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