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  • Writer's pictureSteven Heller

Homage to Joseph Binder

This is a short homage—for no other reason than today I’m reminded of his work—to Vienna-born artist and designer Joseph Binder (1898–1972). He came of age when poster artists were stars. Or, as his wife Carla Binder recalled  when I spoke to her in 1986, “Binder was alive during the age of Bernhard, Defke, Hadank. Elegant! And they were socially in contact with all their large accounts. They were acquaintances, friends. They were not just given an assignment” they were trusted with great responsibilities.

Binder had always done posters on the side to make extra income. “Returning from the war in 1918 he was asked by Bernd Steiner, an excellent poster designer, [to work with him],” noted Carla, then in her late 90s. Still, Binder wanted to be a painter. He had studied painting for four years in his native Vienna at the Kunstgewerbeschule under professor Berthold Loeffler. “Loeffler gave Binder a fantastic critique for his graduation certificate,” recalled his widow. “And in 1926 the States Prize of Austria went to Binder.”

Between 1933 and 1935 he visited the United States as a guest lecturer at the Chicago Art Institute and the Minneapolis School of Art. His work was represented in poster exhibitions in New York and Tokyo, and he was recognized by the Art Directors Club New York and the Museum of Modern Art. In 1936 Binder emigrated to New York and in 1944 became an American citizen.

Binder had two studios in New York in the mid-1940s. One was for painting and the other for commercial work. “He had to walk a mile to go from one to the other,” noted Earnest W. Watson in American Artist (February 1944).

The decision to have two studios—the physical separation of fine and commercial arts—wrote Watson, was typical of Binder’s relationship to his art forms. The former was “miles apart” from those of the poster designer. The poster represented a “faster tempo of modern living,” which has brought about a new streamline style. As it happens, his painting was non-representational color field work, while his posters were minimal reductions in representational form. “Binder usually reduces naturalistic expressions to the minimum, his idea being that the greater the simplification … the quicker the recognition of the poster’s intention and the more powerful its impact.” For Binder, reduction was a shorthand way to express an idea.

“Binder’s influence upon American design has been considerable,” added Watson, “not alone through the example of his printed designs but through teaching and lecturing.” There was a time when his brand of pictorial modernism was the state of the art.

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