Back in May I posted about the 100 greatest inventions of all time. I’ve just read an article by Alice Rawsthorn about an exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany with the title “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things”.
The focus here is not just on inventiveness or novelty, but the way a simple idea, when combined with a good design, can become a central part of ordinary life that we couldn’t imagine living without.
We don’t reflect enough on the genius of these objects: the corkscrew, paper clip, clothes pin, rubber band, egg carton, shipping container; together with the thirty other useful and familiar objects contained in this exhibition. It’s only when something as mundane as a paper clip is put in a display cabinet in a museum that you appreciate it’s value and beauty.
“They’re the sort of products that every designer dreams of making — very simple, very ingenious items that we use on a daily basis,” said Jochen Eisenbrand, who curated the exhibition. “They’ve continued to exist for decades without changing very much, because they haven’t needed to.”
Some of the objects in the show were devised by amateur inventors like the hapless Mr. Henshall. One is the glass preserving jar, a forerunner of the tin can, which was dreamed up in 1809 by a Paris chef, Nicolas Appert, as the winning entry of a competition launched by Napoleon Bonaparte to improve the French Army’s food. Another is the clothes hanger, which dates back to 1903 when Albert J. Parkhouse arrived for work at a lampshade frame factory in Jackson, Michigan, only to find that all of the coat hooks were taken. He made something to hang his coat on by bending a piece of wire into an elongated triangle and twisting the ends into a hook.
Other “Hidden Heroes” stemmed from sudden flashes of inspiration. The German pharmacist Maximilian Negwer hit upon his 1907 idea of cushioning wax ear plugs with cotton wool when reading Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Untangling burrs from his dog’s fur after an Alpine hunting trip prompted the Swiss engineer George de Mestral to develop Velcro fabric fastener in the 1940s and 1950s.
Air bubble film, or bubble wrap, was conceived in the 1950s after a Swiss inventor, Marc Chavannes, noticed how the clouds seemed to cushion an airplane as it descended, and realized that a similar effect could be achieved in packaging by sealing air inside plastic film. An American scientist, Art Fry, dreamed up the Post-it note in the late 1970s when singing in a church choir. He couldn’t find the right page in his hymn book because the paper bookmark kept slipping out.
The modesty of the “Hidden Heroes” is particularly appealing at a time when we’ve become bored by the brashness of what’s been called “Design-with-a-capital-D.” (Remember the lamp mounted on an 18-karat-gold-plated Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle by the French designer, Philippe Starck? That was the peak/nadir of “Design.”) Designers, the thoughtful ones, at least, are increasingly absorbed by the ontology of objects, or the abstract qualities that define them, rather than aesthetics.