Delia von Neuschatz interviews Marc Rosen, famous to the world for his design of fragrance packaging from the bottle to the packaging it comes in. It’s a very specific business of marketing a fragrance to appeal to specific audiences, and Marc who has been at the top of his profession for more than three decades, discusses how his career came about, how it developed, and what he has learned from the business he loves.
You’re an award-winning designer of fragrance packaging. You’ve won 7 FiFi awards — the Oscars of the perfume industry. Many of your designs have become iconic, familiar to a great many people. Can you describe what you do?
We do fragrance, skincare and makeup packaging, although I’m best known for fragrance packaging. I’ve been in the industry a long, long time, four decades. When I was very young, I went to Carnegie Mellon and then I went to graduate school at Pratt for package design specifically. While I was there, I designed a package and my professor liked it so much, he suggested I show it to Avon. So, I called and they were kind and saw me and they paid me $3,000 for this design which was just enough to buy a brand new Volkswagen Beetle. Well, I thought “I love doing it and they pay you. This is the career for me.” I’ve been in the cosmetic business ever since.
I first worked at Revlon the last few years of Charles Revson’s life, the founder of the company, and then I was very lucky when I was 29, I was hired as a Vice President of Elizabeth Arden which was kind of unheard of in those days – to be that young and get that kind of a job. I stayed at Arden for 12 years. It had been purchased by Eli Lilly from the estate of Elizabeth Arden and it was such an incredible opportunity for me to re-imagine the company because it had been famous, but kind of an old ladies’ company. The packaging was very old fashioned. So, I was able to re-do their makeup, skincare and fragrance packaging.
This was in 1976 and it was in the late 70s that designer fragrances became popular. Arden had the license for Chloé, Karl Lagerfeld and Fendi. So not only was I re-doing the Arden packaging, but also perfumes like Red Door which is still their most famous fragrance.
You designed the Red Door bottles?!
Yes. That’s when I won all these FiFi awards, plus more since. I worked with Lagerfeld on Chloé and his own fragrances – KL, KL for Men, Fendi and many other brands when I was at Arden. During that time, I was very fortunate because I was asked to start writing a column for a trade magazine called Beauty Fashion and to start moderating panels. It was lovely that Pratt asked me to lecture and eventually to teach and they created a scholarship in my name which benefits graduate packaging design students. I’ve been teaching the only graduate course in the world on designing perfume bottles. The students come from all over the world and I enjoy it very much. My whole life is really about packaging – between teaching and moderating panels, writing monthly columns and designing. It’s very fortunate because I’ve stayed in the business a long time and I’ve been recognized for what I do, so I’m very grateful.
What are some of the other famous bottles that you’ve designed?
I did L’Air du Temps for their 50th anniversary. Nina Ricci owns L’Air du Temps and they also own Lalique which many people don’t know. So, they asked me to design a very special bottle for their 50th anniversary which is made of Lalique. I’ve also worked with Halston, Ellen Tracy, Lucien Lelong, Burberry and many, many more. And I did a fragrance called Shanghai. I’ve done fragrances for Joan Rivers and many celebrities as well.
I actually met my wife, [glamorous Hollywood star from the 1940s and 50s] Arlene Dahl, by designing her fragrance Dahlia when I was at Revlon when I was 27 years old.
What are some of the considerations that you have to take into account when you design cosmetics and fragrance packaging?
There are many! You have to think about the competition. You need to think about the name – how you can epitomize it through the packaging, how you can underscore the concept and the name through the packaging. You have to consider the price point and the cost – you’re given only so much money you can spend on the bottle and the carton. You have to consider the demographics – who’s the customer? How old is the customer? Does she work? Is she wealthy? Does she shop at Saks Fifth Avenue or does she shop at Walmart? Is it a mass fragrance? Is it a luxury fragrance? There are many, many things you have to think about before you even put pencil to paper.
How has this industry changed?
It’s changed a lot because in the 1980s, which is the era of conspicuous consumption, women wanted very glamorous packaging. Then we went through the ’90s when people wanted very spare packaging that didn’t look like you were spending a lot of money on the packaging, but more on the product. Then devices became important, so people were spending money on devices and not so much on clothes or fashion or fragrances. I think now it’s going full circle. Women who are over 40 want fragrances and packaging that is very beautiful and glamorous in a modern way, not the way it was. But millennials want their packaging to be very simple, low key and they’re into the ingredients. It’s a totally different kind of consumer.
What are some of your influences when you sit down at the drafting table?
I think if I hadn’t been a designer, I would have been a history teacher because I love history. What I like to do is take something from the past and re-imagine it in a very modern way. For example, with the Lucia Magnani skin care line, I reference tortoiseshell and yet the shape of the container is very contemporary, very modern.
