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Warren Dotz is a “pop culture archaeologist.” He’s written and co-authored over a dozen stunning and profusely illustrated books on the sort of commercial artifacts that “respectable” designers and design historians typically ignore. He’s done five just on vintage packaging labels: for firecrackers, Indian matchboxes, and even dog and cat food. His latest are Ad Boy: Vintage Advertising with Character, Meet Mr. Product, and Mr. Product Volume 2: The Graphic Art of Magnificent Mascots 1960-1985. And they include postwar “pop” stars like Speedy Alka-Seltzer and Tony the Tiger as well as many regional and local — but no less fascinating — fabricated pitch-figures.
Unlike those image-heavy “gift books” of the past that felt dashed together, each of Warren’s are carefully curated and meticulously assembled with an eye toward producing a larger narrative. They’re also unique in their use of text that amplifies our appreciation of all those delightfully idiosyncratic images and places them in useful social and historical contexts.
In our interview, Warren reflects on his career trajectory, from his childhood enchantment with Saarinen, Eames, and Paul Rand at the 1964-65 World’s Fair to his recent museum exhibit of hundreds of characters from his vast archive. And along the way, he discusses the branding, packaging and marketing of popular culture, offers tips on collection-building, and recalls Don Draper’s evil Pepsi storyboard sabotage.
What’s the common thread that runs through your books?
I see these objects — labels, brochures, store displays — as “the art of commerce.” They’re often under-appreciated inasmuch as they were intended to be transient and, in most cases, to be thrown away. They’re fascinating to study because they lie at the intersection of business, design, and the modern mythology of pop culture.
Let’s take my Firecrackers: The Art and History as an example. Firecracker packs and their colorful labels and red glassine paper wrapping were made to explode in sound, light and fury. However, as a kid every July 5th — once the smell and smoke of ignited gunpowder cleared, and night turned to day — you could find me searching for those un-incinerated, beautiful labels with Asian mermaids, rocket ships, and black cats. In my eyes they were even more colorful and exciting than the explosions!
Just what does a pop culture historian do?
Although my author bios do say “pop culture historian,” I think that what I do can best be described as “pop culture archeology.” And what are my “duties”? Well, they involve unearthing wonderful commercial artwork, whether it be on online auction sites or at sunny California flea markets.
A bucket of American matchbooks or a shoebox full of paper pamphlets will literally stop me in my tracks. In every instance, a treasure hunt begins to find something wonderful that no one has viewed or appreciated for decades. In fact, I’m one of those collectors who’s curating my next book as I’m building a collection. I can visualize how I might want to present an object — how it might be photographed and digitally cropped, and even how the design of the page might look — as I’m buying or bidding on it.
Not all discoveries are by chance. Sometimes I have an idea for a collection but don’t even know if it’s possible. Here’s how I tackled one of the most routinely discarded disposables, pet-food labels, particularly those from the 1950s, ’60s, and ‘70s. I won an auction on eBay only because I was specifically looking for them. It was the trove of a retired executive of a pet food manufacturer. He didn’t save them for their artistic merit; it was a matter of keeping track of the competition. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of labels in these lots. It was a big pet-food-label score. And there was almost no competition. It wasn’t enough for a book but it was an excellent start to making one. And that became Cat Food for Thought and Dog Food for Thought.
But even bidding wars can prove fruitful. Here’s another “shaggy-cat” story. I scour eBay all the time with a bag of tricks using their search engine. So a “salesman’s catalog of labels” turns up: a portfolio of generic, store-branded supermarket labels from the ’70s. There are some photos of what’s inside but I don’t see a dog or cat food label, and that’s the prize I’m looking for. Apparently there’s someone else in the hunt for these labels, too. By then I’m swept away in the bidding and just hoping there’s something there. A week later my treasure hunt winnings arrive. And on the next to last page: a fantastic label for a brand of cat food called Corky! It’s almost futuristic and a bit like the Napster logo. Even better.
Not all of my collections are publication-worthy, because collections need to be diverse enough in content and themes to work as a book. For instance, whereas matchbox labels from India really tell the diverse story of the subcontinent, my collection of doggie bags tell a shorter story, perhaps about consumerism, larger restaurant portion size, and baby boomer love for their pets. As much as I like my doggie bags — those images of black French poodles and lip-smacking, appreciative pups — a book, they will never be. But I did post a few to my blog.
