Disposable cups, forming a permanent legacy.
But whose? That was the question.
The intense passion of a nostalgic corner of the Internet flared up last week, with a post on a popular web forum. The anonymous user wanted to find the person behind a design so commonplace you’ve never thought about it. It’s just there. When you ask if you can get some water … when you opt for the combo meal … when you’re given a drink in the hospital.
A continuous broad teal brushstroke, topped with a finer purple one. If that doesn’t ring a bell, imagine it on disposable cups. Over the past couple decades, the pattern has been mass produced on millions of them, in addition to other products.
The design is called “Jazz,” and it has an oddly passionate fan base. You can buy it on T-shirts. It’s been spotted on cars. It has a few thousand fans on Facebook.
On Reddit last week, an anonymous user going by mcglaven said he couldn’t find much about the original designer through Google. He had five questions for him or her, which he listed.
“Perhaps the crowdsourced brain of Reddit can help,” he wrote.
It did, to a degree. The crowdsourced brain got this far: Jazz was designed by a woman named Gina who worked for Sweetheart Cup Company in Springfield, Missouri, in the late 1980s or early 1990s.
But Gina’s last name was unknown. By the time the last of more than 800 responses was posted a day or so later, Dart Container Corporation — the successor to Sweetheart and Solo Cup Company — had indicated it was looking into the mystery.
But mcglaven’s five questions had gone unanswered.
I started searching.
In February, the series did a show on the carpet in the Portland, Oregon, airport (PDX) — a “loud, decidedly 80s geometric pattern over a vast sea of teal” that has achieved cult status, and can now be purchased on socks, tote bags and throw pillows.
“That’s what interests me about this whole carpet phenomenon,” episode host Julie Sabatier said in the February show. “It’s great for PDX; it’s basically free marketing for them. But if the airport had tried to create this kind of fervor for the carpet, there’s no way it would have caught on.”
That was exactly what interested me about Jazz — its fan base. People seemed to associate the cup’s design, which now seems somewhat dated, with growing up in the 1990s.
“I was part of a community of artists on the Internet that helped appropriate the Solo Jazz design back in 2010 or 2011,” pdschatz wrote on Reddit. The artists made templates of the design and sold shirts, cataloged various non-cup places the design had appeared and Photoshopped it on even more places. The results can be seen on the fan-managed Facebook page and Tumblr.
“It’s just a design a certain paper products manufacturer added to make its cups seem less plain,” another Reddit user wrote. “There were plenty of other patterns out there, but I recognized this one immediately … It’s interesting that some designer made this pattern, probably without too much effort or consideration, that possibly found itself in front of more eyes than the Mona Lisa.”
“The Jazz design was created in 1991 by an artist in the Springfield, Missouri Art Department at Sweetheart,” a consumer response intern wrote back at the time. “Sweetheart had an internal contest to come up with a new stock design and Gina’s Jazz Design was selected. Full blown production across multiple products did not start until early 1992.”
“I hope you guys can find Gina, because I really like her design, but I also doubt that she understands the emotional impact the cup has on children born in the 80s and raised in the 90s,” pdschatz wrote on Reddit.
Another apparent customer email thread with Solo Cup regarding the design, this one from 2009, has also been discussed on Reddit. The names of the author and the company representative (“Product Manager-Hot Cups & Lids”) who responded are blacked out.
The original email is, shall we say, extremely descriptive.
“I’m good friends with a graphic designer and we often discuss objects whose essence so perfectly embodies the combination of form and function that they have been unmatched by their competitors,” the author wrote. “The Radio Flyer Wagon. The Apple iPod. The Shelby Mustang. We feel that the ‘Jazz’ design of this specific cup similarly exemplifies this notion.”
“We can’t quite put our finger on what aspect of it is so visually pleasing to us,” the email continued. “Is it the moderate, reserved use of white space. The liberal stroke of a blue as pristine as the clear warm waters of the Caribbean? The conservative dash of purple, haphazardly tracing the cup, as if to say, ‘I’m stylish, yet accessible’?”
The Solo Cup representative responded that the cup “was designed in 1988 by one of our graphic designers whose name was Gina.”
“It was one of our first Solo/Sweetheart design cups and it took off in the marketplace and is still a highly purchased item,” the representative wrote. “Many times Solo has often pondered removing it but customers demands and feedback have kept this cup around.”
