What cunning marketer transformed a humble bath commodity into a stylish, alluring design object? How soap grew to be about more than just cleanliness.


Since when did soap become the new iPad? Just the other day I was in my local soap store—yes, a store dedicated to soap—waiting on line—yes, a line of sentient beings—to pay for my lavender and lemon beauty bar with purple flower petals encased in a translucent cake of yellow fat, which itself was in the shape of a bountiful bouquet—yes, a bouquet—and I could feel myself getting lathered over what I was doing.

I was not, as you might assume, buying this concoction as a house gift or even a birthday present for my wife (who gives soap to their wives, anyway?). It was for me and me alone. I was—I admit it—smitten with its look and feel. It was an object of desire. In fact, it was a toss-up between desiring this or a soap wedge that looked like a seedless watermelon. Perhaps if it were summertime, I'd have bought the watermelon.

How indeed could I be sucked into the soap vortex? Who or what nefarious designer or marketer made soap into a fetishistic object (read with French accent)?

When I was a kid, there were three kinds of soap in the house: 99.99-percent-pure Ivory (it floated) for me and my dad (although we sometimes used Lava soap too), Camay, a slightly more expensive, perfumed variety for my mom, and then there was the so-called "guest soap"—usually in the shape of seashells, placed in small dishes so that guests would not contaminate the family bars (though today they might be mistaken for white chocolate).

"Guest soap?!" That marketing genius deserves to be in the hall of sh . . . fame!

I suppose there were other varieties on the market—in-law's soap (keep their hands off my life), best friend soap (mi casa, su casa), priest and rabbi soap (wash sins away)—but definitely not the quantity and quality and design found today in such dedicated emporia as Sabon or Lush. Other than the French, who would dream of having stores devoted to soap? Then again, in the 1930s appliance stores sold record albums, until someone thought of making dedicated record stores, and look how profitable they became. The same has happened to soap. Today there are hundreds, maybe thousands—soaps with milk, cherry blossoms, glycerin, vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruits, and even bacon. 

As long as cleanliness is next to godliness, and clean scent is a sacrifice to the gods, soap will be an essential commodity. So why not make it as appealing—and novel—as possible? That's the American way and the apogee of design thinking. Yet how this trend started, I'm not entirely certain. What I do know is that in the 1980s there were two strands of soap design marketing.

Slide_178edit.jpgOn one hand, mainstream brands like Dove, Palmolive, Irish Spring, et al., were packaged more like cosmetics than mere soap. Some were for women—given "trade dress" that appealed to feminine wiles; others were for men—packaged to look more like Manhandler's soup than soap. Men washed away their manly grit, while women soaked up their fragrant perfumes.

On the other hand, specially scented premium soaps were an entrepreneurial godsend. Soap-makers have long made such handcrafted things, but with increasing ME-Generation attention to the body-ourselves, consumption for indulgences was on the rise. So entrepreneurs took to the soapbox. Graphic designers were commissioned to create graphic auras that suggested exclusivity through various tropes and conceits.

Nostalgia was one: Crabtree & Evelyn was in the forefront of the pastiche movement, applying Olde English graphics to suggest the Dickensian era. The idea is that one would not be embarrassed to display such "collectible" wares in the home. Art deco, influenced by many French "savon," also emerged. Likewise, simple elegance was another tool, and even wit and humor came into play. Check out the Blue Q brands of soap. And can anyone with a nose for scent forget Caswell-Massey or Kiehl's? The former with its old fashioned designs and the latter with its un-design.

By the 1990s and 2000s emporia like The Body Shop and L'Occitaine were among those in malls that catered to the body with finely designed products. And more recently Sabon, Lush, Soapology, and others are pushing soaps of all sizes, shapes, and flavors—yes, flavors!

Soap is not the next frontier. As long as there is grime and disposable income there will be customers—no sweat. But getting back to my earlier lather: I am surprised that people in the N.Y.C., U.S.A., would line up to get soap. I'm even more amazed that I'm one of them—but my special cake looked so cool. Maybe one day there'll be an app for that.

Images: Courtesy of Steven Heller

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