Toasting the Evolving Design of the Humble Beer Can
This month Chronicle Books releases Beer: A Genuine Collection of Cans, which explores the art and design of beer cans. Approached from a design perceptive, Beer presents 480 different cans in alphabetical order. It’s a treat for fans of beer, 20th century design and advertising, as well as collectors and ephemera enthusiasts.
The Los Angeles Times Magazine recently features a selection of the cans for their “50” section, which examines 50 different images of the same item.
The book was created by Dan Becker and Lance Wilson, design aficionados and long-time friends. I wanted to get more information on this unique and interesting project, so I asked them a few questions.
What inspired you to create this book?
We were fascinated by the diversity and the shear breadth of the collection from the moment we first saw it, and we were particularly drawn to the comical charm or beautiful typography of certain cans. It was impossible to resist documenting what was a stunning visual encyclopedia—as a reference for design, typography, and just because it was fun to look at. So one day we photographed a small fraction of the collection—160 cans or so—and put them on Flickr. It was only after the response that followed that we considered reshooting the entire collection and creating a book.
How did you come to know about Josh Russo’s incredible beer collection?
Lance: I remember walking down into Dan’s parents’ basement one day and being blown away by the visual variety and history in front of my eyes. What initially looked like floor to ceiling wallpaper was actually thousands of beer cans on tightly packed shelves.
Dan: I had been aware of my step-dad’s collection for years, but had only known it to be stored in cardboard boxes around the house. It wasn’t until he put the cans on display in the basement that I got a true sense of how extensive the collection really was.
How did you determine which beers from Josh’s collection to use?
The selection process—or rather, the elimination process—was probably one of the most time consuming and meticulous aspects of the entire project. We knew at the start that we had plenty of great content, but after three days of shooting more than 1400 cans, we knew we had a lot of editing ahead of us. We both had a clear vision for how the book would be designed, and figuring out how to achieve our vision with the page count we were given drove much of the editing process. We made an initial cut down to 1000 cans by getting rid of near duplicates, choosing to keep the more interesting or iconic versions of cans that were similar to each other. Our goal for the book was to capture the essence of Josh’s collection—to include the most visually interesting and unique cans, while maintaining a breadth of brands—both big and small—from a range of countries and eras.
Was there a golden age for beer can design?
That really depends on how you define golden age. Today, printing and production processes are more advanced than they were 50 years ago but, to us, great design is really about communication and great storytelling. While there’s plenty of great design happening today, many of the cans from the 1940s and 50s stand out to us for their authenticity and simplicity. Times were simpler and that was reflected in the design of the cans, which seemed to be more about communicating simple ideas and telling authentic stories.
What is/are your favorite cans in the collection?
A couple genuinely interesting cans that stand out to us are Esslinger’s Little Man Ale and Fehr’s XL. Their labels say a lot through their unique illustrations. And then there are cans that are just genuinely well crafted with handsome typography and striking color palettes such as Gluek’s Pilsener Pale and Rainier Old Stock Ale. They are just full of hand crafted details and charm.
Beer: A Genuine Collection of Cans is available on the Chronicle Books website and will be in bookstores on February 1st.
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