The Avant-Garde and Commercialism

After the Great Depression and the evident limitations of the competitive art market, artists began to turn towards commercial companies and sought new patronage with the emerging middle-class society. Through the ethos of Herbert Read’s Art and Industry and the inclusiveness of groups such as Unit One, the myth of modernism was re-evaluated in light of an emphasis on the contemporary ‘Spirt of Progress’ encompassing art, architecture and design. Commercial companies saw the potential of new forms of visual communication to reach out to a growing consumer market. A focus on utility and the rise of modernist artistic practice allowed artists with their newly found corporate patronage, to visually communicate a society in the machine age.

Visual communication became a paramount feature of corporate patronage creating a new role for the artist. For example, the multinational petrol company Shell Mex opened their new Art Deco building in 1933. The building embodied Unit One’s Spirit of Progress ethos by presenting a building that was pure and orderly, realised through refined surfaces with an emphasis on ‘line’ and repetitive patterns. Shell Mex also commissioned Unit One artist John Armstrong to decorate the building signifying an emphasis on ‘centralisation,’ symbolic of the newly found public patronage of artists and Shell Mex’s new partnership with BP. Shell Mex was one of many companies that became integral in providing new patronage for many artists.

To some extent, the artists involvement in design was a response to the economic situation of the time. However, they were also responding to a call for improving the quality of design in industrial products. The Unit One artists were not just examples of Avant-Garde collaborations between artists, architects and designers but an integral part of promoting the importance of design in industry. Shell Mex and BP also contributed to a growing poster culture. Many artists were commissioned to create artworks for commercial marketing but more significantly was the participation in the creation of Shell Guides promoting the British countryside. Artists such as E McKnight Kauffer, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland contributed to a series of county guides by creating abstract and surreal scenes capturing the essence of the British landscape targeted at the British motorist market.

Frank Pick of the London Underground also adopted this style of visual communication through various artists. One of those was Kauffer who was commissioned to decorate the Underground with posters depicting futurist inspired scenes evoking the Spirit of Progress and colourful scenes depicting destinations to be visited by train. Pick’s goal with the poster campaign was to not only advertise the Underground’s service but to help travellers see London as a whole through familiar imagery and artistic interpretation. Pick welcomed new styles of art as expressions of the modern spirit as long as they met criteria concerning utility and universality. Kauffer often employed abstraction fashioned on cubist or futurist styles to invoke utilitarian values and the Underground’s contribution to the Spirit of Progress.

Marks and Spencer is another example of how commercial companies used Avant Garde techniques within storefronts. They pioneered a modernist approach to interior design as a response to commercial expansion and to meet the demands of consumer taste. They developed an abstract green and gold fascia that varied in size and angles to suit each store location. The interiors were lit with bright low hanging lighting emphasising how modernity of the interior matched with the utilitarian retail policy.

European modernist practice was also implemented by publishing companies such as Penguin Books where Allen Lane brought literature to the masses at affordable prices. The 1930s saw a change in typography and changes to cover design to suit mass production of books through European modernist practice. Designed by Edward Young, there was an emphasis on a non-pictorial simple design. The cover was divided into three horizontal cross-sections with the top and bottom filled with solid colours. There was also a white central section for the author’s name and book title. The Gill Sans typeface reinforced the geometric nature of the design. The designs that followed this original format were articulated as modern, dignified and restrained emphasising modernist principles of order, simplicity and rationalism.

Utility had become a central theme for both artists and commercial companies in their desire to improve the quality of industrial products and maintain Utopian ideals. The same can be said with the architecture of social housing. The Utopian housing estate of Kensal House (1937) realised the potential of architecture in a utilitarian sense. Kensal House Estate was designed by the Architect, Maxell Fry and Sociologist, Elizabeth Denby. The Estate was entirely funded by the Gas Light and Coke Company to highlight the potential of gas as a cheap form of energy source and its efficiency in providing energy to an entire block of flats. Denby and Fry used Kensal House to display how Le Corbusier’s description of a house as a ‘machine for living’ can be implemented to create social change for working-class people. The architecture of the building emphasises a better standard of living and is executed through the availability of light from windows and fresh air from balconies.

After the economic slump, art naturally fell into a new social dimension due to the lowering of the status of art to encompass all aspects of industry. This, alongside a growing middle class and an appetite for good taste, led commercial companies to adopt various facets of modernism by visually communicating consumer products and services. Adopting modernist architecture allowed companies to promote their products and servicing by focusing on improving the quality of life of the working class. Furthermore, poster campaigns allowed companies to promote a growing interest in travel by allowing the modernist artistic practice to reinterpret the British landscape. With an emphasis on art and industry, production of consumer products accelerated with a focus on universal accessibility as seen by Penguin Books. The 1930s introduced a new ethos on utility significantly provided by commercial companies through individual artists operating in the context of modernist artistic practice.

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