An area of design that has always been both fascinating and disturbing in equal quantities is that of Futurism and the styles it would influence. It has always been a sort of touchy subject among artists and designers alike… can we separate the design from its context? Can the aesthetics of fascism and communism be appreciated purely for their design elements? The answer for this is completely subjective, but when provided the deep reaching and multi-faceted nature of the design, it is at least worth one’s while to look at its context and evaluate how it has evolved over time.
Our story begins shortly before World War 1, in Italy. A poet by the name of Fillipo Tommaso Marienetti has just published a small essay with the help of some like-minded companions entitled, “The Futurist Manifesto.” (“Futurist Manifesto”) In it he presents a call to arms for the Italian youth: extoll the beauty of war, tear down museums and end worship of the past, sing the praises of speed and technology. His words do not fall upon deaf ears. In an uncertain age, young Italians flock to his cult to embrace these great technologies of the time, such as trains, automobiles, bicycles, etc. He is soon joined by a number of young Italian artists, designers, architects, writers, and philosophers. Among them is the painter Giacomo Balla, one of the original co-authors of Futurism. He sets about the challenge to embody the Futurist idea in paint and his solution would change art and design forever. Inspired by the speed and excitement of modernity, he coins the term “dynamism”… a technique that attempts to capture speed and time in a static 2-D work. In his piece Dinamismo di un Cane al Guinzaglio, he captures the rapidly moving paws of a small dog. (“Dinamismo did un Cane…) The hound appears, in the work, to have multiple legs and tails, giving us the impression of its little body struggling to keep up with its master. While a deceptively simple piece, it sews the seeds for an uprising in design, one embracing the speed and power of this tiny dog.
In the years following the Futurist rise to prominence, Italy would join Europe in what was titled at the time, ‘The War to End all Wars.’ The Italian youth now had more pressing concerns than debating about the existence of museums, they were now plunged into a conflict that none were prepared to face. In short, Italian Futurism is on the downturn. In a feat of incredible irony, most of their members died in a war that they welcomed so warmly. A few of them would go on to advise the rising monarch Mussolini, but as a movement… the speeding train of Futurism lost its momentum. But while their movement was for the most part lost to the conflict, their ideas remained.
In Russia, a similar group published their own manifesto. They entitled it, “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” It reads very similarly to the Futurists Manifesto, calling for a change in aesthetics and renewed respect for poets as revolutionaries. (“A Slap in the Face of Public Taste”) But while the Russian Futurists filled the air with their poems of change, they lacked a cohesive visual. A few among them dabbled in painting, but it was not until Natalia Goncharova created Cyclist that their design would be solidified. In Cyclist, Goncharova explored the newer technology of bicycling with a similar approach to Balla’s dynamism. (“Natalia Goncharova,” 155) One of the more unassuming additions that she made to their style was the text that stands out so boldly beside the cyclist. She developed a style of incorporating the form of the text with the directional energy of the bicycle. This minor addition gives the painting a look reminiscent of poster art, a similarity that would lend itself to the next stage of the Futurist movement.
Skip forward to the rise of the USSR in Russia about 9 years after Goncharova painted her infamous Cyclist. During those nine years, much has changed. Imperialist Russia has been overthrown by a new regime. The people of Russia have grown tired of the same old administration and the new ideals of the Soviet Republic contrasted sharply to that of the old Imperialist Russia. Because of this, the new republic needed a visual brand. The one they adopted was strongly inspired by the Futurist movements that came before. Unlike their painterly and somewhat chaotic display, it emphasized the movement and excitement that Futurism possessed in a rigid, minimal way. This design was entitled Constructivism, and it remains to this day one of the most iconic graphic styles of all time. It features black and white figures on a bright, warm background (usually red or orange.) This imposing composition is assisted by strong text, often crafted in a way that is both readable and imposing.
The final ingredient is the composition, which usually strongly features the people of Russia in strong and inspiring poses. One of the most famous examples of this style comes from designer Gustov Klutsis in his poster Workers, Everyone Must Vote in the Election of the Soviets. (Russian Constructavism) It follows all of the standard practices of Constructivism like: bold text, vibrant background, and black and white figure. The finished result is not only visually stunning, but also imposing… as one would expect from one of the most deadly empires ever to exist. The visual hierarchy of the hands mimics the dynamism that the Futurists held so dear. It is a testament to the power of this imagery that it remains unsettling to this day. The power and strength emanates from the vibrant red of the background to the unity of the hands in the foreground. It is beautiful and intimidating aesthetic is so cemented in infamy that it may seem crazy to think that anyone would want to revive it.
After the fall of the USSR, Constructivism breathed its last. The imposing colors and motifs would later be incorporated into the official design of other country’s propaganda, but for the most part the ideals of the Italian Futurists have been lost to history… tainted by their context. But despite the negative connotations of vibrant colors and imposing design, their ideas are seeing a revival. The neo-constructivist design Deconstructvism is now a rising star in the design community. Designers like Ukrainian Lera Zaitseva are appropriating the design into their work. (Behance) Utilizing the imposing and highly saturated colors to craft iconic add concepts and product design. Where the text had once imposed and subjugated, it could potentially give an ad campaign that eye catching visual that companies are always after. Hopefully designers like Zaitseva will be leading the movement away from the bellicose context it was originally imposed upon.
In conclusion, the history of Futurism and the designs it influenced has taken a crazed trip throughout some of the most evil and powerful countries and movements the world over. In spite of this, it has created a design that endures the test of time. Hopefully the beautiful colors and the bold text that embodies Constructivism will continue to grace our graphic design for many years more, as it continues to evolve and improve.
Marinetti, Filippo Tommaso. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. & quot; Initial Manifesto of Futurism. No Source, No Date. English Translation of Marinetti's Manifesto Published in Le Figaro, 20 February 1909. [00583-1].
“Dinamismo di un cane al guinzaglio (Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash) Albright-Knox.” Home, www.albrightknox.org/artworks/196416-dinamismo-di-un-cane-al-guinzaglio-dynamism-dog-leash.
Berluik, David, et al. “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste.” The Niuean Pop Cultural Archive, www.unknown.nu/futurism/slap.html
Sharp, Jane A. (2000). "Natalia Goncharova". In Bowlt, John E.; Drutt, Matthew. “Amazons of the avant-garde : Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, Varvara Stepanova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova.” New York: Guggenheim Museum. p. 155. ISBN 0-8109-6924-6.
Russian Constructavism – The Russian Constructivism Art History Archive, www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/constructivism/
Behance. “Leva Zaitseva.” Behance, www.behance.net/lera_zaitseva