Graphic Design + Architecture: A 20th-Century History

The Roots of EGD

An excerpt from Richard Poulin’s long-awaited history of environmental graphic design

Graphic Design + Architecture: A 20th-Century History (Rockport Publishers, 2012)

For centuries, graphic design and architecture have coexisted in the built environment. Although each discipline speaks in its own unique language, each has historically attempted a dialogue with the other. Architecture speaks of form, space, and purpose, celebrating human continuity and offering experiences that both function and inspire. Graphic design—typography, image, and symbol—communicates the subtleties of time and place and tells cultural and visual stories, clarifying a building’s purpose and echoing its architectural message.

Our need to dedicate and consecrate places is clearly the beginning of the integration of graphic design in the built environment. Classical inscriptions, figurative murals, and ornamental surfaces have long been a part of architecture and have influenced our understanding of typographic form and graphic style and their visual representation in the built environment. Buildings and public spaces coexist with billboards and signs, patterned and textured facades, and informational and wayfinding signs to effect an overall experience with the public. Graphic design has become integrated with the built environment in shaping not only cities but also the lives of their inhabitants.

At the intersection of the history of art and architecture, long before the design discipline was defined by its current name—environmental graphic design—seminal examples of 20th-century graphic design arose in our built environment from the cultural, social, and economic climate of their time. Urban streetscapes, office buildings, museums, convention centers, airports, public parks, shopping malls, and entertainment centers all have been transformed by the use of environmental graphic design. This design discipline has evolved not only by its technical improvements but also by its integral relationship over time to art, architecture, and cultural movements.

For example, the meetinghouse signs and identification markers of American Shaker communities; Russian constructivist wall murals lining the streets of Moscow during the Bolshevik Revolution; the great white ways of Times Square, Piccadilly Circus, and the Las Vegas Strip; the festive and celebratory graphics of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics; the provocative typographic walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; and corporate identity and branding of the American marketplace after World War II all responded directly to the social constructs, political upheavals, and economic needs of the times.

Additionally, prevailing artistic movements directly influenced and inspired other groundbreaking design benchmarks such as Hector Guimard’s art nouveau entrances to the Paris Metro, Otto Wagner’s decorative building facades in Vienna, Edward Johnston’s typography for the London Underground, Peter Behrens’ integration of graphic and architectural form for Allegemein Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft (AEG), the first supergraphics by Barbara Stauffacher Solomon for Sea Ranch, and Robert Venturi’s transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary by applying decorative imagery to conventional building forms. Innovators and visionaries such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Georges Claude, Walter Dorwin Teague, Charles Eames, Margaret Calvert, Donald Leigh, Alvin Lustig, Walt Disney, Paul Rand, Alexander Girard, Dan Reisinger, Deborah Sussman, and Thomas Geismar have all transformed our built environment with innovative and revolutionary graphic design solutions during the course of the 20th century.

The built environment that we experience in our everyday lives continually relies upon graphic design to communicate information and identity, shape our overall perception and memory of a sense of place, and ultimately enliven, enrich, and humanize our lives.

The Impact of Invention 1879–1933: Michelin Building

The Michelin Building was the first permanent United Kingdom headquarters and tire depot for the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd., completed in 1911.

The building, at Fulham Road in the Chelsea section of London, was designed by Françoise Espinasse (1880–1925), who was employed as an engineer in the construction department at Michelin’s headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand, France.

While it was designed and built at the end of the art nouveau era, it is difficult to define a specific architectural style for the building. It is an eclectic mix of art nouveau and art deco styles and graphic motifs evident in several prominent elements on its facade, as well as in its interior.

The building’s exterior tiled facade is a colorful, three-dimensional advertisement for the company with a composite of promotional images containing hand-painted pictorial panels manufactured by famed Parisian tile maker Gilardoni Fils et Cie (est. 1880) and depicting scenes of early-20th-century motoring. Typographic and numeric panels identify Michelin and related advertising slogans in letterform styles of the time period. Etched-glass street maps of Paris appear in a number of windows along the first floor, and decorative metalwork carries stylized typographic monograms of the company. Two glass cupolas, which appear as if they are a pile of tires, frame either side of the building’s entrance.

