BradburyThompson was born in Kansas in 1911. Thompson appears to be a major figure indesign history that always had a strong interest in the arts and design. Inboth middle school and high school, he put a lot of energy into developing hiscraft. Studiousness is an important trait to be recognized in Bradbury Thompsonbecause it is something that greatly affected the successfulness of his career.Thompson, symbolically, fits the mold of the American underdog.
He startedsmall in Kansas and used his revolutionary will, intelligence, andsteadfastness in order to bring himself to the big city of New York where hewould gain an incredible amount of triumph. In a sense, Thompson achieved anAmerican dream. Why is that important? In terms of the art historical canon,Bradbury Thompson is among some of the first American designers to make a significantimpact on the world of visual communication with their work and did so during atime where this alluring ideal of an American dream starts become a ubiquitousforce not only in the United States but also all over the world. Post-warAmerica was a land of opportunity not only for Americans but also for peopleimmigrating into America.Heattended Washburn University in Topeka and graduated in 1934 with a bachelor ofarts degree for economics. Thompson’s logic behind perusing an economics degreelies in the fact that he recognized the importance of commerce to design.
TheWashburn University alumni website makes note that during his college educationhe was an active student and designer. He is stated to have been the editor oftwo editions of the Kaw yearbook and the designer of multiple volumes of thecollege annual (Washburn University Alumni Association and Foundation). Proceedinghis college experience, he designed for Capper Publications for a short periodof time. Thompson’s time at Capper Publicationswas short but well spent given that during his time there he thoroughlyfamiliarized himself with the printing process (Rochester Institute ofTechnology). The work he did in printing at this time would go on to inform hisdesigns in the future, especially when Thompson later migrated to New Yorkwhere he would become a prominent figure of the New York School Movement.
Beforegoing in-depth about the New York School as well as Thompson’s role in themovement, it is important to understand some history and context in which theschool came to be. Prior to the events of World War I and World War II Europelead as a vastly dominant force in the arts. The rise of fascism in Europe,especially Germany, endangered innovative design. For example, Nazis had targetedartists of the Bauhaus in Germany and labeled the work of the Bauhaus as anti-Germanand degenerate art. This was unfortunate because the Bauhaus was leading in newdesign education as well as the development of graphic design from a craft to aprofession. Incidents like the staff of the Bauhaus being fired occurred inDessau and the Berlin location was closed down due to pressure coming from the Germangovernment.
The Bauhaus still went on to become one of the most influentialdesign schools to date given that many of the influential artists of theBauhaus like Walter Gropius and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy made the decision to fleefrom Germany. As war ravaged the continent, many of Europe’s pioneering artistsleft for America where their knowledge was able to live on.Artistswho were apart of the mass exodus from Europe to America were particularlydrawn to New York and their influence would turn the city and country into apowerhouse of contemporary art.
America was ripe for the cultural boom given theexpansion of industry and economy the country was facing. The New York Schoolmovement started at the same time as America’s post-war economic growth duringthe 1940s. This movement would be characterized by designers and artists whocompetitively sought success through commerce and did so through designs thatwould boldly capture an audience’s attention. “Gross national product, ameasure of all goods and services produced in the United States, jumped fromabout $200 thousand-million in 1940 to $300 thousand-million in 1950 to morethan $500 thousand-million in 1960″ (University of Groningen). Meggs’ historyof design describes American design as pragmatic, intuitive, and more informalin its approach to organizing space” (Meggs 1992, 350-22). Although the 1940swas the decade where modern art could begin to really flourish in the UnitedStates, America’s first taste of European Modernism can be traced back to NewYork’s Armory Show in 1913. Thisexhibition mixed a number of American painters with the work of Europeanartists like Picasso, Duchamp, and Matisse. Tom Vitale of NPR makes note thatthe Armory Show of 1913 was the firsttime the phrase “avant-garde” was used to describe a painting or sculpture(Vitale, 2013).
Withthis all in mind, we can go back to the subject of Bradbury Thompson with abetter understanding of how he fits into the New York School movement and thecanon of western art history. Hisdesigns for Westvaco Inspirations arerecognized as some of his most notable works. One article by Todd Hays assertsthat Thompson worked “within limited budgets” but also “pioneered new ways ofworking with the four-color process plates and the type-case” (Hays, 1990).Meggs’ history of design also states Bradbury’s ability to utilize hisadventurous spirit and experimental nature allowed him to further develop whatwas possible with design (Meggs 1992, 352-22). Westavaco Inspirations was an American publication created by theWestavaco corporation with the intention of showcasing a variety of graphic artand the printing process on paper provided by the corporation. As one couldassume from the title, the work is meant to inspire printers and designers. Thereis an undeniably classical quality to Thompson’s work for Westvaco Inspirations that is beautifully combined with Europeanmodern sentiments. When looking at work like his pages from Westavaco Inspirations, 151, 1945.
yousee fine illustrations that are juxtaposed with bold geometric shapes but doneso with a unique finesse. Thompson’s skill in creating distinctive designsolutions makes his work very compelling because it gives his work a quality ofplayfulness that feels welcoming to the viewer. This is also what makesBradbury Thompson such a great example of a New York School designer.
Manyof the designs done for Westavaco by Thompson primarily use cyan, magenta,yellow and black (CMYK). These designs also utilize offset lithography andletterpress printing in the creation process. Offset lithography is a printingprocess in which an inked image on a printing plate is printed onto a rubbercylinder and then offset/transferred onto paper or another type material(Encyclopedia Britannica). Letterpress printing involves reproducing an imageby repeatedly placing a raised and inked surface onto paper (EncyclopediaBritannica). Printmaking is definitely a very technical and skill-basedspecialty and, as previously mentioned, Thompson’s background in printing had adefinite effect on the work he created.Knowinghow difficult the actual work of printing is we can understand there’s anunderlining goal of perfection that is applied to Thompson’s work. The designshe made also speak volumes to the phrase “You learn the rules so you can breakthem”.
