Aesthetic shock and awe

In the early 1980s I worked in Manhattan just a few blocks from where Philip Johnson’s AT&T building was being erected. We watched with amazement as the raw steel forms of what became known as the “Chippendale” skyscraper were put in place.

Remember this was a neighborhood dominated for the previous 40 years by simple elegant rectangular forms, like the 1952 Lever House or Johnson’s own 1958 Seagram building, and more recently offset by the simple geometric angles of the 1977 CitiGroup Center or the 1983 IBM building just a block away.

And I remember the response by the architectural and design critics at the time. It was shock and awe. But love it or hate it, we now know that it has influenced many areas of design ever since.

To suggest that Philip Johnson has had an indelible influence on architecture for the last several decades, is of course obvious. But his aesthetic influence, with projects like the AT&T building, has also had a lasting influence on product and package design.

An archive of over 25,000 of his sketches, covering a period from 1968 to 1992, is being put up for sale by one of his former architectural partners, Raj Ahuja. The image above shows three of these sketches, from work on the Momentum Place in Dallas and an unbuilt Neiman Marcus building in Honolulu.

They are juxtaposed with a selection of fragrance and spirits packaging from the last decade. And the influence of his spare geometric line quality, with its obvious influences of classic arch, dome and column shapes, is unmistakable.

The images of the Johnson drawings are by Daniel Barry from a NY Times article on the collection.

The images of the packages are from


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
This entry was posted in Architecture, Beauty & Personal Care, Beverages, Design Criticism and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Aesthetic shock and awe

  1. Dan Lewis says:

    Philip Johnson did make an indelible mark on architecture. I doubt, however that even he would take credit for the arch and pediment. You assign far more influence than due.

    • You are right of course Dan, I am just suggesting he is at least partially responsible for its reemergence as a visual aesthetic, and influence in large scale commercial architecture, in the 1980s. And he was criticized mercilessly for it.

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