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Review: In praise of 'Humble Masterpieces'

Paola Antonelli frames the everyday artistry of design

By Porter Anderson



  • By Paola Antonelli
  • ReganBooks
  • Art and design
  • 209 pages

    Arts, Culture and Entertainment

    ATLANTA (CNN) -- Oh, to see the world as Paola Antonelli sees it.

    In her handsome new book, "Humble Masterpieces," she asserts that "Everything is designed, one way or another."

    The chaos into which your workday morning has fallen by 10 a.m. might seem an exception to that rule, of course. But Antonelli would point to those Post-Its you snatch up for a phone number, those pushpins holding your favorite beagle's photo on the padded-cell wall of your cubicle, and even to the M&Ms you pilfered from your colleague's desk, now melting not in your hand where you hide them.

    Get a grip on her name now: POW-lah An-to-NEL-ee is a fast-rising star of a stage all the world plays in -- a reality filled with Flat-Bottomed Brown Paper Grocery Bags, Bar Codes, Slant Tweezers, Flip-Flops and Bubble Wrap Air Cellular Cushioning. The capitalizations are conferred by this Sardinia-born, Milan-raised, New York-based champion of the designers who answer our needs for efficiency, speed, comfort, safety, organization and play.

    The inventors, artists, tinkerers and sometimes purely lucky opportunists Antonelli honors have a perfectly placed advocate. Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, this inquisitive, perceptive, savvy soul's new exhibition, "SAFE: Design Takes on Risk," is the early high point of the art season. (Read a review of the exhibition)

    "Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design" will make sense to anyone who has spent time listening to Antonelli's gelato-rich conversation about her work. Never far from a laugh, she revels in the ironies she reports, sometimes in parentheses, in clean, spare text about each of the book's items.

  • When Slinky inventor Richard James "suffered a nervous breakdown and left his wife (and six children) to join a Bolivian cult," Antonelli writes, his wife "Betty (arguably always the brains) took over as CEO." The amount of wire that has gone into Slinkys since 1943, she adds, could wrap the Earth 126 times.
  • One of her countrymen, Italo Marchioni, is restored to his rightful place as the patent-holding inventor in 1896 of the ice cream cone (1896). At the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, the cone was born again, she clarifies.
  • The Java Jacket Coffee Sleeve, that little cardboard cuff that Starbucks puts on your cup, was inspired, Antonelli tells us, when designer Jay Sorensen dropped a cup of coffee in his lap because it was too hot to hold any longer. Necessity, it seems, really is what it's cracked up to be.
  • HarperCollins' ReganBooks imprint has had Richard Ljoenes create a sturdy square format for the book, which comes in a perfectly-fitted soft-plastic sleeve to protect it. More good design.

    Paola Antonelli: "Designers' humility will change the world."

    Ferret your way through the whole thing at once, or take it a design a day -- if you can stop yourself from peeking at the next item in this addictive read. At the end, there's a chronology for another sort of context: The Light-Emitting Diode (LED) that may reveal the time on your digital watch came along six years before the SwissChamp Army Knife. Soft Contact Lenses preceded the Mascara Wand by about a decade.

    Don't miss the forest of Antonelli's enthusiasm for the Slide-On Paper Clip trees here. "Among those in charge of shaping the world," she writes, designers "are the most benign, responsible and visionary. Just like the masterpieces in this book, designers' humility will change the world."

    So might Antonelli's perfect-pitch for the celluloid Guitar Pick of 1922, her soft regard for the Q-Tip's arrival the next year and her wry spin on the 1948 Frisbee, originated by a "building inspector and flying saucer enthusiast."

    "Humble Masterpieces," like the designs it highlights, does its job smartly, eloquently, tidily.

    And to think the book has been released just in time for the holiday gift season.

    Almost as if by design.

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