CONSIDER this humble sugar shaker, a staple of kitchens and coffee shops across the land. About 35 million have been sold -- maybe double that if you include all the knockoffs -- and not one of them labeled a work of art.
Yet that’s exactly what they are, says design historian Bill Stern, a connoisseur of ubiquitous and unsung objects. “This decanter is iconic,” he says, “the very essence of modernism, a perfect meld of function and form.”
Stern, the guiding force behind the development of the Museum of California Design, extols the comfortable swell of the shaker’s glass belly, which is shaped to be cradled in the palm. And the clean gleam of its smooth, slightly canted metal top, which cues a user’s eye to tilt in the right direction. And the placement of the pouring flap, ingeniously engineered “so that when you tip the shaker,” Stern says, “the whole weight of the contents is concentrated at the precise point where it has to come out.”
Previous models were inferior, he says. They didn’t pour easily, and they collected dirt. But this design?
“There’s not a whit of unnecessary decoration,” he says. “It’s made inexpensively but responsibly, so it won’t prematurely break or wear out. Viewed at a distance, it is an extremely elegant object.” And those are just some of the reasons it’s still around.
The man who created it, Henry Keck, is still around too. An alumnus of Dartmouth and Caltech, Keck opened his Pasadena industrial design firm in 1951 with partner Bernie Craig, a mechanical engineer. From their office came a few thousand innovations that have benefited millions: one of the designs for the black box flight recorder in airplanes; a golf cart for paraplegic players; a portable aspirator to revive the unconscious; an automatic tennis ball machine that Keck says is still the biggest seller in the world. The firm developed the first translucent plastic road barricade light, that life-saving flashing orange reflector that aids drivers: “It goes on automatically at sunset and blinks for one-tenth of a second, every second, so the batteries don’t get used up,” Keck says.
Then there’s that unassuming little sugar shaker. Keck remembers the assignment well. It was 1955. The client, Dripcut-Starline Corp. in Santa Barbara, supplied restaurants nationwide.
“They asked us for a sugar dispenser that would be easier for restaurant workers to keep clean,” Keck says. “We looked at what was around; most were ugly and had design flaws. They had thin metal tops with up-curled edges, where sugar and dirt would accumulate. The threads where you screwed on the top were exposed -- another grime collecting spot. The metal pouring flaps were thin and poorly positioned; steam from the coffee caused sugar to clump at the spout. The glass bodies had vertical ridges and bases that protruded, which increased cleaning time.”
So Keck and Craig came up with something sturdy and inexpensive to produce, giving it the modernist shape of what was then the future.
“We engineered it to be completely smooth all around, so there’s nowhere for sugar or dirt to hide,” he says. “Our lid was heavier, die-cast metal and covered the threads. Our flap was heavy enough to knock sugar off the hole after each pour.”
The designers had no idea what a sensation their sugar shaker would cause. “Sales exploded,” Keck says. “Our client was able to retire on the profits from that one thing.”
Craig, who died about 10 years ago, and Keck received only the prearranged fee for their services. More than 50 years have passed since the design was born, and the patent has long expired.
“It’s been copied all over the place, and it’s still being sold through restaurant supply houses. I see it in restaurants every time I travel,” Keck says. “The irony is that so many people have been stealing them that some places have reverted to the older, less desirable style in an attempt to stop the loss.”
Keck, 87, has sold his firm, but he’s still an independent consultant in Pasadena. These days he helps inventors figure out the costs of producing products that are still largely in their heads. “I don’t want to sound egotistical,” he says, “but I know all about things like that.”