Curator's Corner, March 2021

Curator's cornerLate links as usual...I get so frustrated at not being able to stick to even the most basic of schedules. But as I'm demanding more of the Museum these days it's hard to keep up.  ;)

- The Curator's favorite publication turned 30 this month, and I was so pleased to add a copy of their very first issue to the Museum's collection a while back. For some reason though they started celebrating back in February, but I'm including a link to their 30th anniversary content anyway.

- The beauty industry has a renewed focus on fighting racism against the AAPI community, which is long overdue. 

-Beauty enthusiasts have been making this argument for ages, but it's always worth repeating.

- The U.S.'s ever-shrinking middle class is still buying beauty products, but their habits are different now. One word: masstige.

- On the one hand, it's good that this website is available for domestic violence victims; on the other hand, as with roofie-detecting nail polish, I feel like it shouldn't exist.

- I'm baffled as to why Hourglass's new vegan red lipstick getting so much buzz, considering that there's no shortage of vegan red lipsticks on the market. Obviously, not killing insects to make lipstick is a good thing, but I'm not sure what the breakthrough is here.

- Also not wowed by the removal of the word "normal" from Unilever's products. I understand shifting language is necessary for social change, but "normal" when referring to skin type isn't really offensive or exclusionary despite the company's market research. ("Normal" hair type and body those are different stories.) Thank goodness for r/skincareaddiction telling it like it is.

Astrology-themed beauty is still going strong, perhaps even more so due to the pandemic.

- Sad that I missed this oh so spicy collab before it sold out for the second year in a row.

The random:

In 90s nostalgia, HBO will feature a documentary on actress Brittany Murphy (Clueless, Girl Interrupted) and Netflix has released a documentary on the last Blockbuster video store (the irony). Also, while it doesn't take place in the '90s, Moxie is apparently brimming with Riot Grrrl vibes. I need to see it, obviously!

- How adorable is this mini art gallery?

- I enjoyed this article on the work of fashion illustrator Marcel Vertes, who also created ads for a number of perfumes and cosmetics.

- If you ask me, mermaidcore is always trending.

How did March treat you?  Generally speaking I hate it so I was glad to see it go. Here's to longer days and warm weather!

Speed reviews: makeup history reads

In an effort to condense a few posts I'm doing some quick reviews of recent additions to the Museum's library. Hopefully they'll be of use...I mean, they can't be any worse than my usual long-form reviews, right?

Up first is historian Cheryl Woodruff-Brooks's biography of Sara Spencer Washington, who established the Apex News and Hair Company in 1919. Over the years the company expanded to include 11 Apex Beauty Colleges in the U.S. (including one right here in Baltimore - more on that later!) and abroad, Apex Laboratories to manufacture hair care, cosmetics and even household goods, and Apex News, which produced publications for her estheticians and sales agents. The Apex empire, as it came to be known, employed roughly 45,000 sales agents at its peak. Madame Washington wasn’t just a savvy entrepreneur; she regularly gave back to the Black community by offering scholarships to Apex schools, establishing a golf course that welcomed people of all races and economic status, and even founded a nursing home, Apex Rest.  Golden Beauty Boss: The Story of Madame Sara Spencer-Washington and the Apex Empire is relatively short but incredibly informative.  I can only imagine how many hours the author spent digging through various archives.

Golden Beauty Boss by Cheryl Woodruff-Brooks

Quality research and an intriguing story about one of the most successful Black entrepreneurs in history is a must-have for well, anyone! You can buy it here.

Next we have Howard Melton's and Michael Mont's American Compacts of the Art Deco Era: The Art of Elgin American, J.M. Fisher, and Others. This isn't a collector's guide; it's more along the lines of Jean-Marie Martin Hattemberg's tomes on powder boxes and lipsticks in that there are many images of beautiful objects to drool over with some wonderful history along the way. It also includes a good amount of ads, which are very helpful in identifying compacts - of course, you can also see some Elgin compact catalogs over at the Elgin History Museum archives

American Compacts of the Art Deco Era

American Compacts of the Art Deco Era

What I love about American Compacts is that it focuses on the compacts of a particular era and country so it's not overwhelming, yet still provides useful information throughout. The story of Elgin's Bird in Hand compact is a particularly great highlight.  Overall, American Compacts is a necessity for the vintage makeup collector or anyone with an interest in Art Deco design. As for purchasing, you remember my interview with Andra of Lady-A Antiques, right? Well, she's offering this book at a reduced price at her store, so be sure to buy it there!

