Spring 2006

Infiltrating the avant-garde into British posters

E. McKnight Kauffer: a designer and his public

By Mark Haworth-Booth
V&A Publications, £24.99

What makes a successful designer? An unending flow of work? The approval and admiration of colleagues? Articles in the trade press and mentions in books? A mastery of the business and the technology of the day? Mixing with the right people and looking the part? By all these standards, McKnight Kauffer was a success, and this book vividly charts how he achieved it.

First published more than 25 years ago, its republication in a much enlarged edition is a reminder of the standards it set in the writing of design history. Mark Haworth-Booth was in time to interview surviving friends and colleagues. This opportunity has given the book an unusual intimacy, and because Kauffer was a celebrity among celebrities, the wide variety of contemporary sources has been drawn upon to provide fresh sidelights on design in the period, complementing the well reproduced examples of work to give a comprehensive review of Kauffer’s life and career.

Born Edward Kauffer in Montana in 1890, his early talent as a painter attracted the patronage of a Professor McKnight, who helped pay for him to study in Paris. In gratitude Kauffer added the name McKnight to his own. En route for Europe, Kauffer spent a few months in Chicago, seeing at the travelling Armory Show the most revolutionary French painting – Van Gogh, Matisse, Marcel Duchamp.

The outbreak of the World War I cut short Kauffer’s Paris study. He crossed the Channel, continuing his career as a painter. With his Vorticist-inspired woodcut of a flight of birds adapted as a poster for the Daily Herald, Kauffer introduced an eclectic avant-garde tendency into British poster design. Before Paris, he had visited Munich. The posters Kauffer saw there by Ludwig Hohlwein were the source of Kauffer’s early style – curdled paint, use of the square as the basis of a layout, even Hohlwein’s style of signature.

Between the wars, the most highly regarded poster design and illustration fed on the modern art of the time and met with little public understanding. However philistine a response, there was some justification for a trade journal writing of ‘McKnightmares’. Though Haworth-Booth expertly notes the sources of Kauffer’s image-making, the designer’s repeated failure to successfully integrate his varied borrowings goes uncriticised – a description of Kauffer’s petrol pump designs of 1934 as ‘revolutionary’ overlooks the influence of magazines such as Gebrauchsgraphik and of the German painter-designers. By comparison with his contemporaries in mainland Europe, Kauffer’s work is often muddled with ill-digested and superficial Modernism, typified by some feeble attempts at photomontage. Nevertheless, Kauffer’s varied posters for London Transport and Shell, and his important contribution to design history, The Art of the Poster (1924) give him an importance which merits a book of this detail and scope.

Haworth-Booth provides a rare view of professional life at the time. Photographs of the ‘extremely serious’ Kauffer in his studio show work on the easel, neatly organised box files in built-in furniture and include oddities such as a printer’s wood-type music hall poster. There is a long description of Kauffer at work ‘with plenty of space round him so that he could study his design from different angles . . . He would test colours against each other from a hoard of coloured papers with which he also made experimental shapes . . . Beside him Kauffer kept a battery of flexible rulers, French curves and hinged triangles (adjustable set squares).’ Such reminiscences add richness to the book.

Haworth-Booth includes Kauffer’s work as an illustrator, as a designer of rugs, mural decorations and interiors and his stage and costume design. The references are wide: to the artists, writers, architects and advertising managers whose friendship and patronage he enjoyed; to the emerging organisations concerned with design. There is a good bibliography, proper footnotes, a checklist of posters, and valuable appendices: especially useful is a list of British poster dimensions and their names and, above all, a clear description of how posters were produced. Haworth-Booth’s book lays out the evidence which allows us to judge from what points of view Kauffer was a successful designer.

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