Largest-ever retrospective on graphic design pioneer E. McKnight Kauffer

Hailed in his lifetime as “the poster king,” E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954) believed that the street was an art gallery for the people. While living in England between 1914 and 1940, Kauffer produced radical posters for advertising that introduced modernism to the public. He experimented in provocative ways with line, form, space, and color to promote services and products. He did not limit himself to posters, and designed a remarkable range of book covers, rugs, theatrical productions, and more, continuing his work in New York from 1940 until his death.

Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer is the largest-ever retrospective to examine the designer’s impact and legacy across media. Organized chronologically in 10 sections, the exhibition traces Kauffer’s career from his beginnings as a painter to his transformation into an internationally renowned commercial artist.

Exhibition Highlights


Photograph, E. McKnight Kauffer, ca. 1920; Photograph by Maud B. Davis; Gelatin silver print; 20.3 × 15.2 cm (8 × 6 in.); Simon Rendall Collection; Photo: Hugh Gilbert

Kauffer was a pioneer of commercial art—the profession known today as graphic design.

At the height of his career in the 1920s and 1930s, Kauffer, an American, was among the most influential artists in England. In 1940, he moved to New York, joining the influx of European designers who brought dynamism to American advertising. His remarkable output includes eye-catching posters for the London Underground, illustrations for celebrated works of literature, and iconic graphics for major corporations such as Shell-Mex and American Airlines.

Through collaborations with his peers in art, literature, performance, and film, Kauffer widened the scope and impact of his practice. A champion of new media, Kauffer’s work included commissions as varied as film titles for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, illustrations for T. S. Eliot’s Ariel poems, costumes for theatrical and ballet productions, and covers for novels by H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Ralph Ellison. He shared a dark room with Man Ray and worked with groundbreaking textile designer Marion V. Dorn, who would later become his wife.

Kauffer resisted defining himself with one place to call home, one community of friends, or one artistic style. He was constantly in motion, fulfilling a lifelong impulse for travel and a hunger to experience something new. Kauffer and his friends embraced modernism in their creative work, lifestyle, and attitudes toward sexuality, gender roles, and politics. Though Kauffer considered himself a progressive and an egalitarian, his commissioned work tells a more complicated story about his ideals, his privilege, and his perspective on race.

His dedication to design as a social responsibility guided his distinguished career and defines his legacy. “The artist in advertising is a new kind of being,” Kauffer wrote in 1938. “His responsibilities are to my mind very considerable. It is his business constantly to correct values, to establish new ones, to stimulate advertising and help to make it something worthy of the civilization that needs it.”


Book jacket for E. McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in Advertising, co-published by Cooper Hewitt and Rizzoli Electa, features 11 incisive essays from an interdisciplinary group of scholars and provides new contexts through which to examine Kauffer’s work and its impact on design and culture in the early 20th century. Designed by Lucinda Hitchcock, the book includes a chronology and a richly illustrated plate section.

The publicationa 2021 Alice Award finalistis available at SHOP Cooper Hewitt.



The exhibition is organized by Caitlin Condell, Associate Curator and Head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, and Emily M. Orr, Ph.D., Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design at Cooper Hewitt, with Caroline O’Connell, Curatorial Assistant, and Kristina Parsons, Curatorial Assistant.

Exhibition design and graphics by LucienneRoberts+ and Universal Design Studio.

Interpretation with Larnies A. Bowen.


Underground Modernist: E. McKnight Kauffer is made possible with support from the Barbara and Morton Mandel Design Gallery Endowment Fund, the Ehrenkranz Fund, and the Esme Usdan Exhibition Endowment Fund.

E. McKnight Kauffer: The Artist in Advertising is made possible in part by Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.