What can a funky old hardbound Dover book, written by a man born in the 19th century, teach us about modern design? First published in 1953 (and available used and in libraries today), Design for Artists and Craftsmen is a workbook of design exercises that will push your skills and imagination in unexpected ways. If you’re searching for new approaches to motif and pattern, this book will challenge the predictable Instagram looks of so much of today’s pattern and surface design and teach you to create stylized and abstract variations of any form.
Louis Wolchonok was an American painter, printmaker, muralist, art teacher, and graphic designer. Part of the social realist school of painting (think Grant Woods’ famed American Gothic, Dorothea Lange’s photographs, and the Works Progress Administration murals), his works are in several museum and gallery collections today. Design for Artists and Craftsmen, one of three design education books Wolchonok wrote, is very much about two things: the fundamentals of forms, and how to create infinite, modern design variations for any form. Wolchonok’s style is highly individual, but his exercises can be adapted to your own.
His prompts to generate more and more variation, and his guidance on breaking down and building up shapes, lines, forms, and combinations make the book and its exercises exciting. Wolchonok characterizes all source material and starting points as geometric (including the curvy amoeba-like shapes that almost define mid-century design), flower and plant, animal, human, and man-made (such as buildings and tools). Exercises in a final section on composition build complexity and add dynamic elements.
What does this mean for the designer? A simple oval becomes a whole series of curvaceous, decorative motifs. Loose, quick sketches of horses evolve into highly simplified graphic forms that could have come from ancient South American tapestries. Stick figures become lyrical, expressive humanoids. Wolchonok calls out exactly what shifts from one variation to the next, so you can try it for yourself: changing the emphasis, the flow of the line, the proportions, the shapes of parts, the arrangement of the parts.
If you find that your sketching, design, or logo work is stuck or repetitive, seek out this book from a used book source or library and work through its pages. Imagine yourself in the 1950s, creating new kinds of designs that we now know as iconic, and see what you discover.
P.S.: Look for a design project based on this book on the Journal in the coming months.