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The Art of the (Online) Poster

pbumpOne of the more appealing things about living in New York City is that the high number of pedestrians means that an archaic mode of communication remains viable: posters. (One of the less appealing things: that those posters occasionally advertise things like this.) Posters were our forefathers’ billboards – but unlike those-that-shall-never-be-lovely-as-a-tree, posters are at eye level, encouraging closer examination and containing a richness of color and design that billboards lack.

Posters, in summary, are keen, and seem to be trending online – in particular, historic examples.

One of the most fascinating resources of posters comes from the digital collection of the National Archive. (An aside on this collection – it seems to be comprised of scans of whatever a particular agency chose to scan, resulting in a typically scattershot return on your search. But (protip, designers!) the collection has the benefit of being public domain and of including images for nearly any query, from dogs to Russian science fiction.) (Another aside: I can’t help but be tickled by the fact that, as I write this – viewing the aforementioned Russian science fiction – I’m 35,000 feet above Wyoming, west northwest of Laramie, courtesy of airline wifi. Just as our forefathers anticipated.)

As I was saying: posters from the National Archive. A simple search for “posters” brings up a smorgasbord (but returns an unlinkable page – fix this, Obama!):

It’s this sort of historic enmeshment that makes the National Archive so valuable. Did you know, for instance, that some of the more famous WWII-era posters were created by interred Japanese-Americans at Heart Mountain, right here in Wyoming? (Oh, we’re over Nebraska, now – but still.) There’s certainly some irony in knowing that – a happy accident of an oddly diverse database.

Others, more diligent than the United States Government (like insurance companies!), have curated their own collections of interesting posters. The Brooklyn Museum recently published a blog post about their collection of psychedelic rock posters. A fuller online gallery from their contemporary collection is heavy on the San-Francisco-Fillmore-West-acid-test-style creation, like the octopoid Country Joe and the Fish bonanza at right.

Swann Galleries, a New York auction house, recently held an auction of another sort of poster: those celebrating the jet set travel culture of decades past. Heavy on the Deco-style line art variety (since replicated by the fantastic identity campaign of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area), the collection of pieces for bid is stunning. Covering six continents, cities, countries, tourist attractions, they’re ready-made to decorate a Hollywood set for a movie about a young travel agent in the 1930s who falls in love with a Socialist no-good-nik. (Copyright pending.) At left, a poster for the Kurgarten Hotel in Davos, Switzerland, sold for $1,200. What wealthy person would possibly care about Davos?

No discussion of posters (particularly historic ones) would be complete without revisiting one of my favorite topics – old Russian posters. A child of the Cold War (as, I’m sure, were you) there’s an automatic assumption about what a Russian poster will look like. As in this blog post from the perplexingly interesting English Russia, one assumes they’re necessarily replete with plutocratic Americans, abusing the proletariat for their own benefit. There was, of course, another side – even while the Communist regime teetered. The wonderful design blog Grain Edit uncovered the other side of Russian poster design – patriotic, elegant, even, at times, commercial. At right, a poster from the 1980 Moscow Olympics which, of course, no Americans ever saw.

Posters, even for casual enjoyment, aren’t dead – as any college student can tell you. And, in honor of the happy intersection of college students and posters, and in light of the historic six game win streak of our beloved Ohio State Buckeyes over the hated Socialist Michigan no-good-niks, I’ll link this nice little service which takes old college football programs (themselves works of some design excellence), and makes them poster size. Good opportunity for you, Michigan fans, to reminisce about when you used to actually win on occasion.

All of a sudden, I have some good ideas about posters to put up around New York City. And Ann Arbor.

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