Historical perspective on the collection by George Vaitkunas

Photo by Anthony McLean

Photo by Anthony McLean, 2013

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Note: the following essay was written for the 2013 exhibition catalogue, made possible by S.P.A.C.E. at Dawson College.  View the catalogue here.

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BACK TO THE FUTURE: LETTERHEAD DESIGN OF THE 1960s

Although it is a common item with a utilitarian function – that of stating a name and address – a letterhead can be transformed into something richer. It can, to borrow a phrase from Milton Glaser, be designed to “inform and delight.” In a well-designed letterhead, a surprisingly large number of issues are resolved. First, there is the matter of establishing a concept or strategy that specifies qualities and messages to be communicated  by the design. Next, the challenge of expressing those messages visually using only basic graphic means such as type, margins, various contrasts (scale, proportion, weight, texture, direction, colour, style, figure-ground), and the physical properties of paper. (Those who have tried to do it best appreciate the difficulty of that task.) Then, there are the politics of persuading a client (or worse, a committee of clients) to accept a design proposal and to follow guidelines for its use, and, finally, the constraints of budgets and printing. Given all that, a well-designed letterhead is a real achievement.

In the 1960s, long before email and smartphones, letterheads played a significant role in conveying the essential traits of an individual or organization. To achieve the desired results, designers of that time relied not on computer-generated effects, but on tangible and tactile means. Textures and colours of ink and paper, nuanced typography, engraved printing and embossing were often expertly deployed.

The vintage letterheads shown in this exhibition can, therefore, be appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. But they can also be seen as cultural artifacts of a fascinating sociopolitical  era. As we look at them, some 50 years down the road, we experience the power of graphic design to both reflect and influence the social context in which it was created.

President John F. Kennedy’s bold commitment made in May of 1961, to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, epitomized the spirit of the early 1960s – a spirit of progress, optimism and forward-looking ambition. At that time, a process of social and industrial modernization was in full swing, a result of an economic expansion that began after the Second World War. In the realm of art and culture, challenging forms of abstract expressionist painting, jazz music, and modern dance flourished. The clean lines of Miesean architecture were de rigueur in both commercial and residential construction.  It was a good time to be a dealer of modern Scandinavian furniture. “The times they are a- changin” proclaimed Bob Dylan in his famous anthem penned in mid-1963. Certainly, the era had its share of problems, from civil rights and environmental issues to the threat of nuclear war. And the social upheaval resulting from student unrest, political assassinations, the sexual revolution and the war in Vietnam was just around the corner. But, for a time, there was a consensus that tomorrow would be a better day.

Like many sectors of the economy at that time, the graphic design profession in North America was in the midst of a growth spurt. This was due in part to a gestation in the 1940s and 50s marked by the influence of European modernist designers such as László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Herbert Matter and Ladislav Sutnar, who all immigrated to America in the wake of the Second World War, bringing with them aesthetic and conceptual sophistication derived from major art and design movements of the twentieth century – Constructivism,  De Stijl, the Bauhaus and the International Style. By 1960, graphic design was regarded by many companies and organizations as a potent strategic tool that could affect public perception as well as internal morale and functionality. “Good design is good business” was the often-repeated dictum of Thomas J. Watson, president of IBM in the 1950s and 60s. Corporate image design began to extend beyond trademarks and stationery to include signage, packaging, vehicles, publications, and advertising applications. Outstanding examples of these graphic design developments occurred in Canada in the early 60s as Canadian National Railways and Hydro-Québec replaced antiquated, visually complicated crest symbols with clear, elegant logos and graphic standards that remain fresh and meaningful to this day. The new visual identity design of the time responded to practical needs and new technologies which required that symbols and logos function effectively in diverse conditions – from the minute scale of a business card or lapel pin, to extremely large applications atop buildings, to animated sequences on television.

The exhibited letterheads provide a snapshot of the state of graphic design at the time. The diversity of their styles is evidence of a discipline – and a society – in transition, shaking off conventions and embracing the future.

Some of the designs are quite traditional. The static centred layout, engraved script and ample margins of the Ford Motor Company letterhead evoke, perhaps intentionally, the early 1900s and Model-T cars. The Pepsi-Cola letterhead is similarly rooted in the past, though its embossed flying bottle cap adds life and a wonderful sense of space.

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dyptich Ford Motor

dyptich Pepsi Cola

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Some of the letterheads function primarily as period pieces, transporting us back to those heady days of the 60s. Their typographic details, colours and assertive layouts give us a warm bath of nostalgia. The brash playfulness of the American Crayon Company design, the cheeky overstatement of MAD Magazine, and the vaguely hip look of New Vision Display have this effect – the visual equivalent of mid-career Frank Sinatra.

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dyptich American Crayon

dyptich Mad

dyptich R Ruffins

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Others use wit in their design concepts. The Wald/Baumstein Personnel Agency has a Pop-Art collage sensibility in its clever twist on a classified ad. Morse code has a striking effect as it spells out Pease-Icardi, a play on the idea of graphic communication – which is this firm’s business.

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dyptich Wald Baumstein

diptych Pease Icardi

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However, many of these letterheads are notable for their aesthetic sophistication demonstrating the modernist influences mentioned above. Their elegant, uncluttered layouts have a taut, dynamic asymmetry and a sense of thoughtful restraint. They position type and design elements at the edges of the format, activating the negative space and creating visual tension. Margins and line lengths are harmoniously proportioned.  They seem to offer visions of what a utopian future might look like. They inspire.

Herb Lubalin’s design for SH&L, an advertising agency in which he was a partner, achieves tremendous vitality through the logotype’s bold colour, extreme contrast of thick and thin strokes, and compositional balance.

Underwood, a manufacturer of typewriters and business machines, then affiliated with the design-savvy Italian manufacturer Olivetti, had the audacity to use lowercase sans- serif type for its name, which, along with bold yellow line rules, contrasts well with secondary type set in an italic serif font, all in an asymmetrical layout – a nod to the influence of the Bauhaus and Jan Tschichold. (Alas, in this case, as in some others, the positioning of the typewritten letter on the letterhead has not quite adapted to the sophistication of the new design, resulting in some awkward visual relationships between typed and printed elements.)

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dyptich Lubalin

dyptich Underwood

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Some pieces go beyond appropriating the “look” of Modernism, focusing instead on one of its central concepts: economy of means. The letterhead for Lester Beall’s design office combines large perforated initials with a single line of yellow type positioned decisively at the bottom of the format to achieve a subtle effect that sets off a typed letter and signature. Paul Rand achieved a remarkable timeless quality with his office’s stationery. Here, the design transcends stylistic devices of the period, relying purely on careful proportioning  and the classic properties of the Bodoni typeface. Again, the effect is understated, but decisive; a calm, urbane authority that is so forward-looking it seems it could have been designed yesterday.

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dyptich Beall

dyptich Paul Rand

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The collection contains much more excellent work. Many of the heavy hitters of graphic design in the 1960s (and beyond) are represented – Beall and Rand, along with Herb Lubalin, Ivan Chermayeff, Tom Geismar, George Nelson, Saul Bass, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Walter Herdeg, Ladislav Sutnar and George Tscherny, all received the highest honour in American graphic design, the Medal of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

We have to be grateful that Frank R. Mulvey took the time to assemble these letterheads. They give us an opportunity  to experience and reflect on an important period in the history of graphic design.

George Vaitkunas, 2013

Graphic Design Department, Dawson College (Montreal, Quebec, Canada)

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