The Rise of the Plastic, Disposable Coffee Cup Lid

A look at the origins of a ubiquitous but humble object—and why design experts and collectors are obsessed with it

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Take-out beverage lids collected in the '90s and early '00s, photographed by sarcoptiform

The disposable coffee cup lid falls squarely in the category of random, everyday objects that you might assume are overlooked, but are actually quite the opposite. In fact, they have been collected, dissected, and put on display by a handful of notable design critics and curators.

As early as 1995, design historian and author Phil Patton's personal collection of over 30 lid types underwent categorization and analysis in a feature article for I.D. Magazine. Under the headline "Top This," Patton noted that Americans get through about a billion and a half plastic lids each year, and marveled at "how many varieties there were, how various and intricate the device is and how intensely designed they are."

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The Solo Traveler lid, photographed by sarcoptiform

In 2007, Patton's collection was put on display at the Cincinnati Museum of Art. Press materials for the exhibition, which was titled "Caution: Contents Hot!", drew attention to highlights of the genre:

For example, the Solo Traveler lid was designed to accommodate the nose and lip of a drinker. In accomplishing this design goal, the necessary height of the lid made it useful for foam-topped gourmet coffees. Visitors will also see the McDonald's lid, which is the only lid that features Braille markings for "decaf" and "other."

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The Solo Traveler lid patent drawings

The Solo Traveler lid had been singled out a few years earlier by the Museum of Modern Art's Paola Antonelli for inclusion in her 2004 "Humble Masterpieces" exhibition, where it was displayed alongside such other examples of quotidian ingenuity as the paperclip and the Q-tip. Designed by Jack Clements in 1986, the Solo, or "sanitary lid," as it is officially called, can also claim art director and critic Steve Heller as a devoted fan:

Here come the inevitable Freudian references: the Solo Traveler lid is a substitute for a mother's breast — what we might call nature's original travel lid. [...] It provides comfort and joy as well as nourishment. Certainly plastic is not the most warm and loving material, but somehow the fundamental shape transcends the emotive limitations of the materials. Somehow that lozenge-shaped opening is a means to a totally satisfying end.

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The Harpman/Specht lid collection, as featured in Cabinet

However, it is architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht who proudly lay claim to the largest collection of "independently-patented drink-through plastic cup lids" in the United States. All 40 were put on display in a large safe at Proteus Gowanus, a Brooklyn gallery, in 2005, and featured in an accompanying issue of Cabinet magazine.

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The Harpman/Specht collection on display at Proteus Gowanus in 2005.

Despite the Solo Traveler's celebrity status, to my mind, these lids are most interesting when considered as a group, unified by function and yet differentiated in form. Patton, Harpman, and others have traced their design evolution over time, from the "primitive days" of simple vented plastic circles, through the invention of the sip tab, to the multi-functional straw/sip-through domes of today.

Presented by

Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography, co-founder of the Foodprint Project, and director of Studio-X NYC, an urban futures network run by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning.

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