YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Art Form : Shopping Bags You Can Hang

December 11, 1987|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

Tony Bennett has left his art in Mission Viejo--and 53 other cities across America.

The singer, whose oils and watercolors sell for thousands of dollars, was commissioned recently by a mall developer to paint a wintry scene--not to hang in a gallery but to appear on holiday shopping bags. Proceeds from the glossy $4 bags, being sold in Mission Viejo Mall and other shopping centers throughout the country, benefit St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

"Art comes in many different forms," said Bennett, who received $5,000 for the "White Christmas" watercolor. "Now it's going to the masses, and I like that."

Bennett thus joins a growing list of well-known artists and cartoonists--including David Hockney, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, B. Kliban, Edward Koren, Erte and Al Hirschfeld--whose works in recent years have enlivened a once mundane article of life.

Portable Billboards

Thanks to vivid graphics, improved technology and whimsical or elegant designs, the lowly shopping bag is no longer just for hawking. Bags have become portable billboards--providing abundant free advertising for merchants and a status symbol for the well-heeled bag ladies and gents who carry them. And many, particularly the holiday bags, are downright collectible.

Although shopping bags have been around for decades, they have evolved into a ubiquitous form of expression that nearly everyone can appreciate and that even renowned artists don't disdain.

"The shopping bag has really become an art form," said Michael L. Closen, co-author of "The Shopping Bag: Portable Art," a lavishly illustrated 1986 book. "Graphics and technology have developed so that they're really high caliber. Artists of international renown are willing to put their works on the sides of shopping bags."

Just ask the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York, which once sponsored a shopping bag exhibition that the Smithsonian Institution later took on the road.

More Than Just a Bag

"Here was something (people) usually were taking for granted as a convenient vessel to carry things in, but in fact a lot of money and effort was being put into making them more than just a bag," said Dorothy Globus, curator of exhibitions. "Bags are an opportunity to have some fun. They're beautiful." The museum's interest grew out of its collection of decorated bandboxes, the 19th-Century precursors of shopping bags that were used to carry accessories and linens.

For years, Bloomingdale's, Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue, Dayton's, I. Magnin, Nordstrom, Marshall Field, the Broadway and other stores have stocked shopping bags for customers. And, just as the day after Thanksgiving is the start of the Christmas shopping season, so is it the day when promotion-minded stores unveil with a flourish the year's holiday shopping bag offering.

The Christmas bag, in particular, brings out what Globus calls the "latent collectors" whose vast stacks of bags accumulate dust in linen closets and on doorknobs. An occasional bag, suitable for framing, even finds its way onto a wall now and then.

One such collector recently came to the rescue of Neiman-Marcus, an upscale specialty store based in Dallas. For an exhibit of memorabilia from 80 years of Christmas at Neiman's, the retailer borrowed an extensive array of bags, advertising and catalogues.

"I have an old loyalty to the store," said Dale Smith, a Dallas florist. Among his favorites is a 1968 "NOEL" bag done by artist Robert Indiana as a parody of his "LOVE" artwork, with the skewed "O."

Neiman's, which each year uses the same theme on both its bags and catalogue covers, has also featured Wile E. Coyote and Mickey Mouse, a beribboned cat by Paul Davis (1977) and rainbow-toting camels by B. Kliban (1981). In 1961, Ronald Searle did a humorous illustration that Neiman's dubbed "The Reluctant Reindeer." It showed a reindeer tucked in bed with four red socks hanging over the edge. Nearby stood Santa, trying to coax the reindeer into the snowy scene outside.

A Close Call

One year the retailer had a close call, as Stanley Marcus recalls in his book "His and Hers: The Fantasy World of the Neiman-Marcus Catalogue." In 1972, the store commissioned a "well-known artist," but when the artwork arrived Marcus found it so "dull and unexciting" that Neiman's rejected it. At the last moment, the store reproduced the design of a Vasarely scarf that had been in the catalogue a couple of years earlier.

Widely regarded as having the splashiest bags around, trend-setting Bloomingdale's did something a little out of the ordinary this Christmas. Despite the huge advertising potential of a store's name appearing on a bag, this retailer in the past has conspicuously left its name off the five bags it designs each year to promote seasonal and special events. It has preferred to let the bold graphics speak for themselves, figuring that savvy shoppers would know whence the bags came.

Los Angeles Times Articles