Moving along, I read Color Stories: Behind the Scenes of America's Billion Dollar Beauty Industry by journalist Mary Lisa Gavenas. It's a bit dated at this point since it was published in 2002, but still a good read as it provides a very fascinating behind-the-scenes, soup-to-nuts description of how makeup color stories were selected and marketed each season during the 1990s and early 2000s - essentially a full, unbiased story of the process. 

Color Stories by Mary Lisa Gavenas

It's very useful for anyone looking for cosmetic marketing history as well as '90s makeup history (ahem), but I think it would also be interesting for fashion or business historians more generally.  I would dearly love to see an update for the age of social media, Millennials/Gen Z'ers and the increased demand for diversity and inclusion among beauty consumers. So much has changed in 20 years!

Next up is another drool-worthy book I found on ebay. It's in Japanese so I can't actually read any of the text, but the photos are more than worth it. You'll find lots of vintage Shiseido and other Japanese brands along with a sprinkling of Western lines such as L.T. Piver packaged for the Japanese market. While powder boxes, skincare and perfume comprise most of the objects, there's also personal hygiene products like deodorant and tooth powder.

Japanese labels and packaging book

Japanese labels and packaging book

If you love vintage powder boxes, vintage design and typography, or Japanese culture in general, this belongs on your book shelf. I'm keeping my fingers crossed for an English version so I can read the history behind some of the brands that are covered.

Finally, there's Lucky Lips: Stories About Lipstick, written by René Koch (a.k.a. the founder of the Lipstick Museum.) When I purchased the book I mistakenly thought it had English text alongside the German. Oops. Still, it's a nice supplement to Jean-Marie Martin-Hattemberg's Lips of Luxury as it contains different vintage lipsticks, some of which I hadn't seen before.

Lucky Lips book by Rene Koch

Lucky Lips book by Rene Koch

I wish I could compare the information offered in both books, but at the very least I can tell that Lucky Lips has some tips on lipstick application and 20th century lipstick history organized by decade. Overall, it's good to have on hand and a quality addition to the vintage makeup collector's library, especially if you can read German. (I've said this before, but if I could have any superpower it would be fluency in all languages within a matter of minutes.) If you had to choose between this one and Lips of Luxury, however, I'd go with the latter as it's a bit more extensive.

Are you interested in any of these? What books, beauty-related or otherwise, have you finished recently?

Welcoming spring with Sulwhasoo

As they do each holiday season, Sulwhasoo released a beautiful compact featuring traditional Korean craftsmanship back in 2019. Why I'm just getting to it now is beyond me, but I did think the design was appropriate for spring so here it is.  The 2019 compact celebrates a technique known as chilbo (not to be confused with the mountain of the same name in North Korea.) Although I couldn't find nearly as much information online about chilbo as I could for their previous ipsa compacts, I thought it was still worth a brief post - sharing cultures from across the globe is one of the main reasons I established the Museum.

Sulwhasoo collaborated with master artisan Noh Yong-Sook, the only chilbo specialist to be officially recognized by the Korean government, to produce the compact.  (Yong-Sook actually wrote an entire book on chilbo, which I was unable to it probably would have been in Korean anyway.) Chilbo is a Korean enamel technique similar to cloisonné and dates to the 18th century.  It involves applying a finely crushed (powdered) glass, either wet or dry, to a metal surface and then baking in a kiln to create a glossy and vibrantly colored finish. 

Noh Yong Sook for Sulwhasoo

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

Chilbo means "seven gemstones" or "seven treasures," referring to gold, silver, lapis lazuli, crystal, coral, agate and pearl. The term actually has Chinese roots: gold, silver, etc. were the seven precious gems used to adorn Buddhist altars, as mentioned in traditional Buddhist scriptures.  Sulwhasoo explains that one gemstone or metal only has one color, so a name referring to multiple hues is appropriate given that chilbo produces a variety of unique colors that cannot be created with other techniques. 

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

The end result is stunning.  A peony motif was selected for the compact's design, as peonies traditionally represent wealth in Korean culture.  Now that I think about it, the peony is also the reason I held off on posting about the compact until now, as last spring I had planned on featuring it since peonies are a spring flower but ended up writing about Sulwhasoo's Antoinette Poisson collab instead.  In any case, the color scheme is exquisite as is the embossed peony on the blush.

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

But peonies aren't the only traditional motif featured.  The company explains that the depiction of oddly shaped rocks alongside peonies signify longevity.

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

While the design on the compact itself doesn't incorporate the rocks, they are noticeably visible on the outer box and inside sleeve. (Plus I wanted an excuse to show photos of the box, which is a work of art in and of itself.)

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact box, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

Sulwhasoo Shineclassic compact box, Chilbo edition, holiday 2019

I could be wrong, but the company may have been referencing the rock and peony design on this 10-panel screen, as they look quite similar. The screen was produced during the Joseon dynasty. The National Museum of Korea explains that in addition to wealth, peonies also signified royalty as they were the "king" of flowers. The Joseon royal court used peony-themed screens during important events such as royal weddings and ancestral rituals.

