Phil Patton cemented his reputation for examining design in everyday objects with “Top This: Coffee Cup Lids,” published in 1996 in I.D. (International Design) Magazine (May/June 1966, Vol. 43,  Issue 3).

That richly illustrated magazine hasn’t been digitized, but the editor who greenlighted many of Phil’s strongest design contributions, Chee Pearlman, selected this article (and offered a telling and humorous forward) for the 2016 compilation of his work by the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, Top This and Other Parables of Design: Selected Writings by Phil Patton, which is still available at the museum’s store.  In 2007, the Cleveland Museum of Art exhibited a selection of his lids in “Caution: Contents Hot.” The original I.D. Magazine (and his lid collection itself) can be found in his archives at the School of Visual Arts.

Top this: Coffee Cup Lids 


Like most Americans, I spend a lot of time on the road and drink a lot of coffee while I’m there. In our cars and trucks, more and more these days, we sip thick espresso or our watery truck stop java. But the trend is not new. As early as De Toqueville, foreign observers noted our national obsessions with mobility and caffeine.

The tokens of these twinned obsessions are thin white discs–the lids of our coffee cups, carefully designed for sipping on the move. I have long been a heavy consumer of these lids, of which we use about a billion and a half a year. Now I am also a connoisseur of them.

It began by chance, thanks to sloppiness. Lids began to pile up on my car floor. Gathering them up one day in an unaccustomed fit of neatness, I noticed how many varieties there were, and how complex the combination of instructions and indications on them, how various and intricate the devices for opening and locking back flaps–in short, how intensely designed they were.

Rolled out of polystyrene sheets, carefully crimped for strength, folded and lapped to fit snugly, scored and sculpted to provide flaps that come loose and look so we can sip on the go, these little discs are coinage of our sped up society, airy wheels that are also testimony to the way we American differ from the rest of the world.

Consider that Europeans often fail to understand, even mock our demands for cupholders in our cars, and the variety of mechanical inventiveness called into play to make them pop out or up, fold or flip, spring or clinch our cups, lids reflect a variety of innovation that may seem disproportionate to their importance. But by best estimates–and none of the industry groups I queried could give an exact figure, we use about a billion and half lids each year.

Their variety and ingenuity is a classic example of capitalist efflorescence: their makers range from giant corporations that also make cups and plates, to “short liners” whose margins are as thin as the polystyrene and whose economics are as rough as the cruder stamping tools they use.

Rippled, folded, beaded, jagged, crenelated, these discs grow fascinating on study. I decided to see how many I could assemble and was surprised when the dozen or so variants I expected turned into two dozen, then three. And as my collection grew I became curious about their sources and designers. And I found myself not only collecting but leaning over people’s shoulders to see what kind of lids, say, the Timothy’s or Gloria Jean chain uses.

Confiding this secret–almost perverse–interest in coffee lids to friends and acquaintances would often enough elicit strange looks. But a surprising number of those I casually talked to had also noticed these objects that, after all, they are constantly lifting up to their faces. One designer recalled how in the primitive days of lids, before sip tabs, it was a badge of skill to be able to neatly tear out a space for sipping. Another friend still recalls a cup lid he drank from seven or eight years ago, at a donut shop in Massachusetts. It was the best one he’d ever encountered, he says, but he has never come across another like it.

Coffee lids show the whole vast machinery of modern culture, material engineering marketing advertising and design carefully swing about and address itself to this most mundane of objects like thousands of other mundane objects.

Like so many other products in our society, they are created by organizations and individuals to which we give little thought and about which we know little. They bear company names Solo, Sweetheart, Dart, Dixie, and a few others, less well known.

If you look at them without touching or lifting, lids can seem as stately as sculpted plaster or marble–like little medallions, even mock cameos–but pick them up and their weight–no more than a fraction of an ounce–deflates their aspirations to dignity. They are disposable in feel as well as function and some are clearly thinner than the thickness of plastic of others to save on material costs.

