Remember the avocado green container your mother kept a stick of margarine in? It was probably Tupperware, functional and frowzy and far from attractive. More than likely, that container is still around, maybe under the sink, albeit minus its trademark "burping" lid.
Ever think of replacing it? Probably not. After all, you don't purchase Tupperware, you inherit it. And Tupperware hostess parties . . . they went out with housewives, didn't they?
Tupperware, which celebrates its 50th anniversary next year, is making a comeback, fighting increased competition and what had been dwindling sales in the '80s with a new spiffier image. While "hostesses" may be a thing of the past (they are now called "consultants"), the '90s has brought a spate of newly designed food-storage products to transport Tupperware out of the proverbial "Brady Bunch" kitchen and into the homes of millions of baby boomers, who have lapped up their "Yupperware." The company, owned by Premark, now does more than $1 billion worth of business a year.
The new products are the brainchildren of industrial designer Morison Cousins, who left Cousins Designs in New York (still operated by Cousin's brother, Michael) five years ago to join the Tupperware team. His mission: to update Tupperware's tried and true containers and convince consumers they needed them.
"It was an interesting challenge," said Cousins, speaking from his office at Tupperware's headquarters in Orlando, Fla. "The opportunity was to take the entire product line of a rather large, well-known company in the consumer area and bring it up to date."
Tupperware was born in 1938, when self-taught chemical engineer Earl Tupper began manufacturing "tomorrow's design with tomorrow's substances."
Polyethylene slag was transformed into novel household products that helped homemakers feel competent and thrifty.
Tupperware still uses a broad spectrum of thermoplastics (such as polypropylene, polycarbonate and polyethylene), but materials need to be more sophisticated to survive today's cooking environments.
"We've got more to think about now," said Cousins, who studied design at Pratt Institute in New York. "Are the materials safe for the microwave? For the dishwasher? When Tupperware started, there were no dishwashers, so this wasn't a consideration."
But maintaining a container's physical integrity is not enough to lure new customers. "You're not going to convince people they need this stuff unless they feel it's a product of the late 1990s," Cousins said, "that it fits into their lifestyle, that it's contemporary. I just really wanted to make sure that people see and understand that it's got all the traditional values--durability, functionality--but that it really looks stylish."
Cousins began by updating one of Tupperware's flagships products, the Wonderlier bowl. How do you take a set of three nesting bowls with seals and make them sexy?
"We took advantage of improved bowl technology, which allowed us to simply change the look. I tend to use very geometric forms when I design. The new Wonderlier bowls are essentially a hemisphere with the bottom cut off to give it a base. The other thing I did was to add these very big double-arc tabs. In order to get a good seal, you want something on pretty tight, and yet you also want to be able to get it off, so I added those big tabs. Twenty-five percent of the people in the country have some form of arthritis--it's just a fact of the species."
In the category of all-new product, there is the double colander. A sleek, white plastic sieve with a curved lid that locks into place, allowing the user to flip it over to shake off excess water (the lid also doubles as a mini-colander), the double colander has become Tupperware's No. 1 selling product. It was also the recipient of this year's Gold Industrial Design Award presented by the Industrial Society of America, and has wound up in several museum collections, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Katherine Hiesinger, curator of decorative arts and design for the museum, has always been a Tupperware fan. "We were originally interested in Tupperware because of its innovation in materials. The product line pretty much stayed the same until they hired Morison Cousins, and all of a sudden, you have this sleek Eurostyling that was just beautiful. It made the user aware of the form of the item as well as its function."
Such accolades are not new for Cousins, whose classic Dixie cup dispenser and Gillette Pro Max hair dryer already stand in museums around the world. Still, he's pleased with the colander, and not only because he's a pasta fan. "I think the colander is so popular because it appeals to consumers' sense of aesthetics, but it also reflects the way we live and eat now."
Archetypal Tupperware designs like the Cake Taker and Jel-Ring Mold must cohabit with micro-steamers (for steaming vegetables in the microwave) and bread keepers designed to hold those oddly shaped bread machine loaves. While Tupperware designs continue to keep pace with American lifestyles--gadgets, such as a vegetable peeler and a garlic press, and a line of crafts for children (called TupperKids) have also been added--Cousins does not allow dietary or design trends to dictate the Tupperware line.
"A good-looking product is a good-looking product--anyone recognizes it. The only reason everybody doesn't drive a Porsche is because they're too expensive, not because they don't like the way it looks."
Cousins factors in one additional element, and that is the sentimentality with which some people prize their Tupperware. "It's kind of amazing," he marveled.
"Tupperware guarantees their products for a lifetime! That's why people are so crazy about it," gushed Burbank Tupperware consultant Nicki Malouf, with the kind of enthusiasm that's made her the No. 3 sales rep in the nation. "We have the Cadillac of plastics!" She's been selling for 17 years and is loyal to the entire food storage line. Still, she's impressed with the way the new designs are "reeling in" new customers.
Tory Estern, a filmmaker in her mid-30s, was a typical skeptic. When she moved into a new apartment, friends threw her a Tupperware party "as a joke. It was deliberately kitsch, kind of '50s; people made pigs-in-blankets and Cheez Whiz tidbits. Then the Tupperware lady walked in and all of a sudden people were getting into it, and she wound up selling about $500 worth of stuff. I received a bowl as a gift and I actually use it."
If Tupperware continues to work its emotional alchemy, Estern will likely have a lump in her throat when she bequeaths that same bowl to the next generation.