Atlantic Cities

The Lost Art of Luggage Labels

The Lost Art of Luggage Labels
Abrams Books

"What do we find on old luggage? We find the traces of... the places visited. We will follow these, and with them, we will tour the world, not in 80 days like Phileas Fogg, but much faster still." - Gaston-Louis Vuitton

What’s the modern-day version of a travel trunk? When as a college student I began traveling abroad, I stuck found labels on a handsome green leatherbound sketchbook I carried everywhere I went: to the floor of the Sistine Chapel, on a sailboat to the Great Barrier Reef, to the top floor of a vertiginously situated Hong Kong dim sum palace. The book’s interior was populated with personal drawings, the exterior with colorful graphic representations by others. When I browse the beat-up volume today, its leaves falling to pieces, the stickers still speak, and memories surface: Belikin Beer (the national -- and very watery -- beer of Belize), I Love Shanghai (in homage to the iconic I Love NY design, picked up in the Chinese city’s gritty, up-and-coming artists’ neighborhood), an Art Deco rendition of the Matterhorn’s craggy shark-tooth outline. For me, the book was the backpacker’s version of the pocket travel trunk, and its existence allows me to hold its contents in my mind still.

Our travel is more transient these days, at least physically speaking; the documentation of our journeys less tangible, more digital. When we dig out our luggage for a trip, we think of TSA regulations and packing light; we don’t allow much time for falling down the rabbit-hole of memories that a chance glimpse of an old, well-traveled suitcase can ideally inspire.

A lesson in slow travel can be learned from the physical beauty (and heft) of WORLD TOUR: Vintage Hotel Labels From the Collection of Gaston-Louis Vuitton, in which writer Francisca Mattéoli guides readers through 900 "small marvels of graphic design evoking far-off places and exotic stopovers," from the grandson of the legendary trunk designer.

In 1897, Gaston-Louis Vuitton joined the ranks of the family trunk-making business at age 14, and spent his life collecting rare, elegant hotel luggage labels that spanned the world; as Mattéoli writes, his varied and original collection tells "the history of graphic design and conjured up exotic adventures in Brazil, Chile, America, New Zealand, the Philippines, and elsewhere." From simple black-and-white designs that feature hotel buildings to ornate typography and vivid, romantic images of a city's iconic sights, the labels reflect artists' efforts, over time, to make people want to embark on a journey. Mattéoli, a Chilean-born writer who moved to Paris as a girl, spent months running up and down the hallways of the famous Hotel du Louvre, built in 1855; WORLD TOUR opens with a decorative green-and-red label of the Paris hotel, circa 1930.

Mattéoli, who recently promoted the book in Paris and Shanghai, answered these questions for Cities.

What would you say was the heyday of the hotel luggage label? Is there a modern analog for this kind of beautiful travel ephemera? Somehow I think Instagram doesn't quite cut it.

The 1920’s certainly mark the golden age of hotel labels -- the Roaring Twenties saw a huge boom in travel, steamship companies, and railway companies, which all produced leaflets and pamphlets. Also, travel agencies opened up doing publicity for new places. Travel was then associated with comfort, luxury, adventure, and mystery. It was the age of steamer-trunks, a time when people were proud to show the stickers on their suitcases.

Nowadays things are not made to last. We don’t know if all the new technology is going to exist 10 years from now, but I still have my parents’ travel albums and the labels they used to attach to their suitcases. It is the duration that also makes these luggage labels so fascinating. They still exist centuries later. They made it across time, keeping their elegance and dream. I am not sure that Instagram is going to pass the centuries.

Tell us about the great illustrators who were commissioned to design luggage labels for the top hotels of the period. Was there any cachet attached to this kind of work? I'm thinking of a Mad Men-style glamour, as it attached to the creative side of advertising.

Most of the famous designers who drew the hotel labels are attached to the Art Deco period, such as the Italian Mario Borgoni. His hotel labels were like posters. He was a painter and a decorator and his style -- the elegant Liberty lettering, and his shadings of red or orange -- became a sort of a trademark of the printer Richter & C, and it was widely imitated. He often did not sign his work and started a new career at 61 years old in the USA as a publicity and fashion illustrator. There was also the Austrian Franz Lenhart, very active during the late 1920s, and the Italian Filippo Romoli, who designed many hotel labels like the one of Hotel Des Bains, in the Art Deco style, and who had the good idea to sign them.

