What disposable coffee lids tell us about the complexity of ‘everyday’ design

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CNN  — 

Architect Louise Harpman believes that her collection of disposable coffee lids is the world’s largest. And given that it’s co-owned by one of the few people as enthusiastic about coffee lids as she is, the claim seems entirely reasonable.

Having begun their collections independently, Harpman and fellow architect Scott Specht discovered their mutual interest as graduate students at Yale in the 1990s. Between them, they’ve amassed more than 500 different lids (“or, more precisely,” as the pair’s new book clarifies, “unique, patented, drink-through, disposable hot-beverage lids”).

Harpman admits that being a collector is a “disease with no known cure,” though her affliction is much more than a curious pastime. The architect and professor wants her lids to tell a story of contemporary industrial design. 

“There’s so much design intelligence behind these humble objects,” she said during a phone interview. “I use the lids in my teaching. There’s everyday wonder and beauty in these objects, and I think it’s important for people to see things in a fresh way. 

“Every time I start one of my design classes I talk about the arrow hidden in the FedEx logo – at least half the class hasn’t seen it. So then you start to wonder what else they’re missing.”

Harpman and Specht’s book, “Coffee Lids,” puts the pair’s collection into context through essays, patent diagrams and photographs that – when viewed in quick succession – reveal the subtle differences in design.