Steven Heller. Merz to Emigre and beyond

Avant-Garde Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century

Merz to Emigre and beyond
Merz to Emigre and beyond

An historical survey of avant-garde cultural and political magazines and journals of the 20th century

A chronological and thematic account of avant-garde magazine design from the early 20th century to the present day, this study includes an extensive selection of international publications and touches upon a range of design movements and traditions which form part of this history.

Not a mere a collection of vintage covers of old magazines, but a detailed and interesting history of how the avant garde expressed itself and produced original art in the process. It covers radical magazines, newspapers and journals published during the 20th century well up until the zines of the 80s – 90s. It kind of stops there because, says the author, the web takes over.

Steven Helleris co-chair of the MFA Design: Designer as Author program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. His many previous books includeTypographic Universe, New Modernist Type, and Scripts.

Cover of Blast magazine
Cover of Blast magazine

For Heller the test of a true avant-garde is a commitment to political as well as aesthetic change, the willingness to shun fashion and the possibility of commercial success in pursuit of the deeper objective of radical social reform. The radical publishers he studio sought to ridicule and undermine artistic, political and social establishments so as to clear a space for the advance of the new.

In Heller’s words:
“A true avant-garde will not overtly appeal to mass taste, and indeed encourages bad taste as a means to replace the sanctified with the unholy. An avant-garde has to produce such unpleasant alternatives to the status quo that it will be unequivocally and avidly shunned by all but those few who adhere to it. An avant-garde must make noise.”

They pioneered disruptive and outright offensive combinations of word and image to develop adequate channels for the communication of their incendiary manifestos:
“Although words are the building blocks of meaning, visual ideas can be expressed much more persuasively through the medium of graphic design (the marriage of typography, layout and image); it is a code that telegraphs intent. One might argue that radical ideas must appear vanguard to bevanguard. Harsh words on a tame page cannot have the same impact as a boisterous layout. The impression portrayed through design must be unsettling, if only at first, in order to provoke the reaction of readers.”
Heller attempts to impose some order on the century’s profusion of radical publications by organising them into several distinct, though overlapping, avant-gardes. Their aesthetic and political aims were very different, but each was characterised by a high seriousness of purpose, a desire to break with the past and move history forwards into wider horizons of artistic and political possibility.

Continue reading an in-depth review of this richly illustrated chronicle on → Metropolis/2520.



Author: Steven Heller
Title: Merz to Emigre and Beyond
Publisher: Phaidon Press
Year: 2003
ISBN: 9780714865942