E. McKnight Kauffer

1890, Montana


Edward (“Ted”) McKnight Kauffer was one of Europe's most prolific and influential advertising poster artists during the twenties and thirties, and as innovative as his more celebrated French counterpart, A.M. Cassandre. In England, where he lived and worked, Kauffer was hailed for elevating advertising to high art, yet in America only the design cognoscenti knew of his achievements when the Montana-born expatriate returned to New York City from London in 1940—after 25 years there. Kauffer had attempted repatriation once before in 1921, when he was invited to show his early posters at New York's Art and Decoration Gallery; at that time he also attempted to find work with American advertising agencies. Except for a few commissions to design theatre posters, “America was not ready for him,” wrote Frank Zachary in Portfolio #1 (1949). “So, feeling a 'great rebuff,' he returned to England, where he continued to pile up honors.”

That Kauffer was still unappreciated in New York after his second return was perplexing because only three years earlier, in 1937, The Museum of Modern Art in New York (under Alfred H. Barr's direction) gave him a prestigious one-man show. In America, however, the essential Modern poster with its symbolic imagery and sparse selling copy, which Kauffer helped pioneer, was acceptable on a museum wall, but not on the street. At that time most advertising agents blindly adhered to copy-heavy, romantic imagery keeping all but a few progressive designers from breaking the bonds of mediocrity. After that first disappointment, Kauffer returned to his adopted country where his work was considered a national treasure. After the outbreak of war in 1940, he believed that living and working in London was no longer a viable option. Kauffer was prohibited, as an alien, from contributing to England's war effort; feeling he was a liability, he and Marion Dorn left the country on the last passenger ship to the United States (leaving most of their belongings behind). Kauffer lived in New York for 14 years, until his death in 1954. Though he worked for various clients during that times, he was never given the same recognition he enjoyed in England. With a few notable exceptions, the honors came posthumously. Indeed, only after 38 years is he finally the recipient of an AIGA award.

The reason that Kauffer's career lost steam in America was not entirely because colleagues and clients rejected him. In fact, some designers did their best to help establish his reputation here, and as a freelancer he acquired some significant accounts. Despite his adamant refusal to renounce his American citizenship, after spending almost half a lifetime in England he felt like an alien in his native land. Kauffer was adrift in a fast-paced, competitive New York where he never satisfactorily developed the intimate artist/client relationships that, in England, allowed him to push the conventions of advertising. Anger and frustration took their toll not only on his work, but on his health. The American period of his career, though by no means undistinguished, ended in despair.

Yet if at 22 Ted Kauffer had not been sent abroad at the behest of Professor Joseph McKnight (who was Kauffer's mentor during his formative years and from whom he took his middle name), he might never have become a poster artist and graphic designer. If Kauffer had not set sail in 1913 for Germany and France, where he was introduced to Ludwig Hohlwein's poster masterpieces in Munich and attended the Academie Moderne in Paris, his life would have taken a much different turn. Prior to leaving San Francisco, where he worked during the day in a bookstore and at night studying art at the Mark Hopkins Institute, he had a small exhibit of paintings in which he showed real promise as a painter. Before crossing the Atlantic he stopped in Chicago where he enrolled at the Art Institute for six months. But he became increasingly bored with the academic trends in American art. While in Chicago, however, Kauffer was profoundly influenced by a major cultural event: The Amory Show, the legendary exhibit offering Americans their first exposure to the burgeoning European avant-garde. “I didn't understand it. But I certainly couldn't dismiss it,” he told Frank Zachary. Some years later these same paintings would inspire his own benchmark work, “Flight” (1916), which in 1919 was adapted as a poster for the London Daily Herald with the title, “Soaring to Success! The Early Bird,” and was the first Cubist advertising poster published in England.

The art capitals of Europe beckoned, but the clouds of war loomed, and in 1914 Kauffer became a refugee with just enough money in his pocket to return to America. Instead of sailing straight home, however, he discovered England, and with it a tranquility he had not experienced in America. “I felt at home for the first time,” he told Zachary. Kauffer volunteered to serve in the British army but was ineligible as an American citizen. Instead he performed a variety of menial jobs while waiting for painting commissions to come along.

