Solving the National Parks’ greatest design mystery

There’s something you’re trying to put your finger on. Those National Parks posters that you’ve seen before, maybe on the side of the road painted against a brick wall or in the postcard turnstile of a dilapidated gas station. Or maybe it was on your friend’s wall, home or Pinterest. You know you’ve seen the images before, but you have no idea where they’re from.

Former National Park ranger Doug Leen wasn’t satisfied with not knowing. He found his first of these beautifully elusive silk-screened prints when cleaning out a ranger station in the Grand Tetons in 1973, the original powder blue Jenny Lake version.

It was on its way to a burn pile when he picked it off of a wall and pinned it to his own. But over the years it ate at him: where could this print have come from, and were there more of them? It wasn’t until 20 years later he found his answer in the National Park archives in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; 13 images in black and white, Jenny Lake’s sisters.

Design Mystery - the real posters

In the middle of the Great Depression of the 1930s, as a part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, came the Federal Arts Project. It was designed to help employ the thousands of literally starving artists at the time, to create community projects and art centers for their work. Murals, paintings, sculpture, graphic design, photography — the program was responsible for tens of thousands of works of art, many of which have survived to this day.

In 1938 the National Park Service poster program was formed. It was run under the supervision of Dorr Yeager, Assistant Chief of the Museum Division of the Western Museum Laboratories at UC Berkeley. The exact artists of these posters is unknown, but we do know that at least some of them were designed by Chester Don Powell, who was caught painting one in a photograph from the era.

Design Mystery - the missing posters

In total there were 14 prints designed, all but three of which have been found in their original silk-screened format. They weren’t anything special, distributed for internal use in the local Chambers of Commerce for 12 cents a piece. Their run ended in 1943 with the Bandelier National Monument edition.

Design Myster - The Yosemite Posters

After the original 13 black and white images popped up for Doug, he started to produce reproductions of the posters, guessing at the colors. But as he started circulating his work and the images were more widely admired, the real editions started to pop up. 13 of them surfaced in the files of Bandelier National Monument in 2003, nine more in LA in 1999, on and on. There have been 42 original posters found now, scattered among various private collectors and the National Archives of Congress.

For what is perhaps the final step of this journey, Leer is now partnering with an artist friend Brian Maebius to create original prints for additional parks in the style of the originals. With the Centennial of the National Parks Service coming up in 2016, we can only hope they have something extra special planned.

Design Mystery - the contemporary posters

Which 1930s National Parks poster design is your favorite? Share your opinion in the comments.

The author

Kaitlyn Ellison
Kaitlyn Ellison

Kaitlyn is part of the Community Team at 99designs.com. She grew up in Boulder, CO and went to school at Northwestern University in Chicago. When she's not blogging, she spends her time having adventures and being generally creative. She's all about having new experiences as often as possible!

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