Design Profile: Mehemed Fehmy Agha and the spread

Early spread from Vanity Fair

The American image that was so inviting to immigrants in the early 1900s came not only from American cinema, but also from the pages of popular magazines and their advertisements, quickly giving rise to the role of art director. In contrast to Europe where the designer was the authority on advertising, the art director became the author of American commercialism and actually preceded the profession of graphic design in the states, a profession that was cemented when the Art Directors Club of New York was founded in 1920. And while Europe admired the image of America, America also looked to Europe to determine trends in modernity, sophistication, and culture, going so far as to recruit European talent as the next great American art director.

In 1929 Condé Nast (the man himself) brought Russian-born Mehemed Fehmy Agha, who had been working for the German edition of Vogue magazine, to America as art director for House & Garden, Vanity Fair, and the senior edition of Vogue. Considered avant-garde at the time, Agha introduced sans-serif typefaces, the practice of bleeding photos off the page, and the use of duotone images (black-and-white photos printed in two colors) followed by the first full-color photograph to grace Vogue magazine in 1932. But more importantly, he was the first advertising mind to view publications as a series of spreads, or what we tend to redundantly refer to as “double page spreads,” instead of a series of individual pages.

Agha would often plan out the design of editorial content before any photographs were taken, and at a time when magazine covers were strictly illustrated, with art directors often working with cartoonists or painters, he introduced entirely pictorial covers. His knowledge of photography—he often photographed images himself for his publications—brought multiple dimensions to his art directorial role and produced a higher-level of sophistication in the content of his magazines.

Agha later spent time as president of both the Art Directors Club (1935) and AIGA (1953-55). It was his use of full-color photographic covers for his publications that many identify him as the first modern art director in America, but in my opinion it was the revelation that combining type and photographs in a cohesive way to link adjacent pages of a feature into a spread proved his greatest contribution to design. Agha redefined the way a page works with this single idea, and it’s hard to imagine publication design of any kind that is unconscious of the spread.

Through my personal experience working for a magazine, most designers dread designing for editorial content that doesn’t begin on a left-hand page. In fact, we recently redesigned our publication, Illinois State, to be more conscious of spread design and open to more design freedom by condensing the amount of editorial content. To us, a designer’s dream. One year post-redesign, please enjoy a selection of double page editorial spreads from Illinois State in honor of Mehemed Fehmy Agha.

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