The Daily Heller: Ib Antoni, the Danish Mad Man

Posted inThe Daily Heller

It is the policy of The Daily Heller to not publish entire essays by other authors. However, I’ve made an exception here.

I was asked to write an article about Danish illustrator Ib Antoni to accompany a version of the one below by curator Regitze Lindø Westergaard and author Sara Alfort, in collaboration with translator Heidi Flegal and Antoni Legacy. The pieces were slated to complement an exhibition about Antoni (1929–1973) at The Museum of Copenhagen, which debuted on March 31. I declined.

I did not know his work in the United States and had nothing to say about it. But I was interested by an email I received from Mikael Hauberg and Kit Flensted, directors of Antoni Legacy:

“Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark was going to open the exhibition, but because she’s just been through an operation she has unfortunately had to cancel,” they wrote. “The exhibition will run for seven months, until February 29, 2023, so if you’re not able to come on March 31, we’d be more than happy to show you around at another time :) It will be the first Antoni exhibition showing both sketches, final works, memorabilia, photos, etc.—but also going ‘behind the canvas’ and showing the man behind the works.”

What follows is Westergaard and Alfort’s take on Antoni.

Fresh off the boat from Copenhagen and armed with nothing but a few pencils in his pocket, a roll of drawings and a burning desire to show Madison Avenue what he was made of, a young commercial artist named Ib Antoni Jensen made his way into one of the biggest advertising agencies in New York City. He worked for and with a variety of American clients in the 1950s and 1960s, and after his unexpected death in 1973 his artwork lived on, still coloring Denmark’s self perception and collective consciousness today.

New York City, spring 1956. Just days after arriving on a ship full of Scandinavians, 27-year-old Ib Antoni Jensen made his way to 285 Madison Ave., on the corner of Madison and 40th. Carrying a roll of drawings under his arm, he ventured into the lobby of the impressive 27-story brick edifice topped with a small tower and large, square windows overlooking the street. This was the domicile of Young & Rubicam. As he later confided in a Danish broadsheet interview: “But when I reached the building—which also had a bar—I was shaking like a leaf, so I walked in there and drank three shots of whisky, neat, before making my way up to the topmost floors.”

After two weeks in the city, the young Dane had a desk of his own at what was then one of the biggest advertising agencies on Madison Avenue, where he worked for a variety of clients and would eventually do the artwork for an entire campaign to promote the legendary LIFE magazine.

Ib Antoni landed right smack in the middle of the world’s most intense advertising scene, and also in the midst of the greatest paradigm shift advertising had ever seen. During this period, now known as the Creative Revolution, the relationship between advertiser and consumer was undergoing a total rethink. Under the new paradigm, the customer was to be seen more as an ally than as a target, the whole point being to create an emotional connection between product and consumer. Antoni embraced the new paradigm wholeheartedly, and since he had always sought in his work to address “the man on the street,” the whole approach came naturally to him. But he also affected advertising as a medium, with its new perception of ads that spoke with the consumer, not at the consumer.

As he said to a Danish newspaper back in 1967: “You must remember one thing that is easily forgotten in consumer statistics and market surveys, namely that you are directing your message not to numbers, but to people.”

He introduced a conscious strategy of “smiling to the customers” in his work. A visual playfulness, a naïvistic line, and clear colors, combined with a new element he began to cultivate in America—outlining his figures in bold-brush technique—gave Antoni’s drawings an unmistakable, straightforward and instantly recognizable style that created a demand for his work around the world.

Studio Aka, an award-winning animation hub with multiple Emmys and an Oscar nomination to its name, is home to the animation director Steve Small, a longtime Ib Antoni enthusiast: “There is a certain playfulness in Ib Antoni’s work that always caught my eye, and still does today,” he says. “Of course, his wonderful sense of composition and color is extraordinary, and the simplicity is so refreshing. But for me, it’s the humor and warmth that he brought to his characters, and the sheer delight they take in the world around them that makes such an enduring impression on me.”

