Thursday, July 21, 2005

Ball of confusion on a rope?

It provides false cues to the nose and demolishes one's sense of touch.

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The Soft Soap on Soaponification

Written by Steven Heller
Published on February 23, 2005.

Filed in Voice: AIGA Journal of Design.

“Soap is probably one of the few cleansing items with which we can have a truly personal experience,” notes Nancy Jeffries, Editor-in-Chief of Soap & Cosmetics Magazine. “It is, after all, a joy to hold something that smells wonderful, provides a pleasurable tactile experience, and cleanses one's body too. It is also an affordable luxury that appeals to every strata and aesthetic.” Soap, therefore, is another in an ever growing line of commercially solvent, alluringly designed, lifestyle consumables; a source of visceral appeal not just for its labels and packages but for the physical impact of the total product, which ranges from pure white bars to opaque cakes to sumptuous ovals as well as myriad colored balls, blocks, shells and shards—plain or stamped with ornamental patterns and typographical motifs and sometimes stuffed with surprises inside. Form and function have never smelled so good.

Wiping out dirt was why soap was invented back in 2800 B.C. in old Babylonia. As Brian Sansoni of The Soap & Detergent Association in Washington, D.C. explains, it was originally made from an ancient process called “saponification” whereby fatty acid extruded from cows and sheep called tallow combined with alkali splitting the fat into fatty acids and glycerine, and then sodium or potassium salt was injected to make a yucky but effective cleanser. For the first couple of thousand years, soaps were so abrasive they were only used for cleaning clothing, not bodies, which instead were bathed in herbs, milks, and oils (for those like Cleopatra who could afford it). In the 8th Century, Spain started producing solid body soaps and, over the next four hundred years, France, Italy, and England followed suit. Incidentally, the Spanish and Italians used kinder and gentler olive oil while the French and English stuck (perhaps literally) to tallow, which answers some unasked questions about national hygiene.

There were also two ways of preparing soap—cold and hot processed—wherein lye was added then poured into rectangular moulds to harden and be carved up like cheese. Soaps were solid or opaque until the early nineteenth century when a clear, presumably more natural substance, was made with alcohol, which actually dried out the skin. Yet the concept of purity caught on, and eventually softer coconut and palm oils were substituted for harsh alcohols. In 1879 the most famous American variety, touted as “99 1/100 percent Pure,” was a white brick called Ivory Soap, invented when a surprised employee of Procter and Gamble accidentally forgot to turn off a mixer and shot more than the usual amount of air into a large batch of goop, resulting in the first and only floating soap. The public frothed for it.

Design entered the picture when competing manufacturers worked up lathers adding novel scented ingredients like green crystals, blue streaks, and brown flakes as well as devising unique contoured shapes to distinguish one brand from the other.

The Marseille soap manufacturer C. Ferrier & Cie, for example, developed a dozen different cake designs for its numerous Savons to appeal to women (and some men) at all social stations for quotidian washing or sumptuous bathing.

Soap has had a certain cache from before the turn of the century, but in recent years it has become an even more hedonistic accoutrement signifying health, beauty, and aesthetics. “Design, color and fragrance all play a role in the selection of a bar of soap,” notes Nancy Jefferies. “Every individual can find something that connects them to the soaps they choose, and of course that cachet is relative and perceptual.” Ivory’s floating brick is still on the market but no longer has the same status appeal owing to its plebian design—in fact it is downright déclassé. Today, the smoother, suppler, and more streamline the bar the greater its charm.

Among the most popular, dildo-shaped soaps (some on ropes) are quite popular among certain sets but there are also varieties that resemble striated igneous rocks and shards of turquoise (ouch), and others that look like breast implants. Actually, soap can be made to fit any mold. While heart and shell motifs are perennial favorites, comic varieties like the Homer Simpson-shaped soap are rising to the surface these days. Many more prosaic specialty brands, however, are imprinted with birds and flowers and impregnated with verbena or jasmine. There are also organic shapes, like durable oatmeal-based bars that look like something the cat dragged in from the woods or, if a sun-drenched plain is more appealing, there are soaps imbued with honey or shea butter with scents from Provence and Grasse that look like, well, honey or shea butter. It should be no surprise that design of most specialty soap is feminine, but for the man who longs for a strong scrubbing bar in a masculine form the old standby LAVA not only does the job, its jet black pumas pigment is now truly haute design.

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