Cubist design, one of the most well-known design trends in history, turned the world of art upside down in the early 20th century. Cubism boldly refused to fade along with two vast ideas of its day: that art should emulate nature and that artists should subject themselves to techniques like modeling, perspective, and foreshortening.
Instead, Cubist design assessed objects, deconstructed them, and finally place them back together in a highly abstract form. The terminate result was that viewers saw these objects through the lens of numerous viewpoints as opposed to just one, bestowing on the subject a farther-reaching context.
The list of names associated with this design trend reads like a who’s who of design greats, including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Georges Braque.
Because of its groundbreaking, recent style, Cubism would influence the development of subsequent trends that would also greatly shape the 20th century. Movements like Art Deco, De Stijl design, and Futurism own Picasso and his friends to thank for their rise.
This deep dive into this style takes a glimpse at everything from its history and influences to its characteristics and enduring legacy.
The History of Cubist Design
As with various late 19th century and early 20th century movements in design, Cubism was only current for a relatively short period of time, which is surprising when you deem about it. This movement—which today many people own at least heard of in some way, shape, or form—only enjoyed a shelf life of less than two decades, measured by its popularity.
This relatively short lease on life can in section be ascribed to the tumultuous times of European culture in those days, when wars like the First World War—lasting from 1914 to 1918—created upheaval and uncertainty, but also gave artists something to react to and against. In all likelihood, immersing oneself in the creative pursuits of this recent design movement also provided some much-needed escapism from the harshness of war.
Image Source: Wikipedia
One of the earliest flashpoints for what would become Cubism can be found in the works of Cezanne, the French Post-Impressionist painter, and artist. In the years leading up to the birth of the recent movement, Cezanne was obsessed with putting art in the context of something more abstract rather than natural. In addition to his appreciation of geometric structure, he revolutionized how he applied paint to canvas. Instead of sticking with classicism, Cezanne moved to painting works that showed off a strong patchwork effect, which included overlapping effects and random or arbitrary textures and contrasts.
In doing so, he laid the foundations for Cubism, with his penchant for rebellious art and design experimentation in full bloom and on full display.
For more ideas and inspiration on what comprise the essentials of this movement, see our large selection of Cubism-related digital assets:
Historians like Douglas Cooper, author of the classic The Cubist Epoch, split up Cubism into three famous and short phases: Proto-Cubism (beginning), High Cubism (peak), and Late Cubism (petering out).
The First Phase: 1907 to 1908
In this year, the famous building blocks that would eventually give rise to this design trend proper would be place into plot. Proto-Cubism would allow the early artists of this movement the freedom to start experimenting as they gradually became more radical in their designs.
1907 sees the first major work of Cubism by none other than Picasso, his famed and controversial work titled Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (The Young Ladies of Avignon). In this piece, five prostitutes from a Barcelona brothel are depicted in heavy paint, angular geometric forms, and from a multi-perspective viewpoint (a trademark of Cubist design). Its legacy today is that it’s recognized as being vital in the early development of not just Cubism, but also modern art.
Image Source: Wikipedia
Other seminal works in this style soon joined Picasso’s powerful piece.
In 1908, Braque’s Maisons a l’Estaque (Houses at l’Estaque), a landscape painting that also gave rise to the name of the movement. In this work, houses and trees are depicted without any form of perspective. Its heavy utilize of simple, geometric shapes and angular, sharp edges led an art critic of the time, Louis Vauxcelles, to brand it as being made up of cubes…hence creating the name of the movement.
At this juncture, it’s necessary to point out that another prominent design trend—Impressionism, the late 19th-century style that came to prominence in France—also got its name from a sneering art critic mocking the avant-garde approaches of its painters. A pattern that we see again and again with trends that become legendary is the initial resistance by the establishment and elites of the time, who dismissed these recent techniques completely, often resulting in eventual damage to their credibility.
The Second Phase: 1909 to 1914
By 1909, when American novelist and playwright Gertrude Stein called Picasso’s 1909 paintings the first, sincere Cubist paintings, this recent design trend was already in full swing. In 1911, Picasso was regarded as the inventor of this recent style, and, in the same year, the very first exhibition of Cubist design was held at Salle 41 at the Salons des Independants (an annual and huge exhibition in Paris). It featured pieces by:
- Albert Gleizes
- Jean Metzinger
- Robert Delauney
- Fernand Leger
This was the High Cubism phase, when the movement was really coming into its own.
The Salle 41 exhibition was a notable achievement for the then-nascent movement, as it displayed Cubist works to the public for the very first time.
