Marc Rosen Talks Perfume Bottle Design and Karl Lagerfeld

Blair Pfander
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rosenportrait1 Marc Rosen Talks Perfume Bottle Design and Karl Lagerfeld
You may not have heard of Marc Rosen, but chances are you’ve spritzed yourself with one of his creations. Rosen—founder of packaging design firm, Marc Rosen & Associates—has created some of the fragrance world’s most iconic bottles over the course of his three-decade career, including creations for Karl Lagerfled, Burberry, and Elizabeth Arden.
This week, Rosen releases “Glamour Icons,” a glossy tome that offers an inside look at the designer’s most elegant vessels, as well as a hundred-year history lesson on perfume bottle design. Here, the designer discusses his early days at Pratt University (where he now teaches the world’s only course on perfume bottle design), and what it was like working with Kaiser Karl himself.
The Vivant: As a kid, did you ever think you’d find yourself in the fragrance business?
Marc Rosen: No, no I did not. I was always creative. I had a big bulletin board over my desk in my room and I used to do all sorts of creative things on the bulletin board and have themes and things, and my parents were always encouraging me. But they weren’t the kinds of parents to suggest lessons, you know—piano lessons, art lessons, what have you. In elementary school, like all students, I excelled when I was given art projects. But when I went to high school with a plan to go to college, in those days you were either a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher. So one year I volunteered in the local hospital blood bank thinking I was going to be a doctor, and of course, I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. Finally, I realized I wanted to be a designer not knowing exactly what a designer would do. So I went to the book store and bought this huge guide to every college in America. And I found a list of the schools that were best for art and design—Carnegie Mellon, Pratt, and Rhode Island School of Design. And I realized I had no portfolio. At this point, my parents were encouraging me and I went to the local Y to take a painting class. My father said, “Ask the teacher if he would help you do a portfolio,’ which he did. So I finally had a portfolio, and I went on interviews at colleges. I was up against all these students from the High School of Music and Art with these gorgeous, slick portfolios, and mine was like practically in a brown paper bag. But I got into all the schools because they all felt I had something.
How long have you been in the fragrance business now?
A long time. I’ve been in the business for thirty years.
Tell me about the first bottle you remember designing?
My first job was for Revlon in the days when the founder, Charles Revson, who was a mogul, was running it. They had a very successful skin cream called Moon Drops, if you can imagine anything named Moon Drops. In one of the worst marketing ideas of all time, they wanted to do a fragrance called Moon Drops, too. You never do a fragrance based on a skin cream, though you might do the opposite. So anyway, my first bottle was for Moon Drops, and it’s in the new book.
But even before that, it all started when I went to graduate school at Pratt—I’d gone to Carnegie Mellon for undergraduate—and one of the professors gave us a project to design a perfume bottle. He liked it so much he suggested I take it to Avon and show it to them. I called Avon—I can’t believe they even took my call—and said “Hello, my name is Marc Rosen, I’m a student, and my instructor thought you would be interested in my design.” They were very nice, and I went up to see them. It was an extremely intimidating experience, but they bought the design and paid me $3,000, which was a fortune in those days, and enabled me to buy a brand new Volkswagen Beetle. So I thought, this is for me, I love it, and they pay you. Then I got a job at Revlon, and after that, for many years, I stayed at Elizabeth Arden—when Arden was a prestige company—and really helped turn it around. That’s how it all started.
Walk us through the process a little bit. How do you collaborate with a given designer or brand to come up with the perfume bottle concept?
They [the brand] should have a name, which is very difficult to register, they should have a scent, which very often doesn’t come until later, and they should have a brief about what they want to do, who is the competition, and what they look like, to help me do something that is unique to that brand. The next step is sketches. We’ll do rough sketches by hand, because I am still reticent to use the computer at the beginning because a computer is not spontaneous the way your hand is, and I know my students use the computer later in the process as well. Once the sketches are done and I feel we’re going in the right direction, I’ll take a few of the sketches to the computer to refine them and present those renderings to the client. Based on that, we will come back and make revisions. Once the client is happy with let’s say two of the designs, we create lucite models that looks as close as possible to the real thing, and also helps us get proportions for the different sizes. Based on what the client chooses, we will work with the glass company to make sure it’s produced looking like the design. Then we work on logos, and graphics, and cartons and colors, and all those things.
