Alexandra Lange | Essays

Little Boxes

Orange AMAC Plastic Boxes, Container Store.

These are definitely objects.

When I was young, I and every girl I knew had these AMAC boxes, graduated in size, rainbow in hue, arranged in a diminishing row on her bureau. My set contained my treasures: an enamel heart from the Met Museum store, a white rounded pebble from the beach, a miniature Hello Kitty notebook and My Melody eraser. Over the years my treasures and my jewelry boxes got fancier, and my boxes disappeared. But when I walked into the Container Store last week and saw them sitting on a shelf, I wanted to buy them all over again. (I was only restrained by the poor selection at the Sixth Avenue store: red, green, clear and dark blue, ready for your holiday treats. Go online for the full spectrum.)

If I were writing a memoir of taste, these might be my Rosebud: cheap ($0.39 to $3.19), brilliant color, crystalline shape. Useful, too. One of the nicest things about them is their story. AMAC is and was an American manufacturer of pillboxes, founded by Gene Hurwitt in 1960. In the mid-1960s, Alan Spigelman (whom I interviewed for my Design Research book) saw them and thought they had a potential audience larger than the pharmaceutical industry--as stash boxes, among other things. Spigelman's wife Diane worked at the 57th Street D/R store, and suggested he bring the boxes in to show Ben Thompson when he was in town.

AMAC Plastic Packaging.

Spigelman remembered:
We met and Ben Thompson sat down and looked over these boxes and he only asked a single question. He said, "I see these boxes. They are so perfect. Are the ones I am going to get as perfect as the ones you are showing here?" I said, "They will be even more perfect because I have been handling these." He ordered 100 of each size, in seven sizes. Then he called up and said, "We never put them on the floor because the employees used their discount and bought all of them."

They stack very well on top of one another, and if you are reckless enough to have hundreds of boxes at one time you can really build with them. I stacked them like skyscrapers, and different sizes were in different colors so it really looked like a glass city in multicolor. That idea came from Pratt Institute which bought millions of those boxes for the students to make architectural models with. I would go and see what they did, and they were so imaginative I got lots of good ideas from them.
Most of Thompson's inexpensive products came from markets abroad. Here was something homegrown and industrial that didn't clash with the handblown glass. Spigelman went on to more marketing coups including that Map of the World shower curtain seen in so many off-campus apartments.

Today they just happen to be one of MoMA's Humble Masterpieces, but I didn't know that then, and it hardly seems to matter now. If you give them as a gift this December, I am pretty sure a child will love them without the design history lesson. I like my stuff with a story, but Hello Kitty abides.

Boxes, Gene Hurwitt (1906-1988), Architecture & Design Collection, MoMA.

Posted in: History, Product Design

Comments [2]

The image of a "little city in multicolor" is certainly enchanting--still, I can't help but think, "Yikes. More plastic for the landfill (or the gyre)."

I agree completely! such a nostalgia blast to see these on your blog. I also loved them, the jewel tones and see through-ness of them. where o where are you now, brilliant little boxes?
yvette yasui

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