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Design Trend Report: Cubism in Graphic Design
Marc Schenker October 15, 2021 · 14 min read
The History of Cubist DesignAs with various late 19th century and early 20th century movements in design, Cubism was only popular for a relatively short period of time, which is surprising when you think about it. This movement—which today many people have at least heard of in some way, shape, or form—only enjoyed a shelf life of less than two decades, measured by its popularity. This relatively short lease on life can in part be ascribed to the tumultuous times of European culture in those days, when wars like the First World War—lasting from 1914 to 1918—created upheaval and uncertainty, but also gave artists something to react to and against. In all likelihood, immersing oneself in the creative pursuits of this new design movement also provided some much-needed escapism from the harshness of war.
Image Source: WikipediaOne of the earliest flashpoints for what would become Cubism can be found in the works of Cezanne, the French Post-Impressionist painter, and artist. In the years leading up to the birth of the new movement, Cezanne was obsessed with putting art in the context of something more abstract rather than natural. In addition to his appreciation of geometric structure, he revolutionized how he applied paint to canvas. Instead of sticking with classicism, Cezanne moved to painting works that showed off a strong patchwork effect, which included overlapping effects and random or arbitrary textures and contrasts. In doing so, he laid the foundations for Cubism, with his penchant for rebellious art and design experimentation in full bloom and on full display. For more ideas and inspiration on what comprise the essentials of this movement, see our large selection of Cubism-related digital assets: Historians like Douglas Cooper, author of the classic The Cubist Epoch, split up Cubism into three important and short phases: Proto-Cubism (beginning), High Cubism (peak), and Late Cubism (petering out).
The First Phase: 1907 to 1908In this year, the important building blocks that would eventually give rise to this design trend proper would be put into place. Proto-Cubism would allow the early artists of this movement the freedom to start experimenting as they gradually became more radical in their designs. 1907 sees the first major work of Cubism by none other than Picasso, his famous and controversial work titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon). In this piece, five prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel are depicted in heavy paint, angular geometric forms, and from a multi-perspective viewpoint (a trademark of Cubist design). Its legacy today is that it’s recognized as being vital in the early development of not just Cubism, but also modern art.
Image Source: WikipediaOther seminal works in this style soon joined Picasso’s powerful piece. In 1908, Braque’s Maisons a l’Estaque (Houses at l’Estaque), a landscape painting that also gave rise to the name of the movement. In this work, houses and trees are depicted without any form of perspective. Its heavy use of simple, geometric shapes and angular, sharp edges led an art critic of the time, Louis Vauxcelles, to brand it as being made up of cubes…hence creating the name of the movement. At this juncture, it’s necessary to point out that another prominent design trend—Impressionism, the late 19th-century style that came to prominence in France—also got its name from a sneering art critic mocking the avant-garde approaches of its painters. A pattern that we see again and again with trends that become legendary is the initial resistance by the establishment and elites of the time, who dismissed these new techniques completely, often resulting in eventual damage to their credibility.
The Second Phase: 1909 to 1914By 1909, when American novelist and playwright Gertrude Stein called Picasso’s 1909 paintings the first, true Cubist paintings, this new design trend was already in full swing. In 1911, Picasso was regarded as the inventor of this new style, and, in the same year, the very first exhibition of Cubist design was held at Salle 41 at the Salons des Independants (an annual and huge exhibition in Paris). It featured pieces by:
- Albert Gleizes
- Jean Metzinger
- Robert Delauney
- Fernand Leger
- Marcel Duchamp
- Frantisek Kupka
- Andre Lhote
- Jacques Villon
Image Source: Prague.euFor instance, Kupka’s pair of submissions at the 1912 Salon d’Automne were excessively abstract, to the point that they were almost entirely non-representational in form. His Amorpha-Fugue à deux couleurs and Amorpha chromatique chaude were open to interpretation and very metaphysical in concept. If you were any kind of luminary in this movement, you had to also either be a member of or show your work at the Section d’Or, the association of painters, designers, and artists involved with this movement. Active from 1911 to 1914, this Section d’Or put on an October 1912 exhibition in Paris that was the most significant Cubist exhibition before World War I. What set apart this 1912 show was its retrospective of major Cubist contributions from 1909 to 1912, therefore signaling the movement’s intention to make its body of achievement comprehensible to its audience of the public, critics, art collectors, and dealers.
The Third and Final Phase: 1914 to 1921Now in its twilight, this design trend underwent a notable change in course from 1914 onwards. Late Cubism was marked by the so-called Crystal Cubism mini-movement of 1914 to 1918. Though the most revolutionary aspects of this trend occurred prior to 1914, 1914 to 1916 saw the movement try to reinvent itself somewhat by focusing on flat surface activity and big, overlapping geometric elements. The resulting artworks featured:
- Tighter compositions
- A greater order and unity to the works
- Clearer compositions
- Modern life’s dynamism
- The theory of consciousness and time
- The occult
- The exploration of a fourth dimension
Image Source: WikipediaA final, interesting note on Cubist design’s heyday was its influence on Asia. By the 1920s, Japanese and Chinese painters who studied in France during the design movement’s rise brought back with them its unique influences. These can best be seen in Japanese artist’s Tetsugoro Yorozu’s 1912 artwork, Self Portrait with Red Eyes, and Chinese artist Fang Ganmin’s 1934 piece, Melody in Autumn.