Three large stained glass windows grace the interior, all featuring the Michelin Man or “Bibendum,” and are based on Michelin advertisements of the time period. Bibendum, designed by the French artist and cartoonist Marius Roussillon (aka O’Galop; 1867-1966) and commonly referred to as the Michelin Man, is one of the world’s oldest trademarks, first introduced at the Lyon Exhibition of 1894.

Art and Technology: A New Unity 1901–1928

J.J.P. Oud and Café de Unie

The facade of Café de Unie, designed by J.J.P. Oud in 1925, is a seminal example of the de Stijl art movement and a twentieth-century benchmark for graphic design in the built environment.

Jacobus Johannes Pieter (J. J. P.) Oud (1890–1963) was a Dutch master of contemporary architecture. Together with artist and architect Theo van Doesburg (1883–1931), Oud cofounded the famous artists group and magazine de Stijl with painter Piet Mondrian (1872–1944), designer Vilmos Huszar (1884–1960), and writer and poet Antony Kok (1882–1969) in 1917.

Oud designed the famous Café de Unie facade in 1925. Located in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, the building’s facade illustrates his attempt at applying de Stijl principles to graphic design and architecture, treating it as a pure, singular graphic composition, articulated with bold geometric deco-style sans-serif typography, also designed by Oud, and in bright primary colors of red, yellow, and blue, with black and white. The facade clearly illustrates Oud’s vision of visual order, harmony, and balance on a monumental scale.

Style and the Mass Market 1924–1940

Rockefeller Center

Rockefeller Center is a 12-acre (49,000 square mile) building complex in midtown Manhattan developed by American philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (1874–1960) between 1929 and 1940. The original master plan, designed by American architect Raymond Hood (1881–1934), was composed of 14 limestone-clad, aluminum-trimmed, monolithic massed buildings designed in the art deco style and was the largest private construction project in the world when it began in 1929.

The centerpiece of Rockefeller Center is the 70-story, 872-foot (266 m) GE Building (formerly known as the RCA Building) at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The center’s scope, visionary plan, and groundbreaking integration of architecture and graphic art and sculpture created by some of the world’s most renowned artists and designers was unprecedented at the time of its completion and became a showcase of art deco design principles.

This is clearly evident in the work of American sculptor Lee Lawrie (1877–1963), who contributed the largest number of individual works, 12 in all, including the statue of Atlas facing Fifth Avenue and “Wisdom”—the ornamental recessed figurative bas-relief frieze above the main entrance to the GE Building. Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi’s (1904–1988) gleaming stainless steel bas-relief “News” depicts typewriters, cameras, telephones, and newsmen at work. The relief is located above the main entrance of 50 Rockefeller Plaza (the Associated Press Building) and at the time was the largest metal bas-relief (22 feet high by 17 feet wide) in the world, and clearly and boldly branded the building with a very specific and appropriate symbolic message.

Between the Wars 1932–1945

Works Progress Administration 

The Works Progress Administration or WPA (renamed the Works Projects Administration in 1939) was the largest and most ambitious New Deal-era agency that employed millions of unskilled American workers to implement public works projects during the country’s Great Depression.

During Word War II, numerous large-scale murals communicating a variety of propaganda messages of patriotism and military service were funded and produced by the WPA that employed hundreds of graphic artists and photographers and adorned the walls of major public buildings throughout the United States.

For example, Pennsylvania Station, designed by architects McKim, Mead & White (est. 1879) in 1910 and one of New York City’s greatest Beaux-Arts public monuments ever to be built, was used as a venue for the display of many WPA-funded murals during wartime. In 1945, a patriotic photographic mural featuring Pennsylvania Railroad staff that were helping with the war effort, enlisted or not, was installed on the station’s General Waiting Room walls. This inventive mural, designed by renowned American designer Raymond Loewy (1893–1986), was composed of a series of large-scale, cut-out, black-and-white photographic portraits, each measuring approximately 20 feet (6.1 m) high. This allowed the towering ornamental walls of the station to be revealed, as well as function as a visual ground for the mural’s figures, while simultaneously providing a restrained backdrop for bold typographic messages that called for the purchase of war defense bonds and stamps by the American public

Populuxe: The American Influence 1946–1963

Las Vegas and the Neon Desert

Fremont Street, named in honor of the American politician and explorer John Charles Fremont (1813–1890), is in the heart of downtown Las Vegas’s casino corridor and dates back to as early as 1905 when the city was founded. It was the first paved street in Las Vegas and was nicknamed “Glitter Gulch” in the early 1950s due to an abundance of neon signs for casinos such as Binion’s Horseshoe, Eldorado Club, Fremont Hotel and Casino, Golden Gate Hotel and Casino, Golden Nugget, The Mint, and the Pioneer Club. It is the second most famous street in Las Vegas after the Las Vegas strip.

