Olden, Georg(e) 1920–1975
Georg(e) Olden 1920–1975
As a young man, Georg Olden claimed not to want to focus on one art genre and was not interested in advertising, yet he became an expert in a single genre—graphic design—and a giant in the advertising industry. His race did not prevent him from attaining executive status, yet when his executive’s rug was pulled from under him, he spoke openly about race for the first time.
In her article entitled “The Search for Georg Olden,” Julie Lasky sought to straighten out the abundance of conflicting information about Olden’s life. “He was said to be brilliant and mediocre—warm, congenial, aloof,” she wrote. “He hated and took pride in his racial identity. He died a suicide, a homicide, on the East Coast, no, the West.” Michelle Y. Washington, an expert in black graphic artists, referred to Olden as the “Invisible Man.” The winner of seven Clio awards—an award he designed—and a well-recognized pioneer in television graphics and modern advertising imaging, Olden might be remembered as the Jackie Robinson of design history. His rapid professional demise in his early fifties, before his death at age 55, left those who knew him scratching their heads and pondering how his brilliance could fade out so prematurely. “Olden, one of a handful of black men to have executive status in the 1950s,” Lasky wrote, “and perhaps the only black designer ever to be classified as elite, was clearly a casualty of something.”
Born George Elliott Olden on November 13, 1920, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Reverend James Clarence Olden, a Baptist minister, and Sylvia Ward Olden, a music teacher, Olden excelled in art from a young age. He had an older brother, James Clarence, Jr., and older sister, Sylvia, who was artistic too, but in music. She would follow her mother’s passion for song to become an opera coach. According to Lasky, Olden’s paternal grandfather, his namesake, was a Kentucky plantation slave who escaped during the Civil War and joined the Union army. Upon emancipation, he adopted his former master’s surname, Oldham, and altered the spelling. He married a minister’s daughter and became a minister himself.
When Olden was only a few months old the family moved to Washington, D.C., where his father served as minister to Plymouth Congregational Church. His father became increasingly politically active, and in 1933, he deserted his family to devote himself completely to the civil rights movement. That same year, Olden attended the segregated Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., where he enjoyed art and cartooning. In 1939 Olden’s mother died. Olden resembled his mother, who was a stunning biracial beauty from New Orleans. Lasky found a 1965 profile in Elegant that described him as” awesomely handsome, extremely male, and very polite.”
Olden’s Dunbar classmates considered him nonconforming but congenial. Lasky’s research found classmate Bernice Jeter Elam, who remembered him as “good-looking” and “bohemian.” Failing most of the academic subjects, Olden did not graduate with his class, rather a year behind. He achieved excellence in art, nonetheless, as well as swimming, for which he
At a Glance…
Born George Elliott Olden on November 13, 1920, in Birmingham, AL; died January 25, 1975; married Courtenaye Macbeth, 1941 (divorced, c. 1966); married Terri Phillips Baker, 1966 (estranged, c. 1972); children: (second marriage) Georg Olden, Jr. Education : Attended Virginia State College, late 1930s-1942.
Career: Office of Strategic Services, graphic designer, 1942-45; CBS, art director, 1945-60; BBDO, art director, 1960-63; Profession al Advisory council for McCann-Erickson, vice president and member, 1963-70; Off-Track Betting Corporation, vice president of marketing and advertising, 1970.
Awards: New York Art Directors Club medal, 1956; Cannes Film Festival, advertising prize, 1967; seven Clio awards.
won several trophies. During high school, he also drew cartoons and served as art director for the black biweekly magazine Flash. After high school, he attended Virginia State, where he cartooned for the Virginia Statesman. Establishing an early reputation on campus for wit and drinking, he attracted great popularity.
In 1940, twenty-year-old Olden became engaged to his steady sweetheart Courtenaye Macbeth, an aspiring actress who was three years his senior and the mother of two young children. Because his sister, Sylvia, who acted as his guardian, would not consent to the marriage, the couple waited until Olden’s twenty-first birthday to marry. The ceremony took place on Christmas day of 1941. Olden’s sister did not attend out of protest.
Olden made the dean’s list by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese in 1941. By January of 1942, he had dropped out of college to serve the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as an unenlisted graphic designer. He designed conservation and rationing posters as part of an art team that included notables in the industry, including architect Eero Saarinen, caricaturist Sam Berman, Broadway scenic designer Jo Mielziner, Cosmopolitan illustrator William Arthur Smith, and Fortune magazine artists Will Burton and John Cosgrave. From a 1947 Opportunity magazine piece on Olden, Lasky discovered that he eagerly absorbed all he could about his OSS colleagues’ art specialties, furthering his aim to become a well-rounded artist.
