We’re pleased to unveil The Optical Collection, which consists of seven new styles of frame that are inspired by a trio of trailblazers from the Golden Age of Advertising. The most personal collection to date for us, this connects us with our Covent Garden point of launch in the early 1990’s, when we became the first in London to bring a vintage inspired optical range to market.
As is customary at Kirk Originals, all of the seven frames have been designed the old-school way with nothing else but pen and paper and a library’s worth of reference material. While the informing references come from far and wide, we’ve named each frame after nearby streets and locations less than a stone’s throw away from our headquarters in Blackfriars. After all, we are a London brand.
Our Creative Director, Mark Brown, has always looked to luminaries of the silver screen for inspiration, but for this collection of optical frames, he’s pulled cues from three medium-bending creatives who revolutionised the advertising industry in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – a period otherwise known as the Golden Age of advertising.
We start with Robert Brownjohn (1925 – 1970), who was a Titan of typography and a pitching maverick who had rockstar friends and an attitude to go with it; then, there’s Emmett McBain (1935 – 2012), who with simplicity and directness cracked the code to successfully sell to African Americans who were horribly underrepresented in mainstream advertising in the 1960s; and finally, George Lois (1931 – present), the mastermind behind Esquire’s seminal 1960s covers and the genius equipped with outrageous self-belief who changed the fortunes of so many household name companies with his infinite stream of ‘Big Ideas’.
These individuals are personal heroes of his and they’ve helped shape Mark’s own creative journey. In essence, they represent the character that Kirk Originals strives to imbue on the wearer. They were confident tastemakers with morals and a global consciousness. They had the balls to stand out and were unafraid to challenge the accepted view. They also just happened to be stylish in dress, too, with distinct personal looks considered refined at a time when mid-century rules started to loosen and evolve.
It’s not so much the finished product of their work that speaks through these seven frames. Rather, it’s their very being. It’s the energy they emitted and the era they represented and their boldness in the approach to their craft is, in turn, manifested in the architecture of the range’s framework.
Robert Brownjohn (or simply, Bj), famously believed that if an idea couldn’t be described over the telephone then it wasn’t simple, clear, and direct enough to work.The first half of his career was spent in New York, and he carelessly fluttered around as a freelance graphic designer and frequented late-night establishments with the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. He lived, you could say, a fast-paced, substance-fuelled lifestyle when not at his desk. And during this period of his career he produced graphical work for Columbia Records and Pepsi-Cola.
An impressive CV already, it would be his decade-long stint in London that cemented his legend among post-war creatives that straddled across the multi-media spectrum. In the 1960s, Bj started to experiment with film and projections and one of his finest moments is recalled by Alan Fletcher, who was a great contemporary of his. “Bj set up the projector everyone filed in and sat down. Bj turned off the lights, took off his jacket and shirt, and wiggled in front of the titles from the lit projector. ‘It’ll be just like this, only we’ll use a pretty girl,’ he said.”
This was how Bj pitched the opening credits for the second James Bond film, From Russia With Love (1963). It was a stupidly simple idea of genius-like quality delivered with confidence and humour. Bj followed up with the credits for Goldfinger, too, and both of which are today deemed iconic.
While his work with the Bond franchise is perhaps best-known, his collaboration with The Rolling Stones in 1969 is up there, too. He created the album cover artwork for Let It Bleed, by conjuring a surrealist mix-mash sculpture with twisted nightmare beauty. It further demonstrated his genius in being able to create compelling work in whatever medium you threw at him and he did so with the help of a young and unknown Delia Smith, believe it or not. Keith Richards gave him the opportunity as they were friends. Sadly, a year later Bj died from heroin addiction aged 44. His fast-paced lifestyle had caught up with him, but his foundation of his legacy as one of the finest post-war creative minds was set.
Album artwork is a theme within this Optical essay, for our second subject, Emmett McBain, designed over 75 album covers for Mercury Records by the age of 24. Another young prodigy? It would be unfair to assume otherwise however, as his mark on the world supersedes that.
McBain’s legend is defined within entirely different parameters to Brownjohn, for his legacy in advertising is much more critical. Prior to his ascendence, the African American market was totally underrepresented in consumerist media. Throughout the course of his career as an adman, though, McBain changed that with his creations in both print and television, combined with the use of graphics and real African American people.
