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Safety Last! The Design History of Danger Posters

A new exhibition at Miami’s Wolfsonian museum takes a detailed look at the graphic design history of safety materials.

Safety first! Even as far back as the inaugural World’s Fair in 1851, graphic design has played a big role in extolling the innovations of the industrial age. But industry is also dangerous: it can slice off your hands, electrocute you, light you on fire, and even explode you. Consequently, graphic designers have spent just as much time warning people about the dangers of new and old innovations as they have advertising their virtues.

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The design history of the safety poster and other safety materials is the subject of Margin of Error, a new exhibition curated by Matthew Abess at Florida International University’s Wolfsonian museum. Starting November 13 and going until next May, it features memorable work by a diverse group of artists including Man Ray, Lewis Hine, Margaret Bourke-White, Herbert Bayer, Julius Klinger, and Louis Lozowick.

Photograph, Error of Judge-ment, 1934–35. Abu Sueir (now Abu Suwayr), Egypt. Gelatin silver printThe Wolfsonian–FIU, Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Collection

Focusing on safety materials produced between 1851 and 1945, the exhibit brings together more than 200 posters, pamphlets, postcards, and brochures. Designed to warn people of the dangers of the changing times, the works caution against everything from changing a light bulb to flying an airplane.

In the safety materials scattered between, Abess argues that you can see reflected the political, social, and economic concerns of the age.

“At one end, you have the year of the first World Fair, this great exhibition dedicated to the Utopia, just on the horizon, that the Industrial Revolution was going to bring forth,” explains Abess. “And on the other, you have the end of World War II, when everyone can see that the so-called Utopia has turned into something else entirely.”

For example, the exhibition has a series of Italian postcards on display from 1938. The prints look almost like pages from a children’s book, but they warn Italians (with amusingly pedantic verbiage) about the dangers of everything from electrocuting yourself in the bathroom to getting your hair caught in a sewing machine. Abess says that these designs were informed by the Fascist government taking responsibility for the well being of all its citizens, therefore viewing them as children of the state.

Postcard, Olio sulla pista, ospedale in vista [Oil on the Track, Hospital on the Horizon], 1938. Ente Nazionale di Propaganda per la Prevenzione degli Infortuni, publisherThe Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Another example of this is the bold graphic design from the 1930s. Safety posters during this era tended to show brawny, virile workers mastering machinery, climbing skyscrapers, and so on. At a time when Americans were depressed and exhausted, these posters not only promoted safety, but were a form of propaganda to promote the strength and fortitude of spirit that they wanted the everyday American laborer to possess.

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Two of the stand-out pieces in Margin of Error focus on light bulbs, though. The first is a print of a light bulb by the legendary Dadaist visual artist, Man Ray. Unlike other works in the show, it is more a testament to the power of electricity than its dangers. But the other doesn’t disappoint: it’s a gorgeous, vibrant lithograph by the Austrian designer Joseph Binder of a man being electrocuted while changing a lightbulb, with accompanying text that describes all of the myriad ways in which light bulbs might kill you. “It’s such a ubiquitous act now, and everyone changes lightbulbs all the time now, but at the time of this print, the phenomena was so new, no one knew how to do it!” says Abess.

Ultimately, Abess hopes that in addition to amusing and entertaining visitors, Margin of Error will get people thinking more about our relationship with technology and industry, and how we define ourselves in relation to that. “Especially when that completely derails.”

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