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The Mexico 68 Olympics logo. Posters for the Public Theater. The icons for the original Macintosh. Through the decades, the best of color, imagery and typography has been showcased as the pearls of graphic design, driving the profession forward. But what about the hidden gems out there? Unearthed from institutions around the United States, here are five lesser-known yet important artifacts that also deserve their time in the spotlight.

At the height of the Cold War, with its paranoia of the perceived threat of communism, married American couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted in 1951 by the US federal government of conspiracy to steal atomic-bomb secrets for the Soviet Union. Both Julius and Ethel were sentenced to the electric chair two years later. Believing in their innocence, much of the world cried out for their release.

One of those voices shouted from a newsprint linocut-and-letterpress poster designed by Francisco Mora just months before the Rosenbergs’ executions, calling for millions of letters to be sent to the US president. This poster joins the roughly 90,000 other protest and human-rights posters and prints at the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) in Los Angeles.

Ayude a Impedir Este Crimen; Francisco Mora;
Taller de Gráfica Popular; linocut, circa 1952;
Mexico City, Mexico

Carol A. Wells, CSPG’s founder and executive director, says, “Mora’s poster uses the shorthand good-guy-versus-bad-guy stereotypical images of the time, with the robust fist of the proletariat stopping the bony claw of US imperialism,” against the backdrop of two strapped-in figures representing the Rosenbergs.

By then, Mora, a Mexico City artist, was well known for his social-justice posters printed by the local collective Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP), or the People’s Graphic Workshop. “At that time, it was too dangerous for any print shop in the US to mass-produce leftist-political posters,” says Wells.

Few copies of Mora’s poster have survived, as they, like many such posters at the time, were printed on thin newsprint, a cheap paper that is best for wheat pasting. Keeping the cause alive, right after the Rosenbergs’ executions, the TGP printed another poster about them, featuring beautifully detailed portraits and the words “We will not forget you.”

“There’s a long tradition of posters demanding freedom for political prisoners,” says Wells. “They play an important role especially in the US, reminding people that the legal system isn’t always as fair as it’s supposed to be.”

It was the first large-scale archive of a graphic designer that the then-named Cooper Union Museum of Decorative Arts had acquired. After Edward McKnight Kauffer’s death in 1954, hundreds of his posters, book jackets and other works on paper were donated from his private collection by his wife, textile designer Marion Dorn. Many were works in progress.

“We’ve always been interested in the process material, not just the finished work,” says Caitlin Condell, associate curator and head of the Drawings, Prints, and Graphic Design department at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. Before arriving at his final book jacket design for 5 On Revolutionary Art (Wishart, 1935), Kauffer explored compositional possibilities in five different versions, using graphite, brush and gouache on paper.

In 1937, the Museum of Modern Art featured Kauffer in its first solo show of an American poster designer. He lived in London most of his life, though, becoming known as “the poster king” in England, designing for London Transport, Shell Oil and other commercial clients. His mostly pictorial book covers, many for famous literary figures, gave way to typography and abstraction by 1935, partly influenced by the work of Swiss graphic designer Jan Tschichold.

“Around this time, Kauffer was looking at the avant-garde typography movement,” says Condell of this book jacket. “He’s playing with different geometric forms and sizes, and the cube ends up flattened in the final design. Looking at that, you’d never know he was trying out so many different ways to approach the same information, to achieve the same style. By 1935, Kauffer was at the height of his career, but still being experimental in his personal style. He was one of the best-known graphic designers then, and is now largely forgotten in America.”

Not for long. A solo exhibition of Kauffer’s work at Cooper Hewitt is set for September 2020.

Left: Drawing, Design for a Book Cover, “5 On Revolutionary Art”, 1935; Designed by E. McKnight Kauffer (American, 1890–1954) for Wishart Limited (London, England); Graphite, brush and red, black, and blue gouache on paper; 7½ × 10½ in. (189 × 265 mm); Gift of Mrs. E. McKnight Kauffer, 1963-39-692; Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Matt Flynn, Smithsonian Institution, photographer.
Right: Matthew Shilan’s response to Tanner Woodford’s question, “What’s worth preserving?”


Connection, communication, curiosity. These matter to Tanner Woodford, founder and executive director of the Design Museum of Chicago. So does confidence, and “asking people, some you’ve never met, to share a piece of their life with you,” he says. In 2017, he did just that when, using pen and paper, he wrote to 1,000 artists, politicians, inmates, writers, famous people and friends, asking for handwritten answers to the question “What’s worth preserving?”

