We’ve all been there. You have a cup of hot coffee in a paper to-go cup with a lid, but when you go to take a sip the contraption betrays your trust and you spill hot liquid on yourself.
Design is supposed to solve problems like this, but the coffee cup lid is one of those odd objects that has never been perfected. A new book called Coffee Lids, by the architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht, chronicles the decades-long history of an object you’ve probably never thought about in much detail–except to curse it when the inevitable drips occur. The compendium features hundreds of coffee lid designs, organized into a taxonomy that distinguishes between the peels, the pinches, the puckers, and the punctures.
Both Harpman and Specht began collecting lids while they were attending Yale’s architecture school in the mid-1990s. When they realized that they were both collecting the same random objects, they joined forces. Their collection now has hundreds of unique lids that the duo has picked up in various restaurants and coffee shops. Fifty-two of the designs are now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection, and Harpman and Specht regularly loan lids to institutions for display–though only the ones they have duplicates of. “Because what if the plane crashed? What if they got hurt?” Harpman says.
The oldest lids are the peel lids, where you peel back a portion of a lid to drink from the cup. The lids of this category that survive today are of the peel-and-lock variety, where you can secure the peeled back piece to the rest of the cup. Pinch and puncture lids are rare, and require the drinker to literally pinch together two elements of the lid or poke a hole through it to let the liquid through–not a very attractive premise, given that the designs require you to put your grubby fingers next to very hot coffee. Very common today are the puckers, where you drink directly from a punched out hole in the lid–that’s what you’ll get at Starbucks.
Pucker lids are where much of the innovation is occurring within coffee lid design. Many are inspired by Jack Clements’s classic 1986 Solo Traveler design–it has a rim out of which you can drink, followed by a deep indentation so you don’t bump your nose against the cup. Then there’s the almost architectural Viora lid, which has a very high lip to mimic the feeling of drinking from a mug. The design is supposed to help you smell the coffee’s aroma, which the designers believe is a central element to the drinking experience. Also included in the book in the pucker section is the Smart Lid, a thermochromic lid that changes color as your coffee cools down, indicating when it’s the right temperature to drink.
Others are quite entertaining. Several have faces molded into them. One has so many “dimples”–those little indent-able elements of a lid that help you identify what’s inside it–that Harpman says it looks like it has acne. One black lid reminds her of Darth Vader’s face, with its triangular dimples and nose-like opening.
Why are there so many coffee lids in existence? Partly because no one has created a perfect one yet–though it’s clearly a problem that designers are still working on. “I just found a new one yesterday,” Harpman says. “After the book went to press, I started noticing even more I hadn’t seen. This innovation thing doesn’t stop. There’s no winner in the coffee lid lineup.”
The wide range of innovation that’s happening within this mundane product genre can be found in the U.S. Patent Office, where each design must be significantly different than what’s already out there to be awarded a patent.
“What’s so great is even though we have this grand parade of coffee lids, the patent registry has even more lids that we haven’t seen,” Harpman says. The appendix of the book includes drawings of some of the most inventive patented lids that likely never made it to production, including two designs specifically created to hold a donut on top of your coffee (sometimes you need a place to stash your snack while you’re on the go).
Coffee lids have even gone to court. In 1994, Stella Liebeck sued McDonald’s after suffering third-degree burns when hot liquid gushed out of her travel cup. The corporation changed the design of their cups after to include the words “Caution,” “Handle With Care,” and “I’m Hot.” Many of the designs featured in the book are plastered with words like this.
For Harpman and Specht, both of whom are practicing architects, the collection has given them a new lens with which to view the world.
“We as architects are very well-trained to look at landscape at a certain scale, the building, city, the furnishing, the settlement scale. But we’re not trained to look at objects,” Harpman says. “Looking something as simple as a humble coffee lid is an entry into that conversation, to slow down, take notice, wonder, ask questions–what is that, how is it made, who designed it? I use it as a stepping-off point.”