Alexey Brodovitch: Above Bazaar

Alexey Brodovitch would one day become one of the most innovative editorial designers of the 20th century, but his formative years would be no reflection of the life ahead of him.  From his birth in 1898 and for the next 22 years, his lifestyle would primarily revolve around the political unrest of revolutionary Russia.  Although he did have an interest in art in his younger years, his design career really began upon his arrival to Paris in 1920, alongside his family and many other Russian émigrés who had been forced to flee their country by the Bolsheviks.

In Paris, Brodovitch began painting sets for the Ballet Russes of Serge Diaghilev.  Diaghilev was important to Brodovitch not exclusively for beginning his artistic life in Paris, but because his approach to performance regarded music, stage design, and fashion with equal importance.  This fusion of art forms was a concept that Brodovitch understood and would apply in his future design work.  In 1924, Brodovitch won a poster contest for the “Bal Banal”, a party organized by Russian Artists to benefit struggling Russian émigrés.  This is considered a turning point towards Brodovitch’s professional career because it drew the attention of leading Parisian designers of time.  He would work designing posters for prestigious French companies, and serving as art director for both Athélia Studios and the department store Aux Trois Quartiers in Paris for the next five years.

In 1930, Brodovitch received an invitation to teach at the Philadelphia Museum and School of Industrial Design and relocated to the United States.  Alongside teaching, Brodovitch worked as a freelance designer in both Philadelphia and New York, and in 1934 he would curate an exhibit that led to the most important work of his life.  The exhibit was for the Art Directors Club, and was attended by, among others, Carmel Snow, the freshly appointed editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar.  She offered Brodovitch a job as art director for the magazine that very night.  Over the next 24 years he would revolutionize editorial design layout, working with the top European and American artists and photographers of the day.

Most important to the design aesthetics of Brodovitch were three equal and inseparable elements: photography, text, and white space.  He favored the Bodoni typeface, reestablished the famous Harper’s logo in Didot, and was the unsurpassed master of the double-page spread.  He employed design techniques such as mimicking text design to its accompanying image, bleeding a photograph from one page onto another, and creating movement through layering and integration of text over image.  He often paired images with gestures mirroring each other to unify a spread.

Brodovitch refined his style to the extent that he was referred to as “the best-known exponent of layout in New York”(2).  This refinement manifested itself in the short-lived Portfolio publication, which released only three issues between 1950-51, but was praised for its “exceptional graphic vitality”(5).  Brodovitch left Harper’s in 1958 and returned to France in 1966.  He passed away in 1971, and has had numerous tributes paid to him in the years since his death.

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