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Needle Work : A Century of Great Graphics on Gramophone-Needle Boxes

February 08, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER

When the 28-year-old Oscar Wilde came to the United States on a lecture tour in 1882, he was asked by a New York customs officer whether he had anything to declare.

"I have nothing to declare but my genius," he replied.

When British-born Arnold Schwartzman came to live in America in 1978, he was asked the same question. His reply was: "One thousand gramophone-needle boxes." The customs officer gave him a look but no hassle.

Schwartzman was director of design for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games (he designed the staff uniforms and the official invitation to each nation). He is also a successful film maker. In 1980, "Genocide," his documentary about the Holocaust, won an Academy Award.

Schwartzman was born in London in 1936. His Polish-born father was headwaiter of the Savoy Grill, London, and remembered serving Charlie Chaplin and Walt Disney. In 1940, one of Hitler's bombs scored a direct hit on the Schwartzman family's house in east London. They were dug out, none of them seriously hurt, and were evacuated to a new home near Windsor Castle.

"Because of the war, I went from school to school," Schwartzman says. "My formal education wasn't that wonderful. I was good at nothing but art and gymnastics. It wasn't until I went to Canterbury College of Art that I became interested in learning all natures of things."

After art school he put in two years with the British army in Korea--his first sustained encounter with Americans. When he came out of the army, Schwartzman worked as a set designer for television networks in Southampton and London. "That's how I got into film in a modest way--simple animation, then live action. People often try to separate the two disciplines--design and film making--but for me, one grew naturally out of the other. It works against you out here: Americans like specialists; they don't see that you can be good in two different areas."

From 1959 on, Schwartzman directed television commercials while continuing his graphics practice. In 1978, design consultant Saul Bass invited him to Los Angeles to be his design director. After six months, Schwartzman left Bass to make "Genocide." In 1980 he was offered the Olympics job. Since 1984 he has been working on feature-length documentaries. And Len Deighton, a friend, has given Schwartzman (as a present) the screen rights to one of Deighton's novels, for a movie Schwartzman plans to direct.

Schwartzman's interest in gramophone-needle boxes began as a result of a film he made in the early 1950s. "I was making a film and designing a presentation kit for England's TV Times, and I decided to make a film on the history of communication. I thought: 'Wouldn't it be nice to give everyone who comes to this conference a souvenir kit, with a lot of visual elements in it?' The TV Times agreed, and I put the kit together. When it came to representing the gramophone, I remembered as a child seeing those little tins. I had an eccentric uncle who collected everything, and he gave me three of these tins, and I thought, 'Gosh, haven't they got great graphics on them.' I didn't suddenly think, I'm going to start collecting them; but I looked out for them in junk shops, and it grew from there."

When Schwartzman began collecting in earnest, he advertised for gramophone- needle boxes in Exchange and Mart magazine, the British equivalent of the Recycler. "I had an amazing response. Apart from the pleasure of getting these things very cheaply at the time (you now see them in swap meets at upwards of $20 each), I used to enjoy the letters from these people. They were not so interested in making a few shillings as in corresponding with somebody."

From the letters prompted by the advertisement, Schwartzman found that in certain parts of Britain--East Anglia, the Manchester area and in sections of Scotland and Wales--"people were still into gramophones. Australia is also a great source for needle boxes, and they are still manufactured in South Africa."

As it happens, 1987 marks the centenary of Emil Berliner's invention of the gramophone. Unlike Edison's phonograph, which had a multi-play stylus, the gramophone's sound box was fitted with needles that were supposed to be unscrewed and replaced after one use. The metal boxes in which they were sold look as though they should have contained pleasant-tasting cough pastilles.

Schwartzman thinks that the German boxes are the most appealingly designed. "The reason for that was that British steel was the finest steel at that time, and in order to compete with the superiority of the British product, the Germans packaged better. They illustrated all sorts of dances."

Several of the box decorations from other countries are rip-offs of RCA's "His Master's Voice" emblem--the dog, Nipper, listening to a record. Variations on this theme include dog and radio, dog and baby, and baby and elephant. Portraits of Mona Lisa and of Napoleon were popular: a Japanese-made box shows Napoleon with Oriental eyes. The American flag and eagle and the Union Jack, early airplanes, many animals and birds, and a cockfight--all appear on box lids. The more outlandish conceits include a woman admiring her reflection in a gramophone record, and a jockey passing the winning-post while holding a record in each hand (not an easy thing to do).

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