Letterhead as Conceptual Art


Above is the business stationery that Robert Brownjohn designed in 1967 for photographer, Michael Cooper. Another example of conceptual art’s influence on graphic design.

Rather than designing stationery with a logo and the usual typographic arrangement of name & address, Brownjohn labels each part of Cooper’s stationery system—letterhead, business card & label—with a conceptual-art-style declarative statement, which happens to include Cooper’s name & address. Calling attention not so much to Cooper’s business activities, but rather to Brownjohn’s role in producing Cooper’s stationery.


On left: young Robert Brownjohn; on right: young Michael Cooper

What are we to make of this?

This simplicity of form is matched with clarity of expression. There can be few more straightforward statements than ”Robert Brownjohn designed this letterhead for Michael Cooper.” But, of course, the design’s appearance and tone of restraint prove misleading. They transpire to be a means of casting Brownjohn’s outrageous subversion of the function of the letterhead into even greater relief. It takes quite a nerve to convert a piece of typography intended as an advertisement for someone else into a promotion for yourself. Every communication Michael Cooper made on this paper could not help but be at least as much about Brownjohn as it was about its subject.

Bob Gill has suggested that the letterhead was designed in reaction to being cajoled into doing the job as a favour: “This is the greatest free job ever done by a designer. What does he want to say? I did this for nothing, that’s what.” Meanwhile, Gill’s then wife Bobby had a somewhat different interpretation: “Michael Cooper was somebody who used to hang around, but he didn’t have any personality. Bj thought and thought of something to do for his letterhead, but the only thing this guy had done that was in any way interesting was to ask him to design it.” The truth is probably somewhere between the two. The desire to wreak revenge on exploitative “friends” will resonate with most graphic designers, but accounts of Cooper do hint at a paper-thin personality…

…It could be the case that his letterhead for Cooper was intended as a subtle swipe at the whole King’s Road scene. Although Brownjohn obviously enjoyed his notoriety, his increasingly exaggerated manners and extravagant outfits imply that he had a perpetual sense of the absurd.

Dick Fontaine has suggested that Brownjohn had a 1950s sensibility very different from that of the “velvet-suited” brigade of Cooper and Fraser. It was a case of conceptual art and jazz versus hippy philosophy and psychedelia.

Robert Brownjohn sex and typography: 1925-1970, Life and Work
By Emily King and Eliza Brownjohn 

If, as Bob Gill and his wife suggest, Brownjohn resented the project or didn’t respect Cooper, then why even do it? Maybe the sheer audacity of the idea was, for Brownstreet, kind of irresistible.  

“In his short but intense working life, Brownjohn helped to redefine
graphic design, to move it from a formal to a conceptual art.”

Art Directors Club Hall of Fame, 1995

Or maybe this was just a combative, but friendly rivalry among creatives? (You know, like between the Beatles and the Stones?) Despite the Bobby Gill’s harsh appraisal of Cooper’s “paper thin” personality, his life and accomplishments actually match Brownjohn’s in number of surprising ways… (which we’ll take a look at tomorrow.)

See also: Logo as Conceptual Art and Robert Brownjohn’s Bachelor Pack

Randy Ludacer
Beach Packaging Design

Robert Brownjohn’s Bachelor Pack


Robert Brownjohn’s ill-fated “Bachelor” cigarette pack concept from 1961: a great example of how a package can illustrate its contents with literal isometric views on each side. (Similar to the Long Egg 10-pack carton)

Why so ill-fated? From her book on Brownjohn’s life and work, Emily King provides an explanation and an object lesson in client relations for graphic designers:

Seldom straying far from a smoker’s hand, a cigarette packet is a de facto personal accessory. As such, it must be stylish and, from the tobacco company’s point of view, it should advertise their product as explicitly as possible. Brownjohn’s design for Bachelor cigarettes achieved these two aims with perfect conceptual economy. In terms of stripped-down chic, the Bachelor packet is unbeatable. Moreover, there is no better way of identifying a product by its package than simply illustrating it on the surface of the box. Why this design never went further than maquette stage is something of a mystery. Player’s Cigarettes, the manufacturer of the Bachelor brand… remained a highly conservative concern. …it is easy to imagine Brownjohn’s lack of inhibition did not endear him to the traditionalists on the Player’s board.

