Designing The Family of Man

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The Family of Man, published 1955, design by Leo Lionni

The Family of Man was a great barnstorming exhibition in the mid 1950s and may be the most visited photography show in history. After opening in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, it travelled the world succesfully for several years and is now set up permanently in Luxemburg, birthplace of its curator Edward Steichen.

The book of the exhibition might be the most successful photography book in history. It is a complete record of all the images in the exhibition, which includes works by Cartier-Bresson, Arbus, Winogrand and many others.

The Family of Man is often derided as sentimental humanism, promoting a bland message of feel-good togetherness during the Cold War and following the Second World War. Since the exhibition was curated in America and sponsored internationally by the US Information Agency, a government body promoting US cultural interests overseas, it also attracts hostility from those suspicious of American diplomacy.

What is often ignored is the brash modernity of its design. Both the exhibition and the book were examples of progressive modernist design with their dynamic installations and layouts, and bold visual effects.

The book’s designer was Leo Lionni, a leading exponent of the new design culture. He was an emigre from Holland via Italy who brought with him a strong understanding of Bauhaus, de Stijl and other European variants of modernism. This he applied to his commercial assignments which included being art director of Fortune magazine, one of the top design jobs in the US.

To demonstrate the excellence of Fortune’s graphic tradition, Lionni produced a book to illustrate the freedom and vitality of modernist graphics. Designs for the Printed Page was intended as a spur to advertisers and editors to embrace contemporary ideas of graphic design.

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Leo Lionni, Designs for the Printed Page, late 1950s

Lionni had already demonstrated that freedom in his layouts for Family of Man. Using asymmetric layouts, contrasts of scale, patterned layouts, overlaps and occasional full-bled pages, the book had a dynamic feel that aligned with the exhibition’s positive message.

Individual photographs were subservient to the page layouts which levelled all the photographs and their individual messages to the book’s overall message. This was a cause of irritation amongst some photographers and a handful withdrew from the project. Those that stayed saw their photographs reduced both in size and individuality, but also had them, and their own names, printed worldwide four million times, because that was how many books were sold.

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