To celebrate the 100th birthday of the iconic Coke bottle, Coca-Cola is cooperating with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta to display 100 items in an art museum show.

Actually, it is three shows in one, explains Julia Forbes, curator and head of museum interpretation and digital engagement at the High. The museum's history and location have been interlinked with those of Coca-Cola from its origins, she notes. A celebration of the bottle in art is, therefore, an apt testimony to Coca-Cola’s support of the arts in Atlanta over the century 

The Coca-Cola Bottle: An American Icon at 100 opens tomorrow (Feb. 28) and runs through Oct. 4. The show has three parts, explains Forbes, to offer three different lenses on the story.

"One part is devoted to Pop Art and the appreciation of the bottle in the work of Andy Warhol," she says. A second focuses on photography and what Forbes calls "the universal presence of the bottle in the cultural landscape of 20th century America." The third offers sketches and models of the design of the bottle.

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The Bottle in Pop Art

The Coke bottle became a star of 1960s Pop Art thanks to Andy Warhol. "For Warhol, the bottle is about branding and identity. He focused on it when he was seeking his own brand and identity as an artist. It is about him being inspired by everyday life," says Forbes. At the same time, he was working with the Coke bottle, he was trying to work out what he wanted his own style to be.

"He was inspired by ads in church magazines for the new king-sized bottle," Forbes adds.

The show presents more than 15 pieces by Warhol, including photographs and drawings. One star is a silkscreen from 1962 called Three Coke Bottles. "Warhol famously commented that Coca-Cola was universal," Forbes says. It was a democratic and popular treat. "No rich man could buy a better Coke than the average man," he said. His imagery was democratic, too.

Esther Bubley
Esther Bubley (American, 1921–1998), Coca-Cola Wall, Texas, 1945. Collection of Joyce Linker. Digital image courtesy Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville, Kentucky. See more highlights from the High Museum exhibit.

Coca-Cola and the South

In part two, the photography section, there is a sense of the shared southern origins of Coke and the High in Atlanta and the Woodruff Arts Center. Forbes has placed emphasis on the Depression-era photographers of the rural South and the West. The photography group includes images by William Christenberry, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Clarence John Laughlin, Helen Levitt, Abelardo Morell, Peter Sekaer, Ben Shahn and Marion Post Wolcott, among others. "It figures as a universal presence in the cultural landscape of America," Forbes says.

High Museum - Bottle Display
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The Creation and Iterations of the Bottle

The third element of the show, explains Forbes, looks closely at the creation of the bottle, and its various versions over the years. The show includes drawings and models, a rare 1915 prototype, an early 1960s plastic version of the bottle, as well as one of the first aluminum versions from 2005. "It shows an amazing persistence of this shape through different materials over the years," she says. 

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Julia Forbes

The design was born of necessity. Coca-Cola itself had been around since 1886 and was sold both at fountains and in bottles, but the Coca-Cola bottlers realized that the lack of a standard bottle design was a problem. "It made for copycats and confusion," Forbes explains. "The design was the result of a competition that challenged bottle manufacturers to develop a common container. This is the part of the story I love: Their design brief required that the bottle be recognizable to the touch and when broken on the ground."

As Forbes tells the story, the most striking response to this brief came from the Root Glass Company in Terre Haute, Indiana. The resulting bottle, with its characteristic green glass, silhouette, and fluted sides, derived from both practical and esthetic inspirations. "For someone serving the drink from a cooler, recognizing the bottle by touch made a lot of sense," she says. "It is a story of design years ahead of its time. Coca-Cola in 1915 was ahead of the curve. Only later did concern for packaging and design become a big design movement."

"The part of the story I love is that in the end, the thing that inspires it has nothing to do with the product itself — and yet it results in a brilliant design," says Forbes. "There is a moral there: that when the right guy sees the right inspiration, well, that is when the magic happens."