“Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture” is a flash of light.
This short, sharp and subtly witty new book by Austin architect Scott Specht — along with fellow collector and design analyst Louise Harpman — illuminates an ordinary object many of us encounter every day.
How many of us, however, have thought deeply about the shape, size, evolution and efficacy of this plastic or — for sustainability reasons — composite insurance against hot spills?
The Specht and Harpman collection of humble coffee lids was considered so crucial to understanding one part of American culture and technology, it was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution.
“As far back as college I loved to accumulate random, often ephemeral items that I found to be beautiful and that were found in dumpsters, old factories, etc.,” says Specht, who will speak May 7 at BookPeople. “These were frequently the products of an engineer’s hand and not intended to be admired on an aesthetic level — old radio tubes, Styrofoam packaging inserts, fiberglass Coke crates and the like.”
Yet these oft-ignored objects inspired Specht’s studies as an architect.
“I did begin to notice coffee lids as part of this ‘stealth aesthetic,'” he says. “And realized after a while that I was accumulating more coffee lids than other items. I began to appreciate the often-over-the-top attempts to engineer a solution to the problem of ‘coffee slosh,’ and this led to a curiosity about why there is such a profusion of lid types.”
Specht was also fascinated with “design bubbles” — periods of time in which an object or product undergoes a rapid evolutionary profusion. Hot and cold water faucets, for instance, have undergone constant and seemingly pointless redesigns over the past couple of decades.
“Toothbrushes followed a similar arc,” he notes, “from simple commodity that was formally the same despite manufacturer to today’s range of endless variations with different grips, bristle types, degrees of mechanization, etc.”
What to do with them?
Harpman and Specht independently collected lids before they met at Yale University.
“When we realized we had the same interests, we began to compare items and traded lids almost like trading cards,” Specht says. “From then on, whenever we would travel together, we’d be on the lookout for new variations or types.”
At some point along this path, they realized this was an actual “collection,” so they made sure that they picked up at least two of every new example they found.
“This is how we decided which ones went to the Smithsonian — they only got versions for which we had a duplicate,” Specht says. “The collection rests in acid-free boxes beneath Louise’s bed. … She now lives in New York and I live in Austin, but she is the official keeper of the lids.”
In the book’s introductory “Field Guide,” the authors identify more design elements than one might guess were possible for such a simple object.
Specht: “Some of the most important include: structural braces or moldings to prevent the lid from deforming and popping off when the cup is squeezed; ventilation ports to allow pressure to be equalized in the cup during drinking; foam lofts to prevent the whipped top of high-volume drinks from being crushed; and slosh-prevention systems, which allow overflow to drain back into the cup after a rough jolt.”
Specht also explains the lid categories — peel, pinch, pucker and puncture — that make up the book’s subtitle:
–Peel lids have a small tab that allows you to pull back a bit of the plastic to form an aperture. Sometimes you just tear this tab off and toss it away, and sometimes the lid is designed so that the tab can be locked in place for reclosing.
–Pinch lids require the drinker to squeeze an element to access the coffee. This type of lid is usually difficult to use, not very common, and has largely fallen from use.
–Pucker lids simply have an opening, allowing you to drink through them directly. These are by far the most common type of lid due to simplicity and low cost, although they often perform less well at keeping coffee from sloshing out.
–Puncture lids require the user to push down on a section of the lid to form an opening, usually resulting in the drinker’s fingers getting wet. Again, this wasn’t an extremely successful branch of the lid taxonomy and isn’t so common.
“To this, we’d also like to add a new category: ‘peculiar,'” Specht says. “Aesthetics seem to be becoming more common, with lids that are shaped like lips or other abstract designs, as well as ‘thermochromic’ lids that change color depending on the temperature of the coffee.”
The book contains some sociology on spilling in our ever-mobile lives.
“A very interesting transformation took place when we went from a society that largely consumed coffee and other drinks in stationary locations or at least in a car parked at a drive-in, to one which values consumption while in motion,” Specht says. “It is a change that took place within a relatively brief period of time and affected the design of numerous parts of our physical environment.”
The development of the coffee lid tracked that of the automobile cup holder.
“Prior to the 1980s, car cup holders largely consisted of small indentations in the lid of the glove compartment into which you could rest a cup while the car was parked,” Specht says. “A notable exception was the 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham, which included magnetic shot glasses that held your liquor in place while speeding down the highway.”
The big switch came with the 1983 Dodge Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, which Specht identifies as the first commercial vehicle with cup holders we know today.
“This development recognized the on-the-go nature of consumption,” Specht says, “but also spurred many other innovations such as the elaborate slosh-resistant coffee lid.”
Specht’s favorite lid exhibits an element of “overwrought madness.”
“The Philip Lid not only has a complicated design with a system of internal vents and reinforcement channels, but it could only be used with the accompanying patented Philip Cup — Styrofoam only,” he says. “Needless to say, this evolutionary dead end didn’t entice too many coffee shop owners to buy.”
Specht points out that the most beautiful lid is in the eye of the beholder but that the Solo Traveler, designed by Jack Clements in 1986, was selected as one of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Humble Masterpieces” in 2004, and “is generally recognized as a great example of industrial design.”
Annoying this reporter, convenience stores keep changing their lid strategies. Once, it was an atrocious “one size fits all” for all cold and hot drinks. Now cup shapes have evolved to fit the sturdier hot option.
“Hot and cold drinks are consumed in very different ways, and lids that attempt to combine both are just asking for a spill,” Specht says. “The coffee lid with a cut-out straw insertion point is especially egregious. In the 1980s-2000s, most coffee outlets carried multiple lid sizes that corresponded to the variety of cup sizes that they offered. Lately, though, large cups have become taller and narrower, while small cups have become shorter and squatter. This is solely so that the rim diameter is the same and that all cups can use the same lid. Occasionally you’ll find a shop that has a specialty ‘espresso lid’ that is tiny, but these are rare.”
By Michael Barnes, Austin American-Statesman
(c)2018 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
Visit Austin American-Statesman, Texas at www.statesman.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.