Walter Landor

Portrait of a pioneer

Walter Landor, the son of prominent German architect Fritz Landauer, was born in Munich on July 9, 1913. Young Walter was greatly influenced by the Bauhaus and Werkbund design movements flourishing in Germany at that time, as well as by his father. At the age of 18, he had already recognized the powerful potential of design to affect human emotion and decided to go into this field to “concentrate on designing everyday products that would make life more pleasant and more beautiful and appeal to the mass audience.”1

Walter left Munich in 1931 and completed his studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Along with Misha Black and Milner Gray, he founded Industrial Design Partnership (IDP) in 1935, the first consultancy of its kind in England. A year later at the age of 23, Walter became the youngest fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.2

Walter and the IDP design team traveled to the United States in 1939 to install part of the British Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. There he met industrial design giants Raymond Loewy, Walter Teague, and Henry Dreyfuss. With war rapidly approaching in Europe, Walter decided to travel across the country to study American industrial design. He wanted to see for himself how his American counterparts “had succeeded so miraculously, so dramatically, more than we had in London.”3 Walter made his way to the West Coast and visited San Francisco, where he immediately decided to settle. “For me, it was a city that looked out on the whole world, a city built on the cultural traditions of East and West.... How could I live anywhere else?”4

A firm is born

In November 1939, Walter was introduced to Glenn Wessels of the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Wessels invited him to teach in the college’s new department of industrial design.5 The curriculum Walter developed emphasized practical solutions to concrete problems. Outside the classroom, he conducted a forum in which “practicing designers, teachers, architects, and business executives [could] study the latest developments in the field.”6 Walter taught his first class in January 1940, and there sitting in the front row was Josephine Martinelli. They fell in love and soon married. In 1941, Walter established Walter Landor & Associates (WL&A) in a small flat in the Russian Hill area of San Francisco, with Jo as the “associate.”7

In 1945, Walter and Jo relocated their office and studios to 556 Commercial Street, near San Francisco’s Chinatown, and expanded their team to include new members. Walter continued teaching design fundamentals at the San Francisco School of Fine Arts (today called the San Francisco Art Institute). There he met Rodney McKnew, a student and freelance artist who soon came on board as an associate. Graphic illustrators Francis Mair and Lillian Sader, both formerly of Chicago, also joined WL&A. McKnew, Mair, and Sader were to remain with Walter for over 40 years as design associates and senior staff.8


The company’s earliest contracts came from locally based clients. Walter and Jo collaborated on interior designs for the Joseph Magnin department stores, the Pony Lounge in the Hotel Don, and Lester’s Market.9 Walter’s first retail label project was for S&W Fine Foods in San Francisco. The shortage of metal during World War II had forced canners of fruits and vegetables to switch to glass containers, and S&W needed an innovative yet functional label. Walter’s design placed the brand name at a consistent location on each label, with the product name in the label’s center. This made the containers easier for customers to read and for grocers to mark prices on.10

By the late 1940s, Walter and Jo were seeking new business opportunities and expanding beyond the San Francisco area. Together they headed up the Pacific coast to Seattle. Jessica Myerson, a Landor associate during the 1980s, described Walter and Jo's trip in search of new clients: “Walter and Jo got in the car just determined to find business. And they drove to Seattle and they got Sicks' Select. And that was the beginning of the beer stuff.”11

Sicks’ Select became WL&A’s first beer label redesign as well as its first client outside California. At the Small Brewers Association (SBA) annual label competition in 1948, the design for Sicks’ Select took first prize. Walter went on to earn at least one major SBA award each of the next several years.

The Sicks’ Select design drew the attention of other breweries and turned WL&A in a new direction. These labels not only brought Walter his earliest design awards, they also opened doors to new clients across the country during the highly competitive 1950s. He was no longer just a San Francisco designer; now he had successfully expanded into the Northwest as well.

Rewriting the rules

From the outset Walter favored a client-driven approach, becoming one of the first to apply consumer research to package design. During the early 1950s Walter, wearing a white lab coat, began to take his packaging and label designs into supermarkets to solicit in-store responses from shoppers.

Lewis Lowe, an associate from 1950 to 1971, accompanied Walter on these excursions to neighborhood supermarkets where “we’d go in and then we’d start putting out our designs on the shelves and move things around. And then people would come up and we’d ask them to [tell us] which one they’d pick and everything. And I would have to be there with a pad and a clipboard and marking down and checking off which one of the designs they liked, ours or the competitor’s. And pretty soon the people would start crowding around, and then the manager starts thinking, ‘Wow, this is disrupting our business,’ and then they come and kick us out.... And then we had to find another store.”12

The one supermarket where Walter had no difficulty pretesting his designs was Safeway, “because we did so much Safeway product that they would set it up through the management, so they had to accommodate us.”13 By physically going into stores and speaking directly to customers, Walter became keenly aware of the significance of packaging as a marketing component. He realized that packages needed to identify old favorites or entice consumers to try new or improved products. 14 With the package as an assurance of quality from the manufacturer, it became a promise or commitment to the consumer. 15

“The package must do the talking”

Walter’s work arose from and helped stimulate the consumer movement of the post-World War II era. “Fifteen years ago, a sales clerk might recommend a brand of soap, paint, peas, or candy. Today, the package itself must do the talking.”16 His designs incorporated traditional forms and recognizable symbols, but also employed newer materials such as cellophane and metallic foils. Using these elements combined with new retail marketing strategies and venues, Walter was influential in creating a modern commercial aesthetic.

