A new exhibition at London’s recently opened House of Illustration, “Mac Conner: A New York Life,” travels back to a time when Photoshop wasn’t even a glimmer in Adobe’s eye, and when the world of advertising was ruled by illustrators like “original Mad Man” Mac Conner, whose beautifully vibrant, hand-painted images capture the style and spirit of the ’50s and ’60s, and graced the adverts of some of the most recognizable U.S. brands, including United Airlines, AT&T, and Ford.

The exhibition seems particularly well-timed: Mad Men fever is just heating up as the second half of season seven kicks off, but it also coincides with an ongoing re-evaluation of commercial illustration, which seems to be overcoming its perception as “cultural junk food,” as the House of Illustration’s director, Colin McKenzie, put it. In fact, that enough material exists to form an exhibition is notable, as many commercial illustrators simply tossed out their work after it was shot for an ad. Luckily for us, Conner’s agent made sure that his work was always returned and saved—and not just illustration pieces. The show also includes correspondence between Conner and his clients, offering a glimpse at the inner workings of the ad industry of the time.

We spoke with McKenzie about why Conner’s work still resonates today, and how commercial illustration is claiming its rightful place as an important part of our visual culture.

Illustration for “The Girl Who Was Crazy About Jimmy Durante” in Woman’s Day, September 1953. Gouache and ink on illustration board. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist
Illustration for “The Girl Who Was Crazy About Jimmy Durante” in Woman’s Day, September 1953. Gouache and ink on illustration board. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Conner’s work is definitely “of an era,” but his bright palette, flat colors, and unique compositions keep it interesting all these years later. What is it about his style that’s still so appealing, and relevant?
He has an incredibly distinctive style that, because of the color, structure, and humor, appears very modern even though it was often “selling” a very idealized ’50s and ’60s lifestyle. Though his work invariably accompanied text, his images succeed in telling their own story because of the way they’re structured, because of the facial expressions he depicts, and the body language of his characters. He often chooses unusual viewpoints for his work, sometimes looking down from above, sometimes up from below, looking through things like balconies, fencing, railings, etc.

Like a lot of commercial illustrators, he worked in gouache because it dried quickly and could be rapidly re-worked, and this flatness and vibrancy—which it’s retained from not having been exposed to light for the better part of 50 years—is particularly appealing. And his subject matter, predominantly human life and relationships, is absolutely timeless.

Illustration for “Where’s Mary Smith?” in Good Housekeeping, June 1950.  Gouache and gesso on masonite. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist.
Illustration for “Where’s Mary Smith?” in Good Housekeeping, June 1950. Gouache and gesso on masonite. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Why is now the right time to show a collection of Conner’s work?
At House of Illustration our mission is to celebrate illustration in all its forms, and commercial illustration is such an important form of the art. It continues to have every bit as profound of an influence on our lives (and our habits as consumers) as it did when Conner was working. As soon as we became aware of this extraordinary collection, which has only been shown once before at the Museum of the City of New York, we wanted to have it here in London. The American show of Conner’s work was announced on his 100th birthday and we got the agreement to show his work here on his 101th birthday!

Illustration for “Killer in the Club Car” in This Week Magazine, November 14, 1954. Ink and acetate on illustration board. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist.
Illustration for “Killer in the Club Car” in This Week Magazine, November 14, 1954. Ink and acetate on illustration board. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

This period seems to have been a time when illustration was front and center in advertising. How does this compare to commercial illustration today?
It was a time when magazine advertising really held sway, but as the ’60s progressed it was overtaken by TV and radio advertising (and the increasing use of photography) and many of the great titles for which Conner illustrated (like the Saturday Evening Post and many of the women’s magazines) disappeared. But commercial illustration has never gone away entirely, and you only have to look at the resurgence of illustration (both traditional and digital) in magazines, newspapers, and online to understand and appreciate how successful it can still be.

Would you agree Mad Men has fueled the interest in this kind of work?
Mad Men has tapped into a huge fascination with the golden age of advertising, and this certainly fuels interest in work of this kind. In our exhibition, you have a chance to see how a commercial illustrator actually worked with ad agencies and major brands as we include correspondence between client and artist. And the fascinating thing is how close it is to what Mad Men depicts.

Illustration for “Don’t Be Like Me” in Collier’s, September 8, 1953. Gouache on illustration board. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist.
Illustration for “Don’t Be Like Me” in Collier’s, September 8, 1953. Gouache on illustration board. © Mac Conner. Courtesy of the artist

Looking beyond nostalgia and to the future of illustration, what can aspiring young illustrators take away from the show?
It shows just how broad an area is covered by illustration—and of course just how relevant, and how much interest there is in it as an art form. Illustration is something that really does shape all our lives from the way in which we first learn to read, how we learn about the world around us, right through to our behavior as consumers and how we understand new ideas and products. And this show demonstrates perfectly the huge influence that illustration can have. Conner and his colleagues sold us a dream and a lifestyle that remains incredibly appealing and enticing.