The History of The German Poster Style

bernhardThe Plakatstil (poster style) or Sachplaket (object poster) style originated in Germany in the early 20th century. As legend has it, it all started when Berliner Lucian Bernhard entered a poster design contest. The poster contest  was sponsored by the Priester Match Company and the prize was 200 marks (about $50).

At the time, most advertisements were elaborate and decadent posters of women and nightlife created in the Art Nouveau style. Bernhard’s initial design was more akin to this popular style than his final design for the contest would be. Initially, the picture he created was of a cigar set in a smoky atmosphere with some scantily clad dancing girls. But as he reworked and reworked his design it became more and more simple.. The reductive process left only two matches and the company name in thick, saturated colors on a dark ground.

The story goes that one of the judges threw it in the trash because its odd minimalism was in such strong contrast to the popular and elaborate style of Art Nouveau that the other entries were designed in. But Ernst Growald, a sales manager for one of Berlin’s leading advertising agencies, saw the poster in the trash and declared “This is my first prize. This is genius!” Bernhard won the contest and gained a long lasting career in advertising design.

Priester MatchesThat’s the story anyway. Lucian Bernhard was actually born as Emil Kahn in 1883. He changed his name in 1905 to avoid the career challenges that anti-Semitism presented at that time. Historians are not sure if the story of the poster contest is entirely accurate or part of the fabrication of Emil Kahn’s persona to bolster his design career. One thing is certain however; Lucian Bernhard dramatically changed the trajectory of poster design and advertising for decades to come. As the popular Art Nouveau style grew ever more sensual an ever more detached from the actual products the style was employed to sell, Plakatstil reclaimed advertising from the imaginations of the party going artists of the Parisian night life. Advertising, for a short time, became about the product and the simple and elegant style spread across Europe.

Bernhard’s style would influence advertising, how war propaganda was used in two World Wars, and fuel stylistic thought in Structuralism, Minimalism, DeStile, and broader Modernism across the first half of the 20th century.

The Gruff Sir

The Gruff Sir is an indulgence in this nostalgia. Each poster is created in the Plakatstil style as a way to focus in on the simple joy that pets bring all of us. Each design and story is of a real animal, many of whom know Mr. Elwood personally. Every purchase helps support the ethical treatment of our fuzzy friends with a donation to Best Friends Animal Society. I hope that you enjoy The Gruff Sir images and little stories about the animals featured in the art.


LUCIAN BERNHARD Biography by Steven Heller

The History of Graphic Design by Philip Meggs

Wikipedia: Plakatstil

Wikipedia: Lucian Bernhard


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