Plakatstil in the 20th Century: Modern Poster Design from Germany

Defining Plakatstil & Sachplakat

Plakatstil (poster style) and Sachplakat (object posters) were two of the most influential modern poster design styles of the 20th century that arose in Germany; they relied on symbols and shapes rather than textual descriptions to promote an idea. The people immediately recognized the poster’s subject due to its bold, eye-catching typeface, simple central image, flat background color, and rejection of anything pretentious or ornate.

Who Initiated Plakastil?

In 1906, Lucian Bernhard created posters for Priester Match as part of a poster competition sponsored by the company.

With little time to develop his work, he relied on instinctual design selections to promote matches, concentrating on symbols and forms rather than complex illustrations. Bernhard promoted the brand name Priester with bold, straight purple typography. The key item, the matches, is emphasized in the poster design, and the shapes and objects are simplified with a flat black backdrop.

In contrast to intricate and lengthy Art Nouveau posters, Bernhard’s work is marked by bold letterings, basic objects, and strong, vivid colors, as well as the poster’s lack of a border. The method of communication in this poster is no longer symbolic but rather a simple and direct statement about what the audience would most like to know about what he is presenting. The lack of other distracting or undesirable factors quickly grabs the viewer’s attention. This persuasive commercial drew a significant reaction and made Bernhard, a little-known young artist who developed Plakatstil, famous.

Bernhard’s approach sparked a revolution in commercial advertising and promoted a more contemporary perspective on poster art in pre-war Berlin. The most notable representatives include Otto Baumberger, Han Rudi Erst, Julius Gipkens, Julius Klinger, Hans Lindenstadt, Karl Schuldig, Emil Cardinaux, and Sven Henrikksen.

Opel by Hans Rudi Erdt

Hans Rudi Erdt (1883–1918), a Berlin-based artist, used a minimalist approach to design similar to that of Lucian Bernhard, stressing flat colors, basic forms, and bold typography. Erdt’s designs were less literal than those of Bernhard, who focused on the products being marketed. His commercial for Opel autos, for example, does not portray the vehicles themselves. The brand name appears above and below the image of a man wearing driving goggles and a hat. 

Swiss Clothing Company PKZ by Otto Baumberger

In 1917, Otto Baumberger (1889–1961) began frequently working for a Swiss clothing company PKZ. The poster below is not only his finest work for the company but a milestone in the history of posters. The depiction of the tweed coat is so close to photorealistic that we can nearly feel the fabric. Baumberger introduced a novel advertising strategy by ingeniously inserting the poster’s text as a label on the coat.

Continental Pneumatik by Julius Gipkens

In Germany in 1871, Continental Tires was established. The brand was extremely successful not only in Germany but also in France, where they built a massive plant and hired Leonetto Cappiello to design posters advertising their products. Additionally, they also recruited renowned German artists. Julius Gipkens (1883–1968) was a self-taught poster artist who was highly active prior to and after World War I. He was employed by the prestigious business Hollerbaum & Schmidt, whose roster of artists included Lucian Bernhard, Hans Rudi Erdt, Julius Klinger, and Ernest Deutsch. Gipkens’ posters are an effective extension of Bernhard’s style, displaying a tire section with a placard dangling from its air valve.

W. Hoffmann Pianos by Karl Schulpig

The 1910 Steinway & Sons poster by Bernhard was a clear example of the Sachplakat style, with its flat product depiction, bold typography, and monochrome backdrop. Karl Schulpig’s (1884–1948) well-executed design is unquestionably a “tribute” to Bernhard, capturing the mood of the original poster but with slightly more piano detail and additional text.

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