Mid-Century Modern Love

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the fifties.

It’s certainly been a recurring theme in my work and as I look through the archives, it’s dotted with (often freebie) jobs that have allowed me to play about with various styles and motifs that are all in some way rooted in the atomic age.

So, with all things vintage enjoying a bit of a fashion moment, I thought it’d be cool to keep calm and carry some crap down from the attic and spread it all out on the formica topped-table that is this blog.

Hitting my teens in the mid-eighties, the fifties was like the eighties is to today’s sideways-haired young people. Nick Kamen was dropping his kecks in laundrettes, Morrissey was posing with his Billy Fury albums in Smash Hits, the Live Aid poster featured a classic Wurlitzer jukebox and Hi-Di-Hi never seemed to be off the telly.

Though it wasn’t until a chance encounter with a genuine slice of real-deal 1950s some years later that I became truly smitten.

Wisconsin Dells
Welcome to Wonderful Wisconsin

Exactly how my best friend Danny and I ended up spending three months of 1991 working in a holiday camp in Wisconsin is a tale of laziness and bad planning I will save for another day, but finding myself in the fifties resort that time forgot turned out to be an absolute treat.

Today the Wisconsin Dells claims to be the Waterpark Capital of the World, and to be fair there were a couple there 20-odd years ago, but what there were lots more of were original googie-style motels and roadside signs. These had sprung up in its heyday as a tourist destination centred around river cruises through a landscape of unusual natural rock formations.

‘The strip’ was a riot of bold colour, odd angles, jaunty typefaces and fair bit of neon, though the faded glamour of it all gave things an added dimension that appealed no-end to a design school student from a depressed industrial town in the north of England.

Many of the signs look like they are still there, as this more recent Flickr set by repowers shows.

When I wasn’t washing the pots and trying not to confuse the meat plates with the dairy plates in the strict kosher kitchen, I would poke about the antique shops of Lake Delton, soaking up the Americana and wishing I had a few more dollars and a bigger rucksack to my name. In the end, all I managed to carry across North America and back home with me were two issues of The American magazine and a handful of old leaflets.

The American magazine
My May 1952 issue of The American magazine

I loved everything about it – the optimistic illustration style, the photography, the type, the layout, the earnest cheesiness of it all – and it wasn’t long before it before it inspired one of my final year graphics projects.

We were briefed to create a programme for a production of the 16th century opera – Les Boréades – a rather heavy-going work with a plot involving someone being in love with someone they shouldn’t and Gods behind the scenes pulling strings. To my mind there were enough parallels to transpose the story from its ancient Greek setting into McCarthy-era America.

So I did.

My research extended to getting ‘Guilty by Suspicion‘ out on video and I had this ‘big idea’ about the red star of communism being stitched over some of the white stars in the American flag. I borrowed a flag from my mate Andrew who worked at the DeVere hotel and sewed the stars on myself, though it sort of lost something in the blue and white duotone execution.

No idea why I did that.

A fair few of the images were lifted straight from my cherished copy of The American and reappropriated to illustrate the plot points outlined in the synopsis. There’s some pretty dire typesetting in evidence too.

Les Boréades college project
1991 | Les Boréades programme (college project)

One of my more subtle 1950s graphic influences was a set of The Modern Children’s Library of Knowledge encyclopedias.

Handed to me over the garden fence by my next-door neighbour, these reference books, published in 1957 were my Google all through my school days. If it wasn’t in here it wasn’t worth knowing. There were six Ladybird book-esque volumes, covering various topics and full of great illustrations of wholesome fifties kids collecting tadpoles in jam jars and stuff. How I ever passed my O Levels with such up-to-date information at my fingertips, I’m not sure.

(In the process of writing this I’ve looked them up online to discover there were eight volumes in total. Now I’m feeling like I’ve been cheated out of part of my education. Anyway, there are some nice pics of their inside pages in MuppetLabs’ Flickr set here.)

