the bell curve progression: instant litter

by Art Chantry (

i really think the era of great magazines is really over. since they first emerged in the last half of the 19th century, popular magazines have quickly grown into a magnificent art form in itself. but, like all art movements, it evolves, it peaks, then it slowly dies. it’s a classic bell curve progression that is affected by economics and technology and popular consciousness.

---i think "kids these days" are spoonfed everything we used to have to make ourselves. it's the old 'i had to walk 100 miles in a blizzard to get to school' argument. i mean, why be curious when everything is there at the push of mouse? no challenge outside of playing life like a video game. thank god for 'occupy'. the learning curve has finally begun.---AC

this is a cover of GQ (gentleman’s quarterly) from april, 1966. this thing is 10.5″x15.5′ and nearly a half inch thick (perfect bound.) inside, it’s magnificent. full of huge ads covering every aspect of cultural marketing and the editorial is entertaining and informative and insightful. it’s beautifully designed throughout and it really feels like a big chunk of quality. i mean to say that if you bought this magazine and actually consumed it, i think you really did feel like james bond. now, THAT’s a magazine!

this cover alone is a great case in point. everything about it is cool and smart and carefully constructed. every decision is intentional – there are no accidents, no ‘rote’ decisions. even that backdrop (that crooked folding door) is placed ‘just so’ to offset the rigid grid design and throw ‘chance and chaos’ into the feel. it’s DARING. notice sean connery’s baggy socks. is there anything cooler than that? he doesn’t give a damn, he just is what he is – style and substance. or so it seems. he’s just an actor.

this magazine wasn’t alone, either. virtually every magazine you bought or subscribed to was magnificent from the cover to the lowliest spot advert. even the cheapo mags revolutionized our shared culture. playboy, mad, life, time, sunset, hot rod, hi-fidelity, consumer reports, motor trend, sports illustrated, house beautiful, holiday, fortune, popular mechanics, and on and on – all great.

i recently came into possession of an old professional illustrator’s ‘morgue’. it’s simply two filing cabinets crammed to the gills with files full of ‘stuff’ he clipped (tore) out of magazines, brochures, newspapers, etc. that may be useful in researching an image. back in the olden days, every illustrator worth their salt had one of these files. this guy’s was just more organized than most. for instance, say he needed to draw a picture of a rhino or a beautiful table setting, or a bicyclist in stockholm sweden. he would dig into these files and start pulling stuff out – pictures of swedish streets, african wild animals, transportation (bicycles), or a file he has labeled ‘entertainment – dinner, bars and nitelife…” there are THOUSANDS of images in here depicting the entire history of magazine editorial and cultural history. just the famous illustrators he has files on (his heros, i guess) is jaw dropping.

so, as i have begun to casually leaf through these filing cabinets (it’s really intimidating) i’m pulling out things like this GQ cover. it blows my mind. i can’t help but compare it to what i see being done today by the current generation of ‘know nothing’ computer design art directors and designers. it’s a shocking comparison to make, too. absolutely depressing. my friend, bob newman, regularly posts his latest favs in contemporary editorial design (especially magazine covers) and i’m always disappointed. yes, the covers he posts are great work – when compared to the environment they exist within. but, when you start to look at even the crappiest magazines from say, the 1960′s, the modern work just looks awful. stupid, even.

it’s not bob’s fault. he does a great job in his website. but, the whole nature of editorial design seems to have gone over that hump in the historic bell-curve progression into that rapid downhill slide into decadence and uselessness and obsolescence. i think ‘real’ magazines are becoming obsolete so fast tat they are all tripping along blindly feeling their way as best they can. like keith richards, they just haven’t figured out yet that they’ve actually been dead for years already.

is there the possibility of another resurgence of really great magazines and even better magazine design in the near future? i suppose that anything is possible. when i talk about a ‘bell-curve’ pattern, it’s never a smooth curve, but more like a stock market report, jagged with ups and downs. another wave of great stuff may still come along. but it will definitely be a self-referential classic ‘decadent’ style (root word – ‘decay’). it’ll be a carefully appropriated copycat style underlying any forward movement. i think it’s pretty obvious that ‘new’ thinking and ‘new’ ideas are not within the current culture’s capabilities. i think innovation has long ago moved into different territory (like, for instance, the net). and the economics of publishing have never been less p

table. no money – no action, savvy?

i love old magazines. they’re amazing objects – the ultimate in disposable ephemeral culture. old magazines are read and tossed into the trash – the object along with the content and ideas. do it and then move on as fast as you can – forget about where you were. instant litter.

i would rather look at this old issue of GQ than anything on a contemporary magazine rack. there are more just plain IDEAS in this one cover than in an entire current issue of GQ. i guess the reality is that all good things really DO come to an end.

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