In the case of Il Bacio, the fragrance I did for Marcella Borghese, I did research on Italian words and history and found an Etruscan love knot that was the centerpiece of a necklace made of carved cornelian and I used that as the cap of the bottle. I also made the bottle arched like a Roman aqueduct and instead of having Il Bacio screened on it in gold which would have been normal, I have it embossed so it looks like it’s etched into a Roman monument. I think about a lot of these things when I’m designing.
In the case of the Lelong bottle with the clock – Lucien Lelong was a very famous fashion designer in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s who actually invented prêt-a-porter – I saw photographs of his art deco apartment; and on the mantel he had ivory elephant tusks and a mantel clock. This gave me the idea of creating a bottle that actually had a clock in it and I created the tusks with a tortoise shell pattern. The line I came up with was “Lelong, the fragrance that makes time stand still.”
Did Lucien Lelong really invent prêt-a-porter?
Before that, there was only couture. He was the first to come out with ready-to-wear.
And Shanghai & Fendi Men?
With Shanghai, I wanted to combine the old and the new because when you go to Shanghai, you’re struck by the ancient Chinese buildings – the Pagoda-type things and the modernity – the skyscrapers that are there. And actually, it’s one of the top three cities in the world for art deco architecture. So, I created a bottle that was very simple and round – half glass which technically was nearly impossible to do – and the closure almost looks like one of those poles with pails of water that Chinese laborers use.
With Fendi men, I referenced bakelite, the early plastic that had mica chips in it that was used for jewelry and for radios and handles for knives and forks in the 1920s and ’30s and so on.
You’re always thinking of the past when designing. Have you ever been called upon to help design the fragrance itself – to weigh in on the scent?
It depends. Major brands use essential oil houses to work with members of their staff to develop their fragrances. In this case, I am usually given the fragrance already developed to “inspire” me. In the case of niche brands, I usually bring them to a fragrance house and am then involved in the fragrance development. As I would have also taken part in choosing the fragrance name, it would make sense to have me take part in the final fragrance selection. These brands would include; Lucia Magnani, Shanghai, Stardust, Lelong, etc.
How do you explain the enduring appeal of Chanel N° 5?
In this case, it’s definitely the fragrance. The bottle is classic, iconic and beautiful. But, first of all, it’s Chanel which has survived every decade with Lagerfeld re-inventing it. It’s one of the great names in fashion. But it’s the fragrance itself. It never became old-fashioned. It epitomized elegance and good taste and it still does.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in the packaging design industry?
As you know, I teach at Pratt so I’m always giving advice to my students. I love this industry. It’s a great industry. It’s like a big extended family. It’s very warm. It gives designers an opportunity to do both two- and three-dimensional design which is important. I stress that with my students. It’s not just graphics on a surface, on a carton. You’re also doing the 3-D design of the bottle and the cap, so it’s very, very creative. It’s a challenge because the bottle becomes the physical manifestation of the brand. Even if someone doesn’t remember the name of the fragrance, they may say, “Oh, I want that bottle that looks like a fan or I want the bottle that has a bow on the top.”
The bottle becomes very, very important. For example, the memory that we have of bottles like Shalimar or Chanel – suddenly you see it and you have a flashback: “This was on my grandmother’s dressing table.” That’s a lovely thing.
I was on an airplane going to Europe and the flight attendant asked me what I did. I told her I design perfume bottles and she said “Oh, you know, my mother collected perfume bottles and when she passed away, she left me all of these bottles in her will. And I’m going to pass them on to my daughter when I die.” That’s the first time I ever realized that people think of these bottles as something precious like jewelry – that they want to inherit and pass on. That was a really good feeling for me to think that it meant that much to people.
Can you talk a little bit about the Marc Rosen Scholarhsip?
In 1989, I was asked by Pratt if I would allow them to create this scholarship. It began with a cocktail party at Christie’s for $100 a person. It was great seed money for the scholarship. We started doing the dinner which we’ve been doing for 29 years. It’s become one of the premier events in the cosmetics industry. It’s a very philanthropic industry. With the money raised, we created a scholarship in my name for graduate students studying packaging design. The students are international. What’s unique about it is that it’s a full-tuition scholarship. I didn’t realize that most scholarships in all schools are partial. To have a full tuition scholarship – tuition is so expensive these days, it can be $50,000 a year – it’s very significant. I’m very proud of it. We give out two full tuition scholarships each year.
How much has been raised for the scholarship?
About $3,200,000 so far. Out of that is an education fund which is about $600,000 which we use for a design symposium every fall.
You’ve written an illustrated book about fragrance design and recently, the Nassau County Museum exhibited a retrospective of your work. Tell me a little bit about these projects.
The coffee table book Glamour Icons that I did a few years ago – in that book – I was really talking about the definition of glamour. I went decade by decade for 100 years and talked about how that definition changed through fashion, through economy, through demographics, through the Depression and war and how that affected perfume and perfume bottles. It was 100 years of perfume bottles that I chose that were iconic and representative of each decade. And half of the book is about my own designs and the stories behind them.
This past summer, the Nassau County Museum of Art which is a beautiful museum on Long Island – it’s a former Frick mansion – was kind enough to ask me to do a retrospective. That show [also called Glamour Icons] will be traveling.
How did the changing glamour affect perfume?
A lot. For example, during the Depression, people wanted to see glamorous movies – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – and they therefore also wanted glamorous bottles and fragrances with glamorous names. During wartime, there was austerity and things were very different after the war when Dior came out with the New Look and again in the ’50s, they wanted bottles that were very fashionable. All those years, it was French fragrance that people wanted. They assumed that was the best. And then in the mid-’50s, Norel came out and American fragrances came into their own in the 1960s and ’70s.
So, in other words, perfume bottles, like jewelry, like fashion, are very much emblematic of the times?
Absolutely. Perfume is a fashion accessory. It’s the last thing a woman puts on after she gets dressed. It’s like jewelry.
Switching gears a bit, you came out with another book a couple of years ago called Rubbing Shoulders – My Life with Popes, Princes, Moguls and Movie Stars in which you describe some of the encounters you’ve had with the great and the good. Can you mention one or two of the more memorable ones?
A funny one is with Bruce Weber, the famous photographer. It was my very first job. This was the mid-’70s, I had just graduated from college and women were all taking the pill which was a rather new discovery. So no one was using condoms. And a company called Julius Schmid which was an old, old company that made condoms with names like Ramses and Fourex just couldn’t sell condoms because women were on the pill; there was no need as people were not worried about diseases. So they hired a small firm that I worked for before I was working for a cosmetic company to re-design the packaging to make it more appealing to guys to buy. And of course, they had a very limited budget. So, I thought it would be nice to have very tasteful photographs of couples having a picnic in the park or by the fireside. So we needed a photographer but they were all so expensive.
I met an agent named Nan Bush and she said, “Well, you know, there’s a photographer named Bruce Weber who is a male model and he wants to develop a portfolio because he really wants to go into photography.” So, I hired Bruce. It was his first job as a photographer. We’re still very good friends after all these years. But, he started out as I did, designing and photographing for a condom carton. So we joke that we came from very humble beginnings.
How did you meet you wife, Arlene?
I was at Revlon and I was married. A friend of mine was a freelance marketing person, very prominent, and she called one day and asked me if I could moonlight to design a perfume bottle for the actress Arlene Dahl. I had never seen any of Arlene’s films. All I knew was that she had red hair and a beauty mark and was very beautiful. I said, “Yes, I would love to do that.” I could use the extra money because my wife and I had just bought an old house in Westchester that we were restoring.
So, off I went to meet Arlene at this woman’s office and I remember still I was wearing a three-piece tweed suit because I wanted to look very professional. I got up to the office and I was introduced to Arlene who is just drop dead gorgeous and the first thing she said to me after saying “Nice to meet you” was “I bet you’re a Libra.” She’s an astrologer who’s written many books on astrology. “In fact, I bet your birthday could be September 29th or 30th.” “Well, it’s September 30th!” I turned white as a sheet and we became instant friends. That’s how I met Arlene.
You and Arlene have been married for 34 years. What is the secret to a long-lasting marriage?
We have an 18-year age difference which people thought was a challenge, but we didn’t find it that way. I think the secret is really being each other’s best friend. I know it sounds trite when people say this, but it’s true – we can’t wait to tell each other what we did that day or who we met or funny stories. We are really a team in terms of dealing with the children. I have three step-children that Arlene’s had from different marriages – and I’m really close to them and I really brought them up.
She has been as supportive to me in my career as I have been to hers. It was very helpful I think that both of us had their own career and were both successful, so there was no competition and the careers were so different. So, I never felt that I was Mr. Dahl or she was Mrs. Rosen. We always had our own place in our own world. We still hold hands, so it’s nice.
Is there anything else that you’d like our readers to know?
The interesting thing about designing cosmetic packaging and perfume bottles – it’s like the movies – everyone has an opinion, everyone has their favorite perfume, their favorite bottle so, sitting next to a woman at a dinner party is great because all you have to do is say what you do and the conversation takes off because she can tell you what fragrance she uses, what bottles she loves or doesn’t love, ask my opinion on what fragrances I would suggest. You hear a lot of funny stories. One woman told me that when she was married and wore Shalimar for years and years and years. But then she had a bitter divorce and she could never wear Shalimar again because her ex-husband loved it so much. It reminded her of her marriage. So you hear all kinds of crazy stories. It’s a real conversation opener and I enjoy that.