I didn’t get to go to the Flatstock Poster Show this Spring because I was out of town, but Austin is always a great town for show posters and I regularly come across interesting examples of local design, as happened today when I was out shopping for Easter trinkets at ToyJoy and noticed a couple of interesting posters from shows earlier this week in a window next door.
The two posters I picked up couldn’t be much more different.
One is a poster for what I think is a local literary magazine issue release party. I’ve never heard of Foxing Quarterly, but the cover with its retro soviet look and animal human hybrid characters was certainly pretty eye catching with nice contrasting colors and use of graphic elements.
The other poster has a much more traditional, letterpress style look, which isn’t surprising since I surmise that it’s derived from an Austin show poster from the 1960s. It’s for an Elvis retrospective with local rockabilly revivalist Ted Roddy. The poster was produced on the cheap – black and white xerox on copy paper – bu the look design is just right for a vintage show poster look. I just wish they had gone the extra mile and printed it on heavy weight color coated cardboard stock so that the materials matched the design.
The streets of Austin are like a gallery tour for the poster fan. You never know what you’re going to stumble across, but there’s always something new and interesting if you keep a look out.
I hope readers don’t find it tedious, but my mind tends to run in certain courses and right now everything seems to be coming up propaganda posters, particularly from the World War I era. After the recent pieces on the work of Alexander Rodchenko and the early soviet constructivists, my mind – which is sort of like an organic version of stumbleupon.com – turned to what was going on in other countries at the same time. This conveniently tied in to a project I recently did for a political organization where I worked with images from the Liberty Bond drive posters released during World War I.
In the course of research for that project I visited a number of websites featuring posters from the first three decades of the 20th century and in the process I came on one really outstanding site specializing in propaganda posters from the First World War. WorldWar1Propaganda.com has a really outstanding, museum level collection of posters from that period. There are hundreds of posters, preserved in excellent quality scans and fairly high resolution. They’re watermarked, but for reference, research and design purposes that’s not much of a problem.
The selection on the site is varied and represents many different countries and themes of poster. There are sections arranged by nationality, but also thematic sections for things like bond drive posters, Red Cross posters, YMCA posters, rationing posters and a lot more. The Russian section is a bit weak, but they are well documented on other sites. For British and French and German posters the site is really outstanding and it has surprisingly strong collections for the British colonies like Australia and Canada.
Many of us are familiar with the propaganda posters of the Second World War, but artistically these earlier posters are much more interesting. Many of them have a romantic and idealized quality which is more appealing than the photography-influenced, heavier and more realistic styles of the Second World War. There are Art Nouveau, Jugendstil, Art Deco and even impressionist influences in many of the posters, coming out of a very fertile artistic era and reflecting the tastes of the contemporary audience.
Some of the posters in the collection are really unusual. They are glimpses of aspects of the war at home which we rarely see and a window on the society of the time. It should also be noted that the collection is not strictly limited to posters. Some of the images included are leaflets or magazine advertising which fit in the same general category of visual expressions of a propaganda message.
This is a site worth spending some of your time on. I wish there were museum-style sites this good for other artistic periods and movements.
Every year one of the best parts of the giant SXSW everything festival here in Austin is the Flatstock paper show brought to the Austin Convention Center by the American Poster Institute. The music and the video and the other aspects of the festival are great and way too crowded, but I find the posters and graphic arts materials at the Flatstock show way more intriguing.
It’s basically just a huge hall with hundreds of booths where independent poster designers show their wares and some of the posters are really interesting examples of original design work. Many of them use interesting fonts and found art, and there’s a great diversity of styles. It’s a wonderland for fans of contemporary graphic design.
I’ve been wanting to take a booth at Flatstock to promote fonts because a lot of the posters use our fonts, but to sneak in I’d need to have some posters to sell, and selection for the show is heavily biased towards rock show posters, which isn’t exactly my forte, though I’ve been tempted to put together a portfolio of completely bogus poster designs for shows by nonexistent bands, just to get a table at the show. But for now I’m going to have to settle for just reviewing the show and the coolest posters in it, as I did last year and the year before.
Look for my next review this weekend, and if you happen to be in Austin for SXSW don’t forget to stop by Flatstock 33 at the Austin Convention Center. It runs from now through Sunday.
While wandering through the wine aisle at Target (not normally known for its cool wines or artistic experiences), my eye was caught by the striking label on a bottle of Argentinian Malbec from The Rebels which features a design by Brad Vetter of Hatch Show Prints, produced in their unique style and featuring many fonts, especially on the back label, which are similar to those preserved in our Letterpress Font Collection, including Big Show, Letterpress Gothic and Caelian. Hatch Show Prints has been doing amazing posters using traditional letterpress for about 150 years in Nashville and for customers nationwide.
