When Walter P. Paepcke founded the Container Corporation of America (CCA) in 1926, he wanted it to be associated not only with high-quality design, but with social and environmental responsibility too. So he asked his wife, the former Elizabeth Nitze, a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago and a theater and store designer, to art direct a series of ads they had conceived to promote CCA’s image, beginning in 1950. Called Great Ideas of Western Man, it was Nitze’s idea to reinterpret quotes from famous historical figures, though she hired Egbert Jacobson to art direct them. He in turn commissioned many renowned designers and artists of the day, including Ben Shahn, A.M. Cassandre, Milton Glaser, Alvin Lustig, René Magritte, Jan Tschichold, Saul Bass, Alexey Brodovitch, Lester Beall, Elaine Urbain, Leonard Baskin, Jacob Landau, Gene Federico, Carol Summers, Bradbury Thompson, and others. The series ran until 1975, and the AIGA Design Archives includes seven posters from the series.
As you click through, take a moment and pause on the last image. One of the jurors for it was author Tom Wolfe. In typical double-edged sword fashion, he managed to compliment and critique the series in one fell swoop:
“Here’s our old friend, the Great Ideas of Western Man series. I hadn’t come across it since it used to run in the magazines. At the top of the page you’d see a quotation such as: ‘Hitch your wagon to a star.’ —Ralph Waldo Emerson
And under it would be a painting of a cubistic horse strangling on a banana. I often wondered if the artists were given explicit instructions never to let the artwork have anything to do with the quotation, because they never did. If this was actually a policy, it was a brilliant stroke; because the ads were supposed to have nothing whatsoever to do with what the company actually did. I used to think the company was called the Transcendental Can Corporation, but I see by this entry that I was mistaken about that. Like all institutional ads, the ads in this series convey the message: ‘We really don’t do what we really do (e.g., make tin cans). What we manufacture is dignity.’”