EDWARD 'TED' MCKNIGHT KAUFFER was one of Britain’s most highly influential 20th Century Poster Artists and Graphic Designers. Beginning his professional life as a painter, Kauffer soon embraced poster art as a form of visual communication, enabling the public to view Modern Art through the display of his posters on the streets.
In the early 1900s, Kauffer lived in San Francisco and worked as a bookseller whilst studying at Art School in the evenings. At the shop he sparked up a good friendship with a regular customer who expressed keen interest in his paintings. Joseph McKnight, a professor at Utah University, saw great promise in Kauffer’s work and in 1912 offered to sponsor him. McKnight loaned him enough money to travel to Paris to continue his studies at Académie Moderne. In respect, Kauffer dutifully adopted ‘McKnight’ as his middle name.
En-route to Paris, Kauffer got the opportunity to see the Armory Show in Chicago in March 1913. This show introduced America to everything of importance in European post-impressionist painting at the time: Duchamp, Cezanne, Picasso, Gauguin, Matisse, Van Gogh, and Kandinsky. It was so unlike any art America had previously seen. The show opened Kauffer's eyes to the European masters and undoubtedly, proved influential on his work throughout his life.
Before reaching Paris, Kauffer visited Munich. Here, he was introduced to Poster Art’s contribution to a city and the potential for it to be recognised as an art form by both art enthusiasts and the general public alike. For Kauffer, Ludwig Hohlwein’s (1874-1949) work was a clear example of this. His work adorned the streets of Munich and certainly helped initiate the use of typography within Kauffer’s paintings.
While studying in Paris, Kauffer was able to view works by many artists, and took an interest in the various styles and techniques on show. However his time there was cut short by the outbreak of WWI. Reluctant to return to America immediately, he travelled with his then wife, Grace Erhlich, to Britain, where Kauffer felt immediately at home.
Once in London friends introduced Kauffer to Frank Pick, Publicity Manager for London Underground Electric Railways. The relationship lasted for the extent of Kauffer’s career in Britain, with Kauffer producing a tremendous 140 posters for London Transport. In 1915 Pick commissioned four landscape posters; ‘Oxhey Woods’, ‘In Watford’, ‘Reigate; Route 60’ and ‘North Down’s. Maintaining a very painterly style in these posters, it is possible to see influences of Van Gogh, most notably so in ‘Oxhey Woods’, and also of Japanese colour woodcuts in ‘In Watford’.
‘Flight’ (1919), arguably Kauffer’s most striking and widely recognised work, began as a black on white woodcut in 1916. Cubist in style and in homage to Vorticism, it grew out of extensive observation of birds in flight. A second version was completed in 1917, when small alterations and refinements were made; adding a boarder and smoothing out the wings of the birds emphasized flatness and helped stress the idea of fast onward movement. In 1919, the poster was snatched up by Labour’s newspaper; The Daily Herald, after being published in Colour Magazine’s Picture Gallery (the magazines own feature to help promote new poster artists). ‘Flight’ was given the caption; ‘Soaring to Success – The Early Bird’, hoping it would help symbolise post-war optimism.
Kauffer rapidly developed from traditional poster art towards what is recognised today as graphic design. ‘Winter Sales are best reached by Underground’, 1922, is one of several remarkable posters Kauffer designed for Pick as part of a ‘Winter Sales’ set between 1921-24. It is a wonderful example of Kauffer’s unique design-style. It revives his early influences from Vorticist and Japanese woodcuts, its abstracted forms of raincoats and umbrellas and its diagonal impression of wind and rain together create an intelligent and eye-catching pattern that would have equal rights if displayed at any reputable art gallery instead of on an Underground poster- hoarding.
Kauffer visited New York briefly late in 1921, following a short exhibition of 100 of his works, in the hope of achieving similar successes with commissions there. Despite many praising reviews only a few commissions followed and Kauffer felt a sense of rejection at the lack of understanding of his work by his native country. He returned to London.