In 1951, Walter moved his growing company to a larger office space at 143 Bush Street, where he attracted a loyal talent pool of commercial designers and artists.17 Don Short, a freelance artist who did occasional work for Walter, joined WL&A as studio director. According to Rodney McKnew, Short became Landor's “executive officer-sort of the first lieutenant-and he ran the ship.”18 Among Short’s early achievements was the establishment of a studio to photograph food and other products, an institution that continues at Landor today.19 Walter and his designers made good use of the studio when developing labels for Bel-air, Safeway’s house brand of frozen foods. For the first of many Safeway designs, photographs of different vegetables were used along with the abstract outline of a leaf to project the idea of freshness.20

Meanwhile, Walter’s success with beer labels continued. In 1952 he was invited to deliver the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Brewers Association of America (previously the Small Brewers Association), held in Chicago. In “Gentlemen, Your Label is Showing. Is It Selling Beer for You?” he emphasized the importance of a well-designed label for sales and brand recognition, outlining the steps for creating such a design. With the heads of breweries in attendance at the association meeting, this exposure increased Landor’s clientele to include Midwestern brewers in Milwaukee and St. Louis, as well as Eastern ones in New York.21

That same year Walter became a founding member of the newly formed Packaging Designers’ Council (PDC). At a time when most industrial design firms were headquartered in New York or Chicago, Walter’s membership in the PDC put him in an ideal position to promote his services nationally-primarily as an underdog. Two years later he boldly declared in a press release, “New York’s title as the top design city in the nation is being challenged by San Francisco. Landor has been bringing a fresh western approach and new imagination to the field of design.”22

For Walter no two projects were alike; there was no cookie-cutter approach to design at WL&A. Each graphic had to express the product or company uniquely and reach the consumer in a positive, meaningful way. The challenge was always communication: “We find it much, much simpler to arrive at a design solution which satisfies us aesthetically and emotionally than [one that] truly communicates to a mass audience.... That is our responsibility.”23

A shot of bourbon

In 1955, the owners of Stitzel-Weller Distillery wanted to market a Christmas decanter for their Old Fitzgerald bourbon. Walter required his team of designers to go beyond the basics and take the decanter concept in new directions. The final design, called Candlelight, was selected from among 50 possibilities.

The Candlelight decanter achieved popularity not only because of its contemporary look but also for its innovative utility. The packaging allowed the gift decanter to function as a candleholder-one of its many “after-uses” in the home.24 In Minneapolis, it was reported that women bought additional decanters to make candleholder sets, thus augmenting Old Fitzgerald’s sales.25

And a splash of water

Arrowhead & Puritas of Los Angeles, a leader in bottled water for commercial venues, wanted to introduce half-gallon glass bottles to the home and restaurant market. Glass containers of this size were unwieldy and heavy, particularly when filled, making them awkward for people seated at a table to lift. The bottle's design had to overcome this difficulty.26

The designers studied in depth how the product worked, how it was made, and how the consumer used it. The “tilt bottle” Landor developed, which had two flat surfaces, did not have to be lifted to refill an empty glass, nor did it require a handle to be passed from person to person. The bottle’s classical curves resembled the shape of early nineteenth-century glass flasks, and its rocking motion made the container easy to use. The design’s main advantage, Walter stressed, was that “the user-by tilting the bottle-[could] pour without lifting.”27 Walter’s team of designers had created an elegant and practical decanter for storing and serving bottled water.

The container performed well as a self-promoter of sales in retail stores and restaurants and in people’s homes. After drinking the water, the consumer could save the bottle for other uses, creating an in-home reminder. The design increased product recognition and resulted in greater sales for Arrowhead & Puritas while providing Walter with awards and critical acclaim.

With a beer chaser

By 1956, with the increase in clients as well as staff, a larger space was again needed and Walter moved his company to a waterfront building on Pier 5. These expanded quarters included offices, studios, and meeting rooms for newly formed research groups. In one area Walter installed “a mock retail environment to help designers and clients visualize the new packages in the real-life context of grocery shelves.”28 From an inconspicuous location, researchers could watch shoppers as they passed through the aisles with their carts, and later interview them about the packages they chose. Walter used this method of consumer research and feedback extensively to test package designs.

During the late 1950s, Landor entered the Asian market with a redesign of Sapporo beer, the oldest and best-selling brand in Japan. After 83 years, Sapporo had begun to package its beer in cans for the first time. The key visual element was the trademark red star that evoked images of the Japanese flag. Substituting the flag’s red circle, Walter placed the star on a white background. This red-and-white symbol identified the product as distinctly Japanese.

