Edward McKnight Kauffer

Born December 14th in 1890, Edward McKnight Kauffer was an American artist and graphic designer who focused on poster art, but also worked as a painter, book illustrator, and theater designer. Beginning his studies at California School of Design in 1910, it was here that he earned the attention of Professor Joseph McKnight from the University of Utah, McKnight became a mentor of sorts to Kauffer and even sponsored and paid for him to study in Paris. Eternally thankful for his support, Kauffer then took his name as a middle name. Before arriving in Paris, Kauffer made a stop in Chicago where he briefly studied for six months before landing in Paris in 1913 where he began studying at the Académie Moderne until 1914. During this time, he became introduced to Ludwig Hohlwein’s work that sparked his interest in poster design. However, in 1914, the world found itself in war and Kauffer needed to return home. Yet, instead, he found himself in England where he felt more at home than he ever had. After waiting and waiting for commissions to come in, he was referred to Frank Pick, who worked for the London Underground Electric Railways as a publicity manager. Kauffer created 140 posters for London Underground and London Transport which showcased many abstract influences such as futurism, vorticism, and cubism as well as impressionist influences like those of Japanese woodcuts. What set Kauffer aside from other designers in England was that he blurred the lines between fine and applied arts, holding the opinion that the two could coexist together and designing his posters to be up for interpretation rather than straightforward like other designs. Even as he continued his career in advertising, Kauffer still continued to consider himself a painter. While Kauffer continued to thrive in England, another world war was just around the corner. Soon enough, in 1940, there was full-on war with England as a big player. Unable to enlist in the army due to being an American, Kauffer couldn’t see working and living in England as a possibility any longer and instead packed a few items and found his way to New York City, with his girlfriend alongside him. America however, was a whole different ball game and he struggled to find his place in the big city. Although a renown designer in England, he found himself at conflict with American design itself and felt insecure in such a competitive environment. It wasn’t until Kauffer was approached to do a series of posters for American Airlines that he was able to bring his European style posters back to life. Kauffer continued to work with American Airlines until his death in 1950, which his friends referred to as death by alcohol. Although his work wasn’t appreciated in America at the time of his career, he went on to be considered one of the most influential designers in American history. Kauffer was even given a post-mortem recognition with the 1991 AIGA Medal and his work continues to be shared and honored in the Museum of Modern Art, located in the same city he struggled to find his way in.

 

Biography by Steven Heller  October 1. “E. McKnight Kauffer.” AIGA, www.aiga.org/medalist-emcknightkauffer. 

Council, British. “Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890 – 1954).” Visit Visual Arts, visualarts.britishcouncil.org/collection/artists/kauffer-edward-mcknight-1890. 

“E. McKnight Kauffer: MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, www.moma.org/artists/3020.

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