Constructed Verses

Out with cheap truths.
Erase the old from hearts.
Streets are our brushes,
Squares are our palettes.
– Vladimir Mayakovsky

When For the Voice arrived at a print shop in Germany, the typesetter could not understand a single word of its revolutionary ideas. The slim volume contained the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a man with a stare so intense it made him look more like a hit man than a poet. What the printers could appreciate right away were the designs of El Lissitzky: bold, geometric forms borrowed from his teacher, Kazimir Malevich. But while Malevich was interested in the “dynamic condition of forms,” Lissitzky put them to task for a political purpose. For the Voice was meant for dramatic public readings, not quiet bookstores.

El Lissitzky, The Announcer, 1923; Etro Fall 2013; Alexander Liberman, Untitled, 1961
Handmade items to buy (clockwise): Bracelet by Sotiria Vasileiou; 24 Circles by Edu Barba; Composition with a Singing Dove by Jesus Perea; Clutch by Narya Bags; Earrings and Ring Set by MBG; Earrings by Frank Ideas; Ring by Silver Sleek Studio; Bangle Set by Gili Lasri

Lissitzky saw himself as an architect, not an illustrator. He was constructing designs entirely from a letterpress printer’s typecase, building meaning with geometric components. The forms visualized the poetry by incorporating Cyrillic letters and Soviet symbols. But the most interesting parts of the project are its failures and inconsistencies. The German printers couldn’t read the words but the designs were intriguing enough on their own. The visual kernel of Lissitzky’s work – not its political purpose – lived on in Bauhaus, De Stijl, and contemporary graphic design.

El Lissitzky, The New Man, 1923; Jaro, White Accent, 2013; Carolina Herrera Spring 2012
Handmade items to buy (clockwise): Ring by Kostas; Earrings by Tiki; Earrings by AgJc; Resin Ring by Soulful Style; Earrings by Maldonado Joyas; Necklace by Floti; Bangle by Topaz Turtle; Ring by Guadalupe Ferreyra

In one of his poems, Mayakovsky anticipates the fate of his words: “ Let fame trudge after genius like an inconsolable widow to a funeral march – die then, my verse, die like a common soldier.” The political power of his poetry died with the times, but he never sought ‘fame’ and ‘genius’ anyway. Those were associated with tradition, a sticky mess he thought had no value. But as much as he and Lissitsky sought to run away from tradition and timelessness, they kept running into them. Take Lissitzky’s New Man. He was composed of the very stuff of revolution and prepared to leave old ideas behind. And yet, it’s the Vitruvian Man all over again.

Under Construction

We take abstract geometry and free-floating graphic elements for granted, but their place in art and design only started with the Russian Constructivists in the 1910s and 20s. Artists like Lyubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, and Alexander Rodchenko rejected the idea of art for art’s sake and turned to graphics and architecture for inspiration. Here is a selection of more commercial incarnations of their work.

• Lyubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic of 1918 reflects how she absorbed the developments of Cubism, Futurism, and Russian Constructivism to take the leap into pure abstraction in painting. At the time, she was working in Vladimir Tatlin’s studio and no doubt the Tower left its mark in her paintings. What separates Popova from the other Constructivists was the dynamic quality of her geometric planes. They appear in motion, almost like complex machinery, rather than floating in space.

• The Fendi Spring 2013 Collection has Popova’s legacy in its designs, which is ironic considering how far from luxury fashion she placed her work.

• Moda Industria’s Binary is a rusted steel sculpture with rectangular cut-outs.

• Chris’ Bag is made of charcoal leather and has a long shape perfect for your notes, books, or iPad.

• Alessandra’s Scarf is made of asymmetrical panels of wool in different shades of grey.

• Omar’s Earrings frame a black and orange split circle in sterling silver.

• MKW Atelier’s Glaze suspends a sparkly string of gold and silver beads.

• Diatonic’s T-Shirt is printed with El Lissitzky’s graphic and timeless Proun.

• Adrienne’s Pillow Cover brings a pop of contrast and color to your room with off-center squares in black, white, and yellow.

• Cindy’s Arc Earrings accent sleek gold arcs with black onyx beads.