Ask some people, and they’ll tell you that “French” and “graphic design” are mutually exclusive terms. We knew this couldn’t be true, and in honor of Bastille Day we thought we would go ahead and prove it.
Admittedly, the graphic design output from France is less than that of its German, Dutch and English-speaking neighbors. That’s partly because there are fewer design schools in France, and the prestigious ones are extremely difficult to get into. Perhaps for this same reason, the design that France does produce is pretty amazing.
From the Belle Epoque to the digital present, these French graphic designers have vitalized the arts with a certain je ne sais quois.
Fin de siècle Paris was an artsy, rowdy, decadent environment – and Georges Goursat (aka Sem) was there to capture it in his indelible caricatures. Just about every famous personality from the era received the honor of being his subject.
Turn of the century Paris is probably best known for Art Nouveau, a style that paired striking illustration with beautifully complex, organic decorative forms. George Auriol was an Art Nouveau Renaissance man—poet, songwriter, graphic designer, and typographer (the well-known font “Auriol” is his creation).
Coming on the heels of Art Nouveau was Art Deco, and coming on the heels of George Auriol was Roland Ansieau. He translated Deco’s bold geometric forms into unforgettable advertising posters like the one for Berger 45.
Working alongside Ansieau was a designer who needs only one name: Cassandre (born Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron). Of Ukrainian as well as French background, Cassandre was heavily influenced by Cubism and Surrealism in the fine arts sphere, translating them into posters that put a special emphasis on form and typography.
If you’re looking to lift your spirits, search no further than Monsieur Savignac. Known for his commercial posters, Savignac imbues his illustrations with a lighthearted humor that stirs the soul.
Villemot’s work offers a scintillating distillation of the swinging Sixties in Paris. His groovy, often erotic advertising images for companies like Bally, Orangina and Perrier place simplified female forms amid vibrant colors and loud contrasts.
It is little surprise that Robert Massin was mentored by Pierre Faucheux, one of the greatest French book designers of the mid-twentieth century. Following in the footsteps of his teacher, Massin went on to produce a number of innovative book designs, often putting typography to unusual uses. His illustrated version of Eugène Ionesco’s play, The Bald Soprano, is a well-known example.
Having founded L’Atelier Création Graphique and the communist design collective Grapus, as well as served as a design teacher, Pierre Bernard is a legend in the world of contemporary French design. Even in his seventies, he is not planning to rest on his laurels, as you can see from his awesome recent work.
Bouvet has cited the French painter Fernand Léger as well as Raymond Savignac (included above) as influences, and their mark on the younger designer is clear. Bouvet pares down an idea to its essence and renders it in direct, engaging, and offbeat humorous form.
In 1987, just after the apex of the postmodern season, the Musée d’Orsay opened in a beautiful, abandoned Parisian railroad station. Its first exhibition was called Chicago, Birth of a City, and Philippe Apeloig designed a poster for it that has gone down in history along with the show. The artist has continued to do great work for similar cultural institutions.
Founded in 1992, M/M is an art and design partnership between Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag. Their aesthetic, which is influenced in equal parts by punk and Swiss typography, is impossible to pigeonhole, and it has attracted an array of fellow artists from Björk to Kanye West.
Zask is a deft, well-rounded designer whose work spans branding, to posters and book cover design. Her logos for organizations like the CLA (Centre de Linguistique Appliquée de Basançon) are simple but ingenious.
Jean François Porchez
Porchez is something of a rockstar in the typography world (what a weird, amazing world it is), and it is no wonder why: his typefaces are about the best out there. He founded Typofonderie in 1994, and since then he has created a host of fonts that mix restrained beauty with distinctive features—a perfect mix for clients ranging from Le Monde (the newspaper) to Beyoncé Knowles, who are seeking a custom typographic identity.