Consider the Coffee Cup Lid: Designers Swoon for Solo

Steven Heller praises the Solo Traveler lid, but the entire product line is worth a closer look.

coffee lid

As you sip your afternoon pick-me-up, consider Steven Heller's take on the humble Solo Traveler, aka the coffee lid. It's ubiquitous, it's barely noticeable, it's... Freudian?

The Solo Traveler lid is a substitute for a mother's breast—what we might call nature's original travel lid. The flat covers with the tear-back openings offer no such metaphoric representation. Instead, spout = nipple. Paper cup = warm skin. Coffee, tea or soy = mother's milk. Ergo the lid is a nurturing apparatus.

coffee lid

The product design of the coffee industry has gotten more and more high-tech: there's the Clover, the hand-held espresso-maker, this wacky 88-drops-per-minute iced coffee maker... Not even my trusty Chemex is safe! But in the midst of that caffeinated hoopla, one item has remained, if not entirely unchanged, than at least unswayed by snobbery and science.

coffee lid

In an article on the lid from 1996, Phil Patton estimates we use about a billion and a half lids every year—but that number's sure to have grown in the past decade. The first plastic, snap-on lids were invented in the '80s (before that, they were cardboard). MoMA's design curator Paola Antonelli suggests in her "Design for the Real World" piece on Studio 360 (scroll down) that this is due to advances in plastics manufacturing at the time. Soon enough, all the modern details emerged: fold-back spouts, caf/decaf indicator buttons, and all those "Caution! Hot!" warnings. Heller and Antonelli's favorite, Jack Clements's Solo Traveler, was designed for ergonomics—note the handy lip cut-out—but it turned out it also worked perfectly for foamy drinks he could never have predicted when Clements patented the Traveler in 1986. There are other highlights: the Dart "Lift-n-Lock," with it's central steam chimney (way more nipple-like than the Solo); or McDonald's old-style lid with Braille lettering and little stamped arches logo, which they've sadly discontinued. They're meant for mobility, sure, but they look pretty good framed on the wall.

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  • Thom Mitchell

    Yea, I don't feel the love for the Solo lid - I think it's outdated and in dire need of a refresh. It has two big problems - it let's coffee easily slosh out via the opening and it doesn't reform a leak-proof seal after you take it off and put it back on when adding milk or cream.

    The Solo Lid is great if you are sitting at a table or desk, but it's lousy in a car or if you are walking with it. The Dunkin' Donuts coffee lid is far superior when used in the real world because of it's spill-proof and slosh-proof top. Sure Starbucks now offers a swizzle-stick like device that functions as a stopper, so that people can keep their coffee in the cup on not on their car's cupholder. But they hide them in order to reduce demand and you have to know to ask for them. I hope Starbucks recognizes that people drink coffee in a variety of locations and a better lid should be designed to prevent these spills and sloshes.

    In addition the Solo lid when combined with the Grande or Venti cup has a tendency to leak at the cup seam - especially if you take the lid off and put it on again to add cream. In order to fight the dreaded Starbucks leak - I now grab three napkins not exactly eco-friendly but it keeps me from having hot coffee dripping on my hand.

    Thom Mitchell