As a grown up it’s hard to imagine going a day without remembering something that made you, you. The smell of a freshly opened action figure. Hearing the cracks and pops of a house at night while trying to sleep. Your mom. That one sandwich combination that makes everyone else think you’ve completely lost it.
But what about those things of the past that just kind of existed in plain sight? The stuff kids don’t really care about like stock marketing designs on paper cups. Strange to think it can be one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world for over 20 years and not a single person giving the designer a second thought.
That’s what happened to the ubiquitous “Jazz” graphic that has been printed billions of times on paper products the world over since the early '90s. Today, it’s one of the most used pieces of work in American history, but up until a few years ago no one even cared to find out who made it or why it was even created in the first place.
The search for its history began in the summer of 2015 when a Reddit thread was posted by an anonymous user named mcglaven. Its purpose was to find out who the original creator was, what they were doing now, and why exactly there was such a gaping hole in Art History when the Internet had already been a thing for so long.
"Perhaps the crowdsourced brain of Reddit can help," they wrote.
It became a small obsession for a few users who chose to trace the lineage and power through the unfortunate problems that arose. You see, the graphic was produced by the Sweetheart Cup Company in 1992. Like many others, Sweetheart had spent a good bit of its history acquiring other companies throughout the U.S. and growing its footprint to become one of the largest paper product manufacturers in the nation.
But only for a moment.
No businesses is safe from lofty competitors and the realities of capitalism. And so when Sweetheart was eventually bought in 2004 by the Solo Cup Company after faltering for years, many of its operations in Missouri had ceased to exist — making it far more difficult for Redditors to just simply call and uncover the truth. Couple that with the fact Solo was eventually bought by the Dart Container Company in 2012 and the trail to find the artist just kept getting longer and longer.
Luckily, the barrage of emails sent to Dart by the Reddit sleuths had an impact. People there were said to be surprisingly helpful and pointed the thread to a woman named “Gina” who worked for Sweetheart in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Unfortunately, they had no last name and no idea where she was now.
Nathan Papes / Springfield News-Leader
"The Jazz design was created in 1991 by an artist in the Springfield, Missouri Art Department at Sweetheart," a consumer response intern wrote at the time. "Sweetheart had an internal contest to come up with a new stock design and Gina's Jazz Design was selected.”
Seeing an opportunity to break a popular story in his hometown, fellow Redditor and reporter Thomas Gounley of the Springfield News-Leader took the clue and ran with it. But, as he says, failed over and over without a last name. He found plenty of marketing ads and stories of the company through the years, but no Gina.
It wasn’t until he was stuck in a Twitter wormhole one night that he came upon a lucky break. A woman claiming to be the designer’s daughter had sent out an innocuous tweet about her whereabouts. After receiving no reply through her DMs, Gounley used the last name on the account, Ekiss, and Googled it with Gina’s first. He happened upon an address of a house about an hour away. He drove there, knocked on the door, and out popped Gina.
What happened next was an afternoon of conversation answering the questions so many random users had for so long. How did you do it? What were you paid? Did you get royalties? What are you doing now?
Nathan Papes / Springfield News-Leader
Ekiss told Gounley that very few parameters had been set for the competition. The company had just grown sick of the older stock design and needed something fresh, something new. One of the few caveats was that it couldn’t be perfect, in case the printer messed up and tweaked it a little on the seam.
“They needed something that if it misregistered slightly, it wasn’t going to matter,” she said.
They’d also be used in hundreds of different settings from hospitals to fast food restaurants. It had to work everywhere. For everyone.
Ekiss got to work on several iterations, finally choosing the teal and purple colorway with an almost childlike disposition. It worked.
"They came back and said that was the one they wanted to go with, and what did I call it," she told Gournley. "I had no idea. So I had to come up with a name for it, so we just called it jazz.”
She says she received her basic salary, no bonus, and no royalties. Under the stipulations of her employment at Sweetheart, everything she created belonged to the company. Several decades later, it’s still one of the most popular paper product graphics in existence. Had she been given royalties throughout the years, who knows what it would be worth now. Billions? Maybe. Millions? Definitely.
Dart has said it thought about getting rid of the design several times throughout the years, but just can’t bring themselves to do it. And why would it now, when it’s sparked a cult following that finds the graphics on everything from hoodies, to cars, to the skin of over-excited fans.
The nostalgia in everyone, it appears, will keep it around forever.