Obituary: Arpad Elfer

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ARPAD ELFER was one of the most charismatic of creative directors in post-war advertising. He was a superb visualiser who could encapsulate the mood, style and desirability of a product in ways that would excite the client and appeal to the public.

He was born in 1910 in Hlohovec, Hungary (today part of Slovakia), and at the age of six lost his father in the First World War. Nine years later he was invited by an aunt to stay with her in Berlin, where he attended the famous college of art, and went on to become an art director. In 1933 he was lured to Paris to be art director of Dorland and Crawfords, leaving two years later to join the London firm of Colman, Prentis and Varley (CPV) as creative artist.

The Second World War saw him in the Pioneer Corps and then the cartographic section of the Royal Engineers Ordnance Survey, where he became a sergeant and was charged with drawing maps on silk handkerchiefs for use by parachutists behind enemy lines. While there, in 1945-46, he also managed to plan an elaborate exhibition for the War Office on "The History of England". He never knew the outcome of this project. (Elfer's own family disappeared during the war, all except for one nephew whom he helped to bring over to England. He wouldn't speak of this period.)

In 1946 he was promoted to art director at CPV and travelled round the world helping to develop their export advertising business. By the early 1950s he had produced such long-lasting images as the "face in the flower" for Dickins & Jones, the Jaeger logo and the D.H. Evans "Fashion-wise" Underground posters. Ex-CPV staff still talk nostalgically of those golden days when it seemed that everyone creative wanted to work for CPV, with the masterful Colonel Varley in charge and Elfer as the seminal figure whose influence pervaded the agency. Elizabeth Arden, Gossard, and Goya were among the companies whose "look" he was responsible for - including their advertising, decor and display.

It was Elfer as creative director and Jack Beddington as head of public relations who between them pioneered the use of writers and artists such as the biographer and poet Peter Quennell (a staff copywriter with the lightest of touches) and the French artist Jean Hugo, who in 1953 was commissioned to illustrate an enchanting small book, Jaeger's Natural History. This limited edition of 200 copies contained Hugo's depictions of the animals who "supply" Jaeger, Lilla Spicer's delightful verses, and was art-edited by Elfer. It is now a collector's piece.

Hugo called Elfer "a marvellous person to work for, calm, never fussing, always sending copious amounts of research material to help the artist, not to mention paying well!" However the "art director" character allegedly inspired by him in Bernard Gutteridge's spoof novel about the advertising world, The Agency Game (1954), is rather less equitable.

Elfer's working methods were far from orthodox but he got excellent results. Given an inspired doodle and asked to "write something in the gap", an outraged copywriter complained, "But that's not the way it's done. I should write the copy and you design round it." However, when it came to the crunch, as an old colleague said: "Arpad was a bloody good art editor and not to be argued with." He was certainly no saint and was frequently dictatorial, giving orders and expecting to be obeyed without further consideration.

CPV reigned supreme under Varley from 1946 to 1973, when he planned a merger with Kenyon & Eckhardt, who in turn arranged a "reverse takeover" and in 1974 brought in French, Gold, Abbott, when CPV finally lost its identity. Meanwhile Elfer had parted company to join the BBC, where he became Head of Graphic Design from 1968 until his retirement two years later.

From then on his house, Eldon Studios in Kensington, became his realm, with a second working home in Paris. Its distinctive external sculptures by the Catalan artist Juan Rebull were originally done for the Coronation window display at Dickins & Jones. He carried on the tradition of earlier CPV parties when he was famous for his eclectic guest list - mixing, say, a curator from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg with a reigning star of the media world and his friends' numerous teenage children. At a pinch his studio could hold 250 guests.

Elfer loved to plan his own version of "Travels with a Camera", depicting for advertising campaigns the commonplace in India, the picturesque in Peru, whitewashed houses in Mexico (where he survived an earthquake) or Portuguese fishermen mending their nets. He revelled in the new world of photography as an art form.

Elfer was the male equivalent of a jolie laide - dapper, diminutive, barrel-chested and saturnine (with what his "victims" might claim as Machiavellian moments) - and his dark looks, not unlike those of a quizzical cherub, had a tremendous attraction for women. At one of the annual advertising industry balls in the 1950s where agencies, publishers and marketing executives entertained clients and staff at round tables, I remember Arpad Elfer causing his usual stir by arriving late and flitting from table to table with three of the tallest, most elegant foreign fashion models in tow. "How does he do it?" was the expression on every young man's face.

The two old friends and rivals Elfer and Henri Henrion (a consultant creative designer) would often go on holiday together in their respective cars and with their companions of the time. Henrion said he was sure to be telephoned in mid-trip by a distant voice on the telephone - "J'ai eu un p'tit accident . . ." - to learn that one of them was suffering from severe bruising and the other had been flung up into a tree, but nothing so serious as to spoil the holiday.

Elfer enjoyed life to the full until, some years ago, he fell under the wheels of a double-decker bus which led to a long hospital stay and many broken bones, then a stroke. But, with the devoted care of his nephew John Ross and his wife Nicky, he rallied back to some sort of a life.

Perhaps my most typical memory of Arpad Elfer is when I took my then managing director at the British Printing Corporation to discuss a television project with him at the BBC. We were ushered into his office to find him "by chance" putting the finishing touches to an illustration for the French magazine Lui. It was of a reclining nude in outline with a neat triangle of carefully arranged type forming her pubic area. It was both attractive and erotic, without being in the least pornographic.

Marie-Jaqueline Lancaster

Arpad Elfer, advertising director and photographer: born Hlohovec, Hungary 21 February 1910; died London 25 July 1999.

Comments