A designer would not as easily reach solutions that “go outside the box”so to speak if said designer did not know they were in a box in the first placeor know the contents of this metaphorical box. Thompson is like a scientist ofthe visual arts given the fact he used his technical based knowledge to come upwith creative solutions to any given problem.BradburyThompson also seems to be influenced by magazines like Vogue, Vanity Fair, andHarper’s Bazaar and, according to AIGA, he considered these to be “goodmagazines” (AIGA). Thompson’s belief that the aforementioned magazines are”good” is something worth investigating. What does that say about hischaracter? How did these magazines inform his work? Well, one thing that can begleaned from his fascination with these magazines is a concern for beauty andaesthetics. Also, fashion magazines during the mid-20th century inAmerica were among the firsts to readily accept modernism in their designs.
Take the September of 1930 cover of Harper’s Bazaar for example. The imageexudes simple elegance with a strong use of flat color, simple line work,geometric shapes, and solid composition. The viewer’s eye is moved across thepiece by the visual hierarchy happening across the page. Your eye begins at the”Harper’s Bazaar” title written at the top in white sans-serif letters and ismoved down to woman’s white coat which leads you to the car’s headlights thatsits next to “Furs and Fabrics Cosmetics” written in a smaller scale withthinner line weight than “Harper’s Bazaar” at the top. The usage of white worksbecause it is offset by a vibrant red and purple background. This is a verysolid design approach and work of this caliber is generally seen across theboard with the magazines mentioned prior.
Ifnot readily present in his work for Westvaco, we can see the influence of thesemagazines in his work for the women’s fashion magazine Mademoiselle. BradburyThompson was the art director for mademoiselle for a little over a decadebeginning in 1945. According to a Kent State University timeline of his career,Mademoiselle magazine was aimed towards the “the new working” girl in post-war America(Kent State University) The covers and spreads done for Mademoiselle duringThompson’s time as art director share a visual likeness to Man Ray and AlexeyBrodovitch’s designs for Harper’s Bazaar which happened somewhat simultaneouslywith Thompson’s work. Ray and Brodovitch have a much more surreal andavant-garde approach compared to Thompson. There’s something undeniablyAmerican and down-to-earth about Mademoiselle under Thompson’s direction. Theregard for industry, capital, and practicality represent themselves through thework while the more European counterpart has more of a focus in a very formalizedversion of beauty and artistry more akin to fine art.
Duringthe time of the New York School movement of design Bradbury Thompson also workedas the design director for ARTnews magazine. ARTnews magazine is a New Yorkbased publication that covers topics related to the arts from all time periods.The fact that Thompson would work as a design director for a magazine that isentirely focused on visual art also shows his passion for art in general. Accordingto the New York Times Bradbury Thompson even employed artists like Andy Warhol,Joan Miro, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns to do illustrations forMademoiselle magazine (Van Gelder, Lawrence 1995). It is obvious from adolescenceto his late career that Thompson personally has a high regard for visual art. Thisis a man who followed his fervor for art into fantastic acclaim.We’ve covered alot specific details thus far but now let’s look at a few big-picture ideals inrelation to Bradbury Thompson, art, design, business, and legitimacy.
There isa considerable amount of debate on whether or not graphic design is art butalso on whether or not graphic design is truly a profession. When we considerthat some would believe that graphic design is not a profession and thatgraphic design is not an art it raises the question “what is graphic design?”.Is a graphic designer someone to be seen as a person with less legitimacy thana business person or fine artist? No. Why? Well, think about the life and workof Bradbury Thompson as an example of the power of graphic design. Aspreviously touched on, Thompson grew up in a relatively small city in Kansasand even as he began his career he had to work with limited resources and, ofcourse, to work under such means is not an easy feat.
Did he ever give up?Obviously he did not, given the fact that he went on to become a director atmultiple magazines, teach at Yale, and received a multitude of honors for hisefforts. That sort of dedication should be honored and the esteem given to thegraphic designers who put in that much work is rightfully earned.Onealso has to consider that after all that has transpired in art beginning in the20th century that art is a bit hard to define. There are so manydifferent philosophies and opinions that can be applied to the visual arts. Artcan be very cerebral and full of many different complexities.
Many perceive artas emotional and design as technical. The commercial aspect of graphic designseems to play a significant hand in design being seen as something that is verydetached from creativity and emotion. One AIGA article states “Commercialismhas been dictating the course of design and has made a clear and thick linebetween the artist and the designer. Following trends and applying imagerybased on specific needs and goals is the easy part, allowing yourself toexpress a message or emotion free of any specifications is where true beauty isborn” (Elimeliah, Craig, 2006). It would appear that the best sort of designstrikes a balance between the chaotic emotion associated with art and therational technicality of field like engineering. It is understandable whycommercialism would have such power over graphic design especially when we lookat the American history of visual communications.Starting around the 1940s business began to seehow good design could help them become more successful.
But what makes asuccessful design? There’s also a decent amount of debate surrounding thisquestion. Although some standards seem universal, not all designers have thesame set of values when it comes to design work. In fact, some designers, likethe ones who fit under the umbrella of post-modern design, prioritize pushingboundaries and have a bit more of chaotic approach to visual communication.
Onthe other hand, we have des