The Poster Child for ... Posters

Rogge Dunn sees art where others see only advertising

Published in 2004 Texas Super Lawyers Magazine — October 2004

R. Rogge Dunn knows the value of a powerful image. “My job is to persuade people, and you can persuade only so much with the spoken word,” says the 47-year-old attorney, who uses posters, photographic blow-ups and PowerPoint presentations at trial. “I struggle to boil it down, make it pithy, but make it persuasive.”

It must be working. A labor, employment and commercial litigation specialist and partner in the Dallas-based firm of Clouse Dunn Hirsch, Dunn has obtained more than $200 million in settlements and judgments for his clients. He offices on the 49th floor of the sleek J.P. Morgan Chase building, an impressive perch in the “keyhole” that offers panoramic views of downtown Dallas.

On this particular afternoon, however, Dunn doesn’t really want to talk about his work. He’d rather discuss another passion, one that’s fast earning him a reputation that has nothing to do with complex litigation. The amiable attorney breezes into the firm’s tranquil reception area after a late lunch, eager to show off his vintage poster collection.

Dunn owns more than 150 posters, about half of which decorate nearly every inch of Clouse Dunn Hirsch’s winding corridors and individual offices. Dunn’s diverse collection represents more than 12 countries and nearly as many artistic styles. He also collects autographs of world leaders, including 22 U.S. presidents, as well as presidential memorabilia. Although Dunn picked up his first poster in 1977 as a sophomore studying abroad at the London School of Economics, his career as a collector didn’t begin in earnest until the late 1990s, a handful of years after his grandmother presented him with a World War I poster of a bald eagle that urged allied countries, “Keep Him Free.”

The posters feature a variety of techniques, but Dunn favors the more representational styles. “I like a good graphic image, something that’s powerful, that has a message, that is economical in the way it expresses that message.” He pauses in front of a sophisticated 1932 art deco poster advertising a new ski lift in Grenoble, Switzerland, then gestures toward its minimalist neighbor, an organic seashell design in soothing shades of green. Commissioned for General Dynamics, the poster promotes the positive aspects of atomic energy.

“To me it doesn’t matter if that message is selling cigarettes or propaganda to join one political view or exhorting people to join the army. I look at the image. Is it a powerful image? Is it a beautiful image? Or is it an image that carries a powerful message?”

With the exception of a childhood coin collection that he sold to buy his first car, Dunn doesn’t have a history of acquisitiveness nor does he come from a family of collectors. He does have a deep love of history, and he usually selects posters based on their historical significance.

As he continues his enthusiastic tour of the collection, Dunn rattles off dates and facts about the artists with the ease of a professional curator. He stops in front of a poster by American illustrator Joseph Pennell. “This is really appropriate for today,” he says of the sobering World War I-era image featuring a beheaded Statue of Liberty against the backdrop of an inflamed New York City skyline under attack by planes and submarines. Pennell originally wanted the poster to read along the lines of “Buy liberty bonds or you will see this” but ultimately was advised to use a more subtle approach.

Dunn says he’s careful about which posters he brings to work, erring on the side of political correctness. “Some of the war posters are too graphic to have at the office,” he admits. Ditto the one by Howard Chandler Christy that features a young woman and the caption, “Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man. I’d Join the Navy. Be a Man and Do It.”

Dunn’s first poster resides in the firm’s copier and supply room. Unsigned, it is one in a series of plain black posters advising riders of the London Underground to alert authorities about “unattended packages.” Its value for Dunn is mostly sentimental since it dates back to his semester abroad while an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University, but the poster also reflects social history because it refers to the rash of IRA bombings in London during the late 1970s.

One of the standouts in Dunn’s collection is a 1915 poster designed by book illustrator and poster artist Savile Lumley. 

Titled “Daddy, what did you do in the Great War?” the design features a young girl perched on her father’s lap as he reclines in a cozy armchair, his young son playing with toy soldiers at his feet. Dunn decodes the image in detail, emphasizing the father’s uneasy place in this domestic setting and his daughter’s innocent but loaded query. “That’s a powerful poster,” he notes. “It’s really trying to shame people.”

Dunn enjoys discussing the psychology behind the images, and he researches new acquisitions in his personal library of poster books. He indulges a love of creative writing by composing detailed placards that accompany each framed poster.

He pauses in front of an iconic image, the “I Want You” design by James Montgomery Flagg. Featuring a portrait of a stern Uncle Sam pointing toward the viewer, the illustration originally was a magazine cover, then a World War I poster later adapted for use during the Second World War. (Dunn owns the original version.) As a 3-year-old, his daughter Katherine stuck out her tongue at Uncle Sam when she first saw the poster. When Dunn asked her what she was doing, she responded, “I don’t like him pointing at me.”

The posters had a completely different effect on Adam Vanek, who glimpsed the collection when he came to the firm as a prospective hire. “The first time I walked into this office I said, ‘Now this is a firm I can work for.’ It’s not that art-for-art’s-sake stuffiness,” he says of the posters, five of which reside in his office. “This is a real collection by someone who knows what he’s doing.”

Although Dunn has dozens of posters waiting to be framed, he continues to hunt for others at auctions, on the Internet and in tiny bookstores and antique shops overseas. Days away from leaving for Normandy with his 11-year-old son Ross to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Dunn initially says he has no plans to purchase posters while on the 1944 invasion tour.

Then, with just the hint of a smile, he shrugs. “You never know.”

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