Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, September 10 – April 10, 2022
“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. ‘Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer’ features some 200 objects to examine the designer’s impact and legacy across media.
Hailed in his lifetime as ‘the poster king,’ 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. He adopted emerging avant-garde aesthetics in provocative ways to promote services and products.
Cooper Hewitt holds one of the most extensive collections of Kauffer’s designs in the world, comprising material in both the Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design department and the Archives department. The exhibition is organized by Caitlin Condell, associate curator and head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, and Emily M. Orr, Ph.D., assistant curator of modern and contemporary American design at Cooper Hewitt.” — Cooper Hewitt
“The artist in advertising is a new kind of being,” Kauffer wrote in 1938. “His responsibilities are to my mind very considerable. It is his business constantly to correct values, to establish new ones, to stimulate advertising and help to make it something worthy of the civilization that needs it.”
“‘Underground Modernist’ reveals new stories and research to position Kauffer not simply as a designer of posters, but as a figure who applied the graphic arts broadly to creative pursuits,” Condell said. “He transformed the public’s perception of modernism and influenced the work of other equally significant artists, designers and writers on both sides of the Atlantic.”
“Drawing heavily on Cooper Hewitt’s unique holdings of Kauffer’s work, the exhibition explores the wide circulation and popular resonance of Kauffer’s designs,” Orr said. “Motivated by a desire to serve the public, Kauffer brought art closer to all people. He believed that advertising was an opportunity to introduce new visual expression.”
Images courtesy Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.