Finding the Hidden Grid: From Design to Art and Back

The grid in design and in art can be appreciated in two completely different ways, from the early typographic explorations by Jan Tschichold through the simple and geometric works of painter Theo van Doesburg to the dynamic and clean lines of Josef Müller-Brockmann’s posters. The grid, visible or invisible, strictly followed or extravagantly broken, has defined much of modern and minimalist art and design. It is one of the underlying connections between art and design that has come from the earliest scribes. How did we get here and what is the future of the grid in the 21st Century, and what purpose does it serve to both designers and artists in our digital age?

Artists and designers at the beginning of the turn of the 20th century were creating new systems of communication; one of the most successful was the standardization of gridded systems. Typographically, the grid provided repeatable and hierarchical design options for creating standardized branding system for books or posters. For example, the Penguin redesign by Jan Tschichold starting in 1947. For others, such as Piet Mondrian, Kazimir Malevich and Alexander Rodchenko it provided a way to distinguish the present from the past and at the same time create a new system of painting that was not connected to the past.

By “discovering” the grid, cubism, de Stijl, Mondrian, Malevich etc… landed in a place that was out of reach of everything that came before. Which is to say, they landed in the present, and everything else was declared to be the past.

One has to travel a long way back into the history of art to find previous examples of grids. One has to go to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, to treatises on perspective and to those exquisite studies by Uccello or Leonardo or Dürer, where the perspective lattice is inscribed on the depicted world as the armature of its organization. But perspective studies are not really early instances of grids. Perspective was, after all, the science of the real, not the mode of withdrawal from it.[i]

Figure 1 — Theo Van Doesburg — Three moments in the formation of a Composition.

The idea that the grid is far removed from nature, while appealing, is not entirely true to all artists that worked with it. This is apparent in Theo van Doesburg’s deconstruction of his Composition XIII (fig. 1), which was originally intended as a still life painting[ii]. Van Doesburg is actually quite a contradicting figure, moving from defining what is old and new, in the De Stijl magazine manifesto he and other neoplasticists outlined that “The founders of the new plastic art therefore call upon all, who believe in the reformation of art and culture, to annihilate these obstacles of development, as they have annihilated in the new plastic art (by abolishing natural form) that, which prevents the clear expression of art.”[iii]

Jan Tschichold found inspiration in the works of early medieval and inacubula scribes, these canons were reconstructed by Van de Graaf and created the Van de Graaf Canon. The objective of these canons was to deconstruct the layout of the books removed from their actual meaning and focusing purely on creating “canons” that could make the books easily reproduced, printed and read. This is quite different from the grid as seen in Müller-Brockmann is still based on his understanding that it is not only the use of the grid but also the reduction of elements.

“The reduction of the number of visual elements used and their incorporation in a grid system creates a sense of compact planning, intelligibility and clarity, and suggests orderliness of design. This orderliness lends added credibility to the information and induces confidence.”[iv]

This reduction of elements and presenting information in the most intelligible way creates a confidence in the viewer. The clarity creates a sense of trust that can be used for multiple purposes. There is in fact a contradiction in how Tschichold and Müller-Brockmann use the grid, they, while using it to organize text find a very different method for activating our eyesight and moving us around the page. In Müller-Brockmann you can see the influence that the de Stijl and constructivists movements had on modern design and art. There is no longer an idea of moving the eye by using canonical golden sections, but by energy and activity, using color and shapes to expose some of the underlying, rotated grid. It is also interesting to note the types of clients that Müller-Brockmann worked with; operas, ballets, clubs, etc. These institutions would like to be seen as trustworthy and of upmost quality and clarity. Müller-Brockman’s design is a break from the traditionally illustrative advertisements of the late 1890s and early 1900s that emphasized feeling over clarity. A feeling such as freedom, in the case of art nouveau, speed and dynamism in the case of futurism and power and industry in the case of art deco. Relevant to the design aesthetics of De Stijl are the minimalist shapes and colors used by the Russian Constructivists and Suprematists.

Figure 3 Theo van Doesburg, Arithmetic Composition 1930

“For us SUPREMATISM did not signify the recognition of an absolute form which was part of an already completed universal system. On the contrary here stood revealed for the first time in all its purity the clear sign and plan for a definite new world never before experienced — a world which issues forth from our inner being and which is only now in the first stage of its formation. For this reason the square of suprematism became known as a beacon.[v]

Despite the purity and clarity of the design principles that El Lissitzky and his Suprematist colleagues were inspired by, the ultimate purpose of their work was not to communicate visually a brand or an event that must be purchased, but simply a symbol that would generate a feeling in the viewer. This is a key difference between minimalist pursuits in advertisement and in art. The reason I would like to make this direct comparison is that Müller-Brockmann himself makes this comparison of application (fig. 5), bringing to light the mathematical quality of the underlying grid as in his own work (fig. 6).

