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2001-09, 331, Art, Mark Ferson, Print Art

Art Deco Influences on Australian Book Design

The term Art Deco, a contraction of the title of the major 1925 Paris exhibition, the Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, was coined in the 1960s to refer to an amalgam of styles most evident between the Wars. In the simplest sense, this style was a geometric, machine-age reaction to the sinuous, organic forms which had characterised Art Nouveau at the turn of the (nineteenth) century. The influences on Art Deco were a variety of –isms coined in the early years of the twentieth century, Cubism, Modernism, Futurism, Constructivism, Vorticism. Other themes included ornamental motifs from recently discovered Egyptian and Aztec archeological sites,1 whilst the dominant colour, without doubt, was green. Where organic forms were required, slender bodies, whether the boyish female figures painted by Modigliani and popularised by Paris fashion designer Paul Poiret,2 or animals with streamlined forms, the gazelle, and Borzoi and Afghan dogs, were chosen. Although the style was initially used in France for hand-worked, luxury items, its aesthetic and motifs were gradually taken up in mass-produced articles and all classes of domestic and commercial architecture. Australia, it seems, became one of the important repositories of Art Deco architecture and goods,3 with the single exception, perhaps, of book design!

The ‘New Typography’ which had begun in Germany, especiallyas a product of the Bauhaus school, and spread to the remainder of Europe and from there to the United States, altered the attitude to commercial book design after the First World War.4 At the same time, the private or fine press movement, which coincided with burgeoning interest in printmaking using woodcuts, wood-engravings and the newly fashionable colour linocuts, led to the book as a different and vital product. As Bevis Hillier, who almost single-handedly created interest in Art Deco in the 1960s, put it: “Where Art Deco was … absolutely in place, is in those forms of art where there is now virtually no alternative to mass production by machinery: poster and book production, for example.”5

Whether issued by a private press or by a forward looking and conscientious commercial publisher, the new book, at least in Europe and the United States, was characterised by striking title page and clear, uncluttered text, married to modernistic illustrations. And this was packaged in a clearly labelled and perhaps decorated binding and eye-catching dust jacket designed by a fashionable or young up-and-coming commercial artist (e.g. H.G.Wells. The Time Machine. New York: Random House, 1931, with pictorial binding, type and decorations designed by W.A. Dwiggins; Lynd Ward. God’s Man. A Novel in Woodcuts. London and Toronto: Cape, 1930, a revolutionary book devoid of set type with the story told in a series of stark woodcuts; M. Ilin. Moscow has a Plan. A Society Primer. London: Cape, 1931, with a futuristic black, red and white cloth binding design suggestive of an electric power plant, and black and white illustrations in the Constructivist style by expatriate Australian artist William Kermode).

Although one of the hallmarks of European and American Art Deco was the striking use of new forms of lettering, Australian publishers were generally very conservative in their adoption of the New Typography. This was deplored by the eminent typographer Ben Fryer, who justifiably claimed in 1936: “Typography in Australia has been somewhat of a Cinderella although the advertising profession has in small measure endeavoured to fit in with the baroque slipper of publicity layout.”6

With rare exceptions, Australian books showed little evidence that the modern style had left its mark on most of the other commonplace objects of Australian life. Happily, it was a different story with the more ephemeral products of the printing press. Many a dully laid out book was wrapped in a striking dust jacket, using colour, shapes and display lettering with Art Deco verve. Adrian Feint, internationally renowned bookplate designer and a versatile artist associated with Sydney Ure Smith’s various interests, stood out (e.g. his jacket design for Frank Clune, Rolling Down the Lachlan. Sydney: A&R, 1935), accompanied by other illustrators including Dorothy Wall (e.g. Ernest Wells, Hemp. Sydney: A&R, 1933) and John Andrews (e.g. W. Arundel Orchard, The Distant View. Sydney: Currawong Publishing Co.,1943).

