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Graphic Design Magazines: Das Plakat [Part I]

by Steven Heller

This article is the first in a series that examines the role of leading graphic design magazines published in Germany, France, England, and the United States from 1910 to 1935. If the history of a profession is found in the literature that it generates about itself, then the study of these design periodicals is an invaluable resource.

What came first, graphic design or graphic design magazines? This riddle may not be as confounding as the chicken and egg scenario, but the answer is not as clear cut as one might think. During the nineteenth century graphic design did not exist as a true profession. Jobbing (or job) printers designed flyers and bills merely as an additional service to their clients and most advertisements were composed directly on the “stone” without much forethought or standards. Printer’s trade journals, which began publishing during the late nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, eventually included articles on the aesthetics of typography and layout. Yet a dedicated commercial art magazine is not published until shortly before the turn of the century when display advertising emerges as a viable industry within an industry. It could be argued that the graphic design profession did not really exist until a focused trade magazine was published to promote and celebrate its virtue.

The earliest magazine to cover the marriage of aesthetics and commerce was a New York based monthly titled Art in Advertising, published from 1893 to 18XX, which narrowly focused on the production and craft of newspaper advertisements and outdoor signs. Yet it took another four years — during which the art poster in Europe and the billboard in the United States exploded as a primary mass advertising medium — for trade journals to focus more intently on contemporary graphic styles and their proponents. The first was The Billposter and Distributor (the official journal of the Associated Billposters and Distributors of the United States and Canada) which premiered in 1897 but immediately changed its unwieldy name to Advertising Outdoors: A Magazine Devoted to the Interests of the Outdoor Advertiser. In 1910 the title was again changed to The Poster: The National Journal of Outdoor Advertising and Poster Art which continued until 1930 when the title was changed for the last time to Outdoor Advertising.

Under each of these banners were published similar case studies of successful poster campaigns and profiles of popular designers’ work. A few of the illustrations were reproduced in full-color but the majority were black and white, which partly contributed to the overall drabness of the magazines themselves. Another negative contributory factor was the artwork; despite a few notable exceptions, the majority of American advertising posters were mired in romantic and sentimental realism.

If only advertising agents had been influenced by German design at that time American posters and billboards might have made a quantum, aesthetic leap in the twentieth century. Although the art poster was born in Paris before the turn of the century, by 1905 Berlin was the capitol of modern form. And the clarion of this German poster exuberance was a magazine called Das Plakat, which not only exhibited the finest poster examples from Germany and other European countries, but its high standards, underscored by exquisite printing, established qualitative criteria that defined the decade of graphic design between 1910 and 1920.

Das Plakat was launched in 1910 as the official publication of the Verein der Plakat Freunde (The Society for Friends of the Poster) founded in 1905 to advocate poster collecting and increase scholarship. The society was one of a number of collectors’ groups based in Europe, but the magazine was a unique entity that during its comparatively short span (1910 to 1921) raised theretofore unexplored aesthetic, cultural, and legal issues about posters and graphic design. In addition to surveying the most significant German (and ultimately international) work concerns about plagiarism and originality, art in the service of commerce, and the art of politics were frequently addressed. Over the years its influence on design increased proportionately with its circulation, from a first print run of 200 copies to over 5000 at its peak.Das Plakat was the invention of one man, Hans Josef Sachs, a doctor and chemist by training and a dentist by profession, who as a teenager became obsessed with French posters (he owned a Sarah Bernhardt affiche signed by the artist Alphons Mucha) and in his twenties became the leading private poster collector in Germany. Without his passion and dedication German commercial art would have developed apace, but as co-founder of the Verein and editor (along with a board of advisors) of Das Plakat he was almost singlehandedly responsible for promoting German gebrausgraphik (commercial art) as an internationally respected applied art form.

Sachs was loved the poster and was less concerned with the function than the end product. He once wrote, “Words like type area, nonparille, scrum, offset, and coated paper were all greek to me.” But when he decided to launch a magazine he took a leave of absence from his dental practice to briefly apprentice with a “typographically sophisticated” printer who gave him a crash course in elementary publishing. However, being a connosieur rather than an advertising agent, allowed him the freedom to cover the poster more from the standpoint of its formal, artistic attributes than functional ones. Nevertheless, Das Plakat was not a journal for aesthetes laden with academic art historical prose. Given the strictures of German writing and typography (blackletter was commonly used) the text was fairly informative and enlightening when describing the young artists and new developments of the day.

Das Plakat is a tribute to Sachs’ diverse artistic interests, but it is even more important as a history of the early period of European commercialization and industrialization as seen through the lens of graphic art. As a dentist Sachs was less concerned with the function than the end product of design and, therefore, promoted the poster as formal entities that transcended the commonplace needs of business.

The Sachs’ family moved to Berlin in 1899, when Hans was eight years old, a few years before the the poster group of advertising artists known as the Berliner Plakat changed the look of posters from painterly and decorative to graphic and stark. Young Sachs was already a devotee of graphic art when in the early 1900s the Berlin printing and advertising firm Hollerbaum and Schmidt introduced a new wave of posters that wed the sensuality of French Art Nouveau and the bold linearity of German Jugenstil. In 1905 Sachs and fellow collector Hans Meyer founded the Verein der Plakat Freunde. And the next year a novice named Lucian Bernhard won a competition sponsored by the Priester Match Company with a unprecedented design that introduced the sachplakat (object poster), characterized by its total rejection of unnecessary ornament. Sachs quickly befriended the young Bernhard and invited him to both be a Verein boardmember and design its logo and stationary...

He met Lucian Bernhard and he became director of the Society of Friends of the Poster.

Hollerbaum and Schmidt
He founded the Verein der Plakat Freunde with Hans Meyer in 1905. They started in a small room with walls covered with posters. Bernhard was asked to do the logo and become the art-counelor. Lectures were held and gregarious evenings were had by all. Membership increased at first, but after the first year the interest plummeted. It was agreed that the society had to be transformed from a club or art lovers ton organisation of professionals. Sachs decided to found a magazine, and a board was organized on Jan 13 1910.

He finished his dental studies with a six month internship in the US. He had no idea about printing, bookbinding, and distributing. “Words like type area, nonparille, scrum, offset, and coated paper were all greek to me.”

Steven Heller
Editor, Author, Lecturer and Designer

This article has been divided into two parts. Catch the last part of Graphic Design Magazines: Das Plakat next week.

This article was published in U&lc, Vol. 25, No.4, Spring 1999 and in Typotheque. TAXI Design Network is privileged to have this third re-publication.


Steven Heller is the co-chair of the MFA Designer As Author program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is the Editor of AIGA VOICE: Journal of Design (online) and Author or Editor of over 100 books on design and popular culture. His most recent book is Stylepedia: A Guide to Graphic Design Mannerisms, Quirks, and Conceits (Chronicle Books).

Click on picture to read more about Steven Heller
Editorial NYC Contributor


TAXI would like to extend our grateful hands to Jorge Restrepo for contributing the very pretty banner above. A Colombian, this graphic/web designer also makes beautiful pictures. Check him out at his personal homepage.

We are proud to also say that Jorge Restrepo is TAXI Design Network’s gold member.

If you still can’t get enough of him, google him and be awestruck at his diverse talents and enticing eyes.

P/s: We love his name - Jorge Restrepo ...


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