For export packaging, Landor provided several other color combinations. Hong Kong’s design used a copper star and a cream-colored background intended to reduce the visual impact of Japan’s national colors in this British-controlled region. The curving gold band developed by Landor’s designers served several purposes. The stylized S for Sapporo created a background graphic resembling the Asian yin-and-yang symbol.29 The brand name, printed in English and dominating the lower half of the can, highlighted the American influence on Japanese products following World War II.

All aboard!

In 1964, Walter bought the retired ferryboat Klamath for $12,000, had its interior turned into office space, and relocated his company on board. This move greatly enhanced the firm’s reputation for innovation and creativity; it also provided more room to expand design and consulting capabilities, including the discipline that became known as corporate identity. Mixing business with pleasure, the Klamath hosted business symposia, cultural events, and parties. Although the company eventually outgrew the ferryboat in the late 1980s and moved to its present headquarters at 1001 Front Street in San Francisco, the Klamath remains its distinctive corporate symbol.

By the 1970s the firm had changed its name to Landor Associates, established offices in Asia, Europe, and South America, and garnered worldwide acclaim. Graphics for international and domestic airlines became the newest area of expertise.

During the wave of corporate mergers prevalent in the 1980s, companies were being renamed, reconfigured, and repackaged to an unprecedented degree. Once again Walter expanded his consulting services, this time to include product and company naming, retail interiors, signage, and external store design in addition to corporate identity and package design—all driven by consumer research.

In 1989, at the age of 76, Walter basked in his retirement while retaining the title of company founder. But this was more than an honorific; Walter continued to play an active role with the company, both by visiting the San Francisco headquarters regularly and by traveling to remain in touch with clients, projects, and old friends.

A far reaching legacy

Walter Landor was a guiding force in the field of corporate and brand identities, logos, and packaging. A visionary who pioneered the use of design and graphic imagery as business and marketing tools, Walter helped create and develop some of today's best-known brands. Thanks to groundbreaking creativity backed by solid consumer research and rigorous strategic thinking, Landor Associates now enjoys a position as one of the world’s preeminent design firms.

Thousands of the logos and product identities people encounter every day around every part of the globe, were generated at Landor Associates. Walter’s dream of enriching human experience through design lives on in the company that bears his name.


About the author

Bernie Gallagher is senior documentation specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. His expertise lies in data mapping historical object information for publications and museum web projects.

Bernie has worked at the museum for over 20 years, overseeing the cataloging of objects by curators, specialists, volunteers, and interns and maintaining proper data standards in the database systems. His specialties include the collections of information technology and communications and work and industry.

Bernie earned an MA in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program at the State University of New York, College at Oneonta, where he wrote his thesis on Walter Landor, “A Brand Is Built in the Mind: Walter Landor and the Transformation of Industrial Design in the Twentieth Century.” His research and subsequent thesis form the basis of this article.



1. Ken Kelley and Rick Clogher, “The Ultimate Image Maker,” San Francisco Focus (August 1992).
2. Veronique Vinne, “The Brand Named Walter Landor,” Graphis, no. 321 (May/June 1999), and Lindsay Arthur, “Industrial Designer Turns His Talents To Own Use,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin (19 November 1956).
3. Carla Marinucci, “Designing Man,” San Francisco Examiner (1 October 1989).
4. See note 1.
5. See note 1.
6. “Landor Goes to Oakland,” Art Digest, vol. 14 (15 January 1940).
7. See note 1.
8. Rodney McKnew, interview by Jessica Myerson (13 April 1993), transcript from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
9. “Walter Landor,” San Francisco Art Association Bulletin, vol. 13, no. 8 (October 1947), reprint from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
10. “Labels on Glass…a Design Analysis,” Modern Packaging (March 1945).
11. Jessica Myerson (interviewing Donovan Worland, Landor Director of Exhibit Designs) (11 August 1993), transcript from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
12. Lewis Lowe, interview by Jessica Myerson (20 April 1993), transcript from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
13. See note 12.
14. “Packages Must Speak for Themselves,” San Francisco News-Call Bulletin (23 November 1956).
15. Thomas Hine, The Total Package: The Secret History and Hidden Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans and Other Persuasive Containers (Little, Brown and Company, 1995).
16. See note 14.
17. See note 2.
18. Rodney McKnew, interview by Jessica Myerson (8 July 1993), transcript from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
19. See note 2.
20. See note 1.
21. Walter Landor, “Gentlemen, Your Label is Showing. Is It Selling Beer for You?” Brewers Association of America, bulletin no. 1139 (12 February 1953).
22. Walter Landor & Associates, “Western designer wins top awards,” press release (October 1954), Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
23. “Pioneers: Walter Landor,” Communication Arts (January/February 2000).
24. “New Decanter Shown For Old Fitzgerald,” Advertising Requirements (December 1955), reprint from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
25. “Dealers on Decanters,” Tide (28 January 1955), reprint from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
26. “So What’s New about Water,” Good Packaging, undated reprint from the Landor Archive Project, Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
27. “Creativity,” Display (September 1960).
28. See note 2.
29. “Leading Japanese Brewery Comes to U.S. for Design,” The Brewers Digest, undated reprint from the Landor Design Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

© 2009 Bernard Gallagher and Landor Associates. All rights reserved.

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