It turns out that this wine is the latest in a series called “The Show” with Hatch Show Print labels. Each label is different, but they all feature a characteristic bucking mustang. The series goes back to 2007 and includes some very eye-catching designs on a wide variety of vintages. The Rebels or the Three Thieves who market the wines are a group of wine experts who find interesting wines from around the world, import and package them in this unique style and sell them under their label. I haven’t tried the wine itself yet, but if you can judge a book by its cover and a wine by its label then the wine ought to be a lot of fun. At Christmas time a bottle of wine under the tree makes a pretty good present.
When I go browsing in our local vintage shops I always check out the racks of flyers and promotional cards for various local bands and businesses. Sometimes I find a graphic design treasure, and last weekend that treasure was a half-page, two-sided promo card for a movie called Behind the Burly Q which is coming out on DVD next spring.
The card, which I suspect is also the DVD cover, has the look of an aged poster from the period in the 40s and 50s when Burlesque was at its height, which makes sense as the film is a documentary history of Burlesque from its origins in Vaudeville to the reminiscences of surviving stars of the era. The design is pretty bold in its use of creative paper yellowing and texturing. It’s not perfect, but it does get the look of cheap high-acid paper which is a couple of decades old about right. The font choices are pretty good with a clear awareness of the kinds of fonts available for cheap letterpress printing 50 years or so ago.
What I think stands out most is the use of overlapping graphic elements, with photos and blocks of text arranged where they share space but still stand on their own and remain distinct enough to read or view, all in an overall design which doesn’t seem too crowded or unbalanced – especially on the front of the card, much less so on the back. Bringing all those elements together into a coherent whole and making them work together takes a special eye, and I’m a little envious of how well it’s done here, as it’s something I often have trouble with myself. I tend to be afraid to use odd angles and asymetrical placements, afraid that the final result won’t have the balance which it ought to. So I’m keeping the “Burly Q” card around for reference to remind me to be bold in my placements and not fall back on too many predictable positioning.
A couple of weeks ago I took my daughter to the Travis County Rodeo, not so much for the animals and shows, as for the accompanying carnival run by Crabtree Amusements. They have some excellent rides, but what always catches the eye is that for larger events they also bring along their classic sideshow. What draws your eye to the sideshow is the wall of colorful banners advertising attractions like “Molly the Mermaid,” the “Chupacabra” and of course “Tyrone the Giant Rat.”
Those banners are by Bobby Rawls, one of several contemporary artists who specialize in recreating the look of classic sideshow banners which follow a format and style which goes back more than a century. The frame is always red, the title banner is gold, there’s usually an emblem with a one-word epithet like “Alive!” and the art itself is highly stylized with bold contrasting colors. Of course, the figures are grotesque and titillating, provoking the viewer to come into the sideshow and see what the real thing is like.
For the second year in a row I braved the crowds and the chaos which is the South by Southwest festival in Austin to check out the Flatstock poster show at the Austin Convention Center. It was a great experience last year, and I was not disappointed to find much more of the same this year. As a graphic designer with a particular interest in posters it’s right up my alley, and it falls on my birthday, so that makes it a special part of the birthday celebration.
I consider myself pretty lucky that Austin is one of the five cities hosting a yearly Flatstock show. I’m not quite so happy about the fact that it’s held during SXSW, which is becoming more and more of an inconvenience for anyone who wants to travel anywhere downtown in Austin while it is going on. SXSW gets larger every year and even on the last day the crowds were unbelievable. No parking, even at inflated rates, lines of hipsters a mile long to get in to see bands, and this year the convention center had new events jammed into every nook and cranny.
Despite what appeared to be a smaller exhibit hall there were actually more exhibitors at Flatstock than there were last year. Not a huge number more, but some new ones as well as many who were returning. The layout of booths was more economical and the booths were jammed closer together, but there was certainly a lot to look at. The downside was that the crowds were larger by an even greater proportion. There was less room to move around, fewer opportunities to talk to the artists and people were selling out of posters and running out of business cards. The upside was that with more of a crowd and more of an assurance of sales the prices for posters were considerably lower overall – a pleasant surprise at a time when the price of so many things seems to be going up.
There’s no way I can go over everything I saw at the show in detail. There were a lot of great designers there, including many who were not there last year and a few I covered in my previous article. I’ll skip those I hit last year and hit the highlights of what I saw this year, some of which was very good and some of which was somewhat mystifying. There were fewer of the stock efforts to reproduce the design styles of the sixties and the Art Nouveau era, which was probably a plus, but the level of creativity of those trying to define a more contemporary style was not always impressive. Too many designers seemed willing to substitute complexity for creativity or to neglect text and design and let illustration carry work which seemed incomplete. Flatstock should be about posters as coherent works of design, not about great illustrations with a few words in a boring font hidden in a corner.
Two other interesting trends also stood out. A lot more of the designers were local to the Austin area, though there were still some from places as far away as England and Germany. There were also more exhibitors whose main business was something other than posters, but who produce posters as part of that business, including record labels, illustrative artists, publishers and clothing companies. One example which combined both of these trends was Austin-based Rural Rooster which was selling posters, but also selling the graphic fashion t-shirts which are their main stock and trade.
