Lucian Bernhard

1997 AIGA Medal

The Priester Match poster is a watershed document of modern graphic design. Its composition is so stark and its colors so starling that it captures the viewer's eye in an instant. Before 1906, when the poster first appeared on the streets of Berlin, persuasive simplicity was a rare thing in most advertising: posters, especially tended to be wordy and ornate. No one had yet heard of its young creator, who, thanks to this poster, was to influence the genre of advertising know as the Sachplakat, or object poster. Over the course of his career, which progressed from the turn of the century to the 1950s, Lucian Bernhard became a prolific designer not only of innovative posters but of trademarks, packaging, type, textiles, furniture, and interior design. From his studio in New York City (he left Berlin in 1922), he developed some of the most recognizable American business advertising and trademarks, for such clients as Cat's Paw, ExLax, and Amoco. He also designed more thank thirty-five popular display typefaces, including Bernhard Gothic.

But who was this BERN HARD (as his two-tiered signature read on posters and billboards)? And what influenced him to create imagery that was so distinct from that of his contemporaries? The answers are not easy to determine, because Bernhard deliberately invented most of his early biographical accounts. As his son Karl explains, Lucian believed that the actual facts of his youth had little relevance in judging his adult life and work, and enjoyed toying with the details of his life, revising his stories depending on his audience of mood. But past conversations with his children—Karl, Manfred, and Ruth (the renowned photographer)—and with various now-deceased friends, including Fritz Eichenberg, Aaron Burns, and Cipe Pineles, yield some biographical threads that can be sown together.

Bernhard's formative years (he was born in 1883) coincided with the explosion of Art Nouveau and Jugendstil. As a teenager, Bernhard visited Munich's Glaspalast, where he saw a major exhibition of European Art Nouveau applied arts, including the wildly colorful cabaret and theater posters of Jules Chéret, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Alfonse Mucha. Also on view were maquettes for the economical advertising posters done by the famed Beggarstaffs, James Pryde and William Nicolson, which exerted a strong influence on the young Lucian's own poster making. Bernhard later said that he recalled “walking drunk with color” through this exhibit.

So inspired was he that when he returned to his parents' drab Wilhelmian-style home, he took the opportunity of their chance absence to repaint every last wall and stick of furniture with the modern colors he had just seen. Upon returning, his father was so outraged that he is said to have disowned his son, literally throwing him out of the house.

Though Munich was the center of the more “radical” German graphic arts, Bernhard decided to go to Berlin, where the wonders of industrial production and commercialism were manifest. Poster competitions were routinely sponsored by Berlin business establishments to identify new talent for the expanding advertising industry. One in particular sponsored by the Priester Match Company, awarded 200 marks (then about $50) to the winner. Bernhard jumped at the opportunity, and with precious little time to produce his own entry, he made some instinctive design decisions that had stunning repercussions.

First he decided to use a brown/maroon background—an unusual color, since posters at that time either used black or bright primaries—on which he rendered an ashtray with a pair of matches along its side. Seeing that the ashtray needed some other graphic element to balance the composition, he drew in a cigar. Logically, from the cigar came smoke, and from the smoke what else but a few scantily clad Jugendstil dancing girls. The ashtray needed grounding so he placed it on a checkered tablecloth. At the top of the poster he hand-lettered the word “Priester.” Proud of his work, he showed it to a caricaturist, who congratulated him on his wonderful cigar poster. Bernhard immediately realized his error and proceeded to deconstruct the image by painting out cigar, smoke, ashtray, and tablecloth, leaving only the red matches with yellow tips and the brand name.

The judges, finding the poster odd, threw it unceremoniously into the trash, where it would have remained had not the most important judge arrived in the nick of time. Ernst Growald, sales manager for Berlin's leading proto-advertising agency and poster printer, understood the role of advertising in Germany's expanding economy. He also had taste. Not seeing any noteworthy entries on the table, he glanced at the discarded poster and exclaimed: “This is my first prize. This is genius!” Bernhard had won both the contest and a long-term benefactor.

Bernhard capitalized on the Priester success. Although his subsequent designs were good—often gorgeous—Bernhard never really surpassed Priester's serendipity in any of his other poster. He did, however, produce countless images for a range of different German (and later foreign) products. By the ripe old age of twenty-three, he had become so sought after that he was compelled to open his own studio. Within ten years his elegant new studio employed around thirty artists and their assistant. In 1920, he was mad the first professor of poster art at the Berlin School of Arts and Crafts.

The first decade of the twentieth century was significant for Bernhard and German arts and crafts because the marriage of art and industry was being promoted though organizations like the German Werkblund and celebrated at frequent industrial expositions. Urban areas became hotbeds of advertising: bold, reductive graphic imagery was necessary to capture the viewer's attention on crowded poster hoardings. Bernhard's Sachplakat epitomized his new form, which also included other kinds of imagery in which unusually bright, yet aesthetically pleasing colors replace more subtle hues. Text was pared to a minimum. Growald encouraged others to work in this manner, and formed a loose-knit school know as the Berliner Plakat.

Bernhard made inroads into German typography as well. When the formidable Berthold Type Foundry issued a “block” letter in 1910 that looked suspiciously like Bernhard's own poster lettering, he was force to seriously design his own alphabets to protect his inventions. In 1913 Bernhard's first typeface, Antiqua, was released by the Flinsch Foundry in Frankfurt; it was a good book face. He promised more but the Great War put a temporary halt to his output.

