Lessons from Toothpaste Tubes


I haven't always been obsessed with toothpaste, but I like to think I've always been a designer. Named after a product my father designed, I was on the track early. Then in 1987, on a trip to Finland, these two facets of my life came together, and my obsession with the design of toothpaste tubes was born.

I went to Finland in 1985 with Lisa Krohn to pick up the Formafinlandia First Prize she won for the "Phonebook" answering machine concept I helped her design while she was studying at Cranbrook. We won a huge stack of money, which impressed me since until then I was like a '50s baseball player -- playing mostly for fun.

We could have blown the prize money on some fancy Finnish furniture by Alvar Aalto, Eero Aarnio, Eero Koivisto, Tapio Virkkala, Björn Weckström, Timo Sarpaneva, or Yki Nummi. But first we needed toiletries.


  At a drugstore, I spotted a brand of toothpaste with a name as long as its tube: "Fluorihammastahna!" That was the first time I contemplated the design of the ubiquitous container. It struck me that tubes are the same everywhere: A skinny, squishable thing with screw caps, just like paint tubes. The Fluorihammastahna packaging was no different than Crest or Colgate, except that this tube was totally Finnish.

Visiting other countries in the following years, I noticed that most toothpaste containers had the same physical structure, and a similar graphic identity. Walk into a drugstore anywhere in the world, and you'll be able to identify the toothpaste. The form and the product are so functional there seems to be no room for variety -- and yet the tubes manage to make cultural differences apparent (see accompanying slide show).

After the obvious differences in language and alphabet, the next big differentiator is taste, which I first noticed when sampling some fine products in Paris. Leave it to the French to come up with a flavor like citron mousse -- a perfect refresher after a couple of Gauloises and too much wine.


  The Japanese, a nation obsessed with the new, have more toothpaste brands than models of cars (and the most amusing names, too!). Tokyo's aisles carry dentifrice heavy on the salt as well as delicate fruit flavors that go well with sushi.

I even have a tube of Italian toothpaste that dies your gums red, the idea being that the contrast will make your teeth look whiter -- the Italians ever conscious of how to make things look good.

Each tube has a story. I have a set that show the evolution of a Hong Kong brand from "Darkie" to "Darlie" to "Brother," each one derogatory in its own way, and also some Russian samples with crooked labels that make me wonder what's in them.


  My favorite store is a little shop in the Netherlands that sells only toothbrushes and toothpaste. It reminds me of that old Scotch Tape-store sketch on Saturday Night Live. This owner had opened a whole chain expecting millions of customers like me, but he's now downsized to just one.

So my obsession of 250 tubes seems to be unique. Most people think I'm crazy, but my collection is important for several reasons. First, it shows how much people all over the globe have in common. Second, it demonstrates the creativity of designers. Even under the strictest constraints, they somehow squeeze out some local color. And third, toothpaste makes a great souvenir!

It's sort of like stamp collecting -– lots of miniature designs in the same format from all around the world. It's true that old stamps get more valuable, while old toothpaste just gets hard. But at least my collection fights cavities.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.