The representative added: “I hope this helps but we appreciate your beautifully described description of our cup.”
The author of the original email responded: “I wrote you last week because there is surprisingly very little historical information about this piece online. Even after some exhaustive Googling I would never have learned the finer details of Gina’s magnum opus.”
The dates in the two emails from Solo Cup representatives varied, but otherwise the story — while details are minimal — was consistent. On Monday morning, when I decided to take up the search, I knew this: Someone named Gina who worked in Springfield in the late 1980s or early 1990s was behind the design.
I went over to the filing cabinets in the newsroom that hold paper clippings from that era. I got a little excited when I found a March 1986 article headlined “Key work at Lily-Tulip starts in art department,” but it didn’t include the name of any department staffers. Ultimately, my review of past News-Leader coverage of the plant did not find any individuals quoted with the name Gina.
The 1986 article indicates the Springfield plant then produced “more than 9.5 billion units of paper and plastic cups, plastic plates, food containers and plastic labels annually.”
“Workers in that department design art work for containers and make the rubber or photopolymer plates used for printing the designs on rolled paper and plastic stock used to make containers and labels,” the article read. “The plant creates its own stock for plastic-foam products by extruding molten plastic into thin sheets.
Disposable cups had a presence in Springfield for nearly 60 years, although the most visible, concrete reminder of that history was torn down earlier this year.
In 1952, Georgia-based Lily Tulip Corporation opened a manufacturing plant at 1100 N. Glenstone Ave. in Springfield, and the entrance facing the street was designed to look like a giant white paper cup with a straw coming out of it. The plant employed around 1,700 people.
Lily Tulip was purchased by Wisconsin-based Fort Howard Cup Corporation in 1986, although the Springfield plant kept the Lily Tulip Name. In 1989, Fort Howard was purchased by Chicago-based Sweetheart Cup Company; this time, the Springfield plant took the new name. In 1993, Sweetheart’s local workforce numbered about 1,300, but that figure decreased over the next decade, to about 400 in 2001.
Solo Cup purchased Sweetheart in 2004, and announced plans to close the Springfield plant by the end of 2005. Those plans were called off when Solo signed a new five-year contract with the union representing local workers, by in 2010 the company again said it would cease operations here.
This time, Solo went through with it. The final regular shift reported for work at 11 p.m. on March 2, 2011, and got off work at 7 the next morning. The facility was sold to Warren Davis Properties.
Four years after Solo Cup’s last shift, the former plant is leased to several companies for warehouse space. The giant cup that formed the building’s entrance, however, is no more. It was torn down in January.
“It just doesn’t really fit out there anymore,” Harrington said.
Harrington also told me in January there were copyright issues with having the Solo Cup logo on the front of the cup and a nearby sign. The Springfield Business Journal subsequently reported that John Price, an attorney representing Davis Properties, posted on Facebook that those copyright issues were the driving force behind the decision to remove the cup, and that an offer to repaint the feature had been rebuffed by the copyright holder. Price declined the publication’s interview request, although he said he wasn’t retracting the Facebook comments.
Solo Cup Company, meanwhile, was purchased by Dart Container Corporation in 2012 — potentially impacting the institutional memory regarding the source of the design.
Dart Container is aware of the oddly passionate fan base. An account claiming to be associated with the company’s marketing department commented on last week’s Reddit thread, writing: “We are looking into this and seeing what info we can find for you.” In response to a private message I sent, the account gave the name and email address of a Dart employee, who had not responded to an email sent Monday by press time.
By then, the official Solo Cup narrative about the Jazz design had been challenged.
Ohio resident Stephanie Miller claimed on the Reddit thread last week that she was the true source of the design. She said she created it in the late 1980s while working in Ohio for a company called Imperial Bondware, which also produced paper and plastic cups.
Design work hadn’t moved onto computers yet at that point, Miller said, so she used paint brushes and ink to create the design, which replaced a wheat pattern on the company’s cups. But company officials felt it was too “forward thinking,” Miller said, and stopped using it. Miller wrote that she made $7.25 an hour at the time.
