December 10, 2016 - April 23, 2017


Wine, Beer, and Spirits Labels from the Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing

This exhibition explores CHS’s exquisite collection of vintage wine, beer, and spirits labels produced by the now-forgotten Lehmann Printing and Lithographing Company of San Francisco. Designed during the terrible privation and unrest of the Great Depression, Lehmann’s labels graced hundreds of thousands of bottles of mass manufactured, highly alcoholic wines and liquors, invoking deliciously unrealistic fantasies of peace, plenty, and the high-class life. Marrying design with consumer ideology, the Lehmann oeuvre represents a forgotten high point of American commercial art.

Vintage: Wine, Beer, and Spirits Labels from the Kemble Collections on Western Printing and Publishing

Founded in 1911 by Adolph Lehmann with an initial investment of $190, the firm expanded into a major industrial printing operation valued at $600,000 by 1935. A dazzled correspondent for the Inland Printer dubbed Lehmann “the printer who hasn’t heard about the depression.” The company employed one hundred people, including a permanent staff of anonymous artists who designed each custom label with skillful care. To meet an ever-increasing demand for labels, Lehmann also pioneered a stock label service in the mid-1930s, creating catalogs of generic labels with stock vignettes that could be applied to a wide variety of products.

The Lehmann art department flourished in the fast pace of mass production, finding in their daily grind opportunities for seemingly inexhaustible creative invention. Their visual vocabulary included certain recurring motifs—parted curtains, heavy vines, and peaceful fields—and surprisingly effective combinations of Art Deco design with romanticized references to the Middle Ages, the Mission Era, and the Gold Rush. The labels mythologized both California’s past and present, illustrating a vision of social and industrial harmony from which the bitter realities of history were excluded.

The exhibition features hundreds of colorfully illustrated labels, ephemera, and stock label catalogue books from Lehmann Printing.