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Saul Steinberg

Words by Charlie Adams
Images credited to Tickety-Boo photography by www.beckphotographic.com

When asked if I have any hobbies, I tend to have a one word answer – ‘vintage’. From the films I choose to watch, learning to jive dance and attending events to spending my time hunting for vintage items to add to my collection, I have time for little else.

My vintage lifestyle started with the love and collection of 1950s clothing. The clothes suited my personality much more than modern items and was the start of my knowledge of different styles, brands and prints. I soon discovered novelty border prints and fell in love, setting aside generic clothing as these were something special, being true conversational pieces of art. There are novelty prints for every theme imaginable, from scenic to animals, musical instruments and even Disney characters; you can find a print that matches your own unique taste. For me, one print designer stands out among all the rest, whose fabric is the pride of my vintage clothing collection – the work of Saul Steinberg.

Best known for his illustrations in The New Yorker, Saul Steinberg’s art had no limits, ranging from detailed to basic line drawings, from front covers, exhibition pieces, wall paper and fabric.

Saul was born in Romania in 1914, son of Jewish parents Moritz and Rosa Steinberg who owned a printing shop, thus from an early age Saul was accustomed to the form of printed art. Due to the anti-Semitic attitudes of Romania, Saul went to study architecture in Milan; while studying he had his first satirical cartoons published in the Italian Newspaper, Bertoldo, abandoning the custom style of cartoon to replace with his own. Sadly by 1938 the new Fascist racial laws denied Saul and all Jews from working in Italy; he still received his degree in 1940 and then faced the hardship of finding a safe place for refuge. After many setbacks, including six weeks in an internment camp, he finally gained an US visa in 1942 with New York being his new home.[1]

Saul’s drawings were the answer to his predicament. While he was still searching for refuge they were being printed in US periodicals such as Harper’s Bazaar and LIFE, thanks to Cesar Civita, an agent he had known in Milan. Cesar was responsible for Saul’s first piece in The New Yorker in October 1941, with The New Yorker sponsoring his entry into the US. Upon Saul’s arrival in NY he remained a New Yorker artist, even when commissioned in the Navy he still sent in artwork.[2]

As before, Saul neglected The New Yorkers conventional carton format, replacing it with his purer line drawings. These comical illustrations had no gag lines, being elegant and wholly relying on the pictorial graphics[3]. Steinberg’s “presence on a page was as distinct and for-its-own-sake as that of Picasso on a museum wall. Steinberg turned the magazine page into a venue for art.”[4]

Saul’s artistic talent and imaginative conceptions soon gave him fame, gaining his first recognition of being a true artist in 1946 when the Museum of Modern Art included his work in their show “Fourteen Americans”[5]. With his building popularity, many companies wanted to use and sell his work. Although Saul was not a fan of commercialism, he was financially assisting his parents residing in Romania, causing the high pay of commensal work to allure him[6]. He established a long-running contract with Hallmark Cards[7] and was hired by many advertising agencies to sell perfumes, cars, piping, Simplicity Patterns and many others. Most importantly to me, fabric manufacturers saw the appeal in using his designs; he soon designed images for Greeff Fabrics and Patterson Fabrics, who also printed them as wallpaper via their affiliate Piazza Prints.[8]

The products of these companies are official Saul Steinburg designs, with most of the fabric being produced for homewares. However, Saul also made deals with other companies for unattributed fabrics, most notably for Regulated Cottons in their Never Misbehaves collection. The Regulated Cottons fabric was used to produce clothing, with the majority being novelty border prints, and my favourite skirts were created. There were many fabrics in the Never Misbehaves range, each given their own title such as ‘Tin Horn Holiday’ or ‘Paddington Station’.[9]

Saul went on to have a long career in the arts, continually reinventing himself. Living in New York for most his life, his witty incentive take on American life was his main influence. The American public from the 50s onwards admired his sharp and ironic school of satirical illustration. His 1976 ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’ was considered one of America’s most famous drawings, depicting New Yorkers’ short sightedness towards the rest of the world, with Manhattan being the only place of importance; this was widely copied and cities all over the globe made their own versions. Saul’s place in the art world was never confirmed. With his constant crossing of boundaries, from low to fine art, cartoons to sculptures, he was unable to be categorised – the only thing agreed upon was his talent. Saul died in 1999, appearing in The New Yorker for over half a decade.[10]

Saul Steinberg’s art is very distinctive and unmistakable; it has a playful childlike charm to it while maintaining elegance and the graphic precision of an architect throughout. His humour and social observations transgressed over a wide range of subjects and materials. Saul said that drawing is “a way of reasoning on paper”,[11] describing himself as “a writer who draws”[12]; for me this transgresses on to his fabrics – they are not merely cloth but works of art, each with a story to be told.

I find his prints the perfect match to my taste. Avoiding the dainty and subtle, they are bold and full of expression. I won’t bore you with describing them for words would not do them justice, for example saying how the cowboy’s boots on the Tin Horn Holiday print can brighten any mood sounds like nonsense, but wait until you see it. For me, my Saul Steinberg collection isn’t just a pile of clothes, each one is a piece of art and a small piece of history. Whatever your hobbies or collections are, you should be passionate about and receive much enjoyment from them. Saul Steinberg novelty prints achieve this for me, I hope yours do the same.

Photo Credit: Peter Brown @ TicketyBoo Photography

Special thanks to Rachel Wilkie @ Vintage Hoards

[1] http://saulsteinbergfoundation.org/essay/early-years-bucharest-milan/

[2] http://saulsteinbergfoundation.org/essay/world-war-ii/

[3] http://saulsteinbergfoundation.org/essay/the-new-yorker/

[4] Smith, Saul Steinberg: Illuminations, pp. 36-37. 2016

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/13/arts/saul-steinberg-epic-doodler-dies-at-84.html

[6] http://saulsteinbergfoundation.org/essay/textiles-advertising-work/

[7] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/12/03/life-lines-2 LIFE LINES: The art of Saul Steinberg. By Peter Schjeldahl

[8] http://saulsteinbergfoundation.org/essay/textiles-advertising-work/

[9] https://thevintagetraveler.wordpress.com/tag/saul-steinberg/

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/1999/05/13/arts/saul-steinberg-epic-doodler-dies-at-84.html

[11] http://saulsteinbergfoundation.org/

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Steinberg

Lisa Harrison

Lisa Harrison

Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!