Here’s how the “historian” part works. Years ago I found a fabulous vintage metal trophy of a smiling, anthropomorphic wiener wearing a top coat. At its base was embossed “Union Carbide.” I know there are chemicals in hot dogs but that’s still a pretty non-appetizing thing to be bragging about. An inexplicable combination, isn’t it? Well, 20 years later I found a beautifully illustrated fold-out pamphlet featuring the wonderful “Mr. Frank,” along with international recipes for frankfurters. And then it became clear that Union Carbide owned a subsidiary that manufactured artificial hotdog casings. “Case” solved!
Here’s another example. I discovered a matchbook depicting a fellow who was the spitting image of Mr. ZIP – that little stick figure-ish cartoon mail man who beseeched everyone to use the new ZIP Code plan in the 1960s. Well this “Mr.” was not on a mail route; instead he was lounging on a beach in swim trunks. And the institution was Chase Manhattan Bank, not the USPS. As it turned out, Chase Manhattan’s bank-by-mail campaign promotional character became the United State Postal Service’s iconic Mr. ZIP when the Bank “loaned” him to the government. The same story can be said for a New England Insurance company’s in-house promotional give-away that rose to pop culture stardom a decade later as the iconic yellow Smiley Face button.
As for my services: when the mythic Jolly Green Giant was getting more buff over the years, when Uncle Ben became the “Chairman of the Board” of “his company,” and when Mr. Whipple started squeezing his Charmin again, the New York Times and the advertising periodicals came a-callin. It’s actually interesting to see how characters change with the times and how companies retire and un-retire their ad icons. You can fire them and rehire them and they only talk back when – and with the voice – you want them to. They don’t get into trouble. They’re the perfect celebrity spokesmen – or in the case of Chiquita, spokes-banana. So that’s what I’m usually asked to comment upon.
Related: Steven Heller admires the lettering and graphic devices of vintage Spanish fashion labels.
What engages you most about the cultural context of your material?
Well, for the advertising characters many are just embedded in our pop culture. I like to say that childhood friends, co-workers, movie stars, and presidents come and go, but in some respects these “personalities” – like Mr. Clean, the Michelin Man, or Tony the Tiger — are still around and going strong. They’re not our family but we share a history together, and it’s nice and comforting to have them still around. They lend a face to the product and draw our empathy. I may not eat much sugary carbs anymore but it’s sure nice to see Pop Tart’s Milton the Toaster come back for awhile. He was there in the ‘70s with me; if only on the back of the box.
Two years ago, I was contacted by a talented university student from India, Shreya Katuri, who decided to study Indian matchbox labels as her dissertation subject. It was gratifying to know that Light of India served as an inspiring source of literature for her research project. And after its successful completion in 2014, she decided to take her dissertation online by converting it into a social media project called @artonabox. The account curates her collection of modern day Indian matchboxes, and discusses the relevance of the iconographies present on them by associating them with Indian pop culture, personal stories, and travels. In addition to engaging in various collaborations with culture enthusiasts, @artonabox also actively shares pictures sent in by its current followers.
What was your design education like?
I studied some graphic design in NYC but really my expertise in book production lies in having a good eye, having the know-how and resources to collect well, writing well-enough, and have the passion to get books published. I think of myself more of a “director and producer” of my art book projects. I’ve also been very fortunate to work with several talented co-writers and editors, and with award-winning art directors and graphic designers, including Katy Brown, Nancy Austin, and Masud Husain. Masud is also a collector with a passion for advertising character art, so I also use images that he provides in the ones we co-create. Most of the books have won awards because of their talents and great work.
You’ve mentioned that the New York World’s Fair in the mid-1960s had a huge influence on you as a kid…
Visits to the iconic and thoroughly modern corporate pavilions were really formative in my interest in logos, product packaging, and brand spokes-characters. My favorite venue was the IBM Pavilion – a structure in the shape of a giant white egg – with the IBM logo embossed in repetition on its shell.
At the time I did make the connection that the egg was very similar in shape to the “typeball” of IBM’s new Selectric typewriters. But I later learned as an adult that this magnificent structure was by Eero Saarinen Design, its objects and films by Charles and Ray Eames, and its IBM logo by Paul Rand. No wonder it made a big impression on me! And to this day at flea markets I rarely ever can pass up buying a “lonely” Selectric typeball.
