The Object Poster: 1920-1950

Swiss graphic artists truly excelled in designing Object Posters also known as Sachplakat. These usually represent a single oversized object drawn in a simplified but realist style. The text is minimal and normally contains only the brand name being promoted. The idea is to come up with a symbolic image to which a brand is associated in order to condition consumers’ buying reflexes. This theory follows the principle of the unique offer derived from publicity theories developed in the United States. Simplicity was the key to the success of the Object Poster as it paved the way to incitement by image, which corresponded to the new selling methods and product communication techniques of the time.


The industrial era brought about the simultaneous development of production, distribution and mass consumerism. With these came the need to publicise new products in order to sell these products and set them apart from their competitors. Publicity, in the modern sense of the word, dates back to the end of the 19th century when the first publicity agencies were created in the United States. It is noteworthy that publicity differs from propaganda due to its commercial objective. From the start, the colour-lithographed poster, associating text and image, was a means of advertising. However, modern publicity went beyond the simple transmission of information. It set in place a genuine strategy to incite consumerism by attracting and capturing the consumer’s attention. The consumer had to be made aware of the product and its promotional message so that he would be inclined to think of this particular product when came the time to buy. Manipulation techniques were not far behind as psychology played an important role in this strategy. To reach its objectives, publicity had to touch the imagination and to achieve this, both graphic art and the information distribution medium played a vital role.
Modern marketing defined as a global strategy built around a product (publicity being only one element of this strategy) was developed in the 1920s in the United States and progressively spread through Europe.
The Object Poster was perfectly suited to this type of marketing. It quickly conquered sponsors to the point of becoming the principal style of Swiss product posters during and immediately after the Second World War. For example, the poster designed in 1923 by Otto Baumberger (1889 –1961) for the retailer PKZ was a life-size drawing of a woollen coat with a PKZ label with the word “quality” as the only inscription. Another poster, by this same artist, created prior to the PKZ poster, shows a hat associated only to the name and address of the hat maker. The advertising message was simple, hat = Bauman just as coat = PKZ = quality. The idea was to guide the consumer towards these retailers when it was time to buy. These posters also had the great advantage of being understood by everyone, eliminating the need for costly translation in all national languages. If sponsors requested this, a single poster could be designed for the whole of Switzerland.

The “Neue Sachlichkeit”

Stoecklin Niklaus, Non au vote des femmes, 1920, Lithographie, 127 x 90 cm
Stoecklin Niklaus, Non au vote des femmes, 1920, Lithographie, 127 x 90 cm

The Object Poster owed a lot to the New Objectivity movement (Neue Sachlichkeit). In Germany, after the defeat in the First World War, this movement came about in reaction to Expressionism and advocated the return to realism and to every day life. This movement had neither programme nor manifesto but adherents believed they had a social role to play as they sought to represent reality without artifice or sentiment. They wished to mirror society in order to show its state of desolation and corruption so that it could improve itself. As for composition, it was as simple, realist and objective as possible in order to efficiently convey its message. There were two undercurrents within the New Objectivity movement: the first sought to demonstrate the harshness of urban life while the second, known as magic realism, tried to illustrate every day life by adding a touch of magic in its representation through the use of colours, perspectives, lines and forms.

Niklaus Stoecklin (1896-1982) was the principal Swiss figurehead of the movement. He tried to apply the precepts of objectivity of representation and social questioning in the Object Poster.
While teaching at the Schule für Gestaltung of Basel, he transmitted his ideas and had considerable influence on the new generation of graphic artists. Among them, Herbert Leupin (1920-1999) and Donald Brun (1909 –1999) soon became the emblems of the style to which they added their own brand of humour and mischief. These artists attempted to reveal the beauty of every day objects by elevating them to the level of icons and by selling a brand or an idea through a visual metaphor. This style, which left a deep imprint in Switzerland and around the world, corresponds to the last period in the evolution of lithographed posters. After this, offset printing replaced lithographic printing, producing works less dependant on colour processes but also not as luminous.

Last modification 15.10.2009

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