The basis of the creative revolution was “people who believed that you had to bear in mind that the public weren’t just there to be sold to. They deserved to be treated with some sort of dignity and humanity in the advertising. So make them laugh, make them cry, make them smile—don’t just stand in front of them flogging them over the head saying ‘buy my product.’ That made a huge difference,” says lifetime advertising creative and author Andrew Cracknell.

“I learned in New York that everything is possible, if only you have the will.”

Antoni said this in a Danish newspaper interview he gave in 1963. When he was working abroad, the media back home were keen to hear of his exploits, proud to pass on news from “one of our most brilliant communicators of Danish humor in the service of commerce.” Someone who had made it “over there” and was “living the American dream.” Even today, for many Danes, finding success in America is the ultimate professional and personal achievement.

Antoni was considerably humbler: “And even though I haven’t got a Cadillac or a Florida bungalow to show for it, I must say I enjoyed my American adventure immensely. And that’s not something one should underestimate—the value of having fun, I mean.”

As he became a familiar face in international advertising circles, he seems to have found it increasingly difficult to say no to interesting clients and jobs. His campaign illustrations were seen at JFK International Airport, on house gables in Brussels, and on poster columns in Stockholm. His list of international clients, either direct contacts of his own or clients he served through an agency, is impressive. His portfolio of return clients included Shell, LIFE, Nieman Marcus, Macy’s, Volvo, Esso, Philips, Martini, Carlsberg, Ford Motor Company and UNICEF. In fact, Antoni Legacy has counted over 200 Antoni customers in a career that lasted just 27 years.

How it all ended in wonderful Copenhagen

On Sept. 1, 1973, Antoni drove down from North Zealand to Copenhagen. The nearly completed artwork for two major promotion campaigns lay on his desk—and there they stayed, unsent. As usual, while in the capital he was staying at the Hotel Hafnia. But that night the hotel was gutted by an uncontrollable fire that killed 35 guests, including 20 American tourists and Ib Antoni.

For decades Ib Antoni’s name was all but forgotten. Then, coincidence brought his Danish nephew, Anton, into the gallery of Mikael Hauberg, a visual artist based in Copenhagen. As the artwork gradually came out of the attic in binders, bags and boxes, Anton and Mikael developed a close friendship and began to dream of reintroducing Antoni’s work to Denmark and the world. Mikael set up the art and design company Antoni Legacy, which has since organized the copious material into an actual archive, and collaborated with the Danish writer Sara Alfort to tell Antoni’s story. Alfort’s book Manden der tegnede Danmark (The Man who Drew Denmark, translated from the Danish by Heidi Flegal) was published in 2021, and Antoni’s works are now back in the public eye.

In the same street that was once home to the Hotel Hafnia lies the Museum of Copenhagen. Now showing there is the first full exhibition of Antoni’s original artwork and illustrations, which bring his story, his times and his work to life. The exhibition, entitled The Making of Wonderful Copenhagen, runs until Oct. 31.

So why is Antoni still worth revisiting?

For one thing, Antoni’s work has left an impression that continues to inspire illustrators today. The Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister owns and runs an agency in New York whose many assignments have included designing albums for The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Aerosmith and Talking Heads. In Sagmeister’s view, through his drawings Antoni “has left a significant modernist midcentury legacy, which harks back to the other Danish highlights of modernism, like the furniture of Verner Panton, Arne Jacobsen and Hans Wegner, and the architecture of Jørn Utzon. Antoni has a place among the greatest of his colleagues, like Celestino Piatti and Charley Harper.”

Even in 2023 his motifs, like the best of fairy tales, are oddly timeless, and their commercial messages are still unequivocally clear. The point then and now remains the same: We, as people, as consumers, are not “targets” to be sold to, shouted at, bombarded by advertising. What really gets us is a good story.

Posted inHistory The Daily Heller