Sunday, January 29, 2012

From Montana to London

Montana-born artist Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890–1954) ranks as one of the most significant designers of the twentieth century, noted for his avant garde graphic design and poster art. With long years of living in London, connections to the artistic avant-garde in Britain and France put Kauffer at the forefront of developments in the visual language of advertising during the 1930s. Retrospective exhibitions of the artist’s work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Two airbrush illustrations from the 1930 book, World Polity in 2030; both illustrations show the artist working in the style of vorticism which favored machine-like forms.

A Lithograph titled Cricketer done in 1923

By the age of twenty Kauffer was living in San Francisco and studying art at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute. Through connections at the Art Institute, Professor Joseph McKnight of the University of Utah became aware of Kauffer and his work and chose to sponsor the young artist, paying for further study in Paris. In gratitude, Kauffer took his sponsor’s name as his own middle name.

Flea; Lithograph done in 1926 for the London Underground

Before leaving for Paris Kauffer studied briefly at the Art Institute of Chicago. While there he attended the much heralded Armory Show which introduced post-modernism to American audiences. The exhibition had a major impact on Kauffer, and many of the same styles showed up in his later career. He arrived in Paris in 1913 and studied at the Académie Moderne until 1914. He moved to London with the start of the World War, and remained there for the next twenty-six years. After only a year in London he had already become an extremely influential designer of posters, theatre costume, exhibition designs, murals, book illustrations, carpets and textiles. He and his wife-to-be Marion Dorn, also a designer, were a dynamic, glamorous couple in London’s art scene.

On the left is a lithograph from 1924 for Eno’s Fruit Salt; the right shows a lithograph for Gilbey’s Invalid Port done in 1933.

Kauffer is perhaps best known for the posters he produced for London Underground, and later London Transport. Those posters span a number of styles: many show abstract influences that include futurism, cubism, and vorticism, while others evoke the impressionist influence of Japanese woodcuts.

One in a series of illustrations done in 1946 for a 2-volume set on Edgar Allan Poe

The Lodger, 1926; tempura on paper

The artist returned to New York City in 1940 and sought work in advertising. He managed a few jobs designing posters for war relief agencies and the United Nations, but the atmosphere of the New York art world at the time was highly competitive and Kauffer struggled until 1947 when he was asked to do a series of posters for American Airlines. The airline continued to be his primary client until his death in 1954.

1931 lithograph, You Can Be Sure of Shell


  1. I like the straightforward design on the product ads. Hate to say I don't think I am very familiar with this artist and he "one of the most significant designers of the twentieth century." Your posts are always filling the gaps in my education; first some history of mayo and now a lesson on Kauffer. Please no homework but keep those lessons coming.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America