Walter Landor: the Captain of The Klamath
Graphis, June 1999
There were attractive office girls with names like Wendy Darling or Nancy Love. You’d bump into them on the decks, taking in the sun. Clients loved it!
In Japan on a business trip in the early 1960s, Walter Landor and Mim Ryan, his young research analyst, stopped the car on the side of the road to admire a flowering bougainvillea tree. A dapper gentleman with a very European mustache, Landor was an admirer of all things visual, "from beautiful flowers to pretty women," remembers Ryan.
"He got out of the car and I saw him bend over toward the fallen blossoms and pick what I thought was a delicate flower petal. But when he came back to the car, he was holding in his hand a discarded candy wrapper he had found on the sidewalk."
"Products are made in a factory, but brands are created in the mind," Landor once said. One of the most influential branding pioneers, he was already a well-known packaging designer at the time of this anecdote.
From his small waterfront office in San Francisco, "a funny little place with a creaking staircase in the middle of the vegetable market," recalls Ryan, he had redesigned the Benson & Hedges cigarette packs, the Sapporo beer can, and the Kellogg's mini-packs cereal boxes. In the coming decades, his San Francisco design company, established in 1941, would be assigned to create or reposition some of the most ubiquitous consumer brands worldwide, including Del Monte (1965), Levi's (1968), Cotton Inc. (1973), Schaefer Beer (1975), Marlboro (1977), Tab (1979), Frito-Lay (1980), Dole (1984), Coke (1985), and Fuji Film (1987).
Landor & Associates would also single-handedly brand the commercial aeronautic field, designing the logos and corporate identities of Alitalia, British Airways, Japan Airlines, Delta Airlines, Cathay Pacific Airways, Varig Airlines, and Thai Airlines.
But one of the most enduring brands Landor created was himself. Though he retired in 1989, the company he founded is still the number-one choice for big business. “In our field, the Landor name is as big as Coca Cola,” says Cheryl Swanson, an authority in the branding field. “If it wasn’t for Walter, none of us would be here today. He is the father of what we now call brand design packaging.”
In contrast, when I told friends in the chauvinistic New York design world that I was researching a story on Landor, they dismissed him as “a regional artist,” their attitude a hold over from the days when there was no there there west of Chicago. It was only in the late 1970s, when Pentagram Design opened an office in San Francisco, and "The Michaels" (Michael Vanderbyl, Michael Cronan, Michael Mabry, and Michael Manwaring) called attention to the Bay Area by winning design award after design award, that Landor came up as a blip on the East Coast Design Establishment's radar.
Clay Timon, Landor Associates' present chairman, president and CEO, believes that what made Walter Landor so hard to categorize was his uniqueness. “Part of Walter’s brand appeal was that he never did what was expected. He never showed when you thought he would. He did things his way.
And clients adored him.” Forty years ago, long before anyone else, Landor sold himself as a brand — not as a package designer with a house style, but as a man with a unique approach to problem solving. “Landor would be tickled if he came back today,” adds Timon. “He would see that, at long last, the corporate culture is catching up with his vision.”
Today*, on the company’s website, his sepia portrait is featured in a medallion — a benign Dr. Freud look-alike, with the same trimmed white beard and natty British three-piece suit. The visual reference to the celebrated analyst was a subtle allusion to the fact that Landor, born Landauer in Munich, Germany, in 1913, was not a San Francisco native but a refined European émigré. “Like me, Walter came from an assimilated, German Jewish family,” says Irina Bosner, a close family friend. “He was the quintessential immigrant, absorbing the culture everywhere he went, yet never quite belonging anywhere.”
In 1931, young Walter was sent to England pursue his art education. During his first year, he changed the spelling of his name when he happened upon a London street named after Walter Savage Landor, a nineteenth century English writer. It was the first time, but not the last time, he would fix a name. During his life, he was often called upon by clients to come up with name for products, concepts and brands.
Today, Landor Associates is famous for its naming expertise, a skill much in demand in a world in which big corporations must negotiate cultural nuances across international boundaries. Disney's Touchtone, Delta's SkyMiles, FedEx's The World on Time, and AT&T's Lucent, are some of the carefully scripted words recently created by Landor & Associates.
With his new British name, Landor adopted a well-tempered English manner. Years later, in San Francisco, he would charm everyone with his so-called "distinctive European demeanor," an expression that conveyed the slight confusion his friends, employees, and clients felt when trying to identify the specific ethnic origin of his natural warmth, his quiet urbanity, his low voice, his slight accent, and his impeccable elegance.
In England where he enrolled in London University’s Goldsmith College School of Art, Landor quickly outgrew his Munich design influences, Bauhaus but also Werkbunk, the German equivalent of the Arts and Craft movement. A quick study, he became, at age 22, founding partner, with Misha Black and Milner Gray, of Industrial Design Partnership (IDP), the first industrial design consultancy in England.
In 1939, he came to the United States as part of t design team for the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. He fell in love with San Francisco while traveling across the country to familiarize himself with contemporary American industrial design. Upon learning that there were no designers in northern California, he decided to colonize the region.
"My father knew how to make every situation work for him," says his daughter Susan, who worked with him for years. "He realized that he could be successful in this town because he could have it both ways — a good life, one that blurs the line between work and play."
A talent broker
Landor drew people to him. Teaching at the California School of Fine Art (Now CCAC) he attracted (and partied with) an artsy crowd of colleagues, students, painters, architects, and sculptors, among them his future wife, Josephine, still an artist today, and painters like Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn, then unknown. “It was a struggle right from the beginning,” remembers Jo Landor. They married in 1940 and at first worked together from an apartment on Russian Hill. The couple had two daughters, Susan and Lynn.
Early on, Walter decided that his specialty would be packaging. “He realized that he had a natural talent for designing things that appealed to the masses,” recalls Jo.
After the war, between 1945 and 1951, Landor worked from a small rented office at 556 Commercial Street, on the edge of Chinatown, where, according to Phil Dubrow, a close associate of Landor for decades, “a lot of art teachers had their studios.” At the time, the art schools in the Bay Area were abuzz with young WWII veterans eager to get an art education. Dubrow remembers Landor telling him that when prospective clients came to visit, Landor would act as if he owned the premises, taking them up and down to meet the various artists in residence. If he got a job -- and most of the time, he did -- he farmed out the assignments to those ambitious freelancers.
From the start, he thought of himself as a talent broker. Rodney McKnew, who worked with Landor from 1947 to 1988 credits his boss’ early successes to what he calls his peripheral vision. “His eye wasn’t on the center that held everyone’s attention, but off to the side where something far more interesting was happening.” Adds Susan Landor: "My father was a master of encounters and meetings. He would sit with the clients and the designers and say nothing at first, listening to everyone until he figured out the politics, the tensions, the possibilities. He only spoke when he had a clear take on the situation."
In 1951, Landor moved his operation to Bush Street, and in 1956, to a small waterfront building, on Pier Five. Photographs taken at the time show staff members at lunch time, basking on a deck overlooking the water, the women in their pretty dresses and sunglasses, the men in shirt sleeves, holding fishing rods.
"Walter's strategy was to create business by having a good time," says Phil Dubrow, who joined the company in 1972, when the relaxed atmosphere was still the trademark of the Landor working environment.
"Around the office, there were always eclectic young people and attractive girls with names like Wendy Darling or Nancy Love. There were part of Walter's cheerful entourage. You would bump into them on the decks, taking in the sun. Clients loved it!"
The move to larger quarters gave Landor a chance to focus his professional practice and establish package design as his main specialty. He installed on the premises a mockup retail environment to help designers and clients visualize the new packages in the real-life context of grocery shelves. "Back in the early days," explains Mime Ryan, "Designers did not try to understand consumers or get feedback from them. In the 1960s, eye-tracking and two-way mirrors were new to the marketing field." Hired in 1963 as a research analyst, she helped develop focus groups by creating a full blown research department, including a large in-house supermarket, complete with two crowded aisles and a freezer case.
In 1964, Landor put a final touch on his brand image by buying an old ferryboat, restoring it, and moving his entire office in it. Anchored on Pier Five, the Klamath, as the boat was called, became his proud flagship. It was large enough to accommodate four design departments, a research area for focus groups, a new and improved supermarket environment, a photo studio, and a slide library.
But just as important, the boat became the setting of weekly Friday-night floating extravaganzas. Often organized to entertain clients, but just as often to keep the spirit of the place upbeat, the festive events attracted every celebrity who happened to be in San Francisco that night. As soon as the word was out that Tom Wolfe, Andy Warhol, Howard Gossage, the Grateful Dead, or Marshall McLuhan were expected, two hundred of Landor's friends, clients and protégés would show up to meet the impromptu guests of honor.
Landor drew people to him because he was interested in everyone, even critics who didn't necessarily agree with his design philosophy. "Walter wasn't an ego. He didn't need to leave his fingerprint on the work itself," explains Ryan. "He had a great tolerance for other people's eccentricities. He encouraged everyone to forge ahead and explore new ideas. He took the position that the work coming out of his office was a team effort, not a style statement."
An amazing salesman and a savvy businessman, Landor insisted design solutions be relevant, not artistic. "He drove you nuts," says Kay Stout, who was hired in 1974. "He made changes at the last minute to increase 'shelves-impact' rather than aesthetics. He elevated design from decoration to communication. He taught me that good design and good marketing can go together — but it's a lot harder."
