Poster Design from the Hippie Era

January 3 - April 26, 2020


In the summer of 2017, the Columbia Museum of Art acquired over 100 rock posters from the collection of design historian Mel Byars. A selection from this gift is on view here and coincides in spirit with It’s Alive!, as rock culture and poster art collide. 

Each of these ephemeral objects represents an event — a musical show at a venue that encouraged dancing, psychedelic light shows, and hallucinatory drug taking. Rock promoter Bill Graham organized dance concerts at The Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, and Chet Helms, teaming up with a commune of hippies under the name “The Family Dog,” did the same for the Avalon Ballroom. They hired designers to create original posters for each show, promoting experimental bands that were emerging to create the San Francisco sound. 

The designers of these posters created complicated visual experiences with image mashups and vibrating color combinations. This was an intentionally dense style, distinct from the easy-to-read marketing of New York’s Madison Avenue advertising firms. Young designers pillaged thrift stores, libraries, and art museums for images to combine in their posters. They built from the sinuous style of Art Nouveau, images of silent film stars, Edward Curtis’ portrait photos of Native Americans, and contemporary product packaging. Finally, these renegade designers worked with professional printers, such as the Bindweed Press, Tea Lautrec Litho, and West Coast Lithography, to create posters as offset lithographs, a complicated process known as the “workhorse of printing.”