Monday, July 06, 2015

Frank Furlong on Guppies, Whales... and Koi.

Thanks to the show Madmen, even those who've never had a passing connection to the industry now get the gist of the day-to-day workings of a New York City advertising agency during the mid-20th century. Less well known (and much less documented) is what life was like for the creative class working in the high performance, turbo-charged combustion engine that was Detroit during that same era.


Frank Furlong was there, along-side Harry Borgman, Bernie Fuchs and other "whales," as Frank calls them (see below). Frank's recollections are fascinating and entertaining - you're going to love the stories you'll read this week. The only problem is... not a stitch of his work from that period has survived. That makes it challenging for a blog devoted to mid-20th century illustration to 'illustrate' this week's posts. Happily, some years back Harry Borgman gifted me a couple of Detroit Art Director's Annuals from the early '60s. Along with some artifacts I've collected on my own, I'll attempt to give you a sense of the art of Detroit - even if it can't specifically be Frank's art - during the period in which he was there. So, with great anticipation, let's begin. ~ Leif Peng

Frank Furlong writes...

"... happy to send on some memories of Detroit's wonderful glory days, from my point of view. I gotta warn ya it'll be a bit different from Borgman's Detroit. He was one of the whales, I was one of the guppies. But there was a mess of us guppies and some of them became quite famous."


"Actually, let me reclassify people: 'Guppies' seems too insignificant for anybody not a whale. Let's call most of the artists as porpoises; intelligent, beautiful and impressive. I'm going to raise my class to koi. No more guppies."


"I've always drawn and for a while it was my safe place because of a gruesome stammer. With a lot of help I overcame that problem but I never shook the delight in drawing. Detroit was my home and on the GI bill I attended what was to become the Center for Creative Studies, at that time a wonderfully funky pile of bricks in one of the lesser parts of town. After a year there my two commercial teachers encouraged me to go out and try my hand at commercial art. Years later I found out from one of them that they sent me off so I'd learn I was not really an artist and could go on engineering or law or some such before it was too late."


"I never did catch on. Thankfully."

"What a privilege it was to work in Detroit in commercial art's glory days. Great opportunities, great people and great fun. The thing I have missed most, and from what I've seen only existed then and there was the camaraderie of people who were in essence competing with each other. Maybe because the reps were the ones competing for us. The only thing I've seen anything like it were army buddies. Whatever it was, and admittedly booze came into the picture reasonably often, it was a pleasure to be riding that rollercoaster never quite sure what would happen next."

Detroit Art Studios, 1962b

"At that time there were a couple hundred artists and who knows how many studios. But most of the action was in two sections of the city, Downtown and the New Center area. The largest studio was New Center Studios and naturally they were Downtown. Of course. And kinda like a pinball machine artists bounced from one studio to the next. I was there fifteen years and worked at six studios, changing four of them by choice."

New Center01

"It was the first two studios that ended without my planning it and both look like I was belatedly stalking Harry Borgman. The first was MDM who hired me as an apprentice. Using my great talent to wash brushes, palettes, change water bowls and matte outgoing artwork. "Yours not to reason why, yours but to do or die. Tissue and flap and let 'em fly!"


"About six months in I got sprung from the matte room by painting in the local colors from drawings for a slide film. Before I had a chance to celebrate my success, the cops seized the studio and my heroes, the principals, wound up in fist fights. Talk about an exciting business! I WAS HOOKED! On the recommendation of one of the stars I was hired by Allied Artists. I think they thought they were getting someone a bit more ready 'cause I wasn't there long before they invited me to leave."


"But at least now I had more impressive samples and I was off and running."

To be continued...

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