When I was twelve years old, my family friend Michael brought me to the commercial print shop he ran in downtown Baltimore to spend the day with him and see how all the presses worked.
I remember his cramped office that was thick with cigarette smoke and
overwhelmed with towering piles of posters, signs, and rolled up banners that the shop had printed, and where I was handed the Yellow Pages and encouraged to make prank phone calls while he made a pot of coffee.
He showed me the die cutting press, and offered to cut any text I wanted on adhesive vinyl. An avid Beatles fan at the time, I opted for the words, ‘I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends’. “Don’t you want something cooler, like a Red Hot Chili Peppers song?” he asked. I did not, and those vinyl words proudly (if perhaps a little ironically) occupied the front of my binder for the rest of that school year.
In the offset press room—which smelled of turpentine and cigarettes, as these were different times—we saw a poster being printed. The first pass of magenta was going through, and the finished proof was tacked on the wall for reference: an advertisement for Colt 45 featuring a bikini-clad African-American woman holding a life-sized bottle of beer in an embrace. “This,” he said, getting a little misty, “is really special.” Outside of work, Michael was an artist and a bohemian in the truest sense
of the word, so I did not understand what he could possibly value in such a brainless and demeaning ad. But he explained that this was an unusually difficult poster to print, as the warm black shadows on her skin would blur together with the blue- black night in the background if the pressman wasn’t careful to pull out each rich tone. I didn’t get it then, but I do now—successfully communicating through design is powerful stuff and being a part of that can be thrilling, regardless of what’s being said.
Ivan Chermayeff's Big Apple Circus logo and poster
Of all the posters Michael brought back from the shop for me over the years, my favorite was an advertisement for the Big Apple Circus, which toured to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. A baby elephant balances on a beach ball next to hand-drawn script that reads: “Our elephants are close enough to steal your popcorn!” As a kid, I thought that was hilarious. The poster came with me to college, where I wrote a paper on its brilliant designer, Ivan Chermayeff, for a course on the history of graphic design. And it hangs in my kitchen today, where it charms my three-year- old son who can start the process all over again. For me, it just happens to embody a perfect synthesis of my past, my present, and my future, and when I think about the essential poster, this one is the image that will always come to mind.
My experience is specific, but it’s not so unusual—posters are astonishingly personal. As we have been working over these past two years to start a museum for posters, we constantly encounter this type of personal connection to the form. Everyone seems to have had a poster that hung on their bedroom wall that spoke to their earliest and most passionate interests, or remembers a movie poster that gripped their imagination, or a political poster that woke them up to a cause. Or made them realize they wanted to become a graphic designer, as we have come to understand the primacy that posters have in the creative minds of those who love and make design. There’s an immediacy and a democracy to posters—they speak to everyone. And yet, there is an intimacy, too, a private conversation happening at the same time that makes posters so easy to enjoy and to love. As we envision the experience of coming to Poster House, fostering and building on that personal connection is an approach that excites us about the project over and over again.
Posters displayed at John's Barber Shop in Port Authority
Every weekday as I slowly make my way back home to New Jersey, I walk past a barbershop in Port Authority that has a dozen posters in their window of different hair models. All have the strangely evocative words ‘Love, Mother’ in the corner, which I assume is the name of the company that produces them. The models are diverse in race, age, and hairstyle, but all of them are so vividly expressive, such clear characters as if ripped from the pages of an epic novel—so much of themselves is written on their faces. These posters have never induced me to get a haircut at this shop and they never will, but I look forward to seeing them every day. They make my day better. They are my friends, and I get by with a little bit of their help.