It was during this time that Kauffer met John Hassall, a well-known English advertising poster artist who referred him to Frank Pick, the publicity manager for the London Underground Electric Railways. Pick was responsible for the most progressive advertising campaign and corporate identity program in England. He commissioned Edward Johnston to design an exclusive sans serif typeface and logo for the Underground (both are still in use), as well as hire a number of England's best artists to design beautiful posters for its stations. Kauffer's first Underground posters produced in late 1915 were landscapes rendered in goache which advertised picturesque locales. These and his 140 (according to Keith Murgatroyd's article, “McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in the World of Commerce,” in Print magazine) subsequent Underground posters, spanning 25 years, are evidence of Kauffer's profound creative evolution towards Modernism.

During his first year in England Kauffer became a member of the London Group, a society of adventuresome painters who embraced Cubism. He refused to abandon painting for his new advertising career; rather, he questioned the growing schism between fine and applied art. “He could see no reason for conflict between good art work and good salesmanship,” wrote Zachary. In fact, he was dismayed by the inferior quality of English advertising compared to work being done on the continent. During the 1890s there was a period in which the “art poster” flourished in England, exemplified by the Beggarstaff Brothers, yet this brief flicker of progressivism was soon snuffed out by nostalgic fashions. Although Kauffer's earliest posters were picturesque, they were hardly sentimental; he intuitively found the right balance between narrative and symbolic depiction in stark prefigurations of his later abstract images.

In the biography E. McKnight Kauffer: A Designer and His Public (Gordon Fraser, London, 1979), author Mark Haworth-Booth says that is likely that Kauffer saw the first exhibit of the Vorticists in 1916, and that this avant-garde movement of English abstractionists who worshipped the machine as an icon and war as a cleansing ritual had an impact on his own work. Through its minimalism and dynamism “Flight” echoes the Vorticists' obsession with speed as a metaphor for the Machine Age. This is “Kauffer's major work,” writes Haworth-Booth, “[and] also the finest invention of his entire career.” In fact the image departed enough from a direct Cubist influence to become the basis for a distinctly personal visual language. “He had a child-like wonder and admiration for nature,” continues Haworth-Booth, referring to how Kauffer based this image not on imagination but on his first-hand observation of birds in flight. However, “Flight” might not have become an icon of modern graphic design if Kauffer had not submitted it, in 1919, to Colour magazine, which regularly featured a “Poster Page” where outstanding unpublished designs were reproduced free of charge to encourage businessmen to employ talented poster artists as a means of helping England get back on a sound commercial footing after the war. “Flight” was bought by Francis Meynell, a well-known English book publisher and printer, who organized a poster campaign for the Labour Party newspaper, The Daily Herald. Meynell believed that the soaring birds represented hope, and the unprecedented design somehow suggested renewal after the bloody world war. The poster was ubiquitous and soared its maker into the public eye. Kauffer soon received commissions to design campaigns for major English wine, clothing, publishing, automobile and petroleum companies.

Even with a promising advertising career, Kauffer continued to think of himself as a painter. He was the secretary of the London Group, responsible for mounting and publicizing exhibits, and was a founding member of the X Group, which promoted the post-Vorticist avant-garde. He was loosely connected to the Bloomsbury Group of English writers and artists, and exhibited work at Roger Fry's Omega Workshop. He ran an avant-garde film society that introduced experimental cinema to London audiences. He joined the Arts League of Service (ALS), which was comprised of various fine and applied artists whose mission was to create work that would offset the destruction of the war. His career as a painter was finished, however, when in 1920, the X Group failed due to its own inertia, and he quit the London Group, too. “Gradually I saw the futility of trying to paint and do advertising at the same time,” wrote Kauffer in the catalog to his exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. Haworth-Booth reports that Kauffer then disappeared underground and the train station tunnels became his primary gallery.

Kauffer was a good painter, but his real genius was in advertising art (and for advocating the virtues of Modern art to business). His urbanity and intelligence opened many executive office doors, and he became friends with many of these business leaders. “Personal contact with the men requiring advertising art in the exploitation of their products is an absolute necessity in obtaining good results,” he wrote to a colleague. But it was Kauffer's mastery of synthesis—wedding abstract, dynamic form to everyday products—that made him invaluable in the promotion of commercial enterprise. His posters and advertisements were not motivated by the common tactic of deceiving a customer into believing false claims, nor by appealing to their base instinct; rather he wanted to encourage people to simply be aware of a product or message by piquing their aesthetic sensitivities. Kauffer's strategy was consistent with the Modern ideal that art and industry were not mutually exclusive.

Kauffer often argued that non-representational and geometrical pattern designs “can effect a sledge hammer glow if handled by a sensitive designer possessing a knowledge of the action of color on the average man or woman.” Nevertheless, even Kauffer had to lead clients by the hand: “In most cases, it has not been possible to give me full freedom,” he wrote in the Museum of Modern art catalog, “and my clients have gone step-by-step rather than by leaps, but by this slow process we have reached a synthesis, and it is because of this mutual understanding that I confidently expect England to progress to international distinction, not because of myself but through the new talent that is making way in many directions.” His own productivity is evidence that certain business men appreciated the communicative power of unconventional form, but even in such a receptive milieu there were hostile critics who referred to Kauffer's abstract designs as “McKnightmares.”

Despite these occasional barbs, critics realized that Kauffer made significant trends in the applied arts, first in the application of Cubist form, and then after 1923, when he realized that Vorticism no longer offered viable commercial responsibilities and entered his so-called “Jazz style,” in which he created colorful, art moderne interpretations of traditional form. Kauffer also successfully engaged in a number of different disciplines during the mid-Twenties. He designed scenery and costumes for the theatre starting in 1922; authored The Art of the Poster in 1924; designed office spaces beginning in 1925; illustrated books for the Nonesuch Press in 1926 (and illustrated poems by his good friend T.S. Eliot); and also began designing rugs, sometimes in concert with Marion Dorn, around 1929. In 1927 he took a three-day-a-week job at Crawford's, the largest advertising agency in England; that lasted two years and marked the end of his Jazz style and the move toward Modernist photomontage, influenced by German and Russian advertising of the time. He expanded on this revolutionary vocabulary, and in his own work replaced diagonal with rectilinear layouts, crushed his type into parallelograms, used positive/negative lettering frequently, and most important, took up the airbrush to achieve the streamlined effect that characterized his work of the Thirties. In addition to montages for ads and posters, Kauffer was involved with the popular new medium of photomurals, and he developed the conceit of the “space frame” to give an illusion of multiple vantage points on a single picture plane.

In a review of one of his frequent exhibitions during the Thirties, Kauffer was referred to as the “Picasso of Advertising Design.” Critic Anthony Blount wrote: “Mr. McKnight Kauffer is an artist who makes one resent the division of the arts into major and minor.” And in the introduction to the 1937 Museum of Modern Art exhibition catalog, Aldous Huxley praises Kauffer's primary contribution to modern design: “Most advertising artists spend their time elaborating symbols that stand for something different from the commodity they are advertising. Soap and refrigerators, scent and automobiles, stockings, holiday resorts, sanitary plumbing are advertised by means of representations of young females disporting themselves in opulent surroundings. Sex and money—these would seem to be the two main interests of civilized human beings. McKnight Kauffer prefers the more difficult task of advertising products in terms of forms that are symbolic only of these particular products. Thus, forms symbolic of mechanical power are used to advertise powerful machines; forms symbolic of space, loneliness and distance to advertise a holiday resort where prospects are wide and houses are few. In this matter McKnight Kauffer reveals his affinity with all artists who have ever aimed at expressiveness through simplification, distortion and transportation.”

