V&A Museum
22 November 2019

In late November, Caitlin Condell and Emily Orr, curators at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, convened a study day for invited participants to explore the work of Edward Mc Knight Kauffer (1890-1954). The American designer, best known for his famous posters, will be the subject of a major exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt in autumn 2020. A significant collection of Kauffer’s work is held by the Cooper Hewitt and the second principal body of his work is in the Word and Image department at the V&A Museum. The latter is where the study day took place, offering the opportunity to view and handle many examples drawn from Kauffer’s vast array of designs in the Prints and Drawings Study Room during detailed discussion of the questions raised by his life, work and context.

At heart, Kauffer was a modernist designer and he readily adapted his styles, variously drawing on Cubism, Futurism, Abstraction and Surrealism, according to the purpose of the design. His notoriety was established when in the 1920s and 30s he became favoured by patrons such as Frank Pick of the London Transport Passenger Board to advertise the London Underground, Sir Stephen Tallents of the Empire Marketing Board and Jack Beddington of Shell petrol. This model of commission suggests Kauffer’s career at this point depended on a special understanding between the designer and what might be called the ‘ad men’ of their day in these important organisations. Such was their profile at their peak that these posters were a topic of heightened public awareness. London Underground announced “A new McKnight Kauffer poster will appear here shortly” to an expectant audience on its station boards. Indeed, in 1937 Kauffer was one of extremely few poster designers to be the subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern of Art, New York.

Underground poster
Poster: Winter Sales are Best Reached by Underground, 1924. British Council Collection

In this new exhibition project, curators Condell and Orr aim to extend this well-established view of Kauffer as a popular poster designer to show the range of other designs he realised. To this end, they and their team have engaged in new research, exploring Kauffer as a designer always keen to push boundaries. For instance, although his reputation was built at a time when the poster was an important public art form, he in fact turned his hand to all manner of graphics, from book covers, press advertisements, illustrations to publicity brochures. He also designed for the theatre and ballet, interiors, exhibitions and textiles. The exhibition will integrate and show for the first time, examples across these various genres of design. The accompanying publication will have dedicated essays that delve more deeply into the circumstances that allowed Kauffer to work across so many techniques and materials. A Brighton connection arises through Kauffer’s work on a mural for the lobby of Wells Coates’ Embassy Court block of flats. http://www.embassycourt.org.uk/category/gallery

Kauffer’s biography raises interesting and topical questions of identity. Born in the USA, he studied in Munich and Paris before settling in London in 1914. Marion Dorn, his long-term partner and second wife, was a successful textile and interior designer. Together in the Thirties, they were key members of a progressive group of artists, architects and designers, equally at home in flat-dwelling London and the Buckinghamshire countryside. Kauffer understood the importance of identity, adept as he was in defining and shaping visual identity through reference to the English city and countryside. He also showed a talent in constructing identities for his many clients, whether they were companies, modern industries, complex organisations, or individual figures from British society. The interest in transforming sales promotion into a cultural form was characteristic of the time. It was commented on by author Aldous Huxley in the foreword to the MoMA catalogue 1937, who wrote: “to advertise, say, a motor car by an appeal to snobbery or sexuality is easy. McKnight Kauffer prefers the more difficult task of advertising products in terms of forms that are symbolic only of these particular products”.

Booklet: A Postman in Northern Ireland, GPO (General Post Office) 1939. Cooper Hewitt Museum

Despite this recognition of the formal properties of Kauffer’s work, an engagement with its content and subjects seems essential today to avoid the risk of repeating the celebration of Kauffer as part of this established canon of modern design. Turning to recent scholarship, the project will question the implications of his designing for Empire, the possibly complex issue of the depiction of African-Americans in Kauffer’s later work, and the difficulties faced on his return to the USA in 1940 and the sense of decline in his final years.

The exhibition promises to pose new questions about what can sometimes be seen as an over-familiar visual history. The project also contributes to a deepening understanding of graphic design in an expanded field, even at a time when graphic design itself was yet to be defined.


The exhibition, exact title to be confirmed, will be on show at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York from 0ctober 8 2020 – April 5 2021 and we can hope a touring venue in the UK to follow.  


— Jeremy Aynsley