By Michel Wlassikoff
365 pages, hardcover, $59.95, published by Gingko Press, www.gingkopress.com
This new, massive book gives long overdue recognition to the varied history of graphic design in France, looking at the work both formally, conceptually and contextually, placing it within bigger societal and cultural histories. It takes readers from the Champfleury by Geofroy Tory in the early 1500s up to the digital revolution and the turn of this century, from the French typedesigns of Pierre-Simon Fournier and the Didot dynasty to Roger Excoffon (who designed Mistral, Antique Olive) and Adrian Frutiger, from the radical typographic poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé and Guillaume Apollonaire and the subversive layouts of the Dadaists to the revolutionary graphics of the May 1968 student revolts by The Situationists, who relied on typography alone to convey slogans like “Abolition de la Société de Classe.”
Curator and historian Wlassikoff points out the gray boundaries of the profession as he walks readers through the major periods in French graphic design. “The fundamental issue at the heart of these questions concerns the very essence of graphic design: is it a hybrid practice that draws on every artistic discipline without being one itself, or is it a creative domain in its own right?” The French even prefer the ambiguously defined term “graphisme” over the more direct translation “design graphique,” exemplifying the feeling of “artistic vagueness” that has existed ever since the golden age of poster design in the late 1800s, a period often covered in traditional art histories, fell under the term “artistic advertising.”
The Story of Graphic Design in France is packed with visuals: 900 illustrations, 650 of them in color, each with extensive captions and callouts that place the work within the design movements or the overall societal timeline and highlight notable innovations in the use of type, image and execution. Toulouse-Lautrec, Mucha, Brodovitch, Cassandre, Carlu, Corbusier, Savignac: these famous icons are well represented and the images are thrilling to see, even the familiar ones. There are also less familiar, but no less thrilling designers like Maximilien Vox, Pierre Facheux and Jean Widmer, the latter having had a long and stellar career without nearly the amount of international fame as his contemporaries Ivan Chermayeff or Colin Forbes.
For example, in the mid-1960s, Widmer and Peter Knapp created lively, “mod” layouts for Elle, Jardin des modes and (French) Vogue. In the seventies, Swiss-trained Widmer created designs for the Centre de Création Industrielle that combined the bright colored, organic, rotund style popular in the late sixties/early seventies with the clean regimen of the grid system to “promote industrial production reflecting coherent structural and formal research.” He also developed France’s highway signage, including a series of pictograms for everything from beavers to castles. In the 1980s, Widmer’s studio Visuel Design created an eye-catching and elegant identity for the Musée D’Orsay, which reaches back to Didot even as it teases the edge of legibility in a distinctly late-twentieth century way.
This is just one small thread out of so many in The Story of Graphic Design in France, which details not only the artists and designers who propelled design forward from within France, but also the story of the times they lived in, how their designs were influenced by movements and artists from Germany, Russia, Poland and elsewhere, the importance of the many exhibitions and trade fairs of the 1920s and ‘30s, how technological advancements in printing affected their work, and how changes in business, advertising and politics (like the Nazi occupation) also shaped the history. It’s baffling that, even in this new century, the histories of the various corners of graphic design still have to be written. Finally, one for France has been, and the result is a truly important book. —Angelynn Grant