From Insurance To Japanese Denim (Via New Wave And Rave): A Brief History Of The Smiley Face

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From Insurance To Japanese Denim (Via New Wave And Rave): A Brief History Of The Smiley Face

25 May 2020

Combining the stark simplicity of a prehistoric cave painting with the mass cultural appeal of a piece of mid-20th-century pop art, the smiley face is one of the most universally recognisable symbols in the world. Since its creation in the early 1960s, it has been co-opted by ravers, subverted by punks and printed on everything from bumper stickers and T-shirts to stress balls and shoelaces. No discussion of Western iconography of the 20th century is complete without acknowledging this beaming yellow ball of positive energy (something, by the way, we all need right now). 

The smiley has had and continues to have a big impact on luxury fashion, too. One of the latest designers to make it their own is KAPITAL, a heritage Japanese denim brand inspired by mid-century Americana, whose recent collection splashes the feel-good logo across T-shirts, varsity jackets and even onto the heels of socks. But where did it come from, and why does it still feel so relevant after nearly 60 years?

It doesn’t take an advertising guru to recognise the inherent appeal of the smiley. A strikingly simple depiction of the human face, one of the very first things we learn to recognise as children, it’s bold, bright and completely unambiguous in its intent to spread happiness. It expresses something unmistakably human, something to which we instinctively respond. And yet, the massive and enduring cultural impact that this symbol has had over the decades still comes as something of a surprise, especially given its corporate birthplace.

The smiley as we know it today – a creased, off-centre smile and oval eyes on a perfectly round, sunshine-yellow face – was invented by graphic designer Mr Harvey Ball in 1963 at the behest of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company, a Massachusetts-based insurance firm that was looking to boost the morale of its staff. (One can only imagine how the firm’s cubicle-bound employees responded to being offered a smiley badge as an antidote to their depression.)

While Mr Ball’s almost certainly wasn’t the first depiction of a smiling face, it became the canonical version largely thanks to the fact that neither he, nor the State Mutual Life Assurance Company, made any attempt to copyright it. (Indeed, the designer was only paid $45 in total for his work.) The design was borrowed in a 1967 campaign for University Federal Savings & Loan, a bank in Seattle, but it took a few more years – and the efforts of two enterprising brothers from Philadelphia –  to fully realise the smiley’s mainstream consumer appeal.

In 1970, Messrs Murray and Bernard Spain took Mr Ball’s design, which was still without copyright, added the words “Have A Nice Day”, and began churning out merchandise on an industrial scale. In doing so, the Spain brothers created one of the biggest fads of the decade, selling an estimated 50 million badges and enshrining the smiley face as an icon of mainstream popular culture. But the iconography of popular culture is always a target for subversion, and it wasn’t long before the now ubiquitous smiley was co-opted by artists, illustrators and the nascent punk scene, who saw in its blank, dopey expression of bliss something sinister, corruptible.

In 1977, the smiley face made an appearance on the sleeve of the UK vinyl release of “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads, a jarring contradiction with the murderous thoughts depicted in the song’s lyrics. This was the era of the serial killer, with mass murderers such as Messrs Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy achieving international notoriety. In a similar violation of a positive image, Mr Gacy was known for dressing up as a clown.

In the mid-1980s, Messrs Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons splattered the smiley with blood on the cover of their critically acclaimed comic book Watchmen. The noir-inspired superhero story subverted the genre’s typical good-versus-evil narrative in favour of a morally ambiguous worldview. To that end, the badge is worn in the story by the Comedian, a violent and cynical retired superhero – and just about the last person you’d expect to tell you to “have a nice day”.

By the end of the decade, the smiley had adopted an entirely different meaning altogether. Inspired by its use in Watchmen, members of the emerging electronic music scene latched onto it. After appearing on a flyer for the short-lived but incredibly influential London nightclub Shoom, by 1988’s Second Summer of Love, the logo had become a sort of visual shorthand for the chemically enhanced euphoria that fuelled the rave movement’s illegal warehouse parties. Suddenly, the smiley was back at the heart of popular culture, its unmissable grin visible on everything from whistles and badges to ticket stubs and posters. This time, though, it came with a frisson of naughtiness and hedonism that its creator could hardly have anticipated when he first accepted the commission from the State Mutual Life Assurance Company back in 1963. 

In the half a century since the Spain brothers took a corporate icon and turned it into a cultural phenomenon, the smiley has never fully dropped out of the collective consciousness. Artists and designers continue to be drawn to the graphic simplicity and ironic potential of the smiley, as shown by “Grin Reaper”, a 2005 artwork by Banksy, in which a yellow smiling face peers out from under the hood of the spectral manifestation of Death himself. 

Capable of expressing anything from the cold insincerity of a corporate greeting to the serotonin rush of a first pill, the smiley is a far more nuanced symbol than its dopey facial expression would have you believe. But while its 50-year journey through pop culture has imbued it with so much secondary meaning that its original purpose has now largely been forgotten, it remains a potent symbol of happiness with an innate power to brighten up our day.

Indeed, that original purpose – to provide a morale boost in an environment where it was sorely needed – feels more relevant than ever. It begs the question: now that we’re all stuck at home in self-isolation, could we be witnessing the smiley come full circle? Rather than expressing an affiliation with a certain musical subculture, or making a political statement, is KAPITAL’s smiley-inspired collection simply reminding us to, well, have a nice day?

We’d like to think so; after all, it’s something we could all do with hearing right now.

Have a nice day

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