The turn of the twentieth century was an exciting time to be a graphic designer in Berlin. The city, which had once been the sleepy capital of the Kingdom of Prussia, had rapidly transformed into a booming metropolis, bustling with the energy of industrial progress. At a moment when everything seemed to be changing, the printed poster offered an exhilarating opportunity to explore the alliance of art and industry, particularly to one precocious young man.
Lucian Bernhard (nee Emil Kahn) was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1883. He came of age at the height of Art Noveau and Jugendstil, and as a teenager he visited the major design exhibition held at the Glaspalast in Munich in 1898. Bernhard later recalled that he walked through the exhibition “drunk with color.” Upon returning home and finding his parents out of the house, he felt compelled to paint both the walls and furniture in the vibrant, modern colors that had been revealed to him at the Glaspalast. His parents, however, did not feel so inspired. According to family lore, Bernhard’s father threw him out of the house, and he was not invited to return.
Bernhard appears to have taken this setback in stride, but a few years later he moved to Berlin. It was customary in turn-of-the-century Berlin for companies to sponsor poster competitions, which offered a cash award for the winning designer. Bernhard entered himself in one sponsored by the Priester Match Company. Featuring only the image of some matches and the brand name in bold colors, the poster under whelmed the panel of judges, who tossed it into the trash. But a final judge, Ernst Growald, arrived to the competition late. Growald was both a prescient sales manager and a poster printer, and pulling the poster from the waste bin, he found a striking design that caught his attention. Bernhard won the competition, and with the support of Growald, went on to pioneer a style of poster design that evoked the simplicity manifest in the Priester poster, pairing image and text, that is known as the Sachplakat (object poster).
In 1910, when Bernhard produced the poster that you see above, typewriters were a cutting edge technology, a means of revolutionizing communication. Bernhard recognized that the image of the typewriter itself, with its potential for speed and efficiency, was an effective way to advertise the product. This poster, the first of several that Bernhard designed for the Adler company, embodies the simplicity of the Sachplakat while maintaining certain elements of the same late nineteenth century graphic style that overpowered and inspired Bernhard as an adolescent, such as the bold, flat planes of color and the shadow line that emphasizes the curving forms of the letters.
What is remarkable to me is that more than a century later, Bernhard’s poster still has the potency to seduce its viewers. The typewriter is no longer the contemporary marvel of communication, but the more that I looked at the poster, the more I longed to feel the satisfying thump of a typewriter’s keys under my fingertips. I went home and pulled my Olivetti typewriter out from the closet (a model not too dissimilar from Cooper-Hewitt’s own Lettura 32) and sat down to type this blog entry. It was a wonderful feeling—until I was ready to change the structure of a sentence. I switched over to my laptop, and was gratified to return to my world of copy and paste.