Egmont Arens: Ever Hear of Him?

Recently, A&P’s house blend, Eight O’Clock Ground Coffee, got a packaging face-lift. Actually, it was a crowdsourced makeover “sweepstakes” that started in 2009 and had a curious temporary result (see here and here).  I was talking to Russell Flinchum, an author and researcher on industrial design and designers, including Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit (Rizzoli International Publications/National Design Museum, 1997), about the implications of this change. Here is a piece of that conversation.

The original Eight O'Clock

The new Eight O'Clock

You never miss something until its gone, and even though I’m not a coffee drinker, I always had a soft-spot for the 8 O’Clock Coffee package (a throwback to the Streamline ’30s), which, in fact, was designed in the ’30s by the industrial designer Egmont Arens (1889–1966). Sounds like the industrial design historian in you is not too pleased with the redesign either.

What gets me is that Arens redesigned the entire line of what we would now call the “in-house” line of products (especially canned goods) for the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company [A&P]. The Eight O’Clock bag is practically the only evidence left. This is like Michael J. Fox looking at the picture of his siblings in the original “Back to the Future.” Fading fast!

So, with this going or gone, Arens is essentially gone too? Just another forgotten designer?

Except for his Hobart “Streamliner” Meat Slicer, Arens is generally overlooked today, but in the 1930s and 1940s he would have been ranked right up there with Geddes, Loewy, Dreyfuss, Deskey, Rohde, Frankl, etc. And the meat slicer was given to MoMA by Eric Brill, one of my favorite collectors, in memory of Abbie Hoffman (“Abbie” is short for “Abbot,” by the way). Thus by this slenderest of threads is Arens known by people today. I was very happy to include it in the book American Design (5 Continents/MoMA, 2008).

The Hobart Meat Slicer, masterpiece of modernism.

Why did A&P hire Arens in the first place?

As far as I can tell, A&P was trying to put some “pizzazz” in their packaging due to the impact of the Great Depression on sales—dressing up the “store brand” to compete with national brands at a time when radio would have been hammering the virtues of the latter into peoples’ heads.

Sounds reasonable. Did Arens design anything else for the store?

I can’t say for sure, but I believe that Arens may have designed the coffee grinder for the A&P stores as well. It was my job as a tyke to grind that bag of whole bean Eight O’Clock coffee (setting the grind to “Percolator,” no less) when on trips to the store with my grandmother. The dials to select the grind on the sides of the machine were HUGE. Arens had an intuition about ergonomics, seen clearly in the meat slicer—large, smooth surfaces that are easy to wipe down, because anyone who has operated one of these machines knows you only take it apart at the end of the shift. The blade and its housing are inherently hazardous, so Arens’s idea of making the machine easy to clean in situ reflected the way it was really used. And it put Hobart out in public—90 percent of their machines would have been in restaurant kitchens (dishwashers especially, but also industrial-strength potato peelers, etc.), and as far as I can tell, these didn’t get the glamour treatment. So the Streamliner is a savvy example of a company putting its prettiest foot forward. A “style leader” as I like to refer to it, “leading” the rest of the company’s products as its avant-garde.

For more on Egmont Arens, go here and here.

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For more on contemporary packaging design, check out the book Boxed and Labelled, now on sale at MyDesignShop.com.

5 thoughts on “Egmont Arens: Ever Hear of Him?

  1. Joshua Peter

    The KitchenAid Stand Mixer is one my favorite posessions; it’s so simply elegant and well designed. I didn’t know it was an Arens – thanks Dennis.
    The eight o’clock change is…unfortunate. 

  2. David Kohler

    Steven,
    Glad you posted this one. I have been meaning to blog about it.
    i have both the old and the new packages in my freezer. It’s not that the old package was the greatest design in the world but it was a big part of my life. The new package seems like change for changes sake. It’s not more memeorable and looks like a “House” brand more than a brand with a strong history. To me the history gave this package integrity—from the Atlantic Pacific Tea Company. The new one is not high end, nor is it low-end, just there. This could be the strategy but i feel that the long history could have enabled them to own the position of the countries first master merchants—before Starbucks, before Dunkun thought about what you dunked your donut in, there was Eight O’clock coffee.
     
    Andy: it tastes pretty good if you make it in a french press, just add a little extra.

  3. Andy

    I agree with your lament about the demise of a design that will always seem more modern than the latest modernity.  There is something comforting and solid about the original “Eight O’Clock” bag, and ironically the longevity of it communicated to me that this coffee was good (even if it wasn’t).

  4. Gail Anderson

    I have fond memories of the Eight O’Clock Coffee packaging, too. We’d do our weekly shopping at the local A&P, and if we were there at 8PM, my sister and I would tell our mom that it was time to buy the Eight O’Clock Coffee. We really believed that was the only time you could get it.
    I still have a red tin, too, and knew it looked great even as a kid.

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