Not long before the Museum of Modern Art moved from its makeshift quarters in Queens back to 53rd Street, it offered an exhibition intended to make us look closely at objects we use again and again, thoughtlessly, without even noting their appearance. The show was developed by Paola Antonelli, a MoMA curator of architecture and design. With this small, smartly designed paperback, she documents her exhibition.
One hundred items (“things” would perhaps be a better word here) come under her close scrutiny. Each is shown in two photographs: a full-page picture of a detail of the object that glamorizes it, much as Hollywood photographers glamorized the stars of another era; and a small, sharply focused shot that offers an overall view. The photographs are by Francesco Mosto, who deserves much of the credit for the liveliness of the book.
Ms. Antonelli’s enthusiasm for her collection is all but palpable. She finds beauty in each of her things, even an aluminum and stainless-steel potato peeler such as you’re likely to find in your own kitchen. If you’ve ever thought of forming an art collection but were daunted by the cost, not to worry: No more than $500—and probably a great deal less—will buy you these 100 masterpieces. A search through your desk drawers and kitchen cabinets will very likely turn up at least a third of them. That’s my experience: I have 35, not counting Toblerone bars, Jelly Belly beans and M&M’s, which seldom last a day in my apartment.
Ms. Antonelli deserves resounding cheers for the painstaking research that has gone into her book and the humor that characterizes her writing. Her investigations into the development and manufacture of the products under review are unfailingly interesting. She reveals that necessity was the mother of the invention with many of them.
In 1849, Walter Hunt—a mechanic who built the first American sewing machine, but foolishly failed to patent it—created the safety pin when he needed $15 to pay off a debt.
Earle Dickson, an employee of Johnson & Johnson, invented what came to be called the Band-Aid for his wife, who often burned her fingers while cooking. His wife was grateful, and so was his company: Before long, he was made a vice president.
The T-shirt was developed by the U.S. Army during the First World War after American soldiers—who’d suffered from the heaviness of the clothing issued to them—took note of the lightweight underwear that the British soldiers wore and eventually got something similar. Audiences for A Streetcar Named Desire, Ms. Antonelli reminds us, “were shocked and thrilled to see Marlon Brando’s T-shirt ripped off his body, revealing his naked chest.”
The time-span covered by the invention of Ms. Antonelli’s masterpieces is 17,000 years: from 15,000 B.C. to three years ago. The earliest is the boomerang, developed by Australian aborigines for hunting food and stunning and killing dangerous beasts; today it’s used for sport and play. The abacus comes next: a Chinese invention from approximately 3000 B.C. and still in use today. Equally ancient are chopsticks, also Chinese and a perennial challenge for Western visitors to Chinese restaurants. (The fortune cookie, with which every Chinese dinner ends, isn’t Chinese at all, nor is it ancient: It was created by a Japanese landscape designer to be served at the Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1914.)
Among the many more recent creations illustrated in the book are such diverse aids to daily living as Post-It notes, Q-tips and (an aid at least for some of us) the Screwpull corkscrew. Yes, we could get along without them, but what a pleasure it is not to have to.
The MoMA exhibition included 120 products. Of those in the book, fewer than 50 were on view in Queens. Many items in the show were no longer in production, and others were omitted to make room for products suggested by visitors.
One of the most handsome objects that didn’t make it into the book is an RCA Victor Red Seal 45-r.p.m. disc on translucent red vinyl. I have one of those. I don’t recall what was on the MoMA disc, but on mine Jimmy Durante and Helen Traubel blend their voices in a number called “The Song’s Gotta Come from the Heart.” I’d been thinking of taking it and some other 45 r.p.m.’s to a thrift shop. Now, though, I don’t know—maybe I’ll have it framed.
Malcolm Goldstein is the author of Landscape With Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States (Oxford).