Advertising Arts: America Becomes Modern(istic)

Essays by Steven Heller
1 321 words7 min read
In an article titled “Art as a Means to An End,” advertising pioneer Earnest Elmo Calkins argued that unlike anything else in the realm of aesthetics, art is subject to such constant scrutiny that each fresh innovation “adopted by the radicals” is in turn resisted by the conservatives, then tolerated, and finally copied until it too becomes “old stuff and the vanguard are already in full cry after something newer.” Although this has familiar and current ring, Calkins’ statement appeared in the first article in the premiere issue of Advertising Arts on January 8, 1930, marking a new and sophisticated way of addressing graphic and advertising art.

This unique trade magazine sought to integrate modern art into stodgy mainstream commercial culture. While other American trade journals promoted the status quo, Advertising Arts, a perfect bound monthly supplement of the weekly trade magazine Advertising and Selling, professed ways to integrate new design fashions and progressive ideas “adopted by radicals” into conventional practice. Although it could only report on, rather than actually originate, these advancements nonetheless it presented them with such practical fervency that the magazine became the vortex of progressive American graphic and industrial design of the era.

Advertising Arts is not to be confused, however, with the radical European design manifestoes issued by Constructivists, Futurists, or the Bauhaus which introduced The New Typography and changed visual practice and perception. In the 1920s, the United States did not have a design or advertising avant garde rooted in utopian principles. The United States was resolutely and unapologetically capitalist and advertising was the foremost means of influencing the consumer. Commercialism was far more advanced here than in Europe yet our marketing strategies were much more conventional and word-based. In Europe, quotidian “publicity” was more image-oriented and Modern avant garde design was an alternative to antiquated aesthetics born of bourgeois culture and politics. In the United States, modernistic design was a product of the commercial concept known as forced (or style) obsolescence, devised by Calkins as a somewhat devious way to encourage consumers to “move the goods” despite the ravages of a worldwide economic depression.


When Advertising Arts made its debut during the Great Depression, the economy was at its nadir and desperation was at its zenith. Unless advertising and public relations men like Calkins could help resuscitate the economy, the nation would plummet further into the abyss — and with it the advertising industry. Advertising Arts, edited by Frederick C. Kendall and Ruth Fleischer, was developed as a vehicle to encourage innovative work and celebrate the determination of advertising designers to manipulate popular perception using pseudoscience. It was indeed a magazine with a mission. So rather than publish the usual diet of gossip, trade talk, and technical notices, Kendall and Fleischer tapped the movers and shakers of what was then called “art for industry” to flag the new progressivism. Touting their own achievements as “artists” and imbuing art with commercial value was a massive public relations effort that required the most articulate practitioners. Granted, the readers of Advertising Arts were primarily other advertising artists and designers, but nonetheless the magazine gained authority within the offices and boardrooms of industry. The articles validated contemporary design in ways that business men could understand it.

The magazine served as a blueprint for how to market modernity as both an ethos and a style — in print, on packages, and as industrial wares. For their part, the writers, which included influential graphic and industrial artists such as Lucian Bernhard, Rene Clark Clarence P. Hornung, Paul Hollister, Norman Bel Geddes, and Rockwell Kent, passionately advocated the new. In “Modern Layouts Must Sell Rather Than Startle,” for example, design pundit Frank H. Young, wrote: “Daring originality in the use of new forms, new patterns, new methods of organization and bizarre color effects is the keynote of modern layout and is achieving the startling results we see today.” At the same time, however, Advertising Arts cautioned against excess: “In some instances enthusiasm for modernism has overshadowed good judgement and the all-import selling message is completely destroyed,” continued Young in a passage that underscored the magazine’s ministry.

Despite some grand pronouncements on the sanctity of art, such as Rockwell Kent’s statement in the first issue: “[Art] is the concept of the visual mind. It is concerned with images and not ideas. Art is imagination.” Selling was Advertising Arts’ real credo. Art was used in various forms to help create environments that enticed consumers to purchase products, whether they needed them or not. This is not to say that all consumer products were celebrated by the magazine, because not all products were packaged in the manner supported by Advertising Arts. Its bias was for decorative or modernistic, rather than non-ornamental Modern, approaches influenced by contemporary art, everything else was ignored.


Advertising Arts promulgated a design fashion unique to the United States during the early 1930s, called the Streamline Style. Unlike the elegant austerity of the Bauhaus and kindred European movements, where the right angle and reductive form was paramount, this was a futuristic mannerism based on sleek and smooth aerodynamic design. Planes, trains, and cars were given the swooped-back appearance (not unlike design styles applied today) that symbolized speed and motion. Consequently, type and image were designed to echo that sensibility. The result being that the airbrush became the medium of choice, and all futuristic mannerisms, be they practical or symbolic, were encouraged. The clarion call was to “Make it Modern” - and “it” was anything that could be designed.

Clarence P. Hornung, a package and logo designer who later published influential books on antique design resources, argued somewhat prosaically in Advertising Arts that “The average American trade-mark is born of late Victorian ancestry. It is colorless in dress, overwrought in detail, sedate and somber in mien. Thrown into modern advertising society, it evinces the propriety of gingham and ‘yellow tans’ at a formal function.” His solution was to make trademarks modern by streamlining and geometrocizing. In Advertising Arts his words were law. Lucian Bernhard, the master German poster artist who in the United States designed the era’s most emblematic typefaces, announced in his equally authoritative Advertising Arts article, “Putting Beauty into Industry,” that the new desire for “beauty in industrial products, only recently started in this country, has not come from the side of manufacturers,” suggesting that the modernistic designer must be responsible for recasting American products. And these are but two of the many examples of the magazine’s obsession with modernization as the panacea for the world’s ills (and if Calkins was to be believed, it was the cure for all the United States’ economic woes). Therefore, it is fascinating that in the first issue the Advertising Art editors featured “The Bolshevik Billboard” as a possible direction that should be taken by capitalist advertising agencies.

Advertising Arts continued publishing until the late 1930s but ceased, when Advertising and Selling folded, prior to the 1939 New York World’s Fair: the World of Tomorrow, where so many of the modern graphic, package, and industrial design concepts championed by the magazine were realized. By that time it also had a viable competitor, PM (later AD) magazine, a graphic design journal launched in 1934 by the Composing Room type shop, which went further in its investigation of the Bauhaus and the New Typography, while at the same time was more balanced in its coverage of traditional forms. Advertising Arts maintained a niche and succeeded in raising the level of design sophistication through advocacy of the “modernistic.” And today, over sixty years later, it remains an important historical document in defining the evolution from work-a-day commercial art to sophisticated graphic design.