Edward McKnight Kauffer was undoubtedly one of the most prolific and influential graphic designers of the 20th century. Cubism, Futurism and Surrealism found expression in his posters, which translated the complicated language of the avant-garde into accessible commercial design. From 1915 McKnight Kauffer designed posters for London Underground Railways, and did so until 1940. Kauffer also worked for Shell, the Great Western Railway, the Empire Marketing Board and the Post Office. His designs ranged from book jackets and illustrations to stage sets and textiles, but it is for his 140 London Transport posters that he will always be remembered.
Kauffer rapidly developed from traditional poster art towards what is recognised today as graphic design.
Kauffer’s neat and orderly nature is heavily expressed in his work, giving it impact and power. By the late 20s, airbrushing and photomontage were both appearing in his work. He shifted to using rectangular as opposed to diagonal directions in his layouts, and the use of positive and negative lettering as well as streamlining effects, all characterised his work.
Publishing firm Lund Humphries (LH) and Oil refiners, Shell, were Kauffer’s two most significant clients in the 30s. He worked on several book covers from his studio and darkroom at LH, and in 1935 showed a selection of works at the Lund Humphries own gallery. This show reaped many fabulous reviews from critics who identified Kauffer’s ability to view and adopt various styles from many of the great painters and movements over the years. Reforming them in his own work he allowed the wider public to unwittingly view Modern Art.
Kauffer’s designs included illustrations for T. S. Eliot’s Ariel Poems (London, 1927–31) and for publications by the Nonesuch Press and Cresset Press, using the pochoir process of coloured hand-stencilling. He also designed photomurals ephemera such as luggage labels; and theatre and ballet costumes and sets, including Checkmate (1937; see Haworth-Booth). In the late thirties, Kauffer produced a whole series of lorry-bills for Shell Mex BP. Kauffer maintained his simplified, symbolic style and when printed to a large scale the impact of his work was not lost.
At the onset of WWII Kauffer reluctantly returned to New York. His first commissions were from MOMA, where Kauffer had connections from his previous solo show in 1937. He lived and worked in the States until his death in 1954.