Design Sexy Time

Paul Hesse photo  

When I was in college, a visiting artist gave a presentation on "Sex in Advertising." As this was in the midst of the women's art movement and high critical thinking, the audience expected a relentless assault on the horrors of sexuality in advertising and design. Instead, the artist presented an intelligent examination. She discussed issues such as objectification, subjugation, and patriarchy. But she also talked about less black and white points like seduction, human nature, beauty, and the power of primary impulses such as sex and eating. When she turned from the attitude du jour of the evils of sex and began to explore the possibility that sex might be positive, the audience responded with outrage. They stomped out of the theater in disgust and fury. It was like a stampede of crazed buffalo.

Of course, sex in design can be detrimental and negative. But are there instances when it works? Is it okay to like a poster or ad because it is "hot." For some reason, a large proportion of older male designers in the 1960s and 70s retired and made fine art that was really just thinly disguised soft core porn. Henry Wolf used imagery that might work in Playboy on mainstream advertising.

I've always liked the definition that "good" is about creation and construction, "evil" is about destruction and making someone "less than." Perhaps this is the filter to view this type of work. Is the subject glorified and celebrated, or minimized and objectified?

Milton Glaser

Henry Wolf

Advertising 1950s

Navy Recruitment poster, WWII

Henry Wolf

J.C. Leyendecker

Colin Forbes

J.C. Leyendecker

Tadanori Yokoo

Victor Moscoso

Robert Brownjohn

Men's Fashion, 1978

Peter Behrens

Aubrey Beardsley

Artists and Models

It frightens me when students don’t know Norman Rockwell. Before Norman Rockwell became America’s favorite illustrator, J.C. Leyendecker held that position. So, for those of you who are yearning for important illustration history, here it is:

Leyendecker is best known for his Arrow Collar ads and Saturday Evening Post covers. Leyendecker, however, is largely forgotten outside the illustration community. The story behind this is an untapped mini-series.

Leyendecker immigrated to America in 1882. He went to the Chicago Art Institute and later moved to New York with his brother and sister. In 1903, he met Charles Beach, who became his favorite model and lover. Beach was the Arrow Collar man, and received fan mail from across the country. Leyendecker reached the height of his success during the 1920s. Leyendecker and Beach lived lavishly, hosting scandalous parties with New York’s social set. Leyendecker’s brother, Frank, was also rumored to be gay. In the early 1920s, Frank and his sister, Mary, had a spectacular falling out with Leyendecker and Beach. The row ended with Mary spitting in Beach’s face. They moved away, and Frank died alone one year later.

Leyendecker left Manhattan, and purchased a large estate in New Rochelle with a staff of servants. During the 1930s, Leyendecker’s commissions began to slow, and he was forced to scale back his lifestyle. Yes, it’s awful, but he had to let the staff go. He and Beach continued to maintain the estate alone. At some point here, Beach began to limit Leyendecker’s contact with the outside world, and vice versa. Norman Rockwell, a longtime friend, complained that Beach had, “built a wall around him.” In 1951, Leyendecker died with Beach at his side. His funeral was sparsely attended. Whether this was due to his sexual orientation, or the wall Beach had built is speculation. Rockwell, however, did attend and served as a pallbearer. Leyendecker left instructions for Beach to destroy everything. Fortunately, he stopped at discarding the paintings and sketches. He sold these at a yard sale for the high price of seven dollars. In 2004, Christies sold a Leyendecker painting for $209,100.00.