Born in Ukraine to French parents, Mouron (later calling himself Cassandre) came of age during the time of Bauhaus – and his “geometric and monumental” work is fused of all these influences. He wrote, “The poster is not a painting, it is a machine to announce… it is before anything else a word.” One little-known fact is that Cassandre created the Yves-Saint-Laurent logo. “He made us a single proposition, that of initials intertwined,” YSL’s co-founder recalled.
Cassandre’s awe-inspiring design commands the covers of many books on the artist, and on the Art Deco period. It’s been endlessly referenced – from Razzia’s ads for Louis Vuitton to a sly poster for Iron Man and Stark Industries. But this is the original design, a thing of sublime simplicity, power and grace. It would take the skills of France’s finest Art Deco posterist to capture the magnificence of the S.S. Normandie, widely known as the nautical zenith of Art Deco’s aspirations. Interiors were designed as extravagant fusions of French elegance and avant-garde art. The Grand Salon was famed for its Jean Dupas glass-panel murals. The First-Class Dining Hall was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, and adorned similarly. The children’s dining room featured murals of Babar the Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff. This variant was created for the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Rare!
For a luxury bus service from London to the Côte d’Azur, Cassandre erases the bus. There’s nothing but the gorgeous road, as seen from the front right bumper’s perspective: a stylized, Deco, geometrically perfect beam toward the horizon, with the ghostly outlines of trees on either side. But then – pull back – and one realizes the black forms of trees actually delineate the spaces between windows. . .and we are inside the coach, but sensing the air and trees outside. Cubism goes on a road trip, and the conventions of the humble travel poster are suddenly turned upside-down.
Minimal, atmospheric, and undoubtedly avant-garde: Cassandre “resists the notion that a travel poster has to be bright, colorful, and entirely legible at a glance. Once more he eschews the conventional imagery that would have called for a sleeping car, in favor of a primary image that a sleeping car passenger never sees; a railway traffic signal in the middle of the night” (Brown & Reingold, p. 16), conveying the notion that 2nd-class can still be a first-rate experience.
Cassandre’s most popular and enduring advertising idea was for Dubonnet, an odd aperitif created with fortified wine, herbs, spices and quinine. It’s basically the French version of the gin-&-tonic: a drink invented so French Foreign Legionnaires in North Africa could get the quinine down. For a commercial market, however, the libation was a little more dubious. Cassandre ran with it: “Dubo,” (a casual French word for ‘doubt’); “Dubon” (‘good’)… Dubonnet. This 1932 version of the “Dubonnet” is exquisitely colored and three-dimensional, the hues corresponding to the emotional / psychological state of the drinker.
The indelible apex of Deco cool has a practical back story: with automobile production on the rise, by the 1920s the demand for safety glass was soaring. To meet this demand, Ford Motor Company teamed up with Pilkington, an English glass manufacturer, and formed Triplex in 1923. The question for Cassandre: how to to advertise safety glass without actually showing it in action, amid the violence and destruction that would attend? Here’s the answer, with exceptional cleverness: glass becomes something you both look at, and look through, by giving it an angle. The driver’s strong, confident fists wrap around the steering wheel while framing the glass-pane; the steering wheel reflects the “X” of Triplex, solidifying the connection between brand and driver.