“Don’t play with your food.” It’s the first rule of dinner table etiquette you learn as a kid. Somewhere in Spain, there must be parents shaking their heads.
“Tapas: Spanish Design for Food,” a traveling exhibit currently at the Former Residence of the Ambassadors of Spain, is a treasure trove of newfangled tools for making, serving and eating food, all crafted with a whimsical sense of humor by Spaniards.
Though the exhibit includes some innovations from Spain’s past, like the Chupa Chups logo devised by Salvador Dali, most are recent designs no more than a decade old. A stuffy display of antique dinnerware this is not — the finest piece of china in this collection is a surrealist cup with the handle on the inside.
Barcelona-based curator Juli Capella (who made his name as an architect and editor of design magazines) was tapped by the Spanish government to put together an exhibition that showcased the country’s ingenuity. What better theme, he thought, than something Spain is already cheered and revered for: food.
But don’t come on an empty stomach — there’s not so much as a morsel of chorizo to be found. Instead, the exhibit serves up a selection of vignettes that showcase how Spanish designers and chefs are making mealtime into beautiful, functional — and, luckily, still delicious — art.
“The difference between an animal and a human can be that we don’t eat just for feeding — we eat for play, for enjoy, for share,” Capella says. “For me, this is representative of the evolution of the human being.”
The exhibit, which has Jose Andres as its chief adviser, is divided into three sections: The Kitchen, The Table and The Food. The Kitchen features food prep instruments from Spain’s recent past and present, with a nod to the future with Jetsons-inspired inventions like a 3-D food printer.
No cooking task is taken for granted — even an act as easy as freezing and serving ice cubes is reimagined with a sleek, extra-insulated tray that makes an everyday ice bucket look crude. Some of the items are prototypes or one-of-a-kind art pieces, but others can be purchased online or at design-savvy boutiques if you want to put them to use outside a glass case.
One of Capella’s favorite items, a platter with dozens of metal prongs that resembles a medieval torture instrument, offers a new way to cook meat: from the inside out. Other tools you won’t recognize (but will suddenly, desperately need) belong in an infomercial, like a bread-cutting board with holes that send crumbs through a tube to an outdoor bird feeder and a spritzer top that screws straight into a piece of citrus, turning a lemon into a spray bottle for its own juice.
Many of the plating pieces in The Table portion of the exhibit are as minimalist as anything you’d find in a stark Scandinavian home, but the warm colors, organic shapes and textures like wood grain and fish bone are decidedly Spanish. Another hallmark of Spanish design, Capella says, is adding modern touches to old-fashioned objects, like the exhibit’s goatskin canteens, which are shaped like standard water bottles to fit in today’s cup holders.
“My goal is to not forget these historic and typical items, because I love them,” Capella says. “But at the same time, to not give too much importance to them. I love to use some irony.”
Tradition, innovation and novelty sit side by side in The Food section, the smallest of the three. Chocolate mustache-shaped lollipops and candles made out of spreadable butter share space with classic paella pans and a no-drip olive oil dispenser invented in 1961 and used worldwide.
You’ll leave the exhibit with a glimpse into the future (free, corporate-sponsored food?) and a few ideas to try at home (sponge-shaped bread for literally cleaning your plate). And the next time you sit down for a meal, you might notice the art in what you eat.
“In this moment, design is in everything,” Capella says. “The only thing not designed in food is an apple from the tree.”