During his stint at the OSS, Olden published cartoons in National CIO News, the New Yorker, and Esquire. At this point Olden dropped the final “e” from his first name. He signed his cartoons simply “Georg” with, according to Lasky, “angular—almost childlike—letterforms.” His new signature, Olden explained in 1963 to Advertising Age, was to get him noticed by magazine editors. Lasky offered another motive, writing, “…this Scandinavian spelling, along with his rendering of Caucasian cartoon figures, served as much as a blind to racial identity as it did a vehicle to recognition.”
In the summer of 1945, Olden was recruited to the CBS television network at the recommendation of his OSS supervisor, Hu Barton, to the new vice president of television at CBS, Lawrence W. Lowman. Olden became art director for CBS’s new television division, during the “sit-and-squint-age of television,” when, according to an Ebony piece, only 16,000 television sets existed in the country. At the same time, Olden was invited to the San Francisco conference that led to the establishment of the United Nations, where he was selected by Secretary of State Edward R. Strettinius to serve as a graphic designer to the International Secretariat.
As a young, black executive in the 1940s, Olden was an anomaly. Americans, who were not white and well connected, could only dream of such an opportunity. “Other African-American men were coming out of a segregated military to take jobs that offered little hope for advancement,” Lasky wrote. “Olden found himself working for one of the most enlightened corporations of the pre-civil rights era.” By 1954 CBS reaped praise from Ebony and other black institutions for its employment of 150 black technicians, musicians, office assistants, and art director. Nonetheless, compare this figure to 72,400 full-time television employees nationwide, Lasky pointed out, and “Ebony’s early optimism about the role TV could play in career opportunities for African-Americans had been misplaced.”
Olden took on his duties at CBS with a desire to learn and a keen design sense for the new medium, which required technological savvy, ingenuity, and graphic arts retooling. Olden told the Art Directors Club of New York: “The medium is incapable of really differentiating between the subtleties of tonal and color contrast because, for one thing, the average home receiver is almost never ‘perfectly’ tuned. Speed is of the essence in the design and execution of much of the art for television.” What is more, television graphics, especially for news, had to be thought up and created on short notice.
Olden was the first artist to design news graphics at CBS. He supervised the vote-tallying graphics of the first live presidential election coverage on November 6, 1952. As television quickly grew to become the most powerful medium in the country, Olden was in charge of the graphics for its most popular television programs, including, The Ed Sullivan Show, Lassie, Face the Nation, Gunsmoke, and The Late Show. Olden’s work appeared 108 times between 1951 and 1960, according to 250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography. In 1956 Olden won the New York Art Directors Club medal. He would keep CBS’s announcement of the honor with him all his life.
Speculation remains whether it was Olden or CBS’s Director of Print Promotion and Advertising, William Golden, who designed the Eye logo for the network in 1951. Lasky found that those she interviewed from CBS initiated discussion of the rumor “spontaneously and vigorously.” Given CBS’s normal operations, which set Olden in charge of the design for all on-air promotional images, it makes sense that he would have had a hand in the Eye’s development. Further, Golden never explicitly said on-record that he created the logo, rather that it evolved when CBS decided to make its radio and television divisions distinct. The Eye was born to mark the television side, which points to Olden’s credit.
Nonetheless, Olden also never claimed ownership of the logo’s idea. Further, Golden was not known to grab credit not due to him, according to several CBS colleagues. At the same time, CBS never shied from giving Olden due recognition for his work.
It is more likely that Golden’s group conceived the concept and then passed it on to Olden’s staff to deliver it with ink and paper. “Olden was not a junior designer in Golden’s department,” Lasky explained. “He headed his own staff in another section—indeed, another CBS building. This suggests that although Golden was professionally Olden’s superior, his hogging the credit for any collaboration would have bordered on a breach of ethics, not to mention a breach of Golden’s reputation for generosity. As the annuals show, Olden was recognized throughout his career at CBS; and it seems unlikely that he would have been denied credit for the Eye when his contributions to the network are written up everywhere from in-house press releases to the New York Times.”
Olden left CBS for the BBDO advertising agency in 1960 with substantial, well-honed skills in business and design, not to mention important contacts to assist him in driving his career further. Before joining BBDO’s New York office, Olden took a government-sponsored trip to East Asia to teach television graphic artistry. Balding and “inspired by the monks,” he shaved his head and came home to be mistaken frequently as Harry Belafonte. For three years, Olden enjoyed working from his executive’s office at BBDO and going home to his $70,000 house in White Plains.
