Thursday, February 07, 2008

In 1955, a Pasadena firm brought a modern look to the table.

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

By Bettijane Levine, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

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