Spring 2014

Sans serifs in suburbia

Sainsbury’s brought 1960s Modernism to the kitchen cupboard

The concept of the supermarket came to Britain in the 1960s from the United States. Shoppers could now roam the aisles picking products by themselves. Before long, the shelves became a battleground between food manufacturers’ heavily promoted brands – with their easily recognisable packaging and vernacular graphic identities – and the supermarkets’ ‘own-brand’ versions of the same foods: less familiar, but sold more cheaply.

Sainsbury’s positioned themselves as the Modernist retailer. The bold, simple design approach of their products followed the company’s philosophy: clean, contemporary architecture for their stores and Swiss-style graphics for their own packaging – sans serifs in suburbia.

These uncompromising designs were the result of two people working directly together: chief executive John Sainsbury and Peter Dixon, who ran the company’s in-house design studio between 1964 and his retirement in 1992. ‘I approved every design for own label,’ said Sainsbury in Own Label (Fuel), a book about the graphics. Today, the studio’s archives are held at the Museum of London: packaging flats curated with the same care as Roman artefacts.

Trifle Sponge Cakes, 1971.
Top: Rye crispbread, 1968.


Simon Esterson, Eye art director, London

First published in Eye no. 87 vol. 22 2014

EYE87 Cover

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