Jessica Helfand | Essays

Take Two Logos and Call Me in the Morning


Growing up in the 1970s, there were many things that baffled my emerging aesthetic sensibilities, not least of which were t-shirts worn over pointy-collared blouses; long greasy hair parted in the center; and drugs. This last topic was an issue of considerable bewilderment to me, since my sister and I were the only people I ever knew for whom recreational drug use was essentially a non-issue. After all, our father worked for a pharmaceutical company: how could doing drugs be cool if they were what Dad did for a living? In our house, "better living through chemistry" translated to only the most minor of interventions — the occasional antacid, for instance — and even then, determining a suitable dosage required an initial consultation with my Mother, my Father, and The Merck Manual.

I swore to myself that when I grew up, I would find a way to shield myself from the unforgiving scrutiny of my peers, the cool ones who understood and participated in the drug culture from which I felt so alienated. Later, as a design student, I convinced myself that I had found my own kind of cool — a kind of expressive, idiomatic cool behind which I (or at least my work) could blissfully masquerade. That was the ticket: I'd just design things that were cool! Who needed to know that I never actually did drugs, that my hair was parted on the side, that truth be told, I wasn't cool in the least? Over time, I became utterly committed to my flawed hypothesis, determined to prove that design and pharmacy had nothing in common.

This was, of course, long before Damien Hirst.

And well before eBay.

Now retired from his corporate life in the pharmaceutical industry, my father remains an exceptional man in numerous ways: a gentleman and a scholar, a collector and a writer, — and a demon auctionista. He was the first person I knew to expertly mine the endless categories that comprise eBay; the first to use a sniper program to regularly perform his bids; the first to understand the obscure, if targeted logic of the Boolean search. I laughed, initially, when he confessed to regularly doing a search on "Helfand" (who knew there was a dairy farm in New Hampshire with our name?) but he outdid himself last month when he discovered a matchbook from Helfand & Katz, my grandfather's now-defunct pharmacy in Philadelphia. Endearingly preserved (and miraculously put up for auction independently, though matchbooks are, more often than not, sold in lots), I was even more amazed to find that someone actually took real time to design this thing. Black and red, compositionally dense and informationally rich, boasting an exaggerated logo for "HK-14" — Helfand & Katz's own brand of antiseptic solution. Who knew? Why, the very fact that I can write "Helfand" and "brand" in the same sentence is enough to make me break out in hives.

I'm not suggesting that my grandfather himself actually designed this matchbook, but someone did, making him — what — the client? The art director? The account executive? Did HK-14 ever make it out of the store, into the mainstream? Did it have multiple incarnations, its logo emblazoned on a coffee mug, for example, or positioned jauntily alongside advertisements in the Sunday newspaper supplements? Who came up with the hip abbreviation, the slanted letterforms, the marketing strategy? Was it Helfand? Was it Katz?

Was there an HK-15?

The idea that design and pharmacy have a harmonious history right in my own family shouldn't surprise me. After all, I grew up in a house filled with phamaceutical posters and all sorts of obscure drug ephemera, laying the visual groundwork both for my father's passionate interest in ars medica and, in some ways, my own vocabulary as a graphic designer. Yet somehow, collecting it was never the same to me as making it. Still, as the only person on the planet who actually prefers justified type to ragged, how can I help but experience a thrill when I look at the word "antiseptic" aligning with the word "solution" — on my grandfather's matchbook cover? It's a delicious example of when worlds — make that generations — collide. If nothing else, it makes me eager to hunt down more Helfandiana on eBay.

Then again, I wouldn't want to get into a bidding war with my father.

Posted in: Business, Graphic Design, History, Science

Comments [10]

This gives a whole new meaning to "designer drugs."

Timothy Leary is DEAD!!!!!!

What a strange trip it's been.

On a more somber note. My last name is also the
name of a Dairy and Industry Leader. No relation.

It would be nice if your father had tucked away somewhere original issues of Scope Magazine. Designed by Lester Beall and Will Burtin.

That would be the Coupe d'etat.

Alas, your father and I have something in common.

I use Auction Sniper to win all my bids.

Thanks for turning me on to Bid Slammer.

Looking at that beautiful matchbook, I wonder about the moment when the world of "legitimate drugs" and "recreational drugs" parted ways. Each developed their own series of graphic expressions.

