PART ONE: Invitation To A Graphic Memoir, The Charrette Corporation Chronicles

These chronicles of The Charrette Corporation first appeared on the Examiner.com, written by me, Alison D. Gilbert as the New York Graphic Design Examiner. This story includes primary research, most importantly interviews with the founders, Lionel Spiro and the late Blair Brown. In addition, many former corporate staff members, store employees and even customers all graciously gave their time to tell me their experiences and so many wonderful stories.

Examiner.com ceases to exist this month, July of 2016, five and a half years after I started writing for them. The Charrette Chronicles and other posts would perish without transferring them to my own blog. The Charrette Chronicles appears here as a series of five posts. This introduction, Part One, was originally published on December 10, 2010.

The red Charrette van made overnight deliveries of much needed supplies long before the existence of FedEX and all the overnight deliverers.
The red Charrette van made overnight deliveries of much needed supplies from the warehouse in Woburn, Massachusetts to clients in New York City. This was long before the existence of FedEX and all the other overnight delivery services even existed.

INTRODUCTION

No story about Graphic Design in NY would be complete without at least mention of the establishments, new, old, and gone that have supplied the design industry with the many, unique tools it required primarily BC (before computers) and through the transition to AD (age of digital). In compiling a list of them, one store stood out so distinctly that it deserves an entire article, if not series of articles about it, Charrette.

So much research for this designer supplies institution has been accumulated that there is an entire ‘back story’ to this examiner.com series. It details the process of using the Internet to unearth materials and people. Many of them have been extremely generous in coming forward to share their experience and memories about this wonderful but extinct designers supply company that was founded in Cambridge Mass in the mid 1960’s.

This story is an attempt to go back in time and capture the years of glory Charrette held in the industry, in general, and in NY, in particular. It will include facts about its lifespan of several decades and some of the key players involved. It is a very moving story and one that any author can only hope to be worthy of writing.

Since the materials that have been so generously donated, lent and found on-line are still accumulating, this piece will serve simply as an invitation to the graphic memoir of Charrette, It had stores at three NYC locations. First it was on 47th Street, then on East 54th Street (before the brownstone building it was housed in was torn down to make room for the ‘Lipstick’ Building, Finally it was relocated to its homage to modern design, a frontage of glass and red metal in the design district, the East 30rds. How fitting a stage upon which to continue this story.

 
LINKS TO THE CHARRETTE CORPORATION CHRONICLES: PART ONE THROUGH FIVE

PART ONE: Invitation to a graphic memoir, the Charrette Corporation
PART TWO: The baby was born in a Harvard closet
PART THREE: Charrette meets ‘Big Apple’ graphic standards
PART FOUR: The Charrette New York creative culture
PART FIVE: The Charrette Chronicles Synopsis
The Charrette Alumni Group on Linked

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A Charrette Corporation Fond Farewell

The famous Charrette red van
The Charrette delivery van @ The Charrette Corporation
How It Began
What began as a single article, written by me as the NY Graphic Design Examiner, evolved into a series of articles, seven in total, that spanned a year’s time to complete. Although the time to compile all the materials, including researching, interviewing primary sources and so on did not take a full year, a new assignment as an author for The Digital Brand Marketing Blog took me away from the project for sometime during that year. In fact, this multi-author blog has made it to the semi-finals of the Social Media Examiner’s Top Ten Blogs 2012 competition.

But it was overdue to be completed, as hard as it was to write a Charrette Corporation fond farewell. It was like a long ‘good bye’ that no one wants to make when dear friends must part. But it had to be done. Essentially, I knew what the final article would be about, the store designed by architect, David Paul Helpern, a fellow student of Charrette Corporation founders, Lionel Spiro and Blair Brown, who all attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The store, located on Manhattan’s East side on Lexington Avenue in the East 30’s, was the Crowning Jewel of the Charrette NY retail side.

Although the commercial accounts handled by a sales force that covered much of the East Coast and into the Midwest were much larger than the retail side sales, the retail side was the face of the corporation. This gave Charrette the opportunity to show the world the ‘stuff it was made of’. As the tip of the iceberg, it glistened in the sun and shone like a well-polished gem. The flagship store was the ultimate representation of the Charrette brand.

It was a company whose name was synonymous with quality. The tools and supplies manufactured for and sold by Charrette had to be of the highest quality. The pedigree that resulted from employment at the company practically guaranteed future employment anywhere when the time came for someone to move on.

The Charrette corporate culture, philosophy and brand development was such that it is possible that other retail corporations fashioned their stores after Charrette. They were clean looking with simple straight lines, well designed, displaying everyday items as if they were high end designer merchandise.

 

The Announcement for the Charrette NY Crowning Jewel
The Announcement for the Charrette NY Crowning Jewel © Illustration: Johanna Bohoy for Charrette Corp.
What Happened
One article led to another as one primary resource introduced me to the next. Both founders eventually became available and many memorable hours were spent on the phone reminiscing about their beloved company. Supplies, catalogs, photos and other memorabilia were supplied to accompany the memories. One by one, staff, customers and HGSD alumni were located and interviewed.

The generosity of everyone was as real as the quality of the Charrette inventory. The Charrette culture had affected everyone who came in touch with it. The writing of this story took on a life of its own, a life that also had to be written in a way that gave credence to this corporate culture and all its glorious history.

So I wrote and wrote and wrote. When would it end? How would it end? Numerous months’ hiatus from the writing became awkward and the pressure to finish overcame the same lingering feeling of not wanting to say good-bye. But at the same time, it was clear that the final tribute had to be made and how to do it.

That is where The Charrette NY Crowning Jewel came into the picture. It was a store that was written up in two nationally respected professional magazines, Interiors (February 1982) and Visual Merchandising (June 1982), had a grand, grand opening and one that was built to design specifications. It was glorious. Everything about it and in it was a designer’s dream. In addition, the place, their products, and award winning packaging designs were featured in two nationally renowned design magazines, Communication Arts (March/April 1982) and Print (May/June 1982).

And then, in spite of the attempts to keep up with the times of transition from analog to digital design, it was time to let go. No more founders, some staff stayed, some staff went. The era that was the original Charrette was gone. The company was bought by a succession of other companies. It even became known by different names. But the culture and the philosophy could not be packaged, bought and sold.

 

the Charrette trailer with the unforgettable Charrette brand
Gone but Never Forgotten, A Charrette Trailer @ 2011 Christine Miller, former Charrette employee
How It Ended
So it was time to say good-bye, for all of us, the founders, the staff, the customers and even this author of a series of articles that became the Charrette NY Chronicle that took a year to write. It is all over. But much will live on in the minds and memories of those whose lives were touched by the experience of their involvement.

There is a Charrette Alumni Group on Linkedin. I am the only civilian to have the honor of belonging. There is also an Internet photo archive on flickr. Finally and in some small way, it is my sincere hope that the Charrette Chronicle will be part of this legacy. It is dedicated to all the wonderful people who let me into their lives and shared their stories so that I could write a series in honor of them and their Charrette experience. Thank you all. I wish you a fond farewell. You shall never be forgotten, Charrette Corporation.

Related Article Links
Gone But Never Forgotten: An Invitation to a Graphic Memoir
The Baby Was Born In a Harvard Closet
Charrette Meets ‘Big Apple’ Graphic Standards
The Charrette NY Creative Culture
Paul Rand: the NYC born and educated graphic designer, Part One
Part Two: Paul Rand, the NYC born graphic designer
The Charrette NY Chronicle Completed

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