Visual Arts

The Joy of Sacks

Diane Upchurch sees considerably more in shopping bags than "paper or plastic." Just how much more is apparent in the 80 or so examples dating from 1985 that she has assembled into "Portable Design: A Selection of Shopping Bags," an ASU College of Architecture show highlighting the ingenuity and marketing savvy behind these hand-carried billboards.

"The most appealing designs treat the bag as a three-dimensional object," she says, pausing to search the gallery for a worthy sample. Then, moving toward a yellow one with red elephants traipsing around the sides from Animal Crackers, a children's clothing store, and gesturing in the general direction of a Christmas bag from I. Magnin, whose four sides are windowed and wreathed like a department store in season, she adds, "You notice that they use the sides and front and back to contain the design, so you have to move around them to see the whole thing. Some bags even incorporate the handle into the design."

Which reminds her of a bag she once saw whose handle took the form of an arching tree limb, and one whose front depicted a tie and whose handle played the shirt collar, and another that simulated a pair of trousers, another molded from a person's face and hand and, of course, the Andy Warhol bag depicting a can of Campbell's soup that she wishes she owned.

Not long into this seminar on bags, it becomes evident that Upchurch, who, fittingly, is curator of visual collections at the College of Architecture, is no idle shopper. She's a collector, a pack rat with a focus--or, as she puts it, a fetish. And her friends are in cahoots.

"When I found out several years ago that Diane was collecting them," says Michael Boyle, an ASU architectural historian who assisted Upchurch in organizing the bag show, "I began helping her by going around and grabbing them wherever I could find them."

Thanks to him and others, Upchurch's collection boasts sacks from 12 countries and such cities as Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Madrid, Milan, London, Munich and Florence--the other one--though Upchurch says she has done some shopping down by the state slammer, too.

In the 11 years since she acquired her first bags at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Macy's department store, Upchurch has accumulated more than 200. And with school out and colleagues on the road--"My biggest donor is going to Japan for two months!"--mo' better bags are on their way. She toys with the idea of concentrating her efforts--and those of her friends--on museum bags, but she can't quite bring herself to put her foot down. So, for the foreseeable future, all of bagdom will continue to be carried her way.

A collector's mind is a terrible thing to waste. Yet the wonderful and sometimes exotic truth about collectors is that their collections are their thoughts and passions. In exhibits like this one, you can literally see what fills their minds, and a good bit of their homes.

But shopping bags?
A weaker, less committed person would shrink from the question. But Upchurch firmly points out that shopping bags are overlooked, even misunderstood gems of design; they are virtually everywhere these days. And for businesses as varied as Ralph Lauren and Borders, the Body Shop and Arcosanti, they are--aside from the products themselves--among the most visible, intimate and mobile forms of advertising; they let the public shouts of brand names reach just about anyone's quiet hallway closet.

"That's what makes them special," says Boyle. "They are given to everybody. They're 100 percent democratic. If you go into Saks and buy something, they'll give you a bag, they don't care who you are. They know, or hope, you're going to carry the bag home and keep it and maybe use it again."

"It's been said that the average shopping bag is reused eight times before it's discarded," says Marvin Jacobson, a shopping-bag veteran with Elpac, which produces bags for some of the svelter names in boutiques and sundries, and contributes to the show the distinctive triangular sack from New York's Takashimaya. "That usage goes up or down," he adds, "depending on a bag's graphics. Obviously, the nicer it is, the longer it's likely to stay around."

Longevity has its virtues. But when, exactly, does a bag's life begin? Despite anticipated squawks from the pro-life camp, bagologists are convinced that the functional life of a shopping bag doesn't begin at the moment of purchase; it begins when the bag leaves the store. At that miraculous instant, it embarks upon its intended mission to tell the world just what kind of taste, interests and money its toter has. Only when it's seen flickering through the fast-walking legs of a thick sidewalk crowd can it trigger in onlookers the Pavlovian "I want to be like Mike" urge to shop at that shop, to be seen carrying that bag and to bring home--after having paid for them, mind you--whatever imagined goodies it contains.

