Tuesday, November 30, 2010

MODULE TEN - The Memphis School

Ettore Sottsass Valentine Portable Typewriter,
1969 Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.
Ettore Sottsass, (Artist), Enorme Telephone,
1986, Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y.)

The images above are pieces designed by Ettore Sottsass, an iconic leader of the Memphis design movement.  Meikle, in his book, Design in the USA Oxford History of Art, Oxford, (p. 195) explains that Memphis was born out of America's propensity to accept Post-modern European influences. As well, this movement derived from European designers', specifically Eric Stottsass, love of popular American cheap materials such as fake marble and wood-grained veneer, "gratuitous" use of chrome, and "gaudy" colors.  Meikle goes on to state that the name "Memphis" brings to mind American cultural representations such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, blues, suburbia, and rock and roll.

In the images above, we see implements, designed by Stottsass, that could be found in an American suburban home at the time this design movement arose in the 1980's. The use of bright colors, red and yellow, typify the design movement.

What were some key elements in the first Memphis design Show?

The first Memphis show was put on by Stottsass and his collaborators in Milan Italy was in 1981. In this show, furniture and accessories were exhibited with the following attributes:
  • plastic laminates
  • bright colors
  • zig zag lines and squiggles
  • abandonment of purity and promotion of excess
According to Meikle, at the show, "Metal supports for tables, shelves, and lamps seemed to quiver or wiggle as if to suggest utter lack of support"

The black and white image below is a great example of the Scotsass'use of zig zags even before the Memphis show in Milan. It displays his disposition toward geometry and movement.

Ettore Sottsass, Study for Fruit Bowl (with Apple), 1973,
Museum of Modern Art (New York, N.Y

What was the design motivation of the Memphis School?

Barbara Radice, the groups publicist succinctly stated that the design philosophy "abandoned the myths of progress and of a program of cultural regeneration capable of changing the world to a rational design. " Alternatively, the Memphis design focused on "breaking ground, extending the field of action, broadening awareness, shaking things up, discussing conditions, and setting up fresh opportunities.  She further went on to state that the groups use of popular American materials set up a new way of communicating. (Meikeil p. 196)

Meikle, p. 196
The image above is piece displayed in the show. The hand work involved in producing this piece made it expensive to purchase. Here we see the bright colors, sharp edges, and bold statement typical of the Memphis school.

How has the Memphis design influence today's Graphic design works?

Below is a poster created by William Longhauser, reflecting the design elements of post modern architect, Michael Graves.  The elements of the poster design include Memphis-type sharp edges and color contrastI discovered a poster displayed at the Herbst Theater on Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco this week which appeared to have post modern elements displayed in the design. When comparing the Longhause poster with the poster found at the Herbst theater I saw what appeared to be common post modern design elements: zig zags, relative boldness of statement,  contrasting colors, and overlapping.

William Longhauser, 1983

Poster at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, November 2010


Meggs, Philip B and Alston W. Purvis (2006). Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Meikle, Jeffrey L. (2005). Design in the USA Oxford History of Art, Oxford, New York Oxford University Press


Saturday, November 20, 2010

MODULE NINE - Conceptual Illustration

Atelier popilaire poster: a youth disturbed
too often by the future, poster, 1968,
University of California, San Diego

Post World War II, during which electronic advancements were made, set the climate for the emergence of a graphic design form referred to as Conceptual Illustration. This poster art form was about merging words with illustration in the effort to make a succinct statement.

In the poster on the left, we see the integration of word and image to convey the anguish that youth experience when pondering the future.   Along with the integration of word and image, we see the full utilization of space as a key attribute of conceptual illustration used by the artist.

Vostell Wolf, de-coll/age Happenings
Something Else,
University of California, San Diego

What are key attributes of and influences upon Conceptual Illustration?

  • analysis
  • full space utilization
  • word and image integration
  • concept conveyance
Pettibon, Raymon, Pop, 1993
University of California, San Diego

  • cubism
  • surrealism
  • expressionism
  • mass-media

        The poster above by Vostell, emits the style of cubism through its geometric proportions. We see the geometry of the books, matzo bread, and drawer combine to form consistent geometric shapes. The image and the word appear to converge to make a simple statement for the viewer.

        The poster, above, by Pettibon, simply and succinctly messages the view through color and the word "pop". In this work we see the "pure color loosened from natural reference by expressionism" (Meggs and Purvis p. 424) in the reds of the apple.

        Hershman, Lynn, Roberta Breitmore: And Alchemical Portrait, 1975
        The work above by Hershman displays the conceptual style by full space utilization,  integration of words and image.  We can see the influence of pop culture through the depiction of recognizable images such as the Golden Gate Bridge, car, on roller coaster.

        How does Conceptual Illustration compare with the Art Nouveau style?

        William Bradley, The Chap Book 1995

        As I discussed in a previous blog posting on Art Nouveau, some believe that the merging of idea and image to create symbolism is non existent in this art form.  It is thought that art nouveau is a design art form that does not take the view beyond the aesthetic.

