Borrowed Aesthetics: E. McKnight Kauffer, Book Jacket Design and the Avant-Garde

Fig. 1. Photograph of Edward McKnight Kauffer in his New York studio (c. 1945), 21 x 23 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bernard Waldman Photograph Collection. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1987/5/5.

Fig. 1. Photograph of Edward McKnight Kauffer in his New York studio (c. 1945), 21 x 23 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Bernard Waldman Photograph Collection. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1987/5/5.

By the 1920s, the American-born artist Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890–1954) was recognized as a dominant force in British graphics, celebrated for the posters he designed for, among others, Eastman and Son Ltd., Eno’s Fruit Salt and the London Underground Electric Railways Company.1 In recent years a series of high-profile exhibitions at London’s Estorick Collection and the London Transport Museum have reinforced Kauffer’s reputation as master of the poster form. But while the posters retain unquestionable merit, the scholarly and critical focus on them has obscured the full extent of his achievements as a designer.
In recent years a series of high-profile exhibitions at London’s Estorick Collection and the London Transport Museum have reinforced Kauffer’s reputation as master of the poster form. But while the posters retain unquestionable merit, the scholarly and critical focus on them has obscured the full extent of his achievements as a designer.

Fig. 2. E. McKnight Kauffer, Flight (1919), lithograph, 298 x 152 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. E.35-1973. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 2. E. McKnight Kauffer, Flight (1919), lithograph, 298 x 152 cm. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. E.35-1973. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Smaller in scale than his posters, Kauffer’s book jacket designs succinctly combine traditional and avant-garde approaches, and represent a subset of his oeuvre too often relegated to footnotes.2 Kauffer himself, often vocal and articulate about his work, said and wrote little about the book jackets. He nonetheless revisited the form on numerous occasions, working for some of the most prominent publishers of his age, including Victor Gollancz, Francis Meynell and Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. In his unhappy final years after returning to the United States in 1940, Kauffer continued to use the book jacket as a medium for graphic and typographical experimentation, designing jackets for Random House, Alfred Knopf and Pantheon Press.

This prodigious output was underpinned by the unremitting refinement of Kauffer’s visual language, which drew on the vocabulary of avant-garde art movements of his age. Born in 1890 in Great Falls, Montana, Kauffer’s emergence as a commercial artist coincided with a critical period in art history, when against a backdrop of technological innovation and urban expansion, young visual-art movements sought new ways of representing reality.3 Kauffer—like many American artists of his generation— first encountered European avant-garde art at the 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art” (now commonly known as the Armory Show) in its Chicago iteration.4 Critically and publicly controversial at the time, the event has acquired momentous status in American art history and is now seen as a turning point in the American relationship with modernism.5

Fig. 3. E. McKnight Kauffer, The Week-end Book (1924), book jacket, 19 x 12 cm. Published by Nonesuch Press, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. NAL: 38041989073069. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 3. E. McKnight Kauffer, The Week-end Book (1924), book jacket, 19 x 12 cm. Published by Nonesuch Press, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. NAL: 38041989073069. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Its effects on the young Kauffer were transformative. A student at the Chicago Art Institute at the time,6 he was dismayed and yet drawn to the works on display: “I didn’t understand it,” he later recalled, “but I certainly couldn’t dismiss it.”7 His realization that “something was happening in the world of art which the majority of Americans were trying to deny” reinforced his growing disenchantment with the curriculum in Chicago and, more broadly, with an American provincialism he now sought to escape.8 Thanks to a benefactor who had taken an interest in his work—Professor Joseph McKnight, whose name Kauffer adopted in gratitude—the 23-year-old set sail for Europe later that year to study at the Academie Moderne in Paris. With America behind him, he now turned to the aesthetic innovations of the European avant-garde.

Geometric figuration: Nonesuch Press and Victor Gollancz 1919–1928

Kauffer’s spell in Paris was short-lived owing to the outbreak of World War I, and in August 1914 he was forced to relocate to England. There he continued to paint and even exhibited with the London Group, a collective of British avant-garde artists that included the sculptor Jacob Epstein. At the same time Kauffer had also begun to work as a commercial artist, accepting commissions for poster designs that reflected these same influences.

