From fin de siecle Lautrec to Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour, posters are becoming collector's items. The V&A opens its Power of the Poster exhibition next month and Shell UK, one of the most radical pre-war advertisers, is publishing a book of its Twenties and Thirties posters later this month.
The first decision to make if you want to collect posters is which area to go for: for a start, there's film, music, railways, racing cars and advertising. Paul and Karen Rennie, collectors of twentieth-century British art and design, have plumped for the last option, concentrating on the Thirties, particularly on the commercial posters that spearheaded the rise in graphic design.
"The Thirties was a time when modernism was emerging," explains Paul. "People were forward-looking, slightly utopian, and machines were seen as positive things." Paul thinks the up-turn in the poster's fortunes may be due to our changing attitudes to graphic art. "Graphic design is recognised much more now than it ever was," says Paul. "Poster design was bread and butter money for 'proper' artists, and people only started training to be graphic designers rather than artists after the Second World War."
For many people, the commercial element of posters is becoming less of a turn-off. We now have artists like Damien Hirst who have one eye on the brush and the other on the dollar, and books on posters as graphic design have increased ten-fold since the Eighties.
Paul and Karen Rennie bought their first posters together in 1982 when they worked at Southerby's in Belgravia. The couple became cultural magpies, and when they moved into their London home four years ago they started selling their finds in the ground-floor shop. Upstairs, they furnished the three-storey house in the things they couldn't bear to part with.
In every room, from the bathroom to the bedroom, huge posters advertise everything from the post office to railways. It sounds like hell, but Karen and Paul have chosen posters with a soft-sell approach and so never look imposing. "We used wooden frames, because they relate to surroundings," says Paul. Their home is a beautiful, rather ramshackle, eighteenth-century terraced house. Its many windows (where the sun streams in at different angles), the original wooden panelling and rickety floorboards are a perfect back-drop for their posters.
Because the walls are so old, Paul and Karen had to be careful how they hung their posters. One too many nails and the whole walls could come tumbling down. "We've had proper gallery picture rails installed because the posters are so heavy," explains Karen. "We've used perspex rather than glass because glass is heavier and will crack over time. Perspex is more flexible. It costs us about pounds 150 to have each poster mounted and framed."
Paul and Karen started collecting posters for the love of it, but now they realise that it's proving quite lucrative. "We have a poster by the war artist Paul Nash," explains Paul, of his prize possession which hangs in the living room. "He designed it for Shell in 1937. I bought it in 1988 and it's doubled in value already, but the difference between a Nash painting and Nash poster is still tens of thousands of pounds. This poster is extremely rare, but even a limited edition of one of Nash's prints would cost more and people are waking up to that. For example, if 1,000 advertising posters were printed, 900 would be used, about 90 would be lost, so you're really down to ten or fewer collectable posters from one image."
Throughout the house, white blinds cover every window, letting in the bright light but protecting the posters from the sun. Shaker-style Ambrose Heal furniture complements the austerity of the posters' designs. "We're drawn towards the arts and crafts," Paul explains. "It's our natural taste to keep things very simple. We like to be comfortable and this type of furniture doesn't diminish the posters in any way and it's easy to live with."
The living room is proof that you can have several posters on a wall without it looking too busy. As well as the Paul Nash rarity are smaller prints and two huge posters: one rather dark post office advertisement with a motorbike rider and Corbusier-style houses, the other a poster for London and North Eastern Rail. "Posters can work with several on the wall," explains Paul, "but there is a point where they stop being as impressive, so they need a bit of space around them. It's an interesting process figuring that out. You do need a lot of wall space and I take the view that an empty wall is always a challenge."
A Fifties Scandinavian sofa, a patterned black and white throw and a simple sideboard complement the posters, while blue, red and green cushions and pots reflect the brighter colours."When we started we didn't have a scheme in mind," says Karen, "because nothing here is irrevocable. If we want to change something, we can auction it or put it in the shop and buy something new."
In the kitchen, the railway posters are more like landscapes, with trains rushing through rolling countryside or beautiful depictions of odd choices like Whitby. The colours are softer and the furniture comprises of high- backed Quaker-style dining chairs and a simple wooden table.
The bedroom is possibly the most colourful room in the house, and the sole poster is bright yellow, red and green with the obligatory train. In the bathroom, the theme is nautical. The British Empire exhibition poster above the chest-of-drawers was designed in the style of the Labour Party campaigns of the Twenties, with Rubenesque fishermen toiling against a glorified British seascape. It fits in beautifully with the pre-war claw-foot bath and ancient wash-stand.
It sounds as if Paul and Karen's house could be regimented and cold, but it isnt. There is a great feeling of nostalgia, a harking back to a great age when the machine was beautiful and graphic design was exciting. As Paul says, "things started to go wrong after the Festival of Britain." That's open to debate, but the power of the poster really isn't.
'The Power of the Poster' is an exhibition of 300 posters from 1890s to present day at the Victoria & Albert Museum from 2 April. 'The Shell Poster Book' is published by Profile, price pounds 14.99Reuse content