One of the pleasures of visiting the AIGA Design Archives is discovering buried treasure. When I look at an older collection in the Archives, I’m often greeted with grainy black-and-white images that are often as puzzling as they are low in quality. For instance, take this 1939 entry from the 50 Books/50 Covers competition:
What is it about that cover of Fashion is Spinach that’s so special? Turns out it’s not a cover at all, but rather the title page to a 352-page book by American fashion designer Elizabeth Hawes, an early proponent of ready-to-wear and fashion critic. The autobiographical book is also an exposé of the industry; the title comes from a 1928 New Yorker cartoon by Carl Rose, with a caption by E.B. White.
What makes this entry so surprising is that the illustration is by AIGA Medalist Alexey Brodovitch, better known as the groundbreaking art director of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958. What many people don’t know about Russian-born Brodovitch is that before he fled to Paris in the early ’20s to work as a set painter for the Ballet Russe, he was an officer in the Czar’s Imperial Hussars. However he was soon designing fabric patters and layouts for Arts et Métiers Graphiques magazine. Then, in 1930, he was invited by the Philadelphia Museum of Art to create an advertising art department, and four years later, he was hired as the first art director by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow. He held the position for 25 years.
Brodovitch was one of the first European émigrés whose work had an impact on graphic design in the United States. One of the many innovations he introduced was “cinematic pacing,” which created a sense of movement for the reader, full of crescendos and pauses. He utilized only one typeface throughout the magazine—Didot—believing he could express everything needed within that one font family.
Brodovitch’s illustrations show strong influences by Joan Miró, a style that would gain popularity throughout the ’50s. Brodovitch also taught at the New School, the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (today, the University of the Arts), as well as special classes for AIGA and Young and Rubican that were attended by photographers Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand, and others. His directive to his students was simple (in theory): “Astonish me!” And with Fashion is Spinach’s oddball illustration, he’s kept that promise tenfold.