Every Swede in the ’90s Knew the Dots Design. Now It’s Back
Some designs, by way of their ubiquity, have the unusual quality of being at times invisible and at others powerfully evocative of a time or place. Taxis, for instance, have Little Trees air fresheners. New York City has the blue Anthora coffee cup. The 1990s have the “Jazz” pattern.
In late 20th Century Sweden, that everyday design icon was the “Dots” bag—a small white paper candy bag splashed with a few dark green, red, and orange bubbles that, as Fredrik Carlström puts it, “looks like a color test.”
Carlström founded Austere, a creative outfit in Los Angeles that describes itself as a “space for Scandinavian design and innovation.” The firm played no small part in bringing the quintessentially Swedish design stateside with Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers chocolate makers. The fruit of their labor is the Toasted Milk chocolate bar, which Rick Mast says tastes “almost like brown butter, or like caramel.” This is a departure for the chocolatiers, who typically favor darker, more bitter flavors. The bar’s flavor profile comes at the behest of Carlström, a Swede who grew up eating Scandinavian chocolate, which is light, milky, and more like what we eat on Halloween than what you’d find at Whole Foods. Given its Swedish roots, it’s entirely appropriate that the Toasted Milk Bar is wrapped in heavy paper decorated with a smattering of green, red, and orange dots.
A Ubiquitous But Thrilling Tradition
“Every Swedish kid from the ‘80s and ‘90s knows that bag,” Carlström says. The bags were for years part of a ubiquitous and thrilling weekly tradition. Each Saturday, kids would take a few kroner to the local tobaksaffär (literally translated as tobacco shop, though they also sold magazines and candy and the like) and choose their lördagsgodis (“Saturday candy”) from the bulk bins and had it weighed. All that lösgodis (“loose candy”) was tossed into a bag decorated with colored circles on it. The Dots bag was everywhere.
Teresia Precht, a culinary and research director at a small, food-focused media company and a Stockholm native, confirms the design’s omnipresence: “I definitely know the bags … they’re very old school.” So old-school that, a few years ago, the Liljevalchs public art gallery in Stockholm featured a Dots bag exhibit.
The Dots design isn’t as renowned as Milton Glaser’s famous I ♥ NY, but it was born in a similarly spontaneous manner. Glaser sketched out I ♥ NY from the backseat of a taxicab in 1977; Lennart Arvidsson, the Dots designer, drew the smattering of circles on one of his first days as studio chief at JD Stenqvist, the packaging manufacturer that supplies the bags. According to a 2014 news article from Swedish site 8till5, in 1966 Arvidsson needed an easily replicated pattern. He scattered a few coins of “ancient denominations,” traced them, and Dots was born.
In a Facebook post linked to the 8till5 article, Arvidsson elaborates on the bag’s origin story. As it goes, he was 30, tired of his gig at an ad agency, and in need of a change. Without much expertise in the package design world, he loaded up his Peugeot 404 and set out for Kvidinge, Sweden, where he had a new job waiting at JD Stenqvist. At the time, “their products looked frankly quite dull,” Arvidsson writes. After an on-the-job crash course in graphic design, Arvidsson says he decided to create a new design for bags for candy. It needed to be “nice to look at” and “easy to press” at the printers, Arvidsson writes. “So I made Dots.”
But sometime around 1990 the bags started disappearing from stores. Chain stores started replacing mom-and-pop tobaksaffärs, and a company called Karamellkungen (Candy King) started stocking the bulk bin candy, which it packaged in its own, branded bags. “The bin candy in our tiny little grocery store, out by our summer place in the Stockholm archipelago, used [Dots] before the store was bought up by a bigger chain,” Precht recalls. By the turn of the century, the Dots bags had all but vanished. “If you didn’t grow up in the 1990s you wouldn’t know [Dots],” Carlström says. “We just showed it to a young designer here and he didn’t know it. It’s definitely a generational thing.”
Today, Dots is experiencing a renaissance. Grocery stores are stocking them again, much to the delight of consumers. That might strike you as strange—we’re talking about a piece of food packaging, after all—but Swedes have a special relationship with sweets. According to the Swedish news outlet Nordstjernan, the Swedish Board of Agriculture found that, between 1980 to 2011, average candy consumption among Swedes nearly doubled, jumping from 18.7 pounds a year to 33. Swedes love their candy; for the ones who spent their childhood Saturdays filling their bags with treats, this bag is liable to elicit a gleeful Pavlovian response.
Somewhat paradoxically, these nostalgic bags might actually help reduce candy consumption among Swedes. Like Coca-Cola bottles and fast food burgers, candy bags in Sweden have ballooned in size over the years. In the 1970s, bags were sized to hold roughly 175 grams—today, they’re designed to hold 500. It’s like the lösgodis equivalent of a Big Gulp cup. So in 2014, ICA, Sweden’s big-name grocery store, decided to reintroduce Dots to save shoppers from themselves. “We think it sends a signal that the smaller bags are more suitable for children and adults (so we don’t eat that much sugar),” says Therese Lystedt, from ICA’s press office. Plus, “we also think they are cool and retro.”
Indeed, when Carlström showed the Mast Brothers the pattern it was the bag’s “cool and retro” qualities that caught the attention of the chocolatiers and helped bring the Dots design stateside. Mast’s sumptuously designed wrappers are more studied than you might think, and historic ephemera like the Dots bag is catnip for the brand. (For the upcoming collection, Mast says, the design lab is taking inspiration from 1970s-era Italy.)
Whether Mast’s customers will take notice of an iconic 40-year-old pattern is another story. To Swedes in the United States, it’s akin to a secret handshake, codified to conjure up a special kind of nostalgia. To Carlström in particular, Dots is a hopeful start to bringing more Scandinavian design to the states. Dots, he says, “is a more playful nod to a classic thing I had when we grew up, and it doesn’t provide any utility.” There’s more in the works for Austere, that Carlström says could range from lights to mugs to cutlery. “The average American isn’t quite as versed in design as [Scandinavians] are. Not to be too nostalgic, but there’s a lot of great design that I’m excited about bringing to the U.S.”