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From Nintendo consoles to ouija boards: What patents reveal about human ingenuity

You don’t know these designers’ names. But you use their products every day.

Jean Reinecke. Charles Harrison. John Tjaarda. Chances are you’ve never heard of these people. But if you’ve ever used a piece of tape, or vacuumed or used a stove, you have these designers to thank.

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I learned about them and their inventions in a new book by Thomas Rinaldi called Patented. The book covers 1,000 design patents, which Rinaldi narrowed down from the 750,000 patents issued to date. Rinaldi aimed to include the most recognizable design patents, and some under-recognized ones, too, including the first generation Nintendo console, the iconic Fender guitar, the Delorean made famous in Back to the Future, a 1952 bear-shaped honey bottle, the Motorola Razr flip phone, and even a 1920 ouija board. Together, the patents in this book tell a bigger story: that there’s beauty (and a lot of fun) in the objects we encounter every day but don’t necessarily think of as “designed.”

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]
By the 1830s, the industrial revolution was in full swing in the U.S. There were major technical advancements in casting, stamping, and weaving, and factories could mass produce goods like never before. But, according to the book’s introduction, up until that point, patent law only protected how things worked—not how they looked. So manufacturers lobbied for additional legal protection. Enter the Design Patent Act of 1842, and updated Patent Act of 1902, which protected “any new, original, and ornamental design for an article of manufacture.” Designers have been submitting ideas in the same black and white line drawing style ever since.

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]
And they run the gamut. Perhaps the only thing the designers in the book have in common is a confidence in their own idea: They all are “motivated out of a belief that their idea is so great that someone is definitely going to copy it,” says Rinaldi. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they’re very wrong. (See: pig butt clock by Jack Barofsky.)

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The book makes the case that the some of the dullest designs are the most worth celebrating, because they are so important to our everyday lives. Though few of the designers became household names, many were prolific in the quantity of designs they patented, sometimes over decades, and the scale of their reach.

Henry Dreyfuss, one of the most famous industrial designers of the 20th century, has 18 patents featured in the book for companies like Hoover, Whirlpool, Singer, and Bell Telephone. Raymond Loewy, another prominent industrial designer, patented a car, a train, a faucet, a globe, a fridge for Sears Roebuck, and a beverage dispenser for Coca-Cola.

Designer Jack Morgan had a similar body of work but is less well-known. “Jack Morgan was a designer in the ’30s who worked for Sears, and was someone who was as prolific as a Henry Dreyfuss or Raymond Loewy but whose name probably no one is familiar with now,” says Rinaldi. Morgan patented a range of products for Sears, including a washing machine, two portable radios, a car trailer, weighing scale, and vacuum. Jean Reinecke, or as Rinaldi calls him, the “king of the tape dispenser,” patented the classic rounded plastic tape dispenser now in desk drawers everywhere. John Tjaarda patented both a stove and toilet for Briggs manufacturing.

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What you discover is that completely different types of products for completely different companies come from the mind of the same inventor. “Totally seemingly disparate types of objects have this relationship by way of the creative process,” Rinaldi says.

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]
The book also features patents of designs that were culturally transformative, like the rotary telephone and the DC-2 / DC-3 aircraft, which many credit for making commercial air travel a practical reality. There’s the prototype mobile phone on which the first cell phone call was made. There are countless objects you recognize, but don’t typically think about as designed. That reframing is part of the fun.

[Image: courtesy Phaidon]
These hardworking designs are proof that, as Rinaldi writes in the introduction, even mundane objects “are expressions of human creativity in a way that’s previously been reserved for higher art.” Sure, the stuff sold at Sears Roebuck may not be as glamorous as objects from Herman Miller or Prada, but design is all around us, making our lives easier and more efficient. And that’s pretty exciting.

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About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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