Morla Design, Andy Warhol project that was never used

Graphic designer and AIGA medalist Jennifer Morla certainly has her fair share of tales to tell from her four decade-spanning career. Having founded her eponymous studio in 1984, she’s worked across print, branding, packaging, web, and retail store design with the likes of Swatch, Herman Miller,  SFMOMA, the Mexican Museum, Capp Street Project, and California College of the Arts.

A new book about her work, Morla : Design, with a preface by Paula Scher and foreword by Erik Spiekermann, is currently raising funds on Kickstarter. The publisher, Letterform Archive, has kindly let us reprint an extract which details a rather interesting tale of a design project that never fully came to be. In the 1970s, Morla was commissioning work from none other than Andy Warhol for Levi’s. She got to visit his studio, and even pull the resulting silkscreen with him. The work never made it into a final ad, however. Here’s what happened.

Morla Design, book spreads

As art director for Levi Strauss & Co., I was responsible for creating print materials: posters, labels, catalogs, and the occasional environmental installation. In 1983, during the last days of the disco era and at a time when people opted for Calvin’s over Levi’s, I proposed creating a poster and advertising series by famous artists to appeal to a more mature Levi’s customer. It was a novel concept, as it was a couple of years before Absolut Vodka launched their artist series ad campaign.

My list of artists included Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, and Andy Warhol. My request: interpret the iconic Levi’s Jean. With Bob Haas’ blessing (nobody better than the president of Levi’s to endorse your concept), I launched the series with Warhol. Starting with Warhol was a no-brainer: not only did everybody know him, he was just so easy to get ahold of directly. His number was listed in the Manhattan phone book (and I knew he only wore Levi’s 501 button-fly jeans).

I called the number in the white pages. Fred Hughes, Warhol’s studio manager, answered. Hughes was equally warm and nonchalant. Sure,’ he said. Andy can do this. With that, the commission for the silk-screened canvas was set. Soon after, I got a call from Warhol himself, saying that he would be sending some Polaroids of his ideas. The photos arrived and I opened the envelope with excitement to find nine images with Levi’s famous button-fly unbuttoned to varying degrees of exposure. The tenth Polaroid was the tamest, with all the buttons fastened. Suffice it to say, the marketing execs went for that one.

Morla Design, Andy Warhol project

When I informed Warhol that we needed to use the least-revealing image, he not only understood but invited me to the Factory the following month to observe the canvas silk screening in progress. Very thrilling—I was a huge admirer of his work and had followed his coterie of creative characters since the late ’60s. At this point, Warhol was wildly successful and the Factory, at 860 Broadway, exuded a uniquely old-school-money-meets-warehouse-chic vibe.

Brigid Berlin, one of Warhol’s Factory superstars, greeted me at the door and I was asked to join Andy for lunch. A few international art dealers, a couple of society women, Warhol (and his wild wig), and I (!) all sat at a large Art Deco, bird’s-eye-maple table in a coffered-ceiling dining room. The whole scene was watched over by an enormous moose head hanging on the wood-paneled wall.

At 27, I was by far the youngest one there (albeit a bit too young to recognize the other lunch guests). We were served champagne, caviar, and I recall turkey (?!) for lunch. Afterward, when the other guests departed, Warhol asked if I would like to help him choose the ink colors for the canvas. We spent a couple of hours together as his assistant screened the image.

He invited me back the following day to see the finished canvas, which was drying next to a recently completed portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe. I thanked him for his beautiful work and for inviting me to be a part of the experience. He smiled, went to a desk, took out a copy of his book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, signed it, and gave it to me.

I left Levi’s a few months later to open Morla Design. Despite Rauschenburg and Hockney agreeing to contribute art pieces to the project, it was mothballed with my departure. A bit bittersweet, but Warhol’s original canvas lives on at Levi’s headquarters in San Francisco and I still feel the thrill of that lunch—and Warhol’s spirit—each time I visit Bob there.