It was the spring of 1967. Using $500 in savings from his paper route job, my older brother Ron purchased a dilapidated 1930 Ford roadster with the intent of building a street rod to drive to high school. It was, after all, southern California in the mid-60s and Big Daddy Roth car culture paved the roads we traveled and popularized songs listened to on our transistor radios.
My dad himself was an original hot-rodder, having chopped and channeled a 1936 Ford phaeton while still in high school. I’m sure the allure of assisting my brother with his recent acquisition promised an excellent father-son bonding opportunity at an age when most teenagers begin to extricate themselves from the family nest by seeking communal ground with their peers.
A search for parts to rebuild a 35-year-old vehicle soon led our family on a quest that would occupy most weekend activities. Los Angeles at this time was a hot bed of swap meets, flea markets and car shows—enough to quench the cravings of this newfound addiction. Most of these events were chock-a-block with rusted fenders, engine parts and just about any and everything needed to restore a car to its original showroom luster or customize it into something a bit faster.
While I looked forward to the prospect of riding in the idealized version of my brother’s finished and fully pimped-out ride, I didn’t share his same itch. Running boards and motor mounts held no appeal for me.
As time went on I found myself drawn to antique porcelain and tin signs and other forms of promotional memorabilia that sporadically peppered dealer tables at our weekend destinations. Most of these advertised Ford, Packard and other types of vehicles no longer in production, as well as oil and petroleum-related products. But what really attracted my interest were signs promoting Coca-Cola and a variety of long extinct beverages that vowed to refresh road weary travelers during their frequent stops to refuel at gas stations.
By the summer of ’69 our family was on our own road relocating to New York from Los Angeles after six years of living on the eternally sunny side of the country. My father was doing groundbreaking work as an engineer with Shell, which meant that his career trajectory—and our lives—followed a path dictated by unfolding technology and the corporate call for his talent. I was only 13, yet this transcontinental upheaval seemed all too frequent and familiar.
Our family had stopped for lunch at a home-style diner somewhere in Ohio. Nearby was an antique store. My eyes scanned across the clutter inside. I’m not sure if I chose it or it chose me. There amongst an array of old campaign buttons, snuffboxes and disparate other items I spotted a ladies pocket mirror—featuring a woman with bobbed hair holding a glass of Coke. Later I would learn that it dated to 1914 and was a somewhat scarce collectible.
Until now my attraction to ephemera had not been consummated, but the $2.50 price was easily within my limited budget and so it began. Over the next several years I would add other items to this first purchase, each sharing the well-known Coca-Cola script and the graceful allure of a beautifully illustrated woman. I’m still not sure why I was drawn to this stuff. Perhaps it was the restrained sex appeal of painted ladies dressed in period attire holding their favorite beverage, but it initiated what would become my informal design education.
Coke was a prolific and consistent branding pioneer. These collectibles offered the promise of quenched thirst through calendars, serving trays, signs and every imaginable type of print advertising—all featuring repetitive reinforcement of design and content. And while the message remained simple, direct and relatively unchanged, the presentation style evolved with the times and reflected the culture of each respective period.
Early pieces promoting the medicinal and restorative benefits of the product typically featured a single woman—often a celebrated actress of the day. The layout was delicate, ornate and flourished with a variety of Victorian typographic styles. In the late 1920s artwork became more simplified and streamlined and the company began using a consistent red and green color palette. By the 50s and early 60s, artwork featured group gatherings and the design reflected the boom of America’s post-war culture with the pledge that in all aspects of life “things go better with Coke.” The world as depicted in these illustrations mirrored our own and began to shape mine.
Tastes come and go. Today, Coke is globally recognized as one of the top 5 most valuable brands. No doubt that nearly 130 years of consistent branding has played its part. Artwork and messaging merged with media to promote sugar water to the masses—and set me on a path of design and discovery. Ironically, the first glass of Coke was served in 1886 on my birth date.
So did I choose it or did it choose me?