In the foreword to Glamour Icons: Perfume Bottle Design, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Harold Koda discusses working with the author, Fifi-winning bottle designer Marc Rosen, on a perfume packaging exhibition (“Scents of Time”, for anyone lucky enough to have seen it in the mid-1980s). He credits Rosen with “a presentation that was at once scholarly and visually arresting.” That just about sums up Glamour Icons as well.
I didn’t know Rosen’s name before I read this book, but I’ve been a fan of his work since I can remember. Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door fragrance was a fixture on my childhood Christmas and birthday lists because of the little gold key charm that often graces the bottle. For grown-ups, of course, the design evokes the signature entryways to Arden salons. I took it as a reference to The Secret Garden, but that just goes to show how perfectly Rosen executed his message: “Here is your key to a private world meant just for you.” The Fifi judges must have agreed, since Red Door took home the award for best perfume bottle of the year in 1990. (My mother saw Vanilla Fields as a more appropriate message for a six-year-old; I never did get a bottle of Red Door.)
Rosen’s taste for glamour, as he explains early in the book, was fed by Manhattan in the late 1950s: lingering touches of Art Deco, the Roxy, Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch. “Real glamour,” he says, “has always been based on quality and value.” Lucky, then, that Rosen’s career came of age during the opulent 1970s and 80s before budget slashing took a toll on packaging (let alone the juice). His big break came in 1972 with a job at Revlon, where he created packaging for Moon Drops; he soon moved to Elizabeth Arden, where he worked for more than a decade with clients including Burberry and Fendi before stepping into his own design firm.
The book’s first chapters are memoiristic in the best possible sense, and peppered with enthralling anecdotes. In describing his own definition of glamour, the fortuitous path of his career, and each of his creations, Rosen maintains a humble air of creative enthusiasm for his profession. More importantly, I get the sense that at the office Christmas party Rosen would be hanging in the back by the open bar rather than up front with the marketing suits. “Like any artist in front of his canvas or sheet of paper,” he says of his work, “you pray that the miracle will happen again. One always starts from scratch.”
Anyone who has wandered antique malls, trying to find a strong enough smartphone signal to look up Dior’s Diorling or Balenciaga’s Le Dix will appreciate the section on bottle history. It won’t tell you how to spot a grand dame laden with nitro musk, but the breakdown of each decade’s key features should prove helpful to serious shoppers.
Though Glamour Icons is meant to be a coffee table book I found the text to be thoroughly engaging; the plush illustrations are just icing on the cake. If I were abandoned by my host for 30 minutes, I would be perfectly content with only this to read. Very much worth a look even if your coffee table is full.
Glamour Icons: Perfume Bottle Design
By Marc Rosen. 204 pp.
Antique Collectors Club, 2011. $85.