Merz to Emigre and Beyond: Avant-Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century
by Steven Heller (Phaidon)
Graphic Design for the 21st Century by Charlotte and Peter Fiell (Taschen)

The covers of these two books do a pretty good job of indicating what’s inside. Merz to Emigre’s micro-detail of an issue of 1920s Polish art journal Blok represents a focused piece of scholarly research by a leading design historian, while Graphic Design’s gaudy layering of ornaments, pixels and psychedelia, represents a vague, random collection of work from the past few years by a couple of well-connected enthusiasts. Both volumes are destined to inherit the life-spans of their subject matter: the former will last at least a century, the latter at most a couple of years. Together they represent the opposite poles of heavyweight arts publishing in 2003, and as both purport to document the avant-garde, let’s consider the connections, similarities and differences between them.

By 1920 over a million magazine titles had been launched, and Steven Heller accordingly spends a lengthy introduction explaining his selection criteria for Merz to Emigre. His Avant-garde is defined as ‘the advance guard of unconventional ideas… the instrument of radical change… used by societies as a means to trigger progress by disrupting complacency and promoting unacceptability’. Over nine chronologically-ordered themes he recounts the initial conception, immediate effect and eventual influence of these vanguard publications. Although this includes a handful of directly social and political magazines, the majority are strictly arts-based, and their wider cultural effects at least one step removed. The book generally gives the impression that the main influence of avant-garde movements and their magazines is on other avant-garde movements and magazines, rather than society at large. There are, however, a few examples of wider influence, such as the infancy of public dissent in Victorian satirical magazines, the righteous political protest of inter-war publications, and the numerous vehicles of 1960s American counter-culture which were ‘underground’ in terms of spirit, rather than popularity and effect.

Avant-garde publications usually had short, intense lives and were printed in small runs, so the reproduction of these images is a valuable resource, and Merz to Emigre includes a wealth of material rarely found in the standard design histories. For once the coffee-table format is justified in allowing these artifacts to be reproduced at a scale which gives a fair idea of their presence as physical objects, and it also allows a couple of the more significant issues to be shown in their entirety. In the majority of cases, however, only the front covers are shown, rather than the insides, so the book ends up looking more like a collection of posters. This reflects the importance of the cover’s ability to capture the whole ethos of a magazine or movement through it’s graphic code, often designed by leading contemporary artists, or energetic artist-editor-entrepreneurs, such as Futurism’s F.T. Marinetti, Vorticism’s, Wyndham Lewis and Surrealism’s André Breton, all of whom were responsible for several publications each. Sometimes the typography and layout of these magazines is deliberately restrained, either to disguise or to avoid interfering with their radical content, but in the more graphically inspired examples the visual form is a vital part of the overall message.

Heller warns that the term avant-garde ‘has a modish ring to it, but must not be affixed like a designer label on every attempt to transcend propriety as commercial marketing departments are wont to do in their quest for the next big thing.’ This could almost be a definition of Charlotte and Peter Fiells’ book. Their criteria for inclusion in Graphic Design are a batch of vague, meaningless clichés: ‘the best … cutting-edge … most forward-looking … most progressive graphic currents’. Their introduction reads like an extended cover blurb, and leads into a historical overview, which manages to condense the scope of Heller’s book into a few columns. In the main body of the book, 100 designers/studios are each represented by five showcase pages. We learn nothing about this work other than title, client and year, but plenty about the people through extensive CVs and in-their-own-words statements about ‘the future of graphic design’. They respond to this with varying degrees of seriousness, though most read like rushed late-night emails. En masse they confirm the hollowness of each other’s airy proclamations, wrapped up in keywords like boundaries, emotions, complex, interdisciplinary, transcend, ambient and fragmented. Worse still, the editors blow up one-liners from each designer/studio to fill whole divider pages, giving them the appearance of prophetic wisdom. Here are three picked out at random: ‘Not by making interesting graphic design but by making graphic design interesting … It is all about the attempt to find a logical explanation and find an illogical approach, and vice versa … Thinking is very easy and very difficult’. These quotes summarise the problem of the book as a whole: they adopt the rhetoric of covering all bases to hide a fundamental lack of substance. Michael Worthington is supremely ironic in his own contribution on page 620: ‘There are many correct answers, but they are all smart and sexy.’ (I am in no way suggesting that the designers’ work or statements are worthless in themselves, they are just made to appear so by the editorial approach.)

