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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

When advertisements were art

By Eve M. Kahn

Between the 1920s and World War II, illustrators and designers slashed bands of color across advertisements to tempt consumers with ever faster modes of travel and cleverer machinery. The era’s frenetic pace of change is vividly represented in posters hung throughout the homes of collectors William and Elaine Crouse, and they have partly denuded their walls to lend 58 pieces to “Art Deco: Commercializing the Avant-Garde,” an exhibition that opens Sept. 28 at Poster House in New York City.

Angelina Lippert, Poster House’s chief curator and director of content, described the show as “the first global history of art deco posters hosted at a museum.” The works on view were targeted at potential customers for Japanese trains, American race cars, Swiss clothing, Swedish tires, Dutch glassware, Italian liqueurs, French cigarettes, Cuban cigars, and sports events in Poland, Israel, Argentina and Uruguay.

In one ad from the Crouses’ collection, for Britain’s Imperial Airways, a passenger sinks into an oversize black armchair buoyed by clouds, with stiff drinks at the ready for help enduring days-long hauls to New Zealand and South Africa.

In the exhibition’s poster for the French newspaper L’Intransigeant, Ukraine-born artist A.M. Cassandre silhouetted the face of a newsboy shouting headlines for journalism freshly delivered to his ears by global telegraph networks.

Opulent metallic inks shimmer on the poster surfaces, amid logos and brief texts in newly invented faceted and squiggly lettering styles. Inspired by the latest experimental art movements, the illustrators abstracted human faces into rectangles and disks and depicted fashionable consumers dressed in cubist patchwork clothing.

Traditional motifs also influenced the designs of the era; in an Australian tourism ad by artist Gert Sellheim, an émigré from Eastern Europe, coral reef-dwelling angelfish emit bubble streams that evoke dot patterns used by Indigenous Australians.

William Crouse, who long worked as a biotech venture capitalist, said that in amassing more than 1,000 posters, he has been particularly drawn to examples with “clean geometric lines and bright colors.” Poster House is borrowing works as vast as Cassandre’s ad for a French furniture store, 13 feet long, with a silhouetted lumberjack felling a tree against a backdrop of twilight sky. A crane was required to remove the poster from a third-floor hallway in the Crouses’ Florida home.

The couple’s other collections include art deco glassware and cocktail shakers, which, historically, were used to concoct and serve drinks with the very same ingredients that the Crouses’ posters advertised. The Crouses have lent their possessions over the years to shows, including an art deco survey that traveled widely after originating at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and a recent retrospective of works by designer E. McKnight Kauffer at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

To fill gaps created by the loans to Poster House, the Crouses have moved pieces out of stairwells and bathrooms for rehanging in more prominent spots and brought others out of storage. “Some of my favorite posters are in the show,” William Crouse said, but for a few months, he added, “we’ll survive without them.”

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