Civilization is built on astounding creative endeavors by artists across all disciplines that have shaped our world. These masterpieces transcend what seems humanly possible and convey an intellectual and material divinity. The Pantheon in Rome, Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, Matisse’s cut-outs, and the visionary abstraction by Hilma af Klint are prime examples. These rare human achievements make time stand still, yet continue to inspire. They command our reverence and make any attempt at matching their significance futile.
However, many modern masterpieces make me slap my forehead and cry, “I wish I had created that!”
When I first saw Tomáš Gabzdil Libertiny’s phenomenal honeycomb vase in an exhibit at MoMA, it left me breathless. It’s a courageous, creative experiment to harness the natural ability of bees to build beautiful objects. Libertiny designed the mold and 40,000 bees did the rest. I was transfixed by every precise hexagonal cell, its elegant shape, and the profound cross-species collaboration.
As an example of creative absurdity, it’s hard to top the hilarious Longaberger Basket Co. headquarters in Newark, Ohio. When I first saw a photo, I blinked twice to register what I was seeing. Was this really a corporate headquarters, or was it a monumental Claes Oldenburg sculpture? The Longaberger company closed its doors in 2018 and was originally slated to become a hotel, but today the building is a roadside tourist attraction. It screams kitsch but also corporate courage.
On a smaller, more domestic scale, I have always admired the bold simplicity and lush materials of Lella and Massimo Vignelli’s Metafora coffee table. This design is maximum modernism but with a playful twist on Platonic geometry. I saw this example at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at RIT, which demonstrates the potential for its owner to customize the design by randomly placing the volumes in the final assembly. I particularly like the cylinder placed on its side as a nod to ruins from antiquity.
Illusion has long been a creative tool artist and designers use for riveting effects. An extraordinary example of this is Swimming Pool by Argentinian artist Leandro Erlich. I first experienced this at PS1, MoMA’s Long Island City outpost. As I entered the gallery, I saw this small swimming pool with a rippling surface. I looked over the pool’s edge and was shocked to see the blurred image of a few people moving beneath the surface! The effect was playfully disorientating and made me grin with delight.
I then noticed a descending stair to a lower floor of the building, which led to the subsurface chamber beneath the pool where the secret to Erlich’s magic was revealed. The actual pool is only inches deep and serves as the roof for the viewing chamber. The design, light, scale, color, and choice of materials of Erlich’s illusion deliver a spectacular theatrical effect.
In two dimensions, Philip Krohn’s visual double entendre EARTH “bumper sticker” is as simple and powerful as you can get with one word. It’s packed with meaning and so evident in design that without the contrasting color, it is invisible. Krohn’s is the kind of conceptual and visual symbol that can’t be improved.
Some of my favorite design masterpieces are quite humble and can fit in the palm of your hand. As shown in the banner image above, these examples that expertly fuse design and engineering are timeless in their form and consistently deliver a flawless performance.
From left to right, there is the plumb bob, Audubon birdcall, tuning fork, farfalle pasta, and to prevent your sushi flavors from blending; there is the faux grass divider commonly served with your Japanese meal.
Every designer and artist stands on the shoulders of those who precede us. Their achievements remind us of what is possible, inspire us to do our best work and challenge us to embrace the unconventional and look for new opportunities in the commonplace.
Next month: “A is for Architecture”
Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.