Sean Charmatz (1955). Courtesy Theo Inglis.

What do you do when you’ve secured your legacy as one of the great creative minds of the 20th century? You make children’s books, apparently. From Milton Glaser’s If Apples Had Teeth, Saul Bass’s Henri’s Walk to Paris and Paul Rand’s I Know a Lot of Things, to Bruno Munari’s Zoo, Dick Bruna’s Miffy and Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a number of prominent mid-century designers and illustrators turned their hand to books for kids as they sank into their own old age. Milton Glaser — creator of the iconic I Heart New York logo, the DC Comics logo and that 1966 Bob Dylan poster for CBS Records — had already cemented his place in history with a portfolio of pop-culture iconography, yet the designer also found himself drawn to illustrating children’s books such as author Alvin Tresselt’s The Smallest Elephant in the World and writing If Apples Had Teeth, which he created with his wife, Shirley Glaser, and published in 1960. Perhaps producing the most famous tale of them all, Carle is best known as the author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar — an irresistible story of transformation that has sold upwards of 50,000,000 copies around the world. While he had prior success as an illustrator of books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, it was a career in advertising that got Carle noticed as an emerging creative talent. 

So what is it that attracted these designers to an audience that probably couldn’t even spell, let alone remember, their names yet?  Theo Inglis, graphic designer, teacher and author of Mid-Century Modern Graphic Design believes that the Mad Men-styled narrative of silky smooth creative pitches and charismatic ad agency personalities might not have been as appealing as we’ve been led to believe, with many designers finding their creativity stifled by the rising pressures of post-war capitalism and the battle for a place in household shopping carts. “This is seen as the golden age of graphic design and the best time ever to be a graphic designer. These designers had their own unique styles and even signed their work,” he told me. “ But I did come across a lot of gripes similar to the things that designers still complain about today, such as their best ideas being rejected. In the 1950s advertising became a huge industry and it was the early days of focus groups and consumer profiling. A lot of designers felt they were being told what to do and their creative freedom was being constrained.”

As the demand for corporate, consumer-led campaigns rose, some designers might have found themselves more stimulated by the scope and creativity afforded to them in the world of publishing. Here, they were free to explore many of the themes already prominent in the mid-century graphic design world. These included Modernist ideals for living — largely shaped by the Bauhaus school of thinking, and prominent in architecture and design for the home. Nature, bold colors, smooth-lined curving shapes, and the kind of nuclear familial bliss touted throughout the western world as aspirational all defined the aesthetics of an era of peace-time domesticity.

While Modernism is synonymous with the polished aesthetic of white picket fences and Brylcreem-styled hair, there’s a playfully caricatured side of life depicted by many mid-century designers, often in music and film, that leans seamlessly into the imagination of a wide-eyed child. “Someone who I really like is Jim Flora. He started out doing album covers and did these really characteristically Mid-century, but also quite unique and grotesquely weird, illustrations, particularly for  jazz albums,” Inglis adds. “He is another one of those people that moved into children’s books. I think people like him offered a fresh perspective on children’s books and how to tell stories visually, rather than just focusing on the writing.”

While advertising would soon be consumed by the popularity of television and real life photography, the publishing industry would stay loyal to its history of harnessing exquisite illustration and elegant graphic design to elevate the stories told on every page. And it wasn’t just magazine and billboard advertising that got behind the lens, but also the hypnotic worlds of record sleeve and poster design. Inglis believes that designers may have transitioned from big-agency dreams to book illustration upon seeing this emerging trend. “I’m sure some of them kind of felt the writing was on the wall when it came to being hired to illustrate album covers and all that kind of stuff” he said. “Some of the designers were happy to go into more big business, commercial stuff — running design agencies and working in-house for companies — but it was a different story for people who enjoyed the freedom of being freelance and didn’t want to be this kind of big corporate thing.” For skilled graphic designers and advertising pros, the idea of creating a publishable title for children, complete with succinct story-telling and vibrant illustration, may have been an appealing challenge. 

Many children’s book creators acknowledge having their own children as a major source of inspiration. One such example is Dutch author and illustrator Marjoke Henrichs. Prior to publishing her books No! Said Rabbit and Ready! Said Rabbit, Henrichs was an artist and theater designer. She cites the story-telling skills required on the stage as a catalyst for her move toward literature for kids. “It is all narrative. You’re telling a story,” she told me. “The difference with theater design is that you do it all small and then someone has to make it huge.” Upon realizing she could apply the same skills to creating books as she did to creating her art, Henrichs developed an appetite for it and aspired to study the field. “I was thinking, oh, I’d love to do this myself, but it had to wait several years, until my children were grown up,” she said. “Then I did the masters degree in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art.” Musing on her passion for children’s books, Henrichs also touched on the reach and value of works created for young people. “As far as Japan, Norway, Mexico and beyond, little children are actually enjoying my book, or sitting with their mum or grandpa or grandma, reading and laughing and having a nice time together. That is just amazing.”

Design critic Alexandra Lange,  who wrote the book  The Design of Childhood believes that part of the universal appeal of children’s books, particularly from this era, is connected to the pared down aesthetics associated with the Modernist thinking that emerged in a post-Bauhaus era of design. ​​She explains, “One way to live Modernism is by stripping out the extra bits. When you’re dealing with children, you have to get to the point — they only have so much attention span, and part of Modernist design really has that same drive, like, we don’t need these things, let’s get down to the essence of the matter.” In the same way children connect the dots between two objects using just their imagination, creativity in the era of the Bauhaus focused on the unwritten and simplistic narratives that connect functional parts of furniture, everyday objects and homes. Lange adds, “Kids are even better at writing their own narratives [than adults]. A really important part of imaginative play is just taking two things on the table and putting them in dialogue. So, in some ways, creating for children is a sign that designers are often in better touch with their childhood selves than a lot of adults are. It just shows how few tools you need to tell a story.”

Children’s books may not offer the spotlight of brand name advertising, the enticing lifestyle of famed adult authors or the household name status of other types of media, but the opportunity to connect with a new generation of hearts and minds may be too much for many creatives to resist. Whether 1952 or 2022, it seems that the appeal of wholesome, visual story-telling is as timeless as the tales it narrates.

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By Peter