2015-07-29 / Arts & Entertainment News

Put a lid on it

The amazing variety and beauty of coffee lids
BY NANCY STETSON

Coffee lids.

Many of us use them several times a week, or, if we have a serious java jones, every day… or even several times a day.

We press them against our faces and touch our lips to them.

We appreciate their function, but we rarely look at these everyday objects, let alone notice their beauty.

“I think they’re exquisite,” says architect Louise Harpman, a founding partner of the architecture and urban design firm Specht Harpman, and architecture and design professor at New York University. “I think they’re amazing. They’re like little sculptural pieces in and of themselves.”

She’s compared some of them, with their dips and ridges, to miniature skate parks, to Darth Vader and to “an architect’s model of a civic center.”

She and her business partner, co-founder Scott Specht, who have offices in New York City and Austin, Texas, are co-owners of the world’s largest collection of disposable plastic coffee lids — more than 550 of them.


Louise Harpman and Scott Specht maintain one of the world’s most notable coffee lid collections. 
SPECHT HARPMAN / COURTESY PHOTO Louise Harpman and Scott Specht maintain one of the world’s most notable coffee lid collections. SPECHT HARPMAN / COURTESY PHOTO Not only do they come in a variety of designs, but in a multitude of colors.

Coffee lids are not just black and white.

“Green, pink, blue, brown, yellow,” lists Ms. Harpman. “We have a whole rainbow of colors.”

One of Mr. Specht’s favorite lids is white and red.

“One lid that is really beautiful, looks almost like a Prada logo,” he says. “It’s a white lid and has a red tab that slides up and down to open and close it. I like the dual color, the white and the red; it’s a very interesting-looking one.”

The lids live in “12 or 14 acid-free boxes” under Ms. Harpman’s twin beds.

Coffee lids and their design came to their attention in the early 80s, when they were attending different colleges.

“We just started noticing them,” Ms. Harpman says. “The to-go culture hadn’t started yet. McDonald’s was there, but the idea you would take your coffee to go wasn’t part of our cultural make-up.”

The two met in graduate school at the Yale School of Architecture and found their common interest merging, says Mr. Specht.

Some lids, like the ones Starbucks uses, have a clean, minimalist design. And then there are others, he says, that “seem to go way overboard with that they do. They make it more complex than what it needs to be. (For example, there’s) one that has a small lever; you pull it around, it closes off the hole. There’s a pivot point, several layers. I don’t know how restaurants (that use them) justify the cost.”

Part of the appeal of the lids is the wide variety of design.

“Think of them coming up with a solution, an answer to something to how it’s going to work,” he says. “You can go in so many different directions and come up with the same functional endpoint.”

These architects aren’t the only ones who recognize the artful design of coffee lids.

The Solo Traveler coffee lid, designed by Jack Clements in 1986, was selected by the Museum of Modern Art for its 2004 exhibit, “Humble Masterpieces,” and is a part of its permanent collection.

And more than 50 lids from Ms. Harpman’s and Mr. Specht’s collection were on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in its “FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950 – 2000” exhibition.

“I only lend the ones I have multiples of,” Ms. Harpman says. “Some of them are not being made any more, so if I lost one, that’s it.

“And we made history with this kooky collection. We’re in their permanent collection now.”

“There’s an issue with plastic material; you think of plastic as (lasting) forever,” Mr. Specht says. “(But) they’re a liquid, and it starts to melt. They’re difficult to preserve. The Museum of Modern Art has a collection of Tupperware, and it started to change shape over time.”

“So it was a double honor,” Ms. Harpman adds. “They knew that plastic had its own curatorial problems, but they wanted it.”

They received a letter listing the accession date and the acquisition number.

“Of all the things we’ve done, I feel proud of that,” she says.

Paola Antonelli, curator of MoMA’s design department, sent them a note of congratulations when their lids were accepted into the Smithsonian.

Part of their collection is currently on exhibit at Mmuseumm 2 (yes, spelled with two m’s at the beginning and end) in New York City, curated by Alex Kalman. The miniature museum is housed in an abandoned freight elevator shaft in TriBe- Ca. (Also on exhibit is industrial designer Tucker Viemiester’s collection of toothpaste tubes from all over the world.)

“It’s the quirkiest museum,” says Ms. Harpman.

Their collection’s been written about in Smithsonian.com, theAtlantic.com and bon appetite.com, as well as the New York Times Magazine.

The four Ps of lid collecting

They categorize their collection by four different functions: the peel, the pucker, the pinch and the puncture.

The peel lids have tear tabs; they call them “removable wedges” or “guitar picks.”

The pucker lids, such as the Solo Traveler, “requires its user to drink through the lid, not from the cup,” they wrote in a 2005 article for Cabinet magazine. “This type of lid offers a certain degree of ‘mouth comfort’…”

The pinch lids work like the peel lids, only they require the user to pinch part of the lid in order to drink.

And the puncture lids require the user to push down on a specific area to puncture the lid.

They first began collecting coffee lids during trips.

“When we went in restaurants and saw a new one, we’d pick it up,” Mr. Specht says.

As word of their collection spread, lids came from everyone: fellow architects, friends, students. Manufacturers even send them samples.

FoamAroma sent them several boxes of lids.

“They were fascinated and wanted to be in our collection,” Ms. Harpman says. “Viora is another company trying to do the same thing. Both of these companies (feel that) the problem with drinking to-go coffee is that you don’t get the aroma. If you get your nose closer to the coffee, that will enhance the taste.”

Inventor Timothy Spurger, based in Florida, is also working with this concept, she says. He calls his lid The Arom-Ahh!

“People give them to us,” Ms. Harpman says. “A former student of mine who was in the Netherlands sent me two that were on the plane; they were crazy. Our architect friends know that we collect these and they send them to us. Billy Tsien sent us a lid with a teddy bear face on the front.”

“The Solo Traveler seems to be the most ubiquitous one,” says Mr. Specht.

Though they both love coffee lids, neither desires to design one.

“I don’t have an interest, especially when you see the sheer amount of competition you have against you,” Mr. Specht says. “It’s hard to be enthusiastic (when you know there are so many others designing them.)”

Ms. Harpman says she doesn’t specifically go out hunting for new lids.

“I go about my life,” she says, “and if I see something, I say, ‘Fantastic. I don’t have that one!’ I think that’s true of a lot of collectors: you’re either consumed by it, or it’s a part of you. Its’ a part of me. We’re happy when a new one comes.

“For me,” she says, “ the beauty (in) these lids (is): I see the mind of the designers working, solving a problem, a really interesting problem: how to keep the hot liquid in, yet deliver it in a very reliable way.”

One phrase that pops up in the patents is “mouth comfort.”

“The designers want it to feel good to you,” she says. “That’s really important.

“There’s a humbleness to these coffee lids. They’re not considered designed objects, they’re considered an afterthought, like the Band-Aid.”

But then she pauses, and reconsiders what she’s said.

“But if you look at how a Band-Aid is designed, that’s really great too,” she says. “It has to be sticky in one spot, but not another, then waterproof. Anything you start to look at, you realize there’s a lot going on there.”

Industrial designers keep tweaking the disposable coffee lid, making adjustments, improvements, innovations.

“They’re always besting each other,” Ms. Harpman says. “I think there’s going to be the next Serena Williams of coffee lids. I want to see the next one that’s going to show up.” ¦

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