Symbols, Speed, Promises and Stealing My Grandfather’s Horse
Maybe you’ve visited (or worked at) our offices on Monument Circle and wondered why there’s a big, red, winged, enamel horse there. To look it in the eye, a horse that looks a little alarmed to be suddenly winged, to be honest. It’s somebody else’s logo. Not even a client. And it’s not like we collect old enamel advertising signs, it’s pretty much just this one.
But this one’s different. At least to us.
It was originally provided to one Willard Montgomery by the Standard Oil Company Of New York (SOCONY) as a replacement for the “Gargoyle Oil” signs that identified his powder-blue building. Willard, in addition to his duties as grandfather, ran a garage and filling station in my home town of Liberty, Indiana –with a break in the 40s to fight fascism– from the mid-1930s until the mid-1980s. At which time he determined he could work on “oughta-MO-beels” more successfully without troublesome customers.
This particular sign came off that building in the early 1970’s when Chermayeff and Geismar’s ultramodern Mobil redesign got applied to Montgomery-Jones Mobil Service, replacing this weatherproof enamel gem with a back-lit glass disk that revealed a growing pile of dead gnats and flies in its lower third every night. This enamel sign looked great for 45 years. It looked great until the day my uncle Chris yanked it down and dropped it 9 feet to the pavement, crumpling and chipping its legs. Then he chucked it up to the garage loft for nearly a decade.
Then, about 1982, I stole it.
After I stole it, I asked Willard if I could have it.
“Well, it’s up in the alley-barn loft if you can tote it home.”
Heh. no it wasn’t.
It took me a few years to realize why I had to have it. Why I moved it to my Herron apartment, to 3 different houses, then 3 different BaM locations. It’s kind of an example of why we do what we do on our best days: We connect symbols and stories that effortlessly weave a brand’s promise to its concrete existence in the world, in ways that cling to your memory.
Welding ideas to memory is a magical job.
Half a century later, I still feel a Pavlovian response to the smell of gasoline — not that we have that big, yeasty, deadly, eythl-leaded kind we had back then. Still all these ideas are welded together for me: a fill-up at grandfather’s station meant there was almost surely a Hershey Bar on offer from behind the glass of the candy display that had been advertising tooth decay there since at least WWII. Gas?! Hershey Bar!! There was even a Pavlov-ready double-bell that rang when you pulled up to the pump and ran over some kind of magical rubber tube. I swear if I heard that sound today I’d still bark for a Hershey bar.
My grandparents also had a bright red Studebaker Champ pick-up, without question the finest pickup truck ever made. Fight me. And when I grew big enough to see that sign over the edge of the truck door, I noticed when we were at that place where the colors of the horse exactly matched our truck, bright red body, white trim — the promise of the Pegasus became the promise of our truck — it would be all-powerful, maybe even WINGED, for the next hundredish miles. All those ideas and promises, welded together.
It was surely the birth of my interest in design communication.
And now here it still is, 20 years at BaM, where it, a flying animal, keeps us grounded. The simplicity of the symbol and its promise, the fact that it doesn’t need much — heck, any, sophistication to appreciate. And it’s not really stylistically all that dated, even if its history shows up in the powder-blue paint where my uncle Chris got sloppy. A horse is a horse; a myth stays a myth. Its style comes from it honestly; it’s style is not really applied to it or abstracted. Okay, the tail is pretty Art Deco.
As a selling proposition, its promise is simple, memorable and unchanging, even now, 20 years later, 40 years later, 80 years later.
Fast. Flying. And red, so they see you coming.
On our best days, that’s all we want to do.