Pop art design is a movement based on art populism that sprang out of the growing prosperity and consumerism of post-World War II America and Britain. Call pop art design a rebellion against the elitism of fine art that’s characterized by its focus on imagery and themes found in popular culture, like comic books, advertising and everyday objects accessible to the average person.
From its arrival in the 1950s to its heyday in the 1960s, this style relied on irony to celebrate the mundane and even tacky features of pop culture, which oftentimes resulted in works that were iconic and memorable from a modern-art perspective. Definitely avant-garde for its day, pop art design counts among its famous contributors well-known names like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Not only are its designs bombastic and colorful, but its artists utilized techniques like reproduction and rendering to create their masterpieces.
Here’s a look at the love affair with pop culture and consumerism that we know today as pop art.
The History of Pop Art Design
The history of this style comes down to unique developments in America and across the pond, in Britain. To help us understand how it became so big in the U.S. by the 1960s, we have to go back a decade earlier and examine how it was developing in Britain in the 1950s.
In Britain, this movement began with a collection of creatives in London known as the Independent Group, a motley crew of rebels who wanted to upend the then-popular modernist interpretation of culture and society. Such gatherings of creative rebels who want to fight the status quo of their day are known to occur quite frequently in the annals of design and art, with the Impressionists in late 19th-century France being a notable example.
Image Source: Museum of Modern Art
The IG met several times throughout the 1950s and are considered the precursor of pop art design. At each meeting, discussions on the pop-culture impact from movies, comic books, science fiction, advertising and technology would take place. What was unique about these meetings was twofold:
1) The term “Pop Art” was actually coined during these discussions
2) Much of the material at these meetings betrayed an obsession with American pop-culture elements
As exciting as these IG sessions were for these designers and artists who argued for the legitimacy of pop-culture images and themes as a part of fine art, the biggest splash this design movement would eventually make would actually be in the States. Thanks to these seemingly innocuous IG sessions, the foundations for a pop art takeover were already in place.
Buoyed by the boom of prosperity and consumerism that marked the end of World War II and peacetime, America in the 1950s and 1960s was a hotbed of growth and opportunity for average folks. The returning servicemen swelled the ranks of the middle class and ensured that there was a huge market based on popular appeal for increasingly influential pop culture whose expansion was aided by then-nascent media like TV and radio. Other influential design movements, like Mid-Century Modern, were also firing the imaginations of a country that was settling into its new role as a superpower in the world.
In short, the landscape was ripe for another movement to come along and take advantage of this new, cultural zeitgeist.
Thanks to what had happened in Britain with the IG a decade earlier, by the 1960s, pop art was already gaining steam in the States. The term was officially made known to the public as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Symposium on Pop Art, which took place in December of 1962.
By this time, American designers and artists wanted to consciously distance themselves from the very polished and fine art-inspired presentation of the American advertising scene. As a result, they looked to the British for inspiration due to a schism in how British and American designers of the time generally viewed pop-culture images:
- The Brits, from a safe distance across the pond, looked at American mass media-produced images with a more humorous and sentimentalist perspective
- The Americans, inundated 24/7 with their own pop-culture media, lost perspective and therefore created works that were bolder and more in-your-face
The goal of the early American pop-art pioneers of the 1960s was to willfully set themselves apart from the more modern art-infused and professional tone of their country’s pop-culture scene, which was demonstrated primarily in the advertising world of the day.
To get a sense of this unique feature of this style, take a look at a few pop-art digital assets from our huge marketplace:
New York in the early 1960s was a mecca of pop-art exhibitions.
The Judson Gallery, now the Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, first put on a show featuring the works of prominent pop-art figures Claes Oldenburg, Thomas K. Wesselman, and Jim Dine in 1959 and 1960. Then, Manhattan’s Green Gallery, an art gallery then located on 57th Street, held exhibitions from 1960 through 1964 that featured the artworks those aforementioned along with George Segal and James Rosenquist.
In 1960, the Martha Jackson Gallery put on New Media – New Forms, a show based on assemblages and installations that featured the works of pop artists like Jasper Johns, Kurt Schwitters, May Wilson, Hans Arp, and Robert Rauschenberg.
Over in Los Angeles, none other than Andy Warhol himself presented his first exhibition on pop art in 1962, at the Ferus Gallery. On tap were 32 Campbell’s Soup paintings; the whole set was sold by Warhol for just $1000, but when the Musem of Modern Art bought the set in 1996, it had already appreciated to a whopping $15 million.
