Sunday, 17 June 2012

American Art Nouveau

British and French graphic art soon joined forces to invade America. In 1889, and again in 1891 and 1892 Harper’s Magazine commissioned covers from Eugene Grasset. These first presentations of a new approach to graphic design were literally imported, for Grasset’s designs were printed in Paris and shipped by boat to New York. The visual poster was adopted by the American publishing industry and colorful placards began to appear at newsstands advertising new books and major magazines, including Harpers, Scribner’s and Century.

Louis Rhead studied in England and Paris before immigrating to America in 1883. After eight years in New York as an illustrator, he returned to Europe for 3 years and adopted Grasset’s style. Upon his return to America, a prolific flow of posters, magazine covers and illustrations enabled him to join the self- taught American William H. Bradley as one of the two major American practitioners of art nouveau inspired graphic design and illustration.

While Rhead adopted the French poster as his model, the energetic and enormously talented Will Bradley was inspired by English sources. Bradley apprenticed for the Iron Agitator newspaper, at McNally as an engraver and then finally became a typographic designer at the Knight & Leonard printing company when he was nineteen. He became a hungry student of magazines and library books. By 1890, his Arts and Crafts inspired pen and ink illustrations were attracting regular commissions.

In early 1894, Bradley became aware of Beardsley’s work, which led him towards flat shapes and stylized contour. At the beginning of this year Bradley’s work for the Inland Printer and the Chap Book ignited art nouveau in America. His distractors dismissed him as “The American Beardsley”. However, Bradley used Beardsley’s style as a stepping-stone to fresh graphic techniques, visual unity of type and image that moved beyond imitation. He made innovative use of photomechanical techniques to produce repeated, overlapping and reversed images.

Will Bradley, covers for the Inland Printer, 1894 – 1895.
Bradley’s graphic vocabulary ranged from delicate contour line for an overall light effect,
 complex full-tone drawing, and reduction of the image to black and white silhouette masses.

Will Bradley, poster for The Chap Book, 1895.
Repetition of the figure in a smaller size, overlapping the larger figure,
enabled Bradley to create a complex set of visual relationships.

Bradley was inventive in his approach to typographic design and ignored all the prevailing rules and conventions. Type became a design element to be squeezed into a narrow column or letters spaced so that lines of many and few letters became the same length and formed a rectangle. Inspired by Kelmscott press, Bradley established the Wayside Press after moving from Chicago to Springfield, Massachusetts, later in 1894. He produced books and advertisements and began publishing an art and literary periodical, called Bradley: His book, in 1896. Both the magazine and the press were critical and financial successes, but the rigors and many roles involved in running them, such as being the editor, designer, illustrator, and press manager, threatened Bradley’s health. In 1898, he sold Wayside Press to the University Press in Cambridge and accepted a position there.

Will Bradley, poster for Bradley: His Book, 1898.
Medieval romanticism, Arts and Crafts - inspired patterns, and art
nouveau are meshed into a compressed frontal image.

During an 1895 visit to the Boston public library, Bradley studied its collection of small, crudely printed books from colonial New England called chapbooks; named so after the travelling peddlers known as chapmen who sold them. The vitality of these works, with their Caslon types, wide letter spacing, mix of roman, italic, and all capital types, sturdy woodcuts, and plain rules, inspired the beginnings of a new direction in graphic arts that became known as the chapbook style.

After the turn of the century Bradley became a consultant to the American Type Founders, designing typefaces and ornaments. He wrote and designed their series of twelve little books, The American Chapbook. A growing passion for type design and layout led Bradley to become art editor of Collier’s magazine in 1907. During the last decades of his career, he made significant contributions to the evolution of 20th century editorial design.

Ethel Reed was the first American woman to achieve national prominence as a graphic designer and illustrator. Her career was very short, but she was a well-known book illustrator and poster designer. She created posters and illustrations for Boston publishers. He career ended abruptly after she travelled to England and produced her last poster in London in 1898.

Ethel Reed, Poster for the Book Folly Orsaintliness, 1895,
IN an imaginative use of three-colour printing, the wide face with
 red lips glows against an otherwise black and orange poster.

Edward Penfield was an art director for Harper and Brothers publications. He enjoyed a reputation rivaling Bradley’s and Rheads. His monthly series of posters for Harper’s magazine were directed towards the wealthy society, frequently depicting them reading or carrying an issue of the magazine. His first poster for Harper’s was designed for the January 1894 issue and featured a naturalistic watercolor illustration showing a sophisticated young man purchasing a subscription. In the course of that year, Penfield evolved towards his more mature style of contour drawings with flat plains of color. By eliminating the background he forced the viewers to focus on the figure and the lettering. Penfield drew with a vigorous fluid line and his flat color plains were often supplemented by a masterly stipple technique. In a humorous 1894 poster for the July issue of Harper’s, a young lady is so preoccupied by her reading that she lights a string of fireworks without even looking at them; the absorbing enjoyment of reading Harper’s is conveyed. In 1897, he did a similar thing where people on a train were all reading the Harpers including the conductor. This campaign was widely successful and competitive publications commissioned imitative designs like William Carqueville, who was somewhat of a copycat as he created similar posters for the Lippincott’s magazine.  

Edward Penfield, Poster for Harpers, 1894.
Figurative letterforms and dramatic sense of expectation the
moment before the fireworks begin create a whimsical concept.

Will Carqueville, poster for Lippincott’s, 1895.
Both the style and concept of Penfield’s poster from the preceding
 Fourth of July are imitated.    

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