Alexey Brodovitch


USA, 1898 - 1971

"If you know yourself, you are doomed."
- Alexey Brodovitch

excerpt from 'Alexey Brodovitch' by K.W. Purcell.

Brodovitch in New York,
c. 1960
Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson

Alexey Brodovitch is known foremost for his work on the american fashion-magazine Harper's bazaar.

Born in Ogolitchi, Russia in 1898 in an aristocratic and wealthy family, Brodovitch's youth was marked by the bolshevik revolution. Being a loyal supporter of the tsar, he became first lieutenant in the czar's White Army.

In 1920 he fled to Paris as an exile from the October Revolution. Like many other emigrés whom had gained wealth in Russia, he ended up being both poor and workless. For the first time in his life he had to work to gain money. Living in Montparnasse, he found himself in a community of russian artists, which lead to his wish to become a painter.

He obtained a job as a painter of stage sets for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. Diaghilev's approach to design inspired him to move towards the more commercial arts and influenced him in his ideas on the lack of boundaries between different arts.

Bal Banal
Poster for a party for Russian émigrés in Paris.

Brodovitch entered a poster competition which searched for the most innovatory design to anounce an upcoming ball. He won the first prize, leaving a drawing by Picasso behind. His design symbolically represented the idea of masking in the switch between colors black and white. This 'Bal Banal' poster was the beginning of his career as a graphic designer as it brought him to the attention of various designers and agencies.

martini advertisement

The ad agency Maximilien Vox asked Brodovitch a design for Martini Vermouth. The result, based on strict geometric forms and basic colors resembled the constructivist style as seen in El Lissitsky's work.
While politically he was sympathetic with czarist russia, his artistic work shared the ideas of the avant-garde. This might mean that avant-garde ideas in design, which are thought to be post-revolutionary, actually predate the revolution and were non-political in origin.*

* Theory from Hobsbawn,'The Age of Empire', 230-231

Catalogue Cover

Madelios Catalogue Sports
Catalogue Cover

Soon his work was in great demand, designing posters and advertisements. He became art director for Athélia Studio, which gave him the opportunity to direct all aspects of a creative production. He had become one of the most respected designers of commercial art in Paris, but Paris began to lose its spirit of adventure it initially had. He looked across the Atlantic for new opportunities and was asked to come to Philadelphia to organize design classes at Philadelphia College of Art.

At that moment Bodovitch was one of the pioneers to bring modernist ideas to America.*
Design of the early thirties was conservative and lacked of radical experiments. This could be explained by the economic situation after the Wall street crash in 1929. Many companies felt the need to show stability and used trusted methods in their advertisement design.

* More would follow. In the mid 1930's Paul Rand, influenced by avant-garde european art, started his own design practice.

At the Philadelphia college of Art Brodovitch teached by using examples of european graphic design, questioning his students about the placing of the elements and the decisions made by the designers. He once said "we learn by making mistakes. We must be critical of ourselves and have the courage to start all over again after each failure. Only then do we really absorb, really start to know."* He placed himself on the same level as his students, treating them as equals. He often brought real design assignments to the classroom, asking his students to think along.

* Brodovitch, 'Brodovitch on Brodovitch', 45.

In 1933 he started workshops that were open to all professions, known as the 'Design Laboratory'. In every assignment the students were challenged to avoid clichés, capture the essence, use their mistakes and look within themselves for the solution. Brodovitch was known for contradicting himself. He would say one thing and the next week he would say the oposite. This way he urged his students to think for themselves.

Brodovitch reviewing
page layouts. He saw photographs in sequence as if they were frames in a film.
Photograph by Richard Avedon.

Brodovitch in his office at Harper's Bazaar. Photograph by Maurice Tabard.
ca. 1950

As expected his work didn't go unnoticed in America. The photographer Ralph Steiner who worked for Harper's Bazaar, recognized the potential of Brodovitch as a designer. He introduced him to Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of the magazine whom immediately offered him a job.

"I saw a fresh, new conception of layout technique that struck me like a revelation: pages that bled beautifully, cropped photographs, typography and design that were bold and arresting. Within ten minutes i had asked Brodovitch to have cocktails with me, and that evening i signed him to a provisional contract as art director."
- carmel snow*

* Carmel Snow and Mary Louise Aswell,'The world of Carmel Snow', NY, McGraw-Hill, 1962,90.

