Container Corporation of America

Introducing European modernism in graphic and corporate design

Updated: October 25, 2012

The Container Corporation of America (CCA) played an influential role in the dissemination of modernist graphic design in advertising and corporate marketing during the middle of the twentieth-century, and relied heavily on European émigré artists. The CCA, incorporated in 1926 in Chicago by Walter Paepcke, built on the lumber empire of his father, German immigrant Herman Paepcke, who had been a manufacturer of wooden shipping crates. By the 1930s, the new company had long since shifted to producing card-board boxes and other paper-based shipping supplies. CCA increasingly distinguished itself by emphasizing modernist design in advertising and corporate image and established an innovative design department that helped promote a transatlantic modernist style. 

Beginning in 1936, the design department was headed by designer Egbert Jacobson who not only pushed for the use of professional design in product development and advertising (in collaboration with the N.W. Ayers advertising firm), but participated more broadly in the debate about industry and design at the time. In 1942, for example, Jacobson and the company’s color laboratories division published the color harmony manual (see documents), which aimed at introducing the color theories of German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald to an American audience. The promotion of Ostwald, whose work had been discussed at the Bauhaus school in previous decades, provides one example of the many transatlantic transfers the company’s design department engaged in by drawing on European artists from interwar avant-garde circles.

The interest in European émigrés was due in part to Walter Paecke’s philanthropic efforts and interest in modern art. Paepcke had greatly supported Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s establishment of an “American Bauhaus” in Chicago in 1937 and his company cooperated with several of the affiliated artists. Hungarian-born graphic artist Georgy Kepes, a member of the school’s faculty, designed brochures for the company, including “Paperboard goes to War” emphasizing the CCA’s contribution to the American war effort. CCA advertisements were primarily created by European immigrants. French modernists A.M. Cassandre and Jean Carlu were prominent examples as was Swiss-born Herbert Matter. The artist most closely connected to Paepcke and the Container Corporation was perhaps former Bauhaus advertising artist Herbert Bayer who helped re-create the company’s corporate identity from the logo to the workplace, and also masterminded the CCA’s “great ideas of western man” series of influential advertisements.

Like Bayer, the CCA very consciously crossed the border between art and industry, sponsoring several exhibitions prominently featuring European-born artists.  The 1946 exhibition “Modern Art in Advertising,” for example, featured examples of the company’s design work first at the Chicago Art Institute and subsequently at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The accompanying catalogue explicitly discounted the notion that advertising art was an “American” art form, highlighting instead the contributions of European and Asian artists. The CCA’s substantial collection of artworks was later donated to the National Museum of American Art.

Paepcke and Bayer ultimately worked to institutionalize their vision for the convergence of commerce and culture in the form of the Aspen Institute, founded in 1950. The institute was conceived as an international meeting place imbued with a humanistic vision for business and cultural leaders, and has been supported by the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corporation among other philanthropic organizations. Since 1951, it has also held an annual International Design Summit in Aspen aiming to further promote increased awareness for the role of design in business. Informed by the experience of fascism in Europe and the context of the Cold War, Paepcke’s efforts sought to infuse postwar Capitalism with humanistic values and to foster a shared transatlantic, Western tradition. The Container Corporations advertising campaigns underscored these goals and furthermore intended to place modern art and design firmly within such a Western tradition.

Selected Publications

Container Corporation of America and Egbert Jacobson. Modern Art in Advertising: Designs for Container Corporation of America. Chicago: P. Theobald, 1946.

Selected Bibliography

Allen, James Sloan. The Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Meggs, Philip B. “The Rise and Fall of Design at a Great Corporation.” In. Graphic Design History. edited by Steven Heller and Georgette Ballance, 283-292. New York: Allworth Press, 2001.

National Museum of American Art (U.S.), Neil Harris and Martina Roudabush Norelli. Art, Design, and the Modern Corporation: The Collection of Container Corporation of America, a Gift to the National Museum of American Art. Washington, DC: Published for the National Museum of American Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.

Woodham, Jonathan M. Twentieth Century Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Archival Collections

CCA collection at the University of Illinois, Chicago, IL.

International Design Conference in Aspen collection at University of Illinois, Chicago, IL.

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"Container Corporation of America," Transatlantic Perspectives, 2017, Transatlantic Perspectives. 29 Mar 2017 <http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=11>

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"Container Corporation of America." (2017) In Transatlantic Perspectives, Retrieved March 29, 2017, from Transatlantic Perspectives: http://transatlanticperspectives.org/entry.php?rec=11