Why is there no interest in Rudolf Modley?

Page from ‘A Pictographic History of War’ by Modley, 1944

Page from A history of the war, in maps, in pictographs, in words by Modley, 1943


Helped by the rising interest in infographics, Neuraths’ Isotype has become popular in the Netherlands lately. Characteristic of this interest was a large exhibition held at the Central Museum in Utrecht in 2008. It prominently featured Isotype as a starting point for the development of a ‘visual language’.

Dutch have a tradition in studying Isotype. Its inventor, the social scientist Otto Neurath, used to live in the Hague between 1934 and 1940. After his flight to England, the designer of Isotype’s symbols Gerd Arntz, remained in the Netherlands, eventually transferring his archive to the The Hague Municipal Museum.

This prominent heritage makes it easy for Dutch to overlook other interesting persons involved with Isotope, like Rudolf Modley. In a way he could be to the United States what Arntz is for the Netherlands: an early figurehead for symbol system development.

Modley used to work at Neuraths’ Museum Mundaneum in Vienna in the nineteen twenties. In 1930 he went to the United States where he founded Pictorial Statistics Inc. in 1934 in Chicago. This company propagated a more illustrative approach to Isotype, adjusting Isotype to American culture.

He is best known for A history of the war, in maps, in pictographs, in words produced in 1942. Beautiful illustrations showed the course of war visually. Also he published in 1976 the Handbook of Pictorial Symbols. Since then it has known several reprints by the Dover Press.

Remarkably there is not much known about him. Archives or family members seem to be missing. And this is exactly what makes Modley so fascinating. Contrary to the Netherlands where from the 1970s onwards several designers and researchers have taken an interest in Arntz, Modley and his heritage seem to have disappeared form the earth.

Where are the lost Modley-tapes? Where are the young American designers and researchers taking an interest in Modley?

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