People you should know about: Earnest Elmo Calkins, the Father of Modern Advertising (the grandfather of graphic design?)


C.L. Barber’s The Commercial Messenger

One of my favorite podcasts is SVA’s MFA Designer As Author: Paul Rand Lecture Series. Each podcast, most of which are lectures by Steven Heller, covers a topic in the history of graphic design. This morning, I watched Earnest Elmo Calkins and the Birth of Commercial Modernism. In it Heller discusses Calkins and how he is responsible for commercial modernism in America, or more precisely the melding of art and advertising to create the early manifestations of the industry that now drives American culture.

Calkins, an ad man, sought to advance the profession of advertising with an almost idealist bent. He believed advertising had the potential to uplift culture. While the goal of advertising is to sell, a result is also an implicit agreement between manufacturer and consumer that what is advertised lives up to its promise. This leads to higher quality products. In a consumerist culture, I guess that could be considered ‘uplifting.’ Calkins also believed in the modernist idea of the amalgamation of art and industry. Apparently his first exposure to the world of art was at the Pratt Institute (*cough* I went there) School of Design Exhibition(source). In the MFA podcast, Heller attributes Calkins interests in art to his visit to The 1925 Exposition of Art and Industrial Products in Paris. It was there that Calkins discovered modern art (Art Deco), and subsequently brought it back to the states and began incorporating the style into advertising.

Modern art reflected the monumental change that was happening in the early 1900s as the world shifted out of the industrial age and into the machine age. The motifs of modern art were reactions as well as celebrations of new distinctly modern phenomena like airplanes, trains, and even motion itself. By advocating this idea of art in industry, Calkins brought this new and exciting art to the masses via advertising. It must be noted though, that Calkins aim wasn’t only to bring together style or art and commerce, but to use the art to alter the perception of goods, which in turn promoted sales. This was done through not only the implementation of the modern style but the style adapted to what we now refer to in the creative process as the concept. This is essentially the birth of the creative team. Calkins employed artists and assigned them briefs which they would then solve using their style. The style reflected the times but also invoked an emotion that could be used to stimulate consumption, thus, the birth of modern advertising.

You could say Earnest Elmo Calkins wrote the book on modern advertising. Actually, he did; it’s called Modern Advertising. Written with partner Ralph Holden, Modern Advertising details the mechanisms of advertising. It is essentially the blueprint for advertising as it has been for almost a century.

I’m still reading through the book as well as learning about Calkins, but I just wanted to bring attention to Earnest Elmo Calkins, as he is partly responsible for our very profession, graphic design.

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