A 1963 Ebony article quoted him as saying, “In my work I’ve never felt like a Negro. Maybe I’ve been lucky.” According to Lasky, colleagues considered him aloof and “whiter than a lot of white people.” Nonetheless, Olden belonged to the National Urban League since the 1950s and designed its equal-sign logo.
In 1963 Olden left BBDO to join McCann-Erickson as a vice president and member of its Professional Advisory Council (PAC), an experimental, creative think-tank dreamed up and launched by the company’s chairman of the board, Paul Foley. The PAC was intended as a forum for experienced advertising professionals to brainstorm ideas for McCann’s advertising campaigns. One of Olden’s own brainchildren was the offbeat and successful Turns campaign.
Also in 1963, the U.S. Postal Service commissioned Olden to design the five-cent stamp commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation. Olden became the first black American to design an American stamp. He was invited to the White House, where he acquired a photo of himself with President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, a trinket he would hold on to proudly the rest of his life. The following year, he was one of seven included at a dinner given by U.S. Representative to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson honoring “Negroes prominent in the economic world.” In 1967 Olden had the honor of designing another postage stamp to commemorate the Voice of America.
In 1966 Olden divorced from Courtenaye and married singer Terri Phillips Baker. In 1968 their son, Georg Olden, Jr. was born. Even though he was a family man, Olden was still known for his pubic persona. Yet, according to Lasky, Olden’s last public appearance as a “handsome, self-possessed business leader posing with starlets” was on January 9, 1970, at the opening of an exhibition at Gallery 303 of the Composing Room in New York, called Black Artists in Graphic Communication. As one of the advisors to the exhibition, which showcased 49 influential black American visual artists, Olden presented 17 commercials and participated in the publicity leading up to the event.
Olden’s life took a hairpin turn to demise when he was laid off from McCann-Erickson in August of 1970. Devastated and furious, Olden could only make sense of the situation if he attributed blame to racial discrimination, clearly a pervasive and pressing problem in the United States, but not one that had had an effect on Olden’s professional journey before. Lasky summarized Olden’s shock at losing his position, writing, “The ostensible reason was economic—a recession—but Olden, who seems not to have experienced a day’s unemployment since that carefree journey to New England 25 years before, was devastated by what he clearly saw as betrayal.” He had been lucky in his career, yet he had also clearly been a talented designer. Foley even expressed in an avadavat that McCann recognized Olden as “a superb talent in contemporary graphics and art direction.” Believing that McCann was racially motivated in moving him out of the company in order to impede his moving up to senior executive status, Olden filed a racial discrimination lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the New York State Division of Human Rights. Because 20 other professionals had been laid off at the same time, all of whom, other than Olden, were white, the EEOC and Division of Human Rights found no discriminatory practices at McCann. Further weakening Olden’s case was his neglect to request a position in McCann’s central administration, a transfer from the PAC, which McCann dismantled when the think-tank no longer proved to be effective.
Olden would not accept the findings and sought representation from the Center for Constitutional Rights, which filed a class-action suit against McCann in U.S. District Court. Meanwhile, Olden began serving as Vice President of Marketing and Advertising at the start-up Off-Track Betting (OTB) Corporation. He stayed with OTB for a year and a half putting in, Lasky found, “22-hour work days” in a “hectic environment.”
In 1972 Olden left OTB and New York to move to Southern California, reportedly to start his own company. Estranged from his second wife, Olden began living with his 28-year-old, German-born girlfriend, Irene Mikolajczyk, known as Maya. According to Lasky, Olden sent disturbing letters to his sister Sylvia and his brother, James, centered on the lawsuit against McCann. It was about this time that Olden directed an episode of the Mod Squad television series, his only experience as a director.
On January 25, 1975, only days before the class-action lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights was to go to trial, Olden was fatally shot with a .357 Magnum by Maya. She pled not guilty and was released on $1,000 bail. She was acquitted on May 14, 1975.
Olden died impoverished. Among his belongings were several rejection slips for novels and cartoons he intended on having published. “In myths, the most elaborate sequence of tragic events can be blamed on a single cause,” Lasky concluded about Olden’s life, “and those who knew Georg Olden seem to attribute everything—success or failure, depending on the type and degree of their attachment—to his color.”
Lasky, Julie, “The Search for Georg Olden,” in Graphic Design History, Steven Heller and Georgette Balance, eds., Allworth Press, 2001.
“Picturing Public Relations,” AIGA, www.aiga.org/content.cfm?CaegoryID=177 (January 19, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Shauna Stallworth of the Organization of Black Designers.
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