When Commerce Met Art

As my readers know, I am a huge fan of marketing history (to the point of being supremely nerdy). Over the past few years, I went back through the centuries to find great stories for my book, Why Marketing Works. That research missed a very cool tale that I am happy now to share. It involves Walter Paepcke and his company, Container Corporation of America (CCA).

When just 25, Paepcke inherited his father’s Chicago-based wooden crate empire. Predicting the shift to a consumer goods economy requiring smaller, lighter packaging, he moved production from wooden crates to corrugated paperboard containers. He bought a bunch of other packaging suppliers along with paper mills to ensure vertical integration and founded CCA in 1926. One smart fellow…as you will learn (read to the end to see how he and his wife are responsible for the popularity of the town of Aspen).

For decades, CCA was highly successful. It became the largest cardboard manufacturer in the world with 76 American and 48 international facilities They made boxes for Procter & Gamble, Sears Roebuck, and General Electric, among others. CCA placed great attention on producing quality products, as well as, artistry to make their boxes stand out. The company went through a few mergers before melding into Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation in 1998.

CCA was an influential patron of graphic arts and design. The company amassed a collection of art works that is now in the National Museum of American Art. Paepcke commissioned scores of art projects including one that saw Herbert Bayer create a World Geo-Graphic Atlas. It was distributed free to colleges and universities. The book has been called the “handsomest and best atlas ever published in America.”

CCA’s Atlas mastered infographics and made predictions of humanity’s impact on the world. The prediction for world population at year 2000 was 3 billion, it was actually 6 billion.

Paepcke believed he and CCA had a role to play in social and environmental responsibility given his products. The company produced many incredible series of ads to grow CCA’s awareness and demonstrate commitment to good design and good business practices. Egbert Jacobson prepared the first advertising campaign in 1937, a series of 12 ads by the French poster designer A. M. Cassandre.

Codex99, an art, design and history website, writes, “The ads were intended to differentiate the CCA from its competition through the use of modern art. The campaign, which downplayed the company through the limited use of copy, completely ignored the ‘rules’ of conventional print advertising and became a critical and commercial success.”

Two other campaigns followed, the United Nations series (1944) and the United States series (1947). The next project was a standout. In 1950, Paepcke asked his wife, Elizabeth Nitze to conceive a series of ads to further improve CCA’s image. Nitze was a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and a theater and store designer.

This wonderful series was called, Great Ideas of Western Man. Nitze came up with the idea to reinterpret quotes from famous historical figures (which we now see daily on social media). Egbert Jacobson continued as art director and commissioned renowned designers and artists, including Ben Shahn, A.M. Cassandre, Milton Glaser, Alvin Lustig, René Magritte, Jan Tschichold, Saul Bass, Alexey Brodovitch, Lester Beall, Elaine Urbain, Leonard Baskin, Jacob Landau, Gene Federico, Carol Summers, Bradbury Thompson, and others.

A committee consisting of Herbert Bayer, Elizabeth and representatives from CCA’s advertising agency, assigned a quote to each artist. Aside from CCA’s name and logo, there was no ad copy at all. According to CCA history, selecting the artists was the most difficult part of the process and often resulted in tense and colorful arguments.

“Civilization is a method of living, an attitude of equal respect for all men.”
“No barriers, no masses of matter however enormous, can withstand the powers of the mind…”

When decisions were made, the artists were given wholesale license with the only stipulation being the artwork relate to the quote. Codex99 writes, “The results transcended advertising. Walter Paepcke wanted the ads to “serve [the] public interest as well as our own” and indeed, they attracted attention far beyond their intended audience. The CCA began producing folios and later a book to satisify the numerous reprint requests.”

“Government has no right to control individual liberty…”
“The end of government is the good of mankind…”

The series ran until 1975, producing more than 190 ads. Well-renown Mad Man, David Ogilvy, once disparaged CCA’s early ads “amateurish pretension”. When it came to the Great Ideas campaign, he conceded it was “the best corporate advertising ever to appear in print.”

“…guard against the oppression of its rulers…”
“The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price…and love of soft living and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”

When viewing these advertisements, you will see that Bauhaus design was favored. Making it relevant to today, the quotes chosen speaks to a clear need for democracy, equality, and truth. While opposing oppression and the pursuit of money for money’s sake.

Some people just seem to have impact, even if, ironically, that impact is lost to history. Beyond founding a highly successful company, contextualizing his role in society, and creating and preserving art, Paepcke also founded the Aspen Institute (an influential thinktank), the Aspen Skiing Company (Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass), Aspen Music Festibal and School, and created the International Design Conference held in Aspen from 1951 to 2004. Walter passed in 1960.

His wife lived another 34 years and is remembered as the Grand Dame of Aspen. Elizabeth earned that moniker due to her love and promotion of the small mining town into the skiing destination it later became. Later Elizabeth had a crisis of conscious. She loved Aspen’s natural beauty and cultural richness but derided the eventual rampant commercialism and what she called, shallow and crass developers and visitors that undermined the true heart and soul of her beloved community.

Interviewed late in her life, she explained how she felt, “Aspen can’t be swallowed by the avariciousness of those who don’t understand the reason for its existence” Sadly, Elizabeth died in Aspen from head injuries resulting from a fall at the age of 92.

As this tale shows, one story often leads to many more. And I give thanks for that.

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