Tupperware, symbol of the square '50s, gets a graceful new look for the sleek '90s


New Tupperware bowls have ears.

They're not Mickey ears, not even Dumbo ears, but graceful scallops placed on one side of the lids or both sides of the bowls. The new ears are bigger and gentler than Tupperware's old 1960s thumb-bruising tabs, and they even have a little extra texturing so a person can get a good burp out of the bowl or use them to tote potato salad from the counter to the refrigerator.

Morison Cousins, Tupperware's director of design, doesn't call these whimsical tabs "ears," of course. He calls them "double arcs," which fits in better with his function-comes-first theory of industrial design. But he does call them fresh, charming and gracious. He believes it is little things like textured ears, rounder shapes and easier burps that can make the difference between drudgery and joy in life.

"I'm trying to bring charm to these things. People find that having gracious things makes their lives more gracious," he explained.

For Mr. Cousins, a 1955 graduate of the Pratt Institute in New York, everyday objects become gracious if they provide a moment of pleasure simply because of a certain nicety of design. A swooping lip, a simple line, a delicious color -- these are the fundamentals of good industrial design.

Tupperware has been in the design business since the mid-1940s when the late founder, Earl Tupper, first molded slag plastic into seamless kitchen bowls and other airtight containers.

Those bowls, Jell-O molds and bread servers have become icons of Americana and are now found in countless homes across the United States and in 50 other countries. While 95 percent of American and European consumers recognize Tupperware as a household name, and annual sales figures tally in the billions, the company has been losing money in the United States steadily since 1987. Mr. Cousins was lured to the Kissimmee, Fla., company in 1990 from his private design firm in Manhattan to perk up wilting profits by restyling the housewares and shedding the 1950s image.

Simple but intelligent

Mr. Cousins' new look relies on shapes that are simple and intelligent without being hard-edged, bowls that seem almost plump in their roundness with colors and touches that are both highly functional and slightly frivolous. At the same time, he and his design team are making sure the objects are easier to clean, use and carry.

His new designs are available from thousands of American Tupperware sales consultants (no longer hostesses) at Tupperware demonstrations (no longer called parties) and are on display in the 1993 summer catalog.

Earlier examples of Mr. Cousins' art include a sleek Gillette Pro Max hair dryer, a Dixie Cup dispenser and a soup-to-nuts bowl that have been snapped up by major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Soft-spoken, trim and impeccably dressed in a striped shirt and pin-dotted tie, Mr. Cousins, 59, is a dedicated student of the shape of things. He also is an avid cook and calls the kitchen the best room in his Winter Park, Fla., home.

That's why he gave the new, king-sized Thatsa bowl a sturdy handle with a thumb-hole in the middle: So a cook could really hold it in place while scooping out cookie dough or stirring cake batter. The 2-gallon bowl can hang by the same thumb hole after the cook is done and the utensil is clean.

The new One Touch canisters are pure white and have smooth, blueberry- or raspberry-colored lids.

"White is a refreshing color. It has a hygienic aspect to it," Mr. Cousins explained.

Also, the hues of the lids would go as well with a European high-tech design as with a Southwestern or a country-gingham decor, he said. Plus, the lids and canister sides are smooth, so they're easier to clean.

The only possible gunk-catching surfaces on the new lids are imprints of three arrows pointing to a spot in the center. Press the spot with your thumb or finger and -- whoosh -- a soundless version of the famous Tupperware burp.

"Twenty years ago, the use of time wasn't so critical. People were talking about the 'leisure society' of the future and wondering what to do with all that time. Nobody talks about the leisure society anymore. Today, time is very critical to everybody. There's a rush to get our shopping done, a rush to clean up," Mr. Cousins said recently from the design center tucked behind Tupperware World Headquarters.

Mr. Cousins insists he is not going through the Tupperware catalog page by page to toss out the time-honored symbols of suburbia like the stacking Carousel Wedge and Seal Set or the Super Crisp-It lettuce crisper. He's simply giving practicality a little more pizazz.

For example, the Wonderlier bowls for refrigerating fruit salad and other edibles are frosted but basically clear (the Tupperware term is "Classic Sheer"). You can see what's inside without opening the lid, which is a nice feature if you're raiding the fridge for a fast snack.

The line of new microwave-safe dishes for reheating leftovers is a marvel of modern function. The dishes are helix-shaped, rather like the hurricane symbol on a weather map. The whorled handles allow you to take the dish out of the microwave without scorching your fingers, and the loose-fitting cover keeps food inside from splattering without letting steam and pressure build up. Plus, there's a second, sealing lid so you can take the dish to work without having macaroni and cheese leak all over your lunch bag.

But the color of these Reheatables sets is pure whimsy. Called Mesa Red, it's a pinkish flesh tone straight out of a Crayola box. The pink seems to make broccoli look greener, tuna salad look fresher and day-old stew look more appetizing.

"Before I started here, I would never bring a plastic dish to the table. Now it's fun to design things that you cook in or eat from," Mr. Cousins said, adding that he stores salsa in the 26-ounce One Touch sealing serving bowl. He said he keeps the bowl half-full so he has room to maneuver chips for a good dip.

Dean of everyday design

Divorced and the father of two grown daughters, Michele and Elizabeth, Mr. Cousins has recently found himself the center of unexpected media attention. Reporters from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have made pilgrimages to Kissimmee.

His new status as dean of everyday design seems to amuse and amaze him, though his past creations also have periodically caught the fancy of the press.

But the paradox is too delectable to ignore: A lion of 20th-century design revamps the plastic icon of 1950s suburban security, when there was a place for everything and the future seemed much more tidy.

And there is a whiff of immortality surrounding Tupperware. It's guaranteed for life, so those round bowls with petal-shaped ears may be keeping lemon cake fresh or cauliflower crisp long after their creator has left the planet. Mr. Cousins smiles at this notion:

"You don't ever have to throw Tupperware away. Wouldn't it be wonderful if you could say that about your car?"

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad