Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design
By Paola Antonelli

April 10, 2006 /
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An insightful collection of design marvels from everyday life.
Every day we use dozens of small objects, from Q-tips to paper clips. If they work well, chances are we don't pay them much attention. Although modest in size and price, some of these objects are true masterpieces of the art of design.

In this colorful visual feast, Paola Antonelli portrays one hundred fabulous objects, from compact discs to LEGOs to chopsticks to Post-it notes. Short, informative text descriptions accompany photographs of each object, detailing the little-known history of some of our favorite things.

The history of America's favorite sport is wrapped up in the history of the sport's ball.

In an interesting turn of design that baseball afficionados find utterly meaningful, the cross section of a baseball - core, woven material, crust - is remarkably similar to that of Earth.

2humble_masterpieces.jpgAlfred J. Reach, American, 1840-1928
Benjamin Shibe, American, 1833-1922
Baseball, 1870s
This model: Rawlings ROMLB (Official Major League Baseball)
Manufacturer: Rawlings, USA

In 1565, a sticky black substance thought to be lead was found underneath an uprooted three in the Cumberland Hills of the United Kingdom. People began to use it to write erasable marks by inserting it into a rough wooden holder. In the late eighteen century, the Swedish chemist Karl Wilhelm Scheele identified the material as a crystallized form of carbon and named it graphite after the Greek word graphein, which means to write.

3humble_masterpieces.jpgKaspar Faber, German, 1730-1784
Nicolas-Jacques Conté, French, 1755-1805
Lead Pencil, 1761
Graphite and cedar wood
This model manufactures by Faber-Castell. Germany

Thanks to the culturally house-proud Dutch for not liking anything too unsightly in their homes and for coming up with the Cable Turtle, an ingeniously simple case for wires. The designers realized that our lives are being dominated by electrical and electronic equipment, and rather than mourn the loss of simplicity, set out to deal with the issue gracefully.

4humble_masterpieces.jpgFlex Development BV, Dutch, established 1988
Cable Turtle, 1996
Thermoplastic elastomer
Manufacturer: Clevertine, the Netherlands
Did you know that M&M's were used by soldiers going into battle who needed a quick pick-me-up? Hence the durable candy shell that prevented melting.

5humble_masterpieces.jpgForrest Mars, American, 1904-1999
M&M's, late 1930s
Manufacturer: Mars, USA

Designing the spout proved the greates challenge. An inward angle on the tip of the spout proved the right solution, preventing the sauce from pooling in the spout and dripping onto the table. Shipping volume has reached 250 million bottles, roughly twice Japan's population.

6humble_masterpieces.jpgKenji Ekuan, Japanese, born 1929
GK Design Group, Japanese, established 1953
Kikkoman Soy Sauce Dispenser, 1961
Glass and polystyrene plastic manufacturer: Kikkoman Corporation, Japan
For the world-changing zipper, we have to thank Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine. Whitcomb Judson, marketer of the "Clasp Locker," and, finally and most crucially, Gideon Sundback who took off on the earlier prototypes to create the "Separable Fastener," patented in 1917.

7humble_masterpieces.jpgOtto Frederick Gideon Sundback, Canadian, born Swedish, 1880-1954
Zipper - Separable Fastener, 1913
This model: fabric and aluminum
Manyfacturer: YKK Corporation, Japan
It was 1932 when Ole Kirk Christiansen founded a small carpentry business in the village of Billund and dedicated most of his time to building toys, and 1934 when he came up with the name that made his business famous. In Danish, leg godt means play well - while in Latin, lego means I learn - and for several decades the LEGO Building Bricks have inspired children all around the world to do exactly that.

8humble_masterpieces.jpgGodtfred Kirk Christiansen, Danish, 1920-1995
LEGO Building Bricks, 1954-1958
ABS plastic
Manufacturer: LEGO Group, Denmark
Enric Bernat, a third-generation candy maker, took over an ailing Spanish confectionery and eliminated most of its two hundred products to focus on a single line of lollipops.

The first Chupa Chups, whose name come from the Spanish verb chupar, which means to lick, went on sale in 1958.

9humble_masterpieces.jpgEnric Bernat i Fontiladosa, Spanish, 1923-2003
Chupa Chups Lollipop, 1958
Manufacturer: Granja Asturias; now Chupa Chups, Spain

Did you know that Salvador Dalí designed the famous daisy pattern on Chupa Chups lollipops?

Knowing that he needed a strong logo Bernat went to his friend Salvador Dali, who immediately drafted an idea on newspaper. Within an hour, the famous daisy-pattern wrapper was born, still one of the most recognized logos in the world.


Many of the objects in the book, like Zippo, the Tetra Brik, or the safety pin, are icons, but being an icon is not enough: they are all well-designed icons. The beauty of great design is that it is both very complex and very simple. Design is a celebration not only of creativity, but also of determination, intelligence, and diversity.
Paola Antonelli

Paola Antonelli is a curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where she curated the exhibition "Humble Masterpieces" to great acclaim.

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Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Notice: The cover is different for the UK and USA publications.

Last updated: December 19, 2013

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