The Daily Heller: An American Design Style All Its Own

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Today, Merrill C. Berman, whose Weimar catalog of art and politics was covered last week in The Daily Heller, brings another slice of early twentieth century design history to the public feast: “American Posters of the WPA Era, 1935–1943.”

Poster exhibition

Richard Floethe (1901–1988)

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s massive stimulus initiative designed to lift the United States out of the Great Depression, known as the New Deal, spawned the WPA (originally “Works Progress Administration,” and later “Work Projects Administration”). It ran from 1935 until 1943 (and was hugely criticized by FDR’s Republican opponents). The Federal Art Program was established as an arm of the WPA under the directorship of Holger Cahill, and poster divisions of the FAP existed in 18 states, with the largest based in New York and led by the Bauhaus-trained German artist Richard Floethe. Employing numerous artists—including Vera Bock, Dorothy Fellnagel, Katherine Milhous and Dorothy Waugh—the poster divisions promoted activities of the Federal Art Program itself, such as exhibitions at New York’s Federal Art Gallery (225 W. 57th St.), as well as those of the Federal Music, Theatre (including the Negro Theatre Project) and Writers’ Projects. They also produced posters for noncultural arms of the WPA including Labor, Resettlement, Health, Sport, Education, National Parks, individual State initiatives and Community Activities.


Kenneth Whitley (1918–1979)


Kenneth Whitley (1918–1979)

Structurally, the Federal Art Program acted as a key commissioning body for artistic production. To present these posters now, as our culture is on the brink of another devastating financial and social crisis, reminds us of the role that government has played in the past. This precedent suggests that concern for the social good need not be the exclusive purview of grassroots initiatives or individual philanthropy, but—in both times of crisis and normalcy—can be officially, governmentally mandated.


Richard Floethe (1901–1988)

Note: Due to the COVID-19 crisis, this online exhibition was prepared without physical access to the works themselves or to reference libraries. The WPA poster collection of the Library of Congress is a valuable online resource. [Editor’s Note: Find an array of WPA posters on PRINT here.]


Leonard Karsakov (1917–1993)

Know for sure

Leonard Karsakov (1917–1993)

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →