Imprint’s longtime color columnist, Jude Stewart, is writing a new series on patterns in design. Previously, she asked whether ornament is really a crime, spoke to the founders of a London-based “pattern consultancy,” and toured Philadelphia University’s patterns archive.
Here’s a holiday statistic that’ll blow your hair back: The Guardian reports that we collectively use 8,000 metric tons of wrapping paper at Christmas alone—and that was way back in 2006. It prompts the question: Who invented all this evil, lovely wrapping paper in the first place? And how can we slake our collective ardor to wrap stuff responsibly and beautifully?
Pattern and color fans, take a tour in the Wayback Machine with me!
As usual with histories of ephemera, facts-on-the-ground are scanty, but the apocrypha reveals plenty. According to Mental Floss, the prevailing Legend of Wrapping Paper starts in 1917 with brothers J. C. and Rollie Hall in their stationers’ shop in Kansas City, Missouri. Holiday business had been so brisk that year, they’d run out of the default holiday-wrap of the day: tissue paper, in red, green, and white. Digging into a backlog of heavy French paper meant to line envelopes, the brothers slapped on a price tag of 10 cents per roll and sold it retail. Boom! Instant sell-out. Fast forward to 1919: the Hall brothers have started printing their own custom wrapping paper for the holidays, thus launching a business now worth an estimated $3.2 billion. Bonus tickler: the Hall boys made good on other gifty fronts by launching a wildly successful stationery chain we now know as Hallmark.
The Halls may have activated the Western taste for disposable gift-wrap, but the idea of wrapping gifts predated the Halls by centuries. (That fact is embedded, in chicken-versus-egg fashion, in the Hall story itself: did the Halls really invent gift wrap if they just replaced the already prevalent habit of wrapping presents in tissue paper?)
Take the eco-friendly Japanese wrap, the furoshiki. These lovely, reusable cloth wrappers were originally used to bundle up personal effects while visiting public baths. Gradually, they broadened in use to an all-purpose wrap, including concealing gifts. Furoshiki date back to at least the Edo period (1603–1868) and combine a beautiful concealment with portability and craft. Here’s a clever, wordless video on the many ways to tie up furoshiki into a bundle.
Whoever invented gift wrap, it’s clear we’re better off reusing the stuff where possible and making it count triple-time in its aesthetic punch. As we roll through the annals of gift wraps past and present, let’s consider this: wrapping paper this gorgeous deserves to be saved. It could just as easily be printed on fabric into modern-day furoshiki or printed on reusable vellum (or its plastic equivalent). And these examples are easily as gorgeous as whatever the box contains.
Let’s rev up the Wayback Wrapping-Paper Machine and cruise forward chronologically, shall we? Here are some fantastic, actual gift wraps designed by the 19th-century wallpaper guru William Morris and by Viennese artists of the Wiener Werkstätte.
Felt and Wire clued me in to Stephanie Monahan, the creative brains behind Monahan Papers, a resurrector of old and old-style paper designs of all varieties. Here’s one you could use to wrap gifts or to line your Christmas dinner table, to very handsome effect.
Another stop on the gift wrap–hungry circuit is Spoonflower. Its particular innovation is featuring designs that can be printed as wallpaper, gift wrap, or reusable textiles. Bring your personal furoshiki design to life!
Personally, I dig a clean, futuristic pattern, particularly if it stems from a natural phenomenon or references another reality refreshingly outside the Holiday-Industrial Complex. (Let’s face it: We all find the gingerbread-laden air a bit stifling after a while.) Here are a few favorites, starting with my good pals Chrish and Jenny Klose of Wednesday Paper Works, a smashing new bookbindery and stationery design firm in Berlin. Below that you’ll find Poliwog gift wrap, consisting of closely packed, hand-drawn circles in a mesmerizingly dense style. The final image is Design Army’s To From paper, a witty infographic-style giftwrap that you can customize for the exact occasion and relationship in which this gift is enmeshed.
Let’s tie up this post with ribbon and string: Happy holidays to all, and beautiful ones at that! (P.S.—If you’re stumped for a holiday gift to wrap inside all this goodness, try shopping at MyDesignShop—all of the best design books and goodies at nicely competitive prices.)