For an entire decade, no artist dominated more bedroom walls of bachelor pads than Patrick Nagel. You’ve no doubt seen his sleek, illustrative style featuring a dark-haired seductress, pale-skinned and suggestively posed. His work adorned the walls of galleries and the pages of Playboy magazine, but how did it become the work most closely associated with (mostly discount) nail salons?
Patrick Nagel was born in 1945 in Dayton, Ohio, raised in Orange County, California and attended art school in the late 1960s at the Chouinard Art Institute, and Cal State Fullerton. Nagel started working as a commercial artist in LA, and created ads for many large clients like IBM. Mid-way through the 1970’s, Nagel began creating illustrations for Playboy Magazine, and that work, coupled with a new-wave LA style of graphic art, shaped the work we know Nagel for today.
From the years 1976 to his death in 1984, Nagel created over 400 original works of his signature woman. Usually bare-chested, with a wink and a perfectly shaped brow, the Nagel woman gained massive mainstream popularity with her in-your-face sexuality. Nagel usually began his process from a photograph of a model, then created a drawing, distilling down the model’s beauty into the most graphic lines and curves. The resulting work became the new pin-up for many in the 1980’s; a distant, attractive, self-possessed woman.
Nagel’s art reflected the times. The 1980’s were a prosperous time for many, with a good economy, a thriving art scene, and the search for status. Original Nagel works were highly-sought after, as were the licensed reproductions, but the demand grew exponentially after Nagel’s sudden death in 1984, at the age of 38. Shortly after, Nagel’s publisher flooded the market as the demand peaked, and unauthorized knock-offs started popping up alongside posters and merchandise. Nagel’s work was everywhere.
The influence on popular culture cannot be denied. From the model “band” in Robert Palmer’s iconic “Addicted to Love” video, to the cover of Duran Duran’s album “Rio,” to covers of many contemporary magazines, the Nagel woman shined like a beacon of aspirational beauty. This could be why the image jumped off of bedroom walls and into the windows of hair and nail salons around the world.
We can only guess what was the tipping point that sent Patrick Nagel-inspired work into the windows of salons, and kept it there for over a decade. Maybe someone made the connection that “Nagel” means “nail” in German?
With the nail salon industry booming in large cities, especially New York, Nagel-inspired artwork began appearing in window displays. Using the old adage of projecting the image of the client you want to attract, the now counterfeit image of the Nagel woman was the ultimate client. Wearing long red enhancements, the illustrations played off of women’s desire to make herself in that image. The pull was easy and the sale made sense. Come to the nail salon, and leave looking like the object of everyone’s desires; elegant, sexy, and perfectly polished.
As the image of the Nagel woman became over-saturated, the rest of the world moved on to the 90’s. Fashion changed, generally rejecting the large amount of makeup and over hair-sprayed styles of the 80’s. However nail salons didn’t. The posters stayed in the windows, slowly fading in the sunlight. Salons became one of the last places where you’d see a Nagel-esque woman, slyly smiling at passerby with her high collar and long nails. Unfortunately, many who look back on Nagel’s work see only the heavy 1980’s influence, and some critics have dubbed it “cheesy” and “pervy, mall art.” This poor perception, and the rejection of the Nagel style stayed tied to nail salons, and is one of the strongest associations with Nagel’s work.
The Nagel style has begun a recent renaissance, showing up again on clothing and various merchandise. A new show on Comedy Central called “Moonbeam City,” starring Rob Lowe, is an animated show that can’t deny the Nagel influence. An amalgam of Miami Vice, art deco, and the Nagel style, the show looks as sleek as the original work.
It is not known which nail salon originally displayed a Nagel-inspired poster, but the nail salon industry is inextricably linked to Patrick Nagel’s imagery, and is a lasting part of his legacy.