Elizabeth Guffey, Professor of Art & Design History, State University of New York at Purchase, is the author of Retro: The Culture of Revival (Reaktion Books, 2006), editor of the journal Design and Culture (Bloomsbury) and her latest book is Posters: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2015). The latter is a serious analysis of the poster phenomenon that addresses the past and future of a venerable form. I asked Guffey to talk about why this book and this time in the poster’s history.
Why did you do a book on Posters, a theme that has been addressed in so many ways before?
Beyond the familiar story, posters are in the midst of a global renaissance. This book explores posters as material forms that literally shape physical spaces; the form’s worldwide reinvention allows us to glimpse not only artistic but also technical, social and political revolutions amid the modes and rhythms of everyday life.
Your analysis of posters is admittedly broader than many of the preceding volumes. What is the key difference that you feel is unique to your viewpoint?
Where many histories of posters focus on posters’ development in Europe and North America, I explore the poster’s global reach. From Cuba to Nigeria, Iran to China, this familiar material form is used in surprising and innovative ways. They help us to rethink our own understanding of design and its place in the world.
What do you owe the poster’s popularity to as a medium and artifact?
Posters remain “the chair” of graphic design. Industrial designers return again and again to the chair as a means of exploring theoretical, formal, technical, and expressive approaches; likewise the poster provides designers and typographers with a common format for investigating and testing the interplay of ideas, technologies, and communication strategies.
The poster’s primary role is transmission of a message, what would you say are the messages that have been most benefited by the poster?
Posters shape spaces and alter people’s behavior. They literally shape spaces, moving from their role in redrawing maps of early twentieth century cities in North America and Europe to the way they currently define contested zones in places like Syria and Nigeria.
What special characteristic is most unique or even exclusive to the poster other than scale?
The poster materializes visual communication.
You discuss the, well, faux poster, that which is not produced for the poster hoarding. Glaser’s Dylan might be an example. When did the poster become a novelty item?
Posters were seen as collectors’ items as early as 1891, when copies of Touluse-Lautrec’s “Moulin Rouge” poster were torn down almost overnight. Though posters ostensibly remained a form of outdoor advertising, designers and printers immediately began approaching posters as both expendable and collectable.
Do you think posters are in a healthy state today?
The digital age has led to a global poster renaissance. Much of this innovation and rebirth is occurring beyond North America and Western Europe; we should be looking toward Nigeria, the Middle East, Iran and other cultural powerhouses for this.
What do you want readers to take away from your book?
Posters aren’t what I thought they were. Now I see posters differently.
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