Since the invention of the steam-driven printing press in by Friedrich König in 1814, few art forms have evolved with such astonishing speed as typography. Display type has also proved to be infinitely malleable, reflecting a broad range of cultural influences and frequently playing an important role as the harbinger of major stylistic shifts.
The ornate type of the Victorian Era (1837–1901) is often regarded as an aesthetic response to the Industrial Revolution. In fact, the unparalleled proliferation of printed material and carelessness with which type was set in the early 19th century made a compelling case for graphic design, a new discipline that was immediately applied to, among other things, a unique form of communication that also benefited greatly from innovations in printing: advertising.
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The Industrial Revolution held the promise of a better quality of life for those who could afford it, but many influential artists such as John Ruskin found the mass-produced goods that resulted aesthetically lacking. William Morris, Ruskin’s colleague, was a reformer who sought to imbue everyday life with art by fabricating tastefully superior handcrafted furnishings. The resulting, aptly-named Arts and Crafts Movement (1850–1900) led to a new era of “decorative honesty,” in which the artist’s hand was again evident in all things — mass-produced or not — including typography.
The artful approach to mass production carried over into the subsequent Art Nouveau style of the late 19th century, as exemplified in the work of Alphonse Mucha, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Aubrey Beardsley. The voluptuous curvilinear forms that are the hallmark of the era were visible in everything from architecture — including Parisian architect Hector Guimard’s inspired designs for entrances to the Paris Metro system — to typography.
With the inception of the 20th century came the abstractions of Modernism, a movement that encompassed both Cubism and the solemnly utopian ideals of the Bauhaus style. Yet, by the end of the First World War, the middle class — the primary consumers of the era — yearned for a less threatening, more accessible style. Although already well underway by 1925, the new era in applied arts was named for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, which opened in Paris that year.