Pages from "The Weber Process," promotional brochure for the Martin J. Weber Studio, c. 1952
When he died on June 9, Martin J. Weber was 102. You may not know his name. I didn't. Like other toilers in the art service bullpens of New York who lacked a modernist pedigree, he was never celebrated by the AIGA or inducted into the Art Directors Hall of Fame. But his contributions helped define the look of mid-century American commercial art.
Martin Weber was a graphic artist, typographer and art director. Most importantly, he was the inventor of photographic techniques that gave two-dimensional surfaces the illusion of being reproduced in three dimensions. The most widely used of what were known as The Weber Process was a technique I used countless times in the pre-computer (Stat King) days, but never knew who invented it or when. Known as "posterization," a term he apparently coined, it was frequently employed back when four-color separations were too costly or only poor-quality black and white photos were available. Posterization gave otherwise mundane imagery a needed burst of expressive color.
In 1942 Weber initially patented a novel photographic device that took standard gothic lettering and changed its appearance by expanding, compressing, ballooning, tilting, shadowing, and arcing. It made difficult typographic manipulations much easier, and eventually helped launch a trend in special effects lettering mostly found in newspaper and magazine advertisements. He continued to invent and another of his signature methods converted continuous tone photographs including portraits, landscapes, and product shots into fine line renderings that looked like pen and ink and scratch board, and steel engraving. How many times have you seen it and never gave the originator a thought?
But admittedly the jewel in the crown of The Weber Process was his posterization method, a rather simple means of converting continuous tone black and white or color photographs (or negatives) into a series of three or four flat colors, each printed slightly off register, which made the result appear multi-dimensional and spring off the printed page. It was fairly common during the forties and fifties, but as a low-cost way of simulating multiple color reproduction and achieving eye-catching results, posterization was widely adopted particularly during the late Sixties and especially among underground newspaper designers and rock poster artists to "psychedelicize" their artwork. Just check out the current "Summer of Love" exhibition at the Whitney Museum and you'll see Weber's unintentional legacy.
Born in New York in 1905, Martin Jack Weber attended Art Students League before starting his career as a hand letterer of silent film title cards in New York and an art director for Carey Press, a small printer. In 1933 he opened Martin J. Weber Studios on Madison Avenue as an art and production service for advertising and editorial clients. A decade or so later, he added the newly established TV networks CBS, ABC, and NBC to his client roster, rendering their earliest on-air nameplates and station identifiers before their more famously durable logos were designed by the likes of William Golden and Paul Rand>. In 1934 he became art director for only a year of the influential graphic arts magazine, PM, but returned in 1942 after it changed its name to AD to design its final cover the classic sculpture of the American Minuteman standing against red, white and blue which signaled the debut of posterization.
Weber's own logo, a rather smartly composed high contrast drawing of bellows camera facing an artist's palette with his initials (M and W) dropped out in white, underscored his distinctive machine age marriage of painted and drawn art and photography into a stark hybrid form. Well suited for print reproduction, it also worked extremely well with primitive black and white TV scanners, so his studio was frequently commissioned to design television program identities for sponsors like Monsanto, Celanese Corporation, Esso, Nash Autos, and Formica, as well as Old Gold, Chesterfield, and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
He also produced dimensional art from famous photographs of presidents and celebrities for use in ads, and in the early fifties Weber re-rendered the New York Times corporate seal on the editorial page to give it a dimensional look, which was used for many years thereafter. In 1962 he transformed a photograph of Dag Hammarskjöld into an engraving for a 4-cent U.S. stamp that earned notoriety when an inverted version was printed and distributed in error (the postal service immediately reprinted the inverted stamp and flooded the market so the originals would decrease in value). In 1976 he collaborated with the sculptor Kaare K. Nygaard to design a U.N. stamp commemorating refugees.
Martin Weber continued to work until he was 80. For the subsequent twenty-two years he may have been forgotten, but his processes made history.
Steven Heller is co-chair of SVA's MFA Designer as Author Program and editor of AIGA Voice. Heller is currently writing Iron Fists: Branding the Totalitarian State to be published by Phaidon Press in 2008. His website is hellerbooks.com.