Today, we’re taking a look back at that hazy yet brilliant period of artistic fluorescence: the later 1960s. Specifically, we wanted to explore the phenomenon of psychedelic design—a style that nowadays gets recycled often in commercial work, while its original history threatens to fade from collective memory.
The history of psychedelic design is of course vast: it crossed countless borders and dominated the graphic arts for a good decade, between the mid 1960s and the mid 1970s. To keep this post manageable, we’re going to focus on the movement in the United States, where it flourished the most, around its high water mark, 1967—the year that Victor Moscoso designed no fewer than 60 posters in 8 months. And who said hippies were lazy?
But the story begins about 80 years earlier.
Consider some of the primary attributes of psychedelic art: fantastic subject matter, kaleidoscopic and spiral patterns, bright color, extreme detail, groovy typography. All of these can be found in the art and design of fin-de-siecle and early 20th century Europe; specifically, the movements of Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, and Surrealism.
It’s no coincidence: these are the movements that the psychedelic generation, many of whom were educated in art, looked to for inspiration.
Immediate influences: Op and Pop Art
Fast forward to the early 1960s, with the world of psychedelic design just on the cusp of coming into existence. At this time, art and design spectators in Britain and the United States were having their minds regularly blown by the achievements in Op Art, which exploits principles of optics to make paintings that seem to vibrate and move.
Pop Art was popular as well, using techniques of mass reproduction, such as silk-screening, to reconfigure the images of commodity culture. Both strategies would make a strong impact on the nascent psychedelic cohort.
Pyschedelia takes off in San Francisco
San Francisco—specifically the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood near Golden Gate Park—was by virtually every measure the epicenter of hippie culture in the United States.
Many artists, most famously Wes Wilson, Victor Moscoso and Bonnie MacLean, were headquartered here, and received a great number of commissions for poster designs from local rock ‘n roll concert venues like The Fillmore and the Bill Graham auditoriums.
Although lacking a hippie mecca on the order of Haight-Ashbury, L.A. claimed a large share of psychedelic artists, who often emphasized surf culture more than their Northern California counterparts. The most famous were John Van Hamersveld and Rick Griffin.
John Van Hamersveld
Rick Griffin was also a devoted contributor to “comix” like Zap
When one thinks of psychedelic art, it is the Californian work that jumps to mind. But that’s not to say that the movement didn’t reach the East Coast. On the contrary, artists in New York were developing their own aesthetic.
Two of them, Seymour Chwast and Milton Glaser, even teamed up to form Push Pin, one of the most important graphic design agencies of the 20th century.