Austin Cooper was born in Manitoba, although his father was an Irish farmer, and studied at the Cardiff School of Art before winning a scholarship to the Allan-Frazer College of Art in Arbroath. He returned to Canada to work as a commercial artist, and during the Great War he served in Europe with the Canadian Black Watch.
In 1922 he settled in London and won the first of many poster commissions from London Underground. Over the next twenty years he built an enviable reputation as a poster designer for such clients as London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), Underground Electric Railway Company, Royal Mail Line, Indian State Railways, and London Transport.
From 1936 to 1940 he also served as the first principal of Reimann School of Industrial Art, a private school of German origin for practical design and the first commercial art school in Britain. It was here that I think he really made his lasting mark. The Reimann played an important role in introducing continental modernism to Britain through immigrant artists and designers in the 1930s. It is credited with opening up the traditional architecture-oriented view of exhibition and display design to a more interdisciplinary approach based on a wider understanding of modernism in design.
Cooper’s book “Making a Poster” was published by The Studio in 1939. It ran to several impressions and is something of a classic design text. In it he expressed his design philosophy: “The functions of a poster are dual: to arrest the attention and then, having caught the eye of the passer-by, to deliver a message swiftly, convincingly, effectively.”
In 1943 he abandoned poster design to concentrate on painting. But public acclaim for his advertising designs and paintings led to a post-war show at the London Gallery in 1948, the first of many. Almost half a century after his death, his railway posters regularly command hundreds of pounds when they come up for sale at auction houses.