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.”

Poster, A Subway Poster Pulls, 1947; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954); Published by New York Subway Advertising Company (New York, New York, USA); Screenprint; 76.2 × 116.8 cm (30 × 46 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer, 1963-39-119; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Costume design, Henry VIII for Catherine Parr, or Alexanderís Horse by Maurice Baring, 1925; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890-1954); Brush and gouache, graphite; 47.3 x 31 cm (18 5/8 x 12 3/16 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer, 1963-39-170; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Poster, Soaring to Success! Daily Herald—the Early Bird, 1919; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954); Lithograph; Published by Daily Herald (London, England); Printed by T. B. Lawrence Ltd. (London, England); Courtesy of William W. Crouse
Poster, American Airlines to Paris, 1950; Published by American Airlines (Fort Worth, Texas); Lithograph; 107.1 × 79 cm (42 3/16 × 31 1/8 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer, 1963-39-141; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Poster, Aeroshell Lubricating Oil, 1932; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954); Published by Shell-Mex and BP Ltd. (London, England); Printed by Chorley & Pickersgill, Ltd. (London, England); Lithograph; 76.2 × 114.3 cm (30 × 45 in.); Merrill C. Berman Collection
Magazine cover, Harperís Bazaar, January 1940; designed ca. 1939; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890-1954); Printed by Hazell, Watson & Viney (Aylesbury, England); Letterpress halftone; 33 x 25 cm (13 x 9 3/4 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Grace Schulman, 1997-134-1-8; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Book cover, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, 1952; Published by Random House (New York, New York, USA); Lithograph; 21.5 × 14.5 cm (8 7/16 × 5 11/16 in.); Barbara Jakobson Collection; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Poster, Power, The Nerve Centre of London’s Underground, 1930, printed 1931; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954); Published by Transport for London (London, England); Printed by Vincent Brooks, Day & Son (London, England); Lithograph; 101.6 × 61.4 cm (40 × 24 3/16 in.); Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer, 1963-39-45; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Book cover, Ulysses by James Joyce, 1922 (reprint ed. New York: Random House, 1949); Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954); Lithograph; 21.2 × 14.5 cm (8 1/4 × 5 3/4 in.); Barbara Jakobson Collection; Photo: Matt Flynn © Smithsonian Institution
Poster, The Labour Woman, 1925; Published by Woman’s Labour League, Labour Party (England); Printed by London Caledonian Press Ltd. (London, England); Lithograph; 71.8 × 50.8 cm (28 1/4 in. × 20 in.); The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the designer, 1939; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY
Drawing, Design for Metropolis by Fritz Lang, 1926; Brush and gouache; 74.9 x 43.2 cm (29 1/2 x 17 in.); The Museum of Modern Art, Given anonymously, 78.1961; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

“‘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.