Some years ago I was on holiday in southwestern France and I discovered that a lot of the souvenir shops were selling postcards based on vintage/retro travel and tourism adverts from the 1920’s and 1930’s. A lot of them seemed to be produced by a combination of whatever passed for the local Tourist Board in those days and SNCF, the French railways. What characterised many of these ads was a style of text and image that owed something to Art Deco but also to other contemporaneous movements as well, including Modernism & the ‘heroic’ style promoted by the Soviet Union.
What I didn’t realise then was how ubiquitous this stuff was, not only across Europe but in the USA as well. I happily festooned the side of our fridge with a collection of these French postcards, which, over the years went curly and yellowed due to the twin onslaught of cooking fumes and nicotine.
Subsequently, again on holiday, this time in Florence, I discovered a market stall selling a calendar which used vintage Italian railway ads from the pre-war Mussolini era. These were even more radical in terms of their style and were even more arresting.
Since then I have encountered similar art from Sweden and Morocco and also discovered American ‘Orange Crate Art’ which adopts a similar style for a quite different and more utilitarian purpose – labelling boxes of fruit and vegetables.
In this country, the major sponsors of this type of art were the railway companies and also London Transport, who used pastoral idylls in this style to promote the delights of Golders Green, Twickenham, Kingston and other outlying London dormitory suburbs and towns. There is in fact an exhibition called ‘Suburbia’ running through the winter at the London Transport Museum which I must try to get to, as it will no doubt major on some of the hundreds of posters they commissioned during this era.
It seems to me that this type of ‘graphic design’ is actually really popular but I have yet to encounter the definitive study of this stuff that I know is out there somewhere waiting for me. If anyone knows where I can lay my hands on said study, please let me know in the Comments section and I will be much indebted to you. I have kept the old Italian calendar and have often thought of framing some of the fantastic illustrations it contains, but like most people in their 50’s, I have long since accumulated an embarassing surplus of framed pictures and effectively no longer have sufficient walls to hang the damned things without making everywhere look cluttered.
Still, whether it’s ‘Art Moderne’, ’30’s Commercial Art or whatever, it does seem to be making something of a comeback thanks to Belgian brewing mega-corporation Stella Artois, who are using illustrations very much in this style to advertise their new 4 % beer. I love the one where they have somehow contrived to land a seaplane on a swimming pool and the passengers are sprawled about on one of the floats looking totally cool and relaxed……perhaps that’s why I like this style so much. Forget the beer; if Stella are trying to sell me a lifestyle, I’m there already, dangling my feet in the pool ……………….and wondering how the hell we’re going to get the seaplane into the air again!