The art of travel

Beautifully designed luggage labels evoke a romantic age of ocean liners and luxury Pullmans, and for Gaston-Louis Vuitton, grandson of Louis Vuitton, these graphic gems became objects of desire in their own right.

James Collard reports on his extraordinary collection.

Their designs and colours are bold and eye-catching – as they were intended to be. And they are innately nostalgic, conjuring up a golden age of travel. Or rather, golden ages – as luggage labels, thought to have originated in the second half of the 19th century, arguably enjoyed their heyday between the wars, when all the world’s hotels commissioned their own. They are nostalgic not simply because of the way they look, but also because in some cases the destination that they depict has since been renamed – as in the Grand Hotel de Pekin or Maiden’s Hotel, Bombay.

This kind of label is thought to have originated in the ocean-liner trade – as a handy way of denoting which ship a trunk should be delivered to. Then hotels began producing labels, sometimes sending them to future guests in advance to label their luggage, but also, in effect, as powerful advertisements for the hotels. And then, just as travellers enjoy the cachet of a passport filled with entry and exit stamps from exotic destinations, so a trunk or suitcase covered in labels suggested its owner was well-travelled, cosmopolitan and an habitué of luxury hotels the world over.

Few would have been as well-travelled as Gaston-Louis Vuitton, grandson of Louis Vuitton, founder of the French luxury maison, which of course started out in the 1850s as a manufacturer of trunks – trunks which, as they possessed at rather than rounded tops, were easily stackable in the new era of train and ocean-liner travel. Gaston-Louis (who took over the company during the 1930s) was passionate about travel. He was interested in paper, and a member of a society called Le Vieux Papier, created for other like-minded individuals. He was also an avid, near-obsessive collector of hotel luggage labels – amassing them in much the same way that other men collected stamps, carefully peeling them off his luggage, asking hotels to post them to him, and swapping them with other collectors.

Some of the thousands of labels Vuitton acquired over the years are featured in Francisca Mattéoli’s World Tour: Vintage Hotel Labels from the Collection of Gaston-Louis Vuitton. They come in different shapes, sizes and styles – from art nouveau to art deco and on to midcentury modern – but all are evocative of the luxury of another age. As Mattéoli puts it,

“I realised that a small piece of paper like a simple label can tell a million stories. Stories of women and men, of travellers, adventurers, gangsters… and also of history, art, countries – all different, fascinating and stimulating.”

World Tour: Vintage Hotel Labels from the Collection of Gaston-Louis Vuitton, by Francisca Mattéoli, is published by Abrams

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