In Kauffer's hands the poster (or the book jacket, which for him was a mini-poster) was designed to be interpreted rather than accepted at face value. In this regard he continually struggled with the paradox of how to meet his creative needs, his clients' commercial interests and his viewers' aesthetic preferences, all in a limited period of time. In a speech before the Royal Society of Arts in 1938 (quoted by Keith Murgatroyd in Print) Kauffer candidly explained his methodology and resultant angst: “When I leave my client's office, I am no longer considering what form my design or my scheme will take, but the urgent fact that I only have so much time in which to produce the finished article. I find this irritating, and am often overcome by a feeling of hopelessness about the whole business. On my way home I think, Will my client understand what I propose to do? Will he understand I may not give him an obvious, logical answer to his problem? Does he suppose I have magical powers, or does he believe that I can solve his sales problem as simply as one might add two and two together and make four? I have now reached my studio. I pick up a book. I lay it down. I look out of the window. I stare at a blank wall, I move about. I go to my desk and gaze at a blank piece of paper. I write on it the names of the product. I then paint it in some kind of lettering. I make it larger—smaller—slanting—heavy—light. I make drawings of the object—in outline, with shadow and color, large and then small—within the dimensions I have now set myself.”

Kauffer's friends agree that he was restless long before he returned to America, which may account for his frequent changes in graphic style and media. He could be impetuous, yet also mercurial as evidenced in the description by Haworth-Booth of Kauffer's office at Crawford's—painted in various shades of gray to avoid the reflection of unwanted harsh light on his work. Kauffer was a slave to his passions. When war came to Britain he felt so passionate about turning his attention from commerce to public service that he decided to leave rather than be a liability to England. He and Marion immediately packed up a few belongings, left their car at the train station where they boarded a train to Ireland, and departed for New York on the S.S. Washington without even notifying their closest friends.

“It was a tragic mistake,” says Haworth-Booth, who reprinted a letter from Kauffer to a friend in England which revealed profound remorse: “No day goes by—hardly an hour—the last thing at night—the first thing in the morning—our thoughts are of England.” Frank Zachary recalls that “Ted was a lost soul. Here was the most civilized, urbane man I ever met, and the top designer in England, unable to acclimatize himself to New York and American advertising.” In one of the many letter sent back home to friends, Kauffer complains about the “big shots” in New York designing and how they do not design at all. “It's a wonderful racket. I look on in rapt amazement. I now know what's wrong with U.S. design.” Although he was invited to show in a 1941 exhibition at New York's A-D Gallery, title “The Advance Guard of Advertising Artists,” he suffered a breakdown that year from which he never totally recovered. Despite several poster commissions (usually from institutional rather than commercial clients, i.e., War Relief, Red Cross, Office of Civilian Defense, etc.) and many magazine covers, book jackets and book illustrations, as well as jobs for Container Corporation, Barnum and Bailey Circus and The New York Subways Advertising Company, he was not fulfilled. “In the extreme competitiveness of New York advertising he found it difficult to sell his work because he was no longer confident enough to sell himself,” concluded Haworth-Booth.

In 1947 Kauffer was discovered by Bernard Waldman, a young New York advertising man who wanted to bring the European poster tradition in America. He commissioned Kauffer to do a series for American Airlines promoting California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico as sun countries, a trip which required him to travel throughout these states. “Ted was in his proper environment. For weeks, months and years he talked about the West, which to him was more America than New York City, a place he called a 'depressing canyon of mortar, steel, bricks and glass,'” wrote Waldman. The series of “lyrical landscapes” that continued until 1953 represented some of Kauffer's best American work, and helped him regain his confidence, albeit briefly. “After 1953, Kauffer's interest in advertising was on the wane,” recalls Zachary, who as art director of Holiday magazine at that time had conceived a project for Kauffer that would pair him and his old friend (and American expatriate) T.S. Eliot on a riverboat journey down the Mississippi, during which time they would record the trip in words an pictures. However, during the planning stage Ted died. His friends say he killed himself with liquor.

In England Kauffer debunked the commonly held concept that if an artist was involved in commerce it was because he was really a creative failure. Even in America, despite its constricting conventions, Kauffer believed that art and commerce were perfect bedfellows. During the course of his career Kauffer was not only an original but also inspired originality in others, and his influence was felt in England into the Fifties. He was not afraid to shock, but was always responsible to his clients. And he never patronized his public. As Keith Murgatroyd has written, Kauffer, with style, grace and intelligence “achieved all those things which every deeply committed designer strives for: creative vigor, originality, functional effectiveness, recognition by his fellow practitioners and, of course, public acclaim.”

Copyright 1992 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.