28 August 2015
Logos have been termed corporate heraldry. The trend in corporate visual identity of recent years however has been towards the diaphanous and the evanescent, and in typefaces this has been mirrored through greater use of lower case. In my piece on the future of the logo back in 2010 I predicted that the logo in the semantic web would eventually become a disembodied outrider or avatar for brands that would be a vector of aggregated data or have fractal human characteristics. Something that returns the heft and materiality to a brand’s visual representation should surely be an anachronism in 2015. But of course mavericks always seek to break rules.
I was interested therefore to read in the Observer this past weekend http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/aug/23/the-fat-duck-flies-again-heston-blumenthal about Heston Blumenthal’s new logo for the Fat Duck. He has ambitiously chosen a coat of arms. If we did not live in such a self-referential media and semiotic environment it might be tempting to see this self ennobling as a pretentious or hubristic manoeuvre. I think that is a bold move and a good deal more interesting than that as I’ll cover in this piece.
Because this general trend logo does not reckon with the context of the logo or the auteur – Heston Blumenthal.
I was given his tome of a cookbook a couple of years ago (still too intimidated to try anything in it). In it he chronicles his obsessive self taught odyssey through the world of French cooking, nouvelle cuisine and so called ‘molecular gastronomy’ and his assiduous and painstaking experimentation with food textures and ingredient combinations. Having seen his TV shows. for instance his search for the perfect burger and having been to his Hinds Head pub in Bray this August I can tell how detailed oriented he is. The use of a camphered oblong enamel dish for the crab meat and cod lasagna, for example or the ovoid glasses for better grip. In the Fat Duck cookbook he writes about his horror at the pretention of 1970s UK gastronomy and how very early he had determined that “the Fat Duck should avoid that kind of pomp and stiffness…” but then goes on to write “the idea of food as a performance got to me … the pervasive sense of belonging to a grand tradition.”
So how does this relate to this new coat of arms?
A coat of arms is a form of heraldry that primarily signifies social identity, in medieval times this would help indicate a wearer’s family and line of descent.
As Per Mollerup writes: “The term originates from ars heraldica, the art of the herald. The herald was an official at medieval tournaments of arms who was responsible for the identification of fighting knights. He would scrutinize the insignia of prospective combatants and announce their identity to the spectators. As the knights were often covered by armour, heraldic marks on shield, dress, helmet and horse helped to identify combatants… (Mollerup, Phaidon, 1997, p. 17).
So, what of the logo itself? It is far from the conventional coat of arms. Far from a conservative escutcheon with strictly codified ordinaries or cadences, this is a florid inter-textuality confection, an inventive pastiche of the protocols of the coat of arms. The glossiness of the finish on the rayonné silken tendrils that swirl around the central crest convey a burlesque loucheness, like a vampish Alexander McQueen feathered gown in ermine. The inside of the crest shows a sober visual wit redolent of a René Magritte painting, with the stark golden apple, harps and hands de-contextualised against a sable cosmos. The whole ensemble is topped off by a golden duck holding a magnifying glass, both an allusion to the Fat Duck that is his golden goose to and his attention to detail. This last is a touch of British absurdism worthy of a Monty Python, or Gilbert and George or a Grayson Perry. So we have ironic aestheticism, the surrealism of a Magritte, the master of warping reality to challenge the beholder’s settled experience of our mundane reality, turning the extraordinary, and British vim. Judging from my work on the meaning of the visitor from the US it probably signifies the eccentric British aristocracy, to Far Eastern visitors refined, upper class nobility and to us Brits a sly, knowing visual language game with heraldry codes.
The scroll underlying it all carries the aphorism ‘Question Everything’. This is an anchoring text that helps to activate the meaning of semiotic elements. Heston is telling us that he seeks to overturn the conventional expectations of what an eating experience should be, by parodying the coat-of-arms,. As with the trend in viniculture to produce wine labels that feature modernist art and that break with the information hierarchy of the denomination d’appellation label, I read the arms as producing something signalling an unorthodox vanguardist luxury.
My experience of conducting projects into new luxury is that the concept has undergone a shift from ownership to experience – epicureanism and tailored curated experiences are where the action is. Tim Stock of Scenario DNA says in the new codes of luxury a key determinant is genuine, not ersatz perfection; ‘a relentless pursuit of perfecting the process by which an object is crafted’.
Luca Marchetti in the training session on the luxury sector at Paris Semiofest in June argued that luxury had changed to being much more experiential and how customers wanted to be shocked with something sublime (for instance avant-garde perfumery with scatological notes) mixing in an artistic vision (witness the Louis Vuitton Foundation) and how ‘ambiguousness’ could now create value.
In many ways this particular coat of arms is in tune with this new luxury since it is not only showcasing a peculiar, fiercely individualist artistic vision because there is an underpinning to the aura through Heston’s methodology.
Ethnographer Robert Kozinets in his Post Human Future for Brands writes: “To personally brand is commonplace. Everyone will soon be managing their own brand, themselves, much more carefully and deliberately soon.”
Coats of Arms are not always a good idea. Car marques such as Porsche, Alfa Romeo still use them but concocting one can go badly wrong if mismanaged.
British Airways came up with one a while ago to convey the company ethos of To Fly. To Serve. I thought they looked beautiful, and the company seems to have stuck with them. I wonder whether this new Fat Duck coat of arms will a piece of ephemeral sizzle to the steak of the restaurant re-launch or whether it is to be committed to as the symbolic condensation of his brand initiative and the uniqueness of the eatery? Perhaps they should give a collector’s version away as a souvenir of the visit: given the exclusivity of a sitting there, it is fittingly regal!
Georges Auguste Escoffier in a quote at the start of the Fat Duck Cookbook writes to the effect that cooking is both an art and science. Seeing the new logo in the light of Blumenthal’s penchant for both performance and magic it put me in mind of alchemy. Given close visual links between heraldry and the esoteric hermetic tradition and its semiotic world, it made me wonder whether the symbolic language of alchemy might not have been an even better semiotic resource to use. Nevertheless, I salute a bold and inventive semiotic gambit.