Jazz Cups: The Snazzy Paper Tableware Pattern that Encapsulates Early 90s Design

Imagine a plastic cup and one particular red-wrapped variant will likely come to mind, designed in the 1970s by Robert Leo Hulseman, son of the Solo Cup Company’s founder. In the realm of paper cups, there is a parallel icon — the dynamic “Jazz” pattern is also a classic, but its history and the artist behind it were largely a mystery until recently.

Today, the very 1990s-style teal-and-purple Jazz design can be found on t-shirts, sandals, bumper stickers and other fan-made merchandise. Originally,  though, it was applied by the Sweetheart Cup Company to a series of plates, bowls and cups. Sweetheart has since been acquired by Solo, which in turn was acquired by the Dart Container Corporation, adding layers of complexity to the search for the pattern’s origins.

A few years back, users on Reddit started to crowdsource the question: who had designed this classic tableware pattern? A group of participants in the hunt took it upon themselves to write the company and ask, musing over the design in the midst of their message: “We can’t quite put our finger on what aspect of it is so visually pleasing to us. 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’?”

In response, a public relations respondent from Dart began filling in some of the details, writing: “the Jazz design was created in 1991 by an artist in the Springfield, Missouri Art Department at Sweetheart,” which had “an internal contest to come up with a new stock design.” An employee named Gina had designed the winning entry that went into production the following year, though no last name was given.

Unsatisfied with the incomplete story, Springfield News-Leader reporter Thomas Gounley began to dig deeper, searching for Gina himself.  After failing to find any direct references to her in local news archives, Gounley made a lucky find on Twitter: someone claiming to be the designer’s daughter. From there, he traveled to nearby Aurora to talk with the woman who had, as it turned out, designed the pattern.

The world’s largest “paper” cup (made of concrete) in front of what was once the Lily-Tulip manufacturing company, later Sweetheart Cup Company, which was in turn acquired by Solo

Gina Ekiss began working at Sweetheart’s art department in 1987 along with a few dozen other artists. As Ekiss recalls, the company wasn’t thrilled with initial external submissions for a new pattern design, so they turned to their own in-house creatives. There weren’t many limitations, she recalls, but “they needed something that if it misregistered slightly, it wasn’t going to matter.” The design also had to work for a variety of customer types — it was to be sold in stores, used in hospitals and so forth — so it needed a level of generic and universal appeal. She started with charcoal on vellum, then scanned the results.

“I was reluctant to let the computer have too much control,” Ekiss recalls. “I think part of the reason that I came up with a looser design is because I still wanted to feel like my actual hand went into producing it.” Once scanned, color was added and the design was dubbed Jazz. A bold blend of bright colors and brush strokes, the design encapsulates much of what the 90s have since became known for aesthetically.

There were no big bonuses or royalties or celebrations — Ekiss was simply a staff designer who continued to work for a salary at Sweetheart until the early 2000s. When she left the company, Gounley writes that Gina “was told by Sweetheart that Jazz was the company’s top-grossing stock design in history, dating all the way back to the Lily Tulip days,” before Sweetheart was Sweetheart (or Solo or Dart).

Jazz cups from a food truck in an episode of Future Man

To this day, Ekiss keeps a few Jazz-adorned objects around and still sees them when she’s out and about. The design is anachronistic or nostalgic, depending on one’s perspective, but either way, it is persistent. Dart, meanwhile, has considered discontinuing its use from time to time, but Jazz’s popularity keeps it in circulation, winding across plates and wrapping around an uncountable number of cups.

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