Flirting With Fascism: The Design World’s Bizarre Romance With Totalitarian Imagery


Earlier this week, complaints regarding a J.C. Penney billboard in Culver City resulted in the removal of an expensive piece of signage. Apparently, it looked too much like an evil dictator; viewed from a certain angle, the ad for a Michael Graves-designed Bells and Whistles Stainless Steel Tea Kettle featured a handle that looked like a neatly parted mop of hair, a spout that resembled a saluting arm, and a lid knob that looked like Oliver Hardy’s adorable toothbrush mustache.

[Image via Adweek]

It’s hard to think of a more postmodern topic of conversation than the changing power of a dictator’s likeness. If the ambiguously threatening image in Culver City was accidental — commenters on Reddit and Adweek have speculated that it wasn’t — this wouldn’t be the first time the design and advertising worlds have bumped into the legacy of totalitarianism.

In 2007, on a trip to Peru, the actress Cameron Diaz carried a bag with a message in Chinese characters, which were soon confirmed to be a Chinese communist slogan. Given the 69,000 people who died or disappeared between 1980 and 2000 as a result of a Maoist insurgency in Peru, the bag’s prominent image of Chairman Mao was hard for locals to let slide. Diaz — who had apparently never seen this episode of Peep Show — swiftly emailed an apology to the Associated Press.

In 2010, an observant blogger at Stylelist drew attention to a T-shirt sold by Target to commemorate Spain’s World Cup hopes, which included a version of the Spanish flag that had been banned in the Iberian peninsula for decades. Featuring a black eagle and the slogan “Una, Grande y Libre” (“One, Great and Free!”), the flag had been more popular during the days of Francisco Franco, Europe’s longest-ruling dictator, whose regime was responsible for the death of somewhere between 15,000 and 50,000 people.

[Image via Adweek]

The diciest example of this kind of recycled imagery is probably the swastika. Even though most educated people know that the swastika had been employed for centuries in South Asian religion before the Germans picked it up, knowing its past as a symbol of auspiciousness doesn’t make the other meaning go away. “A regular rabbit’s foot, the swastika,” Jon Stewart said on The Daily Show in 2005, when leaders of the European Union sought to have the symbol banned, in the face of dissent from observant Hindus. “I got to say, it’s been kind of a lucky horseshoe for my people as well.”

Earlier this year, British Indian shop owner Rajesh Shah claimed he had not named his store after Adolf Hitler but after his partner’s grandfather, who was affectionately nicknamed “Hitler” for his strict and severe disposition. The store’s logo even used a swastika to dot the “i.” According to the Telegraph , Shah only realized what he had done after looking up Hitler’s name online.

In apparently the same spirit, Maryland web designer Jen Huls named her programming company Pop Stalin, with the slogan “web design with standards.” Then again, her choice might have been named after STALIN (STAtic Language ImplementatioN), a compiling software said to “brutally” produce and optimize code.

[Image via Counterfeit Chic]

It was either callous fashion-world indolence or a highly optimistic certitude about the public’s knowledge of Asian history that allowed Marc Jacobs to include a beaded swastika in the design for the Fluo Passementary Lily Hobo bag, released in 2009. A predictable amount of table-pounding indignation followed, as it did when the Spanish fashion retail company Zara released a bag that incorporated a swastika into its floral needlepoint motif. Bag Snob reported the bag’s arrival in 1,026 stores in 68 countries before it was recalled. Many customers didn’t notice the symbol of good luck (and tragically terrible luck) before they got home. Impulse buying. It’s bad news.