Almost 50 years ago I started my life-long love affair with the 1920s — its art, its architecture, its fashion, furniture, cocktails and, above all, its feeling that the world had been born again and that the young now ruled, not the old. A bit like the 1960s if you think about it.
I became fascinated by the Russian-born Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979), who lived and reigned in Paris in the Deco decade — and if you thought the concept of design and art marching hand in hand is something we invented recently, Sonia Delaunay was doing it nearly a century ago. She seemed to be able to turn her distinctive abstract hand to anything, from a tapestry coat for Gloria Swanson (see below), the decoration of a car (see main image at top), a long streamer scarf printed in one of her signature abstract compositions, to entire buildings.
In 1967 she had a large retrospective in Paris and so I went to see her to find out more. In those days, artists were more readily available to the inquisitive journalist and she was no exception. A motherly woman, cosily clad in a pale blue woolly Chanel suit, I found her sitting in a light-filled studio at her neat drawing board with about 200 coloured pencils standing to attention, waiting for her hand. She was charming and very funny about her projects in the 1920s, but also looking for new fields to conquer.
The intervening years saw her star fade a little but the current exhibition at the Musee de l’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Les Couleurs de l’Abstraction, amazingly the first retrospective since 1967, puts her firmly back in the starry firmament of art and applied art.
The 1920s and ’30s saw Sonia build her considerable reputation on bringing a pared-down abstraction in the international style to very big projects that harmonised with the architecture of the time, as in the big mural decorations for the Air Transport Pavilion at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology (see below), on show in this exhibition for the first time since 1937.
Her role as a ‘go-between’ for the pioneers of Abstraction and the post-war generation is pointed up through her contributions to the Salons des Réalités Nouvelles, and her involvement in various architectural projects.
If you cannot make it to this important exhibition in Paris (it is on until 22 February), it will open in London at Tate Modern on 15 April.
The new from the past
If you are getting rather bored with those goody-two-shoes sans serif Swiss workhorse typefaces like Helvetica, something that looks very new has just emerged. I think it could set a trend.
Decorated typefaces have long been a battleground for technology. In the 19th century, steel plate engraving allowed letters to become elaborate, flowery confections, giving rise to a style that lives on in the shaded and curlicued letters of banknotes and diplomas. Now Hoefler&Co., the innovative type designers, have gone back to the past, using contemporary technology.
They began the Obsidian project with two questions: can a decorated typeface pay homage to this tradition while being relevant to designers today, and what tools could they create to help us get there? Well, they succeeded on both counts, and the new typeface spans both roman and italic styles. Below, a small taste — I love it!