His success in London was magnificent. By this point he was a well-known figure and finally thought of himself as a graphic artist rather than a painter. Kauffer regularly visited Paris, and through these visits, French book illustration, theatre, painting and poster design all began to influence his work. On a visit in 1923, Kauffer met Marion Dorn, an American Interior Designer, for whom he left his wife and daughter. His relationship with Marion was personal and professional, they collaborated on a number of projects including; interiors for friends’ offices, and most notably a range of rugs and the interior design, symbol, luggage label and brochure for the Orient Lines flagship modern ocean liner.
Kauffer’s jazzy-style was really coming into its own during the mid-twenties. Kauffer’s most widely seen poster, aside from those for London Transport is, ‘Eno’s Fruit Salts, First Thing Every Morning’ 1924. Its bold, dynamic style and use of bright colours proved to be very successful. In addition to posters he designed many stage decorations for London theatre shows. Theatre’s influence is prominent in his posters for London Transport at the time. The triptych ‘Whitsuntide in the Country’ and ‘Summertime’ (both ‘Jack i the Green’ and ‘Pierot’), 1925, uses vibrant colours and powerful pictorial scenes reminiscent of theatrical backdrops, bringing the stage to the streets of London.
Kauffer’s neat and orderly nature is heavily expressed in his work, giving it impact and power. By the late 20s, airbrushing and photomontage were both appearing in his work. He shifted to using rectangular as opposed to diagonal directions in his layouts, and the use of positive and negative lettering as well as streamlining effects, all characterised his work. An example of these techniques is seen in ‘Play between 6 –12, The Bright Hours’ 1931. The airbrushing especially meant Kauffer could move forward with his lettering technique, finally giving it a ‘machine’ look.
Publishing firm Lund Humphries (LH) and Oil refiners, Shell, were Kauffer’s two most significant clients in the 30s. He worked on several book covers from his studio and darkroom at LH, and in 1935 showed a selection of works at the Lund Humphries own gallery. This show reaped many fabulous reviews from critics who identified Kauffer’s ability to view and adopt various styles from many of the great painters and movements over the years. Reforming them in his own work he allowed the wider public to unwittingly view Modern Art.
In the late thirties, Kauffer produced a whole series of lorry-bills for Shell Mex BP, commissioned by Publicity Manager, John Beddington. Kauffer’s series of posters were on a scale previously un-chartered with sizes reaching up to 10 x 20 feet. Kauffer maintained his simplified, symbolic style; at this larger scale the impact of his work was not lost. In ‘Lubrication by Shell – Miles Whitney-Straight’ 1937, he creates a simple spatial illusion using his space-frame technique (by framing objects or images within angular boxes on a sheet to give movement and the illusion of perspective) to imply take-off. The poster incorporated a photomontage of the livery he had previously designed for the aeroplane ‘Handy-Heck’ that was developed by Whitney-Straight in 1937.
At the onset of WWII Kauffer reluctantly returned to New York. His first commissions were from MOMA, where Kauffer had connections from his previous solo show in 1937. He went on to receive commissions from institutions as well as designing illustrations and book and magazine covers. Kauffer received a Certificate of Honour for his ‘Give’ poster for the ‘American Red Cross Campaign’ in 1945. He went on to be awarded distinctive merit from the ‘Arts Directors Club of New York’ after his piece, ‘Subway Posters Perform Daily Before Five Million Pairs of Eyes’ in 1947. In turn, Kauffer became Honorary Advisor to the ‘Department of Public Information of the United Nations’.
In the 1950s Kauffer once again demonstrated his natural ability to successfully communicate landscape painting and typographics in one art form in his series for American Airlines. As part of the brief Kauffer returned to the west of America to gain inspiration. Not only was this particular series a success, but also the trip to his western roots revitalised and reinstated his early creative energy. The posters for American Airlines are a sure reminder of Kauffer’s strong achievement throughout his lifetime. He was a true pioneer in the medium he helped define as Poster Art.
Kauffer worked right up until his death in 1954.