In Merz to Emigre, Heller always traces the reasons why the magazines end up looking how they do. A good example is his comparison of Futurist, Dadaist and Surrealist publications from the 1910s onwards with the American underground press of the 1960s. The graphic work of both periods was characterised by aggressively free-form layouts, but for very different reasons; one philosophical, one financial. The Futurists, Dadaists and Surrealists were all primarily concerned with proclaiming their rejection of the existing social order, and their layouts were a metaphor for this break, though technically these exploded layouts, involving type and images positioned at angles were not easy to realise. Alternatively, the American underground press was largely destitute, and the only possibility to publish was to improvise with the cheapest, most readily available materials, such as rough type cut from specimen books or other printed matter, pasted down and printed in the cheapest, quickest manner possible.

The 1990s is regarded as the decade which quoted other twentieth-century styles, without one of its own (unless you reasonably consider that this pluralism was the style). Only three years into the 2000s, it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about style from the Graphic Design, although the publication itself demonstrates the recent disease of near-instantaneous documentation and classification of work. As a friend wrote to me recently: ‘Graphic design books with their large format images and token text already read like the exhibition and auction catalogues of tomorrow. The only difference being that whereas the latter tend to lionise, deify and valorise their content retrospectively, in contemporary graphic design publishing they do it in a (rather fashionably) pre-emptive way.’ Lacking any real information about the reasons and processes behind the pieces of work in Graphic Design, it is impossible to understand their successes or failures - we are just told they are ‘good’. At the broadest level, however, they could be formally divided into those with an overbearing digital aesthetic, often regardless of content; those which plunder past styles, the original forms of which can be found in Merz to Emigre; and those which quote the past, but with a contemporary voice.

This latter category contains the rarest yet most interesting work, because, like most of the examples in Merz to Emigre, it comprises equal parts energy and intelligence: it is alive and demands the right to exist. One of the more interesting inclusions in Graphic Design are French duo M/M. Their poster ‘No ghost just a shell&Mac226; for an art project based on a Japanese Manga comic character Ann Lee, by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno, is a rough punk collage of black and white hand-drawn doodles, stencils and photocopies, on top of which the classic red and yellow Shell oil logo has been substituted for the word ‘shell’. This juxtaposition gives a mini visual electric shock, precisely because the logo is so ubiquitous, and because of the marked contrast between its precise, colourful form and the trashy background. It also refers to the Ann Lee project’s idea of subverted identity. This skewed take on art and design history is also found in other recent M/M work, most notably where they manipulate the flowing line and ornamental excesses of Art Nouveau with the most contemporary image manipulation tools, not only in printed matter, but other media, such as their looping video for Bjørk’s Hidden Place single in 2001.

Without descriptions like this, work is reduced to pure form, and in graphic design this is never the complete story. It’s not too difficult to see why books like Graphic Design are successful, though. For the designers represented here, they function as free, internationally-distributed portfolios. From the publisher’s point of view they are cheap and easy to produce, with minimal photographic expenses often covered by the designers themselves, or by using original digital files, and are generally free from ownership and copyright issues that plague similar art anthologies. And from the buying public’s point of view they serve as either large, inexpensive copy books for students and designers, or directories for potential clients.

If everyone’s happy, what exactly am I complaining about? Well, just that through size and force of distribution, books like Taschen’s are commanding an authority they simply don’t deserve. They are cheap, catch-all lowest-common-denominator publishing, feebly or dubiously researched, with loose editorial control and sterile ideas. Most importantly, they are becoming the accepted standard while books like Phaidon’s are increasingly marginalised. The influence of this state of affairs can only result in further insipid, uninspired work rather than the raw, focused energy of the true vanguard.