The Characteristics of CubismThis style is recognizable to anyone almost immediately due to its idiosyncratic design tendencies. To say that this trend is quite abstract is an understatement! It blows the notion of abstraction away with its dedication to attempting to show various viewpoints of an object all simultaneously. Its obsession with geometric shapes also helps to easily identify it. You know you’re looking at Cubist design if it features the following:
- Hard angles
- Sharp edges
- Geometric shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, etc.)
- Multiple perspective or viewpoints (as opposed to the prevailing convention of a singular, fixed viewpoint)
- Deconstruction and subsequent reassembly of objects
- Focus on the 2D aspects of a plane
- Depiction of metaphysical or intellectual forms of objects, as well as their relationships to others
- Bold, vibrant colors
- Simplicity and minimalism
Cubist Design in Graphic DesignThis movement applied to graphic design can produce some very aesthetic results that are at once memorable and invite further study.
Set of Abstract Geometric ShapesIn this digital asset, Cubism’s penchant for geometry has been celebrated to the extreme with a collection of vector geometric shapes. A great example of the hard lines, sharp angles, and definite edges of this style, this set showcases bigger designs that are made up of individual triangles, quadrilaterals, trapezoids, squares, and other forms. These shapes are a perfect complement to any design project such as:
ViolinistThis illustration epitomizes what this design trend stands for: a reassembled reimagining of an object everyone’s already familiar with. In this case, it’s a violinist whose head, face, body, and musical instrument are all like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, fitted together for stylistic purposes. Very much still a 2D graphic, this illustration nonetheless, like many Cubist pieces, almost gives off a 3D effect, precisely because of the layered and overlapping effect of the reassembled parts of the original concept. The addition of the vibrant colors and patterns is a bonus touch that also speaks to the visual textures within this movement.
Cubism Mosaic AlphabetFor a fun spin on this style, this typography package takes advantage of the trend’s unique appearance and presents it in a highly interesting font that your clients soon won’t forget. Compatible with Adobe Illustrator, this digital asset lets you explore how your messaging will be more effective if it has a touch of Cubism in it. The letters in this set are perfect for a whole range of creative projects, including:
- Party posters
- Greeting cards
Cubist Design in Web DesignWeb design isn’t beyond this movement’s reach. Although far removed from the 21st century when it first sprung onto the scene in the early 1900s, it’s caught up with pop culture, and you’d be surprised to see what cubist website design is out there…especially in apps.
Cubism ArtThis app makes it a cinch for you to create polygon art right on your smartphone. Inspired by Picasso, Cezanne and the rest of the greats, the app is actually an image-editing platform that lets you transform ordinary pictures into Cubism-inspired artworks.
Image Source: The App StoreIt features a range of filters and effects that help you create that unmistakable, broken-apart and reassembled look of Picasso’s style. It also comes with a slick feature where you can see your image turn into a Cubist work in real-time, so whether you’re working with an image of a housecat, wildlife or a boat, you can add geometric shapes with ease.
Vision PicassoWhen you name your app after Picasso himself, you’d better deliver a Cubist experience. In that regard, Vision Picasso delivers on all fronts. A photo and video app, it automatically changes whatever you’re looking at with your smartphone into a painting Picasso would have created. All you have to do is point your camera at the scene, and you’re all set.
Image Source: The App StoreImagine being able to look at scenes as mundane as your local street corner or a schoolbus—and then have them turn into Cubist masterpieces in a hurry.
Cubist Design in Interior DesignEven interiors aren’t safe from this design trend’s reach. Various structures around the world have their interiors decorated according to this trend’s sensibilities. Here are just a couple of them.
Grand Café OrientLocated in Prague, the Grand Café Orient lays claims to interiors that are a noteworthy contributor to Czech-style Cubism. Not only does this spot serve up tasty treats, but it also houses a museum on Cubism in the same location! Its signature dish is the “venecek” custard-filled pastry, which is served up in square form.
Image Source: Grand Cafe OrientIts interiors boast herringbone flooring (complete with triangular and chevron-style influences); booths with sharp edges and corners; chandeliers with that undeniable multi-perspective, reassembled look; and ceilings with geometric shapes.
Tokyo Cubist HouseDesigner Kazuyazu Kochi’s transformation of a house into a Cubist design masterpiece in Tokyo’s Chiba suburb is indeed a sight to behold. The house’s interiors look like they could easily have been painted by Picasso or Braque in their 2D masterpieces.
Image Source: Architectural DigestWith its bright colors and vibrant aesthetics, the interior design of this home screams Cubism. It features sharp angles; unexpected cutouts in walls that create the style’s telltale overlapping effect; geometric forms galore; and a sense of different perspectives being pieced together as one interior unit. All told, it’s worth a visit just to feel what it would be like to actually walk inside of a Picasso painting.
Seeing the World From Different PerspectivesWhat made Cubist design so powerful and jarring when it was first shown to the public was its design philosophy. Its proponents wanted viewers to look at the world from the standpoint of multiple perspectives instead of just the conventional, singular viewpoint. From there, the technique of deconstructing objects and then reassembling them from numerous perspectives was born. Thanks to the genius of Picasso, Cezanne, and Braque, to name just a few of this trend’s heavyweights, we can now appreciate the aesthetic splendor of geometric forms combined with reassembled objects.
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About the Author
Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.View More Posts