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My name in ‘letters of fire’

Tania Messell 

The Eiffel Tower in 1925. Image c Wikimedia Commons

The Eiffel Tower in 1925. Image © Wikimedia Commons

The repetition of a sign is one of the most fascinating aspects of branding, not only in its semiotic significance, but also when examining the actual production of the sign. A logo, for example, had to be simple enough to be reproduced in a wide range of materials or with the help of more developed technologies, ranging from neon tubes to carpeting. Thus the properties of the medium affected the graphic language, which was equally affected by it. Citroën’s name woven into the structure of the Eiffel Tower is a striking example of this.

The well-known poster designer and typographer Raymond Gid already expressed nostalgia for the graphic achievement accomplished some thirty years earlier with the use of electrical light. As he wrote in 1959 in the avant-garde journal Esthétique Industrielle:

‘The modern aesthetic of light is still in its infancy. After the skilful orchestration of the Eiffel Tower, what more has been achieved? It would be of great interest to see a confirmed graphic creator (sic) handle the challenging medium of light[1].’

Paris had just emerged from four years of darkness, as the city lights and electric signs had been suppressed during the First World War. A sudden outbreak of creativity in advertising resulted from this in the early 1920s, which resulted in a wide range of technical innovations[2]. The night was to be reconquered, as well as the sky itself.

The relationship between advertising and electrical lighting had already started in 1850 when hydraulic gas lamps were used to highlight shop fronts to the passers-by. Advertising took a life of itself a few years later, when the Parisian advertising company had installed 530 gas lit billboards throughout the city, where space was offered for rental to advertisers[3]. The use of electrical lights for electric signs would only start in 1880, when a gigantic ‘K’ was fixed to a balcony on the Place de l’Opéra to promote Kodak. Pursuing this quest of the highest point, projectors made with a system of removable metal stencils were later developed to cast words onto the sky[4]. The letters had by then lost their materiality (therefore it would be of great interest to study the typography that was used on these stencils).

Still from ‘Citroën et la Tour Eiffel’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSfZUNl25oE

Still from ‘Citroën et la Tour Eiffel’
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSfZUNl25oE

The industrialist and owner of Europe’s most important car manufacturer, André-Gustave Citroën, was at that time eager to advertise his name wherever he could[5]. The most impressive illustration of this took place at a car fair in 1922, when he commissioned a stunt pilot to trace the company’s name in white smoke up in the sky. This early form of happening took place every single day of the event, much to the authorities’ dismay and demonstrated that Citroën was a modern (and ambitious) company [6]. These planes, commonly known as ‘avions calligraphes’, had indeed been developed by modern advertisers, and equally challenged the limits of graphic expression.

Eiffel died in 1923, and the company handling the monument right after this started to look for prospective advertisers[7]. The American Henry Ford and Renault immediately expressed an interest in putting up their names on the tower, which did not stay unnoticed by André-Gustave Citroën[8]. The Paris 1925 Exhibition was approaching, and Jacopozzi, a Franco-Italian engineer, had by then offered him to ‘put his name in letters of fire on the most eminent support…’[9]. Citroën reacted promptly and signed an exclusive contract for the space. Two hundred thousand lights connected by ninety kilometres of electrical cables were interwoven into the iron structure. Each letter was thirty meters high and alternated with flashing stars and comets. The logo of the firm, representing the gearing technology developed by the company, was later placed between the first and second floor, visible by all.

Still from ‘Citroën et la Tour Eiffel’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSfZUNl25oE

Still from ‘Citroën et la Tour Eiffel’
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CSfZUNl25oE



The installation remained until 1936, and thus adorned the tower eleven years in a row. Jacopozzi modified all along the installation in accordance with the company’s activities by adding a large number ‘6’ in 1928 for the launching of the six-cylinder Citroën and ‘C-4’ written in 1929 among other elements. He also repeatedly changed the side ornaments[10], and thus turned the monument into a reactive and ever-evolving object.

Could it thus be speculated that the malleability of the medium, allowing its creator to change the installation several times, had allowed Citroën’s name to stay for so long? Tag Gronberg writes that the presence of advertising or publicité was commonly seen as a token of modernity at that time. It had indeed fully impregnated the 1925 Paris Exhibition and by doing so conveyed that ‘the art of advertising must be modern or cease to exist’[11].

Beyond Jacopozzi’s technical achievement with the use of electrical light, did Citroën’s name participate in promoting Paris as the ville lumière? At a time where advertising manuals instructed that ‘light sells’[12], it could very much have done so.

 


[1] Raymond Gid,  ‘Lumières de la ville’, Esthétique Industrielle, Vol 39, (Paris: Editions de Clermont, 1959), pp. 30-33 (p.33)

[2] Bruno Ulmer, ‘Un siècle d’illuminations et de publicité lumineuse’ in Art & Publicité, 1890-1990, (Paris : Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1992), pp.408-423 (p.410)

[3] Bruno Ulmer, ‘Un siècle d’illuminations et de publicité lumineuse’ in Art & Publicité, 1890-1990, (Paris : Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1992), pp.408-423 (p.409)

[4] Bruno Ulmer, ‘Enseignes lumineuses’ in Art et Publicite, 1890-1990, Centre Georges Pompidou (Paris : Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1992), pp.408-423, (p.412)

[5] Guillermo Giucci, The Cultural Life of the Automobile: Roads to Modernity, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), p.150

[6] Fabien Sabatès, Moi, Citroën (Fontainebleau: Rétroviseur, 1994), p.114

[7] Jean-Claude, Daufresne, Fêtes à Paris au XXe siècle: architectures éphémères de 1919 à 1989 (Bruxelles: Editions Mardaga, 2001), p.169

[8] Guillermo Giucci, The Cultural Life of the Automobile: Roads to Modernity, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), p.150

[9] Pierre Marie Gallois, Quand Paris était ville-lumière, (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme: 2001)

[10] Jean-Claude Daufresne, Fêtes à Paris au XXe siècle: architectures éphémères de 1919 à 1989 (Bruxelles: Editions Mardaga, 2001), p.173

[11] Tag Gronberg, Designs on Modernity: Exhibiting the City in 1920s Paris (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), p.114

[12] Bruno Ulmer, ‘Un siècle d’illuminations et de publicité lumineuse’ in Art & Publicité, 1890-1990, (Paris : Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1992), pp.408-423 (p.408)

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Tania Messell – 

Tania studied both graphic design and fine arts in Switzerland before joining the V&A/RCA MA. She has since then written on the relationship between craft and corporate identities by examining the Wiener Werkstätte’s visual identity and the marketing of Provencal ceramics. Her current research investigates the development of the first corporate and institutional identities in France (1950-1975), focusing on the encounter between design, fine arts, management theories and technology.

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© Tania Messell, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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