The paper clip. The clothespin. The umbrella. They are objects so ubiquitous, they seem as if they’ve always been with us. Like the oxygen we breathe or the water that flows from the faucet when we turn it on, we take the light bulb, the rubber band and the pencil for granted as necessities of daily life.
These simple objects and their origin are the premise of the engrossing Museum of Design Atlanta show “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things,” centered on items ranging from condoms to bar codes, and from Legos to egg cartons. As the exhibition notes proclaim, a “Hidden Hero” is “an indispensable fixture of daily life. It has proven itself time and time again and remained essentially unaltered for decades. In other words, an everyday classic.”
The premise of “Hidden Heroes” is wonderfully straightforward: Some objects’ brilliance is tied up with their utility.
“Hidden Heroes” originated at Germany’s Vitra Design Museum, and is a triple-threat: conceptually focused, accessible and intellectually rewarding.
The individual inventions are displayed in wooden shipping crates turned on their sides. The presentation suggests individual displays or dioramas in a time-tripping, global science fair. The objects are displayed alongside vintage television commercials, industrial films and advertising associated with each object.
The individual boxes do a nice job of compartmentalizing and celebrating the unique moment and special circumstance of each object. But the inventions are also linked together in the cacophony of sound bites bleeding together in the exhibit, a not unpleasant white noise from the various video clips playing that somehow conveys the industry and excitement of invention.
Some of the exhibits even come with their own olfactory “soundtrack”: The unmistakable scent of pencils and rubber bands provides another reiteration of how completely these objects have insinuated themselves into our consciousness.
In keeping with the museum context, a number of the objects are also displayed with artworks that riff on these iconic objects. The display of Legos — from the Danish “play well” — includes photographs of the clever street art of Berlin’s Jan Vormann, who fills gaps in damaged buildings around the world with Lego blocks.
Many of the inventions follow a kind of blueprint: Some new technology is invented or the character of life essentially changes and suddenly, what seems like a sui generis solution arises. Machines built to bend and cut wire heralded the invention of the paper clip, the ability to vulcanize rubber begat the modern condom and molded earplugs responded to the suddenly unbearable cacophony of modern, city life.
In other cases, invention was serendipitous, as with the tea bag. Tea samples were once kept in fabric pouches that some clever soul one day realized could be dipped in hot water to make tea.
The exhibition is a fascinating history of the objects that surround us, often conveying unexpected insights, such as the fact that the umbrella was invented to keep the sun — rather than the rain — off and the object synonymous with a good time — the corkscrew — was invented in 1795 by a clergyman, of all people. There is a whole year’s worth of such dinner party anecdotes on offer in “Hidden Heroes.”
If the history of design has been about invention and then ownership, with names like Faber (pencils), Kleenex (tissues) and Bic (ballpoint pen) suddenly synonymous with their creations, the show ends on a very 21st-century note that emphasizes the open-source democratization of design.
A display of three MakerBot 3-D printers in constant creative motion shows the possibility of putting creation in the hands of many. Two MODA employees are on hand to convey the magnitude of that invention even as viewers stand transfixed by the whirring machines churning out cellphone covers and chess pieces. Invention, as these machines articulate, is a marvel and as seductive to the human imagination as a flickering fire. MODA employee Neil Miller has watched the machines spit out any number of objects but, he admits, “It’s still mildly hypnotic.”
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