In what other ways did your interest in graphic ephemera develop?
Every kid has their favorite uncle, and mine was a U.S. postal employee in midtown Manhattan. He’d bring me stamps when he visited and asked his friends to send me postcards on their European vacations. I was particularly enamored with United Nations stamps. They were so clean, colorful, and modern. Now I can see how these stamps helped cultivate my budding attraction to miniature masterpieces, such as tiny-matchbox label art.
My NYC neighborhood had a Chicken Delight with a fiberglass chicken perched on the roof, holding a bucket of drumsticks. That’s common in this crazy ad-character world: animals serving up parts of themselves. There was a shoe store with Hush Puppies figurines, a Sinclair gas station with its “Dino” dinosaur mascot, and a new hamburger outlet with golden arches and an opening day visit by a clown named Ronald.
And then there were the Saturday morning cartoon TV commercials. One of my first memories ever was sitting on the carpet of the baby-sitters apartment, watching Choo-Choo Charlie shake that locomotive-engine-chug-a-chug-sounding Good and Plenty box.
Even with all these influences, I only began to collect ad character figures and their product packaging and associated paper ephemera years later, in my thirties. First a vinyl Pillsbury Doughboy at the Berkeley Flea Market. Then a Reddy Kilowatt from a store on Melrose Avenue in L.A. And then a Ghostbusters movie figure: the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. He was Hollywood’s fictitious mash-up of the Michelin Man, Cracker Jack’s Sailor Jack and Poppin’ Fresh.
They say that once you have three, it’s a collection. Now I own three thousand figural and paper artifacts, including that Chicken Delight chicken.
What’s your perspective on Charles S. Anderson, who was gaining national recognition around the same time your publishing career began?
I think CSA Design is brilliant. Fluffy Humpy Poopy Puppy holds a prominent place on my bookshelf. It makes me happy to look at it. I’d say we’re different in that I don’t attempt to manipulate images other than to present them in their best light: digitized and cleaned up, just like new. Also – except for my book projects — I don’t monetize the images either. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Seinfeld would say.
What’s the primary appeal of your books to design professionals?
It’s to be expected that most general reviews of the ad icon books concentrate on the famous characters like Tony the Tiger and the Pillsbury Doughboy. I like to say that the real “stars” of the books are those anthropomorphic ones like Penny Flame, Danny Thunderbolt, and NAT, the National Screw and Bolt Company mechanical man. You can imagine how they look just from their names. They weren’t found on TV or full page national advertisements in Life and Look; they were on porcelain signage, cardboard boxes, and plastic cases. Matchbook covers are also great source to find these mascots.
There are literally hundreds and hundreds. I present nearly a thousand in the two-volume Mr. Product set. They’re also the ones that excite me the most, and it seems inspire our design profession readers the most as well. I’ve seen versions of these anthropomorphic entities in gallery paintings, street art, T-shirts, rave postcards, and decals, just to name a few. Creative directors and marketers use the books for inspiration.
It’s the same with the Indian matchbox and firecracker labels. Professionals are inspired by the colors and designs. And its not just graphic designers. As a sign of the times they are even the source of designs by tattoo professionals.
What changes have you observed in the gift-sized, pop-culture picture books market?
When I first started, Walton Rawls was producing beautifully designed, collectible-themed books for Abbeville Press. And of course, Chronicle was doing the same for graphic and logo design, with authors like Steve Heller. My first commercial art book, What a Character! was published by Chronicle in 1996. It was part of what became a series, including my personal favorites: Jerry Jankowski’s Shelf Life and Tyler Blik’s Trademarks of the ’60 and 70s.
Three years ago I met with an editor at Chronicle who said they rarely publish illustrated books like those anymore. But they are still masters at selecting books that sell well, so that means more Grumpy Cat and less logos. Again, not that there’s anything wrong with Grumpy Cat. But what I am saying is that with a shrinking publisher base, books such as mine are harder to get published. I do think that there have been some recent successes in the illustrated history of comic books. My current publisher, Insight Editions, publishes some of them, and they’re wonderful to work with.
How do your products fare overseas?
My advertising books are always reprinted in Japan, where American-style kawaii – “cute items” – continue to be very popular. They love this current set of Mr. Product books, and we had them in mind when we designated them as Volumes 1 and 2.