Are there any practical considerations that are taken into account during the design process?
Of course, number one is the cost. We have to know what the retail will be on the fragrance so we can work backwards and see what we can spend on the bottle, cap, and carton. There are also physical and ergonomic considerations about how it feels in your hand and whether the design can be produced, that kind of thing.
Do those kinds of logistics ever put limits on your vision?
Sometimes, yeah, sometimes. The challenge is to get around them.
Do you have a favorite design from your roster?
There’s something called the Fifi Awards, which is like the Academy Awards of fragrance, and I’ve won seven.  My favorite design, which is on the cover of my book—and won me my first Fifi Award—was for Karl Lagerfeld, and it looks like a crystal fan.
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I’ve seen that one, it’s beautiful. What was the process like with Karl?
I’d already worked with Karl on a men’s fragrance called Lagerfeld. It was for Chloe, where he was originally, before he left and started his own brand. Karl was always using fans in his fashion shows—the models often had very large fans covered with the fabric of the dress. He also had a collection of fans when I went to his home. He called one day, this was the catalyst, and said he was interested in the 18th century at the moment, and his home had been super contemporary, but he got rid of everything and made it all French 18th century. He’d been to Versailles, which he considered the epitome of French 18th century design, architecture, everything, and then he saw the Concord, which was at that point a new plane—so essentially he saw the best of the 18th century, and the best of the 20th century at the  moment when the plane flew over the palace. He said, “That’s what I want—the best of the past, the best of the present, the best of the future.”
I started thinking about fans, and the only connection I had to them was with “Gone with the Wind,” you know southern belles on plantation verandas ventilating themselves on sweltering summer days. I started doing research on fans in the 18th century because fans have been used all over the world, and realized that the fan was indeed a weapon of flirtation. The woman can hide her face, can flirt with the man, can open and close it to gesticulate. I thought, what a great symbol for this fragrance. So that’s what inspired that design, and Karl loved it.
Do you yourself wear a fragrance and, if so, did the design of the bottle guide your decision at all?
Yes! [Laughs]. For many years I wore Lagerfeld for men because I designed the bottle, but that was a long long time ago. I’m kind of in a rut. I should be trying different things but I’m lazy. I keep trying things and go back to the one I wear. It’s a fragrance by Boucheron, which is a French jeweler, and it’s the original Boucheron for men. The top of it looks like a blue cabochon stone, and because its a jewelers, the cap looks like a ring, like a jewel. My wife and I actually both wear the same men’s fragrance.
What was it like assembling the book and looking back over your life’s work?
It was a huge catharsis. I’d been thinking about doing a book for several years. I ended up doing several things with the book based on the title “Glamour Icons”. It was not only a retrospective of my career, because I realized that glamour has played such a part in my life—my wife, if you Google her, is a very beautiful, glamorous star—and the bottles I do are glamorous, and we have a life and friends that are fun and glamorous. So I started doing research on glamour and realized what I wanted to do was show the reader that the definition of glamour has, in each decade, changed based on the society of the time. So war, depression, Hollywood movies—these things influence the definition of glamour. So I also chose bottles created in each decade that personified that definition of glamour, and there’s a big chapter on that, “100 Years of Fragrance Bottles,” and within that I go decade by decade.
Richard Avedon said that when he looked back at “Dovima with the Elephants,” he wished he’d shot it so her sash was blowing in the wind. Do you have a “Dovima,” a bottle you look back at now and think, “Oh, maybe I would tweak that, or adjust this?”
Yes I do, but fortunately not a lot. The reason I would make changes on a few is less about design and more about production. Sometimes after you work with the marketing people they give it to production people to work with the glass companies to get it produced, so even though I’m involved in the initial process, by the time it is being produced, I’m not involved. Sometimes these people want to be cost-saving heroes and alter the design without telling me, so when it comes out I’m disappointed. So there are one or two of those. Not many, fortunately.
“Glamour Icons” is available for $59.50 at Amazon.com.

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