Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City and founding director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Design and Production in the Mechanical Age

“Design and Production in the Mechanical Age” (excerpt), essay by Ellen Lupton, published in Deborah Rothschild, Ellen Lupton, and Darra Goldstein, Graphic Design in the Mechanical Age: Selections from the Merrill C. Berman Collection. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998. pp 50-81.

Modern designers, working in the ambitious decades between the two world wars, aimed to emphasize and transform the conditions of reproduction; they sometimes buried the evidence of one technology in order to objectify another. Mass manufacturers in the nineteenth century had proven that industrial production could replicate the work of traditional artisans; modern designers sought instead to express the techniques of production in the form and appearance of the object. They sought to expose technology and loosen its constraints, viewing the processes of manufacture not as neutral, transparent means to an end but as devices equipped with cultural meaning and aesthetic character.

By the 1920s, industrial production had accrued diverse cultural meanings, holding forth the utopian promise of social transformation as well as the ominous threat of war and destruction. In Europe in the early twentieth century, the American factory became a paradigm for economic and social planning. There was a growing adherence to Taylorism, a theory of management that, by advocating the objective analysis of human labor, promised to maximize profits while enhancing the lives of workers. Fordism, named after Henry Ford and his mass-produced Model Ts, crossed the Atlantic to Europe, bringing the concepts of the assembly line and the creation of vast markets for low-cost, standardized goods. The administrators of this freshly mechanized civilization were the engineers, professionals equipped to apply scientific methods to the organization of people, procedures, and environments. The new production experts helped the factory shed its image as a squalid site of exploitation and emerge into the healthy light of efficiency and rationality.1

Artists and designers saw industrial modes of production as vehicles for moving art into life. In the Soviet Union, the decision to take art “into production” marked a commitment to modern technology and a utopian mass culture. The critic Osip Brik, describing his friend Rodchenko as the prototypical production artist, wrote in 1923, “Rodchenko knows that you won’t do anything by sitting in your own studio, that you must go into real work, carry your own organising talent where it is needed—into production.“2 In the Soviet Union, many artists championed the industrial artifact—generated mechanically and consumed collectively—over the singular work of aesthetic contemplation. Although the utopian desire to transform the aesthetic innovations of the avant-garde into a popularly understood language ultimately crashed against the rocks of Soviet political reality, this new approach to art helped spawn the modern profession of graphic design.3 As a practice rooted in the experiments of the avant-garde, graphic design emerged as a socially engaged, technologically critical discourse involving the reproduction of texts and images, a domain that now extends from the printed page to the Internet.4

For graphic designers, production consists of the process of planning and assembling a poster, book, or other document before its manufacture by a printer. In their drive to celebrate the machine age, modern designers delved into the system of mechanical production in order to reveal and transgress its limits. This stance aligned them with modern architects and industrial designers, who also believed that expanded factory production was a cornerstone of an improved society and the key to a new language of construction.
Most critical literature on graphic design looks past the question of production, approaching the printed surface as a smooth and glassy plane on which float disembodied marks and images. It is typical, for example, for historians to use the term “typography” in reference to any manipulation of the printed word.

Understood from within the narrower perspective of production, however, typography is the organization of prefabricated letters—produced by a metal or wood relief, paper stencil, photographic negative, or digital signal—while lettering includes the construction of characters with pen, brush, or cut paper. The indifference to production among historians of design is bolstered by the very technological apparatus that gave birth to our field of study. Since the late nineteenth century, photomechanical reproductions have been the dominant source of information, for scholars and the public, about the visual arts. Our bottomless appetite for images has been fed with printed pictures, whose uniformity of surface and flexibility of scale obscure the differences among physical artifacts. Compounding this problem, many books about graphic design feature poor illustrations distanced by multiple generations of reproduction from the works they document.

Merrill C. Berman’s vast collection of twentieth-century graphic design has given the authors of this book an unequaled opportunity to study artifacts of design firsthand and view them as the result of physical processes. The Berman collection includes maquettes, drawings, and original photomontages as well as printed pieces created by some of the most influential designers of the twentieth century. The collection is staggering in both range and depth, constituting a premiere repository of primary documents of modern design.

