Illustration by Marleigh Culver

A few years after graduating from school, Marleigh Culver found herself working as a designer for a startup where she was tasked with creating assets that fit the brand’s minimalist, clean aesthetic. The job was, in a word, limiting. “It wasn’t very creatively fulfilling,” she recalls. So Culver spent her off-hours developing her own style. She’d make paintings with organic, abstract shapes and craft color studies that probed how geometry and hue interacted. She wanted to see how she could apply her art history studies to her graphic design training. “The last few years have been a process of blending my art practice with my design practice,” she says.

In that time, Culver developed a recognizable style: Imperfectly drawn shapes; muted colors; simple but pleasing compositions. You’ve seen her work—or at the very least, you’ve seen something that looks like it. In the last few years, this refined cut-out style has been popping up everywhere from shoe brands to Dropbox campaigns to designer dresses.  It’s garnered artists like Culver thousands of social media followers, who buy prints and commission artwork to hang on their walls and adorn wedding invites.

Not unlike like millennial minimalism, the cut-out aesthetic is beginning to achieve a level of saturation where its ubiquity undermines its beauty. “I wish it wasn’t a trendy thing, but it’s a trend because it’s beautiful,” says Meredith Hattam, a interface designer at Conde Nast whose work for the shoe company Loeffler Randall echos the same affection for soft colors, hard lines, and amorphous shapes. In the endless visual feedback loop of 2018, it’s almost impossible to tell where a trend begins and where it ends. But in the case of cut-outs, the style has distinct roots in the past.

The cut-out aesthetic is beginning to achieve a level of saturation where its ubiquity undermines its beauty.

Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs

Throughout his career, Henri Matisse used scissors and paper to map out compositions for his paintings and illustrations. He found the cut-outs to be a useful blueprint for outlining his work in other mediums—it allowed him to pin and position colors and shapes without the pressures of permanence. For years, Matisse honed this technique quietly in the background of his other work. “It was a means to an end,” says Samantha Friedman, an associate curator of drawings and prints at MoMA, who worked on the museum’s 2014 large-scale exhibition of Matisse’s cut-outs.

By the 1940s, though, Matisse’s health was starting to fail. He lacked the mobility needed to create the paintings and sculptures he’d become famous for, and he began to more seriously explore cut-outs as an independent art form. Soon scissors, paper, and gouache—an opaque watercolor-like pigment—became Matisse’s primary artistic materials. He would snip shapes out of paper, and his assistants would loosely pin them to the walls with thumbtacks.

The birds, plants, fish, and abstract forms he cut had the imprecise edges of a childhood art project, but when arranged in compositions, those imperfections transformed into masterful interplays of shape, color, and texture. Matisse described his cut-outs with the phrase “apparent simplicity.” Though they appeared to be uncomplicated, Friedman explains, the forms never came easy to Matisse, who would draw and refine the shapes before creating them with paper.

When stripped down to basic color and shape, Matisse’s cut-out work took on an almost graphical nature—which might explain the recent resurgence of the aesthetic in illustration and graphic design.

In the 1940s, the simplicity of Matisse’s cut-outs was unexpected in the art world. “They were wholly unique and radical at the time they were being made,” Friedman says. Yet, they were of a kind with much of his other work. “His whole life was seeking ways of reducing forms to their essentials,” she adds. For many people—both today and decades ago—the appeal of the cut-outs was innate. They were an accessible celebration of form and beauty. When stripped down to basic color and shape, Matisse’s work took on an almost graphical nature—which might explain the recent resurgence of the aesthetic in illustration and graphic design.

For Antti Kalevi, an illustrator living in Helsinki, Matisse’s cut-outs are an ever-present but indirect influence on his work. “I’ve been looking at Matisse’s work for a long time,” he says. Kalevi is known for cheery, simplified digital drawings of inanimate objects. To him, tomatoes on the vine are flat red circles with a whimsical dash of green. Ice cream cones are misshapen circles that sit atop inverted triangles. Kalevi describes his work as “digital paper cutting;” he creates most of his illustrations on his computer by tracing shapes onto the trackpad.

Kalevi falls into a circle of illustrators who have become known for their bubbly adherence to simplicity. For both Kalevi and Culver, the style is about embracing intuition and accessible beauty. “Traditional narrative isn’t my strongest skill,” Kalevi says. “I like to work more intuitively through feelings—that’s the place where colors and compositions come out.” Culver echoes the sentiment. “I have a very strong response to color,” she says. “It’s an intangible thing. It’s something that exists in my brain all the time.”

Fall down a particular algorithmic wormhole on Instagram, and you’ll be greeted with a similar Matisse-esque adherence to color and form from a variety of designers and illustrators. Most prominently, the French illustration duo Atelier Bingo has been making work using Matisse’s cut-out method for years. It’s also visible in the shapely compositions of Carla McRae, Anna Kövecses, and Jordy van den Nieuwendijk.

Tom Robinson, co-founder of the London agency Handsome Frank, says pulling inspiration from famous artists is part of the ongoing cycle of creativity. “There’s a finite number of techniques you can apply to illustration,” he says. “But if you sit 20 people in a room and put something in front of them, everyone is going to draw it a different way, even if you’re asking them to use the same technique.”

If we’re to believe Picasso, good artists borrow, great artists steal, and brilliant designers create a system to do both more efficiently.

To Robinson’s point, most designers and illustrators do approach the cut-out style with a different perspective. “The details make a difference,” he says. Still, there’s an undercurrent of familiarity that’s hard to ignore. “It’s definitely noticed; it’s just not talked about,” says Culver.

Stylistic cribbing is nothing new. If we’re to believe Picasso, good artists borrow, great artists steal, and brilliant designers create a system to do both more efficiently. Yet, it feels like we’re in an unprecedented time. The internet and the speed at which it seeds and nourishes like-mindedness is fertile ground for trends to blossom and propagate. The natural life cycle of a popular aesthetic (i.e. art → design → commerce) has sped up to the point where all three tend to blend together.

Hattam, of Conde Nast, says this proliferation of a style is a frustrating inevitability. “I don’t think the cycle of starting out with an artist and ending up commercialized is ever going to stop,” she says. “I don’t know if it dilutes the work or is just part of the process.”

For Culver, brand appropriation isn’t a death knell for a style, but it has motivated her to think about how she can move her work forward and distinguish herself from the hoards of other illustrators who are working in a similar style. She says she’s spending more time painting, less time designing digitally. The texture that a tangible medium brings into her work breaks up the monotony of what she’s become known for in the design and illustration world. “That’s what makes it precious to me—it’s physical work,” she says. “Not just a throwaway Instagram post.”