Designers will relate to my experience with foreign rights printing of the books in Japan. There are often issues with the cover art. I usually gravitate to clean, modern covers – even though the characters are retro – and I don’t mind starring those wonderful unheralded ones. But the Japanese publishers want the ones they recognize, the most common and famous ones. And as many as possible too, beautiful cover be damned. But I guess they know what sells. Still, I hope well-designed covers would sell just as well.
How has our digital age changed the market?
It’s been a bit of a problem, especially Instagram and Pinterest. Granted, I didn’t produce the original artwork but I do spend years finding and presenting the images. So I hope that at the very least the books’ titles are cited when images are posted, but that doesn’t always happen.
Actually, I don’t worry about the content on those sites as competition because our books have more rare and unique images. I also think people like holding and leafing through a chunky fun book as compared to scrolling down a less-curated website.
What can we learn about point-of-purchase packaging from vintage firecracker labels?
Because firecrackers were so inexpensive to produce, competition for the export markets was fierce among Chinese manufacturers who, essentially, had indistinguishable products to peddle. Product packaging became a crucial component to capturing and keeping customers. For the most part, firecrackers were more or less the same. So really, it was the job of their printed labels to entice the customer.
In an effort to appeal to their principal overseas market – young boys and teenagers in the United States – many Chinese manufacturers appropriated all-American pop-culture motifs for their pack labels, illustrated in the brilliant kaleidoscopic colors and style of comic books. Tarzan, Daniel Boone, and King Kong, werewolves, dinosaurs, and giants. During the years of cowboy movies and early days of television, ”Old West” motifs were popular as firecracker artwork, which was aimed squarely at the heart of the American market with brands such as Cowboy, Buck a-roo, Bronco, and Western Boy. And they all were portrayed with a whimsical charm as seen through the unique perspective of Chinese graphic artists.
The Chinese had their traditional imagery: dragons, phoenixes, tigers and bats. But when researching, I was surprised to see how few Asian mythological heroes adorned the labels of firecracker packs from China. The illustrators mainly had the American market in mind.
One character depicted on the “Roger brand” label did capture my attention: No Cha, also called Nezha. No Cha rides on a wheel of fire and battles dragons with a hand-held golden ring that can expand and shrink. He’s not a girl, even though he does favor a skirt and pigtail hairstyle. No Cha could fit right in with Marvel’s team of Avengers, even though he’s hundreds of years older.
You followed up Firecrackers with a book of matchbox labels and later, a firecrackers gift book; do I detect a streak of arson?
No, no notions of arson at play here: my dad was a NYC Firefighter and would disapprove.
The idea to write a book about the graphic art of India’s matchbox labels began quite serendipitously. I’d just purchased a fun little advertising figure for Bass Ale from a London dealer. But on this same dealer’s website was an amazing label printed in gold ink, titled Elephant Love. So, in falling in love with Elephant Love I soon discovered the matchbox labels of India. They’re curious, visually stunning, possess an erratic charm, and come in a staggering variety of designs and design mutations.
Like some of my unique collections I may not be the first collector, but often I become the most ardent. By the end of the year I’d amassed thousands. And I often give Light of India as a gift to someone going to India because there’s so much iconography to read and learn about.
What about that iconography?
The images on matchboxes changed with the times, reflecting cultural trends, history, politics, national hopes and fears, and more. What started out for me as a fun look at matchbox art became an engrossing study of Indian cultural heroes, Gandhi’s work, religious beliefs and iconography, Bollywood movies, and even Indian wildlife, foods, and architecture. It was a fun year producing it.
Your advertising characters are a mix of the practically-unknown and the still-famous.
What make the “still famous” interesting, besides that readers enjoy spotting some icons that they recognize, is that you might see how the character evolved over time, what I call the “survival of the fittest.” The Big Boy is trimmer, Tony the Tiger is more muscular, and the Chicken of the Sea mermaid – once a ‘50s classic in these books – is now a Disney-like Little Mermaid.
The “practically unknown” ones were not bankrolled by big corporations. They’re often anthropomorphic fruit and vegetables, coils, screws, and lightening bolts. They were the invention of single designers or business owners; no focus groups or consumer marketing surveys back then. They were only limited by the imagination of the illustrator and designer. I think they’re wonderful. Included as well are characters that may has seen their fame on only one ad campaign.
