Russian Constructivism and Graphic Design

Movie poster for Ninich, by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1927.

Constructivism was a groundbreaking movement in art, design, and architecture that began in Russia in 1913, but really rose to prominence after the Russian Revolution of 1917. This revolution was a time of great dissent and change, leading to the dismantling of the Tsarist regime in favor of the Bolsheviks.

Russian Constructivism was considered more of a philosophy than just a style, and reflected a belief in art for social change rather than personal expression. The Russian Constructivists were proponents of functional art and design rather than decorative, expressive art (such as easel painting) that was hung on walls. This echoed the revolutionary mood of the times where the bourgeois culture was being replaced by the revolutionary proletariat movement.

The tools and techniques of the more traditional, figurative painting and art styles were replaced with “constructed” photomontages and strong typography. Russian Constructivism characteristically had minimal color palettes, often just red, black and sometimes yellow. They frequently had diagonal elements with circular and angled type and images. The resulting work was extremely dramatic, containing layered images coupled with powerful type treatments. This work was exciting, often jolting, and even shocking, which was in line with their goal to change society. This movement was a dramatic shift from previous, more conventional movements and philosophies of art.

Although originally intended for political messages, the Constructivist style seeped into product advertisements and posters of all kinds, as well as book covers and their interiors. Three of the most influential designers of the Russian Constructivist period are Alexander Rodchenko, the Stenberg Brothers, and to some extent, El Lissitzky, a Futurist who influenced the Constructivist movement. Here is a little background and a sampling of their work. Most of the work speaks for itself, but I have provided explanations for those that call for it.

Alexander (Aleksandr) Rodchenko (1891–1956)

This Russian designer, photographer, painter and sculptor was considered one of the founders of Russian Constructivist movement. In fact, the term “constructivist” was originally coined by the artist Kasmir Malevich in reference to the work of Rodchenko. Although his original focus was painting, he then went on to play around with photography, typography, and imagery, combining them into what was then referred to as montage or photomontage. He eschewed easel painting for ‘industrial art’ as he called it – that is, art with a social purpose and message for the masses. Although much of his earlier work was for political purposes and to change the world, he went on to apply this artistic movement to ads for ordinary objects such as beer, pacifiers, cookies, watches, and other consumer products.

In March 1923, Rodchenko published an article in which he said, “there is now a new illustrative method: montage of printed and photographic materials focused on a certain subject. Providing ample material of great demonstrative value and conviction, it dispenses with illustration by drawing.”

Books (Please)! In All Branches of Knowledge, Alexander Rodchenko, 1924.

Poster for the Russian state airline Dobrolet, Alexander Rodchenko, 1923.

Another poster for the Russian state airline Dobrolet, Alexander Rodchenko, 1923.

Trekhgornoe Beer Will Drive Out Homebrew!, advertising poster for Mosselprom, Alexander Rodchenko, 1925.

Playbill for Inga, staged by the Theatre for the Revolution, Alexander Rodchenko, 1929.

 El Lissitzky (Lazar Markovich Lissitzky) 1890–1941

This Russian-born painter, designer, and typographer is associated with both the Suprematist and the Constructivist movements. He studied engineering and architecture in addition to art, giving him a very linear, logical approach to all that he did. His work, especially that which incorporated the Suprematist philosophy, was highly abstracted with minimal color, geometric shapes, and in some cases, deep symbolism. As with all Constructivists, he believed art should be used as an agent of change.

El Lissitzky designed many books, posters, exhibitions, and other kinds of Soviet propaganda. Most of his work was politically oriented, as was most of the work produced in that era. These quotes by El Lissitzky express two of his design philosophies: “Typographical design should perform optically what the speaker creates through voice and gesture of his thoughts,” as well as “Art can no longer be merely a mirror, it must act as the organizer of the people’s consciousness… No form of representation is so readily comprehensible to the masses as photography.” His thoughtful, somewhat cerebral work influenced modern art, including the Bauhaus and De Stijl movements.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky, 1919. This lithograph is one of his earliest politically charged works. The intrusive red wedge symbolizes the Bolshevik revolutionaries (known as the Reds), who were penetrating the anti-communist White army during the Russian Civil War. Note his use of simple colors and geometric shapes, all of which are integrated with the typography.

Dlia Golosa (For the Voice), a book of poetry, El Lissitzky, 1923. The combination of type and shapes made for one of the most notable examples of El Lissitzky’s work.

An interior spread from For the Voice.

Russian exhibition poster, El Lissitzky, 1929. In this piece, two huge figures of a boy and a girl are almost fused together sharing one “eye” or vision, to emphasize the equality of the sexes in the Communist regime. Lissitzky’s art and political beliefs combine in much of his work at this stage in his career.

Book cover for The ISMs of Art, El Lissitzky, 1924. This purely type cover with its simple colors, bold type treatments, and powerful geometry became one of the most influential graphic designs of the 1920s.

Book cover for Good! by Vladimir Mayyakovsky, designed by El Lissitzky,1927.

The Stenberg Brothers (Georgii 1900–1933 and Vladimir 1899–1982)

These Soviet brothers were artists, sculptors, and designers. They always worked in collaboration, and designed over 300 movie posters (which is what they are most known for) in the decade before Georgii’s untimely death from a motorcycle accident in 1933.

The new Bolshevik government was completely supportive of the cinema industry, especially it’s power to propagandize and spread their new message aimed at the masses. At that time, over 60% of the population was illiterate, so the Constructivist’s work with its strong, jarring images and powerful design was able to catch their eye, and helped to spread this new ideology.

The Stenberg’s primary technique was montage. Their posters were designed to be eye-catching and even shocking. “We deal with the material in a free matter…disregarding actual proportions…turning figures upside down; in short, we employ everything that can make busy passerbys stop in their tracks.” Their work rejected traditional styles in favor of other ways to convey the motion, dynamism, and rhythm that characterize the work of 1920s. They frequently used unconventional viewing angles, radical foreshortening, and unsettling close-ups. Their posters even hold up today, and can appear as striking as they did in their day. In fact, ITC released two fonts in 2000 inspired by the Brothers’ work, entitled ITC Stenberg.

Movie poster for A Small Town Idol, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1921.

Poster for the Moscow Chamber Theatre, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1923.

Movie poster for Countess Shirvanskaya’s Crime, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1926.

Movie poster for Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1927.

Movie poster for the experimental avant-garde film Man With A Movie Camera, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1929.

Movie poster for The Forty-First, by Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1927.

Movie poster for In Spring, Vladimir and Georgii Stenberg, 1929.

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Contemporary posters in the Russian Constructivist style:

Poster for CBS Records, Paula Scher, 1979.

MoMA poster redesigned in a Russian constructivist style, Lauren Wells, 2009.

Concert posters for The Black Keys’ NYC tour, designed by OBEY’s Shepard, 2012.

Posted on: September 27, 2017

Ilene Strizver

Ilene Strizver, founder of The Type Studio, is a typographic consultant, designer, writer and educator specializing in all aspects of visual communication, from the aesthetic to the technical. Her book, Type Rules! The designer’s guide to professional typography, 4th edition, has received numerous accolades from the type and design community.

2 Comments on Russian Constructivism and Graphic Design

  1. Hello Ilene Strizver,
    All the design are awesome. I would like a list of graphics design ebook. Thanks.

  2. Thank you for this piece! Will share with my students.

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