Logotype author Michael Evamy shares the story behind a logo which although not inherently festive, is a fond reminder for him of many a Christmas past…
In every home, I suspect, unpacking the Christmas decorations means unpacking a few memories, too. Out with the glass balls and tinsel come reminiscences about a child’s beloved primary school creation and an inherited curiosity that can’t be left off the tree at any cost. There could even be a box itself that inspires a flashback, as is the case at chez Evamy.
It’s a simple, white, rectangular box containing six simple coloured baubles. To read the name on the box, you have to pick it up and turn it around. “Crate&… Barrel” read the letters in big, black Helvetica (although the perfectly circular “C” looks custom-made). Before we even open the box, we’re transported back to a chilly New York ten or so years ago, and a festive-period break, Christmas shopping in Manhattan.
People have been pulling Christmas decorations from Crate & Barrel boxes like this for almost 50 years now. And not just Christmas decorations, but Christmas gifts, wine glasses, dinner plates, colanders, clocks, candles, bath towels and every kind of kitchenware, cookware, dinnerware, drinkware, flatware and barware. Crate & Barrel is a household name in every sense across the US; founded in the early 1960s, it introduced America to the clean, cool lines of mid-century European, and particularly Scandinavian, modernism. Its boxes – and the Swiss-style logotype they bear – are the own-brand equivalent of pi or gravity or magnetic north – a never-changing constant of sophisticated, timeless simplicity.
For this very reason, in compiling my book, Logotype, I was keen to include the Crate & Barrel wordmark. When I started looking into who had designed it, I fully expected to find it was the work of a big-time agency in Manhattan or otherwise Chicago, where the chain opened its first stores. Instead, I was led to Tom Shortlidge, a retired ad man who, in 1967, was a young, eager art director at Young & Rubicam, making much-needed extra cash with a weekend job at Crate & Barrel’s only store, in Chicago’s Old Town area. I was able to track Tom down and, by a series of emails, hear how he’d created one of the world’s most enduring logotypes.
While working in the shop, he’d got to know the owners, Gordon and Carole Segal. Returning there shortly after leaving his weekend stint, he found his former boss in deflated mood after a fruitless meeting with the designer he’d hired to change the store’s original stencil-style logo. It wasn’t the first such meeting he’d had. ‘I thought it was a nice logo,’ recalled Shortlidge, ‘but for someone else. It was a stylized C + B and would have been very appropriate for a glass manufacturer. The warmth of the name “Crate and Barrel” and what that implied was missing.’ The young creative saw a chance to make a name, not just for his former employer but also himself, and offered to have a crack at the logo.
Over the next few months, in his spare time, Shortlidge started developing first the logo and then the packaging that would form the Crate & Barrel identity.
The store was building on its success and introducing bolder, more colourful European brands, such as Marimekko, to its displays. ‘To reflect that “European-ness”,’ said Shortlidge, ‘I started looking at Helvetica, then a relatively new typeface in the US, and one that I had introduced to the in-store signage during my brief tenure as a part-time employee. But I needed to alter Helvetica a bit to make the logo more distinctive. The “C” was made rounder and closed into more of a circle. The tail on the ampersand was extended, and other characters were tinkered with subtly.
‘The “C'” in the original font just had no ability to stop the eye. Helvetica is tricky; it flirts with being boring all the time. The round “C”, the tighter spacing, and the modification of the ampersand were intended to give the logo a distinctiveness that the typeface itself seldom has.’
But it was probably the application of the new logo to the packaging, more than the logo itself, that created the Crate & Barrel identity. ‘Though there was some temptation at the beginning to make the packaging very colorful to reflect the presence of the colorful products in the store, I felt strongly that all the packaging and graphics should be black and white so as not to compete with the merchandise. And, as I began applying the logo to surfaces, I became intrigued with wrapping that black logo around white bags and boxes.’
Over the years, the look would captivate millions of shoppers, too. As Shortlidge worked his way through the Y&R ranks, he continued to supervise the application of his identity, design and write ads and catalogues, and oversee the in-store branding for almost 30 years, all on a freelance basis, before being invited back for an encore stint in 2003. It was never something he shouted about.
‘Those first bags and boxes began appearing at the end of 1968. I’d like to think that the curiosity they generated, and hopefully the sophistication they reflected, had something to do with Crate & Barrel's success over the next four decades.’ I think you might be right, Tom.