Christmas crackers

It’s the year’s most dissected, chewed-over piece of graphic communication. If it’s for a client, the designers won’t get sign-off for weeks, ‘as every single person in the company will want to see it first’, says Atelier Works partner Ian Chilvers. ‘If only all our work was given as much consideration,’ he laments. Yet it’s not unusual for graphic designers to ‘get a call at the 11th hour because they’ve forgotten to commission one’, according to NB Studio creative director Alan Dye. Guessed already? Yes, it’s the Christmas card.

Some clients are way ahead of the mark, commissioning up to 18 months in advance. But that’s because it’s no longer just about the humble card. Take Habitat/ this year, its Christmas card graphics have even been applied to lamps. The Christmas card is a branding exercise in miniature: either reinforcing it, or knocking preconceptions of it on the head and producing something unexpectedly light-hearted.

Art institutions are often the most creative. Across the pond, the annual ‘Holiday Cards Collection’ is arguably the graphic highlight of the year at the Museum of Modern Art’s store in New York. It has been commissioning original designs for more than 50 years. But no one does Christmas greetings quite like British-based fine art shipping company Momart. It has been commissioning some of the biggest names in British art – Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Peter Blake – to design limited edition ‘cards’ for its art-world clients since 1984. Few take the form of conventional cards. In 2001, Mark Wallinger designed an empty cracker; and the following year, Howard Hodgkin placed a screwed-up piece of blue paper in a box. This year Ron Mueck has been commissioned.

‘Our cards are a real tradition in the art world, so the pressure’s on every year,’ says Momart head of gallery services Stephen Glynn. ‘Artists are always happy to do one for us for free – it’s quite an honour to be asked.’ But lately, a sense of corporate social responsibility is creeping in. ‘Most of our clients send charity cards now. Or they donate, say, £500 to charity and send an e-mail to tell everyone about it,’ says Grade Design creative director, Peter Dawson. Which is laudable, but a shame. As these examples show, Christmas cards allow designers to stretch their creative legs and flaunt convention. Here are some of the best of this season’s greetings.

Petra Borner, Habitat

Habitat has gone anti-commercial in its graphics this Christmas. Swedish, London-based designer Petra Borner’s folksy, wood-cut style motifs adorn everything from Christmas cards and wrapping paper to baubles, notebooks and lamps.

Her work makes reference to the Scandinavian countryside and to European folklore, with forests, log cabins, cottages, winter landscapes, owls, stags, partridges and Eskimos. Her colour palette – icy blues and warm oranges – is kept to a minimum.

It’s Borner’s first work for Habitat – a previous textile project fell through – and she was commissioned in summer 2005 after approaching the retailer cold with her portfolio. Her natural, pared-down style taps into the current zeitgeist for organic, hand-rendered-style, anti-bling graphics.

As well as Habitat, this year she’s created fabric designs for fashion house Cacharel’s autumn/winter 2006 and spring/summer 2007 collections; and she’s designed 12 covers for Penguin’s Selected Poems series. Eight books are on the shelf, with a further four launching early next year.

Atelier Works, Volkswagen; Integrity; 5RB

For Volkswagen, Atelier Works has designed two Christmas card ranges using the Beetle in place of usual seasonal images. The first is a set of three cards: two Beetles kissing under the mistletoe; two red Beetles replacing holly berries; and Beetles forming the shape of a Christmas tree. The second set features more religious Christmas imagery: shepherds, angels and the Three Wise Men (‘We christened them the Three Wise Drivers,’ says Atelier Works partner Ian Chilvers).

Elsewhere, for design management company Integrity, Chilvers has a harder task: how to come up with a different motif each year, which is still based around the company’s existing marque – arrows in place of the two letter Is. ‘At Christmas, Integrity likes to let its hair down and show a bit of personality,’ he says. ‘As it spends the year safeguarding and managing people’s own brand identities, I thought it would be good to have some fun with its own identity at Christmas.’ This year, the arrow has been turned into a red snowman’s scarf.

Finally, for client 5RB, a barrister’s chambers specialising in the media sector – high profile cases for extremely big-name clients – Atelier Works has created a simple spoof on a recognisable theme: ‘Three Wise Men’ becomes ’27 Wise Men (and Women)’. ‘With 5RB I usually make some tongue-in-cheek play on legal terminology. This year, I decided to create a simpler, more conversational Christmas card. The hardest thing is creating something new each year, but still following on from last year’s card,’ says Chilvers. He designs all his Christmas cards ‘gratis, as a thank you to clients. Instead of taking them out to lunch, say. But I do often dread each time they come around’.

Various, Museum of Modern Art, New York

In a tradition stretching back to 1954, Moma runs an annual Christmas card design competition. It’s an open submission: this year nearly 1000 designers, illustrators and artists worldwide – some well known, some not – sent in designs.

A total of 12 designers were selected by a judging team. Only two, Kate Withey and Lorenzo Deras, hadn’t designed cards before.

New artists are commissioned every year, but popular ones often make a comeback.

Among this year’s designers are American children’s book illustrator Robert Sabuda, who has designed a die-cut, pop-up card featuring doves of peace; British design studio Peagreen, based in Winchester, have created several cards, including Bright Baubles and Critter Christmas; and Kit Grover, the London-based designer behind products for the Tate, National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Shakespeare Company, has also contributed with a double-sided card, entitled Holiday Drive.

All the cards – 22 in total – are designed exclusively for Moma, which works a year in advance.

Various, Tate

Tate, encompassing all its British galleries, from Modern to St Ives, has broken with tradition this year. Alongside its traditional range of Christmas cards, featuring details of artworks from its vast collections from the likes of artists Eric Gill, Patrick Heron and Tracey Emin, it has commissioned exclusive cards from three designers.

Textile and graphic designer Orla Kiely has created two graphic interpretations of natural motifs: fir trees and Christmas blossom. Brighton-based graphic design group Silence has designed Book Tree – an abstract image of a Christmas tree constructed from books – and Cut-Out Tree, based on a paper-chain design.

Finally, Tate has joined forces, for the first time this year, with Portugal, a London-based work and rehabilitation centre for people with mental health problems, to design two cards. Tree and Bird follows a handmade aesthetic; Snowflake is a simple graphic pattern. All were designed in-house.

Silence and Kiely were commissioned on the strength of previous work with Tate.

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