History of Vintage Posters

vintage poster

Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Posters have often been the medium of choice for communicating ideas – whether they be political in nature or focused on entertainment. Great posters were meant to inspire, influence, and educate the masses. But what is the back story to this art for the everyday? Join us as we take a brief look at the history of vintage posters.

History of Vintage Posters

As with any movement, artistic or otherwise – it all starts with innovation. In the late 1800s a new lithographic technique made what we know as the modern day, mass-produced poster possible. The enhanced vibrancy and economic advantage helped make any street or public surface an open-air gallery. Posters found their footing in Paris and the Moulin Rouge work shown above is often credited as the first and finest example of the Belle Epoque age poster. In this piece, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec showed just how stunningly beautiful this two dimensional medium could be. Capturing the movement and joy of the dynamic Moulin Rouge it served as the perfect launching point for many other graphic artists.

vintage poster

Leonetto Cappiello, 1922

While Paris remained a key cultural center for the graphic design movement, poster art thrived in all corners of the world. Different countries showcased different styles – the Dutch were more restrained in their compositions and the Italians enjoyed very dramatic uses of scale and color.

Leonetto Cappiello is often credited with following in Toulouse-Lautrec’s footsteps. As you can see in the example, the sensuous forms and confident use of color and movement carries through. What you will also notice is that he was the master of creating strong focal points, by captivating his audience he set the stage for future advertisers and propagandists. Strong, bold images with generous spacing became a theme in the Modern Movement that followed the first World War.

What is plakatstil?

The machine age, when the glamor and speed of technology seduced many an artist, proved to be a very ground-breaking moment in time for posters. The simplified, futuristic style was best captured by two German artists: Lucian Bernhard and Ludwig Hohlwein. They are credited with removing realistic restraints, letting geometry and color make the image.

vintage poster

Lucian Bernhard, 1908

This style was known as plakastil or poster style. As we see in Bernhard’s example, they were masters of editing – distilling a shape and message down to the essentials. Viewers are not overwhelmed by details, rather moved by the boldness of the message at hand. This technique fit hand in hand with a culture inspired by efficiency.

Herbert Bayer

On the heels of poster style, Austrian Herbert Bayer came into frame. A student of the Bauhaus, he went on to become the school’s director for printing and advertising. His contributions to the field of poster art and graphic design itself were profound. Using his academic influence and inclination for creation – he made a lower-case font that revolutionized typography.

Herbert Bayer 1925 typeface

Image from Jim Hood

Bayer Universal was special in its contemporary feel and construction. The simple geometry and clean lines complemented any poster’s focal images.

As the Art Deco movement carried on, poster art continued to reflect this streamlined appearance. The infamous London Tube map was created during this time and it perfectly wraps up this genre: beauty in simplicity and purity in message.

Poster art after World War I

Following the war, people happily embraced life. Eager to stretch their legs following their difficulties, they sought to travel and partake of the conveniences modern technology provided. Poster art reflected the collective feelings of excitement and optimism.

vintage poster

Edward McKnight Kauffer for American Airlines, 1947

Travel was seen as a very fashionable pursuit and everyone wanted to be a part of this brave, new, fast-paced world. As we see in the work by Edward McKnight Kauffer, artists were happy to borrow historical references and redefine it in modern terms. Figures were elongated and sculptural. They were often posed to follow straight lines and conveyed bold symbolism.

Propaganda posters

Bold symbolism suited the upcoming cultural shifts well. As the world braced itself for another world-wide conflict, graphic designers mustered all their strength to fashion striking images. While some pieces were meant to be simple and easy to understand (literacy was often a concern), others harkened back to a Belle Epoque approach. Realism was reintroduced as a way to personally connect and make an emotional bond with the viewer.

vintage posters

From left to right: Abram Games, Tom Purvis, Tom Eckersley

Groove, humor, and Paul Rand

After the Second World War, people worldwide were ready for a lighter take on world events. Humor and whimsy were incorporated into everything from film to fashion – and poster art was no exception. Wit and color lent itself to work supporting corporate identity.

vintage posters

Paul Rand, 1953

Perhaps no other graphic designer is credited with making the logos we know and love more than Paul Rand. His work is seen in the corporate images of IBM, UPS, and Apple – to name a few. As we see in the example, he carried the torch of simple elegance to new levels of sophistication.

While his work is admired for its bold style (which some find mirror Pop Art), another perspective was taking shape in California. The groovy posters of the West Coast captured the fun-loving feeling perfectly and channeled the Belle Epoque age to do so. This counterculture approach contrasted the sleek corporate images artists like Rand created.

vintage posters

Wes Wilson, 1966

As we’ve seen, the art of vintage posters paralleled the cultural feelings of the time. Graphic art not only alerts us to critical information, but brilliant artists do so in a way that speaks to us directly. Like fashion, furniture, or jewelry – poster art announces our place in the world!

Cause A Frockus would like to thank their tremendous resources: Wikipedia, International Poster, “20th Century Design: The definitive illustrated sourcebook” by Judith Miller, and the people who post their imagery without restrictions.

For our readers: what are some of your favorite posters from yesteryear? Do you find yourself drawn to the simple or the extravagant?

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