Among the 100 who responded was Matthew Shilan. While most sent replies ranging from one word to full pages (and one, a jar of strawberry preserves), this Ann Arbor, Michigan–based paper engineer uttered the language of the medium. Shilan’s work is rooted in pop-up books and graphic design, and inspired by solar cell design, Islamic tile patterns and music. With his work, in general, he starts with pieces of paper and no set goal. Informed by mathematics and aided by software, he follows his curiosity from one cut and fold to the next. Glued together, it all adds up to intricate, sulptural geometric forms that ride the repetitive and the fractal.

Black and white flat-paper polygons, with fold marks, fell out of Shilan’s envelope; and, in caps on a torn piece, “Tanner, is evidence worth preservation?”

“The evidence of what? That’s the question,“ says Woodford. “It’s unlike anything he‘s done or would do, as a work of art. These scraps of paper read like an unfinished piece, within the context of his art, in general; and a finished one, within the context of this project,” which ultimately culminated in a limited edition book featuring 60 of the replies that Woodford received.

That Shilan answers a broad, philosophical question with one of his own, combined with what could be an idea at midstream made visual, speaks of the exploratory, creative process itself. And not just Shilan’s. Tanner says, “Every person who’s encountered this object has tried to reassemble it. None have been successful.”

Legend has it that a young woman was swept up by the talons of an owl and carried off. She crouches at the center of Susan Point’s Captive Maiden, under a full moon with the owl swirling around her. As with all of Point’s artworks, this 1983 serigraph expresses her own unique designs, inspired by those of her traditional Indigenous heritage.

That legend of the young woman is an ancient one from the Coast Salish peoples, who span from the US Pacific Northwest to southwestern Canada. They include the Musqueam, of which Point, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, is a descendant.

Since she started her career in 1981, designing and etching gold and silver jewelry, Point has used everything from precious metals, paper and wood to glass, concrete and polymer. Her colors also tend to stray from the Coast Salish’s traditional black, red, blue and green. INfluencing much of her work are the elaborate carvings in the spindle whorl—a circular disk with a center pole that was used for centuries to spin mountain goat wool into yarn. It’s all there in Captive Maiden.

Left: Captive Maiden, edition 21-90, serigraph on paper, 23 x 22 in., 1983, SAL-13; Gift of Carol Heppenstall, 2005; Courtesy of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, Santa Fe, NM.
Right: Michael Doret’s color sketch for the cover of IDEA magazine, 1976.


“From a distance, it looks like this beautiful light-and-dark geometric. But, as you get closer, symbols come out, and you see how clever she was at playing with these patterns and colors,” says Tatiana Lomahaftewa-Singer, curator of collections at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MOCNA), Institute of American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Captive Maiden arrived at MOCNA in a large gallery-owner donation around 2003, adding tot he museum’s roughly 9,000 works. “There aren’t a lot of well-known Native women artists or printmakers. The quality of all of Susan’s work highly contributes to the contemporary Native-art field that is not so well known in the art world,” says Lomahaftewa-Singer. Point, who has received numerous public-art commissions and awards, is among the many Indigenous artists in North America helping to bring greater awareness to the field.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, in the ’50s and ’60s, Michael Doret rode Coney Island’s Tilt-A-Whirl, cheered on the Dodgers and followed his dad to work in Times Square. It’s not surprising that what hit his optic nerve as a kid would land years later in his magazine and album covers, athletic logos, and original hand lettering and font design.

Doret has long been celebrated for his illustrations, graphics and typography, for the likes of TIME magazine and the New York Knicks. But his 1976 IDEA magazine cover is one that “most people haven’t seen because it’s for a Japanese magazine that you rarely find elsewhere,” says Stephen Coles, associate curator and editorial director of Letterform Archive in San Francisco.

IDEA was doing an article on Doret, and he asked to design the cover, having just started freelancing after a staff illustrator job at a design studio. At that time, he was inspired by the colors and designs of old tin toys and target games at arcade shooting galleries. The eyeballs, light bulb, lightning bolts and open books say “idea.” And the magazine name is in both Japanese and English, with Mt. Fuji for good measure.

“Michael is saying what he thinks of Japanese design. And then it goes through a strong filter of his own innovative design sense,” says Coles. “The colors could be 1970s psychedelia and the vintage influences come from the early twentieth century, but it feels timeless.” The design and production techniques for this piece foreshadowed, by a few months, what would become one of Doret’s most famous works—KISS’s Rock and Roll Over album cover.

The IDEA cover is part of Doret’s donation of half of his archive to Letterform Archive, in 2018. “We were lucky to get this one,” says Coles. ca

Claire Sykes (sykeswrites.com) is a free­lance writer in Portland, Oregon. She is a member of the exhibition committee for Blue Sky Gallery, an internationally esteemed photography gallery, and is a Roving Reviewer for the biennial portfolio-review event Photolucida, which takes place in Portland.

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