NYU professor Louise Harpman and her business partner Scott Specht co-own the world’s largest collection of coffee lids. These more than 550 monetarily worthless specimens are stored in climate-controlled, UV-protected cases, because they exhibit an academic peculiarity: Coffee lids, though simple enough in theory, have been differentiated through absurd over-design, like filters, specially shaped spouts, and unique opening mechanisms. Harpman ponders why we have so many coffee lid designs and only one classic paper clip.
Capitalism is partly to blame. Companies like Starbucks differentiate their product largely through packaging. But Harpman and Specht have discovered so many specimens that the question becomes, do that many inventors and companies really feel like coffee lids are a way to get rich, or is there some deeper need for humanity to feel inventive that’s manifesting in our coffee cups?