"What's inside, of course, might be a cold hamburger and some laundry," says Boyle, "but you can't tell that by looking at the outside."

In fact, those who are one with the Power of the Bag contend that the less you know about what's inside a sack, the better. After all, a little mystery never hurt the imagination. And a little imagination and a pinch of yearning never hurt business.

"I've had retailers tell me many times that the bag was more important to their image than the merchandise in their store," says Jacobson. "Simply because the bag is what is seen out on the street; it is what gives customers their first impression of the store."

That's the mercantile dream behind all of the bags in this show: to brand a fine first impression about a merchant or product on the dark cerebral lobe that controls the human credit-card reflex.

Take the triangular Takashimaya bag. This is a case where the owners of the business consciously sought an eye-catching fusion of packaging and perception.

"When that bag was made, about seven years ago," Jacobson recalls, "it was the first triangle-shaped bag on the market." The bag was designed to hold a triangular box. Jacobson can't quite recall what went into the box, but does that really matter?

What the brains behind shopping bags hope you'll see in them is your own image as a shopper, so when you glance at the Takashimaya sack, or the painted faces of youngsters on the Benetton bag, the eye-dazzling image on the Heard Museum's bag, or the three-dimensional route of the words around the bag from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the elegant graphic expression of the one from Felissimo, you can find something distinctive, something worth remembering and identifying with.

Sackophiles will tell you that almost everyone--excluding petroleum executives--wants to identify with paper, not plastic. And, as the bags in this show indicate, people prefer bags with handles.

Despite Andy Warhol's claim "that's not fake anything, it's real plastic," plastics are associated with cheap, says Upchurch. "Although you can store plastic bags easier," she adds, "they don't hold their form."

"They're too floppy and flexible," says Boyle, "and because the plastic is so thin, they can't take such elaborate designs as paper."

Dick Green, with Longview Fiber, which manufactures bags for JC Penney, among others, says that plastics are also seen by many to be a disposal problem.

"In market research that Eddie Bauer and JC Penney shared with us," he says, "they found that the customer had a perception that the paper bag was far less environmentally invasive. It was more friendly. It was recyclable."

This, despite that many of the coatings that add vibrancy to the colors and surfaces of paper bags render them unrecyclable.

Researchers are finding, says Green, that customers are even more specific about their handles: They want a handle that will slide up above their wrist, so their hands can be free to pick up more merchandise--and hopefully to pay for it. Shopping bags persist in being seen by the security forces at malls and stores as shoplifting bags.

No one really knows what these marketing gestures to memory and usefulness are worth to business. But it's safe to say that the impulse buying they're intended to trigger far exceeds the estimated $1 billion American businesses spend annually on paper shopping bags.

That figure covers everything from the specialty bags exhibited at ASU, and taco and hamburger pouches, to the always-versatile brown paper bag--known in the industry as the self-opening sack. However, it doesn't include the considerable sums that go into the design of bags and packaging.

And, says Jacobson, "the market keeps changing. The resale or specialty bag has cut into the greeting-card market, and it's also cut into the gift-wrapping market."

The one sure thing is that the types of bags in this show are a growing chunk of the business. In fact, it's probably the one area of the paper-packaging industry where there's actually something new, says David Stuck, a spokesman for the American Forest and Paper Association, an industry group. An unexpected boom, considering that 30 or so years ago, bag people feared that the American passion for automobiles would make the need to schlep a shopping bag obsolete. Like most threats of obsolescence, this one apparently sparked a boom in variety and invention. It led to a search for more opportunities and places where the old urge to buy and the need to carry could renew the meaning of bags.

One of those places, says Upchurch, is the airport: "You can just sit there for hours and watch all the beautiful bags going by." She pauses, "Well . . . some people can."

"Portable Design: A Selection of Shopping Bags" continues
through Friday, June 28, in Design Gallery at the College of Architecture and Environmental Design on the Arizona State University campus in Tempe.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow