Since Vietnam, baby boomers have led a design revolution. Turning into rich retirees won’t stop them now.
By Peter Plagens Newsweek International
March 20, 2006 issue – From their arrival after World War II to their imminent retirements, baby boomers have been the most prosperous and protected generation in history. But since coming of age in an era of turmoil and rebellion—from rock and roll to drugs to the Vietnam War—they have always had a hard time wearing their fortune without guilt. They’ve struggled to balance economic pride with humility, self-fulfillment with social responsibility. Perhaps nowhere is this reflected more than in their taste in graphic design, which over the decades has ranged from lyrical incoherence to antiseptic order.
Today their whims are defining the art market. Boomers are now the ones old enough to have accumulated the money—yet young enough to maintain the energy—to collect modern and contemporary art. The fortuitous combination of boomer collecting power and a new desire on the part of young artists to engage a wider audience has driven the market for contemporary art to unprecedented levels. From New York’s Chelsea district to London’s Mayfair, galleries are seeing boomers—eager both to pep up their stylish homes and, perhaps, amass collections that museums will someday welcome with a plaque—haul out their checkbooks to take the plunge.
This is only the latest twist in their ongoing influence over design. Boomers first exercised their own taste with record-album covers. Back in the ’60s, albums came in foot-square cardboard sleeves, which presented a new generation of graphic designers with veritable Sistine Chapel ceilings. Any number of them—”Sgt. Pepper,” “Disraeli Gears,” even the “Hair” soundtrack—spoke to the age of Aquarius, but for capturing the cartoony chaos of the times, the champ is probably “Cheap Thrills” by Janis Joplin.
The cover’s designer was Robert (a.k.a. R.) Crumb (born 1943), a nerdy Cleveland greeting-card artist who’d just moved to San Francisco. Crumb’s much greater contribution to design ultimately lay in the new field of “underground comix,” which paved the way for the irreverence industry that followed: Garry Trudeau (born 1948) couldn’t have created “Doonesbury” without it.
In San Francisco, some of Crumb’s peers were creating another major monument to boomer design: the rock-concert poster. Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium was the main venue, where Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers and Santana were among the electrifying electrified acts. The posters—by the likes of Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso (a.k.a. Neon Rose), who had studied color theory at Yale—flouted graphic design’s cardinal rule: clarity. Hookah-smoke lettering, gleefully morphed photography and eye-boggling combinations of hues furnished pictorial previews of the “altered consciousness” experienced at the shows. Graham used to tell of whizzing around the city on a motorcycle, putting up posters on telephone poles, only to have rabid collectors follow behind and take them down.
Meanwhile, back in New York, the Art Workers Coalition took a different tack with posters, because the war in Vietnam—the bellwether event in the lives of boomers—was more deadly serious than music. Its most famous affichement showed up in outrage over the massacre of villagers in My Lai by a company of U.S. soldiers in 1968. The AWC used a gruesome photograph of the slaughter—corpses of civilian men, women and children lying on a dirt road—and captioned it in a large, ragged typewriter font, with a snippet of testimony from the inquiry. q: and babies? a: and babies. It was one of the period’s greatest examples of powerfully un-designy graphic design.
In the ’70s, however, boomers began to —leave behind their passion to protest. Sixties sybarites cooled into the more tepid narcissists of the “Me Decade,” starting families and moving to the suburbs they’d fled. These boomers were car people; so why, the U.S. Department of Transportation wondered, shouldn’t the signage along the interstate highway system be as reassuringly uniform as their homes? In 1974, the DOT commissioned the design firm of Cook and Shanosky to come up with instantly decipherable pictograms for a phone, toilet, restaurant, etc. While these compact little symbols—the same ones we still use to locate the airport loo—were a spike in the heart to the vogue for psychedelic illegibility, they manifested a deeper truth about the boomers: theirs was an era of images, rather than words.
But when the ’80s came along, and boomers assumed a few catbird seats in the Reagan era of arbitrageurs and leveraged buyer-outers (earning them Tom Wolfe’s sobriquet “the splurge generation”), they found they could indulge themselves graphically as well as… otherwise. In terms of typography and page layout, that meant anything from the galactic overlays and darting diagonals of April Greiman (born 1948), to the blasted “grunge” fonts of ex-surfer David Carson (born 1956). But for sheer exuberance and total immersion in boomer taste, nothing designwise came close to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The organizers turned to architect Jon Jerde, who came up with a festival of portable, lightweight faux-architectural gewgaws, fluttering banners and fruit-salad colors. Thanks in part to the fresh look he gave them, the Games turned a nice, boomeresque $200 million profit.
Once individual boomers got rich, they became the first generation to practice the widespread collecting of contemporary art. They’d taken art-history courses in college and were now going to museum exhibitions in record numbers, so starting in the late ’70s, they wanted to put their money where their taste was. Down came mom and dad’s flower repros and up went hip, accessible and comfortably ironic pop-art prints by Roy Lichtenstein and Ed Ruscha.
Edgier collectors favored the work of Barbara Kruger (born 1945), who’d been the precocious head designer at Mademoiselle magazine at the ripe old age of 21. Kruger reprised banal images from the Eisenhower years, threw such admonitional captions as we don’t need another hero, and presented her large, crisp montages in striking combinations of black, white and red. Kruger’s art contained the radioactive residue of all the upheavals of boomer youth in the ’60s. Which was, of course, what has prevented that star-struck generation’s appetite for abundance from slipping entirely into complacency.
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.