“The story of women in 20th century graphic design has been criminally neglected,” says David Bownes, curator at the London Transport Museum. “It would be tremendous if they could receive the same acknowledgement as their famous, male counterparts.”
This is the idea behind a new poster exhibition set to open at London Transport Museum this week, which celebrates the work of female poster designers over the last 100 years.
The exhibition has been curated to coincide with the centenary since women were given the right to vote, in 1918.
Poster Girls features over 150 posters designed for Transport for London (TfL), from advertising material through to safety notices on transport systems such as the Tube, buses and National Rail trains.
Illustration to art deco
The show starts in 1910 and is organised chronologically until the present day, exploring different graphic styles.
Bownes, who has co-curated the exhibition, says that it starts off illustrative, as originally children’s book illustrators were often commissioned by TfL to design posters, resulting in prints that looked like “pages from nursery rhyme books”.
The 1920s and 1930s then saw a bolder, art deco style with block colours and geometric shapes, only to return to a more illustrative style following World War Two, which has continued through to the present day.
“Over the last 100 years, there have occasionally been posters in a more painterly style, from painters like Sandra Fisher and Gillian Ayres,” he says. “Fine artists have sometimes been commissioned. But illustration became the default setting again following the war.”
“Revolution” in design education
The show also aims to demonstrate the “revolution” that took place in design education in London following 1945 as the advertising industry boomed, with more and more women taking on courses at specialist schools such as Royal College of Art (RCA), and the then-separate Saint Martin’s School of Art and Central School of Arts and Crafts.
“Women made up a disproportionately high number of students on these courses, given the hierarchical and socially-restrained era,” Bownes says. “Design was seen as ‘something appropriate’ for women to do.”
One example from this era is Dora Batty, who worked across poster and graphic design, ceramics and textiles, was commissioned to complete many advertising jobs and was also head of the School of Textiles at Central School of Arts and Crafts.
“There are monographs about the men”
“She was a particularly good graphic designer and an inspiring teacher, and the likes of Terence Conran claim to have been inspired by her,” says Bownes. “But she’s so obscure now that we couldn’t even find a photo of her for the exhibition.”
Other female designers featured in the show include Laura Knight, Edin Marx and Mabel Lucie Attwell, with TfL estimating that over 170 women have been commissioned by the organisation since 1910 – yet most of them are relatively unknown to today’s design community, let alone the general public, Bownes explains.
“The best of these designers are just as good as the best, male poster designers, who are quite well known,” he says. “Think Abram Games, Tom Eckersley, and Tom Purvis – there are monographs about these men.”
“It shouldn’t be ‘female’ designers – it should be ‘best’ designers”
While Bownes acknowledges there is still gender inequality in the design industry, he hopes that exhibitions such as this will help to celebrate the achievements of these past design greats – and that, eventually, shows like this will no longer be necessary.
“It hasn’t been a straight, upward arrow for equality in the design industry,” he says. “The number of women commissioned to do posters declined quite steadily after World War Two, and has only increased again in the last 20 years.
“Throughout the 20th century, men were paid significantly more and had a much higher profile,” he continues. “They did more self-promotion than women and did not have the pressure or constraints of family life. Ultimately, we don’t want to need to have an exhibition on female poster designers – it should just be the best poster designers.”
Poster Girls runs 13 October 2017 – January 2019 at Exterion Media Gallery, London Transport Museum, Covent Garden Piazza, London WC2E 7BB. Tickets cost £16 in advance or £17.50 on the door. For more info, head to the London Transport Museum site.