Poster Style

How poster advertisements changed logo type

In early 20th century Germany, artists gave new structure the visual cacophony of cities: posters. This art was deliberately commercial—it changed what it meant to be an artist, what it meant to make art, and how we used letters.

It started with Steglitz Studio, in Berlin. The studio’s founders, F.H. Ehmcke, George Belwe, and F.W. Kleukens, were on summer holiday from the Royal Museum Art Academy when Ehmcke convinced the others they should never go back. Instead, they would start their own studio, making fine books, like latter-day William Morrises. Belwe’s father could even rent them a small workshop.

There was nothing holding them back except for a profound lack of market for fine books. To keep their new studio going, they accepted work lithographically printing business cards and postcards advertising local businesses. This accidentally set them up as a first in their country. Other design studios existed in Germany, but only theirs focused on advertising.

Despite their reverence for William Morris, in practice Steglitz Studio was already moving past Jugendstil, the German manifestation of Art Nouveau. Their designs were comparatively minimal, shorn of decorative elements, with a balance between images and text. The letters they used provided “a resting point for your eyes.” The style was effective for advertising; soon they were too busy to produce all of their work lithographically. They needed a letterpress.

Letterpress printing meant acquiring fonts. They considered a simplified Blackletter, but settled on a more forward-looking option: Otto Eckmann’s Eckmannshrift, a Blackletter-inflected type from the Klingspor foundry. Eckmannshrift was typical Jugendstil type: retrospective yet modern,  incorporating vernacular style into accessible universality. It was a wise choice; similar fonts were the typographical champions of German modernity. Peter Behrens’ Behrenshrift, for example, became Germany’s official typeface for the World Expos of 1904 and 1910.

It was all characteristically German. Blackletter was very old—inscrutable and illegible to the outside world. Germany, on the other hand, was a very new country—still only about 30 years into unification—and a burgeoning industrial powerhouse. Yet Gutenberg had invented the press in a place that had become part of the new Germany. The first font ever was a Blackletter. New as Germany was, it strode into the future unreeling a cable fixed to the origin of type founding and the modern era itself. Blackletter was Germany’s tether to the past. Strong as it was, its role in bringing about modernity precluded the misty medievalism that the English were prone to. What was modern and industrial was inherently German. This would inform German design for the next thirty years.

Equipped to meet the demands of their clients with an eye-arresting style, Steglitz Studio’s profile exploded. The detonation ignited a debate among German artists: Kunst oder Kitsch—was art in advertising actually art? Or was it something else—Kitsch, a cheap exploitation of sentimentality. Commercial artists were making clear artistic advances; they thought of themselves as real artists. If anything, they were the real artists. So what if they got paid for it? What use was someone who lived off of patronage anyway?

The economist and sociologist Werner Sombart expressed a popular sentiment, fretting about the spreading “slime of modern culture”. Sombart, and many others, worried that the chaos and unordnung of the city would spread like smoke from a chimney and poison the countryside. Even though industrialization was much newer in Germany, there are echoes of Morris’s medievalism in this pastoral anxiety. It also reads as a surprisingly familiar and present argument—the kind of polarization we’re still learning to roll our eyes at. Back then, the designer Edmund Edel tried to take the hot air out of the argument. “What is culture?” he asked. “Isn’t a smoking chimney as valuable for our culture as the polished fingernail or silk underwear of an aesthete?”

Steglitz Studio didn’t last long enough to see a resolution to this debate—if any of us will. But it did draw its share of visiting artists, including a talented visual artist and type designer named Lucien Bernhard. Steglitz attempted to hire Bernhard, but he decided to take his talents to Hollerbaum & Schmidt, a printing company run by Ernst Growald, who recognized the potential for posters in advertising.

Bernhard was a talented type designer and visual artist; his designs struck a balance between picture and letter by building a broad base of simple visuals and expressive type. His posters are unmistakable: each depicts an object in a stripped-down, essentialist illustration, coupled with the company name rendered as large as the object. The message is always clear: Priester is matches, Osram is lightbulbs, Bosch is spark plugs, Stiller is shoes. The act of branding proposes that the maker is equal to the entire realm of products; the individuality of the brand shines through in the type designed to render its name. Bernhard was an originator of Plakatstil (Poster Style). His object-focused posters exemplified the Sachplaket (object poster) style that soon swept through advertising.

It wasn’t long before something far more devastating than cultural slime swept through the countrysides of Europe. Poster-based advertising was about to enter a new arena. Its object: the nation.