According to Alan Fletcher, Player’s Cigarettes reneged on the design because Brownjohn bragged about his idea around town, effectively pre-empting the product launch.

Willie Landels remembers Brownjohn filling his maquette with tampons and handing it around to the clients. This gesture is unlikely to have gone over well. In addition to straightforward provocation, it was a brilliant subversion of the box’s pretence of transparency. Brownjohn was exposing his own collusion with the social norms that govern which items are fit for public display and which must remain hidden.

Emily King
Robert Brownjohn: Sex and Typography: 1925-1970 Life and Work

(Another version of Brownjohn’s Bachelor pack, after the fold…)

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Logo as Conceptual Art

NEThingLogo3 The “thing” on the left is a logo, designed in 1969 by Canadian, graphic designer, Allan Fleming (1929–1977) for the “N.E. Thing Co., Ltd.”

Remember, we mentioned the N.E. Thing Company last week and said we’d come back to it?

The idea of an artist or artist(s) acting like a corporation may seem pretty status quo these days, but back when it was founded—in 1966 by Iain and Ingrid Baxter—it was a radical and deeply ironic gesture. Officially a business entity, but at heart, a faux-company—in existence only for the sake of “fine art.” In that context, hiring an established commercial artist to design their logo was not the usual cut-and-dried business transaction. Instead, the logo—and the transaction, itself—exist primarily as conceptual art. By “conceptual art” I mean conceptual art as in: the idea alone would be sufficient. (Not “concept art” as in: a preliminary version of a proposed design idea, which may or may not be developed further.)

Rather than elaborate their own artistic trademark (the identifiable product brand that most artists develop), N.E. Thing Co. emulated the corporate practice of having a professional graphic designer create a logo for their documents and publications. N.E. Thing’s corporate logo, “PLEASE COMPLETE AND RETURN,” was designed in 1969 by Allan Fleming, who was the leading Canadian graphic designer of the time. Iain Baxter remembers that Fleming said a company like theirs required an open and ambiguous logo.  Below the request there are several dotted lines for a written response, and “N. E. THING COMPANY LIMITED” is then printed at the bottom. But nothing is presented to indicate what information is being solicited, resulting in an enigmatic call for participation rather than the direct communication of product information that most logos provide.

Ken Allan
Business interests, 1969-71: N.E. Thing Co. Ltd.
Parachute: Contemporary Art Magazine, April 01, 2002

LogoInformationSheetNETCO’s Information Sheet, documenting the creation of their logo states at the bottom: “Canadian, internationally renowned designer Allan Fleming designed this unique logo for the N.E. Thing Co., Ltd.” (I’ve circled the logo in red ) Via: The Center for Contemporary Canadian Art

(A Telex letter with NETCO’s logo, after the fold…)

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South Pacific Beer Label Fighting Shields

Far left: Kaipel Ka’s “Six to Six shield” shield from the National Gallery of Australia; all others from the The British Museum collection

While beer labels have featured “shields” for some time, it was news to me that, in Papua New Guinea, shields sometimes feature beer labels.

The traditional medieval heraldry of beer-brand crests may seem far removed from any violent connotations, but these shields, emblazoned with iconography from South Pacific Brewery’s product line, were seriously intended as protection in battle.

When inter-group warfare recommenced in the
1980s, people in the Wahgi area of the Highlands of Papua New
Guinea started making fighting shields after a gap of fifty years.
Wooden shields were used initially, but the subsequent introduction
of guns into the conflict led some Wahgi men to replace them with
metal ones made from car bodies or 44-gallon drums.Today the use of
wooden shields indicates ritual restraint, as distinct from the
metal shields required by the bloodier gun

Michael O’Hanlon
Paradise: Portraying the New Guinea Highlands

(And what are ”ritually restrained battles” if not the very definition of a “team sport”?….)

