Edward McKnight Kauffer Biography

Edward McKnight Kauffer was born in the United States and settled in England in 1914. He was employed as an artist by the London Transport Board and for the Great Western Railway. Kauffer designed posters for government agencies during World War II. After the war, he worked for American Airlines and contiued with illustrations.  Referred to as the "Picasso of Advertising Design," Kauffer was a graphic designer whose clients included Barnum and Bailey Circus and the New York Subways. Towards the end of his successful career, he was asked to create a line of posters for American Airlines.

Montana native Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890-1954) was one of Europe's most influential posterists between the wars, as innovative as his French counterpart, A.M. Cassandre. In England, where he lived, Kauffer was hailed for elevating advertising to high art.   But when the expatriate returned to New York City from London at the beginning of WWII  after 25 years abroad he was underappreciated.  It was perplexing because in 1937, The Museum of Modern Art in New York had given him a prestigious one-man show. In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, Aldous Huxley had praised Kauffer's primary contribution to modern design: "McKnight Kauffer reveals his affinity with all artists who have ever aimed at expressiveness through simplification, distortion, and transportation."  In America, however, his style of essential Modern poster with its symbolic imagery was at first difficult for some American advertisers to understand.

In 1913, Ted Kauffer had been sent to Germany and France by Professor Joseph McKnight (Kauffer's mentor, from whom he took his middle name), where he was introduced to posterist Ludwig Hohlwein in Munich and attended the Academie Moderne in Paris. Before going to Europe, he had studied in Chicago at the Art Institute, where he was profoundly influenced by the legendary Amory Show, offering Americans their first exposure to the European avant-garde.   These paintings later inspired his 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," as the first Cubist advertising poster published in England.

In 1914, the London Underground Electric Railways hired Kauffer, along with a number of England's best artists, to design beautiful posters for its stations. Kauffer famously painted approximately 150 Underground posters, spanning 25 years.  It was Kauffer's mastery of wedding abstract, dynamic form to everyday products that made him a valuable posterist; he encouraged people to simply be aware of a product by piquing their aesthetic sensibilities. Kauffer's strategy was consistent with the Modern ideal that art and industry were not mutually exclusive.  His productivity was evidence that advertisers appreciated the communicative power of unconventional form.

Kauffer also authored The Art of the Poster in 1924, and illustrated poems by his good friend T.S. Eliot. In a review of one of his frequent exhibitions during the Thirties, Kauffer was referred to as the "Picasso of Advertising Design." In Kauffer's hands, the poster or book jacket (which for him was a mini-poster) was designed to be interpreted like a poem rather than accepted at face value.

In 1947, Kauffer was commissioned to do a series for American Airlines promoting the Southwest and Mexico as sun countries, which required him to travel throughout those areas.  The series continued until 1953 and represented Kauffer's best American work.  This poster is among the best examples of his work during that time.