This essay considers the role of production within the ideologies and aesthetics of modernism. How did techniques of making shape the meaning of design? What conflicts emerged between the ideal of mass production and the conditions of the print shop and designer’s studio? In this transitional period of modernism, many artists relied on hand processes and cottage-scaled industries to execute their visions of a technologically enhanced, rationally constructed future. The language they created outpaced the technologies of the time; the implications of this work continues to unfold today, in an era when the tools of visual communication are becoming ever more powerful, pervasive, and accessible.

The Technological Matrix: From Letterpress to Lithography

During the first decades of the twentieth century, artists drew from a mix of old and new technologies, using the tools of printed media to overhaul the established codes of poetic and public address. Two major printing technologies dominated the commercial graphic arts: letterpress and lithography. Each accommodated distinctive manners of generating images and texts for reproduction. Technological features had interacted with visual conventions to yield the entrenched vernacular styles of the nineteenth-century printing trades. Working within and against the established frameworks of production, avant-garde artists and designers forged new approaches to layout, lettering, typography, and illustration.

The letterpress system, introduced in the fifteenth century, consists of relief surfaces that are inked and pressed against a sheet of paper. Individual characters made from lead or wood are assembled into blocks of copy. The relief letters are stored in gridded cases, which also hold rules, ornaments, and blank bars and spacers used to adjust the distance among characters. The traditional aesthetic of letterpress is governed by a battalion of gridded structures, from the printer’s archive of prefabricated forms to the rectangular support of the “chase,” a frame in which parallel lines of type are locked together, hemmed in by blank blocks of “furniture” that establish margins and open spaces.5

While letterpress printing was invented to create multiple copies of texts, other techniques were devised to reproduce images, including woodcut, etching, engraving, and lithography. For commercial printers, the most important of these methods was lithography. Invented in Germany in 1796, lithography involves marking a smooth stone with a water-resistant substance; when the surface is bathed in water during the printing process, the treated areas accept ink, and the resulting image prints onto paper. In offset lithography, which employs a flexible metal plate rather than a rigid stone, the inked image is “offset” from the plate to a rubber cylinder, which then prints the image onto paper. The offset method, introduced in the early twentieth century, proved more conducive to automation than stone lithography.6

Lithography enabled artists to draw images for reproduction in a direct and spontaneous manner with a crayon or brush, either directly on the stone or—to ease the awkwardness of drawing a flipped image—on transfer paper. Unlike letterpress, lithography is organized by no a priori grid. The stone is smooth, seamless, unmarked; it is not figured in advance by a matrix of horizontal elements and prefabricated characters. A lithographic design is built on open ground, not assembled out of rigid pieces. The early masters of the modern poster, such as Jules Cheret and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, were celebrated for their ability to command the entire surface with their gestural images.

Although offset lithography would become dominant after World War II, printing from metal type was the principal means for reproducing text in the first half of the century, while lithography was the preferred medium for replicating images. Yet neither technology was confined to conveying solely words or solely pictures. The rise of magazines and advertising in the mid-nineteenth century encouraged the mixing of text and image. Letterpress printers inserted woodcut illustrations into their typographic grids, while lithographers created organic, freeform lettering, sometimes densely ornamental, using the tools of illustration. Letterpress printers used images as typographic elements, while lithographers treated words as pictures.

Photography, invented in 1839, was quickly exploited by commercial printers. By the 1850s, the literature of the printing trades was replete with texts devoted to photomechanical reproduction.7 Because neither letterpress nor lithography can reproduce shades of gray, photographic techniques served primarily to copy “line” images, or illustrations consisting of pure black and white tones, such as an ink drawing, a logo, or a line of lettering or type. The halftone process, invented around 1884, translated the continuous tones of photography into a pattern of black and white dots, which could be engraved into metal or transferred to a lithographic stone or plate (fig. 2.6). Photographs could now be printed simultaneously with typography; the conditions for the birth of the modern newspaper and magazine had been created.

