Alexey Brodovitch, a Russian-born in a wealthy and aristocratic family in 1898, but was forced into poverty and exile by the Bolshevik Revolution in early 1900s. Brodovitch, a supporter of the Tsar, was first admitted into the national Russian army, the white army, in his early youth (Coyne, 2003). However, like many of the Tsar supporters, he and his family fled Russia for Paris, France, in 1920 after the October Revolution broke out.
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Impoverished and exiled, the family had to work on casual basis in Paris to meet their daily needs (Grundberg, 1999). At Montparnasse, France, Brodovitch found a community of Russian immigrants earning their living from artworks. He immediately gained interest in arts, first working as a painter of state set for Ballets Russes owned by Diaghilev (Coyne, 2003). Diaglev’s approach to design and painting that inspirited Bolvitch to enter commercial arts and develop ideas on non-boundary between different types of arts. Brodovitch’s flexibility in his works earned him a lot of respect and fame in artworks, especially in graphic design.
For instance, he was able to switch from one style and genre of arts to another, often using his own imaginations to produce quality and fascinating results (Grundberg, 1999). For instance, he would use basic colors and strict geometrical shapes in one work but switch to mixture of colors and non-o shapes in another topic (Purcell, 2002). In addition, he was politically sympathetic to the czarist Russian regime.
In fact, it has been argued that Brodovitch supported avante-garde ideas of art in designing. However, his works indicates that he supported the post-revolutionary arts that was predominantly non-political in origin. Therefore, Brondovitch’s ability to innovate and adopt new ideas and flexibility of his style and ideology earned him the respect in obtained in both France and America. This is the most important aspect of his work that makes him one of the greatest artists and most influential graphic designers of the 20th century.
In a poster competition meant to search for the most innovatory designer in Paris, Brondovitch beat a number of his fellow Russians as well as French designers to emerge the winner. In fact, he even beat Picasso for the first prize. He obtained the right and privilege to design the “Bal Banal” poster, which marked the beginning of his long-term career as a graphic designer with the American fashion magazine, the Harper’s Bazaar, that spanned over decades in the 20th century.
Brondovitch’s desire to be an artist began early in his childhood, given that his mother was an amateur painter before the revolution (Purcell, 2002). The family had gained wealth with their work, the mother as a painter and the father, Cheslav Brondovitch, as a physician, huntsman and psychiatrist. However, he had no formal training in arts during his school days at the prestigious Prince Tenisheff School in St. Petersburg. Despite this, Brondovitch’s interest in arts was still evident because he made sketches of noble Russians in Moscow, especially for city’s concerts (Grundberg, 1999).
Although his first lessons in at Montparnasse were basically in painting, Brodovitch was willing and desiring to apply his innovative ideas and imaginations to venture into other genres of arts (Purcell, 2002). For instance, in the cosmopolitan Paris, a large population of artists were involved in the booming art business. Brodovitch was introduced to various arts movements, including the Dadaism, Suprematism, Constructivism, Bauhaus and Futurism among other movements.
However, the young Brodovitch was eager to use his own ideas and switch to follow his instincts and perceptions in arts (Remington & Hodik, 2009). For example, despite his training in painting, Brodovitch would spend most of his nights and weekends sketching designs for various items such as jewellery, textiles and china. In fact, by the time his contract with the Ballets Russes was over, Brodovitch has accumulated an extensive portfolio of his own projects and was already earning good cash from them. Within a few months period, he was practicing graphic design in some leading magazines in Paris such as the ‘d’Art and Arts et Metiers Graphiques’ and Cahiers d’Art.
During his contract with Athelia, Brodovitch realised that most of the people in France, including his fellow artists, had a traditional taste and mentality in arts. In fact, he realised that he would not prosper if he stuck to the schools of thoughts and movements already competing with each other in the city and Europe in general (Grundberg, 1999). He therefore decided not only to practice freelance art career, but also to use applied arts, a relatively new movement that allowed an artist to embrace technical developments from all spheres of arts, including the old Roman, Greek and European styles in painting, the new industrial designs, photography and modern painting (Kroeger, 2008).
His decision was brilliant as shown in his venture into magazine world, which most traditional artists were not willing to do. For instance, although he was employed by Athelia on full-time basis, Brodovict found time to work as a freelance designer after realising that the Athelia as well as most other artists in the city were actually soaked in traditional art styles and movements (Purcell, 2002). Therefore, he went on to start his own studio, the L’Atelier A.B. Here, he produced posters for a number of organizations such as the Cunard Shipping Corporation and the Union Radio Paris (Kroeger, 2008).