Harper's Bazaar, September 1956
Photograph by Richard Avedon

Harper's Bazaar,
April 1940
Design by A.M. Cassandre

Harper's Bazaar, February 1952
Photograph by Richard Avedon

Harper's Bazaar,
October 1947
Photograph by Ernst Beadle

Brodovitch created a harmonious and meaningful whole using avant-garde photography, typography and illustration. After being hired he asked several old friends like Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Raoul Dufy, Marc Chagall and A.M. Cassandre to work for the magazine. Cassandre created several of the Bazaar covers between 1937 and 1940.
Brodovitch was the first art director to integrate image and text. Most american magazines at that time used text and illustration seperately, dividing them by wide white margins.

Ramon and Renita
Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by Martin Munkacsi.

This spread from 1935 shows the integration of all graphic elements. Brodovitch accentuates the fluidity and movement of the images by using repetition and diagonal and horizontal stress. He uses the contacts like frames from a film and creates the illusion of movement and spontaneity across the left-hand page. The strips of film overflow onto the opposing page, as if the dancers have twirled across the spine of the magazine. The enlargement on the right-hand page depicts the grand finale of this dance numer.

Mock-up spread for
Harper's Bazaar

c. 1940-1950

Brodovitch cropped his photograhps, often off-center, brought them to the edge of the page, integrated them in the whole. He used his images as a frozen moment in time and often worked with succeeding pages to create a nice flow trough the entire magazine. This brought a new dynamism in fashion layouts.

Two Guys and
the Devil's Advocate

Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by Richard Avedon.

The typeface he preferred was Bodoni, but when needed he switched to Stencil, Typewriter or a script. He matched the typeface with the feeling or with the need for an appropiate effect. Legibility was not his primary concern.
His layouts are easily recognized by his generous use of white space. Colleagues at other magazines saw his sparse designs as truly elegant, but a waste of valuable space.

If you don't like full skirts...
Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by
George Hoyningen-Huene
March 1938

Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographer unknown.
date unknown

Besides his work at Bazaar, his freelance work grew throughout the forties. In 1949 Frank Zachary felt the need to create an american publication focused on art and design, like there had been several in europe. When looking for an art director they thought of Paul Rand and Brodovitch. Rand appeared to be too much of an artist and not enough of an art director, so Brodovitch became director of Portfolio.

Portfolio 1, winter 1950
front - and backcover.
Editors George Rosenthal
and Frank Zachary.

Brodovitch used only type on the cover, which was unusual for american magazines at that time. He wanted to create a magazine unlike any other. The first issue of the magazine is filled with a range of design influences that formed Brodovitch's creative vision.
But as they had chosen to create a no-expense-spared magazine and a rejection of any advertising at all, the magazine ended up folding after just three issues.

Portfolio 2,
summer 1950
For the cover Brodovitch reproduced Charles Eames's design for a kite.

Portfolio 3, 1951
For the third cover Brodovitch reproduced strips of film from a movie by Herbert Matter.

During this time Brodovitch was frequently absent from the Bazaar office, not only because the load of jobs he was offered, but also because of his problem with alcohol. It was partly because of this heavy drinking that Brodovitch was fired from his position at Harper's in 1958.
His wife Nina died in the same period and, left without a pension, his financial and physical situation worsened. He died in 1971 in a small village in southern France where he had spent the last three years of his life.

Harper's Bazaar,
July 1948
Photograph by Richard Avedon.

Harper's Bazaar,
date unknown
Photographer unknown

New Arrangements for Dinner.
Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by
Gleb Derujinski.
November 1951

The Consensus of Opinion
Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photograph by Man Ray
March 1936

The Ultra Violets
Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by
Richard Avedon.
published in the last issue directed by Brodovitch
August 1958

The Ultra Violets
Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by
Richard Avedon.
published in the last issue directed by Brodovitch
August 1958

Tips in Your Fingers
Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by
Herbert Matter.
April 1941

Article in Harper's Bazaar, Photographs by
Richard Avedon
June 1955


Kerry William Purcell, Alexey Brodovitch, Phaidon Press (2002). find this book on

Gabriel Bauret, Alexey Brodo-Vitch, Assouline (2005).
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Alexey Brodovitch, Portfolio #2: A Magazine for the Graphic Arts, Zebra Press (1950).
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Roger Remington and Barbara Hodik, Nine Pioneers in American Graphic Design, The MIT Press (1992).
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Andy Grundberg , Brodovitch (Masters of American Design), Harry N Abrams (1989).
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Brodovitch: Bazaar and Beyond

Brodovitch on AIGA


Portrait Series of Brodovitch by Benedict J. Fernandez