Peony and rock painted screens

Peony and rock painted screen detail
(image from

The holiday 2019 collection included another ShineClassic compact with the same peony design against pale golden-beige background and a cushion case. But the most special (and unaffordable) item was a real chilbo silver powder bowl. Only three were made!

Sulwhasoo chilbo powder container, holiday 2019
(image from 

Here's a short video so you can get a glimpse of the chilbo process. The layering of the colors and the high-gloss finish give the design a multidimensional, almost iridescent effect. The regular ShineClassic compact is beautiful, but in looking at this video you can tell it wasn't painted by hand.

In addition to the compacts, Sulwhasoo organized a special exhibition called the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition. Apparently they've been having these exhibitions for a few years now (how did I not know this?!) and they're intended to highlight aspects of traditional Korean culture and art with a modern twist by commissioning contemporary artists to share their take on crafts, folk tales and other Korean heritage. This year's exhibition centered on prints and patterns that could be used in one's home, entitled "Micro-Sense: House of Pattern".  A "house" of sorts was constructed by eight artists in the atrium at the headquarters of Amorepacific, Sulwhasoo's parent company.

Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, 2019

As Kim Mina, senior VP of Sulwhasoo explained, the company sees itself as a sort of cultural conservator, spreading awareness about traditional Korean art and culture while making it palatable to younger generations. "Culture is like the air that we breathe. We wanted to identify elements of traditional culture and share it with everyone before it disappears. These traditional patterns are beautiful, but not well-appreciated. We wanted to show people that they don’t just exist in your grandparents' homes, or in a museum. These patterns can still live in a contemporary setting like your home."

Sulwha Cultural Exhibition "living room", 2019

Sulwhasoo incorporated their holiday 2019 collection in the "powder room" at the exhibition, as the peony motif tied into many of the patterns displayed.

Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, 2019
(images from

Sulwhasoo also used a portion of the proceeds from the collection towards their Beauty From Your Culture campaign, which works to raise money for various historical or cultural sites. In Singapore, for example, S$20 for each purchase of a ShineClassic compact was donated towards the Asian Civilizations Museum.

I was going to wrap things up by citing other examples traditional chilbo, but in poking around online for this post I found the work of an artist who is helping to preserve the craft in a more modern way so I wanted to feature that instead.  Kwangho Lee, a graduate of Hongik University in Seoul, creates furniture and other large home decor pieces out of chilbo.  Chilbo usually adorned small decorative objects such as women's jewelry, trinket boxes, hair ornaments, etc., and was limited to those who could afford it. Lee sought to both modernize and democratize chilbo. "Enameled things were not common purchases among the population. Barely was it used in interiors...the main idea of my works was to give new meaning and function to the most ordinary things, like wired lights and furniture," Lee explains.

Kwangho Lee, cabinet from the Skin series, 2016

While he uses the usual technique of application - painting crushed precious materials onto copper or other metals - the firing process is different and leads to unexpected results. Chilbo kilns are small because the objects it decorates are small as well, and the door can be opened to check the color during the baking process. But to accommodate the larger-scale furniture and other pieces he creates, Lee has to employ a bigger kiln used for ceramic pieces that cannot be opened during baking.  "It’s not an easy task for designers of my age and generation to practise further and beyond the original range of techniques that are considered 'traditional'. So I approached it by eliminating the traditional part, and focused only on the technique itself...the [kiln] door must be shut tightly the whole time. Therefore I can only imagine and predict the final colour of the enamel and the copper’s reaction to heat."  A close-up of this cabinet shows the variety of colors as well as the raw edges - Lee opted not to sand down the welding to create a smooth surface, preferring a rough, unfinished look for a more industrial feel.

Kwangho Lee, cabinet from the Skin series (detail), 2016
(image from

More recently Lee has experimented with placing chilbo panels into a cherry wood frame to create a modern-looking grid pattern.

Kwangho Lee, Shape of a River series, 2018
(image from

I thought this was a really interesting way of combining a technique that goes back hundreds of years with a 21st century eye for design. And it's fascinating to see the contrast between Lee's and Sulwhasoo's approaches to preserving an age-old artistic medium; both have the same goal, but are working towards it in totally different ways.

What do you think of the chilbo compact? And which do you prefer, chilbo or ipsa? I love the vibrant colors chilbo creates, but I'm partial to the intricacy of ipsa.  Yet it may be usurped by Sulwhasoo's 2020 bejeweled holiday ShineClassic, which I still need to procure...stay tuned!