Over the past 30 years, we have seen many professions in the graphic arts replaced by technology. Sign painting is one. Sign painting was a trade that existed in every community to adorn storefronts, banners, billboards, street signs, and buildings. The really good signs were one-of-a-kind works of art, produced by a steady hand, discerning eye, and aesthetic sensibility. Hand-painted signs revealed the pride and skill of the craftsmen. Their execution took human judgment and an active collaboration of eye, mind and hand. On a subliminal level, viewers could feel the effort of the maker. Now signs are mostly computer-designed, die-cut vinyl lettering. Undoubtedly, this is faster, cheaper and more uniform in quality, but like so much of our urban landscape, it lacks the warmth, soul and touch of human hands. “Sign Painters” is a documentary film (and also a book) by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon that celebrates the vanishing art of sign painting. The film is currently being shown in select locations in the U.S. and other parts of the globe. If it comes to your area, do see it.
Today design trends ricochet around the globe instantaneously, thanks to the Internet. But a look at these posters, advertisements and magazine covers produced in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s show the integration of art movements from European cultures, including Constructivism, Surrealism and Cubism. The graphic works — which appeared in “Modernism on Paper: Japanese Graphic Design of the 1920s-30s” by Naomichi Kawabata – represent a period when communication design was emerging in Japan. The posters and ads from this period are sometimes referred to as “city art,” because merchants wanted to appeal to urban consumers by departing from traditional pictorial naturalism and embracing message-driven avant-garde visuals that implied that they were keeping pace with styles from the West. The aesthetics and composition communicated this awareness of the larger world and established many of the principles of early graphic design in Japan.