I won’t be naming any names, but recently someone admitted to me that they just don’t “get” posters. I don’t get what’s not to get. Posters are all about “getting it”; they’re about telling us anything and everything in the most immediate visual language of text and imagery. Take the series of posters that Lester Beall designed for the U.S. government’s Rural Electrification Administration (REA), for example.
You don’t need to know anything about the REA to “get” Beall’s message in the poster Rural Electrification Administration: bringing a bright and shiny future to the youth of America, (particularly those wholesome youth still down on the farm—the mainstay of America’s bright and shiny future). Another poster, Power on the Farm, tells us that farmers aren’t yokels. They operate complicated machinery—complicated electrical machinery that needs power—and what’s good for farms is good for America. Rural electrification is going to be good for America.
And what could be more imperatively direct and directly imperative than Light, Running Water, or Radio. Doesn’t take a political analyst to get this message: Electric light? Yes. Radio? Over here, and right now. Running water? Bring it!
The Rural Electrification Administration was an agency created in 1935 under President Roosevelt’s New Deal program to do exactly what it sounds like—get electricity to rural areas. In the 1930s while some 90% of urban dwellers had electricity, only 10% of rural dwellers did. Working on the theory that affordable electricity would improve the standard of living and the economic competitiveness of America’s farm communities (and therefore the nation’s standard of living and economic situation), the REA sought to make loans available to rural communities to establish electricity cooperatives. Today this seems like a no-brainer, but as it turns out this campaign had no shortage of detractors in its time.
Beall designed three series of posters for the REA. Despite the overt political and nationalistic message, what truly stands out is Beall’s modernist design, which far outweighs the propagandist implications.
Six of the Beall’s REA posters were first shown at MoMA in November 1937 along with 12 posters from the Spanish government in the exhibition Spanish and U.S. Government Posters. “These two groups of posters are, however, far more worthy of serious consideration as works of art than can usually be accorded official design,” said Alfred H. Barr, Jr., then Director of the Museum, in the exhibition press announcement. He continues, “these posters display three conspicuous virtues in common: a sense of vigorous design, a modernity of style, and a boldness of symbolism.”
Six of Lester Beall’s REA posters—Light, Power for Defense, Power on the Farm, Rural Industries, Here It Comes, and Now I’m Satisfied—will be on view beginning March 28 in Electric Currents, 1900–1940, in MoMA’s third-floor Architecture and Design Galleries.