Uncovering the Roots of the Illustrated Decorative Poster
Originally intended for outdoor publicity, the decorative poster soon began appearing in people’s homes and offices. Dating back to the beginnings of the modern commercial poster, this deliberate repurposing for interior decor has been with us ever since.
Recognising there was a willingness to display them inside the home, commercial poster pioneer Jules Cheret (1836–1932) prepared runs of ‘avant la littre’ proofs; artwork without lettering. Cheret was a trained lithographer able to paint directly to each of the stone plates that offset colour to the paper. Astutely, he chose to keep the typographic layer separate. Without the commercial text that deterred bygone poster collectors, art proofs became collectible items. Before long they were hung alongside paintings and engravings in the study, drawing room, and dining room. Value was rightly attributed to illustrated decorative posters as artistic works in their own right. This would soon lead to exhibitions and magazines dedicated to these accessible lithographic prints.
Commercial art forked in the 1960s. In time fewer commercial posters were undertaken by illustrators, as the explicitness of graphic design would prove more apt in meeting advertising needs. Whereas the particular style offered by an illustrator was their stock-in-trade, graphic designers provided anonymous messaging for commercial effectiveness. With time studio hierarchisation saw illustrators becoming widely regarded as outside freelancers. Now, more often than not, they are hired to lend their style to project responses that have already been conceived.
Crafted by Hand
As many contemporary designers and collectors look toward works from the past, a renewed appreciation has arisen for the integrated visuals made by commercial artists. To be clear, these are works that predate desktop publishing, and needed to be crafted manually. Specific instruction was also given as to how reproduction ought to be carried out. The expansive role of the bygone poster designer often meant suggesting what written copy might accompany the image. This is exemplified by the characterful posters of the late Milton Glaser (1929–2020). Commercial posters of the past did not emerge from an agency pipeline. They were created from the direct business relationships between commercial artist and their clients.