Objectify Me: Steven Heller on Paul Rand’s can
El Producto Cigar Tin, designed by Paul Rand
An entire book could be devoted to the designs Paul Rand created for El Producto cigars in the early 1950s – from an advertising campaign, where every week for a year or more he drew a different funny cigar holding a cigar (in its hands, of course), to the various gift packages, including one with a Man Ray-inspired photogram on the cover. There is so much material and recently, I was given a tin designed by Rand that even I had never laid eyes on before or knew existed. It currently sits on a shelf above my computer, and honestly, I cannot take my eyes off of it – it’s taken on the status of a religious reliquary.
Still, a can is a can (unless it contains something special, like grandma’s ashes) and this is the quintessential cylindrical tin with metal top that can be opened only by using the church key soldered to the bottom. Yet Rand’s playful graphics – the colors, image, and lettering – are so joyous that it could never be thrown away without experiencing some kind of guilt. Incidentally, joyful is a very apt description because this was not just any common cigar container; rather it held 25 “Bouquets” designed specifically for new fathers to hand out in celebration of the birth of a son – not a daughter (although that can just might exist too).
The image features one of Rand’s phallic cigar-characters holding a cigar in one hand and a baby milk bottle in the other while a stork (similar to one he drew for the cover for the Stork Club cocktail book) holds a basket with a cherubic infant peering comically over the edge. The background color is a mellow sky blue (similar to Obama Blue) with the linear stork rendered in reddish purple and the basket in white. The baby is “newborn pink” with a red dot for the nose – cute yet not maudlin. The lettering for the El Producto logo is the stencil-style that Rand once explained referred to the stencils on huge burlap bales of tobacco, and under the stork’s spindle legs, scrawled in Rand’s script, is the phrase “it’s a boy!” While on the top – the piece de resistance – also in his script, is the slogan “proud fathers give El Producto.”
Although this was a calculated attempt to sell more rancid smelling cigars by reinforcing the manufactured tradition that men give cigars to commemorate their newborns, this was something special. Prefiguring Rand’s carnival-esque package designs for IBM, this can humanized the product like no other in its genre. Most cigar labels and boxes followed the 19th century penchant for Victorian-style engravings and color lithographs of famous figures, scantily clad ladies, and vintage plantations. Instead, Rand rejected all the conventions of cigars by inventing his own branding language that clear set El Producto apart from the competition. It is, well, joyous.
– Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chairman (with Lita Talarico) of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts. He writes the Visuals column for the New York Times Book Review, and is the author, co-author, and/or editor of over 100 books on design and popular culture.