Also in 1911, the Salon d’Automne featured more Cubist works, this time showcasing paintings by:
- Marcel Duchamp
- Frantisek Kupka
- Andre Lhote
- Jacques Villon
The exhibition garnered the attention of the recent York Times, exposing American audiences to what was happening in Europe with this recent style. Titled The “Cubists” Dominate Paris’ plunge Salon, the article made clear to even audiences overseas that this recent approach to painting and looking at the world drew the most attention at the Paris exhibition.
More strong showings by Cubist artists would continue in the following years.
At 1912’s Salon des Independants showing, Duchamp’s now-classic Nu descendant un escalier n 2 (Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2) created ripples of shock among the audience, even among fellow adherents of this recent technique, primarily for two reasons: its reference to nudity and its closeness to the Futurist technique of painting.
Other Cubists made headlines at subsequent exhibitions in 1912.
Image Source: Prague.eu
For instance, Kupka’s pair of submissions at the 1912 Salon d’Automne were excessively abstract, to the point that they were almost entirely non-representational in form. His Amorpha-Fugue à deux couleurs and Amorpha chromatique chaude were open to interpretation and very metaphysical in concept.
If you were any kind of luminary in this movement, you had to also either be a member of or reveal your work at the Section d’Or, the association of painters, designers, and artists involved with this movement. Active from 1911 to 1914, this Section d’Or place on an October 1912 exhibition in Paris that was the most significant Cubist exhibition before World War I. What set apart this 1912 reveal was its retrospective of major Cubist contributions from 1909 to 1912, therefore signaling the movement’s intention to design its body of achievement comprehensible to its audience of the public, critics, art collectors, and dealers.
The Third and Final Phase: 1914 to 1921
Now in its twilight, this design trend underwent a notable change in course from 1914 onwards. Late Cubism was marked by the so-called Crystal Cubism mini-movement of 1914 to 1918. Though the most revolutionary aspects of this trend occurred prior to 1914, 1914 to 1916 saw the movement try to reinvent itself somewhat by focusing on flat surface activity and vast, overlapping geometric elements.
The resulting artworks featured:
- Tighter compositions
- A greater order and unity to the works
- Clearer compositions
The significance of the shift in design was that previously famous design elements were now abandoned. These included:
- Modern life’s dynamism
- The theory of consciousness and time
- The occult
- The exploration of a fourth dimension
Instead, the movement now embraced an entirely formal reference point. This change in Cubism’s philosophy also coincided with a broader switch by French society to a more conservative point of view in the years following World War I.
By the mid-1920s, it had dash its course: Its previously unconventional and piquant claim to fame was now being severely challenged by the advent of Surrealism design, with its emphasis on the artist’s dreams, automatic writing, and dormant state of mind. While Cubist design did see a brief spike in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, largely through the efforts of American Modernist painter Stuart Davis and English abstract painter Ben Nicholson, the movement had essentially petered out by the close of the 1920s.
Image Source: Wikipedia
A final, piquant note on Cubist design’s heyday was its influence on Asia. By the 1920s, Japanese and Chinese painters who studied in France during the design movement’s rise brought back with them its unique influences. These can best be seen in Japanese artist’s Tetsugoro Yorozu’s 1912 artwork, Self Portrait with Red Eyes, and Chinese artist Fang Ganmin’s 1934 piece, Melody in Autumn.
The Characteristics of Cubism
This style is recognizable to anyone almost immediately due to its idiosyncratic design tendencies. To deliver that this trend is quite abstract is an understatement! It blows the notion of abstraction away with its dedication to attempting to reveal various viewpoints of an object all simultaneously. Its obsession with geometric shapes also helps to easily identify it.
You know you’re looking at Cubist design if it features the following:
- Hard angles
- Sharp edges
- Geometric shapes (squares, rectangles, triangles, etc.)
- Multiple perspective or viewpoints (as opposed to the prevailing convention of a singular, fixed viewpoint)
- Deconstruction and subsequent reassembly of objects
- Focus on the 2D aspects of a plane
- Depiction of metaphysical or intellectual forms of objects, as well as their relationships to others
- Bold, vibrant colors
- Simplicity and minimalism
It’s helpful to understand the number of overlaps this movement’s characteristics share with other design trends that were active at around the same time.
For example, Futurism, which was active in Italy, produced designs that share a striking similarity to Picasso’s and Braque’s works. The same thing can be said, though to a lesser degree, about Art Deco, with its geometric influences and utilize of shapes like chevrons.
At the same time, it’s instructive to see how far apart Cubist design was from other current movements that had left their notice on the world at around the same time. One of the biggest contrasts can be found with Art Nouveau, a design style that emphasized nature and natural elements (flowers, trees, women). Its support of using the environment as inspiration in its designs couldn’t be more at odds with Picasso’s movement.
