Winter has a way of slowing things down. Animals hibernate. Ponds freeze over. And the human brain turns sluggish, resisting even repeated infusions of double mocha espresso. Then a funny thing happens. As the mind struggles to focus, elemental objects suddenly loom large. With the peculiar concentration of the dim-witted, the office worker still thawing out from his commute zeroes in on the things right in front of his nose: the cardboard sleeve around his hot coffee cup, his Bic pen, the Band-Aid on his finger, a curling yellow Post-it note.
It turns out that he is not just goofing off. He is practicing looking at things the way a designer does — in particular, the way the curator of architecture and design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art does in a new book that seems expressly suited to winter reading and reflection. The book is titled “Humble Masterpieces,” and it dispels seasonal blues with mini-essays on, and dizzyingly close-up photographs of, 100 everyday objects, or as author Paola Antonelli calls them, “everyday marvels of design.”
All of our sluggish hero’s office supplies are celebrated here, along with bubble wrap and the pushpin. But so are such nonoffice design triumphs as the M&M, the flat-bottomed brown paper grocery bag and the red AIDS awareness ribbon (which, Ms. Antonelli points out, “addresses a profoundly difficult cause with a disarmingly simple design.”) Not everything in the book is modern or American. The Australian Aboriginal boomerang, which goes back 15,000 years, gets a nod, as do China’s 5,000-year-old bead-frame abacus and chopsticks. (Maladroit foreigners will not be surprised to learn here that using chopsticks involves more than 30 joints and 50 muscles.)
Europeans also gets credit for many useful and beautiful objects, including the sugar cube, the double-chambered tea bag (a cozy winter duo right there) and, of course, the Bic pen. Fans of that silky-smooth writing implement may like to know that it owes its name and excellence to France’s Baron Marcel Bich, who in 1945 obtained patent rights to the Hungarian Laszlo Biro’s ballpoint technology and improved on it, replacing the tiny brass ball in the nib with a tungsten one and crafting the case from plastic polymers. Ms. Antonelli hails the result as “an extraordinary engineering feat.”
Japan is represented, too, with some fascinatingly quirky choices. The sort of thing you might expect, such as nail-less wood joinery, is passed over in favor of the “beautiful and inexpensive” chasen, or tea whisk; the fortune cookie, invented by a Japanese-born American; the iconic, ingenious Kikkoman soy sauce bottle; and Hideo Kanbara’s 28-cornered kadokeshi eraser, which “changed the drawing and writing world.”
In his 1963 book “Good Design,” Italian futurist Bruno Munari came up with a formula, now known as the Munari Principle, defining the four essentials of meritorious design. These, he declared, are “lucidity, leanness, exactitude and humor,” qualities he discerned in the orange, the peapod and the rose. The novelty of the pea, Munari said with deadpan gravity, lies in “the simplicity and at the same time the originality of the case.” As for oranges, they are “perfect objects, in which the absolute coherence of form, use and consumption is found.” If an orange were blue, he said, “it would be wrong.”
Ms. Antonelli’s lucid, lean, exact and humorous little book shares that eccentric spirit. (So is it a well-designed object? We won’t speculate, on the grounds that it is much too cold for such deep thoughts.) As Munari’s book did, “Humble Masterpieces” brings discussion of design down from the cloud-capped ivory tower of academia to the drab ground floor where the rest of us toil, clutching our coffee cups, mascara wands and Filofax ring-bound organizers. It greatly brightens the view down here.
For it is nice to be suddenly handed a new perspective, one that renders extraordinary the ordinariness of everyday life. Here, these thoughtful people say, is a way of looking at the world that can make each day an adventure rather than a slog. How liberating to think we spend our lives surrounded by masterpieces of design rather than what we thought were merely symbols of servitude and dull routine. How amusing to go forth each day and look for more. Off the top of our head, we hereby nominate the envelope and the fork. Coins and bills. Onigiri wrappers and wheelbarrows. The list is infinite.
But the satisfaction goes deeper yet. Think about it: If a paperclip is a masterpiece, what’s the limit? Once we can detect extraordinariness in a recycled cardboard Java Jacket coffee-cup sleeve, how long before it shows up in the regular Joe at the next desk — or even in ourselves? The possibilities certainly offset the chill of these wintry days.
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