‘The coffee lid’s entire purpose is to prevent the loss of coffee due to movement of the cup, but it still must have a penetration to enable drinking.’
— From “Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture” (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018, Page 24), by the architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht.
We are surrounded, on all sides, by design problems — not only the obvious triumphs and failures of our toasters and staplers and laptops and pants and phones and chairs and stairs but also deeper problems that define our very lives. The human body, to cite the nearest example, is an evolutionary Rube Goldberg machine composed of the intricate clockwork of our cells and the globular light boxes of our eyeballs and the tubes and slots and holes and valves of our vital organ systems — all elaborate design solutions that have been perfected, more or less, over eons of grinding trial and error.
Modern designers, unfortunately, don’t have the luxury of deep time. And so, very often, they fail. Consider, for instance, the humble coffee lid. We expect from it a small miracle: It has to be simultaneously open and closed, to block all of the coffee we don’t want and release exactly the coffee we do.
This paradoxical challenge has bedeviled generations of designers, whose struggles are showcased in great detail in a beautifully odd new book called “Coffee Lids.” There is something inherently comic in watching such a trivial object be dissected so thoroughly. The authors go deep into the patent registry to extract strange nuggets of industrial poetry: “mouth comfort” and “sealable coupling” and “frangible closure” and “upstanding thumb catches.” Some lids have elaborate swiveling splash blockers and secret flavor chambers and recessed drip catchers. After all these decades of ingenuity, however, the coffee lid remains imperfect. And yet the designers keep trying — a tribute to the human mind’s perpetual struggle to make the world align with its needs, one layer of molded plastic at a time.
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