Saturday 3 May 2008

Nunc est Bibendum

About ten minutes walk south from Albertopolis is the wonderful Michelin Building at 81 Fulham Road. In January 2011 it will be a century since its inauguration. But despite its great age it remains in excellent condition with virtually all the original decoration intact. It was a remarkable conception to design a building that, in its entirety, functioned as an enormous permanent advertisement for Michelin products. In doing so it had one great advantage over all its rivals in the existence of a uniquely successful brand character, Monsieur Bibendum, ripe for exploitation. The image of Bibendum is everywhere on this building in two and three dimensions plus, spectacularly, in stained glass. Every facade and every feature is designed to reinforce the Michelin brand and embed it in the public consciousness. In this sense it has a clear affinity with the Victorian tradition of narrative architecture typical of nearby Albertopolis. It could even be argued that the intensity of commercial imagery begins to take on transcendent or religious overtones. The prominent stained glass feature and the chapel-like frontage on to Fulham Road possess an almost spiritual fervour.
According to Olivier Darmon’s book, ‘One Hundred Years of the Michelin Man’, the character made his debut in April 1898, his form having been inspired by a stack of tyres. The artist responsible was the splendidly named O’Galop. Images of Bibendum rapidly proliferated in poster campaigns and public appearances to the point where it very quickly became one of the best known characters of the century. Rotund, bespectacled and non-threatening, Bibendum was ideally equipped to achieve an extraordinarily high degree of public recognition. The Michelin company was relentless in the deployment of its mascot in the service of publicity; it has been estimated that more than 20,000 images of Bibendum were circulated between 1898 and 1930. The unique brilliance of this character is that it can be inserted into virtually any situation and a humorous response is guaranteed.
When I was a student in this part of London in the 1960’s this building was much admired, I suspect, in part, because its playful air matched the prevailing Pop Art sensibility. It was riotously eccentric and also contained echoes of the Art Nouveau tradition which was being rehabilitated at the time. The building survives resplendent in its present incarnation as Food Hall and Restaurant. The only disappointment of my recent visit was discovering that contractors have surrounded all of the Fulham Road frontage and part of the Sloane Avenue frontage with a gigantic excavation making photography extremely difficult. So most of these views are of details and the bigger picture will have to wait for another occasion.

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