Pack in Porto
The great iron container rises above our heads, easily plucked from the port by a mechanic arm. In a display of super strength, it stops suddenly, creaking as it locks the load in mid-air. From where we stand, in the rectangle of shade cast below, the container appears to float above the entire hillside up ahead.
Porto’s long history as a crossroads of boxes is clear. For the last three centuries a ceaseless flow of men and goods has whirled through the commercial port, an obligatory stop-off from the North Sea and Britain, before heading out to the New World.
More often than not, the containers are weighty with wine, Porto’s greatest story. But there are containers of cloth, containers of fish, containers of containers too. Several have made this journey across the ocean many times, floating towards new lands, and continue to do so today. Those that remain flow along the Douro, down through the spine of a city sitting on the water’s edge.
“This city rejects smoke and mirrors, and any embellishment of the truth. Porto is a city with guts. We favour transparency, honest exchanges. We don’t mince our words. Yes or no: everything else is a waste of time”.
Eduardo Aires looks like a tough and thoughtful detective, always three ideas ahead of you. His office hangs over the Bolhão market — the screaming heart of the city and landing place of noisy delights and unspeakable keepsakes. In 2014, his White Studio designed a new brand identity for the city, pushing its image into line with contemporary flat design. Several packaging projects are exhibited on the studio walls, displaying an obsessive eye for detail and print. Embellishing products, in such an honest city.
“Honesty is the basis of work well done. Bluffing is a waste of time — clients know everything. There’s often a pointless tension between marketing departments and creative agencies. To create good designs, my studio needs total trust. How am I going to gain that, if I take the client for a fool?”
In the next-door room, designers work elbow-to-elbow at a shared desk, in thick silence shaken by the decibels of the market outside.
Work in progress bottle labels — for wine in particular — cover every shelf and surface.
“The local industry of wine is our biggest client — that’s true of many of the agencies in the city. A large part of the communications industry gravitates towards wine, drawn to its packaging in particular. At the end of the day we’re in Porto, it wouldn’t be any other way.”
Dow’s, Ferreira, Taylor’s, Calém, Graham’s, Sandeman.
The distillery big names stand upon the hill, claiming a large part of the southern bank of the Douro. With wine production the city’s breakout industry, Porto has gradually turn into a brand in itself, its name and fate pegged to its most famous product. Available in more than five variants, this sweet and moody wine is born from a twist in the fermentation process, then bottled and sold in shops on every city’s streets.
When it comes to history and volume, Sandeman is king. A product of English intuition at the start of 1700s, the house has built its success on the endless refining of a simple product and the magnetic charisma of a legendary brand. Even today, its product design betrays a clear faith in the power of communication: a wide range of quality and variety, and a constellation of labels that charts the most classic lines to stellar limited editions.
Porto’s international success has given rise to a buoyant wine industry, and the proliferation of important local producers. The grape that shapes every drop, the original lifeblood of the city’s economy, is grown in the Douro region. Fermented in local cellars, the wines are carried in barrels to the banks of the Villa Nova de Gaia. This most precious fruit, taking to the waters in a box.
Volta Studio is a branding and packaging design agency, established in Porto in 2012. The studio is headquartered in the left-side of a small stone building, in a quiet residential area in the northwest of the city. A talented boutique-agency, with a team of five designers and two commanding officers at the helm: Lourenço Neves — managing partner - and Pedro Vareta, the creative mind of Volta.
“Porto has witnessed a real boom in the last 10 years. Our ambition is to intercept this growth, decoding the trends and transformations underway in the city, and harnessing it in our work.”
The meeting room on the mezzanine level appears like the command bridge of a ship in full sail. The crew works beneath us, calmly and quickly. Among the many award-winning packaging projects on the shelves, stands Sandeman once again.
“They asked us to create a special series of bottles to mark the 225th anniversary of the brand. It was an incredibly complex job, involving dozens of people. We were daring: we proposed visual codes that you don’t typically see in the category”
“We feel like packaging is slowly becoming a more valuable strategic asset in the industry. That means we can continue to experiment and chase quality in our thinking. But most importantly, we’ll carry on having fun.”
Balanced on the water’s edge, Porto’s appetite is met by the sea.
The food industry can count on copious catches — unparalleled in other European cities — and an abundance of products and specialities. Sardines are the most plentiful. A generous gift from the sea that has become synonymous with Porto, like wine that sweetens and fado that saddens.
A fine example of food-gentrification, sardines have evolved from a common foodstuff into a traditional product to promote. This upwards tide has carried tins from shop-counters towards a new category of sellers: tourist stalls, hipster storefronts and gourmet shops, who display the tins alongside specialist cheeses and local bottles.
A remarkable overhaul of an entire product, all based on packaging design. The aesthetic of the new cans reflects the whole imaginary of contemporary brand design: vintage textures and dreamlike illustrations, or minimal shapes and polygonal forms. Every pack like a cell of new creative energy, illuminating Porto like a lighthouse in the night. One step further there’s the Atlantic, a flowing blanket.