Sep 15, 2015

Art Chantry Speaks: Required Reading for Visual Creatives

“Some graphic designers aren’t even graphic designers. They are SALESMEN who hire designers to create what they sell.” That’s just one of the many right on comments by Art Chantry in his essential new book, Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design. It’s a brilliant collection of short essays originally published on the Pacific Northwest art director’s Facebook page. The book features a mix of personal reminiscences, cultural criticism, graphic design and art direction history, and a lot of smart opinion, plus, of course, a gallery of some of Chantry’s favorite printed imagery. Chantry is a great writer with a serious passion for both graphic design and the culture surrounding it; this is easily the best and most original book I have ever read on graphic design. Anyone with an affinity and interest in creative visual thinking should rush to their local bookstore to buy it—or have deliver it immediately by drone!

Whether it’s typography as image, an ode to industrial graphic design or the history of the happy face symbol, this book is a joy to read—and a lot of fun. It’s not just a graphic design history book; it’s a pointed and provocative look at American culture, and a serious critique of the commodification of design and the media platforms that promote it.

Art Chantry is a noted LP, poster, book cover, and publication art director, and a frequent speaker to schools and professional organizations. With this new book Chantry stakes out a claim as the most perceptive and analytic person writing about graphic design. He shares his love for Famous Monsters of Filmland and Warren Publishing art director Harry Chester (the “King of Monster Type”), Herb Lubalin (who knew he was color blind?), science fiction paperback book cover illustrator Richard M. Powers, LP cover designer Cal Schenkel, David Carson, and many more. He reserves some sharp criticism for visual “legends” such as Norman Rockwell, Paul Rand, and Peter Max.

Here’s Chantry on graphic design: “It’s not art at all. It’s anthropology and politics and economics—almost ANYTHING except art. It is not a muse-driven masterpiece created by a single person in an edition of one. It is mass-produced manipulation and coercion created to maintain the current economic system of exploitation.” Brilliant stuff.

Chantry and I worked together at The Rocket magazine in Seattle in the mid-1980s, and I wrote the introduction to his first book, Instant Litter, a history of Seattle punk gigposters. He has always been a great all-around cheerleader for original, provocative graphic design and imagery of all kinds, and his love and passion for the work comes through on every page. This is a book that celebrates visual work that is not good-looking or technically proficient, but that comes with an idea and some soul and funk. It should be required reading in every graphic design and art history class—or any class that deals with contemporary American history and culture.

Here are some of my favorite images from Art Chantry Speaks: A Heretic’s History of 20th Century Graphic Design:


Chantry2Trailer Topics magazine, 1949

Chantry3World Week magazine, 1967

Chantry4Design by Harry Chester

Chantry51970 edition of Pocket Pal

Chantry7Night Gallery poster, design by Art Chantry, 1991

Chantry8Design by Cal Schenkel

Chantyr9Book cover design by Alvin Lustig

Chantry1Book cover illustrations by Richard M. Powers