Called by his critics "the guy who puts stripes on everything," Landor could layer color over color, cartouche over cartouche, and stripe over stripe like no one else. Unlike his contemporaries — Raymond Loewy, Walter Margolies, George Nelson, Saul Bass, or Paul Rand — he didn't have a "house" style. What he had, though, was an uncanny instinct for second-guessing what would appeal to consumers in any given situation.
"His approach was humanistic," says John Diefenbach, who went to work for Landor in 1973 as director of clients services, and ended up running the company in 1984. "Walter was not in love with the Swiss International Style, he preferred warm, colorful designs. He knew what worked. He understood the appetite appeal of a product. After years of focus groups and consumer feedback, his taste was in perfect sync with that of the public at large."
Landor was a maestro. The last to come into a room (he liked to make an entrance by being a little late), he even looked like a conductor. But with everyone depending on his direction, his comments, and his approval, a lot of time was spent anticipating his next appearance. So much so, in fact, that someone suggested the accounting department issue a job number for "Waiting for Walter."
His loose managerial style, which would eventually be his undoing, was a formidable strength during the first four decades of the company's growth. Landor consistently attracted the best people in the business by creating serendipitous conditions in which everyone had a chance to work on the most interesting projects. "He gave young designers and veterans alike the opportunity to do their best work," says Stout. "Right out of school, you sat down and began to design next to someone twice your age."
Marc Gobé, of Desgrippes Gobé in New York, a leading branding firm, was a young upstart designer in San Francisco in the 1970s. For the Art Director's Club, he had organized a show of then-controversial Polish posters. "Walter Landor came to the opening with an entourage of a dozen young people from his office," he recalls. "A recognized authority in the field, he still was interested in what was new and cutting edge. Right there, I decided to emulate him. I promised to myself to always take the time to mentor members of my staff."
Michael Carabetta, now with Chronicle Books in San Francisco, used to work for Landor back then. "The first Thursday of the month, rain or shine, Landor made the rounds of the art galleries, taking us along, and gathering more people as we went," he remembers. "He touched many people's lives with his dapper, man-about-town, worldly approach to the design profession."
Too many unbillable hours
But the times were already changing. John Diefenbach can almost pinpoint the exact moment when Landor lost his edge, and with it his control over the company he had created. It was at a meeting in the late 1970s, during which a young designer, freshly hired out of Yale, presented a rather clean and slick-looking design solution — something Landor would usually have rejected.
"Walter preferred the fuzzy stuff as a rule," explains Diefenbach. Expecting his boss to ask for something more flowery, Diefenbach couldn't believe it when Landor listened to the presentation and made no objections. "He went along with the general consensus that this staid approach was what the client needed. At that moment, the company changed.”
Instead of being driven by a perception of what consumers wanted, design decisions were now driven by a perception of what clients wanted. This was a major shift. Landor Associates was now poised for the 1980s, a decade that turned out to be the most profitable era for the company.
“The first generation of Landor executives were not as good managers as the second generations,” concedes McKnew. “We served Landor well, but we weren’t ‘suits.’ We were emotionally involved. Our intuition was more developed than our proposal-writing skills.”
For all his youthful enthusiasm, Landor was showing his age; the generation gap became more evident.
In 1980, Phil Dubrow was surprised to discover, for instance, that the man who had designed countless soft drink cans and corn chips bags for a number of major league clients had no concept of what fast food was all about. "We were running behind schedule and had no time for lunch," he remembers. "Walter wanted to stop at a good restaurant for a proper meal, as was his habit, but I argued that since we were so late, we'd better pull in front of a McDonald and get a couple of hamburgers." Confronted with a burger, a Coke, and a straw, Landor had no idea how to proceed. When Dubrow explained to him how to drink and eat the stuff, Landor took the packaging apart, and with nothing short of glee, said "Brilliant!"
All those years, Landor had been an astute tactician, "but not a good strategist," says Dubrow. "He had never been a good manager and he didn't work as hard as we did." Rodney McKnew explains that while most business types were morning people, Landor was a night person, “working late, when no one was around, only interrupting himself for parties.” Clay Timmon remembers that Landor would sometimes vanish for two weeks at a time. “Then he would show up in the Paris office before disappearing again on one of his mini-sabbaticals.”
Then, there were all those unbillable hours wasted waiting for Walter to show up. "Before I came to the company," says Diefenbach, "Walter used to propose up to 150 designs of beer bottles or cigarette packs to clients, all finished drawings!" Indeed, Landor seemed to care more about the fun, the designers, and the creative atmosphere than the bottom line.
