Graphic Design Magazines: Das Plakat

Essays by Steven Heller
1 945 words10 min read
Das Plakat, magazine covers 1921

Das Plakat, magazine covers 1921

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, 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.”


He went to a small by typographically sophisticated printer to print the first issue of 200 copies. There he learned the jargon from experts. And yet the first issue was void of any dilettantism. It was professionally composed and edited. The magazine promoted poster exchanges.

The society grew so fast that it required regional chapters as the magazine grew. Sach’s own collection increased as well, especially among international designers. By 1914 the edition was up to 2400 copies. They included legal advice columns, printers connections. They promoted artist’s competitions that were sponsored by large German companies. In the years of stormy development in poster art, the society had a major impact on the appearance of modern poster and advertising art.

Sachs curated a poster show for Austellung für Buchgewerbe und Grafik (BURGA) which was one of the largest expositions of international poster aret. Sachs and the society certainly became one.

In 1914 Sachs was drafted into the Army and Hans Meyer and Rudi Listein took over the editorial direction of the magazine. In 1915 Sachs was released from military service and became the sole proprietor and author of the texts (using different pen names) Sach’s force of will allowed the magazine to continue through the war years. And the society became involved with the war propaganda of the Deutsches Kaisserich, it supported war bond campaigns and exhibited posters of nations at war. By 1918 the magazine had increased to an edition of 5000 copies.

After the war the Weimar Republic sought the services of the society. They needed new stamps and Sachs helped organize a competition and jury. He also founded a publication that dealt with political posters.

Problems developed, however, between new and older chapters of the society. The society reached a size for which no structure existed or was established. By 1920 an end of the society was in the air. It growth led to a lack of control.

The magazine continued to maintain a high standard. Special issues addressed themes other than only the poster. It published a special issue devoted to plagiarism, for example.

Society of poster friends breaks up because Das Plakat was not balanced enough. It ceased in 1922. Problems between the collectors and the art lovers and the business.

The baseness of national socialism.

Archive of time

Archiv Reklame, etc.

Sachs did not look at his collection for three years after the break. He stored it in his attic in Berlin. His attic caught fire in 1925 and a new building also went ablaze. Fortunately his collection was not decimated. In 1926 a new space was constructed and the posters were well displayed and protected. He planned a Museum der Gebrauscgraphik. He was not only a voracious collector he was a skilled researcher and curator.

Until 1935 he was listed in the German Dentist book, and was allowed to practice. In 1936 he was relieved of his license. In 1937 he mounted his last exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Although he was not well connected to the Jewish community, he was a victim. In 1937 he was detained for 24 hours by the Gestapo.

He was forbidden from owning any politically related materials and his entire collection was confiscated. Goebells himself added it to the Kunstgewerbe Museum, dedicated to the art of commerce and Sach’s collection was to be its basis.

He was arrested in the Pogrom of November 1938 and brought to the Sachsenhausen KZ. After a few weeks he was released and left with his family to London and then New York. In the US he was not allowed to work as a dentist till he took his exams. He decided to sell his Lautrec posters. He received reparation in 1965 for his collection. Some of his collection survived in Berlin Museum of German history.

He went to work at the film rating department and died in 1974.