The Southern Letterpress
3700 St. Claude Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117
This exhibit demonstrates the process of color design for graphic arts and marketing applications before desktop publishing. In 2000, for the pitch of a high-end perfume packaging campaign, designer Nancy Sharon Collins designed a palette of colors which were then made into ink and printed on onionskin paper. Fifteen years later, these beautiful, vibrant sheets of color show how important, yet elusive and mysterious color manufacture and perception can be. Also on display are historical examples of color matching systems from Collins’ archive, including Toyo, Pantone, and some that you’ve probably never heard of.
Today, with the ubiquitous nature of computers and peripheral devices, what many of us take for granted is the way we view and perceive color.
I grew up in a world of black and white: Newspapers, TV, and most books were devoid of color. When I was 17, the spectrum of RGB had only been experienced on 48% of all North American residential TVs. When I was 28, the first newspaper to brazenly embrace color printing was USA Today, launched in 1982. So, for approximately one third of my life, “color” was more usually presented as spot—or single color—art and typography. The naming system identifying each of these single colors was a language unique to each industry or process. Think about the name associated with Benjamin Moore® slate blue (#1648) versus Pratt & Lambert™ Blue Slate (#2235) house paint; each company’s paint name is different. In a similar manner, until universal color matching systems were developed for printing, matching specific orangey-red letterpress ink with, say, the same orangey-red screen printing ink was difficult.
This all changed in 1908 when Toyo introduced the first color catalog, a swatch book of ink colors. This meant that anyone who had a Toyo swatch book could specify a Toyo ink color to anyone else, anywhere, having a Toyo swatch book and matching Toyo ink colors, and that ink color would be the same. Today, color matching systems are universal: Toyo and DIC are the big color matching printing ink systems in Japan. Universally, color languages, or systems, have been so widely adapted that you might not even notice the Pantone and Toyo color options in Adobe products. By far the most popular in Europe and the United States is PMS (Pantone Matching System). Pantone, as it has been known since 1962, has expanded its color matching systems beyond mere printing inks, and they now offer thousands of individual color swatches in industries as diverse as textile, cosmetics, and automotive.
Over time, the brilliance of commercial printing color matching systems, such as Pantone and Toyo remains: PMS 625 Red in New York is the same today on the west coast, thousands of miles away. Keep in mind this idea was and remains within commercially agreed upon margins of error. It also means that PMS 625 in cool (blue) Atlantic light is (within those margins) identical to PMS 625 viewed in Los Angeles where it is much warmer, Pacific light.
That, my friends, was amazing!
In advertising, design, packaging, and product development, the language of color is enormously important. Color is directly associated with mood, emotion, and how likely you are to buy a product off the shelf of a retail store. For instance, feeling sad is often referred to as being “blue” and when mad, we “see red”. Thus, it follows that just the right color scheme for an expensive perfume is no casual task because so much money depends on it: approximately 12% of a perfume’s price goes towards packaging and marketing. About $12 of a $100.00 perfume may be dependent on the product’s color, so establishing color is crucial.
Exhibited is the color study commissioned in 2000 by Unilever Prestige* while partnering with the bridal designer, Vera Wang, for the creation of her first, signature fragrance, eponymously named “Vera Wang” and officially launched in 2002. Unilever is the third largest consumer goods corporation in the world (after Procter & Gamble and Nestlé). At the time, Unilever had an ultra-high-end designer division licensing perfumes and fragrances. As a graphic designer with my own shop in New York City, I was fortunate to have had clients such as Unilever, Clinique, Williams-Sonoma, Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art. This project is an example of the work my studio created from 1986 to 2004.
Here, on the walls of Southern Letterpress, hang a selection of individual specimens, large color swatches, from the 2000 Vera Wang project. Because color system swatches are generally small, the purpose of this study was to see what the colors looked like on a larger scale. At the time, these were pinned up on a conference room wall very much as you see them today. The display was reviewed by the marketing team at Unilever headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. From it, one main color was to be chosen to signify the brand identity of the new fragrance and would serve as the primary color in all packaging, advertising, promotion, and visual merchandising.
Each specimen in the review had been silk-screened as a draw-down of solid ink on 17″ X 22″, #9, 100% cotton rag onion skin paper. Every sheet produced individuall, by hand, by master silk screen artist Jan Glinski. (9# paper is less than half as thick as paper coming out of your desk-top printer.) Each is one color, or a random mix of colors, from a palette of TOYO color swatches curated by the Unilever marketing director responsible for this project. (The curated palette is also exhibited). TOYO colors were used for this project because, in 2000, TOYO had more colors than PMS.
The viewer might notice the extreme color intensity not usual with contemporary inks. This is due to the use of lacquer-based inks in this study, high in VOC, and for this reason not often used anymore. Further, look carefully at how beautiful the ink appears on these gossamer sheets: 100% cotton rag onion skin paper was used as it receives color media extremely well.
In addition to looking at a unique material (onion skin paper so delicate it literally moves on currents of air) and spectacular colors so toxic they are currently available only with great difficulty, this exhibit reminds us that prior to desktop publishing, almost everything visual in the two-dimensional commercial world was created by hand, by a graphic artist, or designer, without digital fonts, software or algorithms. No one color was chosen from this early color study (see the 2000 “Mood Board” for reference). ** Rather, it was used in meeting after meeting of Unilever marketing strategists, retail and sales experts and, eventually, Vera Wang executives and Vera Wang herself in understanding the overall mood of the fragrance brand.
It may be of special interest to those in the creative field, that—as is usual in big corporate structures—the designer of this study was present in none of the decision-making meetings!
Please enjoy this small look into the history of designing for commercial print, advertising, packaging, and promotion. Feel free to take photos on your smart phone or peripheral device. While doing so, also keep in mind that once upon a time, pretty much everything you see in the man-made world was created by hand!
* In 2000 and 2002“Unilever Cosmetics International was the New York based manufacturer of fragrances for Unilever Prestige brands: Vera Wang, BCBGMaxAzria and Nautica, cosmetics and fragrances for Calvin Klein and fragrances for the European Designer Parfum brands, which include Cerruti, Chloe, Lagerfeld and Valentino.” —http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/unilever-prestige-unveils-new-vera-wang-fragrance-campaign-75793962.html** For this exhibit, the Mood Board was retrieved from a ca. 2000 Zip disc by the Media Center, Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans.