Art for all

Cass Art is a brand with a mission. Its founder Mark Cass and Pentagram’s Angus Hyland talk to Patrick Burgoyne about trying to shake up the art world

It’s a truism in the creative industries that the best work comes about when client and designer have a long-term, mutually respectful relationship. Even better is when the ‘client’ concerned has real power to make decisions, such as the founder of a company. Just such a relationship has existed for the past ten years between Angus Hyland of Pentagram and Cass Art founder Mark Cass. Together they have built Cass Art into a successful brand with a strong identity and a recognisable visual style and attitude.

Hyland and Cass had worked together before, when Cass ran photolibrary Image Bank. Cass Arts had opened in 1984 on London’s Charing Cross Road but Pentagram only became involved once a second shop, on High Street Kensington, was opened and Cass devoted his energies to the business full-time.

“There was no ‘brand’ in art materials on the high street at the time,” Hyland recalls. Specialist shops such as the venerable L Cornelissen in Bloomsbury or Cowling & Wilcox in Soho served London’s serious art community. Cass wanted to appeal to everyone else. “He wrote this tongue-in-cheek manifesto that was kind of a cross between [the Futurist] Marinetti and John Lewis,” Hyland recalls. “One of its lines was ‘Let’s fill this town with artists’. We started to use that as the de facto brand positioning.”

In Cass’s mind, his would be an ‘aspirational lifestyle’ brand that would encourage anyone and everyone to have a go at art. In a 2010 interview he stated that “I want everyone to shed their inhibitions, pick up their brushes or pencils, and start being creative.” His shops would be welcoming places where adults – and increasingly children – would feel welcomed and encouraged to get involved in creating art.

Hyland set about translating that aspiration into visual form, dropping the ‘s’ to rename the brand Cass Art and creating a utilitarian logotype in a stencil typeface that, in a nod to the then all-pervasive YBAs, included the word London. This fitted Cass’s idea of the brand as metropolitan and young – his target market being 18 to 30 year-olds who were to be attracted by low prices and funky interiors (some created by Hyland’s Pentagram colleague William Russell) bedecked with exhortations to get involved. The windows of the Berwick Street branch, for example, are covered in Marion Deuchars’ distinctive handlettering of quotes from artists such as Picasso (“Every child is an artist”) and Matisse (“Creativity takes courage”).

The visual language so carefully developed by Hyland was somewhat at odds with that of most of the major art supply manufacturers whose imagined customer is more traditional, however. “The brand leaders were so behind,” Hyland says. “They were fixated on aunties in Tunbridge Wells doing watercolours. Their packaging was antithetical to what we wanted to do.” Cass adds; “We thought we could change the market but they are not ready to change.”

And so, launching next month, Cass Art is putting out a range of own- brand products. The packaging for items such as cartridge paper pads and tracing paper features not the carefully rendered figurative imagery typical of other art brands, but vivid, simple marks. The marker paper is illustrated with a series of crude green lines, the Canford with cut paper circles. And in the Cass ‘anyone can do it’ spirit, the images were created by Hyland and his team at Pentagram. They are, Hyland says, designed to prove that, “you can do your own thing without having to go on a course”.

Initially there are 25 own-brand items. If they go well, the range will move beyond paper into brushes, marker pens and so on. Creating the own brand range is also key to the company’s next step  – selling online, which it will begin to do later this year. “We didn’t want to be selling the same products online as everyone else,” Cass reasons.

While selling online is a logical step, Cass Art is still rooted firmly in the analogue world. As the owner of a graphics business in the 80s, Cass had seen the computer replace Letraset and paste-up artwork but he retained a belief in the need for people to use pen and paper. Told he was crazy to launch a business based on hand-craft in the teeth of the digital revolution, he argues that “the more we use the computer the more we need to connect with the other side [of ourselves].” And when the death of high street retail is being widely predicted, Cass believes strongly that the experience of visiting his shops provides a vital level of engagement that cannot be replicated online. The day we speak, his flagship store in Islington has just hosted a ‘superhero sketching party’ for 80 kids while the Hampstead branch boasts an interactive sketching installation created by AllOfUs.

“It’s a bit like you continuing to print CR,” he says. “People still want that hands-on experience. The moment you go, I’ll be worried.”

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