Humble Masterpieces: Everyday Marvels of Design


From M & Ms to Post–It Notes, a charming and insightful collection of design marvels from everyday life, celebrated by the curator of the MoMA's department of architecture and design.

Every day we use dozens of tiny objects, from Post–It notes to Band–Aids. If they work well, chances are we do not pay them much attention. But although modest in size and price, some of these objects are true masterpieces of the art of design.

Paola ...

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From M & Ms to Post–It Notes, a charming and insightful collection of design marvels from everyday life, celebrated by the curator of the MoMA's department of architecture and design.

Every day we use dozens of tiny objects, from Post–It notes to Band–Aids. If they work well, chances are we do not pay them much attention. But although modest in size and price, some of these objects are true masterpieces of the art of design.

Paola Antonelli, curator of the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Design and Architecture, is a highly celebrated figure in the world of design (she was just ranked among the top 100 most powerful people in the world of art). Paola has long been passionate about the subject of everyday objects that are marvels of design. The response to her recent MoMA show, also called Humble Masterpieces, was electric. In addition to lively coverage in dozens of publications, the museum goers spread the word about the fun of learning about and nominating their own picks for humble masterpieces.

Now, in this colorful visual feast, Antonelli chooses 100 fabulous objects, from Chupa Chup lollipops to Legos to Chopsticks and Scotch tape. Each object will be portrayed with a gorgeous close–up detail, a brisk and informative text on its origin and special design features, as well as a silhouette image of the object as we see it each day. Certain to appeal to a broad audience, and to lend itself to fun, creative promotional opportunities, Humble Masterpieces will celebrate the possibility of looking at our everyday lives in an all–new way.

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Editorial Reviews

Virgina Postrel
“Delightfully illustrated.”
No Source
Merit Award, Special Trade-General, New York Book Show
"Humble Masterpieces, like the designs it highlights, does its job smartly, eloquently, tidily."
Kurt Andersen
“Brilliantly conceived, impeccably executed, comprehensive, authoritative, chockablock with gorgeous photography and fascinating, surprising information.”
“Humble Masterpieces, like the designs it highlights, does its job smartly, eloquently, tidily.”
New York Times
“A heartening read.”
City Page One
“A must-have compendium for the aesthetic perfectionist in you.”
The Architect's Newspaper
“Cleverly designed.”
Business Week
“Short but fascinating vignettes on each object’s creation or lifecycle. Inspirational.”
Interior Design
“One of those surprising books we never imagined we needed, but we do.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060838317
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/29/2005
  • Pages: 216
  • Sales rank: 1,243,102
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 0.54 (d)

Meet the Author

Paola Antonelli is one of the world's foremost design experts and was recently rated as one of the top one hundred most powerful people in the world of art by Art Review. She is a curator in the Depart-ment of Architecture and Design at The Mu-seum of Modern Art in New York City, where she curated the exhibition "Humble Masterpieces" to great acclaim. Italian, and an architect by training, Antonelli has also curated architecture and design exhibi-tions in Italy, France, and Japan. She has been a contributing editor for Domus magazine and the design editor for Abitare. A lecturer at Har-vard's Graduate School of Design, she is also the author of MoMA's Objects of Design and Safe: Design Takes on Risk. She lives in New York City with her husband.
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Read an Excerpt

Humble Masterpieces

Everyday Marvels of Design
By Paola Antonelli

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Paola Antonelli
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060838310

Karl Elsener, Swiss, 1860-1918
SwissChamp Knife, ca. 1968
Plastic and stainless steel
Manufacturer: Victorinox, Switzerland

Swiss Master Cutler Karl Elsener designed his first knife for the Swiss army as early as 1891 and registered his invention in 1897. He dedicated the name of his company, Victorinox, to his mother, Victoria, and to the type of steel used for the knife's blade, inoxydable (stainless) in French. Moreover, he borrowed the Swiss flag, a white cross in a red field, as his company logo. Every Swiss soldier would receive a knife upon entering the army and thus make it known to the whole world -- and as a matter of fact, the knife was a hit with the American GIs during World War II. With the passing of time and with the advent of more advanced production techniques, the original Officer's knife branched out in one hundred different models, each named after the specific type of actions its user will presumably accomplish -- the Electrician, the Tinker, the Tourist, and the Prince being four of them. The SwissChamp, shown here, is a variation of the classic Champion designed in 1968, which had sixteen blades and attachments that performed twenty-nine different functions. As with all the different knives, the SwissChamp comes with a lifelong guarantee, although the company claims that knives are very seldom returned.

