High design: Designing for cannabis 25.09.17

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As a wave of legalisation sweeps the US, designers and entrepreneurs are dispersing the cloud of negative stereotypes hanging over cannabis

According to us federal law, cannabis ‘has no accepted medical use’ and its manufacture, import, possession, use and distribution are banned under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. The citizens of California were the first to disagree in 1996 when they voted to legalise the use of medical cannabis for chronic sufferers. In practice, this meant that anyone with a friendly doctor and an occasional headache or itchy feet could get their hands on a medical marijuana card and toke to their heart’s content. Next year, however, many users will be able ditch the card altogether as the state prepares to legalise recreational use.

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Serra’s Oregon stores have been styled like high-end jeweller’s shops

Colorado and Washington beat the Golden State to it in 2012, followed by Alaska and Oregon in 2014, creating something of a movement across America’s progressive enclaves. ‘The cannabis industry definitely has a diverse audience, just as diverse as most others,’ says Jeremy Pelley, co-founder of OMFGCO, a Portland branding agency that collaborates with a number of cannabis startups across Oregon.

‘Now that people can speak more openly about their preferences, you’ll find that there’s a wide range of folks who are interested – not just the hip creatives or classic stoners, but the elderly, business professionals, health nuts, soccer moms, and many more,’ says Pelley. So, for Serra, a small chain of high-end cannabis stores in Oregon, OMFGCO has created an understated identity more reminiscent of a contemporary jeweller: think white-washed walls, wooden display cases suspended in steel frames, goods laid out on marble and ceramic trays under glass lids. For Serra’s sister retailer, Electric Lettuce, they chose instead a retro vibe, inspired by the pre-hippie era: ‘before tie-dye, Bob Marley and Woodstock’, according to Pelley.

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Summerland water pipe designed by Kaczmar, styled by OMFGCO for Serra

There seems to be a search for aesthetic alternatives among product designers too. Liam Kaczmar, a San Francisco art director, was looking for ‘a bong I could proudly display on my bookshelf and not feel embarrassed when guests came over’. Unsuccessful, he decided to make his own ‘perfect minimalist bong’. His brand, Summerland, now manufactures a range of ceramic, vase-like water-pipes with strong, sculptural silhouettes. ‘As cannabis use becomes more normal, people are looking for something nicer to consume it through,’ he explains.

This attention to aesthetics is not purely decorative. In 2015, a line of cannabis products launched by California rapper Snoop Dogg saw the creative powerhouse Pentagram design its packaging. The look is more playful and colourful, but is definitely grown up. This makes sense – to placate critical voices, states regulate the product’s appearance so it doesn’t appeal to minors. Cartoons and words like ‘candy’ are a no-go; instead Snoop’s range of edibles received the name ‘Dogg treats’. At the time, Pentagram partner Emily Oberman said: ‘It’s like working at the end of Prohibition; laws change week to week; it’s incredibly exciting, but also difficult.’

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Colorado startup Levo manufactures oil-infusion machines

Pelley agrees: ‘In Oregon, you have to have a bright red sticker with a pot leaf right on the front. It’s almost as if they’re intent on making all marijuana packaging ugly as sin.’ Federal law also impedes access to federally-run online banking services. ‘Anything touching the marijuana industry is considered high risk,’ says Kaczmar. ‘I’ve been shut down a few times.’

Many designers choose to stress other credentials of their products. James Monsees and Adam Bowen, the Stanford-educated founders of the San Francisco vaporiser company Pax Labs, suggest their motivation came from frustration with cigarettes. Their first model, Ploom, used butane gas to vaporise tobacco cartridges, but they soon realised that a loose-leaf vaporiser was the way forward, launching their signature product, the aluminium-encased Pax, acclaimed as the iPod of vaporisers, in 2012. Despite its suggestive motto ‘redefining the ritual’, Pax retails worldwide as a high-end vaporiser.


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Pentagram designed packaging for Snoop Dogg’s line of cannabis products

Another San-Francisco start-up, Loto, was founded by engineer Neeraj Bwardjaw after his mother was diagnosed with cancer and cannabis helped relieve the pain. Together with physicist Andrew Bleloch and filmmaker Gabe Brown, they designed a no-contact induction vaporiser, which looks like a mini, wood-panelled USS Enterprise. ‘Our plan is to market Loto Lux wherever it is legal to sell vaporisers,’ they say. As with Pax, the health benefits of vaporisation are the main selling points, and marijuana use is merely optional.

The crop of stylish, but also ‘health-conscious, active, and responsible adults’ that Loto targets, has a growing number of options for ingesting their herb of choice. While infusing oil or butter is nothing new, Olivia Harris, the founder of Colorado-based Levo, has decided to simplify the process. ‘We make a multipurpose appliance that doesn’t touch the plant,’ she explains, adding that the oil infuser – a sleek, countertop appliance, designed to sit comfortably next to an automatic espresso maker – is available ‘wherever customers are found’. Despite offering tips for the correct infusion settings for various spices and herbs, Levo’s website does, as a default setting, recommend ‘flower’.

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Loto Lab’s Lux vaporiser can be used with a variety of substances

‘We wanted to create a product that didn’t scream cannabis and would help bring the industry to the mainstream,’ Harris explains, echoing a widely shared sentiment. Acceptance of recreational marijuana use in the US reached a peak of 60 per cent last year, with 43 per cent of US adults having tried the substance at least once. The public mood across the country, if not federal law, is on the side of legalisation. As this new cohort of designers engaging with cannabis suggests, the way forward is to explore alternatives to the existing, stale stereotypes, whether through branding, design or use of technology. The days of dodgy dealers and cheap accessories may, at last, be numbered.

This article first appeared in Icon 170: California

In the print edition, quotes from Jeremy Pelley were mis-attributed to Ahsley Hildreth. This has been corrected in the online version.



Peter Smisek


Above: ‘Pre-hippie’ moodboard for retailer Electric Lettuce by OMFGCO

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It’s like working at the end of Prohibition; laws change week to week

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