Tag Archives: 1970s

Inspiration: Atari Game Packaging, 1977-1982

Atari advertisement, Games magazine, 1982.

Atari advertisement, Games magazine, 1982.

Atari_SpaceInvadersWhen I was a kid, the Atari 2600 home video game ruled our household. Back then, we just called it “Atari” and all our peers knew what it meant. The primitive graphics may look laughable now, but the very concept of playing video games on your television set kept us enthralled for hours on end. While games like Adventure and Pitfall made excellent use of the small-sized memory and rudimentary 8-bit graphics the unit offered, for me Atari’s attraction went beyond the games and into the cartridge packaging. Yes, I’m talking about those rainbow-colored boxes that got tossed soon after the games were purchased. Unexpectedly, these candy-hued pieces of folded paperboard had a profound influence on me wanting to become a designer. Only recently, I’ve found out that I wasn’t alone!

The marketing folks at Atari were canny. Knowing that they couldn’t rely solely on boxy pixels to sell these games, they decided to entice buyers with boxes sporting a consistent framework design that showcased some of the most evocative illustration of that period. I loved the colors, the funky, curvy font, the tantalizing number that indicated how many games were on the cartridge (112 Space Invaders games – drool!). Mostly what captured my imagination was that artwork, done in styles ranging from cartoony to impressionist. Even when looking at those über-’70s illustrations from today’s perspective, one can tell it was a rare marriage of an open-minded company seeking wild, beautiful images and artists rising to the challenge to meet it. In pieces like Steve Hendricks’ rendering of the game “Defender” from the p.o.v. of people fleeing a city under attack by alien aircraft, you can see they went with an “out of the box” approach and ran with it. The format made even the dullest of games (Pac Man, anyone?) look alluring.

When the home video gaming boom went bust in 1982-83, the golden age of Atari’s box designs followed the same route. The need to compete for home gamers’ ever-dwindling dollars prompted Atari to change its packaging to an impersonal red-and-silver motif which made the games look like bland “home office” software. A bad move, although the writing was on the wall at that point. From then on, old-style Atari became the stuff of geek-nostalgia and in-jokes like the Venture Bros. DVD package shown below.

In researching this post, I’ve actually found out that a coffee table book of this imagery is currently in the works. While The Art of Atari: From Pixels to Paintbrush was slated for publication in 2014, hopefully its delay is due to creator Tim Lapetino ensuring that the final volume is as perfect as the subject demands.

Adventure cartridge box, illustration by Susan Jaekel, 1979.

Adventure cartridge box, illustration by Susan Jaekel, 1979.

The nine games initially offered at the Atari 2600 launch, 1977.

The nine games initially offered at the Atari 2600 launch, 1977.

Atari Defender package artwork by Steve Hendricks, c. 1981.

Atari Defender package artwork by Steve Hendricks, c. 1981.

Dodge 'Em box detail, 1980.

Dodge ‘Em box detail, 1980.

Atari Video Computer System catalog, 1981.

Atari Video Computer System catalog, 1981.

Swordquest: Fireworld Atari box with redesigned format, 1982.

Swordquest: FireWorld Atari box with redesigned format, 1983.

The Venture Bros. 3rd season DVD package, 2010.

The Venture Bros. 3rd season DVD package, 2010.

Overspray: L.A. Looks Like You

The 2008 coffee table book Overspray: Riding High with the Kings of L.A. Airbrush Art came to my attention while seeking artwork for my Don’t Make Me Over mix. The book delves head-first into a scene that was a red hot confluence of L.A. style and rock ‘n roll-fueled merchandising, as practiced by four of its biggest proponents. Oddly, however, this labor-intensive art style hasn’t enjoyed a resurgence in the same way that other art and design movements of the period have had.

That’s too bad – at the very least, this stuff is very evocative of the ’70s. I can definitely remember digging it as a teen, even though the part I latched onto came at the very tail end of this movement. My first alluring peek was (don’t laugh) in the overstuffed musical classic Xanadu – recall how the Michael Beck character worked as an artist reproducing album covers at billboard size? The brief scene at his workplace showed all these covers done up in that plastic pop-art style, and to me it seemed like the coolest job ever. I later found more art in that style within the pages of a book called Fame 2, which had me hooked. Up to the late ’80s, I’d still see examples of that hyper-slick artwork within the pages of Rolling Stone, or plastered on the free wall calendars they’d hand out at Tower Records every December.

The artists profiled in Overspray – Dave Willardson, Charles White III, Peter Lloyd, and Peter Palombi – all indulged in that style. As the book plainly demonstrates, however, each one put his own stamp on his work. Willardson’s was the most retro-slick and technically accomplished of all (and my favorite), responsible for iconic pieces such as the Rolling Stone cover that literally interpreted Steely Dan’s name and American Graffitti‘s cheerful carhop. White’s stuff was a lot more funky and hallucinatory, where photo-realistic scenes bump up against Maxfield Parrish-inspired fantasy-scapes. Lloyd brought on the weird with his imaginative, spacey LP covers and kinky illustrations for magazines like Oui. Palombi’s nostalgic, irony-drenched scenes astonished with their playfulness and expertly rendered surfaces. Along with absorbing interviews with all four men, the book reprints big and colorful representative samplings of their work. It also has a rather self-indulgent introductory essay, printed in a hard-to-read peach script font, that sets the scene in a smug way (you can easily skip that part and get the jist in the interviews). In the end, I ended up envying these guys for being in there at such a fantastic, creative time, and also admiring the painstaking technique and work ethic required to master the airbrush.

