One cultural advantage to living in a country with a lot of trees and a talent for technology is that you get gorgeous designer shopping bags - tiny works of modern art that you can carry your sneakers or lunch in. Designer bags, in their present highly colorful form, have been around since the '60s, a time of originality and change when people realized that there were a lot of surfaces - matchbooks, menus, record jackets - that made a handy little canvas with a built-in captive audience.
Since then, shopping bags have become a way for a store to announce that it is setting off fireworks, or has just opened, or is otherwise a glamorous presence in the business community. This is known as ``theatrics'' in the trade, according to Stephen Wagner, who, with Michael L. Closen, has just written ``The Shopping Bag: Portable Art'' (Crown Publishers, $24.95).
Shopping bags are one of those things people like but don't think about much. The Smithsonian, often referred to as ``the nation's attic,'' recently concluded a immensively popular five-year touring exhibit of hundreds of bags. ``People can relate to it,'' says Elaine Evans Dee, curator of Prints and Drawings of New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian. ``It brought something to their attention which they took for granted. They'd look at a bag and say, `Oh yes, that really is good.'''
There are problems with the shopping bag as an artifact: primarily its fragility. After its tour, the Smithsonian's collection was ``pretty much soiled and tattered, so they have accepted our shopping bags to replace their old collection,'' says Mr. Wagner.
His collection, which is stored at the Cooper-Hewitt, consists of over 1,000 bags, even though he has only been collecting for five years. ``I kind of by accident discovered that I was keeping shopping bags because the graphics on the back were just too interesting and unusual to throw away,'' he says.
It may seem like an odd hobby, but Wagner, who has a degree in fine arts, says he knows a lot of shopping bag collectors - mostly artists like himself. It is the kind of hobby that offers the lure of the hunt. ``I put the word out to friends - especially when anybody was traveling out of town, to keep an eye open for shopping bags,'' Wagner says. ``Sometimes I have to restrain myself from asking people, `Where did you get that bag?'''
Mrs. Dee points out that another collector's item, 19th-century bandboxes (used for hats or collars), could be considered a predecessor of today's shopping bag. She does not think of the bags as art: ``We don't really make those distinctions. We think of what's good design and we're interested in how design affects our lives,'' she says. Along with posters - ``both are meant to be looked at and discarded'' - shopping bags display the most ``current'' styles of design, she says. The whole phenomenon is a symbol of affluence, she says. ``We can even afford to ornament our throwaways.''
The whole process of making a shopping bag is a lot more involved than people realize, says Wagner. For instance, there is a printing process, called flexography, which is specifically used for shopping bags. In 1981, a technological breakthrough in flexography made the use of photographs on shopping bags possible.
Paging though Wagner's book makes you wish you had been more on the ball collecting bags yourself. Bloomingdale's has a reputation for the best bags: its 1982 Matisse cutout bag, in steel blue, pink, and jade (this deserves a place on the wall); also its big brown bag that says, simply, Big Brown Bag. Abercrombie's has had a whole series of sophisticated bags with animal skin designs - zebra, tiger, and leopard, while a clever Hudson's men store shopping bag is shaped like a businessman's satchel.
Christmas in particular inspires a lot of shopping bag designers: Ert'e's Christmas bag for I. Magnin features a stylized woman whose hair is in the form of a Christmas tree; another I. Magnin bag features New Yorker cartoonist Koren's funny, shaggy ``monsters'' as Santa and his reindeer going carolling.
``One thing that's really exciting that's happening is a sense of humor,'' says Wagner. ``A lot of stores are using animators and cartoonists - that's really great to see. There are some bags that make you laugh....''
Shopping bags give a commercial enterprise the opportunity to associate itself with wit and Great Art. And it gives the purchaser a chance to inform whomever is passing that he is a person of taste and distinction who insists on the finest and thus only patronizes stores that charge top dollar. ``It's kind of like a designer label,'' Wagner says.
It makes art available, in a way, to everyone. It can be a sad and incongruous sight to see a bag lady walking up the street with all her possessions in a shopping bag from an expensive store, discarded by the original purchaser. But, says Wagner, ``Looking at it from an artist's point of view, I think it's wonderful. Why should she have a bag that's brown and ugly? Why can't she have a beautiful bag too?''