Posted by: Kath Usitalo | July 10, 2012

Homefront: Brillo’s Detroit Connections

Andy Warhol, Brillo Soap Pads Box, 1964 (Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh)

I grew up in a house without a dishwasher. Or rather, the dishwasher was Mom or one of us five kids. The pot scrubber du jour’s best friends were a Brillo pad and a canister of Cameo powdered cleanser for the copper-bottomed Revere Ware.

Although I hated the texture of the pink and grey Brillo pillows (gloves? who wore gloves while washing dishes?) the soap pads, made of fine steel wool, did the trick. Baked- and burned-on foods were vanquished with a little elbow grease and scouring action.

I recently became reacquainted with Brillo when our dishwasher had a breakdown and was out of commission for a while.

The original Brillo (from the Latin word for “bright”) was patented by a couple of New Yorkers in 1913, and the Brillo Manufacturing Company was headquartered in Brooklyn until 1921 when the company moved its production to London, Ohio.

Andy Warhol turned Brillo into a pop art sensation with his 1964 reproduction of the scrubbing pad’s packaging. I don’t remember feeling any better about Brillo because the graphics had inspired an art world masterpiece. I did wonder about the artist who designed the Brillo box that Warhol copied.

He was James Harvey, a Great Laker born in Toronto in 1929 whose family moved to Detroit when he was an infant.

Harvey studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and returned to Detroit to design window displays for giant downtown retailer J.L. Hudson.

He moved to New York City to pursue his art, and worked as a packaging designer for the Mad Men-era firm Stuart and Gunn where, in 1961, he created the iconic Brillo case.

The commercial artist was also a painter who reportedly thought Warhol’s Brillo Box, unveiled in 1964, was a joke. But the gallery representing Harvey issued this statement: “It is galling enough for Jim Harvey, an abstract expressionist, to see that a pop artist is running away with the ball, but when the ball happens to be a box designed by Jim Harvey, and Andy Warhol gets the credit for it, well, this makes Jim scream: ‘Andy is running away with my box.’…What’s one man’s box, may be another man’s art.”

Harvey died in 1965. According to a Print magazine article about the artist, Warhol and Brillo, Harvey’s family brought his remaining works back to Detroit.

In 2010 Armaly Brands, a company founded in Detroit almost 100 years ago and producer of another household standby, Estracell sponges, acquired Brillo.

Although TJ and Graham eventually revived our dishwasher I decided to keep Brillo around for those tough jobs. I still don’t like their texture.


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