A Q&A with protea Designer Mark Eisen


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Since achieving great success in fashion capitals for over two decades, designer Mark Eisen has turned his attention to glass. He also happens to be a big fan of wine, and the South Africa native, who also makes a home in the U.S., has established a small wine farm in the Western Cape of South Africa. All of this made him the perfect man to create a wine bottle like no other, which he has certainly done with protea. Here, a Q&A in which Eisen talks about what inspired his work.

As a designer you’ve gravitated from fashion to glass, but why did wine bottles appeal to you as a medium?

It’s very simple, in one sense at least: I love beautiful things.

You know, there’s always been this strong link between wine and art – a link forged by Nature in wine’s very existence, its essence, and one that we really don’t want to let go of. We talk about the art of winemaking. We make artistic labels that reflect that winemaking art. Go to a gallery opening or any kind of event where art is being celebrated and wine will always be there. It’s a very powerful connection, and taking that idea a big step further – beyond simply the label – was very exciting. I wanted to help create something beautiful. I loved the concept of making the bottle more of an object of beauty – of adding to the body of the content of the wine. I saw it as an opportunity to tell a more complete story through art.

And the name itself, protea, is of nature.

Exactly. Like wine, proteas take so many forms. They have so many subtle variations of beauty. I believe there are over 1,500 species of proteas. They flourish in the fynbos, the unique habitat in the Western Cape, and are intermixed with wine farms. They are such a unique and special part of the beauty of the Cape.

Talk about how that connection with your home country, South Africa, influenced your protea White design.

The paisley design and the Cape are historically and importantly interlinked. The design as we know it has its roots in India and before that, even, Persia, and the name comes from the town in Scotland were textiles using the design were made. But in between, on that long line from India to Europe, is the Cape. The paisley print was brought to Europe via South Africa by the Dutch East India Company, as traders rounded the Cape in the middle of the 17th century. That same influence of the traders resulted in the first vineyards being planted in South Africa at the same time. So there’s a very strong historical and cultural tie, and then from there I had fun. It’s a lively, bright wine and I wanted a design that captured that.

And what inspired your design for protea Red?

The Cape Dutch gable print represents the manor house architecture of the wine estates of the Cape. This architecture is unique in the world to the Western Cape of South Africa, and was developed in the early days of the 17th century by the early Dutch settlers. One of the places where it has stayed on most vividly is in South Africa’s wine country, in towns like Stellenbosch.

I love the way that both designs, the White and the Red, are so connected to South Africa and yet are completely different – in the way that all wine is connected, and yet white wine and red wine can play such different roles at the table.

These influences you are talking about are things that many protea drinkers might not realize exist.

True, and that’s OK. Design and art in general always tries to work on many different levels. We can read a book or look at a painting or listen to a great piece of music and know nothing of its history and context and still find beauty in it. Then as we learn more, our appreciation takes on new facets and greater depth.

One facet of protea that we haven’t talked about is sustainability. How did that fit in with your design approach?

As a culture we lived through a time in which it was assumed that things would be created and then discarded. Then we began to see that as wasteful and began recycling. Now people are taking it a step further and finding all kinds of creative ways to give things a second or third life – and protea is definitely a part of that movement.

I’ll admit, I’m quite taken by the idea of people falling in love with these bottles! I have this vision of someone leaning over to put a bottle of protea in the recycling bin and stopping themselves and thinking, ‘No, I’m going to keep this.’ And then it becomes a decoration, or a water bottle, or they put their ice tea in it, or olive oil. I love the idea that we might inspire that new way of thinking in people.

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