Patented is an ode to unglamorous industrial design

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Jean Reinecke. Charles Harrison. John Tjaarda. Chances are you’ve never heard of these people. But if you’ve ever used a piece of duct tape, vacuumed, or used a stove, you need to thank these designers.

I heard about them and their inventions in a new book by Thomas Rinaldi called Patented. The book covers 1,000 design patents, which Rinaldi has reduced from the 750,000 patents issued to date. Rinaldi aimed to include the most recognizable design patents, as well as some under-recognized, including the first generation Nintendo console, the iconic Fender guitar, the Delorean made famous in Back to the future, a 1952 bear-shaped honey bottle, the Motorola Razr flip phone, and even a 1920 ouija board. Together, the patents in this book tell a bigger story: that there is beauty (and a lot of fun) in objects that we encounter every day but which we do not necessarily consider to be “designed”.

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]

In the 1830s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing in the United States. There were major technical advances in molding, stamping and weaving, and factories could mass produce goods like never before. But, according to the book’s introduction, until this point, patent law only protected the way things worked, not the way things looked. Manufacturers have therefore lobbied for additional legal protection. Enter the Design Patent Act of 1842 and the updated Patent Act of 1902, which protected “any new, original and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.” Since then, designers have been submitting ideas in the same black and white line art style.

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]

And they run the gamut. Perhaps the only thing the designers of the book have in common is confidence in their own idea: they are all “driven by the belief that their idea is so great that someone is sure to copy it,” says Rinaldi. Sometimes they are right. Sometimes they are very wrong. (See: Pig’s End Clock by Jack Barofsky.)

The book shows that some of the most boring designs are most worth celebrating because they are so important in our daily lives. Although few designers became household names, many were prolific in the amount of designs they patented, sometimes over decades, and the breadth of their reach.

Henry Dreyfuss, one of the most famous industrial designers of the 20th century, has 18 patents featured in the book for companies like Hoover, Whirlpool, Singer and Bell Telephone. Raymond Loewy, another prominent industrial designer, patented a car, train, faucet, globe, refrigerator for Sears Roebuck, and beverage dispenser for Coca-Cola.

Designer Jack Morgan had a similar body of work but is less well known. “Jack Morgan was a designer in the 1930s who worked for Sears, and was someone who was as prolific as Henry Dreyfuss or Raymond Loewy but whose name probably no one knows now,” says Rinaldi. Morgan has patented a line of products for Sears, including a washing machine, two portable radios, a car trailer, a scale and a vacuum cleaner. Jean Reinecke, or as Rinaldi calls him, the ‘king of the tape dispenser’, patented the classic rounded plastic tape dispenser now everywhere in office drawers. John Tjaarda patented both a stove and a toilet for the manufacture of Briggs.

What you find is that completely different types of products for completely different companies come from the mind of the same inventor. “Totally seemingly disparate types of objects have this relationship through the creative process,” says Rinaldi.

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]

The book also features patents for designs that transformed culture, like the rotary telephone and DC-2 / DC-3 planes, which many credit for making commercial air travel a practical reality. There is the prototype cell phone on which the first phone call was made. There are countless items that you recognize, but generally don’t think of as they were designed. This cropping is part of the fun.

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]

These laborious designs are proof that, as Rinaldi writes in the introduction, even mundane objects “are expressions of human creativity in a way that was previously reserved for higher art.” Sure, the products sold at Sears Roebuck may not be as glamorous as the Herman Miller or Prada items, but design is all around us making our lives easier and more efficient. And it’s pretty exciting.


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