The emergence of modernism in early 20th century American advertising: Lucian Bernhard and his REM Cough Syrup advertisements

What does it take for an advertisement to capture the attention of a potential consumer?

It takes aesthetically pleasing simplicity, vibrant colors, and a straightforward message—according to Lucian Bernhard.

A photograph of a poster rolled out on a table. Two women in blue appear to hurry through rain under a blue umbrella. The word "REM" is surrounded by an orange circle in the upper righthand corner. There is an orange ribbon at the bottom that says "Fast relief for coughs due to colds"

German-born artist Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972) worked prolifically in both German and American advertising. Although a prominent graphic designer, he also worked in other mediums including painting, typeface design, and interior design. Straightforwardness, color, and simplicity defined his artistic mode. Here is a look at the style and the career of the man that helped bring modernism to American advertising.

Bernhard pioneered modern artistic techniques and made a name for himself as an innovative and progressive commercial artist. He is known as the innovator of two new types of poster art, Sachplakatand PlakatstilSachplakat artwork emphasizes a bold lettering design paired with a simple central image and bold, nuanced hues. Plakatstil is visually similar to Sachplakat but can include more complex imagery beside the brand name. The images in both methods are typically deconstructed and simplistic.

A pencil and watercolor sketch depicting a bottle of REM cough syrup

Both of these techniques rejected Art Nouveau in that they intended to diverge from past artistic modes in order to emulate the modern, fast-paced, industrial world. Art Nouveau preferred flowing lines and harmony with nature; Modernism embraced the new urbanism and fought to attract the viewer's eye amidst a barrage of advertising posters. In order to achieve this goal, commercial artists of these styles utilized simplicity and color, which revolutionized advertisements and changed the landscape of commercial art.

In the 1920s, Bernhard immigrated to New York City and carried Sachplakat and Plakatstil with him to begin his prolific career in American commercial art. Continuing his focus on color and simplicity, he created various types of advertisement art for many firms, notably REM cough syrup.

A poster for REM cough syrup. Three men in grey bend over with their hands on their hats, appearing to struggle through the rain. It says "for coughs" in the upper righthand corner and "REM" on the right side in white with an orange background

The museum's Archives Center possesses a collection of Lucian Bernhard materials including REM advertising sketches, prints, lithographs, and oversize posters. The sketch and posters all adhere to the artist's use of color, featuring bold, distinctive shades that attract the eye with their intensity and contrast. Bernhard utilizes only a few different colors, but his posters command the attention of the urban viewer with their eye-catching shades and combinations in the busy advertisement space.

A graphic, black and white illustration of a stylized man in a top hat and cane pointing to the word "REM" in the sky. It appears to be storming, as trees are blown sideways. It says "Cough?" in the upper lefthand corner

Bernhard's works, large and small, follow the Sachplakat and Plakatstil mode in that they feature curved lines with sharp, angular corners. They also depict simple and highly deconstructed figures, such as the shaded men illustrated in the lithograph. The small print also follows this idea by depicting a man via geometric blocks. Lucian Bernhard utilized abstraction to create his advertisements in a more modern aesthetic, and succeeded in his efforts to more quickly disseminate information in a rapid urban environment.

If you are interested in viewing these materialsmake an appointment with the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. Please email archivescenter@si.edu or call 202-633-3270.

Holly Nelson completed an internship at the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History. She is also a History major at the University of California, Santa Barbara.