Coca-Cola Chanel Jean Paul Gaultier

From Coca-Cola to Heinz Ketchup, what makes an iconic bottle?


By Thomas O'Neill | Managing editor

May 28, 2015 | 10 min read

So distinctive it can be recognised in the dark or lying broken on the ground. That was the brief that led to the creation of the iconic contour Coke bottle, and few would argue that it fails to fulfil its remit. But what other bottles could you identify, emptied of their contents and with their labels scratched off? What does it take to create an iconic bottle?

The Coke bottle turns 100 this year, marking a century at the centre of pop culture, from appearing on the cover of Time magazine to featuring in works by Dali and Warhol.

And like many of the world’s most recognisable designs, from the red phone box to the KitchenAid mixer, it is imprinted on our brains – simple, practical, everyday, but unforgettable, an undeniable icon.

It hasn’t always looked and felt like the Coke bottle we know and love today, however – at the turn of the 20th century it was very much a straight-sided affair. Increasingly indistinguishable from the growing number of competitors looking to emulate it however, Coca-Cola moved to strengthen its trademark and in 1915 issued a challenge to create a bottle so distinctive it would be “recognised in the dark or lying broken on the ground”. No mean task then.

The Roots Glass Company from Indiana answered the brief with the now-famous curves and grooves of its cocoa bean-inspired design (an ingredient the designers mistakenly thought was in the product) and the distinctive bottle was patented on 16 November that year. Explaining the appeal of its contour glass bottle, James Sommerville, the vice-president of global design at Coca-Cola, tells The Drum that he views it as a “very intimate object”.

“There is a very special and personal moment when you place an ice-cold Coke bottle on your lips to drink. This physical and sensory connection that we all experience adds to the enjoyment of every Coca-Cola bottle.”

But beyond the liquid itself, or indeed the Coca-Cola script logo (which similarly has to be one of the most recognised brand identities on the planet), the shape, form, material and colour of the glass bottle create the perfect package.

“A key attribute of a design icon is the feeling that you know that shape, even if you don't know a thing about its creator – like a famous painting, it’s just so familiar it’s part of your memory.”

Bottle design, says Sommerville, is a seriously difficult craft: “From a distance, from a billboard for example, it has to be recognisable as a shape, yet up-close on a store shelf it has to speak on a more personal and emotional level. The bottle also has to be functional from a system perspective. The unit cost has to be delivered on budget, most likely working with restrictions on materials. All these rational and emotional factors are considered and if the elements come together in the end, you have a potential for a great solution.” Provided, of course, that the liquid inside is desirable.

So what exactly makes a design icon, and in particular an iconic bottle? And considering their throwaway nature, how is it that bottles engender such strong connections within us?

We catch up with a handful of designers who know a thing or two about bottles…

Kevin Shaw, founder, Stranger & Stranger:

Glass bottles contain things such as perfume, scotch and fine wine which are luxury covetable purchases. Glass can be shaped, textured and coloured into fine craft pieces, is heavy and smooth and just feels good in the hand. What’s not to like?

I love the old heavy seltzer bottles – they have the density of a dying star, which must be down to the lead content. Murano in Venice has done some truly inspiring handmade bottles. Then there’s Orangina. Heinz ketchup. Look around, they’re everywhere.

Chanel No5 demonstrates how a really tiny label added to quite an unremarkable bottle can transform it into an icon. And now Diageo and Beckham have leveraged those brand values with a huge blue version of Chanel called Haig Club. It’s shaken up the scotch industry because it’s so unusual.

Bottle design is tough and there are very few people who can do it well. It’s not about ideas. Ideas are easy. It’s about understanding the medium. Bottles are usually made in two halves and have to be pulled from injected moulds at speed, so understanding the restrictions and possibilities of the tech is everything. And you’re fighting all the way because all producers want you to design the Absolut bottle as it’s the most efficient shape to work with. I designed a rum called The Kraken with squid arm like hoops on the shoulder. Of course I wanted eight hoops. How they laughed.

Absolut is amazing because no matter what they do with it, from covering it in sequins to decanter crystal cuts, you can always recognise the profile.

David Palmer, executive creative director, Love:

When we think about icons we’re talking about that impossible-to-put-your-finger-on combination of shapes, elements and cultural context that imprint themselves on our collective consciousness.

For a bottle that means shape, form, colour and crucially the cultural landscape it sits in – for Coke, that’s the promise of freedom linked to the American dream. And while a Coke bottle might be throwaway, a Chanel bottle isn’t. As a vessel for preciousness, the bottle itself becomes an object of desire, the tangible, physical, outward articulation of the liquid promise within. It is a personal favourite.

