Dieselpunk + Steampunk Culture

Edward 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.

(via mikeyashworth @ Flickr)

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 in 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 Art 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.

Text: © Design Museum + British Council

Source: Design Museum

More Kauffer artwork @ my Flickr photostream

Also recommended:

The Art of Abram Games

Underground Art

Views: 2093


You need to be a member of Dieselpunks to add comments!

Join Dieselpunks

Comment by lord_k on April 21, 2012 at 7:13am

We owe so much to these artists. With a bit of luck and spare time, there's more to come.

Comment by Stefan on April 21, 2012 at 7:00am

I'm running short of superlatives to praise your posts about posters, I'm afraid, but that sure doesn't prevent me to immensely appreciate them. Thank you very much, Lord K., for making us all more intelligent.

Comment by lord_k on April 17, 2012 at 2:05pm

I was born eight years later. My pleasure, James.

Comment by James Viner on April 17, 2012 at 2:04pm

I love this artistic style. I was born the year he died. Thank you for sharing.

Stay in touch


Allied Powers

Diesel powered dieselpunk podcast
Dieselpunk Industries
Seance Media by Tome Wilson
Vnv Nation

© 2020   Created by Tome Wilson.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service