A Long, Proud History
By: Chris Haller
We have been bringing our passion for marketing to the St. Louis area for over 70 years. As the oldest creative agency in St. Louis, Obata has had the pleasure of partnering with some of the most iconic brands around the nation since 1948.
Obata is aging like a fine red wine. We have rich perspectives, and we only get better with time…
Not your typical “Mad Men”.
Obata’s roots stem from the drive and ambition of an artistic young woman and a multi-talented Japanese-American man.
In late 1945 co-founder Alice Hausner, a 25-year-old illustrator for Garrison-Wagner, decides to strike out on her own and opens shop in downtown St. Louis as a freelance artist. Co-founder Kimio Obata and his family had spent over a year in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. By 1944, he and both his parents are working as artists for Garrison-Wagner.
Within a few months of her startup, Alice Hausner’s freelance business has more work than she can handle alone, so Kimio Obata joins her, bringing contacts and projects from Gardner Advertising.
By 1949, with business booming, Kimio Obata and Alice Hausner relocate to a paddlewheel boat moored “at the foot of Pine Street”, sharing offices with the Cassell, Watkins, Stevens advertising art firm. Rich Haley, also working on the boat, soon joins Obata. The location on the Mississippi was scenic, but isolated. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s the adjacent riverfront was a 39-block wasteland awaiting future Arch construction.
A company built to last.
By 1952, after three years afloat, Obata is back on dry land in the modernist Roosevelt Federal Savings building. Kimio’s younger brother Gyo opens offices of his new architecture firm, Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK), in the same building. When HOK relocates to the Delaney building in 1956, the growing offices of Obata soon follow.
Obata’s main business is illustration, advertising art, and architectural renderings. In early 1955, Kim Obata creates watercolor renderings of the planned new terminal at Lambert Airport for the Post-Dispatch. In addition to ongoing work with Gardner Advertising throughout the decade, Obata clients include Ralston-Purina and Anheuser-Busch. In 1955, Alice Hausner paints the original mountain scene for Busch Bavarian beer.
In 1959, industrial designer and future company president Russell Hughes joins the company from Emerson Electric, strengthening a client partnership that continues to this day. Obata provides industrial design services to Emerson’s Builder Products group, including work on the company’s new Craftsman radial arm saw, an innovative product that cements Emerson’s partnership with Sears.
Merging art and business on a global stage.
In 1960 the company moves to 1127 Pine street, a location listed as the “Design Center Building” in local directories. Businesses include Obata Studios, Obata Import-Export Co and Watkins-Obata Photography. Obata’s close relationship with Gardner Advertising continues throughout the 1960’s with Pet Milk as a major account.
Alice Hausner maintains a long-term relationship with Concordia Publishing, providing stylish watercolor illustrations for an ongoing series of religious children’s books. Corporate work grows, including the design of Monsanto’s iconic “M” logo and a new corporate identity program for Emerson.
Obata’s work with Emerson expands to include the design of the “Living Effects Laboratory”, a full-size mid-century modern home on Emerson’s campus for testing and development of residential products. In 1964, as Emerson looks to expand their business in Asia, the company turns to Kim Obata as a consultant for Emerson’s first international joint-venture, Aichi Emerson.
In 1966, Kim Obata moves to Japan and establishes the Obata Corporation in Tokyo. The two Obata locations share the Emerson account, with several of Obata’s St. Louis-based employees spending six months to a year working in Tokyo.
In 1970, Obata hires designer John Vandover to support and expand the company’s growing corporate communications business. He eventually succeeds Russell Hughes as president of Obata.
Obata’s business had been based on advertising support, but is increasingly moving towards working directly with top corporate accounts to create exhibits, presentations, and annual reports. With corporate displays and award-winning multi-media presentations for Emerson and Anheuser-Busch, the company is rapidly moving beyond its roots. Obata’s work even appears at Disney World, as the company creates a nine projector slide and film pre-show presentation in the Circle-Vision 360 Theater for corporate sponsor Monsanto.
Consumer packaging remains a strength as Obata continues a three-decade partnership with Ralston-Purina, creating package design for the entire Chex brand family of cereals.
A move and a Mac.
In 1982, Obata heads south to the Soulard area, restoring and remodeling a 100-year old former church into a modern office space and in the process moving closer to major client, Anheuser-Busch. In late 1984 Obata enters the computer age with the purchase of an Apple Macintosh computer, the first St. Louis design firm to make the leap to digital.
The company’s focus on annual reports grows steadily throughout the decade, creating reports with original photography for Emerson, Mercantile Bank, Interco, A.G. Edwards, Jefferson Smurfit, and Union Electric.
Obata continues nearly four decades of developing original bottles, labels and package design for Anheuser-Busch beverages. In 1986, Obata creates the original sculpted version of Bud Light mascot, Spuds MacKenzie.
A “can-do” attitude.
Obata’s focus on leading-edge technology and expanding in-house services is evident in the company’s early entry into web programming, photo imaging and video production. In 1996, Obata builds its first internal website, which is soon followed by early web development projects for forward-looking clients.
In addition to ongoing beverage marketing, Obata creates an ever-expanding line of Eagle Snacks and Cape Cod brands for Anheuser-Busch. In 1996, Obata begins corporate communications work with the Peabody Group, including photographing and producing the employee magazine. The work soon expands to annual reports, photography and video.
We didn’t start the fire…
In the summer of 2000, Obata suffers its second major fire in company history. Most paper files (and one goldfish) are lost, but all computers and digital files are saved. Though the building is uninhabitable for nine months, the company is back serving clients from temporary locations within three days.
Later that same year Obata develops and deploys its first custom CMS for Emerson’s intranet. Obata’s long partnership with Emerson includes product design, interior design, exhibits, events, brand development, video production, photography and over 50 years of annual report design.
Integrated agency with deep roots.
Today, Obata helps clients, some of which are 30+ year partnerships, execute marketing and corporate communication initiatives across numerous industries, including healthcare, industrial, energy, finance, agriculture, and beyond. Obata’s expertise lies within simplifying complex communication challenges to maximize understanding and inspire audience-driven action.