Art and artists and what are they doing and why? I could do that. My 3 year
old could do that. Why would anyone do that? Oh, that’s beautiful, that moves
me. I love that painting.
But we’re a design house, not a gallery, what does all this have to do with
that? Well, I love art and like to note where it influences the world around
us. What are artists doing? In one regard, think of Art as philosophy, where
every angle is to be investigated before deciding what’s worth more
investigation. To that end, artists are able to go all over the place whereas a
graphic designer is restrained by project briefs, deadlines and budgets.
They don’t have the time to go all over the place, hence it makes sense to let
the artists do their thing and then investigate their results for inspiration
regarding our visual language.
If you’ve seen The Devil Wear’s Prada, no, I haven’t read it, you may be
familiar with the following quote from Miranda Priestly, (Meryl Streep’s
take on Anna Wintour as written about by Lauren Weisberger.)
Miranda Priestly: ‘This… stuff’? Oh. OK. I see. You think this has nothing to
do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy
blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take
yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you
don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not
lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that
in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I
think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military
jackets? (I think we need a jacket here.) And then cerulean quickly showed up
in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down
through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic
Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.
However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s
sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you
from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was
selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.
Now that’s a snarky take on the path of influence but it happens and it’s out
there as attested to by M.C. Escher and Giotto.
A picture is worth a thousand words but if the subject is infinite, how many
words do you need to describe it?
Here you see the original Droste Cacao tin from 1904 as designed by Jan
Misset. You can see the infinite branding? This recursive imagery is called
the Droste Effect.
Perhaps it’s easier to see here, on the Land O Lakes butter. The original was
painted in 1928 by Arthur C. Hanson. There have been updates since the
original, but the recursive aspect has remained intact, well, until the last re-design where they lost the repetition.
The effect is somewhat implied with the Morton Salt girl, where she adorns
the package but she’s holding the package so she must be on the package
she’s holding and so on.
Here, Pink Floyd takes some liberties with the Droste Effect through
photographic manipulation. The image is repeated for the most part, but
with band members changing positions for each successive stage.
But the Droste Effect was in effect before Droste Cacao even entered the
marketplace. Here is a 1320 triptych by Giotto. It is one of the earliest
known precursors of the Droste Effect or recursive imagery. If you look
closely, you’ll see Cardinal Giacomo Gaetani Stefaneschi (center panel,
lower left, kneeling in white) offering the triptych itself, the one he’s
painted in, to St. Peter. So there was a Droste effect before there was Droste.
MC Escher knew of the Droste Effect and given his propensity for
architecture and landscapes, it’s no wonder he would investigate this
phenomenon. Try as he may, he was left challenged with the above image,
“Print Gallery,” from 1956. You’ll notice that the center has been left blank
as Escher, apparently, just couldn’t figure this one out. It could also be that
to respectfully etch the remainder of the image it would become too
intricate or small to translate when printed. Later on, in 2003, a team of
mathematicians at University of Leiden solved the puzzle. You can see how
they account for the missing repeat here:
You may not know Escher by name but you’ve seen his work or influences
of his work. The movie, Inception, has a scene where Joshua Gordon-Levitt
and Ellen Page are walking up a staircase. They turn a corner and pass a
woman who has just dropped some papers. As they proceed up the
staircase and round another corner, the lady is there, still picking up her
papers. They are ever-ascending stairs but never going anywhere. This is a
cinematic interpretation of “Ascending and Descending,” an Escher piece
For the record, these are called Penrose Steps, as discovered by Lionel and
Roger Penrose. They were inspired by Escher’s work and almost
simultaneously discovered by both Escher and the Penrose’s. That sounds
like an Escher word salad so check here for more on this aspect:
That aside, it was Escher’s work that brought this illusion into the public
vernacular. This and other influences of Escher can be seen in movies such
as Labyrinth, A Nightmare on Elm Street 5 and, as mentioned, Inception.
Now I feel like I’ve taken the Penrose Steps, or at least the long way around
the barn to wrap this all up. Art influences culture, certainly, but here we’ve
seen how art can influence commerce as well. To be fair, rather than
coming full circle, this comes full spiral when commerce influences art.
Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and others may get credit for starting
the Pop Art movement of the 1950’s & ‘60’s, but Andy Warhol has certainly
been crowned king since he created the Brillo Boxes, Coca-Cola bottles and
of course, his Campbell Soup cans.
I can only suppose that the cycle will be complete when the paintings of commerce as art become the artistic labels for commerce but now, we’re entering the realm of the mobius strip…