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.