INTERVIEW: Thomas Rinaldi: The Patented author talks about sifting through a treasure trove of 800,000 images for his new book
He describes the pride he took in unearthing 'the king of the tape dispenser', and why writing the book was like 'working with a flashlight in a graveyard'
Thomas Rinaldi understands the aesthetics of our modern age. The architectural designer, based in New York City, holds degrees from Georgetown and Columbia Universities. He has written several architecture books and his photographs have been published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Post. However, he didn’t contribute a single shot to his latest title, Patented: 1,000 Design Patents. Instead, the author immersed himself in the archives of the US Patent Office, to draw together his engrossing, essential overview of product and industrial design.
In this interview, he describes how he slimmed down a shortlist of nearly 800,000 submissions into the book’s 1,000 patents, why he was proud to shed light on overlooked design geniuses, and which design classics he would like to own, if parking (or runways) weren’t a challenge.
First of all, why patents? What prompted the interest? I’ve always been very stimulated by the challenge of figuring out who designed something. This is challenging enough when writing on architectural history, but even more challenging when researching furniture or manufactured goods. As design patents were digitized, they started to come up more and more in my Google searches, so I decided it was time to really figure out what these documents are, what they really tell us, and how to make the best use of them as a research tool. What I found along the way was just incredible.
Design patents have a very distinctive look, and a fairly prescribed style of illustration. Could you describe this, and explain how it came to be? Patent drawings have to adhere to a set of standards in the Patent Office’s “Manual for Patent Examination Procedure.” For generations, before the Internet, the drawings were disseminated by way of “gazettes” where they were reproduced at one-quarter of the size that they were submitted, so the guidelines were designed to ensure that the drawings would still be readable at that reduced scale. This really gave patent drawings “that look” that they’re sort of famous for. As noted above, Utility Patents are a bit more technical in character than design patents, but they share that same kind of graphic character. It wasn’t always this way - early patents (before the 1870s) were often in color. Photographs have sometimes been allowed in lieu of drawings. More recently, we’ve really seen a significant change in the visual character of patent drawings thanks to the increased use of 3D modeling software.
You edited the 1,000 design patents featured in this book from a much wider selection. How did you make the cut? I’m very glad you asked! Really the whole art of this exercise was the selection process - the “curation” that went into shortlisting 1,000 designs from a pool of nearly 800,000. In fact, I devised a sort of a formula that guided the bulk of this process, and I didn’t get to talk about it in the book. My fear is that someone might see this book as just a pile of patents and not realize how much effort went into selecting which ones to include - hundreds, maybe thousands of hours went into this.
The beauty and the downfall of using patents as a research tool is in fact how many of them there are. There are so many that they become almost blinding, you don’t know where to start. I established starting places in the form of perhaps a few hundred designs that were either canonical or just particular favourites of mine. Taking each one, I then made sort of constellations by working outward in two axes of investigation, rounding up all patents issued to the same designer on one axis, then rounding up all patents of that typology on the other axis. Sometimes I would add a third axis and round up all patents issued to the manufacturer too, if one was named.
The process was sort of like working with a flashlight in a graveyard, but making a time exposure photograph of the process that you could look at afterwards and see the whole cemetery as though lit by stadium lights. The end result yielded some really fascinating stuff - patents for certain design classics, yes, but also totally forgotten designs by some of the biggest known names in design (a bidet by Gio Ponti, billiard tables by Donald Deskey), and best of all, it revealed entire bodies of work by prolific designers whose names have been all but forgotten.
I wound up with a shortlist (“short”) of about 25,000 patents. From this, I figured 1,000 would be a big enough number to include all the “greats” without leaving too big a pile on the cutting room floor.
There are a few different types of patents. The book focusses on design patents. Why is that? In the US, there are actually 3 types of patents: Utility, Design, and Plant patents. They’re all called “patents'' but really what most people think of when they hear that word “patent” are Utility Patents. Design Patents are so distinct from Utility Patents that I sometimes think they should never have been called patents at all. In fact there is a bit of a grey area between Design Patents and other forms of IP protections like Trade Marks and Trade Dress. One can very quickly get into the legalistic weeds on this - in fact there are legions of lawyers who spend their whole careers doing just that. People often characterize the difference by saying that Utility Patents protect how something works, Design Patents protect how something looks. A Utility Patent will often have many many drawings and pages of descriptive text; Utility Patent drawings are often very technical in nature and will have little key tags on them referring to specific things described in the accompanying text. Design Patents by contrast will have just a few drawings - sometimes only one - with no key tags (for those issued after 1902) and only a few paragraphs of accompanying text, which is mostly boilerplate. The basic idea is to ensure that a consumer should be able to tell the difference between different “articles of manufacture” by their appearance.
