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The 15 Most Important Graphic Designs You’ve Never Seen

Jens Müller, author of History of Graphic Design. Vol. 1, 1890–1959, offers up a selection of hidden gems in his remarkable new book.

The publishing house Taschen has released a tremendous new book on early 20th-century graphic design. History of Graphic Design. Vol. 1, 1890–1959 packs more than 2,500 influential designs into 480 pages, offering an exhaustive timeline of the ads, posters, visual identities, and other graphics that shaped the look and feel of the modern world. Many will be familiar to even casual students of graphic design (the Playboy logo, David Klein’s TWA poster); others, less so. To that end, we asked author Jens Müller to pick the most important images readers might not recognize or might recognize but know little about. These are his selections.Co.Design Eds. 

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Jules Chéret, French poster from the 1890s

This guy started it all. Jules Chéret was not only a brilliant poster designer, he provided the key that helped graphic design take off: In the 1890s he developed a technique to produce full-color prints with only a few print colors. His find made color printing affordable overnight.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Paul Pederneiras, Brazilian magazine cover from 1903

Next to posters, satirical magazines were among the early driving forces in graphic design. Stunning examples can be found almost everywhere in the world in the 1900s. One of my favorite journals is the Brazilian O Malho–it has amazingly progressive cover designs.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Alfred Leete, British magazine cover from 1914

We all know the iconic “I want you for U.S. Army” poster, with Uncle Sam pointing at the viewer. The concept is based on this cover from London Opinion magazine, issued in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. For me this is not only an early example of graphic design used for political means, but also shows how design ideas are syndicated globally (and often copied).

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Wilhelm Deffke, German logotype from 1917

German designers were among the most innovative people in early graphic design. There are many examples; I’ve picked Wilhelm Deffke and one of his modern logos. Years before the Bauhaus was founded, he (and many of his contemporaries) already used modernist principles in his commercial works.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

El Lissitzky, Russian book cover from 1927

In the 1920s avant-garde designers from many European countries as well as from Russia brought new stylistics to graphic design. One of these masterminds was El Lissitzky, whose cover designs combining typography and photography are timeless beauties.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Hannes Meyer, German postcard from 1929

The design of this postcard is just so brilliant. It was used to promote studies at Bauhaus saying,”Young people come to Bauhaus!” Today we need to look at other works from that time (of which there are many in the book) to get an idea of how new this layout using the cut-out hand and the small-caps type must have felt in 1929.

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[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Domenico Chiaudrero, Italian poster from 1934

The book also covers some of the dark chapters of the 20th century, including the graphic design for fascistic regimes in Italy or Germany. This Italian poster promoting the “Duce,” Benito Mussolini, is a good example of how works can be graphically beautiful yet so dreadful.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Harry Beck, British infographic from 1933

Even as a graphic designer you sometimes forget that everyday graphics have been designed at some point. The London subway map is a brilliant example of that. Internationally when we use a subway, we use a map, and it is based originally on Harry Beck’s 1933 concept.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Ayao Yamana, Japanese magazine cover from 1937

For me this cover is the perfect symbiosis of Eastern and Western design aesthetics. Nippon was a journal to promote Japan abroad in the 1930s. It’s a great example of how global styles merge.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Alvin Lustig, American book cover from 1947

The postwar years were the heyday for modernism in the U.S., and Alvin Lustig was one of the maestros of this era. For me, his cover design for Tennessee William’s novel A Street Car Named Desire perfectly captures this moment of design history.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Cipe Pineless, American magazine cover from 1949

Austrian-born Cipe Pineless was among the designers to establish the function of an “Art Director” in the magazine business. In the 1940s and 1950s she has overseen the overall design of publications such as Seventeen or Charm and created fascinating covers and spreads.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Michel Robert, French poster from the 1950s

The 1950s was the last decade where illustration dominated poster design, before the reproduction of color photographs in poster size became possible and superseded drawings in this field. I personally favor the French poster designers; with their unique sense of humor used to promote even the strangest products.

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[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Richard Paul Lohse, Swiss magazine cover from 1957

The grid-based cover concept for the architectural journal Bauen+Wohnen is to me a perfect example of what was later called the “Swiss Style” and evolved to the “International Style,” because it was adapted around the world. A neutral look, giving you the possibility to fully focus on the contents, created by a systematic use of typography and images keeps being a principle that can hardly be improved.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Lester Beall, American brand design manual from 1958

A little booklet for the General Life Insurance Company, summing up all the graphic standards developed by Lester Beall, was the first example of a modern design brand manual in 1958. It set the tone for the following decades where regularized corporate identity systems prevailed (one of the developments featured in the second volume of The History of Graphic Design).

[Image: courtesy Taschen]

Saul Bass, American opening title from 1955

Saul Bass was not only a pioneer in creating fascinating opening titles. He also realized that movies should be promoted like products, with a consistent visual identity. His work–including ads, record covers, posters, and the opening title–for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm set a new industry standard in 1955.

[Image: courtesy Taschen]
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