May 19, 2011

Notes on design: Pole position


Ask any book designer these days who counts among his or her greatest influences, and certain names are bound to come up: most likely, you’ll hear about Alvin Lustig and Paul Rand, two artists whose clever and boldly graphic covers helped to usher in a golden era of book design in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, and whose work can be found squarely at the center of any history of design and typography.

But there’s another history that’s remained largely unwritten on this side of the Atlantic—one that took place halfway around the world, where some of the most exhilarating design work of the 20th century was produced in what at first seems an unlikely place: Communist Poland. In this examination of Polish poster design, Smashing Magazine offers the following explanation:

Three important remarks must be made. First, at the time the poster was basically the only allowed form of individual artistic expression. Second, the state wasn’t concerned much with how the posters looked. Third, the fact that the industry was state-controlled turned out to be a blessing in disguise: working outside the commercial constraints of a capitalist economy, the artists could fully express their potential. They had no other choice but to become professional poster designers and that’s why they devoted themselves so thoroughly to this art.

While this might be overstating the case somewhat (a thorough survey of Polish posters will turn up an array of subtly subversive anti-Communist jabs sneaked past censors), there’s no doubt that the unique circumstances for artists in Communist Poland in many ways served as an incubator for design talent. In a new book called One Thousand Polish Book Covers, editors Daniel and Aleksandra Mizieliński reveal that the same tremendous creativity was unleashed on book design in Poland as well.

In conjunction with the book’s release, blogger Will Schofield, author of 50 Watts—formerly known as A Journey Round My Skull—is sponsoring a Polish book cover competition, which invites contestants to celebrate the rich history of Polish design by submitting a design for one of their favorite books in the style of designers like Jan Młodożeniec, Janusz Stanny, or Jerzy Jaworowski. (He’s also posted a number of notable Polish covers on the site.) Among the judges of the contest is design legend Peter Mendelsund, who says, “The more I see of Polish book covers, the more I think every book I work on or read should look like one.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For all the eager Photoshop jockeys out there, you have 24 hours left—the deadline for submission to the contest is tomorrow, May 20.

Christopher King is the former Art Director of Melville House.