The Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, a hop and a railroad jump from Basel Switzerland, is my world favorite, in spite of its poorly designed building by Early Showoff Gehry.
“Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things” chronicles “colossal achievements” like the coat hanger. One day back in 1903, Albert J. Parkhouse arrived at his lampshade frame factory in Jackson, Michigan to find that all the coat hooks were taken: He quickly bent a piece of wire into a commodious triangle and closed the off the apex by twisting the ends into a hook. Bingo! He overhung another coat!
And ever wonder who came up with the useful Post It Notes? 3M scientist Art Fry was always losing his place in his Sunday church hymnal. In the late 1970’s he solved his memory problem! Curator Jochen Eisenbrand notes that useful things like a paper clip, clothespin, rubber band, egg carton, shipping container and 30 other such “breakthroughs” in “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things” “are the sort of products every designer dreams of making—very simple, very ingenious items that we use on a daily basis. They’ve continued to exist for decades without changing very much, because they haven’t needed to.”
Indeed some perennially useful things like the baby pacifier began in the 1500s as scraps of cloth filled with sugar. And the rubber condom was prefigured by animal intestines used to prevent conception.
It is interesting to discover what human needs led to innovations like the glass jar, the forerunner of the tin can. In 1809 Napoleon began a competition for ways to improve soldier’s food. A Paris chef, Nicolas Appert won! And take an indispensable tool like the coffee filter. One German housewife named Melitta Benz in 1908 made the breakthrough after experimenting with blotting paper from her son’s school exercise book
A Swiss inventor Marc Chavannes in the 1950’s invented bubble wrap after he observed that clouds seemed to cushion an airplane’s descent! And a German Maximillian Negwer in 1907 came up with the idea of cushioning wax ear plugs with cotton wool while reading Homer’s “The Odyssey”. And the Swiss engineer George de Mestral developed Velcro after untangling burrs from his dog’s fur after an Alpine hunting trip.
Alice Rawsthorn’s crucial hypothesis that 90 percent of our designers work for 10 percent of the Earth’s six billions reminds us that more and more energy must be invested in already designed solutions, such as clean water wells in everyday cultures about to die from thirst—or dirty water.
The multiple catastrophes of 2010, Haiti’s earthquake, Pakistan’s floods, and Russia’s firestorms warn us that too much design talent wrapped up in making expensive watches for the rich few with too much time on their hands instead of solving quotidian problems for the many paralyzed by lack of good designs is a formula for multiple disasters.