1957 The Modern Children's Library of Knowledge
The Modern Children’s Library of Knowledge published in 1957

Some years later I found myself working on a brief for a government quango concerned with promoting the use of technology in schools. Fondly remembering my old encyclopedias, and in particular ‘The World of Science and Invention’, one option I proposed mixed the retro schoolkids with a modern (for the early nineties) font.

It was rejected out of hand when the client pointed out that, at the time, there were still text books from that era in circulation in schools.

Scamped concepts for training manuals
c1993 | NCET Science Series (rejected concept)

That idea didn’t go away though, and a bit of that job, as well as Les Boréades, made its way into one of the longest-lived corporate identities I have ever worked on.

Launched in 1995 the multi-faceted vintage clip-art-tastic Parenthesis identity ran for about 15 years, and was so full of cute little touches I fully intend to devote a blogpost to the full suite of work. But for now here’s just a tiny selection of bits and bobs that were created.

Parenthesis Design & Marketing Communications stationery
1995 – 2010 | Parenthesis Design & Marketing Communications visual identity

One of the few times I’ve got to do some fifties-style stuff for a fee-paying client was for the same homebrew company I did Wine in Time for. Prohibition originally had a 1920s theme – hence the name and the wide-shouldered box – but my brief to refresh things for a new range led me straight to different era of high cocktail consumption.

The pattern on the red box first appeared in the Les Boréades job though they were mainly inspired by the Ultralounge compilations and a mirror-backed cocktail cabinet we had at home.

There’s still a bit of a whiff of Tom Cruise about them though.

Prohibition spirit kit
c1998 | Prohibition cocktail range packaging

The work I get to do for Raquel Rouge affords me plenty of opportunity to muck about with lots of retro fonts and imagery and occasionally that spills over into favours for the Team Rouge extended family, like these flyers for vintage hair stylist, Jeni Aldridge…

Vintage hairdressing flyer
2009 | Jeni Aldridge vintage hairdressing flyer

It was also via the murky graphic design underworld of favours-for-favours and payment in kind that I came to do this little job for a start-up bakery in return for a bit of web building by that digital bloke, Rob Wilson.

I was quite pleased with it too, until I was later reminded of the classic Boddington’s pint with a quiff ad by BBH which must have been rattling around my subconscious. Oh well.

Cake, Rattle & Roll cupcake logo
2010 | Cake, Rattle & Roll bakery logo

Far and away the most retro fun I have with any job must be the Garter Lounge posters.

I’ve worked on these for the burlesque starlet and promoter Darkteaser over the last three years and, as I get a pretty free rein on them, they’ve become my playground to try different stuff out. Flitting around whatever eras and styles take my fancy, some just take style cues from the past, while others have been more of a straight pastiche.

I’ll post some others another time, but there are a couple with a strong fifties flavour, like the one for the Halloween show in 2009 which took a strong lead from the B-movie posters of the time.

B Movie posters
1950s vintage B-movie posters
Almost Halloween Darkteaser's Garter Lounge poster
2009 | Almost Halloween Darkteaser’s Garter Lounge poster

To be honest, you see this sort of thing a lot ‘on the scene’ but I think the extra work in making it look like a genuinely cheaply printed poster of the era pays off. If you click it a couple of times you’ll see the halftone screen on the images and how I managed to make it look like the ink has bled.

While it’s maybe one of the more obvious all the posters I’ve done, it’s always been the most popular and has graced the pages of both Burlesque Bible and Photo Pro magazines.

Garter Lounge poster in the press
2010 – 2012 | Garter Lounge poster in Burlesque Bible and Photo Pro magazines

When the Garter Lounge grew out of its working-men’s club origins and into the sumptuous Assembly in Leamington, I wanted to reflect the change with a more showgirly take on the proceedings and looked to more glamorous old style cosmetics ads and Vegas paraphernalia for inspiration.

