Brand Stories - Brillo

In the first of my new series of short essays, I uncover the story behind one of the most unlikely brands to become a 20th century design icon. it's a tale of how steel wool and soap started its humble beginnings on the streets of New York but ended up as an American Pop Art sensation.

The Brillo story started back in the early 1900’s, on the streets of New York where a small revolution was taking place - in the form of aluminium cookware replacing more traditional cast iron pots and pans. This revolution wasn't without its problems though, the new shiny aluminium cookware had a tendency to blacken when used in the oven or on the hob.

With blackened pans being bad for business, an enterprising cookware salesman and his brother-in-law were working on a solution to ‘scour’ the new aluminium pans clean, using fine steel wool imported from Germany, jewellers rouge and soap.

Their solution proved a success and demand for their new product quickly rose. The brothers-in-law soon sought the help of an attorney, Milton Loeb to help patent and trademark their invention in return for future shares in their company. A patent was successfully granted in 1913 and ‘Brillo’ Corporation was formed. (Brillo being derived from the latin word for ‘bright’.)

This is where, after 103 years of Brillo, their rather unremarkable brand story could well have finished, if it wasn’t for two men who would change the Brillo story forever.

The first man to set the ball rolling on the journey of making Brillo the iconic brand we know it as today, albeit, rather reluctantly - was the commercial artist, James Harvey. Originally a fine artist, he’s now best known for his commercial packaging designs for the likes of Pepsodent and Phillip Morris, as well as Brillo.

Having studied painting at the Art Institute Chicago, he later moved to New York to break into the thriving Art scene there. Like many artists of the era, to help pay the bills, he turned to commercial work, securing a position at the studio of Egmont Arens… a prominent American industrial and packaging designer (who I will do a separate essay on in the future).

In 1959, when Egmont Arens fired his whole creative team, two designers (Whitney Stuart and William Gunn) decided to set up their own design studio and took James Harvey with them, hiring him as a freelancer.

It was at Stuart & Gunn that Harvey would draw the now famous designs for Brillo - at the time bemoaning the banality of the commercial work he was under taking and the lack of pride he had in this sort of creativity.

“It is a totally mechanical process, I could do it in my sleep.” He resented the lack of control he had on his work: The agency was in charge. “This doesn’t look like Pepsodent. Make it look more like Pepsodent,” the agency would tell him. “Or we’ll do a soap-box thing,” Harvey continued, “and they’ll say, ‘But couldn’t you give us something that looks more like Tide? Make it look like Tide, but make it different—but make it look like Tide.”

But it was this banal consumer environment which was so inspiring to another artist working in New York at the time - Andy Warhol.

In 1964, Warhol launched his 'The American Supermarket' show, which became known as “the soap-box show”. Warhol had filled an art gallery with row upon row of supermarket shelving units and stacked cardboard boxes, screenprinted with giant replica designs of everyday consumer items, including Del Monte sliced pears, Kellogs Cornflakes and of course - Brillo scouring pads.

Typically, it was poorly received on the opening day of the show, one patron simply wrote “SHIT” in big capitals in the guest book, and critics panned the work.

Harvey, who also visited the show, laughed it off when he saw that Warhol had taken his original Brillo design and turned it into a piece of art within the exhibition.

His employers, Stuart and Gunn were less amused when they saw the copies. It issued a press release that stated: “It is galling enough for Jim Harvey, an abstract expressionist, to see that a pop artist is running away with the ball, but when the ball happens to be a box designed by Jim Harvey, and Andy Warhol gets the credit for it, well, this makes Jim scream: ‘Andy is running away with my box.’” But the final line practically admitted defeat: “What’s one man’s box, may be another man’s art.”

Since the unprecedented approach of Warhols to turn everyday objects into pieces of art, Brillo has been turned into an American icon.

Interestingly enough, Brillo don’t own any of the original boxes made famous by Harvey and Warhol. According to Brillo’s brand manager, Wendy Bishop, Brillo packaging has been redesigned “at least a dozen times” since Harvey’s 1961 creation and the brand continues to evolve and look to the future.

One of the few surviving examples of Harvey’s box is owned by the art historian Irving Sandler, who keeps it in his Manhattan apartment encased in Plexiglas. When Warhol was autographing copies of his Brillo Box at the Stable Gallery for $300, Sandler suggested that Harvey sign copies of his Brillo boxes at Graham—and sell them for 10 cents. Harvey signed only one and sent it to Sandler as a gift, a half-hearted gesture to reclaim something he never much cared for in the first place.

Written with help from the following sources:
Print Mag

Beyond The Brillo Box
The Nation
History of graphic design

Tom LoveComment