Cool again

Ice cream is making a comeback. Forget Fab lollies and kitsch 1950s paraphernalia and say hello to a world of adult indulgence, bespoke flavours and retail drama. John Stones warms to this chilled reinvention

You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for ice cream. Once everyone’s favourite treat, it’s been eclipsed recently by its more svelte and fashionable sister, frozen yogurt.

The craze for frozen yogurt has been taken up with gusto around the world. It has inspired some particularly innovative and striking design, from Frolick in Singapore (branding by Asylum) and Snog in London (interiors by Cinimod Studio and naming and branding by Ico Design) to Tangy Sweet in Washington DC (by Kube Architecture).

But ice cream is fighting back – sales are up, and there’s a host of interesting design activity taking place. Of course, ice-cream parlours of the mid-20th century were the result of a significant investment in design, from interiors to technology and packaging. Innovative and bold in their day, they’re now largely seen as being as kitsch as the seaside resorts in which they once flourished.

Cadbury’s Ice Cream Land, a website with a garish merry-go-round island and surreal animations, is one project seeking to give this traditional imagery a new, digital lease of life. ’It’s aimed at the kind of family who might go for a day out at Blackpool beach. But it’s pretty surreal – you’d be scared if you encountered some of the elements in real life,’ says Piers Milburn, creative director of The Web Well, which designed it.

Sapient Nitro has devised an even more radically contemporary take on the classic paraphernalia of ice cream for Unilever (whose stable of ice-cream brands includes Ben & Jerry’s and Wall’s). The Smile-Activated Vending Machine, which it describes as an ’ice-cream truck for the digital age’, is as ambitious (and tacky) as anything from the 1950s. The machine invites people to smile and according to the strength of the smile (as decided by face-recognition technology which simultaneously uploads a mug shot to Facebook) decides whether to dispense a free ice cream.

Fun though these are, the current ice-cream renaissance is largely built on the back of a strategy of appealing to adults, creating an experience that is luxurious and upmarket. Tiptree, known for its traditional jams, spotted a gap in the market for a range of ice creams drawing on the heritage and flavours of its lemon curd, tawny orange marmalade and Little Scarlet strawberry conserves. ’We wanted to use our own products for the USP, to create an adult indulgence at a level beyond anything on the market,’ says Ian Thurgood, joint managing director of parent company Wilkin & Sons. ’We knew that the packaging would be the key to early success and that it had to stand out from other brands, as well as instantly convey the “adult indulgence” message.’ The designs, relying heavily on the black containers and traditional typography, were evolved in-house and executed by Vineyard Design.

Meanwhile, gelaterias offering softer, Italian-style ice cream are appearing all over London, including Cocorino (founded by Linda Yau, sister of Alan Yau), Scoop, Dri Dri Gelato and Gelato Mio. Some have been happy to carry out the design themselves (such as Scoop, with a little help from a graphic designer friend in Florence), while others such as Gelupo have brought established designers on board.

Gelupo’s name is an amalgam of gelato and Bocca di Lupo (mouth of the wolf), its sister restaurant across the street in London’s Soho. ’We did want something to relate to the existing restaurant branding, which we also designed, but additionally wanted to be sure the marque could stand alone. In our minds, the typography [using the font Mostra] is reminiscent of 1930s and 1940s Italian design rather than traditional ice-cream style,’ explains Caz Hildebrand, creative partner of Here Design.

’The ice cream is worlds away from kids’ stuff,’ she adds. ’It is sophisticated, adult food – though, I’m sure, also enjoyed by kids – and we wanted to reflect that. A favourite flavour is burnt-almond granita, hardly on a par with a Twister or a Fab lolly.’

Zazà is another recent entrant. It’s a Neapolitan company that has innovative and very compact technology which allows ice cream to be made on site with a device little bigger than a microwave. This enables it to have small upmarket kiosks in shopping centres such as Westfield London and Canary Wharf, designed by Afroditi Krassa. ’It was important to communicate that the gelato is made on the premises and that it is different from British or American ice cream,’ she says. ’And if they run out of a flavour they can make it again in 20 minutes.’

The Chin Chin Laboratorists in London’s Camden Lock also offers bespoke ice cream – dramatically frozen on site with liquid nitrogen. From a logo that looks like a molecular diagram to the radical interior, the parlour turns its back on ice-cream convention and stages the making of the ice cream as an eccentric performance.

Formica and scaffolding allowed a quick build (six weeks from brief to opening), creating one single piece of furniture which holds all the cabling and lights. ’You could lift it out and plug it in somewhere else,’ says Shai Akram, who designed it with Andrew Haythornthwaite.

’It’s a nutty professor’s place – we wanted to build an ultra-specific, finely honed laboratory. Everything is broken down into specific stages,’ says Akram. ’It’s a real step away from sweetness and traditional ice-cream parlours. There are no powder pinks.’

The emphasis on ritual is, however, very “ice cream”. Instead of pigging out with a tub in front of the telly or doing the passeggiata in Sorrento with a pistachio cornetto, it’s now a case of watching it being made in front of you. Long live ice cream – may it continue to reinvent itself.

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