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5 Times Nudity Shook the Graphic Design World

The human body is a contradiction. It’s simultaneously fascinating, grotesque, familiar, and unexpected. Though artists have used the human form to beautiful effect for thousands of years, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in graphic design—and often more polarizing.

In the new book Head to Toe: Nudity in Graphic Design, Mirko Ilić and Steven Heller chart the history of designers using the naked body as a graphic device. The book documents hundreds of examples, from the overt to the subtly suggestive. And in the process, it explores how public perception of the nude body has evolved from a bold provocation to an established marketing tool. We asked Heller and Ilić to choose five of the most significant uses of the nude body in recent graphic design history, and explain, in their own words, how it’s changed the way we think about nudity, and by extension, ourselves.

Rolling Stone Cover, 1968

“Playboy was the first of the mass-market magazines to exploit nudity as a key component of its editorial personality. Prior to that, there were nudist and health magazines on the one hand, and on the other there were suggestive magazines, notably EsquirePlayboy’s first issue in 1953, which showed a nude pinup of Marilyn Monroe, began the nudity ball rolling.

In 1968, Rolling Stone featured Yoko Ono and a nude John Lennon from the rear (the famed full-frontal image from the Two Virgins album was shown inside). This nudity was not new to the underground press of the ’60s but it was the first time actual celebrities appeared in birthday attire on the cover of a national publication. It was a shock—the magazine and the album. But this was an era of shocks. Once the first jolt of surprise was over, it became part of the cultural flow.”

Notes of a Dirty Old Man by Pierre Mendell, 1969

“In the mid century, buttocks were more acceptable than other body parts. Perhaps because they were more sculptural. Or maybe they did not pander in the same way as breasts or genitals. This book cover uses the butt brilliantly on the spine of this book, and it became a paradigm for other, shall we say, cheeky design compositions.

If you look at the degrees of nudity that have been ‘allowed’ the buttocks was never as daring as full-frontal nudity. I recall the first time nudity was shown on network TV; it was on the show Hill Street Blues and one of the actors showed his butt. It caused a stir but opened the way to other body parts.”

Jak wam sie podoba by Fraciszek Starowieyski, 1976

“Considering Poland was under the Communist fist at the time, the Polish poster movement and many of the artists therein found ways to provoke through surrealist imagery that often involved nudity. The censors were more concerned with anti-government statements than weird sexuality; Europe, in general, was less uptight about nudity. Perhaps it was the arts tradition. Perhaps it was not threatening to the powers. Obscenity was not a terrible sin. Sexuality was more or less accepted as part of life. This image did not provoke an anti-government response—it was essentially apolitical, which was acceptable to the censors.”

"Troilus en Cressida" by Anthon Beeke, 1980

“Beeke has long been a highly respected designer with a special interest in theater posters. When this poster was shown in Holland, nary a protest was heard. But when it was displayed at a retrospective in NYC all hell broke loose over its apparent misogyny. It was written about in terms pro and con, but it was removed from his exhibit and not shown in the magazines in which it was discussed. The argument in its favor was that it represented the play in a symbolic way. The argument against was that it demeaned women. Americans have always been more prudish, but also there was a real sexist issue that was simply not addressed. It needed some explanation.”

"Does It Make Sense" by April Greiman, 1986

“To say that this piece [for Design Quarterly #133] was a shocker is an understatement. It may not have been the first time a designer depicted themselves in a work, but it was a nude in an age of slickness and propriety. But it was also shocking because it was a self-portrait of a well known designer. At the time, nudity was more or less anonymous, so this came from Mars. Shocking may be too strong—although even I was kind of shocked by the courage it took to produce the piece—but it was a surprise that caught readers of Design Quarterly off guard.

This was also a pioneering work of digital art/design. In explaining the self-referential work, Greiman noted that her bitmapped physique was not exactly precise. She not only filled the image with various visual detritus, she rearranged portions of her body for purposes of balance.”

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Design + Sexuality