The history of American advertising in the early part of this century (and graphic design history more generally) is crucially in need of serious study. Only in the past fifteen years has this area of American history received any real scrutiny at all, and this has been scant. On one front, American historians such as Pamela Laird and Roland Marchand have realized the importance corporate communicators of the 1920s and 1930s have had in shaping the way contemporary American culture tells its stories. On a second front, graphic designers themselves have recently been seeking new kinds of legitimacy and new sources of inspiration through an examination of their field. Many of these latter types of endeavors are hardly histories at all, but rather lessons in contemporary technique which employ historical examples.
This project is a response to both these types of history, an endeavor that aspires to apply a kind of technical logic derived from what I will call "the designer's history", but which derives many of its cultural arguments from the work of professional historians. Unlike Marchand and Laird, I will spend a great deal of time making visual arguments. But unlike designer/historians such as Phillip Meggs, I will not hesitate to consider examples that stand outside the more or less accepted progression of design history.
Indeed, the story of the American graphic does not fit well into one kind of history of the field, one which would have us believe that America was stuck in a rut of "convention" just at the time European designers were experiencing a modern renaissance. If you believe the designer's history, it sometimes seems as though America's greatest contribution to pictorial modernism was the provision of a safe haven where European artists could make a good living. However, the unique contingencies of American culture provided for a peculiar response to the expressionistic qualities of modern art, one which would serve to challenge accepted notions of objectivity as profoundly and persistently as any product of the avant garde.
The advance of American graphic design between the World Wars is a story of the transformation of European ideas into pragmatic precepts. It is the story of men inspired to carry out their own investigations of human sight and psyche, and to employ their results to turn desire into capital. While we may not serve ourselves by brushing aside the moral and social consequences of this kind of work, we also cannot ignore its power and influence. Because the makers of the American graphic during the early part of this century were pioneers of a new kind of art, the art of persuasion.