If the adage about books and their covers is true, artisan chocolatiers pay it no mind. Walk into a specialty grocer, bookstore, or gift shop in cities around the world and you’ll find chocolate bars wrapped in packaging almost as enticing as the prospect of eating the treat itself. While plenty of food companies have joined the wave of creative packaging design, chocolate seems to lead the way in terms of showing off a brand’s artistic sensibilities. You’ve likely heard of the Mast Brothers and seen their stylishly patterned bars, but who else has joined their ranks in selling such enticingly-wrapped sweets? And, how did this phenomenon come about?
Whether or not you believe the Mast Brothers are the real deal in terms of their claims of being a “bean-to-bar” chocolate manufacturer, it’s hard to deny the aesthetic appeal of their packaging. Although they were not the first to market hand-crafted chocolate in the United States, the company is as well-known for what’s on the outside of their wrappers as what’s on the inside. Many packaged foods feature text-heavy labels, with images or designs making up the background. Mast reversed that trend, with only a square of simple, sans-serif font in the top center of the rectangular front of the wrapping, with “Mast,” the type of chocolate, and the weight of the bar printed inside an off-white square. The rest of the wrapping is printed in a variety of designs, under the artistic direction of Nathan Warkentin for the past two years. Warkentin cites architecture, clothing design, and mid-century painters, like Sol Lewitt, as inspiration. In contrast to the nautical patterns and wallpaper-like designs prevalent in the early days of the company, Warkentin’s bars feature organic shapes, simple geometric patterns, and muted colors that make them feel like contemporary art objects.
While new and creative approaches to packaging abound, the Mast Brothers approach to chocolate bar design has become almost shorthand for artisan chocolate. The wallpaper-like patterns and abstractions with simple square labels appear on Coco Chocolatier chocolates out of Edinburgh, Scotland, and on Bahen & Co’s bars from Australia. Seaforth Chocolate Co.’s bars have a style that harkens back to the nautical-themed roots of Mast.
On the other side of the country, Compartes Chocolatiers has taken a similar approach to chocolate bar branding through design but with a few twists. Like the Mast bars, Compartes relegates textual information to the top of the bar, with a downward-pointing white triangle proclaiming the name of the brand and the flavor of the bar. Unlike Mast, though, Compartes uses thin cardboard in place of heavy paper wrapping, and muted tones are replaced by neon patterns, pictures of palm trees, or psychedelic faces. Designed by Kyle Poff, the playful exteriors of these bars are reflected inside the packaging, with flavors like “donuts and coffee” and “pink elephants,” a bar with frosted elephant animal crackers embedded in chocolate.
Taking playful design to a different level is Japanese Design firm Nendo, with their chocolate paint set. The quality of the chocolate isn’t the focus here as much as the shape of the chocolates, which are molded into fully-edible paint tubes filled with flavored syrups. Each label simply indicates what’s on the inside of the chocolate tube in a rainbow of hues arranged in the box. Small brown type describes the flavors, and otherwise the chocolates are unadorned. Building on a previous project of creating chocolate pencils, the paint set had less to do with showcasing chocolate and more to do with chocolate showcasing design. Created as a limited promotion for a Japanese department store, you won’t find these in your local grocery any time soon.
How did chocolate branch out from the first Nestle bars in 1875, which used condensed milk to sweeten the bitter cocoa, to the range of options we see today? From “low” end Hershey’s for under $2 per bar to “high” end choices costing as much as a cocktail, Americans ate roughly $18 billion in chocolate in 2015, according to CNBC. While companies like Compartes have been around for decades, the story of American hand-crafted chocolate and the high-style aesthetics surrounding it traces to Scharffen Berger, the California chocolate company that started in 1997 and was acquired by Hershey in 2005. Its success, amid a culture of growing awareness about food production and origins during the early and mid-2000s, spurred companies like Mast, Vosges, and Jacques Torres, and paved the way for chocolate bars that not only tasted good but looked the part, too.
Chocolate bars’ size and shape offer the perfect vehicle to display a sense of hand-crafted-ness that goes beyond where the bar was purchased or what it looks like inside. Apart from fancy add-ins, it’s the simplicity of a high-end chocolate bar’s shape and color that make it appear to be a quality product. And, for companies looking to brand their product not only by a name or the reputation of a particular location, a well-crafted design is a way to remind consumers of the value of the chocolate. Elevated by the heft of the paper or the unusual imagery enclosing it, a chocolate bar becomes more than a consumable treat. It becomes a token of status, a representation of taste, or an expression of personal style.
Editor Note* Images sourced from: www.mastbrothers.com; www.thefoxisblack.com; and www.thisiscolossal.com respectively.