Not only were photographs a special mode of representation—detailed and depersonalized—but the new halftones were cheaper to produce than drawings. The photographic image quickly became a ubiquitous mass medium; halftone reproductions of photographs and wash illustrations were a routine feature of newspapers and magazines by the 1890s. Some journalists and intellectuals were alarmed by the insurgence of the image enabled by the new technology, citing the mass-produced picture as an obstacle to clear thinking and the camera as an invasion of personal privacy.8 In contrast to such responses of fear and dismay, one writer dryly commented in 1900 that the halftone had managed to penetrate modern life without calling attention to itself—despite its omniscience, few readers had troubled to discern its structure. The halftone process was deliberately discreet; it sought to obscure its own presence, operating at the threshold of perception.9

The avant-garde artists and designers of the 1910s and 1920s, many of whom were born in the 1880s and 1890s, grew up with halftone photography delivered to them through the ubiquitous media of letterpress and lithography. The halftone, absorbed into the vernacular codes of commercial printing, became an indigenous texture of daily life, especially in Europe, Britain, and the United States, where a flood of images passed through its radically unobtrusive mesh. Although industrialization was less advanced in Russia, all the major graphic arts technologies, including photomechanical reproduction, were in place there by 1895.10

The modernists didn’t invent new technologies but rather devised new ways to use them, ways that often sought to emphasize technology itself. The means of production became a tangible presence, infusing the printed page with the taste—bitter, metallic, invigorating—of the mechanical age. This celebration of the machine was sometimes achieved through contradictory processes. As in Rodchenko’s Kino Glaz, one technique could aggressively broadcast its status while another was striving to cover its tracks.

Decomposing the Grid: Futurism and Dada

Breaking the grid of letterpress while at the same time asserting it as the framing condition of mechanical reproduction was a recurring challenge for avant-garde typographers. Consider F. T. Marinetti’s poem “CHAIRrrrrrrRR,” first published in 1912. The poem rejects the linear stream of conventional writing, in which words follow one another like beads on a string. The enlarged letters bracketing the ends of the poem cut through the rows of characters that oscillate furiously between them. “CHAIRrrrrrrRR” deviates from conventional composition while rendering emphatically visible the grid underlying letterpress typography.11 Once it had been produced within the letterpress system, however, the poem stabilized as an image, which was photomechanically reproduced in various contexts across its life, from Marinetti’s own publications to manuals of design and histories of art.
Other Futurist poems sought to obliterate the technological framework of letterpress typography. Marinetti’s “Montagnes + vallees + routes + Joffre” (1915), a textual journey through a mountainous landscape, was produced by cutting apart scraps of printed matter, pasting them onto a page, and creating additional marks by hand. This collage, submitted to a printer for reproduction, was then photographed as a line image, consisting of pure tones of black and white. The resulting line engraving could then be printed letterpress. Thus the printer treated the poem as an illustration, not as “typography” in the technical sense, composed from individual characters locked together in a chase. By incorporating a collage of letters as an overall picture, the letterpress system was able to accommodate free-form compositions cut loose from the strictures of the typographic grid.

Marinetti’s “CHAIrrrrrrRR” and “Montagnes + vallees + routes + Joffre” represent two distinct approaches to producing visual poetry, even though both pieces ultimately were printed letterpress. The first approach actively acknowledges the constraints of typography as a mechanical system—at once fighting and confirming the grid—while the other confronts the page as an unstructured field. Poems generated within the system of letterpress typography (rather than through the technique of collage) were composed from manuscripts marked up with directions to the printer, who would select characters whose size and spacing might not exactly match the poet’s sketch.12 In contrast, the collage, assembled at the poet’s work table, was photomechanically reproduced by the printer in a relatively neutral way.