No such reticence was demonstrated in the design of booklets (e.g. A.G. White (comp.), Safety and Health (3rd ed.). Sydney: National Safety Council of Australia, NSW Section, 1936, with a striking green, orange, white and black card cover design). A more adventurous typographic and design approach was often evident in poetry (e.g. Bartlett Adamson, These Beautiful Women. Sydney: Sydneysider Company, [1930s] green cover design and black and white internal decoration by Roy Hodgkinson; Martin Haley, Poems and a Preface. Brisbane: Barkers Bookstores, 1936, wrapper with display titling in Art Deco fonts; Miriam Moxham, Poems. Sydney: Shakespeare Head Press, 1936, with a striking cover and the author’s illustrations within (Illustration 1); Harley Matthews, The Breaking of the Drought. Sydney: Viking Press, 1940, with Art Deco illustrations by Bessie Mitchell; Frederick T. Macartney, Hard Light and Other Verses. Surrey Hills, Vic.: Galleon Press [1933], illustrated with modern angular linocuts by the author, and using an uncompromising sans serif typeface (Illustration 2).

Illustration 1

Illustration 2

The principal Australian publishers gave a token nod to Art Deco through the commissioning of dust jackets in the modern style. In contrast, the Endeavour Press was established in Sydney in the early 1930s by P.R. Stephensen and Norman Lindsay to realise their “dream of an Australian publishing house which would set standards and encourage indigenous literary culture”.7 The standards they hoped to raise were both literary and typographic, and apart from first publishing a number of important Australian novels, the Endeavour Press issued some lesser, but nonetheless attractive, works including Karna Birmingham’s Skippety Songs (1934), rhymes for children with illustrations by the author, and E.J. Brady’s Warden of the Seas (1933), with striking multicolour pictorial boards.

The magazines of art or fashion, which had to project a contemporary image in order to sell, were showpieces of Art Deco style. The best examples were three Sydney Ure Smith magazines: The Home (1920-42) with front covers designed by Thea Proctor, HeraRoberts, Adrian Feint and Phil McLachlan; The Triad (1926-27) with covers by Bertha Sloane, Victoria Conway and others; and Art in Australia(1916-1942) with a number of covers illustrated by Margaret Preston, as well as vibrant advertisements for the Orient Line, the latest sleek limousines and other objects of desire. Although of lower overall quality than The Home, its Australian Consolidated Press rival, Fashion and Society, sported some fine Art Deco covers, whilst within its pages the typography was more modern than that of the magazines emanating from the essentially conservative Ure Smith stable.

A little magazine, Manuscripts (1931-34), was published from Geelong and later Melbourne by precocious bookseller Harry Tatlock Miller (Illustration 3). Subtitled “A miscellany of art and letters”, Manuscripts managed to attract contributions from artists of the rank of Margaret Preston, Dorrit Black and Christian Waller, and literary articles from a range of known writers and critics. It was replete with linocut illustrations and decorations, generally printed from the original block, and, of most interest to this writer, published a series of illustrated articles on Australian and Continental bookplate designers.

Illustration 3

A number of trade and other magazines were also influenced by the Art Deco movement. Of particular note, Decoration and Glass (1935-49) “A journal for architects, builders and decorators”, was published by Sydney’s Australian Glass Manufacturers Company. Its quality editorial matter is complemented by illustrated advertisements for contemporary architectural materials, such as Monel (an alloy suited to window and door frames), Coldlite (“heat absorbing glass both flat and bent”), Staybrite stainless steel for hospital fittings, and Gravé etched architectural glass.

The private press movement had a small group of Australian adherents in this period. Christian Waller deserves mention for her private press books as well as her bookplates. In 1932 at her Golden Arrow Press, she designed two books of linocuts in her unique style, which mixed Theosophy, a personal mysticism and Art Deco shapes and motifs: The Great Breath (1932) and The Gates of Dawn. A book made for the young (which remained unpublisheduntil 1977) (Illustration 4).

Illustration 4

An important book on the local Art Deco sculptor Rayner Hoff was printed by Ernest Shea at his Sunnybrook Press in 1934, with illustrations including a multicolour linocut frontispiece by the artist.

