Few brands boast such a rich visual heritage as Campari. Its archives shimmer with the sleek sophistication that only 20th century ads for things that aren’t very good for us can muster.

Italian drink maker Gaspare Campari founded his eponymous beverage company in 1860, and his son Davide Campari was quick to perfect how to market its products across the bold new canvases of the time: the advertising poster. The man clearly had a keen and prescient eye for visual communication, working with some of the most celebrated designers of the early 20th century, such as Leonetto Cappiello, Marcello Dudovich, Adolf Hohenstein, and Marcello Nizzoli.

The real coup for the brand came soon after, with Futurist artist Fortunato Depero’s campaigns that brought the recognizable geometric design language to the brand, with a good smattering of charm and wit carried through to not only promotional posters, but the design of the bottle itself. It was Depero’s drawings that went on to inspire the design of the conical Campari Soda bottle, which was launched in 1932. The artist quipped that advertising posters were to become “the painting of the future,” and Campari’s output continued to manifest that belief throughout its commissioning history, going on to bottle up (’scuse the pun) the essence of the Swinging Sixties in its elegant designs.

Leonetto Cappiello Bitter Campari (Lo Spiritello) 1921 Bitter Campari (The Sprite) Lithographic colour print
on paper. Courtesy: Archivio Galleria Campari, Milan

Such designs from throughout Campari’s history are now being celebrated at London’s Estorick Collection, showcasing the company’s archive imagery, including its Belle Epoque posters, original campaign imagery from the 1920s, and a range of ephemera including voting crates, glasses, bottles, and plaques.

Today as much as ever, brands want to be seen as “creative” and to be adored and celebrated by “creative” people. Campari is one of the few brands that has actually done that.

The imagery that surrounds the Campari brand is not only instantly recognizable (“ownable,” in today’s branding parlance), but has managed to engender a profound sense of fondness and glamor in those who engage with it. As Artsuite managing director Enrica de Biasi (a “more or less teetotal”) writes in the exhibition’s catalog, “Campari is not so much a drink as an approach to life. It’s a way of spending happy hours with friends, a style of living that chimes perfectly with the city of Milan and the fabric of its productive, professional, and creative life… All of this intensity and meaning exists thanks to the power of Campari’s brand communications.” De Biasi points out that Campari’s commissioning not only communicates its products, but also its values. “Campari created a new business approach because it demanded ‘masterpieces’,” she writes. “Its artworks placed the company in a relationship with society at large, not simply through the eyes of the leading artists of the day, but also through the eyes of a public that saw itself reflected in these works.”

Indeed, today as much as ever, brands want to be seen as “creative” and to be adored and celebrated by “creative” people. Campari is one of the few brands that has actually done—and continues to do—that, apparently effortlessly.

Franz Marangolo’s 1960s “Campari Soda is in Line with the Times!” Lithographic color print on paper. Courtesy: Archivio Galleria Campari, Milan

Campari was also way ahead of the game in terms of having a brand language that extends across everything we can see, feel, touch, and, most importantly, drink from. In 1932, the ready-to-drink aperitif Camparisoda was invented. Its iconic bottle shape design—“like an upside down wine glass,” as Galleria Campari director Paulo Cavallo puts it—played a huge part in the immediate success of the product. In a smart and very modern approach to packaging and industrial design, the bottle had no label. There was just a simple embossing on the glass and an orange peel texture, with technical information inscribed onto the crown cap.

The visual communication doesn’t shout, or push, it just takes the viewer gently into its world through aligning itself with everything that’s smart and beautiful.

“The effectiveness of the Campari approach lay in the way the company has always conveyed the poetics of its advertising message, in a mix between the avant garde entrepreneurial spirit and the creative process,” adds Cavallo. She points to a prime example of this as Lo Spiritello (The Sprite), a poster designed by Leonetto Cappiello in 1921. “The commercial image takes shape in a figure suspended between the real and the unreal, while the product itself takes a backseat, becoming an object offered to the viewer by the first of Campari’s mascots.”

That’s the key to this brand and its visual communication: it doesn’t shout, or push; it just takes the viewer gently into its world through aligning itself with everything that’s smart and beautiful. Much of that approach is directly attributed to Davide Campari, who oversaw works including the 1901 pieces by Adolf Hohenstein that combine photorealistic sensibilities with Art Nouveau, as well as the Cubist-leaning 1920s still life images by Marcello Nizzole and Ugo Machi’s paper silhouette. In those, Cavallo says, “the product is put forward in a subtle manner, to be sought out in the representation of new and sophisticated habits of consumption and leisure.”

The star of the Campari show for many modern viewers is, of course, Depero, whose impactful designs matched bold, sharp letterforms with his signature mechanical men figures. It’s little surprise that Stephen Heller is a vocal fan of, and expert on, Depero’s works. Roberta Cremoncini, director of the Estorick Collection, attributes Depero and Futurist graphic design more widely as “really the beginning of modern graphic design, breaking the rules of the page,” she says. “It was so groundbreaking, and it makes so much sense for students to study, even if it doesn’t seem so radical now that with a computer you can flip everything around so easily. In the originals you can see how they painted, how they changed the working process of the designer and how they worked. Now, you can try everything, but when you had to work by cutting bits of paper you could only try a couple of things.”

But even in the later parts of the 20th century, as this exhibition proves, Campari didn’t drop the baton as far as smart, visually arresting commissioning was concerned. In the 1960s, Franz Marangolo’s elegant graphics delineated aspirational, modern scenes around leisure, holiday, sports and pastimes; and in 1964 the poster designs by Bruno Munari (who designed the type set on red Campari billboards) were created around the opening of the first Milanese underground train station. These visuals were thoroughly bourgeois, utterly beguiling, and intrinsically tied to the brand’s home city. As such, they appealed to both the Milanese, and the rest of the world, captivating them with the apparent glamor and allure of Italy. In the 1980s, Campari had an ad shot by none other than Fellini, which featured a rather creepy chap in leather gloves and a women enamored by both the Leaning Tower of Pisa and, of course, a certain red beverage.

Leonetto Cappiello Campari, 1921 Lithographic colour print. Courtesy: Archivio Galleria Campari, Milan
on paper

“Everything about Campari’s designs changed dramatically every few years, but they all have the same sense of quirkiness,” says Cremoncini. “Even in the years when the work became more obscure, it all had that kind of fun element that became their trademark. There are other brands that are much more consistent in their style of advertising, and Campari’s changed a lot in the 1960s and again in the ’80s when the campaigns became more film-based, but a few things stayed exactly the same.

“They’ve been able to change the campaigns drastically but still retain the awareness of the brand, and that’s the most crucial thing.”

The Art of Campari runs until September 16 at the Estorick Collection, London.