The pop art movement begun in the late 1950s and continued to rise in popularity within the creative world during the 1960s. The movement itself was inspired by commercial and popular culture in a way that birthed a new diverse response to the post war era. One of the most important characteristics of pop art to understand is the bidirectional relationship it has with product design.

Pop Art on a building - By Jadson Thomas - Pexels
Pop Art on a building – By Jadson Thomas – Pexels

The name of this particular design style is a strong contradiction in my opinion. Let me explain – the word ‘art’ is often characterized by complexity, originality and depth. In contrast, ‘pop’ or ‘popular’ is characterized by repetition, oversaturation and simplicity (not the good kind). With this in mind however, the name does seem to perfectly capture the essence of this design style. The contradiction and irony in of this style is perhaps what makes it so unique and loved. Pushing boundaries and combining concepts that wouldn’t normally be combined is what art is all about – isn’t it?

It might also be important to note that this style is not only great because of its name, and does in fact have a rich history and vibrant nature that is loved by many today. The appeal of pop art had endured for decades now, countering the notion of what ‘fine art’ means.

Despite knowing the general basis of what pop art is, it’s a good idea to have a clear understanding of its history, its creative predecessors, what characterizes it and how it has influenced different industries . That’s where we come in – in this ultimate guide we’re going to be breaking down everything that is Pop Art! Touching on its place in the design world today, its characteristics, its presence in British and American culture, as well as the various worlds in which it exists, we’re going to cover it all.

In this post, we’re gonna dive right into the Pop Art design style in all its forms. Get ready!

Pop Art in Britain and America

The term Pop art originated in the United Kingdom sometime during the mid 1950s. Many would consider British pop art to be older than American pop art, but history shows that British pop art was in fact inspired by American pop culture. It seemed as though Pop art was a British term for American art.

Pop art in the United States emerged towards the end of the 1950s in a much more aggressive fashion. Taking from the source of American pop culture itself, pop artists of the time wanted to be inclusive and reflect the lifestyle of contemporary America. Pop art spread throughout America and Europe too, seemingly taking over the world! In France, pop art was termed ‘new realism’. The emergence of pop art did in fact create some tension between the Americans and the French, as American art dominating the art world casted a shadow on others.

Art for the People

Despite being critiqued for having a ‘low’ level of subject matter that was considered to be treated uncritically, pop art was in fact art for the masses. Inspired by the people, the concept of fame and most importantly – mass production – Pop art was a force to be reckoned with. With Andy Warhol as well-known figure in pop art, it was clear that this art movement was just as styles of Impressionism or Surrealism. Warhol himself was part of the society that he critiqued, which was an important factor when creating art that people can relate to. The way that pop art was produced mirrored the repetition and mass production of the time.

The Impact of Pop Art on Design

As I’m sure you know, art and design and always integrally linked. With the bright colour schemes of pop art emerging in commercial graphics, it was no surprise that pop art began to expand into other design spheres rather quickly. With pop art using every day, ordinary items as its subject matter, designers were influenced by this. They explored new avenues, experimenting with completely new objects and ideas as the focal points of their designs.

From the beginning, pop art and business were similarly linked. Artists and designers that were influenced by the movement had a goal of creating something both visually appealing as well as successful within the commercial world. With this being said, it’s no surprise that pop art began to make its way into a variety of different design spheres such as pop art furniture and pop art fashion. Today, traces of pop art can be seen in even more forms including photography, advertising, product and packaging design and decorative elements.

Why is pop art controversial?

Pop Art is a controversial art form that challenged traditional artistic values and conventions. The shift from traditional subjects to more modern topics appalled critics and unsettled those with established artistic tastes. Pop Art also questioned society’s values, encouraging people to think critically about the world around them. Its bright colours and bold designs challenged norms, pushing boundaries that had remained static for centuries. Despite its controversy, Pop Art has had a lasting impact on art history, inspiring generations of artists to explore new avenues and express themselves through their work.

The Characteristics of Pop Art

Some design styles are not necessarily always identifiable and may take some time to get familiar with. This however, is not the case for pop art. When it comes to anything pop art, you’ll definitely know it when you see it! The juxtaposition of mundane objects as subject matter and the bright, eye catching aesthetics creates a dichotomy within design that is almost impossible to miss.