Figure 4 Kazimir Malevich Black Square 1915

“In the 20th century representatives of the concrete and constructivist school of painting and sculpture have created works which are wholly committed to mathematical thinking. Piet Mondrian created works which were purely embodiments of mathematical relationships. Since then mathematically oriented art has grown in importance and extent. [vi]

It is clear that Müller-Brockmann was looking not only at other grid-based designers such as Tschichold but also at art movements in which he found these mathematical ideals. It is not a stretch to imagine that if he was looking with such intensity at the work of Mondrian that he would also find appealing the work of contemporary neoplasticissist painters such as Van Doesburg.

Figure 5, Deconstruction of grid in Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-woogie by Josef Müller-Brockmann (Grid systems)

The most distinctive connection between the International Typographic Style and the art movement of De Stijl and Constructivism is not so much the simple use of lines, but how the lines are oriented. “The most notable … feature of the Counter-Compositions … was their diagonal lines”[vii]. By simply rotating the canvas, Van Doesburg created a “new” stage to his art practice. This rotation skewed the ideas behind De Stijl, which had originally called for straight lines (horizontal and vertical) and primary colors only. Interestingly this shift from horizontal and vertical to diagonal, leads van Doesburg’s work (fig. 3) to be less neoplastissistic and more in line with what Kazimir Malevich and the suprematists were doing in 1916–1917, a full 13 to 14 years earlier. The “discovery” of the grid and then the “discovery” of the diagonal had actually already happened in the work of the Russian suprematists. This ever-growing link between artistic movements happening concurrently is propagated even within Europe’s borders, partially due to the connection of many of these artists cross-pollinating culturally in the Bauhaus school and surroundings. Van Doesburg moved to Berlin in 1921 to try to get a teaching position at the Bauhaus school. A position that he was not offered. Instead he set up a studio nearby and began offering courses in De Stijl principles, despite the fact that the majority of the original Dutch artists of the De Stijl had disassociated themselves from him.[viii] Lissitzky also arrived in Berlin in 1921, where “[He] repositioned his Russian work within the emerging scientific and technological values of Weimar Germany”[ix] It is important to note this move from Russia to Germany in the case of Lissitzky as he set up his studio there and presented his Proun work. It is in fact Lissitzky and Tschichold (among others) that are directly referenced by Josef Müller-Brockmann in the foreword of his aptly titled “Grid Systems” book.

Figure 6 Poster and grid deconstruction by Josef Muller-Brockmann

“Modern typography is based primarily on the theories and principles of design evolved in the 20s and 30 of our century [20th]. Walter Dexel, El Lissitzky, Kurt Schwitters, Jan Tschichold, Paul Renner, Moholy-Nagy, Joost Schmidt etc. breathed new life into unduly rigid typography.[x]

Yes, this may be your “ah-ha” moment dear reader, for it is clear that what we have espoused in the last few pages of unduly recalcitrant and nail pulling text is at the very least based on nicely formatted and perfectly kerned type written by Müller-Brockmann himself. It is also important to note that El Lissitzky as spokesman for the magazine Vesch created a nine-point manifesto in which he declared that “The new art is founded not on the subjective, but on an objective basis. This, like science, can be described with the precision and is by nature constructive.”[xi] As El Lisstzky became more known through his role at Vesch it is interesting to note the tone of his text and the ideas that he is allying himself with. That is, the objective of moving art from a purely subjective to an objective one. This is at a time when post-World War I Russia and Germany had signed the Treaty of Rapallo bringing the two nations closer together[xii]. It is unclear if El Lissitzky was in Germany with any ulterior motives to proselytize for the Russian cause by moving the artistic discourse to one of decidedly Constructivist ideals. The fact is, that by then, Dutch, Russian and Hungarian (among others) artists were concentrating in Germany and while it is clear that their aesthetic contributions are somewhat easy to pinpoint, the other major breakthrough is that a lot of their constructivist and neoplasticist rhetoric was now being published in German, Dutch and French[xiii]. This is an incredible and groundbreaking achievement that would allow for these ideas to easily be understood by other artists and designers working in countries speaking those languages. It is easy to take for granted that English is the lingua franca of all communications, the Internet among other innovations has made that the case for business and most communications in the last 30 years. However, before the internet and globalized business enabled the bushfire spread of English the world was a much more multi-language society. It was, after all, van Doesburg’s hope to create an international style “a collective, simple system of aesthetics based on a common denominator — the horizontal and vertical line, […] On such a basis, this elementary language can be qualified as universal […] comprehensible to all and applicable to all disciplines.”[xiv] This would run above any language or other form of communication, as it would apply to all of them, from the visual arts, to poetry and music. Van Doesburg was a talented multi-disciplinarian that had excellent mastery of many arts, and could jump from one to the other[xv]. He published poetry inspired by the Italian futurists and the Dadaist, he used De Stijl magazine and his multiple pseudonyms as his as his megaphone to project his ideas.

