Behind the Seen

Once upon a time, there was the advertising business. It was the business for go-getters and quick-thinkers, the man (they were largely men) of the future. The number of movies and television shows involving ad agencies was larger that you might expect.

And once upon that time, one of the centers for this industry was Chicago. A lot of the giants have passed on now, or moved to greener pastures. The Book Fair still gets Leo Burnett’s autobiography/motivational book, autographed always in green ink, and once a huge portion of the company library of Foote, Cone, and Belding came to us. But we are not here to reminisce about the dear dead days beyond recall.

Because during that onceupona time, because of the proximity of these advertising giants, AND the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Chicago was a hotbed of forward-thinking graphic artists and designers. In the 1930s, 27 of the best and brightest banded to form the “27 Chicago Designers”. The fame of this outfit still resounds through the history of modern design. But I don’t even want to talk about THAT. (I shall leave that history to somebody who actually knows something. I’m just a blogger.)

Beginning in 1935 and continuing for half a century or so, each of the 27 Chicago Designers would contribute pages showing samples of their work to a book called, simply, 27. Sent to prospective clients, the books showed what they’d done, and what they could do. Each book is filled with pictures of things you never realized HAD designers: textbooks, catalogs, yearbooks, and encyclopedias. Members of the 27 designed sewing machines, typefaces, chairs, pens, menus, bread bags, board games, and bars of soap, NAPA cans and Pabst Blue Ribbon bottles. The first On-Cor Family Pack frozen dinners.are here, and when 7-Up decided it wanted not just a new logo and new label, but a new kind of bottle for its Uncola campaign, a member of the 27 produced these. Ever pick up one of the 24 individual paperback volumes of the Encyclopedia of Cooking at a garage sale? (If not, I can sell you plenty.) A member of the 27 designed that set

The books are catalogs of contemporary culture. These were the men and women assigned to come up with the “look” for a product or line of products. Sometimes, accidentally, they came up with a look that became standard, that immediately makes you think “Fifties” or “Sixties”. (Only they turn up in the 27 books from the Forties and Fifties. First they came up with the style, then they had to sell it, then it had to get printed, then it had to be imitated by other designers: it takes time to become a cliche).

And if that isn’t enough to entertain you, they designed things now forgotten, products that we in our homogenized modern age no longer see. We do not enjoy the variety of groceries, for example: they got to design packages for canned tripe in whole milk, canned pork sausage, canned calves’ liver. When was the last time you purchased Duncan Hines Salad Dressing, Chief Oshkosh Beer, Crest Cooked Pork Brains, or Swift’s Select Beef Brains? I haven’t checked on it, but does anyone still sell canned maple syrup these days, or canned grapefruit juice? Does Smucker’s still sell cherry preserves, or Fannie May their Sunset Collection? Not only did these things once exist, but somebody was paid to pick the shape of the box, the color of the label, and the style of the lettering thereupon.

It’s just one of the things a good Book Fair can do for you, make you nostalgic for things you’ve never seen before. 

Post New Comment