The 1920s were a decade when the past and the future collided. Obviously a golden era of economic growth very much like the 1990s, with the strong economy supporting innovation in significant areas.
The explosive growth of the radio, the first commercial radio station was Pittsburgh’s KDKA in 1920, and the automobile, Henry Ford had sold 15 million Model-Ts by 1927, was having the same kind of influence on communication, mobility, and lifestyle that the computer and the internet would have 70 years later.
As the decade began the country was recovering from WWI, women had won the right to vote while the right to consume alcohol was taken away. The Gibson girl made way for the flapper. Jazz and baseball were hugely popular. Inventions included antibiotics, frozen food, the hearing aid, liquid fuel rockets, and the vending machine was beginning to dispense soft drinks.
In design, if the second decade of the 20th century was noted for significant changes in typography, the 1920s were a time of significant changes in the use of illustration. The influences of popular illustrators as diverse as Maxfield Parrish, Beatrix Potter, James Montgomery Flagg, and one of my favorites C. Coles Phillips (shown at left in an illustration called In a Position to Know), were beginning to alter the look of advertising and package design.
This decade was also a time when new package design themes were originated. In many cases these themes still have a profound influence on the conventions of contemporary design. This also seemed to be a time when interesting design precedents were being established. Some categories would become design leaders and others would become design followers.
I have selected three product categories that each demonstrate a significant trend taking place during the decade. In the first two cases, perfume bottle design and fruit crate label art, there appeared to be a clear intention to break new ground and create a very new, more contemporary look. These companies certainly wanted to signal a change from the past. In a third category, cigar labels, there was a clear intention to use historical references, and graphic conventions from previous decades, to bolster the traditions of the manufacturers.
Lets start with perfume bottle design. The group shown here, many of which remain essentially unchanged today, were certainly breaking new ground. The fragrance industry, until this decade, had been heavily influenced by designs that relied on historical references, were complex, organically modeled feminine forms, and still heavily influenced by the complex motifs of the late 19th century gilded age. The most modern influences until the 1920s were art nouveau inspired bottle and label shapes. These new brands offered a radical mix of simplified bottle shapes, and label typography. The notion of using simple black sans-serif typography on an unadorned white or gold label would not have occurred to a perfumer previously.
Fruit crate art was also a new medium that was benefitting from the convergence of the growth of large west coast farm cooperatives, the shipping opportunities made possible by railroad and truck, and finally the new growth of the chain food stores where national brands were beginning to take hold.
But the most significant influence was the use of new printing techniques that could inexpensively reproduce bold, full color illustration. There was an explosion of graphic icons, bold color, and dramatically simplified layouts and typography. These layouts often depended solely on the strength of the illustration for their communication.
The third area is cigar label art. While this category benefitted from the same opportunities afforded by the new printing techniques, the marketers were far more conservative with their brand equity, preferring to continue with design themes from the previous two decades. Typography was still heavily influenced by the 19th century hand-drawn letterforms, with the use of art nouveau inspired textures and patterns.
But the use of bright colorful illustration was truly a break from the past. Previously cigar labels, and many other types of label graphics, had used a limited palette of 2-3 line colors and the illustrations were often rendered, like old-master etchings, in a black line drawing style. While the graphic style might be intentionally traditional, these new cigar labels do explode with full color, tonal drawings.
By now you may be asking how can I review design trends of the 1920s without discussing Art Deco or the Bauhaus. The simple answer is that while these trends were beginning to influence other areas of design, like architecture and interiors, they had very limited impact on consumer product graphics. That influence will come on strong in the next decade.