Unknown Designers
Spaghetti/Noodles and Pasta, thirteenth century
Durum wheat

Pasta has existed for many centuries and is a delicious example of great design. The simple mixture of durum wheat flour and water, shaped or extruded by hand or machine, is such a fundamental and strong design idea that it has been able to generate an endless variety of derivative designs. Moreover, it is a timeless design, in that its production tools have been updated across the centuries, but its basic form has remained the same. It is easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture, so that almost every country has its own pasta dishes. And it is a universal success of critic and public.

Like some other examples of great design, pasta does not have one acknowledged inventor. As a matter of fact, the Chinese and Italians are still arguing on noodles' copyright. Though some claim that Marco Polo brought the noodles back with him to Italy from China in the late thirteenth century, pasta already existed in both places long before. Archeologists have found signs of Etruscan pasta dating from the fourth century BC, and the Chinese were making a noodlelike food as early as 3000 BC. The manufacturing process is rather simple and consistent. Italian pasta, in particular, is made by grinding kernels of durum wheat. The semolina is mixed with water until it forms a dough, and the dough is then kneaded to the correct consistency. It is then pushed, or extruded, through a metallic die with holes that determine the final shape. When the extruded pasta reaches the right length, it is cut with sharp blades that rotate beneath the die. Hard to believe it could be so easy, but the best things sometimes are.

Alfred J. Reach, American, 1840-1928
Benjamin Shibe, American, 1833-1922
Baseball, 1870s
This model: Rawlings ROMLB (Official Major League Baseball)
Manufacturer: Rawlings, USA

The history of America's favorite sport is wrapped up in the history of the sport's ball. The very first baseballs were balls of twine or sheepskin wound around a walnut and covered in high-quality horsehide, wound by hand. Albert Spalding (that Spalding) used to reminisce that the first baseballs he remembered playing with were made with the socks of brave volunteers.

The first large-scale manufacturers of baseballs were John van Horn of New York and Harvey Rose of Brooklyn, in the 1850s. They made three-ounce balls from a core of melted old rubber wrapped in sheepskin. In 1875, John Giblin patented a ball made of a core of compressed palm leaves surrounded by woolen yarn and covered in rubber. Four months later, Bostonian Samuel Hipkiss patented a ball with a bell inside, thinking it would assist umpires in making more informed calls. For the next forty years, however, the most important innovations came from Alfred J. Reach and Benjamin Shibe, who teamed up as scientist and salesman, designing, manufacturing, and selling baseballs in Philadelphia. Their first baseball was manufactured without seams, a design choice they made thinking it would keep the ball intact for longer. They soon found that it made curveballs nearly impossible and they replaced it with a double-seamed model.

The first mass-production machine was patented in 1876, but it took until 1889 for a machine that could wind yarn to be invented. Reach's son George (incidentally married to Shibe's daughter Mary) received historical credit for introducing the cork-centered baseball in 1911, finding that the resilience of cork was inversely proportional to that of the ball. Another member of the family, Daniel M. Shibe, received the patent for the double seam.

In an interesting turn of design that baseball aficionados find utterly meaningful, the cross section of a baseball -- core, woven material, crust -- is remarkably similar to that of Earth.


Excerpted from Humble Masterpieces by Paola Antonelli Copyright © 2005 by Paola Antonelli. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2006

    Well written and insightful.

    Besides the fact that this book is an easy read and beautifully (beautifully!) illustrated, it opens your eyes to appreciation of many simple things we take for granted. Everyday stuff is revealed to be amazing feats. Very cool book.

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