Readers and viewers are usually delighted to see their local favorites in the books, as it’s a totally unexpected treat. The same can be said for the mascots of defunct regional amusement parks in my Travel chapter. I also make a special effort to show as many woman advertising characters. They were out there — I put two on the back cover of Mr. Product — and in fact they’re some of my favorites. But not enough for a Meet Miss Product sequel.
Many of the characters you’ve included aren’t exactly stellar examples of design Modernism…
Really? I had no idea they weren’t all “stellar.” To me they’re all wonderful and the best ones of their kind. True, they may not be the epitome of Modernist graphic design, although my books do contain characters from the likes of Paul Rand – Coronet Brandyman – and A.M. Cassandre – Dubonnet Man.
Some character are drawn better than others and some styles are more appealing. I like the whole concept of the Liquid Paper correction product superhero who “Rights Wrongs!” But he looks like he wasn’t many steps from a napkin doodle to the drawing board to his introduction into the world of ad characters. But that’s also his charm. He’s a bit of a flawed hero, so maybe he doesn’t need the build-up that the some of the other titans of advertising require. Also, he’s a salesman whose job is to capture your attention. And your heart, if he can. And that doesn’t always require him to be a “stellar” design. That might even work against him.
What’s been the response to your recent museum exhibition?
The SFO Museum is the only accredited museum in an airport in the world, and A World of Characters: Advertising Icons from the Warren Dotz Collection was one of its most successful shows. For six months, two million people passed twenty cases filled with hundreds of examples of this great commercial art. My curator, Tim O’Brien, chose the Main Hall of the International Terminal because he knew that our friends visiting from Japan would love it. I heard that debarking-flight passengers would stop in their tracks to photograph and Instagram the cases.
The characters most mentioned to me at my SFO airport exhibition were Bert and Harry Piel, the fictional cartoon-ish owners of Piel’s beer given voice by the comedy team of Bob and Ray. Even though they were a regional brand, they were a big hit.
More of the general public has been discovering your favorite era thanks to Mad Men, yes?
I think there’s a new appreciation for the look and feel of ‘60s and ‘70s design and ad campaigns due to Mad Men. As all Mad Men watchers know, it wasn’t just the character narrative that was special. To me, it was little things like design of their ever-changing office space and company logo. And many watchers enjoyed the conference room ad campaign planning and pitches more so than any other aspect of the show.
You’d already resurrected Burger Chef for your book before Sterling Cooper and Partners got the account.
Adopting Burger Chef came quite organically. As a collector, I kept finding really fun items with the Burger Chef logo that I love, and the Burger Chef characters. When I found a 1973 Burger Chef FunMeal box it became time to see whether they’d copied McDonald’s Happy Meal. Well, it turned out Burger Chef did it first! They even sued McDonald’s about it, unsuccessfully. At the time they was just behind McDonald’s in restaurant franchises, and expanding more rapidly.
So I can see how Mad Men’s writers could have SC&P the advertising agency of record for the fast food chain in 1969. Interestingly, the chain’s mismanagement led to it’s downfall in 1982.
Okay, so Don was CD for McCann-Erickson’s Coke spot. But he also developed it with lovebirds Peggy and Stan, and got Joan to produce those great aerial shots, right?
Michael, you’re a bigger Mad Men fanatic than I. Hadn’t even considered that Don might have hired Holloway Harris to shoot that iconic hilltop scene. We can only hope he did.
And consider the Pepsi Sno Ball character, that I also included in Mr. Product. I recall Don never presented Ginsberg’s much superior and more contemporary Sno Ball ad campaign pitch; left it discarded inside a cab, in fact. So you know Don usually did what was good for Don at the time. So that’s your answer. I don’t know because, as a human being, we never really found out the degree of Don’s metamorphosis.
So how will you be looking into the past in the future?
I have two graphic design projects planned, but I can’t tell you what they are. Top Secret. No one’s really collecting what I am, with plans to do a book about it. But you never know.
I also hope to exhibit A World of Characters in Japan when I find the time. And there’s been interest from other International Airports. Exhibitions are a lot of work so the venue has to be just right.
Featuring well-designed labels from craft and small breweries from around the world, Cool Beer Labels by Daniel Bellon and Steven Speeg demonstrates how commercialized packaging design can be elevated to a whole new level.