What would our daily lives be like if Band-Aids, zippers, Kleenex, clothes hangers, ballpoint pens, paper clips and dozens of other handy home and office items had never been invented? “Hidden Heroes: The Genius of Everyday Things,” the current exhibition at the Museum of Design Atlanta [through May 11], not only celebrates the inventors of 36 of these seemingly ordinary objects but makes their practical yet revolutionary design the main attraction in a show that is playful, witty, and informative.
Take, for example, the coffee filter, invented by Dresden housewife Melitta Bentz in 1908. Typical of most of the presentations on view, the Melitta display becomes an affectionate shrine to the product, combining vintage and contemporary versions of the object with sensory enhancements (in this case, a delightfully archaic German TV commercial) in a minimalist, uncluttered setting.
Some of the cleverest displays are the most iconic—Lego, the Post-It Note, the baby pacifier, and bubble wrap (a small speaker broadcasts the sound of the packing material being gleefully popped). While you might not ordinarily wonder about the origin of transparent adhesive tape or who invented the barcode (Norman Joseph Woodland, in case you didn’t know), “Hidden Heroes” serves up just enough factoids to whet your appetite for more information.
The show is also ideal for family viewing or a school outing. Yes, the condom is among the many important inventions on display but the presentation cleverly sidesteps any controversy with its sly positioning of a German billboard that demonstrates the flexibility of the product with cucumbers, carrots and asparagus standing in for human models.
Organized by the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, the exhibition illuminates four important design aspects of each product on display: inspiration, innovation, production, and evolution. The simple beauty of this approach is that something we normally take for granted, like a rubber band or egg carton, becomes truly extraordinary when placed in a broader historic and global context.
Jeff Stafford is an Atlanta-based arts and lifestyle writer.