Like many, many oth­ers, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the entire deco/​streamline/​moderne chic — also like many oth­ers, in its non­rep­re­sen­ta­tional form. That is, even when the style was utterly pre­dom­i­nant, it didn’t quite fill every cor­ner and cranny of every room, build­ing or street.

Our ideas of “retro” archi­tec­ture and décor are skewed; the world of 1935 sim­ply did not look like the Emerald City, any more than the Old West was made up entirely of clap­board build­ings, dry-​​rotted fences, tum­ble­weeds*, and saloons with swingy lit­tle doors. But that’s what we expect to see, so it’s what we envi­sion when we think of “Old West”. So too with our ideas about the Deco movement.

However, one thing I really liked about the era was its visu­als. Some truly good exam­ples of typog­ra­phy and graphic design exist, as well as some gen­uinely atro­cious ones (my loathing for Peignot is well-​​documented). In gen­eral I can’t say I’ve come across a really bad visual from the oeu­vre — until today via Retro Press.

Everything is there, exactly as it should be. This ad is an almost arche­typal exam­ple of Moderne, with its sim­pli­fied shapes, inter­play of light and dark, and its lovely charcoal-​​on-​​rag tex­ture. The forms of the char­ac­ters are well-​​executed if a bit con­de­scend­ing, and even though there are no exter­nal char­ac­ter­is­tics to jus­tify it, I think we can clearly dis­cern who is the man and who is the woman and OH MY GOD THERE’S A WALRUS LYING DECAPITATED ON THE GROUND.

Of course the ad can also be seen as insult­ing to the Inuit, which might be one rea­son Sunbrite is no longer in busi­ness. (This com­pany is not related to it.)

But I really think eth­nic insen­si­tiv­ity is the least sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem here.

I’ve seen some gen­uinely, shock­ingly bad ads before, but this one is entirely in a class all its own.

What’s tragic about it is that I know some­one put in a hell of a lot of time and work, crafts­man­ship and maybe even some love, to pro­duce this image. It’s tech­ni­cally very com­pe­tent; the com­po­si­tion is tight, the graph­i­cal style is almost rich enough to be tac­tile, and quite a lot of sub­tlety has been con­veyed in a greyscale image. It’s not busy or clut­tered. Looked at from that angle, I can almost … no, the knife is still bloody, and that wal­rus isn’t any less beheaded.

What really caps it, what pushes this ad com­pletely over the edge, is the level of detail. Did they really need to depict the spinal col­umn, mus­cu­la­ture and trachea?

I won­der how the illus­tra­tor felt. Did she or he know the wheels were com­ing off? I’d like to hope so. I’d like to think that, some­where along the line, the artist got that ghastly sink­ing feel­ing and was relieved to know that he or she would not be cred­ited for this atrocity.


* Which actu­ally are not native to the American south­west; they’re an inva­sive species from China that came over in the mid– to late-​​1800s.


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