P.S. I still want that Xanadu guy’s job.

Another nifty thing about Overspray is the dust jacket with different designs printed on both sides which enables the book to have four unique covers, one for each artist profiled. The book can be ordered at Amazon.com here.

Dave Willardson LP art for the Spinners, 1978.

Charles White III illustration for National Lampoon, 1972.

Dave Willardson art for American Graffitti soundtrack LP, 1973.

Charles White II art for the Rolling Stones (1973); Star Wars (1977).

Peter Lloyd illustration for Oui magazine, 1975.

Peter Palombi magazine cover illustration, 1975.

Field Trip to Hades

Recently, our local library held a huge sale of cast-off books, movies and music which filled a space formerly occupied by a Mervyn’s department store. Considering its size, the sale was a bit of a bust – but I did find a few goodies. An oversized booklet published in the ’70s by the U.S. Department of Transportation, geared toward elementary school teachers, was one. Un Viaje al Aeropuerto/A Trip to the Airport jumped out at me because of the strange cover art – psychedelically colored kids gazing at an airplane set against an oppressive, cloudy sky.

Un Viaje al Aeropuerto follows a boy named Carlos as he and his class take a field trip to the airport. About two-thirds of the book consists of wide-format illustrations with simple descriptions in Spanish and English, somewhat clumsily done to fill up the space allotted. The uncredited artwork honestly isn’t very good (much of it looks traced from photos) – but I love the way the artist went nuts with the zip-a-tone patterns and liberally applied spot color in hot red. It’s a trip, man, in ways the artist probably never intended.

The images link to larger-sized versions posted on my flickr account. Dig.

Sears catalog models, welcome aboard.

Aircraft parts never looked so groovy.

Strike a pose on the moving sidewalk.

Gettin’ crazy with the zip-a-tone.

Flickr Friday: Corning Creative Glass Ad, 1972

This advertisement for Corning’s Creative Glass product line appeared in the June 10, 1972 issue of The New Yorker. It certainly has that casual-chic look, like something that Mary Richards would have strewn about in her Minneapolis apartment, dontcha think? I spotted this ad a few years ago on my Complete New Yorker DVD-ROM set, foolishly not taking note of the issue it was in. Since then, I’ve tried to start a collection. The only object I’ve gotten, however, is the double-decker serving piece pictured at left in the ad. These were unmarked (except for a small clear sticker in some cases), and the design is just generic enough to pass for dozens of other glass objects cluttering up thrift store shelves. Apparently Corning made this throughout the ’70s and ’80s, even though it appears that the line was just promoted early on to a more upscale audience. The CG line also included individual glass mugs and those groovy candles that floated in oil or water.

So here it is, the result of spending a couple of hours combing through dozens of early ’70s New Yorkers: Corning Creative Glass!

Stylish, Fashionable, Plastic

More vintage Bell Telephone ephemeral films — this 1979 tape trumpeting the products in their “Design Line” is probably the goofiest of them all. I actually remember these special phone designs being a really big deal at the time (and coveting the Snoopy and Mickey Mouse models!). Bell even had special stores in shopping malls set up to peddle this stuff, although I never personally saw one. The film is nine minutes long, but totally worth it for all the kitschy designs, fashions and set decor. The most puzzling phone would be the one that folds up into a discreet wood-paneled box. Disguising household technology as wooden furniture when not in use seems like a completely bizarre concept to wrap your brain around, and yet that was a huge thing in marketing radio and TV consoles going back to the ’20s. People who bought Bell’s Stowaway model could be secure in knowing that their phone could be mistaken for a Kleenex box when not in use. A very expensive Kleenex box — these specialty models retailed for anywhere from $39.95 (Exeter) to $109.95 (Antique Gold).

This and more at the fascinating AT&T Archives YouTube channel.

Flickr Friday: Snoopy Music Box, 1971

This older Peanuts music box was a recent Goodwill find for $2.99. Honestly, the first time I saw this I thought it was nicely made piece of fan-made handicrafts, but apparently it was a real United Features Syndicate-licensed product. When Snoopy’s tail is pushed down, a bar of “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” plays and Woodstock eating from Snoopy’s bowl emerges from the doghouse’s door. The dog dish contains a slot for coins – yup, it’s a music box and bank in one! Christopher did a good job fixing the music box part.

This must have been among of the earliest Peanuts merchandise to feature Woodstock, who first appeared in 1967 as Snoopy’s bird pal and was given a name in 1970.