Monsieur Bibendum’s house: the Michelin Building

People who know the way my mind works will already have been expecting this post after I reminded myself about the Michelin Man’s connection with Chelsea the other week and been wondering why we haven’t been here before. Those who know me spookily well will also make the connection with one of my literary heroes William Gibson, who included the image of the man made of tyres in his novel Pattern Recognition (which doesn’t have quite enough scenes set in the Borough to qualify for my fiction in K&C series). The protagonist Cayce Pollard finds some brands and trademarks toxic and disruptive to her talents. An enemy of hers uses the image of the Michelin Man against her. “that weird, jaded, cigar-smoking elder creature suggesting a mummy with elephantiasis. ” She counters the effect in various ways including a mantra: he took a duck in the face at two hundred and fifty knots. Fortunately she never goes near 81 Fulham Road. (Any other sufferers from semiotic distress should avert their eyes for the next few pictures)

The Michelin Man himself goes back to the 1890s when Edouard Michelin was struck by the anthropomorphic possibilities of a pile of tyres at a trades exhibition and asked the uniquely named graphic artist O’Galop to bring the conception to life. The new mascot got his name from a Latin phrase from the poet Horace: Nunc est bibendum (now is the time to drink) which in this case referred to the unstoppable nature of the pneumatic tyres, drinking up obstacles . (“le pneu Michelin boit l’obstacle!”) Bibendum was depicted holding up a glass full of nails and other debris of the highway. (The other hand of course held a cigar, indicating a love of the good life). He starred in a variety of posters from 1898 onwards.

Nunc est bibendum - Copy

Bibendum rapidly became not just a symbol of the Michelin company but a cultural icon in his own right, popping up in all sorts of places.

Theatre 01 - Copy

He had become one of the new icons of industry and advertising. Andre Michelin entered motor races to demonstrate the superiority of the tyres. The Michelin company  published its first guide book, promoting the idea of road travel, tourism and the rating of restaurants – the start of a parallel industry for them.

In the UK the company decided it needed a headquarters which would combine administrative, retail and promotional functions. The Michelin building was born in what was then a relatively obscure, largely commercial, area where Chelsea met Kensington.

Announcement

Michelin House, designed by  Francois Espinasse and opened in 1911 turned out to be an imaginative, stylish and unique addition to the Chelsea landscape, and a celebration of their emblem. Bibendum had long since attained corporeal form and appeared in public for trade fairs, publicity events and even carnivals, as we saw a couple of weeks ago. He had become very much like a figure from folklore or a minor deity. Below he pays a visit to his new Art Nouveau temple in its opening year.

1911 London Olympia Motor Show

Note the stained glass windows, suitable for a 20th century cathedral, and the two spherical structures on either end of the facade. Originally two giant effigies of Bibendum were intended to stand there.

Inside there was a grand reception area.

Reception

A “touring office” like a reference library where travelers could plan their road trips.

touring office - Copy

And a workshop. Tyres could be bought, fitted, checked and repaired on the premises.

Workshop 1912

The exterior of the building also celebrated the company’s sporting achievements.

Michelin House postcard photo by Peter Moore

A series of 34 ceramic panels  depicted the exciting days of early motor sport.

Tiles 01b

 

tiles 05

Tiles 01a

The building added prestige to the Michelin brand and its ubiquitous emblem.

But times change, even for the demi-gods of advertising iconography. Michelin moved its head office in the 1930s, the stained glass windows were removed for fear of possible bomb damage (and subsequently lost) in 1940. The two globes had also gone by the time of this photo from 1971.

1971 article - Copy

This gloomy undated picture from our planning department shows that alterations were planned.

Michelin House pl03

But in 1985 the whole building was bought by Sir Terence Conran and Paul Hamlyn. The picture below also came from our planning collection. The globes were restored and the windows recreated as the building entered a new phase of its history.

Michelin House photo 1990s photo by David Nolan

The new version of the interior featured restaurants.

Palace of Vanities ILN Mar 1988 03a - Copy

And retail – below,  an 80s woman choosing candles.

Palace of Vanities ILN Mar 1988 04 - Copy

In 1988 the Illustrated London News featured the building as the first in a series they called sacred cows. As I went down to the Reference Store to find the article featuring these three images (“Palace of Vanities”) I noted that the bound volumes of the illustrious ILN came to an end a few years later. The great magazine unfortunately ceased publication in 1994.

Bibendum’s house survives, and  still amazes the passer by.

Palace of Vanities ILN Mar 1988 02 - Copy

Finally, back to where we began, with the early history of the man of tyres. Anyone sensitive to advertising, or just sensitive, should look away now….

Olympia 1908

Postscript

The Michelin building is more of a hidden treasure than a sacred cow. As someone who lives in Chelsea I have to admit that I seldom see it. I just don’t go that way very often. But whenever I do it cheers me up. London should have more buildings like it.

The Library has a virtually complete set of the Illustrated London News from 1842 to 1994. It remains an amazing historical source. A digital version of the ILN archives is also available.

 


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