Spanish culinary design is full of jokes, but that’s all the more reason to take it seriously: As a new exhibition at the former Spanish ambassador’s residence demonstrates, the wit and whimsy of Spanish cuisine have driven innovations in food culture around the world.

“Spain loves to play with its food, not just to eat,” said curator Juli Capella, a Spanish architect and designer whose work can be seen in several of José Andrés’s restaurants. “Because we were a poor country . . . people celebrate the food as a special party.”

In “Tapas: Spanish Design for Food,” presented by Acción Cultural Española and the cultural office of the Spanish Embassy, examples of humor and playfulness abound: There’s a two-pronged spoon/pen that can stir your coffee or sign your tab, a cutting board that funnels crumbs to its companion outdoor bird feeder, and a surrealist cup with the handle inside the vessel.

Tapas may have started as simple snacks to be eaten with wine, but they’ve evolved into a more highbrow expression of creativity and a precise culinary science. The exhibition is organized a bit like a tapas meal: You get a little bite of everything. A section on the kitchen focuses on the devices that avant-garde chefs have developed to prepare their elaborate meals, items as simple as a minimalist stand for hams or as complex as an “Oxymoron Maker,” a piece of electronics that bakes ice-cream-filled brioche without melting the treat inside.

Once the meal is prepared, it’s on to an examination of the table, where chic housewares are on display. In combination with the exhibition’s bouncy soundtrack, which plays throughout the former embassy’s rooms, it might feel a bit like a fantasy shopping trip for the interior-design-
minded. (Indeed, some of the items on display can be purchased at the MoMA Design Store and other specialty purveyors.)

Cuisine is the exhibition’s third focus, which covers everything from paella to futuristic ideas for logo-branded food-as-advertisement.

Some of the designs are clever but frivolous. There are multiple solutions to address the difficulties in dipping cookies in a too small glass of milk — apparently Spaniards do not like to break their cookies in half or for their fingers to touch the milk, and, thus, designers have invented solutions to this not-too-pressing problem. Other items, in combination with the high-concept food that accompanies them, have an understated utility, such as a clothespin spoon with a snip of herbs to smell as the food approaches your mouth.

“The innovation in the last few years in Spain is [tableware] designed by the chef, not a designer,” Capella said. “The creativity of the chef is not just in the food, but in the experience. The container and the content, for the first time, are designed together.”

El Celler de Can Roca, named 2013’s best restaurant in the world by U.K.’s Restaurant magazine, is a source of much creativity. A dessert cart, with a pop-up, four-tiered rainbow serving tray and bicycle wheels, looks like something out of Dr. Seuss. At Roca, your meal might be served on a dish made to resemble the surface of the moon, or on a set of plates molded in aluminum from slices of bread; each slice is unique, and the set can be stacked to form a loaf.

Best of all is a dessert plate that emulates a lump of fermenting bread dough — not just in appearance but also in activity. Just as yeast “breathes,” so, too, does this silicone plate, expanding and contracting through a hidden mechanism that causes the food on the plateau-shaped surface to undulate. Further blurring the line dividing design, cuisine, sculpture and performance art, the dish was used in “El Somni,” a multimedia opera and meal presented by Roca, designed to tell the story of human existence.

The plate is another example of how the playfulness of Spanish culinary design belies a deeper truth-telling. A set of hanging plastic inflatable Iberico hams, designed by Capella, the curator, are a good joke that turns political when you read the label: “El Jamon de la Crisis,” a budget alternative to the pricey meat during times of austerity.

As conceptual and comedic as the exhibition can be, some of its strongest displays are those that show what goes on behind the scenes in high-stakes kitchens. Machines and innovations may help, but the dishes are still made and plated by hand. To help the kitchen maintain consistency in these intricately arranged dishes, the chefs at elBulli, once a three-Michelin-star restaurant transitioning into a culinary academy, have a low-tech solution: They sculpt a model and guide for plating each dish from a multicolored array of children’s plasticine clay. It seems appropriately Spanish that one of the best meals in the world got its start as a toy.

Tapas: Spanish Design for Food

Through March 23 at the former residence of the Spanish ambassador, 2801 16th St. NW.
Free. 202-728-2334.

The Story Behind the Work

Washington’s resident ambassador of Spanish cuisine, José Andrés, served as an adviser for the exhibition to curator Juli Capella, who designed Jaleo, Minibar and other Andrés restaurants. Though the show has an international focus, there are local touches of Andrés throughout the exhibit, from a set of his branded cookware to the downtown Jaleo’s glass-topped foosball/dining room tables.

“I always love collaborating with my good friend Juli Capella because he truly understands the importance of design in all the aspects of the dining experience,” Andrés said in a statement. “He is the designer and I am the chef, but ultimately we want to tell the same exciting story from our own angles.”

One of Andrés’s most whimsical designs is a container for croquettes, used at Jaleo. He wanted to present the dish in a shoe by the Spanish company Camper, but to comply with health regulations, he had to use a “crystallized” container — so he and designer Sami Hayek created a transparent resin sneaker. It’s what Cinderella would wear to the gym.

— Maura Judkis