Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

E. McKnight Kauffer’s life was as extraordinary as his name is unique. Born December 1890 in Great Falls, Montana, Kauffer grew up poor in Evansville, Indiana, the birthplace of his father, a traveling musician who was often on the road. When he was three his parents divorced and Kauffer was placed in an orphanage for two years where he drew pictures while the other children played.

By the eighth grade Kauffer had dropped out of school to assist the scene painter at the town’s Grand Opera House and later joined a traveling repertory theater where he met the actor Frank Bacon. At seventeen he and Bacon left for California and worked on a ranch until moving to San Francisco to work in Paul Elder’s bookshop. During his two-year stay in the city, Kauffer was exposed to classicism in art and literature through night classes, and during this time also met Joseph E. McKnight, a University of Utah professor who recognized the young Kauffer’s talent and offered to sponsor his art studies in Paris for eighteen months. In gratitude, Kauffer adopted the name of his benefactor and Edward Kauffer became E. McKnight Kauffer.

En route to Europe, Kauffer stopped off in Chicago for six months and took classes at the Chicago Art Institute. During his stay, the infamous 1913 Armory Show—which introduced modern art to America—was presented at the institute and made a visible impact on the young artist. The influence of the show immediately affected his painting and would eventually impact his approach to graphic design.

Museum of Modern Art exhibition catalog, Posters by E. McKnight Kauffer, 1937. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Kauffer’s good friend, the writer Aldous Huxley, described him as a Symbolist who, like the Post-Impressionists and Cubists, “aimed at expressiveness through simplification, distortion, and transposition.” Huxley asserted that Kauffer was the first to apply these principles to advertising when most advertising artists still utilized symbols of eroticism and opulence that had nothing to do with the product on show.

Kauffer rendered “the facts of nature in such a way that the rendering shall be, not a copy, but a simplified, formalized, and more expressive symbol of the things represented.” So, continued Huxley, “forms symbolical of mechanical power” were used to “advertise powerful machines; forms of space, loneliness, and distance to advertise a holiday resort where prospects are wide and houses few.”

Poster: Power—The Nerve Centre of London’s Underground, 1930. Designed by Edward McKnight Kauffer (American, active in England, 1890–1954). Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Deign Museum.

After Chicago, Kauffer spent a few months in Munich before eventually arriving in Paris for a sojourn cut short by the onset of World War I. Forced to return to America, Kauffer stopped off in England, and liked it there so much that he stayed on for 25 years.

Although he arrived in England as a painter, by 1921 Kauffer had given up painting altogether to focus on advertising. “Gradually I saw the futility of trying to paint and do advertising at the same time,” he said. “I wished also to keep my integrity as a painter free from depending on social hypocrisy and the need to paint pictures that would sell.”

He received his first advertising commission in 1915 from Frank Pick, the publicity manager of the London Underground Electric Railways, and for the next 17 years designed posters to promote museums and destination points, and encourage public engagement with the burgeoning underground railway. In England, Kauffer became a well respected designer.

“My success in England has been generally acknowledged,” he wrote. “I am very proud of the position I have in England and I wish to emphasize the part that the Underground Railways, Eastman & Sons Ltd., Shell Mex and B.P. Ltd. and many others have had in helping me by sympathetic understanding to do the work which I have done.”

Poster: Flight (detail), 1919. Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer. Kauffer sold this geometric abstraction of a flock of birds to an advertising agent for $50 and it eventually appeared in an advertisement for the Daily Herald newspaper above the headline “Soaring to Success! Daily Herald—the Early Bird.”

Just as Kauffer’s name paid tribute to his benefactor, his work often paid homage to other artists and movements whose work he admired. Vincent van Gogh, the Japanese Ukiyo-e artists, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the stylized realism of Munich’s Ludwig Hohlwein are all in evidence in Kauffer’s oeuvre. His 1919 poster, Flight, alluded to Vorticism, a British movement influenced by Cubism and Futurism that leaned toward machine-like forms—by Kauffer’s reckoning “the first and only Cubist poster design in England.”

Poster for the London Passenger Transport: Wooded Landscape Scene, ca. 1938. Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer. Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In 1940, Kauffer was once again forced to flee impending war. As much as he loved England, he had never become a British citizen. In E. McKnight Kauffer, a Designer and His Public, by Mark Haworth-Booth, he is quoted as saying, “I am an American from the west—no matter how strongly I feel about England, how much I should like to belong to England…I could not become English because it isn’t in my bone and heritage….” In spite of this patriotism, when Kauffer finally returned to the United States and settled in New York he never really felt at home.

“Despite several poster commissions… 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,” wrote Steven Heller in an essay on the occasion of Kauffer’s posthumous award of the AIGA Medal.

In 1941 Kauffer suffered a breakdown from which he never fully recovered, but during the last decade of his life managed to find satisfaction and regain confidence while working on a series of travel posters for American Airlines that transport the European poster tradition to America. They are considered some of Kauffer’s best American work.