Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum presents the largest ever exhibition of works by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954), a pioneer of commercial art, the profession known today as graphic design. Presented until April 10, 2022, “Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer” features over 150 objects to examine the designer’s impact and legacy through media.
Hailed during his lifetime as “the king of posters”, Kauffer brought design to many creative industries. He made modernism accessible by applying cutting edge styles to designs for advertising, literature, theater, transportation and more. It has adopted the emerging avant-garde aesthetic in a provocative way to promote services and products.
Cooper Hewitt holds one of the largest collections of Kauffer’s designs in the world, including material in both the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design department and the Archives department. The exhibition is curated by Caitlin Condell, Associate Curator and Head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, and Emily M. Orr, Ph.D., Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design at Cooper Hewitt, with Caroline O ‘Connell, Conservation Assistant, and Kristina Parsons, Conservation Assistant.
“’Underground Modernist’ will reveal new stories and new research to position Kauffer not just as a poster designer, but as a figure who has widely applied the graphic arts to creative pursuits,” said Condell. “It transformed the public’s perception of modernism and influenced the work of other equally important artists, designers and writers on both sides of the Atlantic.
“Building heavily on Cooper Hewitt’s unique collections of Kauffer’s work, the exhibition will explore the wide circulation and popular resonance of Kauffer’s creations,” said Orr. “Motivated by the desire to serve the public, Kauffer brought art closer to everyone. He believed that advertising was an opportunity to introduce new visual expression.
Organized chronologically into 10 sections, the exhibition traces Kauffer’s career from his beginnings as a painter to his transformation into an internationally renowned commercial artist. At the peak of his career in the 1920s and 1930s, Kauffer, an American, was one of England’s most influential artists. In 1940, he moved to New York, joining the influx of European designers who boosted American advertising. His remarkable output includes eye-catching posters for the London Underground, illustrations of famous literary works and iconic graphics for major corporations such as Shell-Mex and American Airlines.
Kauffer has broadened the scope and impact of his practice through collaborations with his peers in the fields of art, literature, performance and film. A champion of new media, Kauffer’s work included commissions as varied as movie titles for Alfred Hitchcock The tenant, illustrations for TS Eliot’s Ariel poems, costumes for theater and ballet productions, and covers of novels by HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and Ralph Ellison. He shared a dark room with Man Ray and worked with revolutionary textile designer Marion V. Dorn, who would later become his wife. Dorn’s creations are showcased at key moments in the exhibition.
Although Kauffer viewed himself as a progressive and egalitarian, his commissioned work tells a more complicated story about his ideals, privileges, and perspective on race. “Underground Modernist” examines how Kauffer’s designs expressed and challenged the energy, ideas and turmoil of his time. Over the course of four decades, he has responded to the accelerating pace of contemporary life by capturing the attention of a rapidly changing audience. His dedication to design as a social responsibility has guided his distinguished career and defines his legacy.
Kauffer believed that modern art had to go beyond the walls of museums and galleries to infiltrate everyday life. He argued that innovative expression should come with social and cultural commitment, and that designers should be accountable to their audiences as well as to their clients. “The advertising artist is a being of a new kind,” wrote Kauffer in 1938. “His responsibilities are in my opinion very considerable. It is his business to constantly correct values, establish new ones, stimulate publicity and help make it something worthy of the civilization in need.
E. McKnight Kauffer: The Advertising Artist, co-published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli Electa, presents 11 incisive essays from an interdisciplinary group of researchers and provides new contexts through which to examine Kauffer’s work and its impact on design and culture in the early 20th century. Designed by Lucinda Hitchcock, the book includes a timeline and a richly illustrated plank section. The publication–a 2021 Alice Prize finalist–is available on SHOP Cooper Hewitt.
For more information, visit www.cooperhewitt.org