Poster House Unfurls The History of Printed Matter One Sign at a Time

When the thing they’re selling is no longer for sale, when the events they promoted have long passed, when the ideas they propagate become trapped in the amber of history, posters take on a whole new life. And with this week’s opening of Poster House, the newest museum addition to Chelsea, this most democratic form of communication expands once again.
The idea for Poster House—the first museum of its kind in the United States—began to take shape three years ago when poster collector Val Crosswhite teamed up with museum director Julia Knight to manifest her vision. After several years of fundraising, putting a board together and securing a space, the museum opens June 20 with two exhibitions designed to reflect the core elements of a poster: ubiquity, anonymity and the democratic intentions of an object familiar and accessible to everyone. “We’re really trying to pull in as broad of an audience as possible,” says Knight. “The posters in their inaugural exhibits will feel familiar—even if you don’t recognize the name, you recognize the pieces.”

Poster House’s two inaugural shows touch on eras a century apart. "Alphonse Mucha: Art Nouveau/Nouvelle Femme" is the first dedicated showing of the Czech-born, Paris-based illustrator’s work in New York City since 1921, while "Designing Through the Wall: Cyan in the 1990s" presents a selection of early work from the innovative German design firm. Though the shows are vastly different in content and context, both present work that is dizzyingly intricate. Where Mucha’s gilded, pale, hallucinatory designs lull the viewer into an absinthe dream, Cyan’s work, blurred and woven as a rush-hour intersection, jolts the viewer into engagement. For both Mucha and the Cyan group, the complexity of their designs betrays the difficulty of their mediums. As Poster House chief curator Angelica Lippert explains, Mucha’s technical skill—and the attention to detail required from the 4-color lithographic process—“was more advanced than anyone else working at that time.” She adds, “Mucha disrupted the way advertising was presented to the public. He brought Art Nouveau—a very high form of upper-class, bourgeois art, to the streets, and made it accessible to the average person.” Cyan’s designs, emerging from the rubble of the Berlin Wall, also worked to bridge cultural and economic gaps. Cyan were also innovators in their medium, one of the first design firms to employ computer programs like Photoshop in publishing and advertising. The design of the museum, by LTL Architects, speaks to the democratic nature of the poster. Visitors access the museum’s gallery spaces—two floors, plus interactive exhibits for children and adults—through a single, wide vestibule, as light-filled as any sidestreet on which a featured work may have first appeared. Slender glass doors reveal glimpses of the gallery space. The exhibitions’ pared-down text encourages quick understanding of the works’ original intended audiences. The space, like the exhibits, keeps the past in conversation with the future. New context means new understanding and in their movement from public to private space, marketplace to museum, the works at Poster House are given a second life.Chelsea, New York's contemporary art district, gets a new institution dedicated to printed ephemera and its history.