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Solo Jazz cup-obsessed internet searches for design's creator

Gina Ekiss designed the Jazz pattern found on plates, cups, and a number of other disposable items. She keeps some products with the design at her home in Aurora. (Photo: Nathan Papes/News-Leader)

File this between heart-warming and random: Thomas Gounley of the News Leader reports that Redditors obsessed with the iconic Solo Jazz cup began searching for its designer, and found her in Aurora, Missouri. The ad hoc investigators had to deal with several business absorptions and poor record keeping, but eventually found the elusive “Gina,” who designed the cup for Solo in the late '80s. Read an excerpt of the story below, or read the entire text on the News Leader here.

The Jazz design in plate form

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.

Sweetheart Cup Company produced this sales brochure to promote the launch of the Jazz design. Fans have launched a Facebook page and Tumblr featuring various places the pattern has ended up.

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.

After mcglaven posted his request to find Gina, another Reddit user that goes by pdschatz suggested that it “would make for one hell of a 99% Invisible story.” That refers to the “99% Invisible” radio production that, according to its website, focuses on “design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.”

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.”

At one point, pdschatz — who did not respond to a message I sent asking to speak with him — emailed Solo Cup (which was acquired by Dart Container in 2012) asking about the creator of the design.

“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 woman who created the Jazz design says she was told in 2002 that it was the highest-grossing design in company history. (Photo: Nathan Papes/News-Leader)

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.