Also in 1962, at the Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, organizers put on the International Exhibition of the New Realists, a celebration of British pop art and American, Swiss, Italian and French New Realism. Some of the luminaries, whose artworks were exhibited, included:
- Andy Warhol
- Roy Lichtenstein
- Richard Lindner
- Robert Indiana
- George Segal
- Mimmo Rotella
Around the same time, in Pasadena, the New Painting of Common Objects museum exhibition was displayed, featuring the works of notables like:
- Jim Dine
- Andy Warhol
- Roy Lichtenstein
- Robert Dowd
- Wayne Thiebaud
Then, in 1963, things shifted back to New York for the movement when the Guggenheim Museum put on Six Painters and the Object, which showcased the works of:
- Roy Lichtenstein
- Jasper Johns
- Andy Warhol
- James Rosenquist
- Robert Rauschenberg
By 1964, exhibitions that were a sea change for the movement were the norm, with another prominent one being 1964’s The American Supermarket, held at the Bianchini Gallery. It displayed the designs of Warhol, Johns and Lichtenstein, among others. The gimmick of the show was a cozy supermarket environment, but everything common to a grocery store (like canned goods, produce, etc.) was in fact created by the pop artists.
Image Source: The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation
The remainder of the 1960s saw more gallery exhibitions for specific pop artists, in the form of one-man shows.
This culminated in 1967 with the Sao Paulo 9 Exhibition: Environment U.S.A. – 1957 to 1967. This biennial, which still takes place every two years, was like the Super Bowl of the art and design world. The 1967 edition featured pop art in all its gaudy glory and neatly chronicled the movement’s classical phase in the States. Some of the notables whose works were displayed included:
- Tom Wesselmann
- Andy Warhol
- Edward Hopper
- Robert Indiana
- James Gill
- Claes Oldenburg
While the 1960s were truly the heyday of the movement, it’s interesting to note that pop-art exhibits have continued into the 21st century. In 2002, for example, the UK’s Tate art museums recreated the famous The American Supermarket exhibit mentioned above.
The Characteristics of Pop Art
This approach to design is extremely memorable. Put another way: You’ll know it when you see it. It’s almost a dichotomy of sorts since the style celebrates mundane objects, yet it does so with such panache that its designs stand out. Because it was a rebellion against the highfaluting themes of high art, you won’t see epic themes like influences from religion, mythology or history in these works. However, as many of its famous contributors had backgrounds in graphic design (like Warhol), its designs are vibrant and a feast for the eyes.
Here’s how you can tell if the design you’re admiring is a work of pop art. It typically:
- Explodes with vivid colors
- Grabs your attention with interesting typography
- Includes zany shapes, patterns and lines
- Features a plethora of mass-media, advertising, commercial and pop-culture images
- Features everyday and commonplace themes, subjects and objects
- Shows off a populist appeal or tone
- Displays stylized illustrations and drawings
- Blurs the lines between fine art and the lowbrow
- Borrows and takes from any number of sources and influences
- Is emotionally distant and doesn’t include much passion about the contemporary world
- Is aimed at a younger audience
If you need more examples of what makes pop art so indelible, here are some more samples of this movement from our large collection of digital assets:
Pop Art in Graphic Design
Graphic design is probably the biggest playground of the pop artists, just because prominent proponents like Warhol worked in the graphic-design business. Here are some very captivating examples of this trend in graphic design.
Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
Demuth’s 1928 painting is important to the evolution of design for a number of reasons. First, it’s often regarded as the precursor to pop art, decades ahead of its time, due to its celebration of a pop-culture image and the use of striking, bold and vivid colors and shapes. Second of all, discerning observers will note that this artwork takes a great deal of inspiration from Cubism and Futurism, both styles that were on the rise at the time.
Image Source: Velvet
While it may not be apparent on first glance, Demuth’s painting actually shows a firetruck moving through New York City’s streets, in the rain, at night. His piece is based on a classic poem by William Carlos Williams, titled The Great Figure, which describes in words the same scene. Note the great use of color contrast, the vivid colors, the geometric figures (almost reminiscent of Art Deco design), and the eye-catching typography.