Dada artists and poets also used the technologies and conventions of commercial printing to attack the institution of art. To construct poems, posters, and invitations, Tristan Tzara and Ilia Zdanevich (Iliazd) lifted slogans from advertising and journalism and borrowed typographic conventions from commercial printing, such as mixed fonts and shifting scales of type.13 In a 1923 poster for a Dada soiree (fig. 2.9), Iliazd assembled a motley assortment of typographic elements—letters large and small, ornaments and dingbats, wood-engraved illustrations, an oversized exclamation mark—in a composition whose stacked forms and curved and angled lines aggressively eat away at the structural grid of letterpress. Yet the grid, ragged and bruised, remains intact, its orthogonal pressures bracing together the elements of the printed page. Each letter and ornament is a fabricated object, a rigid readymade, locked into place with spacers and blank blocks of printer’s furniture.

Tzara’s lithographic announcement for the 1921 Salon Dada expresses a similar aesthetic of commercial quotation (fig. 2.10). Various slogans, written in a tone of abject defeat (“Nobody is supposed to ignore Dada. . . . Forget me not, please”), are depicted as street signs casually littered across the surface of the poster. Although the elements resemble industrial artifacts, every mark and letter has been drawn by hand. The design is infused with the accidental aesthetic of the found commercial object, yet it has been executed with conventional drawing tools. To create the poster, the artist probably worked directly on lithographic transfer paper, unaided by any photomechanical processes.

Kurt Schwitters, famous for his pasted paper collages and his outrageous public performances, led a double life: alongside his Dada activity, he operated an advertising agency that created logos, stationery, posters, and other ephemera. Although the obscure references of his collages suggest a hermetic bent, in his graphic design Kurt Schwitters embraced a philosophy of functional communication. He belonged to an international vanguard of modern graphic designers who leapt without hesitation from the abrasive experiments of Futurism and Dada to a commercial design practice—at once rationally organized and emotionally charged—aimed at enlightened clients and consumers.14

In a letterpress booklet promoting his services (1930), Schwitters diagrammed two paradigms of typographic composition (see fig. 2.11). One page, titled Orientierung (orientation), features a tightly packed, strictly gridded space; the other, titled Werbung (advertising), frames an open field where forms soar and collide. Modernist advertising drew its energy from Dada and Constructivism, while the upright structures of information design reflected the Neue Sachlicheit, or new objectivity, coursing through the visual culture of Weimar Germany. Together these two impulses—so vividly diagrammed by Schwitters in his own promotional brochure—fueled the founding of modern graphic design, a profession built on the conflicts between free expression and technological precision, between consumer culture and social critique, between the deliberately opaque experiments of the avant-garde and the New Typography’s dream of a transparent language.

Regulating the Infinite: From Constructivism to the New Typography

By emphasizing the visual character of the printed word, Futurism and Dada freed letters from their subservience to the visual and verbal conventions of literature, just as Cubism and Suprematism had cut loose the elements of painting from the laws of perspective. The turbulent poetics of the avant-garde, which playfully manipulated commercial techniques and imagery, were retooled by proponents of functional communication in the 1920s. In his manifesto Die Neue Typographie, published in Berlin in 1928, Jan Tschichold placed Tzara and Marinetti among the founders of modern functional design. He attacked the centered compositions of the classical book and the florid individualism of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil in favor of asymmetrical layouts, uniform page sizes, sans serif letterforms, and the division of texts into functional parts (fig. 2.12). Whereas Futurism and Dada had cultivated chaos and contradiction, the New Typography claimed to be rational and coherent, capable of giving “pure and direct expression to the contents of whatever is printed; just as in the works of technology and nature.“15

A bridge from the disruptive experiments of avant-garde painters and poets to the functional philosophy of the New Typography had been built in the Soviet Union, where artists, sparked by the energy of the young communist state, sought to enter the realm of industrial production and public communication. In 1920 El Lissitzky published his tract “Suprematism and World Reconstruction,” which challenged artists to plunge the abstract art of Kasimir Malevich into the broader social realm.16 Lissitzky proclaimed that Malevich, by collapsing the history of painting into a black square, had staked a flag at the edge of a “new planet,” marking an alien landscape to be explored by the artists of the future. Malevich had created a radically reduced object whose promise of infinite transformation was hemmed in by the social and physical limits of easel painting. Lissitzky’s PROUN compositions (from Project for the Affirmation of the New) of the late 1910s and early 1920s elaborated a space at once architectural and abstract. The PROUNs attempted to ground the mystical sublime of Suprematism in the physical world.