“Vegas Vic” is the unofficial name for the towering cowboy erected in 1951 on the exterior of the Pioneer Club. This 40-foot-high (12.2 m) animated neon sign, designed with human-like characteristics of a waving arm, moving cigarette, and an audio recording of “Howdy Podner” that ran every 15 minutes, was a departure at the time, since most signs introduced in the city during this era were letterform based, not figurative or character based

Modernism and the International Style 1950–1979

Rudolph de Harak and 127 John Street

Designed by architects Emery Roth & Sons (est. 1947) in 1968, 127 John Street was a 32-story (97.6 m), multitenant commercial office building in New York City’s financial district. The building’s architecture was characteristic of the time period—a generic building mass clad in a standard glass and aluminum curtain wall with an open-floored structure for maximum flexibility for tenant build-out. Fortunately the building came to be known as one of the most exciting projects of the early 1970s due to the innovative contributions of an independent-minded graphic designer—Rudolph de Harak (1924–2002).

de Harak was a self-taught designer who honed his skills and vision over the years by working in small art service firms and advertising agencies. During the early 1960s, de Harak was immediately drawn to the rigor, simplicity, and rationalism of the International Style and European modernism, as well as the art movements of the era—abstract expressionism, op art, and pop art.

One of his most humanistic projects where he integrated these early influences was 127 John Street in Lower Manhattan, in which he literally transformed the identity of a faceless building into an unforgettable visual experience and an “atmosphere of pleasure, humor, and excitement for people.”

Entering the building from Fulton Street, a corrugated steel tunnel illuminated by multiple rings of blue argon-gas-filled tubes guided visitors to the low- and high-rise elevators. The interior walls of the elevator cabs were clad in porcelain enamel steel panels, illuminated from above and glowing bright blue on the low-rise side, bright red for the high-rise.

The end result was a veritable visual playground that greatly enhanced the building architecture and ultimately redefined what a modern-day street-level entrance for a speculative office building could be

Postmodernism and Beyond 1966–1995

Turin’s Lingotto

When Fiat’s Lingotto car plant opened in Turin, Italy, in 1920, it quickly became an international landmark for the industrial revolution and technological progress due to its sheer size, rationalist architectural design, and famous rooftop test track.

In 1982, the plant ceased production and Fiat began to search for new uses for this enormous facility. As part of their process, the car company invited 20 internationally acclaimed architects to submit design proposals with the only requirement being that their proposals respect the architectural integrity of the original plant.

The result was called “Venti progetti per il futuro del Lingotto” (Twenty projects for Lingotto’s future), an exhibition that displayed all 20 proposals for the public’s consideration. Italian graphic designer Pierluigi Cerri (b. 1939) of Gregotti Associates (est. 1974) was responsible for the project’s graphic design program that included a sign system for the exhibition of the 20 submitted proposals.

The project’s main identification sign consisted of a group of large-scale sculptural sans-serif letterforms strategically located outside the factory’s main entrance, which spelled out “Lingotto.” These three-dimensional, monumental 12-foot (4 m) letters rose in the air and formed a dynamic presence due to their varied orientations to one another—some upright, some placed at an angle. Lingotto’s utilitarian architecture of concrete, metal, and glass provided an appropriate and contrasting backdrop for this sculptural grouping of vibrant blue, green, red, and yellow monolithic letterforms.

As a result of the debate triggered by the submissions, Lingotto was converted to a multipurpose facility dedicated to producers and users of advanced technology.

--By Richard Poulin, excerpted in eg magazine No. 02, 2012

Editor's note: Richard Poulin, FSEGD, is a principal and design director of Poulin + Morris, the award-winning, New York-based multidisciplinary design firm he co-founded with Douglas Morris. His first book, The Language of Graphic Design (Rockport Publishers), was published in 2011.





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