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Pop Art: Bubble Wrap & Other Marvels

The distinctive raised lid Starbucks uses is manufactured by Solo. Its designer, Jack Clements, wasn't thinking about space for cappuccino foam but rather room for a small recess for the lips, which makes sipping easier.

"Humble Masterpieces" briefly bemoans the fact that design "still suffers from a general lack of understanding, both of its deeds and of its possibilities." But page after page of common problem-solvers may encourage a reader to take fresh interest in, say, the way scissors accommodate the human hand. Almost every design contributes to the book's argument that "even at its most lyrical, design is intrinsically constructive, hopeful, helpful and practical."

The Rubik's Cube, while an exception, is a great example of functional geometry, and the colors are terrific however they line up. The puzzle has befuddled players since its debut in the 1970s, when it emerged from the study of Budapest professor Erno Rubik. No one has solved it in fewer than 52 moves, the book reports, and there are 43 quintillion opportunities to go wrong.

Rubik's design became a 100-million-cube fad at its height. The Bic pen became a 100 billion bestseller this year.

Ballpoint pens were dreamed up by a Hungarian journalist named Laszlo Biro in 1938. Marcel Bich of France acquired the patent rights and launched the ubiquitous hexagonal pen -- technically the Bic Cristal -- in 1950.

The book solves the mystery of the holes in the clear plastic sleeve and cap. The latter is intended to make it easier to breathe if the cap gets caught in the throat. The other prevents a vacuum that would keep ink from flowing. MoMA added the Bic Cristal to its design collection three years ago.

As for Bubble Wrap, it was created in the 1950s by two men working in a New Jersey garage. Marc Chavannes and Alfred Fielding thought they had created a new textured wallpaper. Happily, the air-filled cells, which are created by suction, secured a glorious destiny as protective packaging.

Like the paper clip, the layered plastic wrap provided a technological leap forward from crumpled newspaper and shredded wood. The book reports that Office Depot sells enough of the stuff each year to wrap the globe twice. Over the years, the manufacturer, Sealed Air, has enhanced the process so the bubbles don't leak. But popping them is a time-honored ritual of the holiday season.

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