Remember when Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo made her first foray into perfume? In 1994, when giant perfume conglomerates were quick to make a buck by licensing formulae to any willing celebrity or designer, she substituted the citrus scents of the day with cloves, spices and resins. She bottled the new fragrance in a smooth, clear glass pebble-shaped vessel (designed by Marc Atlan) which she vacuum-sealed in plastic and packed in a white box adorned with a sans serif logotype, ingredients list, barcode and recycling symbol.
The result, Comme des Garçons’ nondescriptly titled Eau de Parfum, was an exercise in industrial chic. But it was not the first such intervention. Seventy-three years earlier, in 1921, Coco Chanel was savvy enough to know that ‘the opposite of luxury is not poverty’ nor ‘simplicity’ (as she explained to photographer Cecil Beaton in 1966). She accordingly looked to the machine-age vernacular of Le Corbusier to package her perfume, the first to use synthetic ingredients. This she numbered rather than named as if it had just rolled off the assembly line. The design of the cubic apothecary-style bottle with a white label and black, centred sans-serif type has changed little since. Chanel No. 5 remains a benchmark of style.
A century on, unembellished cardboard with sans serif type, often but not always centred in uppercase letters, has come to form a whole product category. This current crop of perfume brands harnesses a restrained visual and material language to signal a return to the artisanal roots of perfume-making. In 2006, for example, Stockholm-based art-school graduate Ben Gorham launched Byredo – named from the English word ‘redolence’ – to reunite the sense of smell with the associative power of memory, packaged in a hypermodern, squat, cylindrical glass bottle bearing a white label with black sans type.
It is tempting to ascribe this pared-back design approach to current concerns about waste. But sustainability is only part of the story. And classic influences, pretensions to stealth luxury and the incorporation of prosaic references aside, there are other factors that come into play in the design of these brands. Make-up – and, by extension, its packaging – adapts to ever-changing concepts of beauty. Functionalist sans serif typography is particularly suited to the explosion in the past five years of doctor-endorsed or medically supported cosmetics brands.
Generic typography and heightened materiality are also apt for a new generation of consumers who prefer to curate their own style rather than be prescribed a definitive look. Enter Glossier, the cosmetics ‘unicorn’ launched by American beauty blogger Emily Weiss to cater to the Instagram generation. An online, direct-to-consumer venture, Glossier draws on social media to actively cultivate its brand in dialogue with its users rather than from a position of authority. Encouraging personal expression, Glossier is to make-up what street-style photography is to a Vogue magazine spread. However, the products at the centre of the Glossier universe are anything but workaday; they materialise a 21st-century standard of beauty that is more forgiving – and more demanding – than those of the past. This means ‘no make-up make-up’: cosmetics, applied with the semblance of not trying, to emphasise natural beauty and to enhance qualities already there. One could say the same about this new generation of packaging.
‘Slow perfume’– Hibiscus Mahajád
‘Plain but premium’ – The Seated Queen
‘Box of delights’– Urbani Tartufi
‘Beauty by numbers’ – 8950
‘Human nature’ – Equality fragrances
‘Shades of Neutral’ – Massimo Dutti
‘Eminently hip’ – Brooklyn Soap Company