Patents: The Tin Can

The First In a New Series Celebrating the Most Ingenious of Everyday Inventions

These playful and delicate assemblages of canned foodstuffs come courtesy of Erik Wåhlström and Daniel Carlsten to mark the birth of an enduring design classic. The patent for the tin can was first granted to British merchant Peter Durand 203 years ago on this day in 1810. Unfortunately, the can opener was not patented until 35 years later, so the contents were initially only accessible by use of a hammer and chisel or other such lumpen implements—and back then, the container was sealed with lead, which risked poisoning the food within. Yet Durand’s invention propelled society into a future of baked beans, soup and that most unglamorous of British wartime staples, Spam. Later came makeshift improvisations: tin lampshades, stationery holders and the tin-can telephone, or ‘lovers’ phone,’ which allowed users to talk across moderate distances and conduct clandestine, romantic affairs. It came to represent something vital, so much a part of the day-to-day that it inspired a creative movement when Andy Warhol famously made his pop art debut at Ferus Gallery, Los Angeles in 1962, with Campbell’s Soup Cans. The artist’s mother funded his early days by making and selling tin flowers that she recycled out of used cans. “The bigger the tin can the better, like the family size ones that peach halves come in,” he advised anyone wishing to follow her lead.

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    April’s Savior: The Umbrella

    The Cruelest Month’s Ultimate Accessory Gets the Hero Treatment from Stephen Bayley and Tell No One

    As May flowers appear closer on the horizon, we cope with April skies by celebrating the wetter month's undisputed rain-warrior: the umbrella. The iconic accessory is the star of this film by Tell No One, AKA Luke White and Remi Weekes, winners of the Young Directors Award (Video Art Europe) at Cannes 2012, with creative direction by Leila Latchin. The brolly also forms the focus of design expert and sophisticate Stephen Bayley’s century spanning essay. 

    The Umbrella by Stephen Bayley

    There are parts of southern Italy where they have a splendid tradition of flying monks. St. Joseph, who could hover, was one example. But I have seen in obscure churches dingy images of other monks using umbrellas to assist flight.

    In fact, there is a school of thought, unscholarly, but persuasive, that the umbrella’s origin was not as a protection against rain, but as an experimental parachute-like device. Indeed, anybody who has used one in heavy rain knows that, so far from keeping you dry, an umbrella can be used to direct torrents of water onto any part of your body.

    The umbrella may be part of the English gentleman’s iconography, but its cultural history goes back farther than Pall Mall and Clubland. In Nineveh, Persia, Athens and the India of the Mahabharata, parasols accessorized high-status figures and guarded them from the sun: the word umbrella, in fact, comes from the Italian word for “shade.” Associations with sunshine remain with the cocktail umbrella, popularized by San Francisco’s Trader Vic’s, where a cute little pastel-colored paper and wood parasol decorates your Mai Tai and threatens to put your eye out with every sunny sip.

    Protection from the sun gave way to protection from the rain when the umbrella began to appear on the streets of London in the late 18th century, an idea perhaps imported from China. It became so much a symbol of Imperial authority that in Victorian Africa tribal chieftains borrowed umbrellas as status symbols irrespective of weather conditions.

    Post-Freud, we know that the Empire’s tightly-furled umbrella suggests a vulnerable mixture of repression and anxiety in its user. Personally, despite the quasi-phallic character which any thrusting device acquires, I have always found umbrellas emasculating. Isn’t it more manly to get wet? Even Bulgaria’s secret police the Darzhavna Sigurnost’s interesting efforts to weaponize umbrellas by fitting them with ricin-poisoned pellets for subtle urban assassinations has not, if you ask me, made them any more butch.

    And now the umbrella is changing. In the 19th century, silk replaced oiled canvas and umbrellas became lighter and more portable, but, nonetheless, a classic umbrella (the sort you might buy from James Smith & Co) with its cane handle and heavy metal frame is an expensive encumbrance instead of a lightweight convenience. Umbrellas are now compact, cheap and disposable. And, coming full-circle, they are all made in China : the province of Shangyu alone is said to have more than 1,000 dedicated umbrella factories.

    But the umbrella argument remains strong. Despite its functional deficiencies, the potential of any portable device which gives its user a customized protective microclimate will forever be alluring. So, the technological successor to the umbrella may well be the sort of electro-magnetic repellent force field the army is developing for main battle tanks. Imagine: you could be fitted with a supercapacitor, switch it on, charge it up and walk boldly into London weather and remain like a duck’s back.

    But the classic umbrella will, in one form or another, be with us forever. So unambiguous are its meanings that, all over the planet, an umbrella graphic is immediately understood to mean… there is a danger of getting wet. No one ever wants that which is why no-one will ever love an umbrella. You cannot wash away associations of rain.

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    Sergei Polunin: The Fragile Balance

    Jem Goulding’s New Film Captures the Inner World of the Restless Prince of Ballet

    Leaving Ukraine at the tender age of 13 to join London's Royal Ballet School, Sergei Polunin became the youngest-ever principal dancer in the history of the Royal Ballet at 19, earning him comparisons to 20th century greats Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. In this touching portrait by artist and director Jem Goulding, Polunin reflects on early triumphs, autonomy and “playing with journalists” while performing at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Theatre. Known for his visceral, adrenaline-charged technique and emotive style, the dance prodigy is making a return to ballet since his controversial departure from London's Royal supertroupe last year. Goulding assembled footage from a week spent with Polunin on and off the stage in Moscow, where he is currently under the mentorship of Igor Zelensky, the artistic director of the Stanislavsky Ballet. “Sergei was in the middle of an intense rehearsal schedule for his tour of Coppelia, and I sat in on rehearsals every day,” explains the filmmaker, “though I always planned to catch him outside of ballet; sometimes we would be at a restaurant, other times he was fresh out of the shower after training, and tired.” Shooting on Super 8 and her 16mm Bolex camera, Goulding depicts a seldom seen side of Polunin: From candid moments in Red Square to a spontaneous tour of the Bolshoi. “Sergei is an adrenaline junkie, a thrill-seeker and fearless in many ways,” she adds, “even if some of it comes from youthful naivety, it's still compelling.”

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