A seemingly simple task of the poster since its blossoming in the late 19th century was to sell products of all sorts, from the mundane and prosaic like toothpaste, to the luxurious and exotic like absinthe, to the complex and technical like the bicycle and the iPod. Yet no task confronting the poster designer has proven to be more challenging, or more difficult to repeat successfully. Objects of Desire traces the history of the product poster, focusing on the styles, artists, and masterpieces of the genre over the decades.
Belle Epoque Product Posters
The show begins with Jules Cheret, the father of the poster, who featured the first lesson of product posters: sex sells. Most of his product posters, like Job Cigarettes and Pastilles Geraudel cough drops feature his patented "Cherette", a beautiful damsel displaying a product with various props like cats, umbrellas or merely attitude.
The era's second approach to the product poster involved humor. This perennial method is aptly illustrated by Alfred Choubrac's delightful Corsets Baleinine Incassables (1900) which reveals that the product augments every figure from full to svelte, and every personality from brassy to demure. In addition, the rise of the Art Nouveau style led many artists to turn to symbolism to sell products. Fine examples are Adolfo Hohenstein's Fiammiferi senza Fosforo, which recreates Heaven and Hell to sell sulphur-free matches, and Alphonse Mucha's beautiful vision of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, to sell Lu biscuits.
20th Century Product Posters
Romantic techniques yielded in the new century to two new approaches more in tune with changes in business and society. In Germany, Lucian Bernhard developed the Object Poster in 1905, which featured a realistic depiction of the product with its name above it and little else. With flat colors and simplified shapes it was the beginning of a modern, direct and utterly Teutonic approach to selling products.
At the same time, Leonetto Cappiello created a new approach that would sweep France. Cappiello stated that "surprise was the essence of advertising", and proved it by creating caricatures and ingenious metaphors that would endure for decades. Cappiello's humor-based, subjective approach would influence countless artists including Achille Mauzan and even the Art Deco master, A.M. Cassandre, whose Dubonnet man became the most famous of all advertising characters.
Meanwhile, Bernhard's approach reverberated in Switzerland, where Otto Baumberger invented a hyper-realistic type of Object Poster. So finely drawn and printed, his 1923 PKZ Coat was mistaken for a photograph. Using the coat's label to eliminate text, it seemed utterly unemotional and clear. A few years later, the surrealist painter Niklaus Stoecklin of Basel turned to the Object Poster, creating his 1925 image for Cluser transmissions which floats like a machine age icon in space. The French and German approaches began to merge in the late Thirties with the arrival of Herbert Leupin in Basel, whose marketing imagination reinvigorated the Object Poster. Now, a bent traffic sign replaced a water bottle in Leupin's poster, which urges the viewer to "Drink Eptinger mineral water instead!"
Post World War II Product Posters
The product poster changed dramatically after the war, due to new printing techniques and the rise of consumerism. With the switch to offset lithography and the advent of large format photography, Object Posters lost their impact. A shift towards humor and visual puns was occurring worldwide. In Switzerland, Herbert Leupin and Donald Brun created a more relaxed, cartoonish style which often used anthropomorphic animals and animated objects to represent their brands. In France, Raymond Savignac created more than 600 posters, including an ingenious poster for Parisiennes cigarettes featuring a gendarme with a giant cigarette serving as a traffic signal. In the U.S., Paul Rand created a delightful series for El Producto which established his reputation in product advertising.
By the late Fifties, product posters declined due to the increasing use of the mass media. Notable exceptions are the beautiful posters by Art Deco stylist Bernard Villemot for Bally in the '70s and '80s, the sexy H & M series in the Nineties and the iPod poster campaign which blankets billboards worldwide today. The latter, featuring neon color and hipsters dancing to their iPods, beckons the viewer to become equally free and hip by picking up their own iPod. The product poster lives on!
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