Vegas glamour
1950s glamour Las Vegas style
Darkteaser's Garter Lounge poster
2011 | Darkteaser’s Garter Lounge poster

The keen-eyed among you will notice that the atomic stars from Jeni’s flyer make another appearance.

I love doing the burlesque posters, and reviving of these old graphic styles suits the promotion of a revived artform. I think for this stuff to work it has to be relevant to the subject, as most of this is. Well, maybe apart from the NCET job which never happened anyway.

Before Christmas I caught a tweet flying around calling for help with a history festival that a group of volunteers were putting on in my home town. With it being Jubilee year a lot of the events had a fifties theme, though the headline event featuring one of my heroes Tony Benn, swung it enough for me to stick my hand in the air and volunteer Vital’s services.

A mixed bag of walks, talks, performances and events, the first job was to unite the festival under one identity. I developed a few routes, that all attempted to make the event look vaguely retro while broadly accessible – with varying degrees of success. The clear winner managed to balance the long name ‘Leamington’, introduce a backwards-looking eye and just about avoid the red, white and blue colour scheme that is dominating this particular summer.

Leamington Looks Back logo
2012 | Leamington Looks Back logo

It also set up some simple graphic assets and a strong palette that were easy to use to create a cohesive set of communications. Together with my Vital colleague Nick Whitehouse, we helped build a simple WordPress template that the organisers could pick up , populate and manage, in addition to coordinating a bit of social media and creating Flickr group to encourage local folk to share images of the festival and their town.

Leamington looks back website
2012 | Leamington Looks Back WordPress site

It was always the intention of the festival to have a wider appeal beyond the history buffs that would seek out the activities anyway, so while it would have been easy to get carried away and make everything look like avant-garde Blue Note jazz covers, I did try to give it a family friendly populist touch.

Look, there’s even a little girl with a jaunty hat on it and everything!

Leamington Looks Back poster

Another key element for me was to include as many photos of old Leamington as I could possibly cram into the 32 page programme. Everyone likes looking at old photos of their high street and working out what shops are now.

Leamington Looks Back programme
2012 | Leamington Looks Back programme

One of the visuals in my first presentation to the organisers was a poster for the Tony Benn event to show how the identity could be applied in different ways across different things. It ended up going to print, pretty much as it was.

The Writing on the Wall poster
2012 | The Writing on the Wall event poster

Though I also thought this design lent itself to doing some old school screen prints too, so I contacted Warwickshire College School of Arts where I act as an Industry Advisor, to pull a favour. From a technical point of view it turned out the modern water-based inks were too opaque to do the overprint-y colour mix-y thing where the circles overlapped, but four head scratching plate separations later I was round at the college getting my hands dirty.

It’d been a long time since my early atrocious attempts in this media when I was at North Lindsey, so massive thanks to the technician Charlie, who not only made it all happen, but did the majority of the work. It’s a clarty old process and, as someone used to getting things within three decimal places on a mac, I forced myself to relax and let the happy splodgy accidents happen.

The results were great. Really worth the effort.

Looking at them they’re more Warhol than anything, and of course every one of them is different. We put the best two aside to present to Tony and Roy as a thank you for appearing at the festival.

Hand pulled screen print
Hand pulling the screen prints

I’ve long admired Tony Benn’s common sense approach to antagonising the establishment and, while at 87 he is undeniably frail, he’s still as sharp as a very eloquent tack. It was such a thrill to meet him backstage after the show and help present him and Roy Bailey with their framed prints.

They seemed to be genuinely chuffed, even though they must have been given lots of other well-meaning nonsense over the years.

Tony Benn & Roy Bailey at Leamington Looks Back
Roy Bailey & Tony Benn receive their framed prints

I still have a handful of posters left. If any of you blog readers are fans of Tony, Roy or are just a bit partial to slightly out of register screen prints, drop me a line and I might be able to sort you out.

The festival officially ends this weekend, though it’s planned to return next year. Hopefully the opportunity to do a bit more vintage-inspired work will be there again.



Mid-Century Modern Love

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