At one of my regular breakfasts with Michael Wolff where we discuss life, love and loss and in the process laugh uncontrollably, he handed me this…
“What do you think of that?” he said.
“Er, well, it looks like a mass-produced knife from the 1930s. We had a set just like it at home in the 1950s,” I said.
“No,” said Michael. “Look again…”
I study the knife more carefully and there engraved at the top of the blade was this…
It was the silhouette of a bear with the words ‘IN MIND’ below it that Michael had seen and been delighted by.
“Why does no one in the industry have that kind of wit anymore?” lamented Michael.
It got me thinking about the topic. Back in the ’70s, I produced this book on the early advertising of the A & F Pears soap company…
In 1862, the man running and co-owning the company was Thomas J. Barrett: a brilliant marketing man who began to turn the fortunes of the ailing company through a range of audacious stunts. He imported a quarter of a million French ten-centime pieces (accepted in lieu of a penny in Britain), had the name ‘Pears’ stamped on every one of them and put the coins into circulation.
Years later, he bought a painting by Sir John Everett Millais entitled A Child’s World for £2,200. It featured a curly headed boy with a bowl of soapsuds and holding a clay bubble pipe. Barrett saw the potential of the painting immediately and approached Millais to allow him to add a bar of Pears soap in the bottom right-hand corner and to rename the painting Bubbles.
After some persuasion, Millais agreed and Barrett embarked on £30,000 advertising campaign to great success. The Bubbles painting was sold as a high-quality stone lithograph print along with postcards and was also used in magazine advertisements. Barrett was a great collector of British art. Another of his purchases, Sir Edwin Landseer’s Monarch of the Glen...
It gave Barrett the idea of suggesting it as a symbol for the distillers John Dewar and Sons, with whom he had a connection.
Wit, visual metaphors and rebus were a common sight in advertising from the 18th century until the mid-1950s, when the gradual adoption of modernism / international Swiss style eradicated this kind of realistic symbolism in favour of a stripped-back, clinical essence to design, which was far more meaningful to other designers engaged in the new order than to the general public.
It was the beginning of designers designing for other designers: something that has never gone away and has spawned award schemes around the world for much peer adulation and backslapping.
I am in no way decrying this sort of work or the award schemes: I have supported and added to it more than I care to mention. But since the general blanket introduction of the modernist principles to design, one rarely sees charm, humour or work that simply delights like that produced by the many unsung and often anonymous commercial artists who produced huge amounts of wonderful, witty and delightful work for all to enjoy. Here is a little to whet your appetite…
Compare the above with this group…
Did you smile? Point made.
Lastly here are a few brand marks art directed by Michael Wolff which hark back to wittier times...
This goldfish, photographed by Tony Evans was created for Michael Wolff's early company the Consortium.
A humming bird to represent home builder Bovis
A fox for Hadfields Paint
And an energetic grasshopper for Michael Wolff & Co with the slogan ' Leap before you look'.
Branding was originally a term used for identifying the owner of livestock via a mark burnt onto cattle using a red-hot iron.
Ironically back in the 19 century, and still today, the symbols used are as simple as the modernist ones featured above.
Nothing is ever completely new in the world of design.
For more about Michael click here.