Andy Warhol’s 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans
Some of us really enjoy Campbell’s Soup on cold, rainy days when we need something to warm us up and comfort us. In Warhol’s case, he enjoyed making pop-art masterpieces by using Campbell’s soup cans for inspiration. This was really the artwork that pushed pop art into the mainstream, as it was among the first of its kind to centralize a theme from pop culture as the subject of a painting.
Image Source: Rian Castillo
Warhol’s artwork is made up of 32 canvases that each display a painting of a can of Campbell’s soup, one for each flavor the brand offered back then in the early 1960s. The unique look of this piece was created thanks to a printmaking method that relied on a non-painterly style.
Pop Art in Web Design
One of the most interesting applications of web design is using a throwback style to design a webpage, especially with a style as interesting as this movement. Here are some of our favorite pop art-inspired websites.
Mike Kus Portfolio
Being a freelance graphic designer can be quite a lot of hard work, especially since you’re responsible for finding your own clients. That’s why it’s so vital to maintaining an attractive and informative portfolio on the Internet. UK-based designer Mike Kus does just that and makes his pop art-infused works the centerpiece of his website.
Image Source: Mike Kus
His website features a gorgeous, card-based layout that shows off aesthetic client projects. The more you look through his projects, the more you see highly interesting pop-art themes: Combination marks surrounded by mundane fruits and vegetables; leaves optimized with patterns and colors; and beautiful labeling on bottles—all highlighted by vibrant and vivid colors.
A website dedicated to showcasing comedians who work in Spain, Humoristas captures the distinct look of pop art with its aesthetic layout. Not only do the illustrations of each of the comedians have a comic-book vibe to them, but they also epitomize the whole point of this genre: to highlight ordinary people. In this case, it’s those making a living on the comedy circuit in Spain.
Image Source: Humoristas
Visually speaking, the website itself is quite the striking presentation, due to the intelligent color and stylization choices that have been made. The blues and reds jump out at you while the neutral colors are more conservative and keep the homepage rooted in a more serious tone. The highly stylized depictions of each comedian, if nothing else, make the website highly memorable, too.
Pop Art in Collages
There have been quite a few collages in the annals of this genre that can’t be ignored, as they’ve achieved iconic status throughout the decades. One thing’s for certain: The great designers working within this movement realized how essential to pop art it was to assemble their works from disparate pieces and sources.
Eduardo Paolozzi’s I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything
Another piece of pop art, this one a collage, that’s seen as a pioneering work in this genre, Paolozzi’s I Was a Rich Man’s Plaything was first presented by him at the aforementioned, first IG meeting in London. Part of his Bunk! series, the collage is famous for displaying a comic-book feel along with blatant references to American consumerism and pop culture.
Image Source: Tate Gallery Collection
It also shows the effectiveness of collages, in how they can create a larger, well-thought-out design from a collection of disparate pieces. Believe it or not, Paolozzi, a Scotsman, depended mostly on magazines that American servicemen had shared with him to create this now-classic work in the genre. With its vintage look, good use of white space, and complementing colors, it displays how accessible pop art can be to the masses.
Richard Hamilton’s Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?
In what has to be one of the longest titles ever for a work in this design trend, Hamilton’s 1956 artwork has gone on to achieve renown, due to its permanent home in German’s Kunsthalle Tubingen art museum. Another collage that was based mostly on American magazines, it contains images as disparate as bodybuilders and staircases of your traditional American home to burlesque models.
Image Source: Piers Masterson
It’s tempting to write this piece off as simply too busy—due to the overwhelming and conflicting source materials used as part of the collage—but this is precisely what makes it such a great representation of this trend. Its focus is on the mundaneness of the average home, yet its inclusion of so many pop-culture symbols and images make it pretty much an homage to the commercialism and advertising boom of the post-World War II period.
When All You Want to Do Is Emphasize the Ordinariness of Pop Culture
What elevated pop art to a veritable design movement isn’t the talent of its contributors, though they were some exceptionally talented artists working in this trend. It also wasn’t the aesthetic quality of some of their masterworks, though there are numerous, very memorable pieces that remain as captivating today as in their heyday.
Instead, what made pop art a force to be reckoned with was its straightforward rebellion against the “good taste” of the so-called fine or “high” art of the 1950s and 1960s. Instead of feting out-of-reach themes like religion and mythology, it connected with people everywhere based on its fascination with the gaudy, oversaturated mass media of its day (and Campbell Soup cans!).
That’s probably why artists and their audiences are still studying and admiring it to this day and will continue to do so indefinitely.
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