One of many highlights in our March 1 sale of Vintage Posters is a run of posters designed by Erik Nitsche in a series of campaigns for General Dynamics. Nitsche’s design paved the way towards Modernism and away from overtly literal advertising campaigns. The 19 posters — the largest selection to be offered in a single auction — form part of the Gail Chisholm Collection.
Erik Nitsche was a Swiss native who worked in Germany and Paris before moving to the United States in 1934. He was one of many young European immigrants who changed the face of American graphic design, and is best remembered for his series of 29 posters for General Dynamics, where he served as Art Director between 1955 and 1960. His first series, Atoms for Peace, consisted of six posters designed for the General Dynamics exhibition at the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy in Geneva in 1955. These images rank among the most impressive corporate identity campaigns of the twentieth century. The campaign issued posters in English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese and Russian — according to Steven Heller at Typotheque, “those nations where atomic energy was being used for peaceful purposes.” Nitsche was charged with elevating “the stature of General Dynamics among other huge American technology firms in attendance, including General Electric, Union Carbide, and Westinghouse.”
As the conference was focusing on peaceful uses of atomic energy, so too did General Dynamics’s posters. Due to pressing national security issues, General Dynamics could not allow any of their products to projects to be depicted on a poster. Thus, Nitsche had to express the corporate mission through allegorical means, using design to convey speed, growth and forward impulsion. He found inspiration in scientific imagery, focusing largely on color gradients and geometric forms to convey these abstract concepts. According to the Cooper Hewitt, Atoms for Peace “melds influences from modernist art with scientific imagery to evoke a dynamic, innovative, and peaceful future.”
Perhaps the most famous image in the series depicts the USS Nautilus, one of the U.S.’s first nuclear-powered submarines. From Typotheque: “It was an indelible logo in its day. Set against a gradated gray background, the shell was a virtual cornucopia of progress. The submarine was not seen as a killing machine, but rather the offspring of progress poised to help the world.” It should be noted that the ongoing project to construct the Nautilus was so top-secret that Nitsche was only provided a basic idea of what the submarine would ultimately look like.
Here’s Steven Heller again from Typotheque: “The first series of six posters established a tone for all future General Dynamics graphics, as well as a paradigm, of sorts, for how the marriage of science and engineering would be visualized by kindred companies. Indeed Nitsche’s brand of artful futurism was copied by many others at the time and might be seen today as representative of the so-called ‘Atomic Style’ that emerged in the mid- to late-1950s.” The selection in the March 1 auction features all six of the original Atoms for Peace series from 1955, and 13 from various other campaigns, including the second Atoms for Peace series in 1956 and the Exploring the Universe series of 1958.
Heller continues, “General Dynamics was incorporated in 1953 as the parent for ten different manufacturing firms (among them, Electric Boat, Canadair Limited, Electro Dynamic, General Atomic, Convair, and Stromberg-Carlson) which at that time were administering to the defense needs of the United States. Its products ranged from atomic powered submarines to electric motors for destroyers, to the B-58 supersonic jet bomber and the commercial 880 jet transport. The company was also working in the areas of electronics, astronautics, aero- and hydrodynamics, and nuclear physics.”
Nitsche’s work is recognizable for its uncluttered minimalism and tasteful use of text as a design element. The forms, according to Jesus Diaz of Co.Design, “transcend their symbolism to become almost purely abstract.”