Style Your Apartment with Vintage Movie Posters 🇺🇸

April 11, 2021

Vintage movie posters can bring a new mood or mindset to almost any room in the house.

When most people imagine a movie poster hanging on a wall, images of teen bedrooms, university dorms, and starter flats usually spring to mind. In fairness, millions of us threw a poster of our favourite film up when we were still paying off student loans precisely because we were still paying off student loans. But movie posters now, particularly vintage posters, have little to do with the ones acquired from the local cinema after a film finishes its run. Further, vintage posters are not always an inexpensive alternative to traditional art, and if they are, they don’t need to look it. 

For decades, vintage art has found a place as a viable and accepted decor accessory; an alternative to an oil painting or lithograph. Vintage art has become an easy way to appreciate art and art movements from previous eras, and it’s gained traction in lockstep with a wider understanding and appreciation of design. It can summon images and feelings of specific lifestyles and exotic locales.

Vintage art, “Evokes a lot of emotion. It just needs to be the right context in order to connect it back to a person’s space,” says Emma Maclean, creative director and founder of boutique studio EM Bespoke. “What I’m finding more than anything right now is a love of old Hong Kong, and these old posters evoke emotions connected to a past time.

Movie posters emerged at the dawn of the 20th century alongside movies themselves. Perhaps not surprisingly, movie posters started life as purely functional — telling the public about the amazing new invention called the motion picture. As the form evolved and more and more nations got in on the movie-making action, different size standards developed, as did aesthetics. The Polish poster art designed for 1960s Hollywood is as distinct as Ghanian reinterpretations of garden variety modern American action films.

Classic film posters not only show off stellar visuals, they serve as time capsules of a pre-digital age, when print media dominated, and was a crucial element in a film finding its audience but also in cementing star personas. Almost any Marilyn Monroe vehicle emphasises her sex appeal, and John Wayne is never less than manly and larger than life in his film’s posters.   

While most design motifs incorporating vintage art tends to lean towards period advertising, propaganda posters (Rosie the Riveter is a staple), maps and travel posters, and style and movement-related prints, classic cinema posters are making inroads. Notable artists and graphic designers such as Saul Bass — famed for his colour blocked Hitchcock posters — Bob Peak, Bill Gold, and Richard Amsel, whose hand-painted work is still in demand, have raised the form’s profile. Golden Age filmmaker Cecil B DeMille’s granddaughter purchased an original poster for 1933’s King Kong, designed by an unidentified RKO artist, at Sotheby’s for US$250,000 in 1999. Of the four remaining posters Heinz Schulz-Neudamm created for Fritz Lang’s landmark 1927 science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, one was scooped up by a private collector and valued at US$1 million in 2012. 

Not all classic movie posters rate six digit values, and Maclean is quick to point out rarity is what adds value, but they are a more affordable alternative to traditional art. As such, whatever the era — or value — posters should be treated it like a piece of art, according to founder and creative director Clifton Leung of Clifton Leung Design Workshop. “This isn’t high school anymore. Frame them properly, matte them properly. Frames should be kept simple, nothing too fancy, and glass should be low-glare. The poster needs to pop.” Smaller posters should be matted to give them size, he says, noting The World of Suzie Wong’s stylish art would be well served by a “3D floating frame. They give great depth and a real gallery feel.

So if you’re the type willing to dabble in vintage movie poster art, where do you begin? As a rule, homeowners and tenants are, “Either into it or not,” says Leung. “If they’re into it clients will tell you what they want. More general ‘museum’ posters are easier to work with but movie posters are more personal. They have to like them.” Personal choices, like a poster for the film you saw on the first date with your spouse for example, are the simpler route. Films, like music, are contextual, and making personal connections comes easily to most of us. Finding art for a film that holds meaning isn’t much of a challenge. 

But for those among us just looking for an alternative to Still Life 2 — in other words, standard accessorising — both Maclean and Leung insist the options are almost limitless. As with most design processes, the first step is to determine the ‘where’ and the ‘why’, and to bear in mind this is your home. “After lighting, art is the most important part of making a space feel like home,” says Maclean. Finding the right context is crucial for any art work, and items as “whimsical, chic, and heavy on personality” as movie posters do require a little more thought. 

To that end, placements and statements can start at the front door. “I like entrances so that you can create a statement on arrival. Put a console table underneath it and you’re setting the tone for your home,” continues Maclean. Leung agrees. “[Movie poster art] tells people who you are. It’s a statement.

Contrary to popular belief, movie posters need not be banished purely to media rooms or home theatres (where they’re natural additions). More important than location is how movie posters integrate with the location. Maclean isn’t exclusive, believing with the right context there’s space in all rooms for poster art, with the exception of the bedroom. Leung thinks they’d work fine in the bedroom — but not so much the kitchen. Both agree they should be used thematically, with colour among the dominating factors. 

Colour is important but vintage colour palettes are different from the modern ones,” Leung points out. “They have to complement the interiors. If a poster is heavy on red you need to pick up on that from the surroundings.” Conversely, movie posters often supply colour where none exists, or where injecting it is tricky. A duo of classic Saul Bass colour-blocked Hitchcock posters gives a space new energy. 

It’s awesome,” Maclean enthuses. “When you have something like a Bass, you can really add emotion, and it’s an easy way to avoid painting.

Maclean also suggests grouping posters together in collections based on artist, time period or country, among other potential clusters. “No matter what it is, it needs to have a concept, for lack for a better word. If you have a whole wall in the living room that’s dedicated to a particular artist or designer it becomes a body of work,” she points out. Creating a series entirely from the work of ’50s sci-fi B-movie masters Reynold Brown and Albert Kallis, Polish artist Waldemar Świerzy’s abstract renditions of Sunset Boulevard and Midnight Cowboy, Italian poster artist and BCM founder Anselmo Ballester and the geometry of German graphic designer Hans Hillmann form home galleries.

Admittedly, the idea of a home gallery seems out of reach for the most flat-dwellers in Hong Kong and other parts fo Asia. Maclean brushes that aside, noting posters are, generally speaking, conservatively sized, and won’t raise issues getting them into lifts. And she dismisses the notion that Asian flats simply lack the wall space for multiple posters too. “Hong Kong apartments are interesting shapes, with such interesting distribution of spaces,” she says. “They’re not like modern London flats. There are so many nooks and crannies that are suitable for a piece of art.

Leung, on the other hand, comes from the school of go big or go home. “A movie poster should be big,” he insists. “Size is important. In the old days, posters were smaller, so they didn’t make any impact. Posters from France in particular are huge, and they’re really gorgeous.” And they make an impact, so make space for them. 

Ultimately, no matter where it goes, no matter how many there are, by who or why they were selected, treat a vintage poster like a piece of art and it will slot in seamlessly with most home decor schemes. “Always frame it. Always,” Maclean reiterates, pointing out as a bonus that, “It adds value to your piece.” But don’t simply frame it; frame it correctly. If a poster has any degree of provenance and has been purchased from a reputable dealer, put the effort and money into preserving it. Canvas mounting is never a bad idea, and to save the stresses associated with relocating, opt for safer, less breakable acrylic in lieu of glass.

And even if you only cut out a mock-up from paper, stick one on the wall and make sure you’re happy with the size” Maclean finishes. “Measure twice, cut once.