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I Want These Atomic-Era Midcentury Modern Posters

These design jewels will look amazing on any wall–if you have a few thousand dollars to spare.

If you’re a fan of science, the atomic era, and/or midcentury modernism, make a note on your calendar for March 1. That’s when 19 posters created by the designer Erik Nitsche for General Dynamics in the 1950s and ’60s will be put up for auction at Swann Auction Galleries. The auction catalog describes Nitsche’s work for General Dynamics as one of the boldest corporate identity campaigns of the 20th century. I don’t know if that’s objectively true, but they sure are beautiful.

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Erik Nitsche (1908-1998), General Dynamics/Atoms for Peace , 1955. [Image: courtesy Swann Auction Galleries]
What is true is that Nitsche was indeed one of the very first people to push for a new kind of design in printed material. Born in 1908 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Nitsche moved to the United States at age 26, and from 1955 to 1960 he worked as an art director for General Dynamics, where he was tasked with elevating the status of the company to that of General Electric or Westinghouse.

As part of that effort, the company asked him to create a series of six posters for the Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy–sponsored by the United Nations in 1955–to show how atomic energy could help the world rather than destroy it. The only problem is that many of the “peaceful uses” of atomic energy in which General Dynamics was working were not that peaceful–or public.

In fact, since they couldn’t show any actual hardware, Nitsche had to come up with other solutions to illustrate them. One example is the first poster in the series, dedicated to the United States Navy’s first nuclear submarine, called the USS Nautilus. Nobody knew what this secret supermachine–named after Captain Nemo’s underwater vessel–really looked like, so Nitsche had to work with the shape of the animal and a submarine to come up with this elegant, albeit rather obvious, solution.

Erik Nitsche (1908-1998), General Dynamics/Hydrodynamics, 1955. [Image: courtesy Swann Auction Galleries]
The rest of the auction’s posters are even more interesting. My favorites are Atoms for Peace, Nuclear Fusion, Basic Forces, and, especially, Energetic Earth, which all transcend their symbolism to become almost purely abstract. Nitsche’s work is so powerful and beautiful thanks to its obsessive attention to detail, the composition of elements based on solid geometric relationships, and the usage of very refined and simple typography (you can see a lot of his work here).

According to Alexandra Nelson, communications director for the Swann Auction Galleries, “The posters come from the collection of renowned poster dealer and aficionado Gail Chisholm, and in accordance with her wishes, proceeds will support Planned Parenthood of New York.” She also added that “it’s unprecedented for this many General Dynamics posters to come to auction at once, though we’ve offered them intermittently in the past. There were six for the nuclear conference, and the rest of the 13 are from other series–all from his tenure at General Dynamics.” In total, the artist created 29 posters during his time working for the Virginia-based company.

Seeing the entire atomic conference series available at once is unusual because, from what I can see online, you don’t see them all come up for auction at once like this. Good design, a good cause, and a good collector’s opportunity. Seems like a triple-whammy to me.

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About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.

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