In 1956, he started his career at newly-formed Vince Cullers Advertising, the first black-owned advertising agency in the US to specifically target African Americans. McBain left after a couple of years and moved to Playboy Records where he excelled as a cover artist and designed the award-winning Playboy All-Stars album cover. Striking, to say the least, McBain listed the names of all the featured artists on the front without word spaces. Colouring in the first character of every first and last name, he created a clever and almost abstract design that’s become an iconic work of art in its own right.
Promised the role of Creative Director, he was lured back to Vince Cullers in 1959 and quickly started to produce work that had major significance and the company’s advert titled ‘Black is Beautiful’ made clear his intent. With autonomy, McBain started to cast real life people he saw on the streets that surrounded him and he placed them in print and television campaigns. In doing so, he painted a picture that was relatable to the African American audience and changed their perceptions of each company, such as Newport Cigarettes, he applied himself too.
Constantly on the move, in 1971 he founded his second company Burrell-McBain Inc with the esteemed copywriter Thomas Burrell. Their campaign with Malboro was their first breakthrough, casting a cool-looking, real life man scouted from the street in a punchy orange rollneck beneath a sand jacket. He was the partner with a point of difference to the iconic white cowboy. Burrell-McBain then followed up with securing McDonalds and Coca-Cola as key accounts.
McBain decided to leave the advertising world in 1974 to become an artist, converting a mansion he bought into an art gallery following his priceless contribution to the African American society in the US. His third wife one said that “I think he felt it necessary to keep pushing the boundaries in order to prove there were no limits.” We are very much behind that statement.
While McBain’s energies were entirely focused on the African American market and highlighted the issues of the 1960s, on a similar level, much of George Lois’ canon of work did so, too. Through cute combinations of image and text, Lois stimulated and provoked the American public into debate, asking them to question national issues such as the Vietnam War, racism, feminism and more.
The original mad man, Lois is undoubtedly the most famous of the three subjects that have inspired the collection of Optical frames. Now 89-years-old, his career has spanned an impressive seven decades and to sustain that one surely requires unheard of levels of passion and drive. Throughout those years, he unusually served as both a writer and a creative director. However, Lois was then a most unusual ad man – gung-ho in his approach and with an infinite supply of ideas, especially in the 1970s. His legacy was succinctly summarised by Time magazine, who called Lois, "a media renaissance man... an iconoclastic genius... a legendary advertising guru."
The only son of Greek immigrants, Lois grew up poor in the rough Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, New York. He was destined to take over his father’s flower shop, but his ambitions were far too big to go through with it and his career’s foundations were laid during the golden decades of the 50s and 60s in Madison Avenue. This was during a period when it was very difficult if not impossible for an immigrant to find work, let alone be head of firms that moulded the world of communication and advertising.
Lois is best-known for his work with Esquire magazine between the years of 1962 and 1972. His 92 covers changed the face of consumer publishing and many have transcended the confines of being regarded as a cover to a work of art. From the heavyweight champ Mohammed Ali, who had just been stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam, pictured as the martyr St Sebastian pierced with the arrows, to Lt William Calley, the officer responsible for the Mai Lai massacre, pictured surrounded by Vietnamese children, Lois shocked all those who walked past a magazine stand.
On a consumerist level, many of Lois’ ‘Big Ideas’ had a seismic effect on how the American population lived their lives. He made Tommy Hilfiger a household name without even saying it, the same with MTV with the ‘I Want My MTV’ commercial. He indirectly placed a Xerox photocopier in every office and home in the US, and with the ‘If You Got It, Flaunt It’ campaign saw an 80% increase in sales at Braniff Airlines. The list goes on and his accolades and awards, such as being the only member of the Art Directors Hall of Fame, are all testament to his creative brilliance.
A creative force never to be challenged artistically, the combination of Brownjohn, McBain and Lois, and the work they produced and the effect it had on the post-war society, is astonishing. Culture today often repeatedly lauds the same small group of figures from the past, but these are three that should be celebrated just as much.
Their contribution to contemporary culture is priceless and the way in which they did it even greater. With a bold approach to their craft with thoroughly well-researched and informed ideas, everything they did came from a place of assured excellence. Their work was top of the class quality and it was executed efficiently and with swagger. It’s those qualities that we see in the seven styles of new Kirk Originals Optical frames and we hope you do, too.