Creating New Nostalgic Packaging by Reusing Old Label Designs

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A designer and bath products maker team up use vintage consumer art to sell new items.

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Nostalgia is a potent aphrodisiac, and nostalgia for times and places that one has not actually experienced has incredible allure. Witness the draw of recent French film, The Artist, art directed to recall silent movies and the flapper era—a time period long before most of us were born. Likewise, certain kinds of graphic design called "retro" borrow from the past to invent new nostalgias that sell products, enabling the consumer to travel back in time, if only for the moment. When the design elements are spot-on perfect replications, the product is given a legacy that allows the consumer to luxuriate in a nostalgic haze.

"It brought out my best counterfeiter/forger instincts and the will to do justice to these classics without 'improving' or 'correcting' them"

Soaps, perfumes, and cosmetics are among the most common retro-designed products. Recently, the type designer and illustrator Daniel Pelavin created a series of package designs for bath products all derived from vintage French labels. For anyone with a soft-spot for this history, Pelavin's work is a masterpiece.

Stéphane Ouaknine is the scion of a revered Parisienne Pharmacy and, though pharmacist by occupation, his true vocation is "that of a dreamer who's love of great beauty and classic design has led him to bring to life La Société Parisienne de Savons," Pelavin explains. His work "celebrates the elegance and style of Art Deco in a collection of subtly scented soaps, powders, balms and more in fragrances from the familiar to exotic with authentic vintage design and typography in homage to the lavish and elaborate packages of a bygone era."

An acquaintanceship began between the two when Pelavin started designing some logos for Ouaknine about three years ago. At that time Ouaknine mentioned the notion of creating a contemporary line of products in vintage packaging. The project began to take shape in March 2011.

Pelavin's references consisted of pieces of old labels and snippets showing portions of early packages. He expanded upon the original designs and created typography to extend them over complete suites of products. "It brought out my best counterfeiter/forger instincts and the will to do justice to these classics without 'improving' or 'correcting' them," he says.

Of the first 12 (there are currently 20 designs completed but, only 12 in production) Pelavin says he most cherishes for the ones on which he had the most input on or were most challenging to accomplish, including Cold Cream, Carmin, Marjolis, and Greco Deco. "But, like one's children, albeit adopted, I have a soft spot for each," he says.

Children to be sure, but such direct replication is also like cultural or commercial grave robbing, in a way. But that doesn't bother Pelavin. "Since it was understood that all rights had been obtained to reproduce the works, I had no compunction against bringing them back into existence and repurposing the imagery onto shapes that had never existed," he explains. "Creating full sets of fonts from limited samples of letterforms felt sufficiently creative to me."

The first production samples have only now started arriving. The website will go live shortly. Soaps in several sizes and assortments, face powder, and lip balms are now in production. Molds are just now being cast for custom 30 ml, 100 ml and 200 ml containers that will hold hand soaps, colognes, and bath oils. There will also be candles, fragrance diffusers with deco-inspired wicks, and a separate collection of colognes in antique containers with vintage labels. Ouaknine will attend the Objets de Maisons (Parisian version of the New York International Gift Fair) early next year. There, he'll find out if the public is indeed in the mood for the old made new.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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