Pop Art: Bubble Wrap & Other Marvels

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 26, 2005

The allure of Bubble Wrap was not the main point when Farrah Fawcett swathed herself in it for Playboy magazine a few years ago. The actress was turning 50, and the Bubble Wrap provided just the right cushioning for a photo spread in her birthday suit.

This is a family newspaper, so we can't reproduce the full effect. Suffice to say there was plenty of sizzle. But nothing popped, thanks to Bubble Wrap's special cellular design.

The air-filled industrial wonder is one of the brilliant everyday designs in a neat new book from Paola Antonelli, design curator of New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Called "Humble Masterpieces," it's a welcome departure from highbrow design. There are no mystifying avant-garde objects, no status-defining techie toys, no overpriced designer furnishings for children to quickly outgrow. Instead, the spotlight shines on omnipresent marvels of daily life. That's the realm where good design really matters.

"Our kitchen drawers, our purses, our car trunks and our bathroom cabinets are vibrant museums full of masterpieces," Antonelli writes.

Antonelli's collection includes such old faithfuls as the incandescent light bulb, the brown paper grocery bag and Q-tips. Colorful plastic Lego blocks share glory with burping Tupperware food storage containers and the amazingly dripless Kikkoman Soy Sauce dispenser.

The unifying characteristics are familiarity, utility and timeless appeal. Their designers are often anonymous but we owe them thanks for the near-perfect balance of form and function and economical use of materials.

My favorite is the lowly paper clip. This deceptively simple invention from the 1890s has an annoying way of getting stuck in the back of drawers and mating with its companions. But the bent-wire device, with its familiar double oval, managed to propel the act of compiling documents into the modern age. For the previous 600 years, papers had to be punched with a hole and gathered with ribbon. An unnamed wizard at the Gem Manufacturing Co. in Britain is credited with achieving the perfect functional shape. William Middlebrook dreamed up a machine to produce them in mass quantities.

The earliest innovation mentioned in the book is a boomerang, attributed to an unknown aboriginal designer 15,000 years ago. Not too many of us have a boomerang in the closet, but lipstick tubes (1915) and flip-flops (1940s) are ubiquitous. The Band-Aid Advanced Healing blister cushion (2002) deserves respect as a protective pad enhanced with pain reliever. 3M's sticky Post-it Notes (1980) have transformed the way people organize thoughts.

Post-its resulted from a serendipitous accident, which is one of the more powerful design lessons in the book. Chemist Spencer Silver was trying for a stronger adhesive when he created a weaker one by mistake. Silver did not toss the research but set it aside. A colleague, Art Fry, tried out the sticky stuff at church, successfully marking the pages of his hymnal without damaging the paper.

The chunky yellow Post-it pads have morphed from tactile to digital imagery as Post-it Software Notes.

Carryout coffee has inspired two exceptional designs that millions of people reach for without a thought. Jay Sorensen, a Seattle real estate agent, devised an insulating sleeve for cups after spilling hot coffee in his lap. His Java Jacket uses waffle-textured recycled cardboard.

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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