So it was with E. McKnight Kauffer. I am no authority on Kauffer, and all I know - or don't- about his work you will soon find within the next few paragraphs. More important than facts though, is recognizing where inspiration comes from, and ultimately how one channels that inspiration.
In January of 1982 I was living in a basement apartment in Brighton, Massachusetts. By day I painted offices and homes either solo or with my small crew; at night I played guitar in a smattering of bands in the area. I was twenty-three years old.
So its January in Boston, and there's snow - old, crusty, icy, gritty, packed and piled - around the dumpster where, when it was time, I emptied my trash. Why do I know it was January, 1982 after all these years? Because the calendar I found in the dumpster - it had to be near the top - is dated 1981. Someone in my apartment building had thrown out an E. McKnight Kauffer "Twelve Posters From the Design Collection of the Museum of Modern Art" calendar.
I'd always loved graphic design, whether it was album covers or book covers or road maps, and had even taken a class in the community college in the suburban town where I’d finished high school. But I'd never really studied it. I knew about illustrators Aubrey Beardsley and Frank Frazetta, had wondered about Salvador Dali, but that was about it. I never put two and two together when staring at the wonderfully designed record covers that had such effect later down the line. Wouldn't have know I found Kauffer's work amazing. And liberating. Who would throw away such stuff? Of the entire twelve months, only four things were written in the unobtrusive calendar sections: G.E. 8am; exterminator am; G.E. 8.30am; and Gary Burton jazzboat. But I really didn't care about the cockroach-ridden jazzbo who may have had appointments with General Electric or had Gynecological Exams and was living in my apartment building. Hell, the calendar was probably a gift.
Kauffer's work was riveting: broad, bold images, as flat and "graphic" as any I'd seen. English landscapes of endless rolling hills, rendered with the sparest of lines. Boaters and pedestrians both full of motion, yet locked in time and place with color and form. Fire, snow, rain each rendered with a masterful simplicity that evoked the spirit of the real thing.
His colors were evocative of what I suppose must have been the intended destinations of his train posters, or the weather of the seasons in jolly old England. And in spite of his obvious craft, his stylized renderings which at times alluded to the current art movements of the Continent, I still found that I was looking at the art of one man, not some mass-produced thing that had no sign of authorship.
And the typography! It was liberating. I could see skill and craft and vision in the letterforms, but again, I also saw the touch of the individual. All hand-drawn, the typefaces represented the pure geometry of the industrial age, the bookishness of classic fonts, and the decorative faces of the times. The times ranging from 1918 to 1930.
An expatriate American, Kauffer had nourished his calling abroad, and as both a traveller and lover of history myself, in his graphic design - for by now I knew what his brand of commercial art was called - I saw something that could not only inspire in me a sense of communicating in the simplest of methods, but also point out a profession that I could aspire to, somewhere between the proletariat level of painting homes and the pipe-dream of being a rock star.
To date I still know little about McKnight-Kauffer or his work, not being a faithful follower or acolyte. But were it not for him and his work, I don't know that I ever would have shaken the hands of Bradbury Thompson, Paul Rand, or Saul Bass. I may never have made my way years later to the Museum of Modern Art, let alone design posters of my own, that on occasion people call and ask for. Had I not found that calendar in the trash heap, which appealed to me on so many levels, I may not have found a way to tie together what was in my head, what was in my sketchbooks and what was in my heart. A dead expat did that. And I still love his work. Thanks E.
9 Jan 2001