If books could kill

Gruesome health warnings may have stubbed out the art of cigarette pack and matchbook design, but their forms smoulder on, appropriated by more worthy products. Fiona Sibley investigates

It may be outlawed as the new social pariah (at least hoodied Asbo kids are off the hook for now), but smoking shows no signs of breathing its last quite yet.

Instead, the ban seems to have given rise to a renewed appreciation of the culture that’s moving out of the pubs and on to the streets.

At least that’s what Tank Magazine hopes – its latest venture is a line of witty, miniature books, packaged up in imitation cigarette cartons, and advertised with a strapline that takes the form of a health warning, ‘Reading saves lives’.

For those who recoil at the ethical dilemma presented by working commercially for tobacco companies on design projects – the ad campaigns are long gone, but certainly not creatively forgotten – this may be a knowing joke too far. Isn’t it a cheap trick to besmirch literary talent with the deadly whiff of tobacco smoke?

The idea was hatched by Masoud Golsorkhi, founder and editor of Tank and its sister consultancy Tank Form, who has long tried to entice people who don’t generally read with the seduction of the written word. ‘There’s a long history of smoking and reading being coincidental activities,’ he says. ‘They’re linked by the ability to contemplate and drift off into new territories, as much through a cigarette as by getting lost in the pages of a book.’

It’s as much to do with paying homage to the packaging as smoking itself, Golsorkhi says. ‘I’ve always been a great fan of cigarette packs – the aspect ratio is nice and they’re engineered so well they overdo what they need to do.’ This reinterpretation has been painstakingly developed with a carton manufacturer to imitate cigarette packaging exactly, down to the silver lining and the cellophane wrapper.

It’s certainly a clever appropriation of one iconic object by another, much like Art Meets Matter’s transfer of Penguin book designs on to coffee cups and pencils, or Naoto Fukasawa’s designs for smoothie cartons that imitate fruit.

A standard pack, it transpires, is the right size to accommodate a good novella or short story. Readers can pick from the suspiciously blokey, Marlboro cowboy-type selection that includes Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka and Joseph Conrad. It’s an ongoing project – Tank plans to launch six new titles every quarter. ‘We want to build it as an accepted format, maybe do long books in sections,’ adds Golsorkhi.

This is not the only example of smoking paraphernalia being elevated into the virtuous realm that is currently doing the cultural rounds. Acorn House, a newly opened London restaurant launched by two of the senior staff from TV chef Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen, is giving out matchbooks without matches but filled with seeds, encouraging diners to plump for plant-nurturing over smoking, and perhaps even to think a little about the environment.

‘It’s trying to offer diners an alternative giveaway to matches that fits in with the concept of the restaurant, which is about recycling, growth, and using eco produce,’ says designer David Lane, who sourced and customised the seed pack to fit in with the overall brand identity. Acorn House has always been a non-smoking restaurant, but the idea certainly seems pertinent now.

Meanwhile, Golsorkhi claims an ‘informed ambivalence’ about smoking restrictions. ‘There’s a debate to be had about civil liberties versus the dangers, he says. ‘But then, I’ve always thought that books could be as dangerous as cigarettes.’

It certainly proves that packaging has enduring cultural capital to be explored and reinterpreted. When reaching for a cigarette packet in the pub, there are worse things to engage in than a spot of intellectual enlightenment.

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