This past month, The Poster House in NYC debuted the new exhibition, The Sleeping Giant: Posters & The Chinese Economy. True to the spirit of the young museum, this exhibition explores the full scope of the poster’s role in society—as a window into social, political, and economic history.


The Sleeping Giant documents China’s evolution over the course of the 20th century, from a fractured state dominated by foreign trade interests before the Second World War, to an insular Communist stronghold during the leadership of Mao Zedong, to an economic powerhouse and growing world power under Deng Xiaoping. 

Spanning a century of extraordinary change, the posters on view reflect China’s economic relationship with the world through visual culture. In the 1920s and ‘30s, as foreign powers wedged themselves into China, yuefenpai, or “calendar posters,” combined both imported Western and domestic Chinese design elements to advertise everything from cigarettes to medicine. Following the Chinese Civil War and establishment of the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao, advertising was subsumed by the state’s propaganda apparatus. Domestic economic programs were promoted en mass through posters displayed in public spaces, schools, government buildings, and sold for display in the home. Soviet economic assistance, and a formal alliance signed in 1950, led to the adoption of Soviet Realism in Chinese poster design, a style that persisted even after the Sino-Soviet split, through the Cultural Revolution and Mao’s death. 


With the ascension of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, and the economic reforms and opening to the West that followed, the resumption of international product advertising led to a rapid evolution of Chinese design. In Shenzhen, a “Special Economic Zone” where foreign trade was encouraged, a design hotbed emerged, blending cutting-edge international design principles with the creativity of a newly emergent community of Chinese designers and consumers. Through 53 posters spanning the full breadth of this evolution, The Sleeping Giant charts the story of China’s emergence as an economic powerhouse through a century of tectonic political, economic, and social upheaval.


Alongside The Sleeping Giant: Posters & The Chinese Economy, the poster house also presents The Swiss Grid, an exhibition that documents the rise of a dominant aesthetic. Since its birth in the early 1950s, no other graphic design tool has had a greater impact than the Swiss grid. Whether adhering to it, playing with it, or decrying it, all styles and movements since then have been responding or reacting to this system. Born out of a necessity for clarity in a country with four official languages, the grid became a simple way to efficiently manage mass communication. It also avoided referencing any stylistic trends typically associated with a single country, appearing universal, anonymous, and modern. The 20 posters featured in The Swiss Grid, along with a range of ephemera and a supplementary display outside the gallery of 17 Swiss posters from both before and after the heydey of the grid, explore how this landmark design tool was developed – who’s used it, what its actual rules are, and how it became a lasting global phenomenon.


The Sleeping Giant: Posters & The Chinese Economy and The Swiss Grid are on view at The Poster House through August 23, 2020.