In contrast with Landor's Old-World charm, Diefenbach, a charismatic man in his own right, was industrious and aggressive. Under his stewardship, the company became a truly international entity. Though it already had offices in Tokyo, Mexico City and London, it now was expanding to Washington, Chicago, Seattle, Hong Kong, and Paris. Internal reorganization was also initiated, with teams working more independently, and more efficiently. In what many consider an unnecessary blow to Landor’s ego, the offices were moved out of the Klamath in 1987, to allow Diefenbach to upgrade the infrastructure and refurbish the interiors to reflect the splashy taste of the Reagan years.
To oppose Diefenbach's ambitious drive, Landor would act dense during their discussions, as if he didn't get the point. The tug of war between them was painful to watch for employees who were loyal to Walter, but had to admire John's unquestionable leadership. “John was bound to run into problems,“ says Timon. “You can’t take over the role of an icon.”
Landor and Diefenbach would come out of meetings with each other looking exhausted. Walter, always the gentleman, was trembling with repressed anger. Diefenbach was cool and determined. Though the older man was still the star, it was clear to everyone that the younger man ran the company. "We had made earning projections, and exceeded our expectations," explains Dubrow. "As a result of some previous financial arrangements, Walter made a lot more money than what was expected, while John was not getting the financial recognition he deserved."
In 1989, Diefenbach, by now President, CEO, and the main shareholder of Landor Associates, spearheaded a move to buy out Walter Landor. Later that same year, the company was sold to Young & Rubicam, and, according to Durbrow, “everyone did just fine.”
Diefenbach and Landor Associates parted ways. The new owners promised Walter Landor that they would complete the renovations on the Klamath, and move the company back in it. But the reconditioning of the boat was indefinitely postponed.
It soon became evident that Landor Associates would be permanently headquartered on Front Street, the silhouette of the ferry boat now only a quaint icon next to the company logo.
"I couldn't have had a better time"
"Walter Landor's goal was not to make money but be surrounded with people who were different," notes Dubrow. Susan Landor agrees: “ My father was a shrewd businessman, but he was never greedy. He was not impressed by the fact that everyone in the 1980s made buckets of money. He cared more about the company he had created.”
On his tombstone, she says, he wanted the following words "I couldn't have had a better time."
Landor died in 1995 after a series of strokes, at the age of eighty-one, but today his brand is still very much alive. The firm he spent 54 years nurturing remains in good hands. New clients who come to one of the twelve Landor offices are shown pictures of the ferryboat, and told about the man who championed the idea that understanding consumers and getting their feedback was critical to the design process and the branding of products. Apparently, they are even told about "Captain Walter" and the wild parties on the boat. But whether or not this means anything to them is your guess and mine.
As the saying goes, you had to be there.
I was there briefly, in the 1980s, living in San Francisco. Walter Landor and his boat were part of the local folklore. One rainy Friday night, a friend of mine suggested I meet him on the Klamath, as his date for the evening, with the promise that we would go out for a drink later, after the party. The boat was rocking and the place was mobbed. In the push, I couldn't find my friend. I didn't bump into anyone I knew and soon became self-conscious.
As I was thinking about leaving, an older gent, who had probably noticed my discomfort, came to my rescue. We began to chat, and in the course of the conversation, I asked him how he came to be here. "I am Walter Landor," he said, "I don't know anyone here, and it's too noisy. Let's go out for a drink."
Now, I thought, wait a minute. He was married and I was single, and his reputation as a flirt was as much part of the local lore as his boat and his prestigious clients. But I was young and reckless back then, so I said why not. We sneaked out of the party and he told me to get into my little Mazda and follow him to a bar he knew. A notorious bad driver, he headed toward the Golden Gate Bridge at the wheel of his classic Mercedes coupe convertible. With the rain obscuring my windshield, I had trouble keeping up with him. When we crossed into Marin County and he boldly took for the hills.
At long last, he pulled in front of what looked like a deserted Irish bar, an unlikely vision in this pristine and bucolic part of the world. Cold, wet, and somewhat peeved, I slunk on a stool next to him at the bar. We settled down, ordered beers, and resumed our chat.
He seemed genuinely interested to hear about my work, my life, my family. He was a great listener indeed, with the knack for making you feel special. Watching the city twinkle in the distance over his shoulders through the window, I realized that this was one of those moments when life makes sense: You sit in a funky old bar in the rain with a nice little fellow with a bow tie, while down there, by the bay, the party is still going on.
*That was 10 years ago, when this article was originally written. Today the Landor archives are no longer on the website, but in the basement of the Smithsonian museum.
1/3 - Marlboro, one of the many brands that was managed by Landor Associates
2/3 - Walter Landor is conspicuously absent from the Landor brand narrative: he was too real
3/3 - Coke, Levi's, Cotton, Bank of America, FritoLay, FedEx: all part of the Landor porfolio