        I can see elements of the conceptual illustration in art nouveau.  For example, in the work above, by Bradley, I see the following commonalities with the conceptual art examples discussed above: 1. Poster format 2. Integration of Words and Image 3. Full use of space.  The key difference between this work and conceptual art may be that this work was not intended to convey a deep meaning or symbol. But I suspect that there was some form of message that the Bradley was trying to get across to viewers. The message may have simply been the notation of beauty related to "Chap Book".

        How do we see influence of Conceptual Illustration in commercial advertising today?

        Billboards, internet display advertising manifest elements of conceptual illustration.  This manifestations occurs primarily in the use of space and integration of image and words. The example below demonstrates the use of technology to enhance the look of the bill board in Times Square, New York. Like the psychedelic style, the billboards are placed near a high traffic area. Like the conceptual illustration style, there is a full use of space, integration of words and image, and pop art references.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Times_Square_1-2.JPG, by Matt H. Wade

        In his book, Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: A guide to Creating Great Ads, Sullivan explains that billboards force one to be simple in their ad design (pp. 73,74).  Sullivan uses the illustration below to explain, Neils French's, writer, idea of reductionism in advertising. He explains that the body portion of copy could be removed by making the headline "work a little harder". This achieves a leaner layout.  I think that this lean layout become important to capture the attention of audiences who are otherwise engaged, walking or driving.


        Meggs, Philip B and Alston W. Purvis (2006). Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


        Tuesday, November 16, 2010

        MODULE EIGHT - Semiotics

        In the 1950's, the Ulm Institute of Design in Germany had a mission to solve the design problems of the era. To that end, directors of the school developed a program called “Semiotics”. This program taught design principles which take into account meanings of symbols, overall design architecture, and user interaction.

        Max Bill, European; Swiss, 1908, Variation 13,Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
        San Francisco, California, USA,Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts purchase 1984.1.98.
        What are the 3 branches of Semiotics?

        • semantics - meanings of signs and symbols
        • syntactics - architecture or signs and symbols into a whole
        • pragmatics - user interaction with signs and symbols

        What was the relevance of semiotics for 1950's Ulm Institute Artists?

        Max Bill(19-08-94) was instrumental in developing the curriculum for the Institute of Design in Ulm. According to Meggs and Purvis (p. 357), "Bill constructed layouts of geometric elements organized with absolute order. Mathematical proportion, geometric spatial division, and the use of Akzidenz Grotesk type (particularly the medium weight) are features of his work of [the 1930's]."

        The image above is one of Bill's works. Here we see the geometric elements. One might say that the semiotic element with regard to the syntactics is manifested in the way the rainbow colored circles are arranged. The juxtaposition of the rings gives way to white space which draws the viewer to the center part of the image. The pragmatics, user interaction, is such that the view starts their visual journey at the center of the image and then works their way across the rings toward the outside.

        What was are the implications of semiotics for in today's media?

        In his book, Interactive Media: the Semiotics of Embodied Interaction, O'Neil offers explanations as to the importance of semiotics in today's media.  He states "Semiotics takes the view that signs can be organized within various media, to form texts that can convey some kind of meaning." He explains the ideas of two theorists, Saussure and Hjelmslev.

        Saussure theorized that words had two major components when it comes to meaning:
        • Signifier - the physical representation
        • Signified - the meaning conveyed
        I think of this this concept in therms of the words, Amplifier and Amplified.  The Amplifier is the physical object which emits sound. What is Amplified is the music which conveys meaning and affects the senses.

        O'Neil says, Hjelmselv thought of the signifier as " the physical materials of the medium, e.g., sound, light, wood, or stone." Hjelmselv introduced the concepts of form and substance in the understanding of a sign.
        • Substance of Expression
        • Form of Expression
        • Form of Content
        O'Neil says Hjelmsevs ideas can be thought of  in terms of a Greek statue where the substance of expression is the stone from which the statue is carved. The form of expression is the shape of the body. And in the case of a statue of Zeus, the form of content is the "concept of the divine or all knowing."

        Zeus of Artemision, detail; head,c. 460-450 BCE,Image and original data provided by Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archives/ART RESOURCE, N.Y.

        The figure below (p. 68) from O'Neils outlines a comparison between Saussure and Hjelmselv theories.

          According to a CCNMoney.com column, By Blake Ellis, , the change of the GAP logo "ignites [a] firestorm". This speaks to the relevance of semiotics in today's corporate design. Here we see the "signified" modified through restructuring the design. The signifier, the word GAP, did not change but the signified, the meaning, did change. Or, using Hjelmslev's train of thought, we see that the substance of expression, digital design medium, did not change. However the form of expression, (fonts, colors, and layout) and the form of content (meaning the logo evoked) did change.  In this case, the meaning and emotion evoked changed so much in the negative direction that the logo was reverted back to the original design.


          Meggs, Philip B and Alston W. Purvis (2006). Meggs’ History of Graphic Design. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

          O'Neil,Shlaleph (2008). Interactive Media: the Semiotics of Embodied Interaction. London Springer Science & Business Media