One of the earliest of these, Flight (Fig. 2), drew on the principles of English Vorticism. It caught the attention of the publisher of London’s Daily Herald newspaper, Francis Meynell, who was impressed by its quiet grandeur and geometric formalization. Meynell purchased the image for a 1919 poster for the paper and the two men struck up what became a life-long friendship.9 Four years later, when Meynell founded the Nonesuch Press, he commissioned Kauffer to produce some of the press’s finest book illustrations. For the cover of the first edition of The Week-end Book in 1924, Kauffer employed simple geometric elements and contrasting color blocks to create the illusion of perspective, depth and the explosive power of a locomotive (Fig. 3) The jacket’s focal point—the small outline of a train—occupies only the central lower third of the cover, leaving the remainder of the composition to function as a study in the interaction of color and form.

From left to right: Fig. 4. E. McKnight Kauffer, The Unholy Three (1929), book jacket, 18 x 11 cm. Published by Victor Gollancz, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1995/8/05/567. Fig. 5. E. McKnight Kauffer, Anybody’s Pearls (1930), book jacket, 18 x 12 cm. Published by Crime Club Inc. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1995/8/09/140. Fig. 6. E. McKnight Kauffer, Departure (1928), book jacket, 21 x 13 cm. Published by Victor Gollancz, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1995/8/05/559. All images © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

The Week-end Book was an eloquent statement of Kauffer’s design philosophy. As  G.S. Sandilands observed in a 1927 essay about the artist, “to make his posters do their maximum work, he designs them with a concentric emphasis … that is to say, he drives attention inwards.”10 Kauffer is quoted in the article, insisting on his belief in a geometric basis to modern design: “We live in a scientific age,” he argued, “an age of T-squares and compasses. The attention therefore is attracted by the geometric, held by the geometric and geometric design is retained longer in the memory.”

Fig. 7. E. McKnight Kauffer, Brook Evans (1928), book jacket, 22 x 13 cm. Published by Victor Gollancz, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1995/8/05/568. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 7. E. McKnight Kauffer, Brook Evans (1928), book jacket, 22 x 13 cm. Published by Victor Gollancz, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1995/8/05/568. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Kauffer extended this geometric approach in his prolific, if brief, partnership with the publisher Victor Gollancz. Between 1928 and 1929, Kauffer produced 18 book jackets for a range of detective stories and popular-fiction titles published by the firm. Often he accommodated his client’s preference for typographic covers and disdain for ornamentation and what Gollancz termed “picture jackets.” In spite of these constraints, Kauffer produced a series of striking designs that adopted an economical approach to form and frequently displayed an intellectual engagement with contemporary art movements.

Covers such as The Unholy Three (1929) and Anybody’s Pearls (1930, Crime Club Inc.) translated the fractured perspectives and the African-influenced figurations of the Cubist idiom into lighthearted visualizations of pulp narratives (Figs. 4 and 5). Equally successful were designs for the books Departure (Fig. 6) and Brook Evans (Fig. 7) (both 1928), in which the diagonal integration of typographic and rectilinear elements summons immediate comparison with Russian Constructivist publications of the 1920s. In Brook Evans, Kauffer’s depiction of a woman in profile is softened by the use of contrasting colors—a muted pastel black against yellow—and a composition around concentric circles that directs the viewer’s gaze toward the center of the image. Though forgotten today, Susan Glaspell’s novel was a critical and commercial success, and in her history of the firm, Sheila Hodges says Kauffer’s jacket, “beautiful in conception and design[,] … must have helped to sell the book.”11

Despite these successes, Kauffer’s involvement with Gollancz ended barely a year later in 1929. Hodges remarks that “Victor always disliked spending large sums on jackets, and after a while probably balked at having to pay an artist’s fee and high production costs.”12 Gollancz preferred the purely typographic approach of Stanley Morison, whose bright yellow covers and atypical combination of fonts became closely associated with the firm.

