James Sommerville

The Enduring Design Legacy of the Coca‑Cola Bottle


I still remember, as a young boy on holiday, being rewarded with an icy Coca‑Cola in a curved glass bottle. For me, the sense memory of that cold Coke in my hand is indelibly linked to long summer days, warm sunshine and the crazy, irrepressible joy of our family trips. A chilled bottle of Coca‑Cola may evoke a different remembrance for each of us — perhaps the bright green of a baseball stadium on a crisp autumn afternoon, or gliding to the beach in the back seat of your parents’ convertible—but whatever it is, the moment is powerful, evocative and authentically yours. Everyone has their own Coca‑Cola memory.

That doesn’t happen by chance. When I joined Coca‑Cola as head of global design, I paid a visit to the company’s archives in Atlanta, Georgia, and was immediately struck by the scope of the brand’s history and its unforgettable visual identity. To say that Coca‑Cola has done it all from a design perspective is an understatement. But it’s not just about logotypes and packaging; Coca‑Cola has infused, enhanced, even defined American culture almost since its inception in 1886 — everyone from Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Jimi Hendrix to Jesse Owens, Gladys Night, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen have been captured enjoying a Coca‑Cola from that iconic, contoured glass bottle. Today, the brand’s universal appeal has established Coca‑Cola as a worldwide symbol for shared moments of joy and refreshment.

Poring over this enormous body of work was equal parts overwhelming and inspirational, and I found myself returning to that famous bottle, with its fluted lines and cascading, organic shape — what noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy described as the “perfect liquid wrapper.” As a piece of design it’s simultaneously intimate and universal, personal and popular. But the timelessness of the bottle isn’t just born from its perfect interplay of sharp and fluid forms, or its indelible silhouette. As I discovered in the company archives, the contour bottle has for 100 years represented one very important concept to Coca‑Cola customers: a promise.

By 1915, 29 years after Coca‑Cola was founded, the drink’s distinctive, refreshing character had found nationwide demand — and a host of imitators. To combat these competitors, Coca‑Cola Bottling Company members agreed to develop, fund and support a “distinctive package” for their popular product. The creative brief, sent to eight glass companies across the country, was simple but far from easy: Develop “a bottle so distinct you would recognise it by feel in the dark or lying broken on the ground.” In Terre Haute, Indiana, the Root Glass Company went to work and teased the form of a Cocoa Pod into the delightful shape we know today.

And with it was born a promise: “What you are holding in your hand,” the bottle declared, “is genuine Coca‑Cola. This is not a lesser product or a fake. It’s the real thing.”

The design became so popular, so familiar and instantly recognisable that just 33 years later, in 1949, a study showed that less than one percent of Americans could not identify the Coca‑Cola bottle by shape alone. On April 12, 1961, after all rights to the original silhouette had expired, the U.S. Patent Office declared the bottle’s “distinctive contour shape” to be so quintessential, so unmistakable, that the form itself was awarded Trademark status.

But by that time the contour bottle had already been stamped in the American consciousness through popular culture and fine art alike. It appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1950, and in the works of sculptor Robert Rauchenberg and painters Salvadore Dali and Sir Edward Paolozzi. By far the most famous portrayal of the Coke bottle remains Andy Warhol’s 1961 work, “Coca Cola,” the seminal and defining image of the American Pop Art movement. In his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, the artist describes Coca‑Cola’s brand resonance, as represented through that perfect piece of glass:

What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca‑Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.

Amazingly, the shape remains relevant even today, a full century on. Just as the silhouette and size morphed subtly over time — sometimes squatter, sometimes leaner or taller, growing from 6.5 ounces to 8-, 10-, and 12-ounce containers — the more contemporary takes on the contour shape have made use of modern materials and techniques. The 20-ounce contour bottle made of recyclable PET plastic was introduced in 1993, while an inventive “contour can” was released in limited editions in 1997. In 2008, the M5 aluminium contour bottle, a reimagining of Coca‑Colapackaging as innovative and refreshing as the original, was awarded the first ever Design Grand Prix at the prestigious Cannes Lions.

And while the contour bottle has been brought into the modern era, I still believe that many of our design solutions of tomorrow will be inspired by the past. That’s why, in 2014, Coca‑Cola Design reached out to creative minds across the globe and invited them to imagine the future of the contour experience. The brief for our Icon + Mashup project was, in a nod to our past, simple but far from easy: to embody Coca‑Cola’s key messages of universal happiness and stubborn optimism, while helping us imagine the next hundred years of the contour experience.

The results were beyond our wildest expectations, an astonishing compendium of vision and wit. It’s an old saying that in good design, form follows function, but with these myriad approaches, everything from Turner Duckworth’s clever interpretation of the bottle’s original creative brief to Paul Meates' layered repurposing of vintage Coca‑Cola ads, to Jovaney A. Hollingsworth’s nod to modern Pop Art master Shepherd Fairey, we see that the contour bottle’s form has transcended function. It remains by necessity a container, a vessel and a dispensary, but one hundred years later it endures as a promise of quality and authenticity, as always, but also the first step — anticipating touch and sound and smell and, finally, taste — of the genuine Coca‑Cola experience. It’s a feeling as familiar as a memory, shared across the globe, unique and yet the same for everyone, everywhere.

With that, I invite you to enjoy this book’s incredible collection of archival photographs, advertisements and designs, plus the exciting new works of Icon + Mashup art. Better yet, grab some friends and family and some ice-cold bottles of Coke, and help us — to borrow a phrase we’ve been using around the office of late — Kiss the Past Hello.

James Sommerville is the former Vice President of Global Design for The Coca‑Cola Company. This essay is featured in ”Kiss the Past Hello: 100 Years of the Coca‑Cola Bottle”, available online through Assouline.

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