graphic standard disposable

by Art Chantry (

there was a brief period of time in america when this is what hip, cool ‘cutting-edgey’ avant-guard graphic design looked like. it was highly illustrative, hand rendered, colorful to the point of psychedelic and self-consciously pop culture referential. it didn’t last long, maybe a few years, from about 1968-1971 or so. in american advertising of this period, this was so hip and cool that everybody thought the future was going to look like this. nope.

AC: the style long pre-dates yellow submarine. back in the late 50's, the push pin dudes like chwast and glaser and (especially) john alcorn were tearing it up with this look. edelmann was very aware of push pin, too. so, it's not as easy to attribute as you may think. by the time this thing showed up, it had entered the pop culture maelstrom like a prairie fire.

i found this loose cover in a file and i have no solid idea what it was or where it came from. it seems to probably be a paper sample brochure created to sell the paper this thing is actually printed on by the company that made the paper (an very very common item floating around art studios back then). these little booklet/brochures took the form of focussing on a single subject and riffing off the information that came with the turf. in this case, it was when the ‘peanuts’ cartoon was hotter than the sun and ‘snoopy vs. the red baron’ became a popular riff in our culture. businesses like hallmark obtained the rights to the peanuts characters product line and used the cute ‘red baron’ nostalgia theme as a major starting point for a lot of cheap icky products. it became a brief but intense fad. there were even pop songs and movies made about ww1 flying aces and the red baron in particular. it was an early retro-nostalgia gimmick almost on par with norman rockwell’s sentimental genius. so, the idea that a paper company would do a product promotional brochure riffing off the red baron pop phenom really places squarely into this time frame.

since these paper sample books were aimed solely at the graphic arts market, they needed to impress art directors and production managers and printers and graphic designers, since these were the guys who specified the paper purchases. these booklets had to be snappy, well made and really nifty looking to catch the jaundiced eye of these people. basically, we’d already seen it all. to avoid the garbage can, these had to be great little pieces. in fact, i still save old paper sample books. i have examples that i was given over 40 years ago – they were that cool.

the other big interesting thing about this particular booklet is that that illustrator was obviously a trained pro (i have no idea who it may have been. back then, this work could have been done by dang near anybody, the style was so ubiquitous and easy to copycat). the execution is hand drawn, but incredibly controlled and confident (though uninspired). so much so, that it’s almost soul-less. that’s a very telling indication that it was done not by some popular folk artist of the era (like a psychedelic hippie poster artist or a peter max or even a professional illustrator like seymour chwast). but, instead, it’s done by a guy who knew exactly how to imitate another stye without being OF that cultural style. and that is also one of the most important aspects of those paper sample books – they were always ‘fake’ looking. it was an intentional graphic standard that made them disposable. after all, you wanted designers to save these things, but you also needed to have them toss them out and replace them when you changed the paper product line. so, the fake shallow copy-cat styling quality was also an important element of the promotional style – you wanted it to date quickly, so artists would find them tired-looking and old fashioned quickly. you wanted the artists to freely dispose of them and replace them with your newest promotional item. it was a way of using design style as ‘planned obsolescence’, an INTERESTING way to do that.

the other thing i’m really fascinated by with this image (and something that further dates it) is the unconscious reference to a style that emerged at the same timeframe of this booklet. it was a style that popped up in architectural graphics around this time and lasted even shorter period of time that this red baron stuff. it was called “supergraphics”. it was a style that invaded my youth through the application of ‘supergraphics’ to the walls of institutions like schools. it often took the form of big bright rainbow-esque stripes that swirled and spun along the hallways that we spent so much time commuting to classes in. they were in banks and airports and government buildings. eventually they exited the buildings interior and became exterior murals. it was really awful and they looked disturbingly similar to these swirling spiral rainbow graphics in this illustration. this illsutartor thought that doing ‘supergraphics’ was the same thing as “hip, edgy, youthful” or “with it”, or (dare i say) “hippie”. it fails every test in that regard. it’s just harsh and soul-less.

thankfully, supergraphics burned out everybody’s retinas quickly and they got painted over asap. but, you can still see them pop up on walls in long-abandoned mental hospitals being explored by the ghosthunters teams on that television show. when i look at this little anonymous brochure cover (and the cultural echo i experience with it), i marvel at the silly poppy naivete and the bright krazee-kolors and shallow style falsehood and the just plain AWFULNESS of the supergraphic style. it makes me automatically wince. you kids out there have no idea how lucky you are to have avoided it.

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