It is worth noting that Brodovitch could not have gained fame without the ability to embrace both contemporary and traditional ideologies in painting and designing. For instance, he attempted to balance between his modern designs and the classical Greek and Roman references in most of his works. For instance, in his ads for Athelia, Brodovitch applied the classical Greek and Roman ideas of strict geometrical shapes and primary colors for some sections of the design, but extensively applied mixture of colors and non-geometrical shapes to design other parts of the work (Coyne, 2003). In fact, his award-winning ad, the Bal Bannal poster, was made in this manner. In his later work at magazine publishing companies, Bodovitch extensively applied this technique, which made his works unique and attractive.
Brondovitc can also be considered as an innovator as well as an experimenter. For instance, he had a broad curiosity in developing his own ideas rather than sticking to the old styles of art common in Paris and Europe in general (Coyne, 2003). While still in France, he attempted to assimilate to, painting and design, taking the most interesting aspect of each field to design an ad. He would eventually make the final work his own. For example, Brodovitch attempted to apply a wide range of techniques such as industrial lacquers, airbrush, surgical knives and flexible steel needles (Kroeger, 2008).
Despite his prowess in arts and designing, Brodovicth lost much of his influence in Paris in 1920s. Again, showing his flexibility in arts, he decided to venture beyond France and Europe. In 1930, he left Paris for the US, arriving and settling in Philadelphia in the same year. Here, he established himself as a leading tutor and artist at the Museum of Industrial Art. He had the privilege to start a department of advertising design at the institution (Appadurai, 2001).
He was keen in introducing his own styles as well as the popular styles in Europe, most of which were still uncommon in America. However, it is worth noting that Brodovitch’s interest was to popularise his new school of art that was largely based on innovation and application of personal ideas, classical styles and modern technologies. For instance, at the institution, he became the first person to introduce and teach cutting-edge magazines.
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He also formed a design laboratory course at the institution, which attempted to use contemporary examples as well as technology in exploring new ideas and design possibilities (Purcell, 2002). This approach to arts influenced a number of his students, some of whom, like Irvin Penn, later established themselves as renowned graphic designers in the world of print magazine and newspapers.
However, it is clear that Brodovitch’s fame as a leading graphic designer could probably not have reached its international level if he had not found a job at Harper‑s Bazaar in New York City. Due to his flexibility in applying styles, techniques and innovativeness, Brodovitch attracted the attention of Carmel Snow, an editor with the Harper‑s Bazaar. She suggested hiring Brodovitch as a director of arts at the magazine company. Again, Brodovitch portrayed his innovativeness and flexibility in his approach to making designs at the new company. Here, he attempted to apply surrealism in his layouts, which mostly featured small photographs.
He innovatively used white space and modern fonts (Purcell, 2002). He even ventured into photography, often taking photos and included them with drawings to come up with illustrations of articles for the magazine. In fact, most of his photos were small, often taken with a 35mm camera with slow time of exposure. This style, which was relatively new to American audience, became popular. In turn, his new style popularized the Harper‑s Bazaar magazine between 1936 and 1950s (Purcell, 2002).
Alongside other designers, Brodovict influenced the American magazines by including more photographs and experimenting with layouts and fonts. He even sought to match drawings and photographs with the expression of modernity in all his new designs. In fact, he experimented more than he used his previous approaches (Coyne, 2003). This new method brought dynamic changes to the American magazines and was even adopted in a number of leading magazines outside New York. For instance, the Vogue, a leading magazine, employed Penn in 1942 with an aim of introducing Brodovitch’s ideas and approach to designs in their pages. Later, the magazine also hired Richard Avedon, another of Brodovithc’s students at the institution in Philadelphia College of Art (Purcell, 2002).
From this review, it is clear that Brodovicth gained fame and recognition as the father of design from his flexibility and innovative approach to arts. It is probable that he could not have gained much respect in American magazines were it not for his ability to apply traditional styles with modern arts and experimenting with various technologies. While he was first trained as a painter, Brodovict’s flexibility led him to switch careers, often mixing different field such as photography and drawing to come up with fascinating graphics.
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Purcell, K. W. (2002). Alexey Brodovitch. New York: Phaidon Press.
Remington, R. R., & Hodik, B. J. (2009). Nine pioneers in American graphic design. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.