Design Museum and British Council
14 December 1890 Born Edward Kauffer in Monana, USA
1893 Lives in orphanage aged 3, begins to draw.
1899 Mother remarries, John M Rees, step-dad to Edward when he returns home. Both parents support his artistic aspirations.
1910 Begins work for Paul Elder, a bookseller and art dealer in San Francisco. Acquires his lifelong passion for books. Studies art at the Mark Hopkins Institute night school.
1912 Begins to follow artistic career. Meets Joseph McKnight a regular customer at bookshop.
1913 (October) Reaches Paris. Studies at Academie Moderne, works in museums Afternoon Sketch Schools.
1914 (July) Kauffer marries Grace Ehrlich (American), also studying in Paris to be concert pianist. They have a daughter – Ann Kauffer. (August) Leaves Paris with onset of WWI, heads for Britain en-route home to America Also becomes a member of the London Group.
1915 Receives first commissions from Frank Pick for London Underground Electric Railways.
1916 Saw the first exhibition of the Vorticists and this had influences on his work.
1919 Forms X Group with Wyndham & Lewis – in an attempt to recreate the Vorticist group. He also joins the Arts League of Service (ALS). The poster, ‘Flight’ was printed in The Daily Herald; titled - The Early Bird: Soaring to Success.
1920 The X Group fails and Kauffer quits the London Group, feeling his focus and successes were in advertising.
1921 Visits NY after he has a small show in Chelsea, Kauffer attempts to find commissions with little avail and returns to Britain.
1922 Designs scenery and costumes for the London theatres.
1923 (–1953) Meets Marion Dorn in Paris and begins relationship.
1924 Writes and produces his own book The Art of the Poster.
1925 Designs some interiors for the office spaces of friends and clients.
1926 Illustrates books and poems for the Nonesuch Press and T.S. Eliot (also a good friend).
1927 Employed by Crawford’s Advertising Agency, works three days a week (a job that lasts for two years).
1929 Designs collection of rugs in collaboration with Marion Dorn.
1930 Is appointed Art Director for Lund Humphries, book publishers.
1934 Awarded Honorary Fellow for the Council of Art and Industry.
1935 Has own poster exhibition at Lund Humphries: EmcKK. Marion and Kauffer are among the designers commissioned to work on the Orien, the Orient’s flagship Cruise Liner.
1936 Awarded Honorary Designer for Industry by Royal Society of Arts in London.
1937 Given solo show at Museum of Modern Art, NY. Aldous Huxley praises Kauffer's contribution to modern design in the exhibition catalogue.
1940 Kauffer and Marion forced to move to NY with onset of WWII, they depart on the S.S. Washington at the last minute.
1941 Produces catalogue covers for the MOMA exhibitions Organic Design in Home Furnishings and Britain at War.
1947 Gets commission to do a series for American Airlines.
1950 Marries Marion Dorn, who he has lived with since 1923.
1953 Separates from Marion Dorn, work stresses take toll on their relationship.
22 October 1954, Edward McKnight Kauffer dies, aged 64, New York.
Brian Webb & Peyton Skipworth, E. McKnight Kauffer (Design)
Catalogue to the Memorial Exhibition of E. McKnight Kauffer (Victoria & Albert Museum, 1955)
Mark Haworth-Booth. E. McKnight Kauffer: a designer and his Public (1979)
Text by Mark Haworth-Booth. E McKnight Kauffer Poster Art 1915-1940, (Victoria & Albert Museum, 1973).
Aldous Huxley (Foreword). Posters by E McKnight Kauffer (Exhibition Catalogue, MOMA NY 1937)
Grace Schulman. Gift from a Lost World (Yale Review, Fall 1998, p.121-134)
See more of Edward McKnight Kauffer's work at:
vam.nal.ac.uk (and at the Victoria & Albert Museum Print Room Collection)
Kauffers own press cuttings and books are preserved at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, NYC, and a file of cuttings is also held by Evansville Museum of Arts and Science, Indiana.