After a time, the labels seemed to advertise the places more than the hotels themselves -- for example, in a 1960s Hotel Viking sticker, the image is a colorful streetscape that highlights a crossing guard stopping traffic for a family of ducks crossing the road. What grabs the eye first is the tagline “Wonderful Copenhagen,” above “Hotel Viking.” The hotel itself is absent -- indeed, the city itself has become the stand-in. Is this a trend that continued, and the beginning of destination marketing? Were there particular countries or cities that stood out as leaders in this?

Cities that had a tourism potential arrived first of course: the Belle Epoque hotels, the great palaces, and all the places that could attract an international clientele. The aim was to attract tourists and also to make publicity for the sites. Among the leaders were the large cities, places with a strong visual identity -- for example, Cairo and its pyramids, Saint Moritz in the snow, Luxor amid the ruins, the Italian cities, and Baden-Baden and other mineral spring destinations, which were very popular for health stays and also for the Hotel Belle Epoque social life.

Having amassed a personal collection of 3,000-plus labels, Gaston-Louis Vuitton had strong opinions about what was tasteful.

You take us on a tour of 1,000 labels and 21 stopovers, including all the cosmopolitan stopovers: London, Rome, Berlin, Paris, Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Calcutta, Honolulu, Havana, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro. You include a particular beef he had with how the Hotel Majestic's label changed from the Empire-style design to the “ghastly orange Arc de Triomphe against a green sky.” Can you give us some insight into his design tastes?

He was curious and an art lover, and liked elegant and original labels in strange forms and funny colors. The Naples bay and its palm trees, Japan with its bridges -- the kind of labels testifying to the history of graphics and distant destinations at the same time.

I imagine that the Hotel du Louvre is your favorite label of all, given the fact that you first took up residence at the hotel when you moved to Paris as a schoolgirl. Independent of nostalgia, any other favorites? What made a label particularly great, in your opinion?

I adore the label of the Hotel Gloria in Rio de Janeiro, because I lived in Rio and because it’s situated in one of the most legendary cities of the world. I like the soft yellows and browns; they remind me of a Brazilian afternoon. I also like very much the label of the Hotel Le Meurice in Paris, because it epitomizes for me the French elegance of a city I love. The label of The Grand Hotel d’Angkor is another of my favorites. It's more a painting than a label. The result is amazing. I’ve been to Angkor before it was a tourism destination and you could feel the atmosphere that is captured by the label: mysterious, strange, elegant. I love the pale and extremely stylish colors, and the ambiance they bring. I think a great hotel label should make you dream, and be part of the voyage. It should give you a first impression of what awaits you, bring an emotion when you look at it and make you think, “I'd love to be there, to see that place.”

The romance of these labels would certainly seem to echo the romance of bygone travel. Is there room to travel in a similar spirit today?

Well, that’s an excellent question. Television, magazines, and all the information that we receive every day kills the mystery and romance in some way. We have the impression that we know or have seen a place before even going there. I think that today, the romance is more in the way we travel. 

When I came from Chile to France with my family we took a ship and did a travel that lasted 3 weeks -- with our luggage, trunks, and even some pieces of furniture. Once in France, we took a car to get to Paris. I had never heard of Paris, but my parents had traveled a lot to Europe and they passed on that passion to me. That trip was not for pleasure or tourism, but I learned what was adventure and I try to keep that in mind when I travel today. I try to find that spirit and make every trip enjoyable and fun. I take a car, I visit places I have never heard of, I stop where I want, in unexpected places. Because travelling is getting less and less enjoyable -- that is the truth, with the security issues, the boring-to-death endless flights, the luggage restrictions, etc. So the only way to keep that spirit is to make each travel an adventure, a really special moment that will last for the rest of your life: an Indiana Jones story.

"Show me your luggage and I’ll tell you who you are."  - Louis Vuitton slogan

All images courtesy of World Tour: Vintage Hotel Labels from the Collection of Gaston-Louis Vuitton by Francisca Mattéoli, published by Abrams Books.

Keywords: Books, Luggage, Travel, Hotels

Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods. All posts »

Join the Discussion