Shell shocked

Design - Hugh Aldersey-Williams on a perverse package

It wasn't until recently, I'm ashamed to admit, that I heard the invaluable piece of practical advice that bananas don't have to be eaten whole, but may be chopped into fractional portions, skin and all, and saved for a later date. The open section of flesh dries out a little to form a seal while the skin continues to preserve the rest.

For rather longer, I have been aware of an improbably wholesome party trick involving a banana. It is possible, by inserting a needle and thread repeatedly under the skin of a banana, stitching it round under the skin and then pulling the resulting loop through the flesh, to serve a sliced fruit straight from an apparently intact skin.

I say all this not to praise the banana per se, which after all has been done along with the cod and the nutmeg, the potato and the tulip, to learned excess, but to draw your attention to its merits as a piece of packaging. Here is a pack design that does not only contain its own preservative, but also indicates a foolproof consume-by date and is biodegradable. Human ingenuity has not produced the equal of the banana skin. It has, however, produced plenty of metaphorical banana skins, from unopenable Tetrapak milk cartons to the ring-pull cans whose loose, sharp tongues lay in wait for unsuspecting bare feet on the beaches of our youth. The banana is scarcely unique. Consider the lemon, whose peel is gradually sacrificed as the juice increases inside. Or, yes, the nutmeg, whose design seems more geological than biological, a soft outer skin concealing first a layer of soft flesh, then the mace, a hard carapace and finally the nutmeg kernel itself.

How many man-made packs preserve their contents and yet allow them to be consumed piecemeal like the banana? How many packs enrich their contents the longer they are kept like the lemon? How many outer packs are themselves food like the flesh of the nutmeg? How many packs provide their own indicator of readiness like the skin of these fruits? And how much more beautiful and easier to "read" are these indicators! Decaying fruit appears in Dutch still lifes, use-by labels not even in Warhol.

For all I know, there may be boffins doing fine work on edible packaging, perishable packaging and indicator packaging in emulation of nature. But we seldom hear from them. There are no great geniuses of pack design as there are for the logo or the chair. What passes for innovation in packaging is the sherry bottle that is blue rather than green. Not that there is no intelligence at work here. When the designer John Blackburn produced this coup for Harvey's Bristol Cream he tapped the history of the city and found that cobalt had begun to be imported at the same time as sherry. It's just that there is no functional connection with the contents.

There may be 30,000 branded products in your local supermarket, each one of them with a brand manager somewhere who wants to achieve what is known, in a typically ugly phrase of the industry, as "standout". What is really required is a marginal difference - exchanging green glass for blue counts as bold - that will attract our attention without confusing our expectations. In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that major developments are both rare and, when they do happen, often ill-judged. This month sees the launch of a product called Ready Egg - the white and yolk of four eggs mixed up in a bottle with gradations down the side to tell you how much to measure out.

A convenience food or a travesty? Ready Egg is today's equivalent of the Jif lemon. This was a wonderful piece of packaging and a phenomenally successful product, but when did you last see one? It succeeded in the days when lemons were expensive and recipes called for a "dash" rather than the profligate quantities of today's Mediterraneanised cuisine. Plastic was still so new that the container moulded in the shape of a lemon seemed the last word in creativity. Ready Egg has none of these qualities. Eggs, unlike lemons, tend to be used whole. The scale on the side of the bottle is an admission of the perversity of what has been done; real eggs have nature's grading - each shell contains precisely one egg. Yolk and white are separate but easily mixed in real eggs - another food within a food. In the bottle, they are "ready mixed" and can never be separated. The polythene bottle is without wit.

Above all, Ready Egg is not of its moment as Jif lemon was. These days we demand to know more about where our food comes from and for it to undergo less rather than more processing. We are not yet so ignorant about food that we do not remember that eggs come in shells.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to keep us puffing