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The Enduring Romance of Vintage Travel Posters

The Enduring Romance of Vintage Travel Posters

Vintage travel posters beg the question, where do you want to go today? Answer: everywhere. (Courtesy: Chisholm Larsson Gallery)

Over my desk, where I dream about my next trip — and I’m always dreaming about my next trip — hangs a poster from a film festival in Vladivostok. The big blue sky, lighthouse, and red plane somehow evoke for me my trip to this Russian city on the Pacific Coast, 11 time zones from Moscow.

I love the evocative nature of travel posters. Even more, I love those vintage images from another time before the Internet made trips easy and efficient. Times in the 1950s or ’60s, when your parents went over to the local travel agent to make vacation plans, where inevitably, on the wall, would be those exotic images of wonderful Copenhagen, or sexy France, or a TWA jet to take you to the kind of Las Vegas where ladies wore strapless gowns to hear the Rat Pack. From the time it began in the late 1800s, poster art was about communicating not just a place but an ambiance; the deliciously designed, highly colored, huge posters were big come-ons, an essential form of advertising for those yearning to travel, in their dreams or in real life.

Related: Where’d You Get That? Vintage Airline Bags

It was by chance that I really discovered the astonishing scope of vintage travel posters years ago when I was wandering around New York City’s Chelsea. I found myself in front of the Chisholm Larssen Gallery, the windows hung with travel posters from every decade back to the 1900s. I went in and met Robert Chisholm and Lars Larsson who offered me espresso and a share of their peanut M&Ms and were (and still are) unbelievably patient as I looked through the posters — film, politics, sports, and most of all travel and transportation. Robert is American and adores travel; Lars is an extraordinarily well-traveled Swede who has lived in New York for decades.

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"Travels With My Aunt" and "Assassinio sul Nilo" are movies — and posters — to make your passport itch. (Courtesy: Chisholm Larsson Gallery)

There is nothing Lars and Robert love so much as finding the right poster for a particular taste. Taking into account my passions for both travel and movies, they showed me a group of stunning, hilarious, affecting posters from films about travel: “Travels With My Aunt”; “Death on the Nile”; “Three Coins in a Fountain” (and the French version!); and best of all, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.”

Here is Suzanne Pleshette in a bikini made up of European flags. And here is the wonderful legend above her: “I’m Europe, baby. I sent you Dutch Elm Disease, German Measles and Russian Roulette. You sent me World-Wind Vacation Tour #225. Now we’re even.” I can’t look at it without laughing at those days of mass travel when Americans in a hurry assumed you could do 12 countries in 10 days.

Related: A Tale of Two Shopping Cities: Copenhagen and Helsinki

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"If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium" poster (Courtesy: Chisholm Larsson Gallery) 

“The market has boomed,” says Robert, who has been in the business for 40 years now. For a long time, posters were not considered great art, and then suddenly three or four decades ago people began to see them as valuable, especially those by name designers — Saul Bass, David Hockney, Toulouse-Lautrec, Edward Penfield — selling for thousands or more at auction. I love A.M. Cassandre’s Art Deco work. I love the midcentury designers like David Klein and his elegant American graphics. I am crazy about Soviet poster art, especially the obsession with space travel. Apparently I’m not alone in that: “Posters featuring Soviet space subjects, especially the first spaceman, Yuri Gagarin, are suddenly skyrocketing,” Lars tells me. I’m already wishing I had bought these at a flea market in Moscow years ago when they cost peanuts.

Related: Space, the Final Frontier: Becoming a Cosmonaut in Russia

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"The Glory of Communism" vintage Soviet poster (Courtesy: Chisholm Larsson Gallery)

Sometimes the ridiculous outstrips the sublime. Cassandre’s poster with the great image of the luxury liner the Normandie has sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. A lesser-known Cassandre can go for 10 grand. Lucky for me, at Chisholm Larsson there are posters for as little as $200 or $300, and great ones for around $1,000.

For Robert and Lars, what’s most compelling in a poster is the history, art and provenance. The real thrill is in the hunt. Lars says, “There was a theater in Nova Scotia where the posters were used as lining under the linoleum 70 years ago. They were discovered when the theater was in the process of being torn down. Even though many were in poor condition, even covered with tar residue from the tiles, some were rare and lovely.”

Related: Where’d You Get That Filigree Jewelry?

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Vintage poster bliss at the Chisholm Larsson Gallery in New York (Photos: Chisholm Larsson Gallery)

More recently, referred to the gallery by a friend, a customer turned up with 40 travel posters from the ’20s and ’30s. Lars notes, “They had been collected during the period by their world-traveling parents in Oxfordshire, India, Italy, even an early one of the Singer Building in downtown Manhattan. We were able to restore these fragile treasures and sold [all] of them.”

Right now, I’m on the hunt — with a lot of help from Lars and Robert — for something that will perfectly evoke my time in Moscow. Or make that Venice. Or Montana. No, if it’s Saturday, make that New York City, my hometown. 

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"Come Fly With Me" is vintage poster art that inspires travel. (Courtesy: Chisholm Larsson Gallery) 

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