November 2008

The media of the messages

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Steven Heller's Iron Fists: Branding the 20th Century Totalitarian State concentrates on the aesthetic programs of the Nazis, Italy's fascists, Russia's Marxists and China's Communists. Heller begins with an overview of each regime's rise to power, overall design identity and the cult of personality that grew around each of the leaders: Hitler, Mussolini, Lenin and then Stalin, and Mao.

Heller assumes a basic familiarity with design movements, yet the book is also accessible to non-experts through abundant illustrations and because some of the concepts transcended their regimes to become either prototypical or iconographic. These include the striking diagonals and photomontages of Russian Constructivist posters and the ubiquitous red plastic-covered Little Red Book of Mao's writings. But nothing comes close to the overreaching and frighteningly successful design campaign instituted by the Nazis, which, as Heller puts it, "ultimately became a textbook example—indeed a perverse paradigm—of corporate branding." To that end, he discusses the use of typefaces, photographs of Hitler, posters and almost every other sort of media put in service of the Nazi platform.

Ennis Carter's Posters for the People: Art of the WPA celebrates the 75th anniversary of FDR's New Deal through posters created between 1935 and 1943 by the Works Progress Administration. Of the 35,000 designs created (and more than two million posters printed), there are only 900 in the Library of Congress collection. This leaves many posters waiting to be rediscovered; one such cache was the impetus of this book.

Brief, informative essays by Carter and Christopher DeNoon (Posters of the WPA) open the book, but for the most part the 500 reproduced posters, grouped according to "values being promoted and the actions being encouraged," speak for themselves. Some are quaint and innocent (lots of milk drives, children's art classes, farm events), some less so (quite a few tout treatment for syphilis). Among the most striking designs: posters integrating intricate patterns drawn from Native American pottery and textiles; a travel series showcasing national parks and other sites; and a surprisingly gorgeous trade zone poster featuring stylized black ships with colorful smokestacks against a blue background.

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