In the greatest secrecy... the birth of the ELF logo
This is 1962. As a young graphic designer, just back from Algeria and looking for a job, I met, through a relationship with my father, a certain Jean-Marie Chourgnoz, an atypical character, passionate about music and curiously gifted. The latter was about to create a small communication agency in Lyon which I was the very first to join at the time and which we both developed for about ten years until we were about thirty: designers, editors, photographers and sales people. Above all, it will be an extraordinary adventure, one that will be remembered 60 years later. It was the creation of a new great brand: Elf. It will be the work of three people: Jean-Marie Chourgnoz for the concept, Erich Brenzinger for the typeface, which was very modern at the time, and myself for the design.
It all started at a party in Paris. Jean-Marie met people from the Union Générale des Pétroles who were working on finding a name and logo to rename this large national company and make it a brand for the general public. A company that General de Gaulle was particularly fond of. At the time, these people were not convinced of the work of the agencies initially consulted. Jean-Marie, who was rather a man to think before taking up a pencil, proposed a first approach inspired by gas pumps, called volucompteurs, working with two cylinders. From the outset, his approach seduced the PMU officials who entrusted us with the creation of their new emblem with the beard and the nose of the major Parisian communication agencies. It was the beginning of a beautiful story that will last 9 years. Our small agency in Lyon was then forced to migrate to Paris to get closer to the PMU. We moved to rue d'Arsonval in the 15th arrondissement, near the future Tour Montparnasse, in a former artist's studio. At the request of the PMU, it was quickly transformed into a real bunker with armoured doors and bars on the windows. The case was serious. NOTHING of our work was to filter out.
We started by looking at the future name of the brand, something oh so sensitive and difficult. To do this, we asked IBM to make a strange device called a computer. This immense machine brought out all the possible combinations of words composed of three, four and five letters delivered in the form of large folding screens... We were faced with tens of millions of words to analyze. To carry out this titanic work, we hired students who came every weekend to tick off the pronounceable words and colour in those evoking the world of oil! Seven words stood out like Galo, Ritm, Alzan, or... Elf. While we were testing them, the PMU asked us to design a prototype of a luminous square box in white on an orange background to test it on the eleven PMU service stations in Germany. And as eleven is pronounced and written Elf in German, the choice of the PMU naturally went to Elf. We have given a meaning to this acronym: Essences et Lubrifiants de France. For the record, we escaped the word RAP, for "Régie Autonome des Pétroles", suggested by General de Gaulle!
With the name identified, we still had to create the logo. This work, carried out in absolute secrecy, lasted at least three years. Once a week, our PMU interlocutors invited themselves to the agency for endless brainstorming sessions. We had lunch with Messrs. Rochon, Renaudeau d'Arc and Malapert in front of the fireplace where Jean-Marie Chourgnoz was grilling... The atmosphere was particularly friendly. After months of reflection, Jean-Marie was convinced that our future brand should symbolize a huge arrow indicating the station. And to cut out two square cardboard boxes, one blue, the other red, and make them fit together. Which they liked. As our Elf interlocutors include many polytechnicians in their ranks, I took a clever pleasure in showing twice the golden number in the focus of the two arrows. Seduced by this drawing, I explained to them that this figure was inspired by the teeth of a drill bit. The first set, the tricolour shape, was won. We had to win the second one: the colours. As all the oil tankers in France had already put down the colours of the tricolour flag, we fell back on the blue of an ugly Chinese duck in lacquer placed on the desk of a decision engineer for the PMU who was annoying us. A blue that married very well with an orange-red. And the trick was (almost) done.
This new blue and red, we had to deposit them in the form of hand gouged and varnished boards (Pantone did not exist yet) so as not to risk being attacked by the other tricolour brands, Esso, Mobil.... And it was finally up to me, some twenty years later, when the parent agency no longer existed, to standardise them definitively for any use of printing inks, matt or gloss paints, lacquers or enamel.
We underlined the new brand with modern ELF graphics (the Helvetica that inspired it was still called Haas), bold and black. No one then used black as a color but only black was able to "snap" the colors of our drill bit. And this black, during our collaboration sessions with the architects of the future petrol station, we imposed it on them for the mast and the awning banks. Our embarrassment then came from the fact that Caltex, which until its absorption by Elf was a brand in its own right, insisted on appearing next to our emblem in proportion to its shares. However, depending on whether this proportion was calculated in relation to the total surface area of the future light panel, its height or its width, the result was far from being the same. All solutions were considered, even the worst, and it took a long time. But fortunately, on the mast of the first stations, we were finally able to hang, after very long discussion sessions, a simple "Caltex Relay" cartridge. Legible but aesthetically discreet.
With the name and logo chosen, the sequence of full-scale tests began. The prototype of the final lightbox - of which I have the prototype in my attic in Ardèche - and which we had developed after multiple round trips to Marseille to an industrialist, was then tested at length in the Paris region. In particular, we used to conduct night-time tests in the grounds of a factory in order to determine, based on the number of coats of paint, the perfect balance between day and night mink.
To perfect our tests, we had a completely dummy service station in Fleury-en-Bière near Barbizon. I still remember a certain Mr de Kervénoaël in charge of the image at UGP passing by in a camera car to check that the name was readable and memorable while driving. Because if a graphic has only verticals, everything disappears in the movement. In order not to reveal the brand name, we had painted the word Olt on this station and on trucks because Elf and Olt had the same ratio of letters. It was then that Daniel Humbert, my assistant, called me in a panic, while I was bedridden, to tell me that a truck, bearing the word Elf, was circulating in Paris. The company doing the tests had forgotten to put the word Olt, even though, for the past three years, we have been taking extra precautions... Fortunately, no one had paid the slightest attention to it!
And then the famous red circles showed up. In a single night, they suddenly dressed hundreds of gas stations. Circles that another agency had imagined. As for ours, it became too big too fast, it didn't survive those Elf years. But the human adventure remains imperishable.