Strictly speaking a heavily branded design exhibition does not qualify for my Marvellous Art Musings . My excuse for covering Veuve Clicquot’s Yellow by Design show is that I found myself under the spell of a lovely Sunday morning spent in the company of good friends exploring all the delights of Arts on Main, Johannesburg, earlier this year.
At the time of the exhibition I was also still bubbling over with admiration for the widow Clicquot, having just finished reading her remarkable story. And, if I were still in two minds, the beautiful visuals delivered to me by the organisers settled the matter for once and for all. So I will give you a little peek into some of the designs inspired by the famous brand.
The production of marketable champagne was invented and perfected by the extraordinary Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin who not only created a champagne empire, but ruled it for the best part of the nineteenth century.
I will never forget my first sip of vintage champagne at a very dear and discerning friend’s home, someone who has now sadly left this world. I cannot recall the brand, but I savor the memory of the delightful ritual of examining the label, gently freeing the cork, pouring just the right quantity of chilled golden nectar into beautiful crystal tulip glasses, holding the flute to the light before that first delicious sip.
Nor will I forget some years ago an occasion that called for champagne. At least we thought so. We were young, we were hard working and successful and felt as though the world was at our feet. We were three business women buoyed by a recent triumph and we were ordering real champagne in a trendy Johannesburg bistro with unselfconscious aplomb. Those were heady days for us, the super efficient, talented two-woman graphic design team running their own business and me, the corporate client.
The champagne we chose was that delicately effervescent one created and made famous by the widow Clicquot. As the cork sighed out of the bottle the metal cap resembling a cameo slipped on to the white linen table cloth. And there she was, the sturdy looking woman with delicate skin and firm jaw. There is a just hint of a glint in her unwavering wise gaze as she sits solemnly dressed in her widow’s black garb softened by a wispy white scarf. Without any knowledge of her story, I knew at once that we were in the presence of greatness and proposed a toast to this woman of obvious substance, a role model for women all over the world, the Veuve Clicquot.
The widow Clicquot has never slipped off her pedestal in my estimation – and even though I am a great fan of local sparkling wine, I have continued to savor the thrill of celebrating a very special occasion with the crisp sparkling liquid, gently tickling the taste buds. I have also been known to ‘throw a frothy’ when the widow’s legacy is recklessly mixed with orange juice. Such sacrilege I will not permit.
Not so long ago I was delighted to find a book beckoning me with its very distinctive yellow cover on the stands of my favourite book store. I immediately snatched up a copy of The Widow Clicquot, by Tilar J. Mazzeo, published in 2009 by Harper Perennial in the USA. I could barely wait to enter the world of Barbe-Nicole Clicquot Ponsardin, the woman who created one of the most distinctive and enduring brands in the world. In spite of being repetitive at times the book did not disappoint. It tells in great detail the story of an empire and records the truly extraordinary life of the woman at the helm of the champagne industry for most of her long life.
Predictably as a woman in business very little information about her was preserved, but her ledgers and business records have survived. This lack of personal information makes it all the more remarkable that Mazzeo managed to cobble together such a comprehensive narrative. This was accomplished by painstakingly piecing together research of the champagne trade, the family history and recollections of the widow’s descendants.
In spite of having been born into an influential family of textile producers in the Champagne region of France, the young woman set her sights on growing the neglected wine producing branch of the family business. Together with her husband, Francois Clicquot, they faced numerous setbacks and then, sadly, he fell ill and died, leaving the barely thirty year old Barbe-Nicole with a young daughter and a business to run.
More determined than ever the widow embarked on a brave and daring business adventure. Through wars and revolutions, often on the brink of ruin, she persevered. With a good nose for business (and champagne!), considerable capital at her disposal, good advisers and loyal employees she managed to stay one step ahead of her competitors. In the process she created one of the most powerful and recognisable brands in the world today.
How often do we wish that we can recapture a special moment and relive it at a later date? Well, thanks to the strong willed widow we can again experience something of those magic and exquisite moments, be it a romantic, shared with friends and family, a celebration or remembering a moment of unbridled confidence and exuberance in ones youth.
And that is why when I received an invitation to view designs commissioned to promote the famous brand, I could not resist the temptation and made my way to downtown Johannesburg to view the Veuve Clicquot’s Yellow by Design exhibition art Arts on Main.
Strategically placed designs in the spacious gallery showed works commissioned to build on the famous brand and to promote the product. The Johannesburg exhibition also featured the work of leading South African designers such as Inertia by Gregor Jenkin, Pop & Toast by Christina Bryer, Yellow Light by Heath Nash, and Signature Chair By Tsai Design Studio.
The champagne producer has in recent years collaborated with a number of world-renowned international artists such as Karim Rashid, Andrѐe Putman, Tom Dixon, 5.5 Designers and Front Design.
The widow’s iconic brand would seem to keep very good company. Salut!