Cassandre: Art Deco Poster Designer
One of the greatest exponents of Art Deco was the poster designer Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, who worked under the psuedonym Cassandre (1901-68). Cassandre was an influential commercial artist and typeface designer, and became one of the greatest poster designers of the 20th century. Cassandre was born in Kharkov, Ukraine. His parents were French and his family was forced to migrate to Paris due to the hostile political climate. This brought him to the centre of the European art world. He studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian, but at the age of 22 he started designing posters under the name Cassandre.
Posters had become an important advertising medium, providing many opportunities for commercial artists. Cassandre began working for a Parisian printing house and earned a reputation with works such as Au Bûcheron (woodcutter). This was designed for a cabinetmaker. It shows a heroic worker cutting a tree in half. The streaking lines resemble lines of force, charging the image with energy. They are also typical of the facetted Art Deco style. This poster won first prize at the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs.
Cassandre understood the specific demands of poster design. He wrote, ‘A poster, unlike a painting, is not, and is not meant to be, a work easily distinguished by its 'manner' - a unique specimen conceived to satisfy the demanding tastes of a single more or less enlightened art lover. It is meant to be a mass-produced object existing in thousands of copies - like a fountain-pen or automobile. Like them, it is designed to answer certain strictly material needs. It must have a commercial fashion.’
Cassandre became successful enough to set up his own advertising agency, Alliance Graphique (1926). He served a wide variety of clientele during the 1930s. His posters for the Dubonnet wine company (1932) were designed to be read from fast-moving vehicles. Cassandre introduced the idea of the serial poster: a group of posters to be seen in rapid succession to convey a complete idea. Here the image is gradually composited as one moves past. This indicates a fascination with the speed of the modern.
Cassandre's style is typically Art Deco and his posters have become iconic images of the style. His posters celebrate the new modes of luxury transport that characterised the prosperous lifestyles of the day. He used stencils and an airbrush to create his stylised images of speeding trains and ocean liners. He designed a series of dynamic posters for the Nord Express railway (1927). We can see the influence of Modernism here: the train has been simplified, reduced to a basic geometry of cylinders and circles, and Cassandre has used the pictorial convention of perspective to create abstract effects.
The train is shown in exaggerated perspective, giving a sharp diagonal thrust, which suggests forward motion. This is very similar to Futurism, an Italian version of Cubism – the sharp diagonals give a sense of speed and power. There is an echo of the machine aesthetic in the depiction of the overhead cables. Cassandre has put the names of the destinations in two intersecting lines like train tracks. This poster expresses a fascination with travel, speed and glamour. The same is true of another Nord Express poster, which reiterates the machine aesthetic. The body of the train is a gleaming metallic cylinder. The wheels are a blur of motion, emitting a red blaze of energy. Even the letters have been stylised to resemble mechanical components. These are executed in Cassandre's typeface, Bifur.
Cassandre designed several art deco typefaces, including Bifur (1929), Acier Noir (1935) and Piegnot (1937). He only used capitals in his designs because he believed they were more legible, especially when seen on a large scale. The way Cassandre links his typography with his images is one of the hallmarks of his design. Type is not a separate element but is integrated with the image to create the unified composition.
In this era, luxurious ocean liners were glamorous icons of international travel. This is Cassandre’s poster for the Normandie transatlantic liner. It’s a very pictorial representation, but it has been stylised to produce a piece of design. The horizon is a perfectly flat horizontal line, which is countered by the vertical thrust of the ship. Seagulls are added to convey a sense of gargantuan scale.
A poster for L’Atlantique is even more stylised. The cruise liner is represented by a giant rectangle. As you look at it more closely, you discover that the ship is almost entirely made up of the hulking geometric shape, with just a few extra elements to transform it into an ocean liner. Overall, the image evokes the roaring 20′s, the golden age of luxury cruise liners.
In 1963, he designed the Yves Saint-Laurent logo, which is still used today, making it arguably his most recognisable design. Cassandre greatly influenced advertising art in the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, in his later years he suffered from bouts of depression and committed suicide in Paris in 1968.
For more information on the Art Deco style, see: