The Wolfsonian: A Designer’s Wonderland

Out of the Darkness at the Wolfsonian

The Wolfsonian–Florida International University is a museum, library, and research center. Located in Miami Beach, the museum uses objects and printed material to illustrate the persuasive power of art and design, to explore what it means to be modern, and to tell the story of social, historical, and technological changes that have transformed our world. The collections comprise approximately 120,000 objects from the period of 1885 to 1945—the height of the Industrial Revolution to the end of the Second World War.

One of the Wolfsonian’s current exhibitions, Out of the Darkness: Selling Light showcases posters and advertisements created to promote the light bulb and electric lighting.

The technological advances of the late nineteenth century—color lithography, cheap inks and paper, and low production costs—gave rise to the rapid creation and increased dissemination of visual propaganda. Companies hired graphic designers to promote their products through bold, colorful imagery in a variety of media, including posters, signs, and advertising ephemera. Clear, powerful, and precise graphics were necessary to instantly attract consumers.

The works on display were produced after the introduction of the incandescent lamp in 1879 by Thomas A. Edison. Edison’s invention, coupled with the widespread availability of electricity and the rise in mass production and consumption, led to the development of new commodities, such as electric lighting. The posters and other advertisements demonstrate a variety of visual strategies and techniques used by designers in the twentieth century. They include using a literary reference—Prometheus bringing light to mankind—to position the new product within a historical narrative, to the prominent display of the object-itself. The constant in all these works is the use of the incandescent lamp or light bulb as the ultimate symbol of modernity and progress.

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