It’s one of the most distinctive shapes ever designed – and one that is instantly recognizable to the touch, even with your eyes shut. From 1915, it has influenced designs for cars, planes, furniture, fashion and graphic arts. The contour-shaped Coca-Cola bottle really is the real thing.

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With the fizzy beverage that is Coke taking the US by storm in the early part of the 1900s, the company faced an unexpected challenge. It had just received a plaintive call from Benjamin Thomas, a bottler from Tennessee, in which he pleaded with the company for the need for a package that “a person could recognize as a Coca-Cola bottle when feeling it in the dark, so shaped that even when broken, a person could tell at a glance what it was”.
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The Coca-Cola Company responded admirably: it ran a competition to design a bottle – which was won by the Root Glass Company. Two designers – Earl R Dean and Alexander Samuelson – had been pouring over a 1913 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and were inspired by the vertical grooves of an illustration of the cocoa bean.
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It featured distinctive contours, which they then used to create the original ‘hobble skirt’ contour bottle in 1915. The design was an instant smash, and unusually, The Coca-Cola Company was awarded a trademark on the bottle design in 1960.
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So what makes it a design classic? Several things: its endurance, its influence, and its aesthetics. The latter is a testament to its form and function. Its shape means you can tell what it is with your eyes closed, while the heavy glass allows ambient lighting to illuminate the contents in a soft, subtle way.
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Glass is cold, adding a tactile feedback that this chilled drink will satisfy your thirst. Its contoured grip is practical, as well, allowing you to hold a bottle dripping in icy condensation without fear of it slipping. And, flipping off the metal cap is almost sensuous, and far more seductive than battling with a run-of-the-mill screwtop.
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It has sex appeal as well, and brings feminine curves to what is a commodity product. It isn’t described as a ‘Mae West’ bottle for nothing. Finally, the transparent glass works to make the liquid mimic Coke’s corporate red without resorting to a Pantone swatch book.
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The contour curves have had a resonance through the ages of design. Cars, such as Raymond Loewy’s Avanti, have drawn from its form to create its nipped-in wasp waist, while other bottling makers have aped the design. Fashion – from corsets to coats – have been inspired by its classic shape, mainly due to its overt female overtones, and its influence has even spread to furniture designers and glass makers, eager to tap into the subconscious of Coke drinkers.
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As a brand, it mixes in tactile human form and memorable shape to ensure it stands the test of time.
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<b>Chris Kemp-Salt<BR>
MD – Kempt Communications, www.kempt.co.uk</b>
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