Fig. 8. E. McKnight Kauffer, Quack Quack (1928), book jacket, 23 x 15 cm. Published by Victor Gollancz, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1979/10/15-1979. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 8. E. McKnight Kauffer, Quack Quack (1928), book jacket, 23 x 15 cm. Published by Victor Gollancz, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD/1979/10/15-1979. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Photomontage: The Cresset and Hogarth Presses 1928–1939

By the late 1920s Kauffer’s interests had shifted to the photographic image and its potential for decorative use. The origins of this shift lie in his stint, between 1927 and 1929, at W.S. Crawford Ltd., then one of the most eminent advertising agencies in the world. Owned by Sir William Crawford and run in London by its visionary creative director, Ashley Havinden, the agency proclaimed in its 1951 brochure that “every product should be presented in a style a little ahead of its time.”13 Its progressive ethos and expansive international reach exposed Kauffer to a wide range of design trends from outside Britain.14 In a 1937 article in Architecture Review, he argued that techniques of photography “have revealed new and astonishing experience[s] for the eye and the imagination … The quick registration that the camera can give should be used as part of modern decoration.”15 Photomontage—the integration of color, letterform and photography—was to become a key means of expression for Kauffer, applied intermittently through the 1930s in his interior designs, posters and book jackets.16

Chief among Kauffer’s clients in the 1930s were Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press. Long before he received his first commission from them, Kauffer had been a presence on the margins of the Bloomsbury Group, serving along with the poet T.S. Eliot as a council member of the Arts League of Service.17 In 1928 Leonard asked Kauffer to design a wolf’s-head device to be used in advertisements for Hogarth.18 It was the first of five commissions he would receive from the press, and Kauffer—along with Vanessa Bell, John Banting and Trekkie Ritchie—became one of a handful of designers to design multiple jackets for it.19

One of the most remarkable of these was Kauffer’s 1936 cover for Leonard Woolf’s Quack Quack! (1936), a series of state-of-the-nation essays “on the growing irrationality of [the] times.”20 In Kauffer’s simple montage (Fig. 8), newspaper clippings of Hitler and Mussolini are enlivened by the primary colors of the background. The scheme is echoed by the typography, creating a chromatic harmony of word and image.

Fig. 9. E. McKnight Kauffer, Man who could work miracles (1936), book jacket, 25 x 14 cm. Published by Cresset Press, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD 10/15-1979. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 9. E. McKnight Kauffer, Man who could work miracles (1936), book jacket, 25 x 14 cm. Published by Cresset Press, London. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD 10/15-1979. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Kauffer continued to explore photography in his jacket designs for Dennis Cohen’s Cresset press. His treatment for H.G. Wells’s Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)—a striking composition painfully let down by its disjointed typography—presents a vivid and dramatic close-up of Michelangelo’s Moses in a clever allusion to, rather than a literal illustration of, the book’s content (Fig. 9).

Letterform and Color: America 1940–1954

With Britain at war and commissions difficult to come by, Kauffer and his future wife, Marion Dorn, were forced to rethink their situation as American expatriates in England. In July 1940 they left for the United States.21 The homecoming was not a happy one. Homesick for England and struggling to find poster commissions in the American advertising world, Kauffer turned once again to book jackets. In February 1941 he wrote to his friend Jack Beddington: “Bread and butter at times has been obtained by my doing book jackets principally for Donald Klopfer [of Random House] and Knopf.”22 While his letter suggests a preference for more involved—and perhaps better paid—commercial work, Kauffer nevertheless produced some of his most memorable book jackets during this time. The cover design for the 1941 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Britain at War” (Fig. 10) shows Kauffer returning to the simplified geometric stylization and economic use of color that had characterized much of his early work for Meynell and Gollancz. The resolute profile of a helmeted soldier is paired with circular and rectilinear elements that suggest industry, solidity and resilience in the face of adversity. Although the central image dominates the composition, Kauffer’s use of stenciled typography reinforces the military-industrial theme and balances the otherwise unanchored composition.

Fig. 10. E. McKnight Kauffer, Britain at War (1941), book cover, 26 x 19 cm. Published by Museum of Modern Art, NY. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. NAL 693133. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 10. E. McKnight Kauffer, Britain at War (1941), book cover, 26 x 19 cm. Published by Museum of Modern Art, NY. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Museum No. NAL 693133. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Typography, long his weakness as a designer, became an increasingly dominant feature of Kauffer’s book designs of the late 1940s and early 1950s. This new emphasis on letterform cannot be dissociated from the publication of Jan Tschichold’s Typographische Gestaltung in 1935, which Kauffer, given the breadth of his reading, must have known. Covers such as Exile (1949), Winds (1949) and Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1951) show Kauffer exploiting the compositional possibilities of typography and the power of letterforms to give nuance to words. In Point Counter Point (Fig. 11) the use of a stenciled typeface, a gridded structure and contrasting color blocks create the sense of symmetry and contrast implicit in the book’s title. The typographic harmony of Exile (Fig. 12) is destabilized by the wayward solitary stroke of the letter X, which seems to stray from its typeset position, veering off the top of the jacket toward its own desolation.