Figure 7, El Lissitzky, Proun

For many of us it is difficult to comprehend a world where access to information and total connectivity is a given, and even to a lesser degree, the perfect alignment of items on a page, the idea of a page as a collection of pixels rendered on a screen is nothing short than a miracle. But in reality, it is a steady progression of inspirations that can be tracked back from Steve Jobs to Gutenberg and further. There is a fantastic explanation of the original 1980s Macintosh team as described by Steve Jobs:

“Part of what made the Macintosh great was that the people working on it were musicians, poets, and artists, and zoologists, and historians. They also happened to be the best computer scientists in the world. But if it hadn’t been computer science, these people would have been doing amazing things in other fields. We all brought to this a sort of “liberal arts” air, an attitude that we wanted to pull the best that we saw into this field. You don’t get that if you are very narrow.”[xvi]

The same could be said of the artists and designers that we part of the De Stijl movement, while they were are qualified in their fields, there is laterality to their understanding of art, design, writing, music. This spirit that Steve Jobs understood that in his original Macintosh team is the way that the future designers and artists can use the grid. Not just the digital representation of an organizational system, but by asking why a certain arrangement works better than others.

You cannot understand the deep underlying workings of an iPad if you do not understand at least some of the basic principles of object oriented programming or basic differences of cloud or local, and the same is true that you cannot understand the basics of a grid system without knowing both the ideas behind the golden section and also the work of Tschichold and Müller-Brockmann or El Lisstizky. And yet on the same token, it is the creation of these branches on a trunk that create the dynamic world that we live in. And the intersection of art and technology as seen in the grid is summarized by Kandinsky’s explanation of linking the path to abstraction.

“The new branch does not render the tree trunk superfluous: the trunk determines the possibility of the branch… And this replication, further growth, and complexity, which often appear confusing and disheartening, are the necessary stages that lead ultimately to the creation of the green tree.”[i]

Works cited

[i] White, Michael “Theo van Doesburg: a Counter-life.” Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde. ed. / Gladys Fabre; Doris Wintgens Hotte; Michael White. (2009): 69

[i] Krauss, Rosalind “Grids”, October, Vol. 9 (1979): 52.

[ii] White, Michael “Theo van Doesburg: a Counter-life.” Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde. ed. / Gladys Fabre; Doris Wintgens Hotte; Michael White. (2009): 69.

[iii] Manifest 1 of De Style, De Stijl, Vol 2, No1. (1918): 4

[iv] Müller-Brockmann, Josef “Grid Systems in Graphic Design”: 13

[v] Lissistzky, El “Suprematism in World Reconstruction” Unovis 1 (1920)

[vi] Müller-Brockmann, Josef “Grid Systems in Graphic Design”: 168

[vii] White, Michael “Theo van Doesburg: a Counter-life.” Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde. ed. / Gladys Fabre; Doris Wintgens Hotte; Michael White. (2009): 74

[viii] Margolin, Victor “The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917–1946” (1997): 47–48

[ix] Margolin, Victor “The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917–1946” (1997): p 48

[x] Grid Systems in Graphic Design, Josef Müller-Brockmann, p 7

[xi] Margolin, Victor “The Struggle for Utopia: Rodchenko, Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, 1917–1946” (1997): p 59

[xii] Ibid, p 56

[xiii] Ibid, p 60

[xiv] Avant-Garde. Fabre, Gladys “A Universal Language for the Arts: Interdisciplinarity as a Practice, Film as a Model” Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde. ed. / Gladys Fabre; Doris Wintgens Hotte; Michael White. (2009): 46

[xv] Ibid. p 47

[xvi] Robert X. Cringley, “Triumph of the Nerds, Steve Jobs Interview” 1995