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US Style and design (20th century) –
Pop Art, Commercial Photography
The twentieth century is the first century of self-conscious, total
design at every level of our living and environment. Care and vision in
application of design have come to be demanded in every aspect of modern
life – from our kitchens and bathrooms, to our factories and workshops,
from our clothes and domestic objects, to the packaging of pocket
calculators or the structuring of plastic dining chairs.
Although the word has been used since at least the fifteenth century,
when Italian writers spoke of 'disegno' in describing the quality of line
possessed by an image or artifact, in all essentials 'design' is an
industrial or post-industrial concept. With the introduction of mass-
production, the people who invented ideas for objects became separated from
the people who made them who, again, were separated from the people who
sold them. The industrial revolution also created the concept of the
market. Personal need, or the whims of a patron, were replaced by a more
abstract demand: the tastes of a large, amorphous body of consumers.
The modern designer came into being as an intermediary between industry
and the consumer. His role was to adapt the products of industry to the
mass market, to make them more useful and durable, perhaps, but to make
them more appealing and commercially successful, certainly. Commercial
success is the touchstone of achievement in design, although designers in
different cultures have often taken different views as to how the
achievement is measured or the success validated.
So, design in business and advertisement means much. The story of style
in the applied arts since the mid-to late fifties has been dominated by
various new forces, including social and economic factors and certain
aspects of technical and scientific progress. Now we have computer design,
web design, advertisement design ( for example consumer-product branding
design) and the whole fashion of different types of ad, colors and so on.
The late fifties saw the birth of advertising as we know it today, a
high-powered business dedicated to the development effective marketing
techniques; it involved new design concepts and a whole new professional
jargon of product packaging, market research, corporate images and house
The POP Art movement embraced the work of a new generation of artists
of late fifties and early sixties of both sides of the Atlantic. In
Britain, in addition to the Independent Group, there were Peter Blake,
Allen Jones. In USA Jasper Johns, Tom Wesselman, Claes Oldenburg and other
formalized the language of product packaging, from beer cans to Campbell's
Soup tins of strip cartoons, fast food, advertising hoardings and pin-ups.
Pop Art at once reflected and glorified mass-market culture and
injected a new vigour into the applied arts. Pop and the art styles which
were its natural successors, notably American Hard-Edge Abstraction and the
Hyper- or Photo-realist school of around 1970, suggested a new palette o
colours and gave a fresh, ironical edge to the imagery of popular culture.
The Pop ethic posi lively encouraged designers to exploit vulgarity
brashness and bright colour, and to use synthetic or disposable materials
in contexts in which they would formerly have been unacceptable. Pop has
had a lasting effect on design in a wide variety of media, including
interiors, graphics and fashion.
Pop has spawned furniture in bright, primary-coloured plastics and in
boldly printed fold-away cardboard; it has inspired, notably in Britain and
Italy, witty sculptural furniture in brash, synthetic materials reminiscent
of the sculptures of Claes Oldenburg. The fashion and furniture shop Mr
Freedom, opened in London in 1969 by Tommy Roberts, was a veritable shrine
to the Pop cult, with lively furniture designs by Jon Weallans. Italian Pop
furniture was one aspect of the Italian design community's wide-ranging
intellectual approach which, since the sixties, has made Italy the most
progressive country in many areas of the applied arts.
The influence of Pop can be seen in graphic design in the sixties in
the work of the American Pushpin Studios, founded by Milton Glaser and
Seymour Chwast. Pop and the Hyper-Realists also inspired the slick airbrush
work of a number of graphic artists working in the seventies and eighties,
notably the British artists Philip Castle and Michael English. Pop imagery
is still, today, a part of the staple diet of graphic design.
Pop's most notable impact on the world of fashion was in London in the
late sixties and early seventies, and in Italy in the achievements of Elio
Fiorucciin the seventies. Fiorucci brought fun into fashion, and his shops,
first in Milan and then internationally, became known for their Pop-
inspired clothes and graphics.
And it's influence can be seen also and on a graphic design in USA. POP
is everywhere, we see everyday objects and images of American popular
culture – Coca-Cola bottles, soup cans, sigarette packages and comic
Commercial photographic images are a major ingredient of our visual
life, assimilated from magazines, hoardings and such contexts as brochures,
catalogues, calendars, packaging and point-of-sale promotional material.
Commercial photography thrives as a means of creating highly polished
images of a stylized, glamourized and idealized view of the World in order
to sell a product or a service.
The major categories of commercial photography are advertising in its
countless guises, including product photography and photo-illustration,
fashion, beauty and certain categories of photography which are neither
reportage nor aspire to be fine art, yet which can be fascinating social
documents of considerable aesthetic quality.
Irving Penn has continued to be a master in each of these genres and
has set standards to which many aspire. His career has spanned forty years,
during which his work, from his early fashion and still-life compositions
to current still-life product studies such as his series for the cosmetics
manufacturers Clinique, has shown an inimitable vision and consistent
Ben Stern, though far from being Penn's artistic equal, became the
archetypal commercial photographer in the fifties and sixties, running a
vast studio in New York and showing considerable skill and versatility in
interpreting the briefs of art directors and clients.
In the sixties the profession of commercial and, in particular, fashion
photography became greatly glamourized: the successful young photographer
became a popular folk hero, as if the camera were a passport to the
illusory world which it could depict—Antonioni's film Blow-Up (1966-7)
defined the role model. Among the most interesting magazines to be launched
in the sixties, the photography of which captured the youthful excitement
of that period, were the British Nova, which commissioned some of the best
fashion photography of its day, and the German Twen, brilliantly art
directed by Willy Fleckhaus.
In the sixties advertising played a secondary role to editorial
photography in magazines. Today the reverse seems true, for the character
of many magazines is dictated by the market needs of advertisers and many
photographers bemoan the greater restrictions this imposes. The seventies
and eighties have, nonetheless, brought forth a new roll-call of talent.
Outstanding contemporary figures include Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, who
have dominated the field of fashion photography; Hans Feurer, Arthur
Elgort, Denis Piel and others, a few of the less celebrated but talented
fashion photographers; advertising and glamour photographers such as
Francis Giacobetti, James Baes…
Commercial photographers play a great role in our consumer society,
creating the images of a life-style to which we are constantly encouraged
to aspire. They create glamourized images of women and give a heightened
visual appeal to the products which are economic mainstay of our society,
be it a hamburger, a perfume or an automobile.