Selling Europe back to the Europeans

With its Helvetica-based logo, US homeware brand Crate & Barrel brought European style to the US. Now it’s heading across the Atlantic

It may not be too long before we see one of the great American brand identities in UK streets and shopping centres for the first time. The Eurozone crisis may have delayed its entry, but if rumours circulating in the summer are true, homeware chain Crate & Barrel seems destined to set up shop in London and other cities this side of the pond, and to start selling its Stateside notion of European taste back to Europeans.

It’s hard to think of another retail identity that has lasted for more than 40 years, as Crate & Barrel’s has done, let alone one that has lasted as well. Amazingly, the man who crafted the logotype, developed the look of the store’s iconic monochrome packaging, and masterminded what we’d now call a ‘brand experience’ long before the term was even coined, has remained almost unknown to the design world. In researching my next book, though, I tracked him down.

In 1968 Tom Shortlidge was a young art director at ad agency Young & Rubicam’s Chicago office, and Crate & Barrel consisted of just one store, in the city’s Old Town, selling imported, modern design wares from Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe, displayed in the crates and barrels they arrived in. Dropping into the store soon after finishing a regular weekend job there, Shortlidge was asked his opinion of a new logo founder Gordon Segal had commissioned.

“It was a stylised ‘C + B’,” recalls Shortlidge, “and would have been very appropriate for a glass manufacturer. [But] the warmth of the name ‘Crate and Barrel’ and what that implied was missing.”

Shortlidge was invited to have a go. To reflect the store’s ‘European-ness’, he started looking at Helvetica – still a relatively new font in the US at the time, and one Shortlidge had introduced to the in-store signage while he was there. He was attuned to Armin Hoffmann’s work and the Swiss style, and the Bauhaus was a philosophical reference point for he and Segal.

But Helvetica on its own was going to be too anonymous. “The ‘C’ in the original font just had no ability to stop the eye,” Shortlidge says. “Helvetica flirts with being boring all the time. The round ‘C’, the tighter spacing, and the modification of the ampersand were intended to give the logo a distinctiveness that the typeface itself seldom has,” he explains.

The circular ‘C’ gave the logo something extra. Crate & Barrel would become part of the wave of Helvetica-based identities that transformed US corporate symbology. But it was the mark’s application to packaging that was revolutionary. “I felt strongly that all the packaging and graphics should be black and white so as not to compete with the merchandise. And, as I began applying the logo to surfaces, I became intrigued with wrapping that black logo around white bags and boxes to create mysterious letter patterns,” Shortlidge says.

Those first bags and boxes began appearing at the end of 1968. They became Crate & Barrel’s primary advertising medium; millions of customers have spent money in the store just to own one.

Incredibly, Shortlidge ran the brand as a one-man marketing department – including writing and designing much of its advertising – while still in a day job at Y&R, for almost 30 years. Although he simply says, “I just did what I could over the years,” he single-handedly masterminded a branding programme in his spare days and evenings that, in its all-encompassing nature, was years ahead of its time and influenced many that followed. So integrated into every facet of the company has the monochrome Helvetica identity become, that change now would be unthinkable.

Crate & Barrel made European style available to America. And it did Helvetica better than anyone in Europe. “There is a certain ironic destiny about the European-looking logo heading back to Europe,” agrees Shortlidge. “Hopefully, the Greek and Italian economies won’t have something to say about that.” 

Michael Evamy is the author of LOGO and its companion, Logotype, to be published by Laurence King in 2012.

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