Feint’s name once again comes to the fore, with the products of his own Palmtree Press (concerning bookplates, e.g. Adrian Feint. Bookplates. Sydney: Palmtree Press, 1928), and designs for bookspublished by the Australian Ex Libris Society (e.g. Bookplate Artists. Number one. Adrian Feint. Sydney: AELS, 1934, printed byHarrie Mortlock’s Beacon Press), Australian Limited Editions Society (Watkin Tench, A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay,1938, with type designed and hand set by Perce Green) and Art in Australia Ltd. (e.g. Jean Curlewis. Christmas in Australia, 1928).

To someone interested in either bookplates or Japanese prints, or just beautiful books, there is no doubt that the outstanding fine press oeuvre of the 1930s was the series of books and brochures produced and published by Percy Neville Barnett on these two subjects (which he managed neatly to overlap, by including chapters on the one topic in books on the other!). His long hunt for a full set of Barnett’s works was well described over a series of Biblionews articles by James Dickson,8-10 whilst Diane Kraal recently summarised Barnett’s books on Japanese prints.11 Prime examples with a modern typographic feel are the larger format works such as Woodcut Book-plates (1934) and Japanese Colour Prints (1936). Barnett was recognised internationally for his expertise on both subjects, whilst the beauty of his books gained similar recognition, due to his flair for book design in perfect partnership with Harrie Mortlock’s press (Illustration 5).

Illustration 5

Between the Wars, the distinction between fine and commercial art was blurred, with many artists practising in both fields.12 Together with the impact of the New Typography and the fine press movement, in which in Fryer’s words “the fine printer is a sincere workman”,13 and despite the generally conservative nature of our publishers, the industry benefited from high quality graphic work of Australian artists joined to the typographic excellence of a handful of fine printers; as a result, beautiful Australian examples of Art Deco book and magazine design of the 1920s and 1930s are still able to hold our interest today.


 1 T. Hauffe. Design: A Concise History. London: Laurence King, 1998; pp.86-89.

2 W. Gaunt. The March of the Moderns. London: Cape, 1949; pp.256-261.

 3 D. Thomas. “Art Deco in Australia”, ART and Australia  March 1972, pp.338-351.

 4 R.A. Saunders. The Book of Artists’ Own Bookplates. Claremont, CA: Saunders Studio Press, 1933, p.78.

 5 B. Hillier. Art Deco of the 20s and 30s. London: Herbert Press, 1985 p.145.

 6 B.N. Fryer. “A note on Australian typography”, Art in Australia 16 (Nov. 1936), pp.63-75.

 7 Munro Craig. Wild Man of Letters. The story of P.R. Stephensen. Melbourne: MUP, 1984, p.121.

 8 J.R. Dickson. “P Neville Barnett, 1881-1953. An appreciation”. Biblionews and Australian Notes & Queries; 7(2)(June 1982), 32-34.

 9 J.R. Dickson. “My continuing search for Barnettiana.” Biblionews and Australian Notes & Queries 10(3)(Sept. 1985), 72-74.

10 J.R. Dickson. “P. Neville Barnett — a successful conclusion. Biblionews and Australian Notes & Queries 11(3)(Sept. 1986), 72-76.

 11 D. Kraal. “Barnettiana: Percy Neville Barnett and Japanese Colour Print Books.” Biblionews and Australian Notes & Queries 25(1) (March 2000), 19-29.

 12 C. Jessop. Introduction. In: The Thirties and Australia  (exhibition catalogue). Sydney: S.H. Ervin Museum and Art Gallery, 1980.

 13 B.N. Fryer. “Fine printing.” Meanjin Papers, (11) 1942, 18-20.


Ill. 1. Cover of Miriam Moxham’s Poems (1936).

Ill. 2. Cover of Frederick Macartney’s Hard Light and Other Verses (1933), with linocut design by the author.

Ill. 3. Half-title for issue number one of Manuscripts (Nov 1931), with original lino-cut decoration “Tragedy and comedy” by Marjorie Wood.

 Ill. 4. Front wrapper design of the 1978 Gryphon Books paperback edition of Christian Waller’s The Gates of Dawn.

 Ill. 5. Title page of P. Neville Barnett’s Woodcut Book-plates (1934), with wood-engraved decoration by L. Roy Davies.



One thought on “Art Deco Influences on Australian Book Design

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