Pygmy Hippo Shoppe Talk on How to Capture the Essence of Vintage Nostalgic Design

by Theresa Christine Johnson on 02/06/2017 | 6 Minute Read

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Leopard spotted rain bonnets, colorful mushroom jars, porcelain giraffe teacups, poodle pill cases, sitting on shelves by local zines and pop culture greeting cards. It’s a wild world inside this jewel of a gift store in Los Angeles. Pygmy Hippo offers a time travel experience on Stanley Avenue just a few steps from a bustling main street next to a coffee bar, across from natural market and the Bicentennial post office. A painted sign in the Pygmy Hippo Shoppe window reads: Fine Gifts, Curios and Handmade Goods. Every carefully crafted detail of the space and inventory reveals the owners’ love of vintage nostalgic typography and products.

This 100 square foot store, the creation of Emi Avanessian and Nathan Cabrera, packs more creativity, whimsy, and heart than many larger boutiques. They fill Pygmy Hippo with their favorite colorful functional items both new and deadstock. “We sell stationery, cosmetics, home goods, art, and accessories,” says Avanessian. Their goal was to create a general store but in the style of a soda fountain shop. “With a turn of the century, main street Disneyland, candy shop, gay 90s kind of vibe,” adds Cabrera. “In the store we did hand-painted signs with back painted glass, in an ephemeral script style with a bold circus vibe to it, in 24 karat gold leaf with a drop shadow on it, to pull us back to that same era. It’s become a PT Barnum situation. Pitching to the street, like to the crowd.”

In the seven years since Avanessian and Cabrera opened Pygmy Hippo, they have looked at a huge array of vintage and deadstock items, scouted for the best reproduction items, and worked with artists who create things that fit into their whimsical general store vision. This constant interaction with vintage design, typography, and packaging has increased their knowledge of the vintage aesthetic style they love. When shopping for vintage items for the store, Avanessian gravitates towards things that are functional and fun. “My favorite packaging of a deadstock item in the store right now are packs of bobby pins from the 1940s and 50s. There is an image of a woman with bold primary colors and it is super clean.”

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Recently more and more companies have turned to vintage inspired packaging and branding. From spirits like Benham’s Gin and ThoughtMatter Bitters to foods like Sommer House Granola and Nancy’s Fancy gelato, the traditional typography and bold design tell a story of tradition and authenticity about what it inside. With Cabrera and Avanessian’s lifestyle and work being surrounded by tactile and vibrant things, their advice for designing the vintage aesthetic begins with one very clear mandate. “Don't use the internet.” Though this may seems antithetical to modern living, Cabrera continues to explain his bold statement. “Because everyone sees the same thing. Go to the library. Go to flea markets. There are hundreds and magazines and books from the right era.”

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Some vintage inspired packaging design tips:

Look at original source material

“Keep your eyes peeled for old type and old signage,” adds Avanessian. They find inspiration all around them. “Look at Playbills, songbooks, and piano sheet music—the covers have amazing text,” says Cabrera. “Old certificates, awards, diplomas. No one had the option of using Illustrator. This stuff is all hand scribed, hand inked. The calligraphy, everything about it, is incredible. There are vintage penmanship books that are mind-blowing. People used to sign letters that looked like beautiful paintings with ink strokes that turned into anthropomorphic figures.”

No web addresses on products

“When you are doing reproduction or giving a nod to nostalgia, no vintage style packaging should have giant web addresses on them. Especially on the front,” advises Cabrera. “At Pygmy Hippo you will only find our website on a business card,” says Avanessian. “Frankly it is 2017 at this point one would imagine you see something and you can Google it. It is not necessary and really take away from the aesthetic.”

Keep it real

“I am a sucker for texture and paper stock. Embossing and debossing,” says Cabrera. “Vintage packaging is never a white. It’s usually an eggshell off white. With offset printing and stone printing. Back in the day the colors were separated in a specific way.”

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Next up for Pygmy now that they are expanding the store to add a gallery to host exhibits, events, and workshops. Customers and fans have expressed how happy they are to know that they original Pygmy Hippo shopping experience of walking into the tiny jewel of a boutique will stay intact.

Now Avanessian and Cabrera look forward to adding more products to their own line. Currently tiny Pygmy Hippos dioramas are available in matchboxes and they have made tote bags and a few collaborative items. Soon they will add stationery, wrapping paper, t-shirts, and more soft goods to their inventory. The work of Martha Moore Porter, one of the original designers they carried at Pygmy Hippo, will be the first special exhibit and series of events in their new gallery Big Top space. With a background in textile design Porter’s jewelry line Buried Diamond stood out to Avanessian. “Her pieces are bold, usually filled with glitter and bright colors and pattern,” says Avanessian. “Her packaging is really clean. Always a white card, with multicolor block font, and a splash of confetti about the border. It’s fun and simple and leaves room for the product to shine.”

The Pygmy Hippo community follows them on Instagram, visits the shop, and looks forward to new events and experiences in the Big Top hidden behind their nostalgic colorful world. Now who has been looking for a Kit-Cat Classic clock? We know where you can get one.

Find Pygmy Hippo Shoppe on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

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Julie Wolfson

Julie is a freelance writer. She spends her time exploring the creative process. From artists, designers, and entrepreneurs, to whisky distillers, coffee roasters, farmers, chefs, and musicians, she focuses on stories of determination, innovation, and ingenuity. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Times, HOW Magazine, Angeleno, The Henry Ford Museum Magazine, Cool Hunting, The Bold Italic, KCET, AOL Travel, and Gothamist, and many other food, design, and lifestyle publications.

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