Steven Heller and Greg D'Onofrio on six modernist works that impacted the world of design

3 October 2017

Modernism transformed American graphic design in the mid-20th Century and established a visual language that still holds authority today impacting the way many designers work. “Virtually all good design in our world today is either an adaptation of the visual language of Modernism or a reaction against it,” state Steven Heller and Greg D’Onofrio in the introduction to their new book The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design.

A movement that originated in the Bauhaus in the 1920s, Modernism revolutionised the way we combine typography and imagery and affected every corner of the international design community between the 1930s and 1960s. The book is the first comprehensive documentation of the movement and features the work of over 60 graphic designers across 900 pieces of work. Among some of the more noteworthy names are Paul Rand and Alexey Brodovitch, however, the book also includes the work of many “true discoveries,” designers whose work although not widely documented, very much contributed to and helped shape this monumental phenomenon. “These varying viewpoints and methods bound by function, clarity and simplicity produced a distinctive graphic language which moved away from their political beginnings and emerged as an integral part of mass culture, for the purpose of selling products and ideas in the commercial and cultural arenas,” the pair told us in their description of the book.

We spoke to Steven and Greg about the many stylistic variations and nuances that exist within American modernism and asked them to highlight six pieces of work from the book, explaining their cultural impact and why they were selected as part of the catalogue.

Erik Nitsche: Electronic Intelligence, General Dynamics, 1958

Erik Nitsche combines the abstract aesthetic dominant of the late 50s into a symbolically conceptual design. This was not art for art sake but it broke the hamfisted tradition of representational commercial art. Nitsche’s design married science and engineering and established a tone, which gave a futuristic aura that suggested General Dynamics’ progressive aspirations. This was a company that looked toward the future and encouraged Nitsche to visualise its mission. Historically, his graphic style – layering, repetition, extremes in scale – expresses’ the moment in the 1950s and 60s. Ironically, today it suggests a somewhat retro approach to the design of that period.


Poster, Electronic Intelligence, General Dynamics, 1958. Permission of Renate Nitsche. Courtesy of Chisholm Gallery Vintage Posters

Peter Piening: Fortune, August 1944

Bauhuas educated Peter Piening’s Fortune cover was one of many similar abstractions employed by the magazine’s Modernist art directors. His design evokes an industrial process using forms suggestive of a typewriter and addresses the formalism of Modern art in a symbolic yet accessible manner that typifies the Gesamtkunstwerk spirit of Modernism. Like many designers of this period, Piening gave an abstracted industrial burnish to his work. This collage-like style is further defined by muted colours, simple lines, hard-edged flat shapes and angles, pattern and texture and complicated planes.


Magazine cover, Fortune, “Reconversion in Typewriters,” August 1944. Reproduced from M. Peter Piening, Trademarks and Symbols, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University, 1964

Charles Murphy: The Persuasive Trombone of Urbie Green and His Orchestra, 1960

Charles Murphy’s record covers were exceptional examples of the modern ethos. Instead of featuring photographs of musicians, like many other records of the period, he used abstraction and geometry to make a graphic statement that both symbolises and literally expresses the concept. At first you see forms then you see the trombone and together the pattern and repetition convey the tempo. Murphy’s expressiveness gave visual timbre to avant-garde music, which not only set it apart from competitors but also challenged the mainstream recording industry’s marketing standards.


Album cover, The Persuasive Trombone of Urbie Green and His Orchestra by Urbie Green, Command Records, Grand Award Record Company, New York, 1960. Courtesy of Charles Murphy and his personal collection

Robert Brownjohn: Si-Si, No-No by Machito & His Orchestra, 1957

The 1957 album cover designed by Robert Brownjohn; _Si-Si, No-No_ by Machito & His Orchestra is a keen expression of American modern. His playful yet logical, uniquely colourful and vibrating typographic solution perfectly captured the stirring rhythmic pace and tempo of the popular Latin mambo and cha cha cha. The hand-painted stencil lettering is kinetic, tied together by a sequential arrangement, a conceptual and formal precursor for many of the typographic solutions we encounter today.


Album cover, Si-Si, No-No by Machito & His Orchestra, Tico Records, A Division of Roulette Records, 1957. © Eliza and Rachel Brownjohn

Arnold Saks: Inflatable Sculpture, Jewish Museum, New York, 1969

The Inflatable Sculpture poster is as contemporary today as when Arnold Saks designed it in 1969. It perfectly embodies the “late modern” spirit of the book during the height of the International Typographic Style that spread thru the United States and beyond. Saks reveals the rigours of Swiss design and the kinetic expression of the exhibition where sculptures were inflated by air, helium and mechanical methods. His graphic concept of “inflatable” is reduced to its simplest form and visualised with clarity – the abstract and literal forms, clear communication, and visual experimentation work hand-in-hand to convey a complex idea. This poster’s less-is-more approach says a lot with little means and is a dictum that permeates with designers today.


Poster, Inflatable Sculpture, Jewish Museum, New York, 1969. Courtesy of Arnold Saks

George Lois: Esquire, October 1966, “Oh my God–we hit a little girl.”

George Lois’s distinct cover design for Esquire veered from the conventions of photography and illustration made popular by mainstream magazine covers. For his stark anti-war cover, he captured readers with a bold statement: “Oh my God–we hit a little girl,” which referred to the true story of the killing of civilians during the Vietnam War. The crisp white Bodoni type, set on a funeral-like, black background screams bloody murder. His “Big Idea” as he called it, was a powerful, clear and concise message that moved an audience and remains a paradigm of what design can accomplish in the service of visual commentary.  


George Lois: Esquire, October 1966, “Oh my God–we hit a little girl.” Courtesy of George Lois


The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design courtesy of Abrams


The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design courtesy of Abrams


The Moderns: Midcentury American Graphic Design courtesy of Abrams

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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