Lissitzky’s text “Suprematism and World Reconstruction” was a founding document of Constructivism, a theory and practice that flourished into an international movement during the 1920s. Constructivism was positioned from the outset in relation to the technologies of production. Lissitzky wrote: “Those of us who have stepped out beyond the confines of the picture take rulers and compasses . . . in our hands. For the frayed point of the paintbrush is at variance with our concept of clarity and if necessary we shall take machines in our hands as well because in expressing our creative ability paintbrush and ruler and compasses and machines are only extensions of the finger which points the way.“17 Against the “frayed point of the paintbrush,” Lissitzky promoted the ruler and compass as instruments of precision and economy that could transport the artist beyond the “confines of the picture.” Yet even the brush, worn to the point of exhaustion, could be put in the service of society, because any tool was considered a life-affirming celebrant of labor.

The goal of the new art was not just to create objects but to change the way the public perceives and acts in the world.18 In “Suprematism and World Reconstruction,” Lissitzky observed the subordination of discrete houses, streets, and squares to decentralized patterns of electrical wires, radio signals, and subway systems. Looking at an urban landscape transformed by industry, he applauded the dissolution of the individual citizen and the isolated object and the triumph of the modern town as a network of energies. For Lissitzky, industrialization was embodied not in the machine-as-object but in diffused social and technological relationships.

Indeed, the interaction of technology with new social forms already had yielded powerful cultural tools. Such was the achievement of the poster project launched by ROSTA, the Russian Telegraph Agency, between 1919 and 1922. With ROSTA, crude production methods became central features of a sophisticated medium of communication. Known as “ROSTA windows” because they sometimes were installed in empty storefronts, these posters translated into a concise visual form news announcements and political directives that were conveyed across the telegraph wires. Originating in Moscow and Petrograd, ROSTA agencies soon appeared across the Soviet Union. The posters usually were produced overnight, sometimes in less than an hour.19

Vladimir Maiakovskii was the leader of ROSTA’s Moscow division, where he wrote copy for hundreds of posters. Maiakovskii would compose a text announcing news or information and then give it to an artist for visual interpretation. In Moscow, the ROSTA posters typically were printed from cardboard stencils, from which an edition of three hundred posters could be generated in two or three days. The workshops were cold and cramped, but the artists were paid regularly and commanded a degree of professional respect. Production methods varied from city to city: lithographs in Smolensk, linocuts in Petrograd (fig. 2.13). In Odessa, texts and images were painted on sheets of plywood that were then washed down and reused, plywood being more plentiful than paper. Maiakovskii described the posters as “Œtelegraphic bulletins, instantly translated into poster-form, decrees immediately published as rhymes. The vulgar character of the poetry, the coarse character—this is not only due to the absence of paper, but the furious tempo of the revolution with which printing technology could not keep pace.’“20 Although the ROSTA windows were crudely made, they reflected a sophisticated convergence of social systems and production methods. Simple means proved a more expedient response to the demand for immediate communication than the more polished techniques used by commercial printers.

Writing in 1926, Lissitzky recalled that the books of the Russian avant-garde in the 1910s had been produced largely by hand, “written and illustrated with the lithographic crayon, or engraved in wood.“21 During the reconstruction of the Soviet Union beginning in 1922, artists increasingly had access to letterpress and commercial lithography. Lissitzky wrote, “Comrades Popova, Rodchenko, Syenkin, Stepanova, and Gan devote themselves to the book. Some of them work in the printing-works itself, along with the compositor and the machine.“22 Varvara Stepanova’s 1922 announcement for the theatrical production The Death of Tarelkin reveals the tentative entry of Suprematist forms into the mechanical framework of letterpress: geometric shapes jostle among a mix of printed letters whose mismatched styles reflect the arbitrary inventory of the metal type shop.