Similarly, Scandinavian design, which would become current only a few decades later, and its focus on using the natural elements all around us had a philosophical, intractable conflict with Cubism’s commitment to getting away from nature in its artworks.
Cubist Design in Graphic Design
This movement applied to graphic design can produce some very aesthetic results that are at once memorable and invite further study.
Set of Abstract Geometric Shapes
In this digital asset, Cubism’s penchant for geometry has been celebrated to the extreme with a collection of vector geometric shapes. A remarkable example of the hard lines, sharp angles, and sure edges of this style, this set showcases bigger designs that are made up of individual triangles, quadrilaterals, trapezoids, squares, and other forms.
These shapes are a perfect complement to any design project such as:
This illustration epitomizes what this design trend stands for: a reassembled reimagining of an object everyone’s already familiar with. In this case, it’s a violinist whose head, face, body, and musical instrument are all like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, fitted together for stylistic purposes.
Very much still a 2D graphic, this illustration nonetheless, like many Cubist pieces, almost gives off a 3D effect, precisely because of the layered and overlapping effect of the reassembled parts of the original concept.
The addition of the vibrant colors and patterns is a bonus touch that also speaks to the visual textures within this movement.
Cubism Mosaic Alphabet
For a fun spin on this style, this typography package takes advantage of the trend’s unique appearance and presents it in a highly piquant font that your clients soon won’t forget. Compatible with Adobe Illustrator, this digital asset lets you explore how your messaging will be more effective if it has a touch of Cubism in it.
The letters in this set are perfect for a whole range of creative projects, including:
- Party posters
- Greeting cards
Try it today.
Cubist Design in Web Design
Web design isn’t beyond this movement’s reach. Although far removed from the 21st century when it first sprung onto the scene in the early 1900s, it’s caught up with pop culture, and you’d be surprised to see what cubist website design is out there…especially in apps.
This app makes it a cinch for you to create polygon art accurate on your smartphone. Inspired by Picasso, Cezanne and the rest of the greats, the app is actually an image-editing platform that lets you transform ordinary pictures into Cubism-inspired artworks.
Image Source: The App Store
It features a range of filters and effects that serve you create that unmistakable, broken-apart and reassembled glimpse of Picasso’s style. It also comes with a slick feature where you can see your image turn into a Cubist work in real-time, so whether you’re working with an image of a housecat, wildlife or a boat, you can add geometric shapes with ease.
When you name your app after Picasso himself, you’d better deliver a Cubist experience. In that regard, Vision Picasso delivers on all fronts. A photo and video app, it automatically changes whatever you’re looking at with your smartphone into a painting Picasso would own created. All you own to carry out is point your camera at the scene, and you’re all set.
Image Source: The App Store
Imagine being able to glimpse at scenes as mundane as your local street corner or a schoolbus—and then own them turn into Cubist masterpieces in a bustle.
Cubist Design in Interior Design
Even interiors aren’t safe from this design trend’s reach. Various structures around the world own their interiors decorated according to this trend’s sensibilities. Here are just a couple of them.
Grand Café Orient
Located in Prague, the Grand Café Orient lays claims to interiors that are a noteworthy contributor to Czech-style Cubism. Not only does this spot serve up tasty treats, but it also houses a museum on Cubism in the same location! Its signature dish is the “venecek” custard-filled pastry, which is served up in square form.
Image Source: Grand Cafe Orient
Its interiors boast herringbone flooring (complete with triangular and chevron-style influences); booths with sharp edges and corners; chandeliers with that undeniable multi-perspective, reassembled glimpse; and ceilings with geometric shapes.
Tokyo Cubist House
Designer Kazuyazu Kochi’s transformation of a house into a Cubist design masterpiece in Tokyo’s Chiba suburb is indeed a sight to behold. The house’s interiors glimpse like they could easily own been painted by Picasso or Braque in their 2D masterpieces.
Image Source: Architectural Digest
With its shimmering colors and vibrant aesthetics, the interior design of this home screams Cubism. It features sharp angles; unexpected cutouts in walls that create the style’s telltale overlapping effect; geometric forms galore; and a sense of different perspectives being pieced together as one interior unit.
All told, it’s worth a visit just to feel what it would be like to actually walk inside of a Picasso painting.
Seeing the World From Different Perspectives
What made Cubist design so powerful and jarring when it was first shown to the public was its design philosophy. Its proponents wanted viewers to glimpse at the world from the standpoint of multiple perspectives instead of just the conventional, singular viewpoint. From there, the technique of deconstructing objects and then reassembling them from numerous perspectives was born.
Thanks to the genius of Picasso, Cezanne, and Braque, to name just a few of this trend’s heavyweights, we can now appreciate the aesthetic splendor of geometric forms combined with reassembled objects.
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