You may not realize it, but it’s likely that you’re in the presence of Charlie Hughes’ work every day.
Perhaps it’s at the supermarket when you pick up a loaf of Sara Lee bread or a bottle of Minute Maid orange juice. Or the convenience store where the clerk may grab a carton of Marlboro or Virginia Slims cigarettes from behind the counter.
Hughes used his artistic skills to design the logos for these and dozens of other popular brands during his career as a lettering artist.
“He was considered the top commercial lettering guy in the country by many people,” said his wife, Janey Westin, who is also an artist.
Hughes died Jan. 26 while in hospice care at his Edina home. He was 86.
Hughes moved to Minnesota in 2002, but he spent most of his career as a lettering artist in Chicago and Milwaukee. One of the versions of Tony the Tiger’s classic catchphrase that Charlie Hughes designed.
He was born in Chicago in the early years of the Great Depression. His mother died when he was a toddler and his father, a skilled tool and die maker, bounced between cities looking for work.
Hughes ended up in a boardinghouse in Milwaukee and studied at Boys’ Technical High School. He was mentored there by art teacher Ray Cotè, who told him, “Hughes, you’re going to be a lettering man,” Westin said. Those words launched his career.
He worked at a sign shop and art studio while in high school and attended the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts for a few months, Westin said. He then moved to the pros, designing ads for the yellow pages in Milwaukee and working for 10 years as a letter designer at the Milwaukee Journal.
At age 30 he became a freelancer, drawing letters for international ad agencies and design studios such as J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett.
Hughes’ profession recalls a time before computers, when individual designs had to be hand drawn, and he gained a reputation for his versatility as a lettering artist. He could perform in a variety of styles, experimenting with different writing tools and surfaces.
He once was given the job of designing the catchphrase for Tony the Tiger, the cartoon mascot for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Westin said she has his drafts of “They’re Gr-r-reat!” in a box in her basement.
“Almost every day I see something that has his lettering on it,” Westin said. “I go to the grocery store and I’m constantly reminded.”
In 1965, Hughes designed Century Nova, one of the last metal typefaces. He created Indy, a typeface with a calligraphic look, in 1995.
Later in his career he moved beyond the page and into three-dimensional platforms, sculpting in clay and carving on stone and wood.
Hughes met Westin at a Minnesota calligraphy conference in 1984, and the two started dating in 2001. They moved to Edina a year later and married in 2009. They collaborated on several art projects.
“It was a rare artistic understanding of each other … that I’ll probably never find again,” she said.
Hughes’ last lettering job was five years ago, designing Valentine’s Day balloons for Eden Prairie-based Anagram Balloons. Westin keeps one of the balloons taped on her kitchen wall.
Besides Westin, he is survived by sons Chuck and Dan, of Illinois; daughters Jennifer Gordon, of Illinois, and Alison Shelor; and grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for Hughes at 2 p.m. on March 25 at the Lakewood Memorial Chapel, 3600 Hennepin Av. Westin is asking attendees to wear jeans and bright colors in his honor.
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