A Big Clip Job? Think Washington

(Thwart Design)
By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

As Washingtonians know, the local industry is regulation, not invention, so we've never been a hotbed of industrial design. Still, genius has emerged from our midst.

Nearly a century ago, native Washingtonian Louis E. Baltzley (1895-1946) invented the binder clip, that springy steel clamp that has tamed mountains of documents. And the 1911 device is the only local object in a delightful new encyclopedia, Phaidon Design Classics, a three-volume, 3,300-page collection. (The clip ranks No. 97 out of 999 all-time great inventions, most of them still in use today.)

According to the book, launched this weekend during the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York, Baltzley was motivated by a desire to help his father, Edwin, a prolific writer and inventor, keep manuscripts in order. At the time, the common method of controlling paper was to punch holes in pages and sew them together. Removing a page meant rebinding the whole file.

Baltzley's solution was spare, elegant, functional and timeless. The original design was modified five times, but the essential mechanism has never changed. The clips were manufactured locally at first. These days, Chinese factories turn out multiple sizes and colors.

Readers will learn that Baltzley's grandfather, Elias Howe, invented the first practical sewing machine. Baltzley's father held eight patents, and an uncle, Henry Hawson Baltzley, held two. A quick check of phone listings turned up no related Baltzleys in contemporary Washington, but the binder clip is omnipresent and, thanks to the Phaidon encyclopedia, no longer anonymous.

The book launch is being accompanied by an exhibition of design classics at the Terence Conran Shop in New York. Conventional booksellers might have a hard time accommodating the $175 set, which weighs 18 pounds and comes in a plastic carrying case that looks like a small stepladder. But the book is a treasure. Concise profiles explain the origins of such all-time favorites as the 1945 Slinky toy, the 1954 Fender Stratocaster, the 1963 Astro Lava Lamp and Gaetano Pesce's 1987 Feltri chair, which the Italian Embassy in Washington chose for its VIP lounge.

Some designs are iconic but also dated. The book doesn't mention it, but Honeywell's rounded thermostat and the Twinings tea canister look like endangered species in an era of digital controls and flavored coffees consumed from paper cups.

Not so the trusty binder clip. Even in an age of e-mail and PDFs, papers still have to be brought under control. And office workers the world over are reaching for Washington's humble masterpiece.

Sitting Solo

Study the behavior of people in an urban park on a sunny day. Watch how some hover and then dart for a free bench. Notice how those who do not want to share will sit in the middle, arms spread defiantly, as if to say, "Mine."

Designing products is all about observation. In the best-case scenario, a designer will perceive something in the chaos of the everyday that calls for change. Gabriele Pezzini appears to have absorbed the antisocial behavior of urban park sitters before redesigning the bench for an exhibition, "Open Your Mind," presented last month in Milan. He's hoping to find a manufacturer who shares his mind-set.

The Sunny Day Bench has a standard-width back with plenty of room to stretch one's arms. The issue of personal space is resolved by providing room for only one to sit.

And none for those who lie down to sleep.

Hands-On Design

The furnishings emporium known as Design Within Reach offers an enviable stock of modern classics by catalogue, online and in stores. But to some shoppers, prices remain woefully inaccessible. That's what sparked the spoof: Design Without Reach.

"Not everyone can afford to be patrons of modern design," explains the Web site Thwartdesign.com, which offers instructions for making replicas -- in minutes and for pennies.

Impoverished fans of Alessi's $85 crumpled stainless-steel fruit bowl can crumple their own container from a sheet of aluminum foil. A miniature leather and chrome Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer ($220 at DWR) can be neatly duplicated from paper clips and black electrician's tape. A homage to George Nelson's iconic Ball clock ($285 at DWR) can be fabricated with a clock mechanism, the circular end of a cardboard salt container and 12 colorful Tootsie Roll Pops inserted around the edge.

You get what you pay for, but the homemade aesthetic is part of the exercise.

The replicas were dreamed up by Rob Price, a 27-year-old graduate of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He designs Cuisinart and Kitchen Aid housewares by day and saves "raw creativity" for projects at home. Price says he built each of the replicas. The imitation Ball clock had to come down after the Tootsie Roll Pops melted on his wall.

However one decides to allocate cash for flash, Thwart Design's manifesto offers good advice: "Don't let creativity lie dormant."

Repeat it three times whenever you reach for a binder clip.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company