Origins of Design Fascination

Since visiting the Bilbao Guggenheim in 2001 and seeing his flowery, supersize Westland terrier, I’ve been interested in Jeff Koons without actually being a fan.  But in the following quote – from an interview with David Sylvester – he nails, for me, how the fascination with modern products originates at the breakfast table.  It brings a Freudian, psychological, perspective into play that I hadn’t quite grasped, and which explains my early fixations with Kellogg’s multi-cereal packs (a different one every day!).

“Childhood’s important to me, and it’s when I first came into contact with art. This happened when I was around four or five. One of the greatest pleasures I remember is looking at a cereal box. It’s a kind of sexual experience at that age because of the milk. You’ve been weaned off your mother, and you’re eating cereal with milk, and visually you can’t get tired of the box. I mean, you sit there, and you look at the front, and you look at the back. Then maybe the next day you pull out that box again, and you’re just still amazed by it; you never tire of the amazement. You know, all of life is like that or can be like that. It’s just about being able to find amazement in things.”

Scott's Porage Oats

Expanding the Rubber Band

The first Spring I lived in Holland I was shocked to find that the only asparagus available was what seemed like an anaemic white variety. Where was all the green asparagus, I asked, had it all been eaten?

The answer was that there is very little green asparagus in Holland as the white asparagus, I subsequently found out, is much tastier – more creamy and delicate in flavour. White asparagus is grown under soil while green asparagus emerges from the soil; the green (slightly bitter?) chlorophyll provided courtesy of photosynthesis.

In either case asparagus needs bunching before selling and, in its conventional form, it remains a refreshingly minimally-packaged vegetable, with a rubber band (below, left) usually sufficing.


Back in the UK, green asparagus is in season again and I noticed a new and neat bit of packaging (above, centre and right) while cooking last night. A softer, more latex-like, indented rubber is used for the band, and which is welded almost seamlessly on to the packaging label to make a multi-functional coherent-looking whole. A neat solution to a problem that probably didn’t exist in the first place, but an illustration none-the-less of how packaging is the first place to look for advances in material-forming technologies.

Toothless Cowboys and Spacesuits: The Future of Chewing Gum

Restocking on chewing gum recently (an ugly habit, I admit) I found that the packaging had changed significantly and seemed, prima facie, to have taken a turn for the worse. The photo below shows the old and new package side by side – which do you think is the new packaging?


If you thought the container on the right, you’d be wrong. Although the right hand container has the curving form and sweepy dynamic background graphic of something from another planet in a long distant future – complete with grippy detailing around its top edge, to hold on to it with a spacesuit glove in zero gravity – it has been replaced by the rather plain container on the left.

Why would Wrigleys take what looks like a step backwards?

The container on the right comes in three separate parts – a white plastic ‘body’, a white plastic ‘head’, and a transparent delivery mechanism dispatching either a large or small number of pieces by lifting a large or small tab respectively. There is also a shrink-wrapped label, shrunk, like a figure-hugging dress, on to the curvaceous body of the container. That is four parts to mould and form, and four separate operations to piece it all together.

The container on the left is made of one piece of plastic, the body and lid coming from the same piece of material. Graphics are added with a simple sticker. That is two parts to make and a much easier process to bring them together. A smaller and more regular shape will also mean more can be transported in bulk for the same volume. So the decision looks like a simple decision about reducing complexity and saving costs.

It is never that simple though, is it? Cost is the pretext, but what is the subtext?

Look again at the left hand container. What does that plain container remind you of? Something out of the medicine cabinet perhaps? Maybe Wrigleys are now using the same production line as Bayer – chewing gum in one, paracetemol in another. What it suggests to me is a change of meaning for the chewing gum contents, from frivolous pieces of confectionary to ‘tablets’ that are good for you. (The ‘approved’ by the British Dental Health Foundation stamp attests to its goodness.) A medicalization of chewing gum from sweet to supplement. The new packaging is crucial for this transfer of meaning to take place because the contents have remained exactly the same – a 1.5cm oblong shape. Gum is good – you can buy it guilt free!

The classic chewing gum packaging is Wrigley’s gum – Juicy Fruit (yellow), Spearmint (white) or Double Mint (green) – each piece of gum a rolled out piece of fawn coloured oblong, carefully wrapped in its own saw-tooth edged foil. 8 pieces of gum and 8 pieces of foil! How valuable each piece was to prospective cowboys everywhere; it took a lot to give one away. You can still get it, but it won’t do you any good. Cowboys have long since lost their teeth (not so many dentists in the wild west) or died of lung cancer from smoking too many Marlboros. The future, as Damien Hirst has showed us, is pharmaceutical.