Georg Oldenprofile of a prolific designer
A prolific graphic designer and advertising executive, Georg Olden designed the first statuette for the 1962 Clio Awards, now one of the most prestigious honours in the creative industry. Not many people can claim to have won the selfsame award they were commissioned to design, as Olden did; fewer still are able to boast of echoing that achievement six times, and perhaps only one can profess to have done so as a Black man in 1960s America.
Olden’s interpretation of the Muse Clio places a regal emphasis on form above all else, much like Brancusi’s sculpture Bird in Space, from which he garnered inspiration. It’s a focus that renders his statuette archetypal of its subject, yet simultaneously arcane: he presents the Greek patron of history as faceless, hairless, and nearly genderless, endowing her with the arched body and elevated stance of a victor. Along with the first prize at the 1967 Cannes Film Festival, a number of medals from the Art Directors Club of New York, and a posthumous award from AIGA, Olden went on to win the Clio seven times throughout his career. It feels apt: the Muse herself was famed not only for galvanizing the retelling of true histories, but for inspiring the stories themselves.
Olden’s path was intuitively self-made. He was born George Elliott Olden in Birmingham, Alabama in 1920, adopting the less orthodox spelling of his name to attract the attention of magazine editors in his twenties. Racial inequality marred much of his family history: his paternal grandfather had escaped enslavement, and his father, a Baptist minister, deserted his family to devote his life to the civil rights movement. Olden grew up in Petersburg, Virginia, the youngest of three children in a single-parent household. He began his forays into drawing at the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, largely through cartoon art. Although he made the dean’s list while at Virginia State College, he dropped out in 1942 and acquired a job as a graphic designer at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence agency preceding the CIA.
Having begun by drafting modest OSS rationing posters, in 1963, Olden made history as the first Black US citizen to design a postage stamp, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. It depicts a breaking chain, the commemoration date emblazoned on the serrated white backdrop. Decked in the hues of the American flag, the design succeeds in evoking the nation’s historical culpability, even as it celebrates its emancipatory progress.
Between 1945 and 1960, Olden was the director of graphic design at CBS, where he championed the power of old-fashioned illustration in a sector preoccupied with animation. He maintained, “The door is open for artists in TV,” and convinced sceptical producers to commission artists for the title cards of the television program ‘Studio One’. The innovation benefitted both the network and their creative collaborators: it shed light on hitherto unknown artists, and successes in this esoteric initiative soon spurred other networks to follow suit.
A posthumously published edition of Who’s Who quotes Olden: ‘“As the first black American to achieve an executive position with a major corporation, my goal was the same as that of Jackie Robinson in baseball: to achieve maximum respect and recognition by my peers, the industry and the public, thereby hopefully expanding acceptance of, and opportunities for, future black Americans in business.”’ This statement, largely read as his unconscious epitaph, rings true today. He has served as a champion for a generation of Black graphic designers, many of whom – Michele Y. Washington, Lowell Thompson, and Frank Briggs among them – cite him as an inspiration. He was keenly aware of his talents, and stood by his stalwart identification as an artist who deserved to go far in the world. In that, he was a revolutionary and a pioneer.
- Words: Julia Merican