“Someone from Sweetheart picked it up, liked it, set it on Gina’s desk and asked to tweak it just a little to avoid copyright issues,” Miller wrote on Reddit. “That design came out of my head. Same colors, same everything, except Gina made the purple line a little smaller. This was a common practice between the cup companies, and Gina was just doing what she was told. But she’s not being truthful if she’s claiming that she designed it.”
Reached by phone Thursday morning, Miller said she believes Imperial cups with the design were produced for about a year, prior to Sweetheart’s Jazz production. Those cups could still be out there, she said. But Miller acknowledged she didn’t have concrete proof at hand that would indicate she was behind Jazz.
You can still find cups with the Jazz design today. For $14.99, you can buy a 100-pack of the 7 oz. version on Amazon; for $108.95, or 5.4 cents a cup, you can get 2,000.
“The cup is coated with wet wax for rigidity and protection from leaking,” the product description reads. “It meets ASTM International standard D6868 for compostability. This wax-coated paper cup with Jazz print is suitable for serving cold foods and beverages in a variety of settings.”
With Gina’s full name unknown, and no response from Dart Container by Monday evening, it was unclear how much further I could get. Then, Monday night, I searched Twitter for keywords related to the cup. I found a tweet, posted June 10, claiming the designer was the user’s mother.
Talk about a lead.
The user responded to my message asking if the tweet was literal by saying it was, but didn’t respond to a second one asking for the user’s mother’s name, and a phone number at which to contact her.
I searched a public records database for a guess at the mother’s name (Gina, plus the last name of the Twitter user). That turned up a woman linked to various southwest Missouri addresses over the past three decades. The database, which is a good source of leads but can’t always be treated as fact, indicated the woman worked at Sweetheart Cup at one point.
The phone numbers associated with the woman in the database, however, no longer worked. That left her last associated address — a house in Aurora.
The town of 7,500 is a 45-minute drive from the News-Leader. I rang the doorbell. No answer. I rang again.
The Twitter user was indeed her daughter, so she’d been tipped off that a reporter was interested in talking to her. She wasn’t expecting me to just show up, but invited me in.
Ekiss, 50, started work at Sweetheart’s Springfield plant in 1987 after graduating from Missouri State University earlier that year (colleagues who worked with her would recall her name being Gina Boyd-Burgess then). Sweetheart’s art department was based in Springfield at the time (the company was headquartered elsewhere), and Ekiss was one of about 32 artists. The internal contest to design a new stock image for the company was announced in 1989, she said, when Sweetheart wasn’t impressed with work external design agencies were submitting.
(The previous stock image had been called “Preference” — a gray base with a thin red line that formed two leaves.)
There weren’t a lot of parameters set. Designs are printed on cups and other products quickly in large runs, Ekiss told me, so “they needed something that if it misregistered slightly, it wasn’t going to matter.” And the disposable products were used a variety of places, from hospitals to fast food restaurants. The company wanted something that would work in a variety of environments.
Ekiss submitted “three or four ideas,” and other colleagues did the same. The decision was made in 1990 or 1991, she said.
“They came back and said that was the one they wanted to go with, and what did I call it,” she said. “I had no idea. So I had to come up with a name for it, so we just called it jazz.”
The design was similar to something she had designed in college, Ekiss said, rejecting the idea that she ripped off another cup company’s design. Teal and purple were her two favorite colors.
Ekiss said she earned a set salary at the time — about $35,000 — and there was no bonus for having her design selected. No royalties either, since the company took ownership of the pattern. She worked at Sweetheart until 2002, she said, when the company’s art department was transferred to Baltimore. She wanted to stay in the area. When she left, Ekiss said she was told by Sweetheart that Jazz was the company’s top-grossing stock design in history, dating all the way back to the Lily Tulip days.
Ekiss freelanced for a few years, painting murals locally, then ran a landscape supply store for a while. She’s now the custom frame shop manager at a Springfield Hobby Lobby. She keeps some products with the Jazz design at home, and most recently saw them in a public setting last weekend, when she and her husband were out riding motorcycles and stopped at a Dairy Queen.
Among mcglaven’s five questions on Reddit: “What does it feel like to have something you designed become a part of 90s culture that will be remembered for generations?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” Ekiss laughed. “It just seems so insane to me.”
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: The Internet is looking for who designed this cup.