To fight is an integral part of life for many highlanders of Papua New Guinea. A system of revenge skirmishes called ‘payback’ had created a seemingly endless cycle of reprisals and retaliations. Fighting in this area could be considered almost a form of sport with clans pitching themselves against enemy clans. The slogan “six 2 six” originally an invitation to party all night long in the Wahgi valley area, has been appropriated into a hostile expression intended to unnerve opponents. In this context, six 2 six, literally means “we will fight you from dawn until dusk, 6am to 6pm”. Commissioned to replicate painted shield designs for various warring groups, [Kaipel] Ka’s work visually acts in much the same way as football team colours.

Ka has incorporated beer advertising designs such as South Pacific lagers birds of paradise and the border design found on cartons of San Miguel lager.

© National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

KaShild On left: vintage can of South Pacific Export Lager; on right artist/sign-painter, Kaipel Ka next to to one of his painted wooden shields.

Kaipel’s own explanation of his use of the SP design was that he had been asked by senior men to incorporate a representation of a beer bottle on the shield, to make the point that “it was beer alone which had precipitated this fighting”. (The war followed the breakdown of negotiations for compensation after an inebriated Senglap [clan] man had fallen from a Dange [clan]-owned vehicle.) Rather than including a picture of a beer bottle, Kaipel decided instead to make the point by using the SP design as a whole”

At one level, then, this design parallels those that express regret. At another level, there is also something appropriate in the use of beer. Beer drinking is often a “group” matter, just as warfare is. As Marie Reay observes “Clansmen fight together; they also drink together.”

Dr. Michael O’Hanlon
Anthropologist and current Director of the Pitt River Museum

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The Candwich Controversy


Cross-category packaging in the news this morning:

A lawsuit by the federal Securities and Exchange Commission says that [money manager, Travis L. Wright] promised returns of up to 24 percent on real estate investments, but that he put the money instead into Candwich development and other equally untried ideas.

Along with sales of canned sandwiches — Pepperoni Pizza Pocket and French Toast in a can were planned…

Mr. Wright, who is 47 and lives in Draper, Utah, according to the suit, did not return telephone calls. Several listings for Waterford Funding were disconnected or not in service.

Money in the Bank? No, Sandwich in a Can
By Kirk Johnson, NY Times, July 7, 2010

It’s important to emphasize that it is Mr. Wright, the money manager who is in trouble here—and not the Candwich or its inventor. As the NY Times article goes on to say:

Meanwhile, the Candwich concept perseveres. The president of Mark One Foods, Mark Kirkland, who said he patented the idea of putting solid food in a beverage container with the slogan, “Quick & Tasty, Ready to Eat,” said Mr. Wright promised full financial backing for Candwich production that never really materialized even as investors did. He said he believed that canned sandwiches would ultimately sell, and hoped to go into production later this year.

The shelf life of a Candwich is excellent, Mr. Kirkland said.

I took a look at Kirkland’s patents, and one claim, in particular, made a lot of sense to me: that this type of packaging would enable sandwiches to be sold in beverage-vending machines.

(See the Candwich patent(s), after the fold…)

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Iain Baxter&’s Animal Preserve(s)

BigBaxter&Rack©1999 Baxter&   Animal Preserve 2

And as long as we’re talking about jars and the ambiguity of the word “preserve”… consider Iain Baxter&’s “Animal Preserve” series. Stuffed animals, embalmed in distilled water. If I detected a dark undercurrent in Naoko Ito’s jarred tree limbs, here is an unabashed allusion to any number of disturbing ideas about jars. Preservation versus “preserves”… Specimen jars… killing jars… eating the product mascot? (See also: Cans Without Labels)

(I &) That’s right, I heart the ampersand, legally added to his last name in 2005. Formerly, Iain Baxter, in 1966 he and his wife, Ingrid Baxter, co-founded the “N.E. Thing Company”—(NETCO was a collaborative art enterprise we will come back to in a future post).

BAXTER&’s non-authorial take on art production, the ampersand is legally appended to his last name, creates both an unending collaboration with the viewer and the means to question the artist’s role.


(More packaging related artwork by Iain Baxter&, after the fold…)

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Two Types of Tree Packaging


On left: “Ubiquitous”; on right: “Flora”

1. The 2009 sculptures from Naoko Ito’s “Urban Nature” series, above feature tree branches contained in stacked jars. I like how she uses jars to do what jars generally do: encapsulating something from nature. What’s different in her case—(and a little… well, jarring)—is that their natural contents appear to have been preserved in place. There are even jars to contain the empty spaces between the branches.