In 1920, the same year he wrote “Suprematism and World Reconstruction,” Lissitzky applied Suprematist theory to the design of the book Of Two Squares; this landmark work would not be published until 1922 in Berlin, where Lissitzky could exploit “the high standard of German technology.“23 In 1923 Lissitzky published For the Voice (fig. 2.15), also in Berlin, a typographic interpretation of a poem by Maiakovskii. For the Voice was a triumph of letterpress composition that resulted from careful collaboration between designer and printer.24 By combining typographic elements with geometric forms, Lissitzky compressed the exploded spaces of his PROUN constructions into the functional mechanics of the printed page.

Describing his method, Lissitzky wrote, “The spatial arrangement of the book, by means of the type matter and according to the mechanical rules of printing, must express the strains and stresses of the contents.“25 Lissitzky approached letterpress as a system of elements that could visually translate the meaning of a text.
While Lissitzky was actively exploring the structure of letterpress typography, Rodchenko approached the printed letter as an object to be constructed with the tools of the geometer and engineer. Drafting techniques had become familiar to Rodchenko as an art student in the early 1910s, when he performed painstaking exercises in descriptive geometry using the compass, pen, and ruler.26 Against the open spaces of Lissitzky’s books, pierced with typographic elements, Rodchenko built broad, massive forms that tend to fill and flatten the surface.27 On Rodchenko’s lithographic catalogue cover for the Soviet Pavilion at the Exposition de l’Art Decoratif in Paris (1925), letters take shape as negative forms inscribed into fields of color (fig. 2.16).28 Rodchenko’s distinctive manipulation of large-scale letters was well-suited to the drawing-based medium of lithography. In contrast, his letterpress designs for the journal Lef were crudely produced—the large-scale letters appear to have been carved in linoleum or cut quickly out of paper and photographed. The rawness of Rodchenko’s Lef covers may reflect the journal’s limited economic resources as well as the nature of letterpress production.29

Rodchenko and Maiakovskii had been close collaborators in the Moscow division of ROSTA. They joined forces in a second enterprise with the founding of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) following the end of the civil war in 1922. The NEP sought to revitalize the Soviet economy by allowing limited free enterprise, making state-owned businesses healthier by forcing them to compete with private companies. Rodchenko and Maiakovskii formed an advertising agency that produced posters, packages, and billboards for Soviet businesses, from GUM, the state department store, to Dobrolet, the state airline. Maiakovskii wrote avant-garde sales copy that reveled in alliteration, rhythm, and repetition; Rodchenko converted these texts into frontal assaults on the eye. Maiakovskii saw no contradiction between the shift from ROSTA’s campaigns of news and propaganda to the product solicitations he created with Rodchenko: “Advertising,’” he proclaimed in 1922, “is industrial, commercial agitation.’“30

As Rodchenko recounted, the Maiakovskii-Rodchenko advertising agency was organized along professional lines. The designer was assisted by two students from the VKhutemas, an art school similar to the Bauhaus, who worked with him through the nights to complete his designs.31 This support staff may have provided the meticulous execution seen in several of Rodchenko’s original advertising designs, preserved in the Berman collection. In a 1923 design promoting Mosselprom vegetable oil (fig. 2.18), the lettering, illustrations, and geometric background were painted entirely by hand; the only readymade element is a pair of small printed seals pasted toward the bottom of the poster. This hand-painted design would then have been photographically separated into plates for color lithography. Exploiting the character of the lithographic medium, Rodchenko’s design dominates the surface of the poster with its field of flat broad stripes and its heavy black rectangles filled with white letters: at the center floats the product, stark and pristine. By collaborating with Maiakovskii as well as employing technical assistants to create prototypes for reproduction, Rodchenko eschewed the role of the solitary creator and entered the realm of production for industry; his working methods anticipated those of the postWorld War II art director.

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