Legacy

Some have been tempted to seek links between works such as Exiles and Kauffer’s own isolated state.23He was terribly unhappy in his final years and his biographer, Mark Haworth-Booth, remarks that Kauffer’s difficulties in adapting to American life contrasted painfully with Dorn’s expanding success as an interior designer in New York.24 In 1950, nearly a decade after his return, he was still lamenting to his friend Christian Barman that American advertising was “streamlined according to the dictates of high-powered agencies. … I am disillusioned and really sick of it all. Apart from the practical side i.e. making a living, the whole thing has had a devastating effect on the psychological side”.25

Fig. 11. E. McKnight Kauffer, Point Counter Point (1951), book jacket, 21 x 14 cm. Published by Modern Library, NY. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD 10/15-1979. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 11. E. McKnight Kauffer, Point Counter Point (1951), book jacket, 21 x 14 cm. Published by Modern Library, NY. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Archives of Art and Design: AAD 10/15-1979. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

The extent to which this disillusion fed into Kauffer’s late work is impossible to determine. What emerges from surveying the 30-year arc of his book jacket designs is a persistent thread of innovation and experimentation, a restless search for new methods of expression that has inspired not only his contemporaries but subsequent generations of graphic artists and designers. Alvin Lustig (1915–1955), whose jackets for James Laughlin’s New Directions Books also set new standards in 20th-century design, embraced photomontage much as Kauffer had in his work for the Hogarth Press. Lustig’s later fixation on letterform as a dominant compositional element also mirrored Kauffer’s late period. Paul Rand (1914–1996) first came across Kauffer’s work at the New York Public Library and consistently cited Kauffer as one of his design influences.26 In a 1987 interview with Heller, Rand says: “Many people were doing modern stuff in England. But Kauffer was doing the best stuff. There wasn’t anybody anywhere near him except for [A.M] Cassandre.” Rand’s Thoughts on Design (1947), which featured an introduction by Kauffer, betrays an intellectual debt to his hero.

It may have been toward designers such as Kauffer, Lustig and Rand that Clement Greenberg levelled the thrust of his famous 1939 essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” in which he inveighed against the tendency of commercial art to appropriate the “discoveries, acquisitions and perfected self-consciousness” of the avant-garde.27 Kauffer’s efforts at repackaging avant-garde aesthetics for a mass audience, however, was not the work of a mindless mimic. His inventions stemmed not just from his early ambitions as a painter but also from his intellectual engagement with the language of modernism and its application to commerce. Roberta Cremoncini has written: “It was undoubtedly this skill for borrowing the best elements of contemporary avant-garde aesthetics and making them entirely his own that brought him success in his lifetime and to which his enduring appeal is owed.”28 In the course of the 20th century, book jackets, once unremarked bits of printed ephemera, became objects of meaning and delight as well as subjects of critical and aesthetic analysis. Kauffer was as responsible for this transformation as anyone.

Fig. 12. E. McKnight Kauffer, Exile and other poems (1949), book jacket, 24 x 17 cm. Published by Pantheon Books, NY. Brasch Collection, Special Collections, University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ. The University of Otago. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

Fig. 12. E. McKnight Kauffer, Exile and other poems (1949), book jacket, 24 x 17 cm. Published by Pantheon Books, NY. Brasch Collection, Special Collections, University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ. The University of Otago. © Estate of Edward McKnight Kauffer.

