The Man Behind the MasterCard Logo

My Papaw, born (Norman) Earl Picker, designed the original concept of the MasterCard logo for Jim Hoag in the late 1960′s: the concept, artistry, and typography of two intersecting circles, one red-orange and one ochre-colored, originally coined “Master Charge, The Interbank Card.” This was during the MAD MEN era. It was a time of countless stiff drinks, easy women and easier men, late nights entertaining while sealing deals with clients, and high-pressure deadlines, under-the-gun.  Only, Earl Picker wasn’t working on Madison Avenue.  He was a commercial artist working on a drafting table from his Lindell Blvd. art studio in Midtown St. Louis, Missouri.

Picker, or “Pic,” as he was known, started off designing light fixtures for Day-Brite Lighting. He then entered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was sent to clear way for the groundwork of the ALCAN Highway, connecting the Lower 48 to Alaska.  From there, he was sent to start combat training. He would finally arrive on Utah beachhead in Normandy, France in WWII.  In late 1944, he fought in the early part of The Battle of the Bulge.

It was his former boss from Day-Brite Lighting, Leo G. Stahlhut, who was approached while working at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force in the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles, France. He was asked to recommend an experienced cartographer to hand-draw war maps and he recommended Cpl. Earl Picker, Serial No. 37131253. He lied about him being a cartographer, but he must have known from experience that Pic was a talented artist who could handle the job. Pic told a story of receiving his transfer orders: Mid-transit, he peered out the window on the train to Versailles, only to see an awful-looking soldier. A worn, haggard man. Then he realized that the soldier he saw was his own reflection. He would go on to create maps for the war, as a cartographer, for General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also called him “Pic.”

 

After the war, Pic returned to St. Louis and worked for Day-Brite Lighting once again before starting his own company, Earl Picker Art Studio. He would go on to not only design the original MasterCard logo, but also design the original Visa and Enterprise (street “e”) logos. He did work for FABICK CAT (Caterpillar Inc.), Cadbury, Hussmann, Anheuser Busch, Emerson Electric, and more. There were no big payouts for logo design, yet it was still a decent living.  The type of handwork artistry that could, for example, make a drawing of a red, perfectly looped bow, look just like a photograph.

Pic’s children remember him working constantly in his studio. It was a messy job to make commercial art at the time. With everything by hand, when multiple changes and corrections needed to be made, it was literally back to the drawing board. Vellum and trace paper, graphite and charcoal pencils, RICH ART Watercolors, French curves, green templates, paintbrushes, markers, and samples of every Pantone color filled his art studio. He would pull many all-nighters, working through to the following day on projects for clients. It was in his studio, while working on the MasterCard logo, that he told his kids, “When you go to the store, you’ll be able to use a plastic card with a code instead of money.” His daughters remember him showing them logo options and asking them, “What do you think? Which one do you like?”

Our family believes that Leo Stahlhut, with his twist of the truth, likely saved Pic’s life. That, in turn, allowed Picker to have seven children with his wife Bethel after the war and a strong, growing legacy.

Earl Picker died in 1982 at the age of 63. His portfolio is missing and remains a bit of a controversy, though many members of the family would love to see it. Our immediate family has only a few remaining pieces from his body of work, yet his children still have memories of seeing his projects. I’m lucky enough to display his original Master Charge, Interbank Card prototype on the wall of our W 68th St. apartment in New York.

Anytime I see a MasterCard logo, I’m reminded of him: how much working and living goes into simple design, creating symbols, and the power of how far it can sometimes travel.

 

Comments