Brand magic – from the south side of Chicago

Brand identity is a modern concept, or so it’s said. Companies, profit and nonprofit, and political campaigns devote extravagant amounts of time, money and energy to position themselves consistently—verbally and visually—with their priority audiences.

But almost a century ago, a small but creative company on the south side of Chicago developed its own distinctive brand and visual identity for an array of products designed to help its customers find beauty and romance.

NSB-Brandexhentrance (1)Valmor Products’ advertising and packaging is the subject of a funny, provocative and eye-opening exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center. Love for Sale: The Graphic Art of Valmor Products runs until August 2 in the 4th floor north exhibit hall, just across from the not-to-be-missed exhibit of the paintings of Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. See my Motley review for details. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)

Valmor operated on the near south side (as the location image shows, near the intersection of Cermak Road and Indiana Avenue) from the 1920s through the 1980s. Their products were perfumes, hair pomades and straighteners, incense and a great variety of other products designed to help the individual (male or female) attract and please the opposite sex. Some of the products claimed to have mystical or magical powers.

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The Cultural Center’s comprehensive exhibit is the first to show Valmor’s remarkable works of graphic design—product labels, packaging and advertising. Some of the labels were no bigger than a postage stamp, as you can see from the photo of the spilling bin of packages. (Other vintage bottles and containers are also on display.) Those tiny labels were enlarged to poster-size using modern imaging technology. The result is an exuberant display of social and cultural history as well as graphic design.

Charles Dawson, Valmor’s first designer, was a distinguished artist. His life and career are described here by the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the professional organization for design. Dawson’s unpublished autobiography is in the DuSable Museum of African American history.

The Chicago Cultural Center, as I’ve noted before, is a Chicago treasure that many people aren’t aware of. It was opened as the city’s central library in 1897, designed by the Boston architectural firm, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge. They created a number of monumental civic structures in the Romanesque style of Henry Hobson Richardson (best known here as architect of the John Glessner House). In 1977, the building was re-created as a city cultural center. It offers many exhibits of artistic and architectural interest, concerts, films and other performing arts events–and admission is always free.

The Washington Street side has a grand Carrara marble staircase leading to Preston Bradley Hall with its beautifully restored 38-foot Tiffany glass dome. The hall was the library’s main circulation room, which is why the mosaics that line the walls display the names of authors and philosophers.  (View the restoration story in the video above.) If you enter on the Randolph Street side, you’ll find a large area with tables and seating, where you can meet with a friend or client, read or do a little work. But be sure to walk up (or take the elevator) to the fourth floor, where you’ll find both the Motley and Valmor exhibits.

Art you don’t want to miss: Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist

The Chicago Cultural Center at 78 E. Washington St. is an under-appreciated gem of our city. The building is home to many interesting and often spectacular exhibits and events. Like concerts under the beautifully restored dome of Preston Bradley Hall. Art exhibits in the Sidney Yates Gallery and in smaller galleries around the building. There’s a comfortable seating area with tables in case you need a spot to rest or get some work done on the Randolph Street side of the building. Too bad the coffee bar is gone, but you can bring your own coffee in.

Motley, Blues, 1929

Motley, Blues, 1929

Right now the Sidney Yates Gallery is home to a fabulous exhibit of the art of Archibald Motley Jr., an African-American artist who studied painting at the School of the Art Institute from 1914 to 1918, whose work was exhibited all over the world and who won many honors. He lived in Paris for a time and traveled widely but he always called Chicago home.

The exhibit–Archibald Motley, Jazz Age Modernist—is here through August 31, then it moves to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, opening October 2. That will be the new Whitney, which opens next month. (The new building in the meatpacking district at 99 Gansevoort St. replaces the Marcel Breuer-designed building on the Upper East Side at 75th and Madison. (The Metropolitan Museum will take over the old Whitney, which is good news for preservationists. Some people don’t like the Brutalist-style Breuer building, but I do.)


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The exhibit at the Cultural Center is informative and well-organized and includes a substantial section on Motley’s early work. He’s best known for colorful urban scenes but his early portraits (like the one titled Mulatress with Figurine) are insightful glimpses into African-American life of the time. You’ll see portraits of his grandmother and of his wife, Edith Granzo. Motley was born in New Orleans in 1891 and his family moved to Chicago in 1894. He grew up in Englewood, then a German/Irish/Swedish neighborhood, but his social life and artistic inspiration was in Bronzeville. You’ll find exhibits on Motley, his life, thoughts and art in the corridor leading into the Yates gallery.

See my review in Gapers Block for more descriptions of the exhibit and of Motley’s work.