After the war, Bernhard, who was avowedly apolitical, gladly accepted an invitation to come to the United States in 1922 for an unspecified time. Roy Latham, who ran a lithography firm in New York, proposed the Bernhard speak before various art directors' clubs in New York and elsewhere about advertising and logo design. Despite his poor mastery of English, Bernhard accepted. It was Latham's notion that Bernhard also be shuttled around the country to promote his own work and perhaps convince American art directors to consider modern design as an alternative to the overly rendered, often saccharine, painted illustration that represented American practice. Sadly, the exercise was a failure. American advertising was ruled by the copywriter. Moreover, advertisers believed that Bernhard's work was ahead of its time. Remember that the Bauhaus was beginning its truly radial experiments at this time, which by comparison made Bernhard's work look conservative. The United States was even more backward.

Despite the disappointment of his poor reception, Bernhard was seduced by New York City. He decided to stay on for another six months, which turned into a permanent residency, leaving behind him to forsake his adopted Berlin, flourishing studio, and loving family. In 1932, Bernhard's wife and sons, Karl and Manfred, came to New York from Germany (his daughter, Ruth, from a previous marriage, was already in the United States) and though they did not live with their father, they worked with him as assistants at the studio.

Latham then arranged for Bernhard to exhibit his work at the New York Art Center on 56th Street (and later at the Composing Room Gallery 303). Though the show was well attended and favorably covered in the press, business commissions were slow in coming. During his first years in New York, Bernhard was occasionally called don to render advertising sketches, but most were rejected. Although his German style was not appreciated in New York, he refused to compromise to American tastes. Until around 1927, he worked exclusively on interior and furniture design for wealthy clients on Fifth and Madison avenues.

During the late twenties Bernhard helped found, with the financial backing of a prosperous emigrant furrier, the first international design consortium called Contempora. It was founded on the Weiner Werkstatte's credo: the “complete work of art.” It was a quirky mix of contributors—Bruno Paul (the former Jugenstil cartoonist), in Munich, Paul Poiret (the fashion designer) in Paris, Rockwell Kent (the illustrator) in New York, and Erich Mendelson (the architect) in Vienna. They produced everything from graphics to textiles, accessories to furniture. Contempora even produced a line of chairs for the Grand Rapids Furniture Company. But despite a reasonable popularity, the venture failed during the Great Depression.

With all of his varied activities, one might get the impression that Bernhard was sympathetic to the goals of the Modern movement. Actually, he was not. Bernhard used to say he was a doer, not theorist or an ideologue. Though well reasoned and carefully designed, his work was based not on systems but instinct. He apparently disapproved of the Bauhaus and any form of ism that made more (or less) of the advertising process. If Bernhard had a philosophy, and he would never give it such weight, it might be found in his words: “You see with your eyes, not with your brain. What you do with your hands should express the physical process and should never be mechanical.”

Beginning in the late twenties and lasting for nineteen years, Bernhard produced one 24-sheet poster a month for Amoco and a lesser, but sizable, number for White Flash gasoline. Because advertising was still a copywriter's game, many of these posters were dominated by lettering, often one word or a short slogan accompanying the logo. Indeed, most of the ideas took Bernhard less than an hour to sketch. Another very harmonious working relationship grew between Bernhard and the president of ExLax. What began as a rather simple job to design the firm's matchbook ended in a long-term commission to create packaging, a new trademark, and the interior design of its Brooklyn factory and offices. Other regular accounts included Radio City Music Hall, Marlboro Shirts, the Theater Guild, Westinghouse, and Cat's Paw, the logo for which is now considered a vernacular treasure.

Bernhard had developed typefaces for Flisch and Bauer Type founderies in Germany, including a transitional bold brush script. He designed his first elegant script, Bernhard, in 1922 while traveling from Germany to New York on a steamship. In 1928 he joined forces with American Type Foundry, for who he produced his family of gothics. He believed that sans serif type should not be used for text, once writing: “There is no doubt that the best type for continuous reading is the one in which schoolbooks, novels, and newspapers are printed: Garamond, Jenson, or Goudy Old Style.” Understanding that display faces were subject to the whims of fashion, however, he cluttered the market with new advertising faces.

After World War II Bernhard turned away from graphic design and focused almost exclusively on painting. Since the thirties he had painted mundane portraits of women. He asserted that painting was his true art; some might say it was his real folly. The switch in emphasis came because the advertising business was changing and decisions were being made by committees and middle-level art directors. Bernhard found that art directors were bringing in specialist to do portions of campaigns or identities and, since he was accustomed to doing the entire job, he had no taste for the limitations that specialization imposed. He once said, “If I am going to be forced to specialize, I will do it with painting.” Increasingly, Bernhard's sons saw to the daily studio operations and continued to do packaging and advertising into the early 1960s.

Toward the end of Bernhard's ninety-plus years, the old master decided that he wanted to return to graphic design. His comeback was stifled, with the exception of a few random jobs, by a new generation of art directors who had no idea who Bernhard was or what he did. All they could see when Karl dutifully brought his father's portfolio around was a lot of old-fashioned work. However, though Bernhard's life's work was made passé by changes in technology and style, this extraordinarily prolific man left behind a significant body of work. If he were remembered only for creating the paradigm of twentieth-century poster art, that alone would ensure his place in the history of graphic design.

Copyright 1998 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.