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David Klein (1918-2005) was an American artist and illustrator whose groundbreaking Modernist poster art earned him a reputation as one of the preeminent commercial artists of the second half of the twentieth century. Though his boldly-colored, cutting-edge designs revolutionized the world of advertising art across a wide swath of the commercial spectrum, it is the series of iconic, “jet-age” travel images he produced for Trans World Airlines in the 1950s and 1960s that constitutes the core of his enduring legacy.

Klein was born in El Paso, Texas, on February 23, 1918. Following a move to California, he attended the Art Center School (later renamed the Art Center College of Design) in Los Angeles. Klein’s earliest artistic inclination was in the area of watercolor painting, and toward the end of the 1930s, he became a prominent member of a group called the California Watercolor Society, who were known for their stylistically innovative approach to the medium, choosing to paint directly onto the paper with little or no preliminary pencil drawings, and employing broad, quickly applied brushstrokes with strong, rich colors. The Society - dominated by a subgroup of painters whose work has come to be known as the “California School Style” - displayed their efforts at various regional exhibitions, most notably the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. Klein’s association with this collective can be seen as having positively impacted his future career, considering the fact that his rapid ascendancy to the forefront of a profession keenly sensitive to the issue of timeliness (not to mention the “bottom-line”) was in no small measure related to his ability to rapidly design and execute what were often intricately detailed color compositions.

During the Second World War Klein illustrated a variety of technical manuals for the U.S. Army. In 1947, many of Klein’s manuals, along with over 800 other works of art composed by wartime army illustrators, were assembled into an archive by the U.S. Air Force and the Society of Illustrators (of which Klein was a long-time member). Referenced in its entirety as the Air Force Art Program, parts of the compilation (including works by Klein) have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Following the war’s end, Klein moved to Brooklyn Heights (New York City), where he would reside for the remainder of his life. In 1947, he became the art director at Clifford Strohl Associates, a leading theatrical advertising agency. Before long, Klein’s services were much in demand throughout the theatre district, and his design/illustration credits came to include some of the most notable Broadway shows of this era, including Death of a Salesman, Brigadoon, Most Happy Fella, The Music Man, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Alice in Wonderland. Klein's body of work for the stage remains one of the enduring hallmarks of the Golden Age of Broadway.

David Klein’s most influential and lasting contribution to the art world came in the years roughly approximating 1955-1965, when he applied his talent to the world of commercial travel. During this period he created dozens of posters for Trans World Airlines (TWA), then owned by Howard Hughes. These much imitated, visually stunning images reflected the inspired vision for the future held by so many Americans during the post-war economic boom, defining the excitement and enthusiasm of the early “jet-age” years of commercial air travel, when this particular mode of transport first became accessible to the American middle-class. Using bright colors, bold fonts, and abstractions of iconic local landmarks and “national characters,” Klein’s transformative images captured the atmosphere of an internationally diverse lineup of travel destinations in a way that came to define the state of mid-twentieth century poster art. Consensual acknowledgement of this achievement came in the form of many Awards of Excellence being bestowed upon Klein by the Society of Illustrators, in particular for his posters featuring Philadelphia, Boston, Switzerland, and Africa. Moreover, his designs for posters depicting the cities of Los Angeles, Rome, and Paris (the Paris poster characterized by a display of fireworks alighting the Eiffel Tower while a jet plane flies above) won awards from organizations representing the worlds of Travel, Advertising, and Design and Illustration. Perhaps Klein’s most celebrated image from the TWA series - that of Times Square in New York City, abstractly conceived as a blend of black high-rises set against a dizzying array of layered colored rectangles - earned the distinction in 1957 of inclusion in the permanent collection of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

In 1967, Klein, using a special medium comprised of layers of transparent colored acetate, created a series of prints featuring expressively-rendered geometric animals for an advertising campaign on behalf of the First National City Bank of New York (later Citibank). The campaign was such a success that the bank produced sets of these animal prints and sold them, suitable for framing, at many of its New York City branches. Additionally, the prints went on to win a Printing Industries of America National Graphics Award, as well as an award from the Society of Illustrators. 

Throughout his career, Klein’s innovative skills were utilized in a variety of commercial advertising projects. In addition to his work for TWA, he designed and illustrated several other travel poster campaigns, for clients such as Amtrak, Cunard Line, and Holland America Cruises. In 2000, the Internet travel company, Orbitz, hired him to produce a series of posters that called to mind the early and iconic “jet-age” posters he had crafted some 50 years earlier. Other clients over the years included U.S. Rubber (Keds sneakers), the American Journal of Nursing, and the Singer Sewing Company. Also, Klein illustrated numerous books for Macmillan Publishing and Time/Life Books, and designed multiple covers for Today’s Living Magazine. He also executed poster and advertising artwork for several films, most notably Barry Lyndon, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Gauntlet. In August 2008, the magazine Entertainment Weekly paid homage to Klein by featuring one of his posters in an article discussing the look and feel of the then hit AMC cable television series, Mad Men. 

Although Klein worked commercially almost until the end of his life, in his seventies he returned to his artistic roots, once again taking up watercolor painting. His work of this period is based upon his travels throughout Europe and the U.S., and features rural settings along with architectural studies composed in Europe, primarily Venice. This work also has earned several awards, including one from the Kent Art Association in Connecticut. Examples of both his early and late watercolors are represented in the permanent collection of the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum in Washington, D.C. 

David Klein passed away on December 9, 2005, at the age of 87. His posthumous reputation continues to grow, fueled in part by demand from collectors for his singularly unique and now classically-regarded artistry.

Written July 2017 by Brian Flon, author of "Hell's Kitchen Requiem" (2014), available as an e-book at Amazon, ITunes, and Barnes & Noble.

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