The US Patent Office began issuing utility patents in the 18th century, but they only got around to issuing design patents in the 19th century. How come? There’s a fascinating history here which I try to get into in the introduction; one has to remember that manufacturing as we know it today was still very much in a formative state at that time. Manufacturing and modern consumerism took off at the same time that technology enabled manufactured goods to be ornamented and styled en masse - you no longer necessarily needed artisans to apply patterns, details could be cast from molds rather than individually carved, for example. Suddenly proprietary style became relevant to an object’s saleability and manufacturers sought legal protections for the design of their products. But existing patent legislation wasn’t really tooled to address aesthetic considerations, so manufacturers (notably the owner of a New York iron foundry that made cast metal products) agitated for a new legal apparatus that would address their needs and this regards, and Congress instituted Design Patents in 1843.
We all know about famous designers such as Dieter Rams or Raymond Loewy, but there must be a lot of unsung design geniuses. Whose work really stands out in Patented? Oh yes, well - discovering all of the Loewys we’ve never heard of was really probably the most rewarding part of this whole exercise. Those celebrity designers are just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many practitioners who were (and are) so talented, so prolific, but who just never achieved celebrity status. A few come to mind right away - people like Chicago-based Jean Reinecke (1909-1987), who I like to call the “king of the tape dispenser” because it turns out he designed probably 75% of the tape dispensers we’ve all used for most of our lives. He was an independent design consultant so he designed all sorts of other products across a range of manufacturers. For most people outside the industry, it can be something of a revelation to think that such disparate types of objects produced at very different times share a common design DNA having been authored by a single person.
But there are other designers, equally interesting, equally talented, who sometimes wound up working in-house designing one particular product type for one company for decades, and they really fell into obscurity until one starts to see their names turn up on dozens of Design Patents. Ray Patten comes to mind there, who was an in-house designer at General Electric who designed everything from kitchen timers to locomotives, or Charles McLeod, designed everything from bicycles to tableware before settling at Sunbeam Corp. and cranking out dozens of designs for electric clocks in the 1960s. The Design Patents flipped the switch on spotlights on dozens of designers who really don’t get the credit they should.
Which of the products do you love owning and which do you wish you owned? Uh oh, you’ve really hit on something here! As may be evident from the pages of this book, I am a collector of all sorts of things, and have been since I was a kid. I’m just a huge admirer of design, I kind of want to order everything on the menu. Some things are so valuable that it’s a bitter pill to know I’ll never be able to own them - certain vintage automobiles come to mind. I suppose writing this book was partly a means of collecting certain things by proxy. I mean, even if I could afford a 747, I’m not sure where I’d put it.
What was the oddest design patent you came across? Patents for weird things are sort of a whole genre of their own. One can Google “strangest patents” and there’s almost no end to the bizarre things that come up. However, these tend to be mostly Utility Patents for inventions that are sort of like “who would ever come up with something like that” or “why would anyone ever need such a thing.” These are often very amusing. That said, Design Patents have their own oddballs among them to be sure. For instance, there are a lot of what are sometimes called “novelty items” - schlock, in other words. In Patent Office parlance, the term for these things is “simulative” - things that are modeled after other things, like animals or plants or unrelated types of manufactured goods. These range from the sometimes tasteful - clocks modeled after ships’ wheels, for instance - to the cute or whimsical, to the totally awful, even racist or obscene. I found things that were never going to make it into the book, let me put it that way. It is always amusing to see such crazy designs cloaked in the official finery of a patent document though, partly just to marvel at the idea that someone actually thought such a terrible design needed protecting - and spent thousands of dollars getting it protected.
Is there a golden period for design patents? My instinct is to say yes, and that the 1930s were the golden era. Design Patents had already been around for almost 100 years, but the 1930s saw a spike in the number of Design Patents being issued. This coincided with the period that is generally seen as being the birth of Industrial Design as an organized profession, the years when we really had our first celebrity product designers. Magazine ads would feature photos of people like Raymond Loewy alongside their products, and sometimes even products they hadn’t designed, almost like athletes sign product endorsement deals today. In curating which patents to include in the book, it was really hard not to skew the selection too much toward this period - we had to make some really painful cuts; I still don’t know whether that was a matter of my own personal preference or if it’s just that there were so many great designs patented during that period. That said, I think we may be in a new golden age for Design Patents, if not for design itself. Various factors like the 2016 Apple v. Samsung U.S. Supreme Court decision, globalization, and the opening of new markets in industrializing countries, have conspired to fuel a frenzy to patent more designs than ever before, the growth in the number of patents issued has been almost exponential, I don’t know how the Patent Office has kept up. Other countries too are increasingly instituting similar agencies for providing legal protections for designs.
Have you ever lodged any patents yourself? Oh, good question! The short answer is no - not that I can talk about here, at least! Now that you mention it, I’ve built my own furniture and things but oddly it’s never occurred to me to go after a design patent for any of it, I suppose I’ve never thought of having it manufactured. As a huge admirer of the whole institution, I sometimes think it would be nice to have my own Design Patent just to have my own little stake in the field for posterity. Most of us probably have our “million dollar ideas” that come to us now and then, but that’s usually more Utility Patent territory than the stuff of Design Patents. I guess for now I’m still so busy marveling at other people’s work that any brilliant designs of my own will have to wait.
To see all the works Thomas describes here, as well as much more besides, get a copy of Patented here.