As we mentioned earlier, the design style of pop art was a rebellion against the epic themes of art at the time. When it comes to pop art, you won’t be seeing any references to history, mythology or religion as it actively rejected these themes in art.

Many famous pop artists, like Andy Warhol, had backgrounds in graphic design. This meant that their art was exceptionally eye catching, vibrant and a true feast for your eyes! With that being said, it’s nice to have a sense of surety when identifying examples of pop art, so we’ve put together a list of some defining characteristics of this style.

  • Use of vivid colours
  • Attention grabbing typography
  • Unconventional shapes, lines, patterns and textures
  • Imagery of mass media, pop culture, commercial culture and advertising
  • Mundane everyday objects as subject matter
  • Populist tone
  • Incorporation of stylized drawings and illustrations
  • A collection of multiple themes, media and influences
  • Seemingly passionless, withdrawn from the contemporary world
  • A younger target audience

Below we’ve included a few examples of classic pop art in which these characteristics can be seen

Pop Art Artists

In this section of this article I’m gonna let you in on some of our favourite pop artists, sharing a little more about them and their work. Do you have a favourite? Let’s dive in!

Pauline Boty

Pop artist Pauline Boty was in fact the original founder of the Pop art movement in Britain. She often incorporated imagery of publicity headshots of different celebrities in her work. She then created a contrast with the subject matter by using elements like rose petals and bright colours to express a sense of sensuality. Her later work was more critical and included well known images of famous men. These pieces depicted these men as the building blocks to governmental institutions and warfare.

The Only Blonde in The World by Pauline Boty - 1963 - via Tate - London
The Only Blonde in The World by Pauline Boty – 1963 – via Tate – London

Rosalyn Drexler

This pop artist dominates in a number of disciplines including art, wrestling and writing. In a similar way to Pauline Boty, Drexler constructed her paintings out of collages images and bright, eye catching colours. She incorporated pulp movie posters and painted over them using bold colours.

Rosalyn Drexler - Self-Portrait - 1964 - private collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody - Artist’s website.
Rosalyn Drexler – Self-Portrait – 1964 – private collection of Beth Rudin DeWoody – Artist’s website.

Andy Warhol

I’m sure it’s no surprised that Andy Warhol made it onto our list of favourite pop artists. Now known worldwide as a pop art celebrity, Andy Warhol made iconic contributions to the pop art community. Despite depicting iconic celebrities in his world, Andy Warhol himself began to become an iconic celebrity himself. At the time, his work seemed to encapsulate what pop art really was.

One of the most recognizable and well known works of Warhol is his famous piece Campbells Soup Cans (1962). This piece featured a reproduction and repetition of tomato soup cans in rows and columns. Symbolically, this piece was an artistic mirror of supermarket stock.

Andy Warhol - Marilyn
Andy Warhol – Marilyn Diptych

Another notable piece by Warhol – Marilyn Diptych (1962) was the pioneer for silk screening in pop art. The piece features reproduced and repeated portraits of Marilyn Monroe at the height of her fame. The prints start off in bright, vivid colours and then slowly fade to black and white, to nothing.  

Keith Haring

Another well-known artist from the pop culture movement that we just had to include in our list of favourites – Keith Haring. Like Warhol, he made a significant impact on the pop art industry, particularly for his work with colour and shape. Haring revived the pop art movement in the 1980s with his humanoid figures that seemed to emphasize the reproduction and repetition within the commercial industry.

untitled artwork by Keith Haring - Editions Lithograph - haring.com
untitled artwork by Keith Haring – Editions Lithograph – haring.com

Rather quickly, as his paintings rose to fame, his murals and pop shop merchandise were increasingly popular within society. His work included themes like apartheid and queer discrimination as a form of spreading awareness of such society issues.

Resources

We hope that after reading this post you understand a little more about what the pop art design style really is, where it came from and how it manifested in a number of creative spheres.

We’ve provided some of our favourite pop art inspired resources here.

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