Title: Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design
Written by: Paola Antonelli
Published by: Regan Books
Reviewed by: Norma J. Shattuck
"Design takes them all in, from chandeliers to pencils, from airplanes to computer screens, from the interior of a theater to the receipt at a department store’s check-out."
The origin of "humble masterpieces" was last year’s Museum of Modern Art exhibit based on 122 mostly familiar, taken-for-granted objects routinely encountered in our everyday lives. Unlikely fodder for the rarified MoMA? Not to author and exhibit curator Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s increasingly influential expert in architecture and design.
To her acutely trained and focused eye, the humble and the helpful--objects of the sort commonly found in kitchen drawers, medicine cabinets, buried on desk tops, or even retrieved from toy chests--may be not only museum worthy but plausibly deemed, in some cases, to possess a kind of beauty. But, as the author puts it, "Design is much more complex and deep than problem solving….However, design as a discipline still suffers from a general lack of understanding both of its deeds and of its possibilities."
How better than a book such as this--its prose accessible, its format both practical and aesthetically pleasing--to salute creators of what most consider merely mundane tools and conveniences that we utilize, then toss aside?
The Museum of Modern Art’s attention to such is not new. Its design collection--a hair dryer here, a helicopter there--reportedly dates from 1907. Curator Antonelli’s selection for the exhibit and current book exalts the ice cream waffle cone, circa 1896, alongside the Band-Aid and that humblest of wardrobe items, the plain white T-shirt.
The book’s content is the result of culling the ‘05 exhibit list to 100 objects, creatively photographed and accompanied by what could be called capsulized "back stories" of the generally unknown thinkers and tinkerers who gave us champagne corks, safety pins, tampons, Chinese take-out boxes, and such child-pleasers as the Slinky, the Frisbee, and Legos.
The range is wide but not lacking examples of commonality. Though the ice cream cone, the Q-tip, and the Post-It note may appear unrelated, a commonality is that all took root as a need, idea, or experiment that accidentally created something surprising even to the inventors. Two of the more common reactions to the items saluted, I would expect, are "Why didn’t I think of that?" (upon a reader’s seeing, perhaps, the insulating sleeve by which to sheathe a hot coffee cup) to "Why did anyone bother?" (my personal reaction to the plastic spoon straw).
Because it appears to be the perfect melding of form and function and has a fine back-story with a lesson for today’s creative women, my choice for "highest among the humblest" is the flat-bottomed brown paper grocery bag. It dates from 1870 and it freed a woman named Margaret Knight (born 1838) from factory work.
She devised her great leap forward for shoppers--existing bags were virtually shapeless--by concocting a machine part to fold and glue paper into the square bottom shape that's become classic. She then founded her own bag manufacturing company, received 26 other patents, and seems to have fully lived up to the description of her as "a natural inventor."
In all, author Antonelli’s inclusions span centuries and encompass categories that speak to unglamorous function (Tupperware, Tampons); fun and games (glass marbles, baseballs, ping pong paddles); food (pasta, M&Ms); and the did-we-really-need-‘em? niche ( I Love NY logo, dripless soy sauce dispensers).
It's a diverse content mix and heartening to read (as a reminder that creativity and ingenuity are not now, nor ever will be, dead). Antonelli, Italian-born and an architect, appears to be a very fine fit for her highly visible post as architecture/design doyenne at the legendary New York museum.
BIO: Norma J. Shattuck is a free-lance writer of articles and commentary for publications in the San Francisco Bay Area.