September 16, 2007

Paul Rand, Punk. Punk, Paul Rand


The kid's sick, the laptop battery was dead, so when I curled up with her [the kid, that is, not the laptop] for a little Sesame Street Therapy this morning, I grabbed a copy of the Dutch/LES design journal/zine Dot Dot Dot, vol. 12, which had been sitting on the shelf for months. And I got myself a little modernist design historical enlightenment.

LA-based designer Mark Owens opened his awesome essay with a 1984 quote from Paul Rand about how "timeless principles" in effect since Polyclitus were the only hope to "achieve a semblance of quality in one's work," especially if you were one of those designers "who have grown up in a world of punk and graffiti."

Rand meant it as a defensive dig, of course. But Owens flips it around with a deft discussion of the LA hardcore scene's early deployment of Bauhaus-inflected modernism, which just so happened to be the source of Rand's "timeless principles".


Owens looks at the blue circle-on-black from The Germs' legendary (GI) album, Raymond Pettibon's de Stijl-inspired four-bars logo for his brother's band, Black Flag [which was originally intended as an abstraction of a waving flag, who knew?]

Once placed alongside Pettibon's unmistakable drawings for the band's flyers and record covers the bars quickly shed any referential quality. As a signifier for the band, however, the bars were instantly recognizable and, most importantly, easy to reproduce using techniques like homemade stencils, silkscreens and the like. The graphic equivalent of a powerchord, it is this blunt, immediate quality that made possible the rapid dissemination of the Black Flag bars as a kind of shibboleth for hardcore punk. In the suburban American high schools of the early 1980's a hand-scrawled t-shirt bearing the Black Flag bars could serve as a passport to an entire underground subculture.
And, I would add from personal experience, it could also get your ass kicked by a mound of thick-necked football players, but I'm not bitter.

So obviously, the impulse to link to some Black Flag Onesies hit me, but it receded just as fast. The next punk Onesies in this house are gonna be hand-scrawled. [Just in case, I'll bookmark Little Ruler.]


Read Mark Owens' "Graphics Incognito" in PDF [ (link removed at author's request, 2015)]
by tracking down Dot Dot Dot 12 []
Previously: Paul Rand's children's books; Mini Maniac's OG OC punk flyer Onesies [gone awol?]

1 Comment

I see I'm not the only one whose making punk rock onesies and I too remember when the Black Flag symbol could provoke a fight with a hippie. Now it's cute.

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