If there's one design cliché that has come to really irritate me, it's this one: answering the question "What's your favorite design?" with an answer like "The simple paper clip." Or the rubber band. Or the stop sign. Or the Post-It Note. Or any other humble, unauthored object from everyday life.
To me, this is like answering the question "What's your favorite song?" with "You know, is there any song as beautiful as the laughter of a child?" It's corny. It's lazy. It's a cop-out.
I do admit, it's a tempting cop-out. We've all done it at one time or another. In the New York Times Magazine's design issue five years ago, they put the question to a bunch of well-known people, some designers, some not. A few people named objects that were actually designed, although, oddly, the designer was not always named: the Pie Watch (named by Leon Wieseltier, not credited to M&Co.), the Braun Travel Alarm Clock (named by Martha Stewart, not credited to Dieter Rams,). And, okay, even I myself went on the record for the Beatles's "White Album" without crediting Richard Hamilton.
But more frequent were the hymns to those damned anonymous objects, sometimes industrial in origin like the Sylvania half-frosted light bulb (chosen by Richard Gluckman), or sometimes humble like chopsticks (chosen by Frogdesign's Hartmut Esslinger). Or how about...beads? That's right, just beads. "Beads focus and concentrate esthetic attention," we learned from Nest's Joseph Holtzman. "One becomes supremely aware of color, shape and especially surface."
Ah, the humble bead! On some level, I do see why designers in particular like to dodge this question. On one hand, you can be honest, select as your favorite something that you yourself designed, and look like an egomaniac, which you probably are. The alternative is to pick something someone else designed, and thus give aid and comfort to a competitor. Tough choice. Wait, how about...the humble white t-shirt, designed by absolutely no one? Perfect!
The white t-shirt and 121 other objects are on currently on view at New York's Museum of Modern Art, in an exhibition that will either be the last word on the subject or start a new orgy of paper clip fetishization. "Humble Masterpieces," on view through September 27th, was organized by the first-rate curator (and unrepentant Post-It Note fan) Paola Antonelli, and includes the Bic Pen, the whisk broom, the tennis ball, and bubble wrap. "Although modest in size and price, "Antonelli observes, "some of these objects are true masterpieces of the art of design and deserving of our admiration." And now, thanks to MoMA, so are many of their designers: Antonelli and her staff have diligently researched the names of the creators of these seemingly authorless objects. So we learn that Scotch tape was - what, designed? invented? discovered? - in 1930 by Richard G. Drew (American, 1886-1956). And it's all sparked a lively discussion on the Speak Up website where people are posting their own nominations.
Antonelli points out that MoMA's commitment to finding the sublime in the everyday has a long history. The museum's landmark "Machine Art" show in 1934 exhibited industrial objects like springs and ball bearings. The undeniable beauty of these objects must have been a revelation to audiences used to Victoriana and ersatz Streamline. The intention, I think, was to create a bracing demonstration of how form following function could lead to enduring, honest solutions, unencumbered by the fussy hand of the stylist. But what is the effect on the 21st-Century museumgoer who is confronted with a display of Legos, Slinkys, soy sauce dispensers and M&Ms? I wonder.
At any rate, now that MoMA's put its imprimatur on the whole idea, perhaps we can finally move on. All these things have now gotten their rightful due, and it's time to turn our attention to other worthy subjects. So if one of these days you're challenged to come up with your own favorite design and you just can't come up with one, take the easy way out: just pick something designed by me.