Also notable this year was a strong presence for art and posters with a psychedelic theme. The art prints and poster designs of Charlie Hardwick certainly fell into that category with their day-glo colors and floral motifs. Pop-art psychedelia with a somewhat sterilized commercial look. Like posters you’d have found at Sears a few years after psychedelia went mainstream. More visceral were a few posters which strayed into the domain of early 1970s blacklight poster design style, a style which seems dated, but was a nice change from the usual attempts to copy the classic Fillmore and Armadillo show posters. The example to the right really stood out. I haven’t been able to figure out who the artist was from the zillion business cards I collected, but I like the effect and it uses my Butterfield font, so it deserves a mention.
I also have to throw a nod to Vrooooom Press, a letterpress printing company showing off some creative applications of a venerable printing technology. You know I love letterpress and last year there was very little of it to be seen at Flatstock, so their work was nice to see. Unfortunately their website doesn’t show much of their poster work, but they had some great examples on display at the show. Also showing some good retro letterpress style work at Flatstock was Spoke Art. They represent a number of artists whose work ranges from the traditional 60s style show posters to letterpress to much more modern designs. I particularly liked their pieces by Chuck Sperry and Emory Douglas. Unlike most of the posters at the show, theirs were quite expensive, so I didn’t end up taking any home.
I overlooked him last time, so I have to mention the comic-book inspired art of Flynn Prejean of Bad Moon Studios. He’s known most for his posters for The Misfits, but he does a great job combining vivid art with creative use of type and lettering. He uses a lot of my font designs (Semiramis, Ligeia, Ironwork, Spoonbill) or variations derived from them, which predisposes me to like his work, but what really impresses me is his composition and the way he brings art and type together to produce an integrated whole without being too derivative of traditional styles, though obviously drawing on 70s era horror comics for inspiration. He’s also one of the few artists who is clearly working in a digital format to recreate a slicker version of a classic look, which I find appealing.
I can’t wrap up without a couple of more vague mentions. One goes to an artist who had run out of cards and who I can only identify as SBPW. His stripped down style for posters for shows at the Beachland Ballroom in Ohio was really eye catching, and I liked the fact that he kept things simple and clean and had the audacity to silkscreen his posters on unusual paper stock, including butcher paper and construction paper. I actually paid (not very much) to pick up a couple of his posters, and if I had any idea how to track him down I might buy more. I don’t know who he is, but I like what he does.
And finally a nod to Clint Wilson, another Austin local who had the kindness to pose for a photo with his poster for a Ministry show which features my Captain Kidd font, and who also does some very nice poster work, including a set of super cute dinosaur cards for kids. A lot of his work has a cool, distressed-punk look and a childlike quality which I find engaging.
I’ve just touched on a handful of the many great artists and designers who were at Flatstock 29 in Austin this year. But viewing the show in snippets like this is kind of like the experience of actually attending, where the crowds were too large and posters were selling out and it was hard to get to what you wanted to see. To really get an idea of the diversity Flatstock has to offer, find the show which is nearest where you live and take a few hours to walk through the hall and really experience it.
As I roam restlessly through the coffee shops of Austin (and it’s wall to wall coffee shops), I can’t keep my eyes off the poster covered walls (everywhere but in the soulless corporate wasteland of Starbucks) where a remarkable and ever-changing selection of posters showcase some of the most interesting and creative art in the city. With all the theaters and night clubs and other entertainment venues in the city it’s a great working environment for poster artists and those who like to observe their work.
Admittedly, there’s a lot of generic dross to wade through while looking for creative gold, but every week or two I do find something interesting. The trick is the timing. It wouldn’t be right to snatch up a poster before the event it’s advertising takes place, so I have to spot the poster and then make sure I come back and get it right after it expires but before a bored barrista notices that it’s out of date and takes it down, consigning it to a dumpster of doom. This fall’s harvest was rich in brightly colored cartoon-style posters, and I managed to add thee of the best to my collection.
Two of my finds came from the Thunderbird coffee house on Manor Road, east of the University of Texas. It’s too crowded, but they serve a fine selection of beers and decent sandwiches in addition to coffee so they’re worth a visit. My first find there was a fun poster for Threadgill‘s Armadillo Showdown, a show featuring some popular local bands. The font choices are predictable, but the illustration of a gunslinging Armadillo is a lot of fun. It’s not quite up to the quality level of the art that you could find on Threadgill’s posters back in the 70s, but it’s nice to see them continuing their musical and poster traditions. Weirder and even more fun was a poster I found in that same visit for a multi-band show at a club called Red7. The artist for this poster must be a child of the 90s because the art looks like some of the creepy alternative eastern European animation which dominated Cartoon Network in the post-Rugrats era.
The final find to round out my set of comics-style posters was found at Fricano’s Deli which is basically a pizza and sandwich shop in the north campus area, but not to be confused with the similarly named pizza chain in Michigan. Fricanos does a different poster every year for their anniversary party and I couldn’t resist their Fantastic Four themed poster from this year’s celebration so I had to beg one from them.