We’re very, very lucky, as we’re being asked to design really storied liquor bottles, where desire, stand out and high production values are essential. In terms of difficulty, when you’re moving from off-the-shelf solutions, you’re into all sorts of issues, compromises, health and safety, even the effect of gravity on molten glass. So it’s a labour of love.

To become iconic, beyond form, colour and shape, requires the right type of exposure within a wider cultural context – where object fuses with zeitgeist. That level of exposure can suit a category leader, but conversely challenger brands are often more in tune with culture and are far nimbler, allowing them to react quicker.

Mary Lewis, creative director, Lewis Moberly:

What makes a design icon? A singular image, imprinted on your brain. You follow its form in your mind’s eye. A bottle becomes iconic when it is adopted as a cultural symbol. This is brand driven, not only design.

Despite their throwaway nature, bottles engender such strong connections because you pick them up, take them home, fiddle with them, give them a familiar shake and revel in their beauty, originality or simplicity. A bottle can be a need, a function, a friend. Like a human body, it is tactile and symbolic. Having fashioned it, we then dress it…

Bottles I most admire range from Chanel to the humble milk bottle, Remy Martin Louis XIII and last but not least, my hunting flask.

Icons tend to be age-related – they need time to be adopted as a symbol. Category leaders aim for iconic status, but it is not their reserve. There is a real opportunity for challenger brands to steal the thunder. The caution here is, beware difference for difference sake. The statement may take an ‘iconic stance’ but could be here today, gone tomorrow.

Louise Sloper, head of design, CHI&Partners:

A poster of an elaborate gold bottle – one of 400 specially-commissioned pieces celebrating 400 years of originality for Grolsch – got me thinking about what makes a bottle design iconic.

Iconic designs can be simple, chic and timeless such as those of Chanel No5, Aqcua di Parma and Voss water, grown-up and luxurious in an unmistakably long-necked Krug sort of way, everyday and functional like a Kikkoman soy or HP sauce bottle, as fun and tactile as Orangina, Mateus or Pom Wonderful, or indulgently tacky like Chambord liqueur and Jean Paul Gaultier fragrance.

Graphics are influential (I can’t count how many times an interesting wine label has been a saviour in deciding a house gift). Materials, particularly glass, feel undeniably special. But shape definitely tops the bill. Absolut Vodka’s advertising over the decades has hung on this fact. The same goes for Coca-Cola. Both are so iconic that they can be recognised in simple silhouette form. Remembering the publicity created by the ‘Pammy’ Virgin Cola bottle shows how powerful an interesting shape can be. For Grolsch, its distinctive swing-top lid played its part.

That love is shared just as much by the designers creating the bottles, and not only for the big brands. A beautiful example of this is the new Yaguara Cachaca design created by Brian Clarke and Rich Kennedy, which oozes dedication in its craft from its typography and Copacabana paving inspired shape, to the materials and techniques used.

I love a good bottle. They can be a status symbol, a functional object or a decoration. This packaging of a liquid can convey the personality of a brand in an instant, luring us in with a whiff of luxury, heritage, nostalgia or hipster cool. They compel us to collect or display them at home. Ultimately, though, they are made to be used.

You can apply science and research to a design, but it’s the emotional connection through this interaction which informs cult status. For this reason, a satisfactory slap on the bottom of a Heinz Tomato Ketchup bottle will forever make me smile.

Natalie Chung, creative director, Pearlfisher:

Design icons capture our imagination and speak to our deepest desires – connecting with us on a personal and universal level. They impact on us by embodying our culture and identity, soul and spirit, past and future. Iconic design principles are focused on symbolism, originality and authenticity. But in bottle design, the irresistible power of an iconic shape, with a recognisable aesthetic, creates a powerful impact.

Iconic bottles, and particularly their shape and presence in our life, have the power to evoke memories and certain points in time.

Experiencing the brand comes down to seduction and this is where all the elements of the packaging design – including clever structure or shape – has the scope to tell, or at least tease out, the story of the brand experience by focusing us on the texture, look and delivery of what we are buying and using.

The bottles I most admire are the bottles that literally broke the mould – the square Chanel No5 bottle, the curves of the Coca-Cola bottle.

Then there are the new challengers that have revolutionised bottle design – the Tynant water bottle and Hendricks Gin bottle. Both of these brands established new visual languages through the structure and symbolism of their bottles.


Coca-Cola Chanel Jean Paul Gaultier

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