the movement, the Bauhaus designers were driving contributors to the art of employing straight lines and the inventive use of materials in household items (Barr 1954, p. 220). They embraced the machine age as a means of providing comfort and clarity to a world still reeling from conflict and established machinery as a central characteristic throughout much of the rest of the Modern movement.

Art created in this period helped to draw people closer together. This was reflected in the production of the art as sculpture artists found themselves relying more and more upon manufactured materials and fabrication processes began to innovate in efforts to meet the demands of the artists. This forced cooperation began to blur the boundaries that had once existed between the world of high art and the world of the everyday. “By using these industrial-commercial processes and materials, they subvert these same processes and materials. Modernism effectively steals the language of those wielding power (the military/industrial complex), and by association, the American Federal Government” (Serra, 1989). It was perceived that the world of high art was becoming increasingly driven by the interests of the wealthy and the laws of commerce, settling into a codified ritual of production and technique, but graphic design offered a means of subverting and redefining these messages.

During this emerging period of Modernism, everything that could be designed – furniture, architecture, sculpture, typography – was deliberately created in a way that would bring attention to the harsh focus on functionality that characterized the period of rebuilding and recovery that followed the destruction of the war years. Materials had to serve a purpose to be considered ‘not wasteful’. In response to this sentiment, the Bauhaus approach stripped its forms of as many unnecessary design elements as possible, graphically insisting upon the functionality element of the finished product as the driving force. The designers made it clear that the beauty of the piece was to be found in the simplicity of its line and the functionality of its form rather than its artistic embellishments or aesthetic extras.

  • Barr, Jr. A. Masters of Modern Art. New York: Simon and Schuster: 1954. Print.
  • Chwast, Seymour and Steven Heller. Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000. Print.
  • Pile, J. F. A History of Interior Design. Laurence King Publishing, 2005. Print.
  • “Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc.” Art Law. Harvard: Harvard Law School. (1989). Web.