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  1. On Kauffer’s impact on early 20th-century graphic design in Britain, see Mark Haworth-Booth, E. McKnight Kauffer: A Designer and His Public (London: V&A Publications, 2005), 32. []
  2. Haworth-Booth’s E. McKnight Kauffer remains the authoritative study of Kauffer’s life and work, but the legacy of his book jacket designs may well have suffered from the author’s overemphasis on the poster commissions with little analysis of the jacket designs. []
  3. See Eric Hobsbawn, Behind the Times: The Decline and Fall of the Twentieth Century Avant-Garde (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 7. []
  4. The show opened in New York at the 69th Regiment Armory in February 1913. It travelled to Chicago in March, and then to Copley Hall, Boston, on April 28 and finished on May 19. []
  5. Sarah Andress, “1913 Armory Show Revisited: The Artists and Their Prints,” Art in Print 3, no. 2 (July 2013), 26. For a sense of the public outrage that greeted the show, also see Charlotte Laubard, “The 1913 Armory Show: Stakes, Strategies and Reception of a Media Event,” in American Art 1908–1947: From Winslow Homer to Jackson Pollock, ed. Éric de Chassey (New York, London: Harry N. Abrams, 2002), 62–68. []
  6. Now the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. []
  7. I am heavily indebted to the unnamed author of the article “E. McKnight Kauffer—Poster Designer,” Portfolio 1 (1950): 20–35, which contains nuggets of information on Kauffer’s early years in Montana and Illinois. Much of the biographical material in Portfolio is also cited in Haworth-Booth, E. McKnight Kauffer,10–12. []
  8. Portfolio, 27 []
  9. Francis Meynell, My Lives (London: Bodley Head, 1971), 167–169 []
  10. G.S. Sandilands, “E. McKnight Kauffer,” Commercial Art 3 (1927): 2. Also cited in The Poster King (London: Estorick Collection, [2011]), 14. []
  11. On Kauffer’s stint with Gollancz Ltd., see: Sheila Hodges, Gollancz—The Story of a Publishing House 1928–1978 (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1987), 30–33. []
  12. Ibid., 33. []
  13. W.S. Crawfords Ltd., Crawfords—The Advertising Agency (London: Crawfords, [1951]), 10. []
  14. Haworth-Booth, E. McKnight Kauffer, 51–52. []
  15. E. McKnight Kauffer, “Decoration,” Architectural Review (supplement), February 1937;cited in ibid., 64–65. []
  16. Kauffer’s application of photomontage to interior design is fascinating (see Haworth-Booth, p. 64, for a lengthy discussion of the process). It included a photomural in the entrance hall of the 1935 Embassy Court apartments in Brighton, England. Though the building still stands, Kauffer’s photomural has long since faded. []
  17. In 1927 Kauffer illustrated a number of poems in Eliot’s Ariel series and along with Leonard and Virginia Woolf was a frequent presence at the informal poetry sessions at Eliot’s flat. See The Poster King (London: Estorick Collection, [2011]), 14. []
  18. See J.H. Willis, Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers: The Hogarth Press, 1917–41 (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1992), 376. []
  19. J. Howard Woolmer, A Checklist of the Hogarth Press 1917–1946 (Pennsylvania: Woolmer Brotherson Ltd., 1986). See cat. nos. 175, 380, 407 and 450. Also see J. Beechey, “Book-jacket designs for the Hogarth Press 1917–1946,” Antiquarian Book Monthly, March 1997, 10–14. []
  20. W.G.K.D., “Quack, Quack! – Review,” Australian Quarterly 7 (1935): 104. []
  21. Kauffer’s foreign status required him “to obtain a travelling permit every time he travelled from [his studio in] Chelsea to [his home in] Northend.” See Haworth-Booth, E. McKnight Kauffer, 97. []
  22. Ibid., 97. []
  23. Grace Schulman’s analysis of Kauffer’s book jacket design for Winds argues that the design is underpinned by a tension between Kauffer’s “precision” and his “deceptively unruly view of life.” (See Grace Schulman, “Marianne Moore and E. McKnight Kauffer: Two Characteristic Americans,” Twentieth Century Literature 30, nos. 2/3 (1984): 180.) For Haworth-Booth (see p. 107), Kauffer’s design for Exiles “mirrored his feelings of exile from England.” Both arguments overlook Kauffer’s late period experimentation with letterform. []
  24. Kauffer suffered a psychological breakdown in the summer of 1941, after his return to the States. See Haworth-Booth, E. McKnight Kauffer, 99. []
  25. Ibid., 107–8. []
  26. See Paul Rand: A Designer and His Words, eds. Steven Heller, Georgette Balance and Nathan Garland (New York: School of Visual Arts, 1998), 7. []
  27. Clement Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939): 40. Also see Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, By Its Cover: Modern American Book Cover Design (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), 21, for their rebuttal of similar concerns expressed by Herbert Read in: Herbert Read, “A choice of extremes,” Penrose Annual (1937): 21–24. []
  28. The Poster King, 5. []