The Lasting Mark of Modernism

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In a series of recent articles in the Guardian and the NY Times, British design critics have been examining the current U.K. design scene. The heart of the argument in both articles is that Britain has, especially in public sector design projects, lost its way. In the NY Times, Alice Rawthorn cites British design icons such as postboxes, phone kiosks, the double-decker bus and the London underground, then investigates the environment in which they were created:

"An essential quality of a national design gem is that it reflects the country's culture. The neo-classical dome of the K2 telephone kiosk symbolized Britain's attachment to tradition and ambivalence toward modernity in the 1920s, just as the Routemaster's can-do style captured the determination of the postwar era.

"It was easier for designers to accomplish this then than it is today, when Britain's national identity seems so much more complex, diverse and contradictory than it did in the 1920s and 1940s. Those eras had their complexities, too, but there was less inclination to recognize them, and it is simpler for designers to articulate a clearly defined message, than ambiguity.

"This goes some way to explaining why so few new design jewels have emerged, although the shortcomings of the current postboxes, phone booths and most other flops are down to bad design, rather than doomed attempts to reflect the confusion of modern life. The achingly embarrassing London 2012 Olympics logo succeeds in doing that, but is also ugly and inappropriate."

The London 2012 mark has become a byword for failure in logo design. In many ways it reflects the attempt, and failure, to be as hip as its perceived audience while still retaining some semblance of modernist authority. When we talk about modernist graphic design, we inevitably end up talking about Paul Rand. He's rightly considered the heavyweight champion of the mark-making world, an iconic, opinionated and exacting figure whose impact extended into identities from IBM to UPS to ABC.

Rand's work has done much to shape the aesthetics of present-day designers in both the US and U.K. The Swiss-influenced pitch-perfect restraint and minimalist character behind each of his forms transcended a simple expression of identity and became a design philosophy embraced by both pop culture and corporations alike. Rand helped sell modernism to the mainstream as a cure for the excesses of the past; as he said in 1996, "I haven't changed my mind about modernism from the first day I ever did it.... It means integrity; it means honesty; it means the absence of sentimentality and the absence of nostalgia; it means simplicity; it means clarity. That's what modernism means to me..."

A contemporary of Rand, but living and working in Bulgaria, Stefan Kanchev (1915-2001) embodied a different design philosophy. Kanchev's output was amazing: over the course of his life he designed over 1000 trademarks and symbols, 650 stamps, and a multitude of other materials from ads to posters to television graphics. What is most wonderful about his work is the way it bridges traditional Bulgarian folklore and the modernist aesthetic. Designing largely for the Cyrillic alphabet, for a Bulgarian audience, and always by hand, Kanchev's forms were organic and flowing, yet simple and contained. The color choices and icons used in his stamps are unlike ones we see in much of western modernist design; pinks, greens, reds and yellows mix together in swooping, baroque forms.

There's a sense of the hand inherent in Kanchev's modernism-with-a twist work that approaches the collage-like film credits of Saul Bass or the sculptural forms of Isamu Noguchi, but rarely appears in Rand's more severe pure modernist treatments. Corporate marks, like ABC, ATT or the Adobe "A", seem puritanical and placeless in comparison to Kanchev's culture-based aesthetic. As a byproduct of modernist universalist thought, they are divorced from their local environment and cultural roots, unanchored from any particular time or place. In contrast, Kanchev's work was solidly anchored in time, place and culture. There is nostalgia inherent in his work, even sentimentality; but there's also the expression of modernist ideals. In flexing the boundaries of modernism Kanchev was able to create, as Noguchi did, a locally relevant expression of the medium.

Perhaps it's time to sacrifice Rand's sacred calf of modernism and embrace the Kanchev philosophy of balance between culture and modernism in order to reassert the relevance of British public design. Modern design can leverage that cultural confusion and lack of shared vision, and create the next generation of cultural icons. Understanding disparate cultures and what brings them together is the key to doing what Kanchev did for Bulgaria, creating a national, iconographic design language referencing shared cultural icons and traditions.

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