When I first saw these pictures, I thought the jars worked sort of like 3-dimensional pixels—dividing up the branches into smaller containable bits that, from a distance, still comprised a recognizable whole.

Now I think they’re a bit darker than that. They are beginning to remind me of the inexplicable jungle-crystallizing virus in J.G. Ballard’s “The Crystal World.” Beautiful and uncanny, but ultimately representing an unsurvivable form of preservation. Which, come to think of it, is maybe a pretty good metaphor for food packaging in general.

(via: The Spring 2010 issue of the Visual Arts Journal)

2. This morning I happened to see a Huffington Post story entitled “Tree Life Box Creates New Trees from Packaging Waste.” Which led me to the Tree Life Box™ website.

TreeLifeBoxPaul Stamets’s recycled corrugated cartons with tree seeds

“The Tree Life Box™ is made of recycled paper fiber. In this fiber, we have inserted a wide variety of tree seeds, up to a hundred, dusted with mycorrhizal
fungal spores. The mycorrhizal fungi protect and nurture the young
seedlings. For millions of years, plants and beneficial fungi have
joined together in a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship.”

One caveat: I’m currently reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright-sided (How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America)” and I am, therefore, ultra-conscious (and a little embarrassed) that I may be ending this post on a very positive note. What to do?

Not that it significantly detracts from the carbon-offsets of actually growing trees—but, still, consider this… the first step in The Tree Life Box’s post-consumer afterlife: “1) Tear your Tree Life Box™  into large pieces so it will fit inside a plastic bag.

Randy Ludacer
Beach Packaging Design

Dynamite, Firecrackers, TNT

Firecracker-TNTTop left: Johnny Cupcakes Firecracker T-Shirt (via: Lovely Package); top right: Mélanie Boucher’s dynamite shaped concept package for “sparkling chocolate powder” (via: Packaging Uqam); 2nd row, left: “Fudge Dynamite” (see also “Fudge Torture Tonic”); 3rd row, left: TNT Tea packaging from Cafe Grumpy (via: NotCot); on right: “Roasted Cocoa NIBS” from Askinosie Chocolate (via: Embody3D); 4th rwow, left & below right: Dynamite Bites; 5th row, left: Harry’s Firecracker Hot Sauce; on right; under NIBS: Black Rock Powder’s “Dynamite” fire starters crate (via: Cabala’s); 6th row, left: a vintage firecracker-shaped toy via ebay; on right dynamite-six-pack concept by Bonita Nowick; bottom photo of firecracker candy from Dawn Endico’s Flickr Photostream

Today is the 5th of July. I have a summer cold and didn’t sleep well due to late-night firecrackers in the neighborhood. (I am on edge and you do not want to set me off.)

We’ve looked at other ballistic packaging concepts—(hand-grenades; Molotov cocktails, etc.)—but this is supposedly of a more celebratory type. (Although dynamite and TNT are, perhaps, more fittingly associated with mining.)

(Some related examples, after the sputtering fuse…)

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Pre-Op Packaging

Left photo: from The Minnesota Historical Society; middle photo: from Worthpoint; right photo: from JSF0864’s Flickr Photostream

(Pre-Op-Art, I mean)… Vintage packaging with radial spirals or concentric circles that just can’t be contained by the edges of the box:

“The outermost circle is not contained within the boundaries of the box, a graphic device that induces viewers to complete the circle in their own minds. This tendency, though subconscious, nevertheless causes viewers to participate in the dynamism of the package design. Moreover, when viewers extend the design in their own minds, they are also expanding the psychological impact of the package.”

Thomas Hine, The Total Package

Is it just me or is there something kind of compelling about messages conveyed via hypnotic geometry? (See also: The Bridget Riley Look)

Randy Ludacer
Beach Packaging Design

Audio Promo Packs


Vintage patents for adding audio promotions to packaging: records embedded on the sides of cereal boxes—six-packs with CDs, etc.

(More about these patents, after the fold…)

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