With Cézanne, and package design, every brushstroke leads a double life

So where is the image of a package? Stick with me. You’ll find that the lessons of the post impressionists apply even to contemporary package design.

A new Cézanne show recently opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, called “Cézanne and Beyond”. There is a great review of the show, written by Richard Lacayo, in the March 9th issue of Time Magazine. In the review, Lacayo says a wonderful thing about Cézanne’s work, “In a mature Cézanne, every brushstroke leads a double life, as part of a painterly illusion and as a thing in itself, a patch of pigment on a canvas. This opened the way to everything from Cubism to abstraction.” cezanne-landscape

kelly-landscapeI thought this show, and that quote, opened up two interesting analogies to package design. The first has to do with the obvious influence Cézanne has had on artists that follow him, the second has to do with the double life of his brushstrokes.

Now for the first analogy and the premise of the Cézanne show. Apparently the idea behind the show is to visually demonstrate the deep influence Cézanne has had on artists that followed him. As the museum’s web site says, “This exhibition features forty paintings and twenty watercolors and drawings by Cézanne, displayed alongside works by several artists for whom Cézanne has been a central inspiration and whose work reflects, both visually and poetically, Cézanne’s extraordinary legacy.”

One of those artists is Ellsworth Kelly. I had a memorable encounter with him on New Year’s Day several years ago. I was visiting a Guggenheim Museum retrospective of his work with my parents, when someone passed by and mentioned that Mr. Kelly was right behind us, viewing the show rather anonymously. At least until my father, whose middle name is Ellsworth, went over introduced himself and began telling him how much he admired his work.

It quickly became clear that Mr. Kelly was in the mood to talk. As a small group gathered, he mentioned that it had been almost 50 years since he had seen some of this work, and he began to quietly and modestly describe, in the wistful tones of a parent describing the reunion with a long lost child, the wonderful feeling he had seeing this work together again. He also said, with tears in his eyes, he was saddened that his mother couldn’t be there to see this show and the obvious adoration of the hundreds of people at the Guggenheim that cold winter day. It was quite a moment.

In package design, none of us can deny the obvious influence of what I will call “master designers” on our work and careers. Although this influence is strong, I think our industry is guilty of first, not celebrating that influence, and second not recognizing these important individuals in more formal ways. The Package Design Hall of Fame?

The second analogy to package design has to do with the double life of every brushstroke, and of every element that we decide to include on a package. Think about how we select, refine and apply visual elements in well designed packaging. Virtually all of them lead a double life, the Absolute bottle shape that is both the vessel for the product and the embodiment of its style, the blue color used for Tiffany packaging that not only physically covers the carton but also lives as an immediate signal of the brand, or the Coca Cola script that literally spells the product name but also acts as a link to the brands heritage. A double life all.

Our success as designers is measured by how we combine the literal with the imagined. We are always dealing with the illusion and the thing itself, just like Paul Cézanne’s brushstrokes, or Ellsworth Kelly’s simple color shapes. Let’s get down to Philly to see this show.


The Bay of Marseilles Seen from L’Estaque, Paul Cézanne, c. 1885. The Art Institute of Chicago

Lake II, Ellsworth Kelly, 2002. Beyeler Collection, Basel; (C) Ellsworth Kelly.


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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One Response to With Cézanne, and package design, every brushstroke leads a double life

  1. Pingback: Cézanne Revisited « The Package Unseen

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