On the legitimate side you had (as Design Maven reminds us) Lester Beall and Will Burtin for Upjohn, the whole Swiss tradition of Ciba-Geigy, and Herb Lubalin's advertising work at Sudler and Hennesey, an agency that specialized in doing almost all pharmaceutical advertising where Lubalin first made his reputation.

On the recreational side, we've got Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, and of course Victor Moscoso, not to mention Vaughn Bode, R. Crumb, and on and on.

The Helfand and Katz matchbook has some of the rigor of the first group and some of the exhuberance of the second. What a find.
Michael Bierut

Dang that's a good story - and sexy looking matchbook logo to boot. 'Scuse me as I must now search on my last name (no Dairy relations at all) on eBay. I hope not to end up in a bid-war with your dad.

Funny you should mention Sudler and Hennessey, Michael, as one of the fringe benefits of being the daughter of a pharmaceutical executive was that I spent most summers in college working in pharmaceutical ad agencies, S&H being one of them. The most distinctive memory I have (and this will date me) was being given the task of cleaning glue-pots for everyone in the bull-pen. I was given a single-edged blade for this purpose, which took up a good part of each day. As an added incentive, they let me borrow as many back issues of Communication Arts and Print as I could carry. In retrospect, I may have gotten just about as much from the former activity as the latter.
Jessica Helfand

My grandfather was also in the pharmaceutical business. When they moved to Mexico from Europe after World War II, he started an import/export business of pharmaceutical ingredients that he would then sell to Pfizer, Bayer, etc. When he passed away my dad inherited the business which he still runs today. (He is also an avid, hobbyist designer and put this web site together himself, now how cool is that?).

While the most exciting packaging of these products that I ever saw were brown generic barrels with odd-colored powders in them, what we do have is simply a beautiful collection of old apothecary jars. (Of this kind). I believe most of them are from Hungary (where my grandparents came from), but I'm not certain.

I've never understood people who use drugs as an occupational stimulant - it reminds me of my architect roommate in college getting cranked out for an entire week to finish a model or blueprint. Personally, i think drugs are what you should do for fun after you're done with work.

But also i never experienced the peer pressure aspect of drug use in highschool or college - either you did them or you didn't but it never seemed to be a big deal for either side. As a side note, R. Crumb was an icon for pot-smokin hippies, but he's a self-admitted square (his vice is sex).
big steve

Oh, and Michael, it's funny that you talk about the resulting design of 'legitimate' and 'recreational' drugs parting ways (i wouldnt categorize them as such but that's another discussion) because though they may have split so many years ago, they've really come back together in recent years.
After people stopped doing E when they realized it made them look ugly and old (yep, vanity is the anti-drug) 'Pharmies' blew up. Coke and heroin and speed took a backseat to Adderall, Ultraset, Perkaset, Vicodin, hydracodone, Oxycontin, Rohypnol, et al which are much more portable and safer to carry/easier to use... But what's my point? Check out how trendy and '21st century motion graphics' the drug company ads have become in the past few years. Everything from penis pills to allergy medication reaks of Getty Images stock footage, which is in sharp contrast to the much more conservative drug company ads of the past.
big steve

Readers interested in some of the more rarified examples of pharmacy chic may be interested in a piece in today's New York Times noting Sotheby's plans to auction the contents of Hirsts's London-based Pharmacy (a bar, not a drugstore) in October.
Jessica Helfand

Jessica Helfand writes [July 1, 2004]:
"It would be nice if your father had tucked away somewhere original issues of Scope Magazine. Designed by Lester Beall and Will Burtin."

In fact I'm writing a book about Will Burtin, my late father-in-law, and was interested to stumble into your site--and that quotation. Fascinating. Perhaps the most comprehensive collection of SCOPE magazine copies is lodged at the Rochester Institute of Technology (NY).

Professor Roger Remington ([email protected]) is the guy in charge, and my co-author.

Is there something I should know about SCOPE that I've missed?

You go on to say: "Over time, I became utterly committed to my flawed hypothesis, determined to prove that design and pharmacy had nothing in common." In fact, in Will Burtin's design practice they had much in common.

If you have interesting factoids about Will Burtin, I would be grateful if you would point them my way. Having known him for 11 years, and lived with his daughter Carol for over 30, I'm well informed, but gems slip through.

Best regards,

Robert Fripp ([email protected])
Robert Fripp

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