There are several basic types of lid, I quickly learned: the simple vented–with an aperture to let steam escape–the lock back–with a sipping aperture and a piece of plastic that can be folded back out of the way–and now the gourmet—for lattes or cappuccinos. They bear the triangulated arrows of recycling marks and the number six. This is the Society of Plastics Industries designation for the polystyrene that can be, but rarely is, recycled, to make other plastic objects.

The more I looked, the more differences of detail I noted. How on one flap, the words “fold back” are readable only from the bottom (or from the top in reverse, like “ambulance” lettered on the front for the benefit of drivers scanning their rear view mirrors). Almost all lids are marked with the letters c, c&s, d and so on so the server can indicate cream, cream and sugar or decaf. Many lids feature dimples to be pushed down to indicate cream and sugar or decaf. And more and more these days, they are stamped with a warning that the liquid beneath is hot. These messages seem to have been prompted by a number of suits including most famously one against McDonald’s by a patron who claimed to have burned herself on an excessively hot beverage. (McDonald’s lids bear such warnings and some of its coffee cups almost petulantly announce “Contents hot” and “HOT!” seven times around their circumference, as if the company were still smarting from the lawsuit.)

The function of the lid is not just to keep it from spilling or cooling during transportation of the beverage, but to enable drinking from the cup during transportation at the wheel, while on the train or even walking. The lid must fit snugly but not so tightly as to crack or give excessive resistance when being removed.

The lid is low on the food chain of the food packaging industry, but that industry is a vast interconnected web. Ray Kroc got his start as a salesman for Sweetheart paper cups and learned the restaurant business as he moved up from the cups to the mixers that made milkshakes in those cups. Finally he came across a place that had the most mixers and used the most cups– a hamburger stand run by two brothers named McDonald.

But the creators of coffee lids, like those of cups and mixers and French fryers, are intentionally anonymous. The companies are largely privately owned and do not report total sales even to their trade organizations, such groups as the Polystyrene Packaging Council or the Flexible Packaging Association. The engineers and designers at the companies themselves are singularly close mouthed. With tones like those of a State Department spokesperson they said such things as ” I don’t think it would be appropriate for us to discuss our design methods.”

But all I asked, I told a number of them, was as much cooperation as I had received as a reporter from the White House or from the engineers of the Stealth fighter. They did not laugh.

And I was not joking.

At last I found a thoughtful and articulate man in Sweetheart’s marketing department, named Michael Smith, who was willing to give me a capsule history of the coffee lid. It is not a very long one. In the 1960’s the best thing you could get to top your cup was a disc of pasteboard, with a small tongue-shaped grip, like those still used on cups of ice cream. The plastic lid that fits around the rim of a cup is a fairly recent invention, and did not become widespread until the second half of the 1970’s. Although no one seems to have appointed himself official historian of this particular artifact, anecdotal evidence and a look at patent records suggests a clear narrative.

The first lids were simple discs often reinforced by concentric rings. (They still exist as the most inexpensive sort; I recently picked one up at a Blimpie Base.) During the early Eighties, they gradually acquired perforations that allow a bite shaped or guitar pick shaped bit of plastic to be removed for drinking on the move, without removing the lid from the cup. Various means of locking back this tab were devised, using notches and flaps, posts and sockets. There were even design patents filed on certain decorative elements of coffee lids, such as one with decorative discs on its rim.

Many of the sipping areas relied on tear-through scores that were hard to produce with predictable quality. A “spider” design for Sweetheart, devised by one Thomas Winstead, does away with scoring and claims to let you remove, then replace, a piece of the lid for sipping. It sounds good in the patent description, but in practice I found this replaceable half moon is cruel illusion. Try to slip it back over the rim of the cup and it slips off or sinks into the hole.

Then came the gourmet revolution. From the epicenter of Seattle, beginning two or three years ago, such chains as Starbucks, Gloria Jeans, Timothy’s and others, began to purvey coffee drinks topped with foamy milk, necessitating a new kind of lid. Solo found itself in the happy position of offering the only dome lid design which served to protect the foam of lattes and cappuccinos. That was not its original purpose, however. The Solo “Traveler” relied on a patent filed by a man from Ada, Oklahoma, named Jack Clements and had been sculpted to provide an area for the drinker’s lip and nose by raising the level of the lid above the cup. The lid also offered a kind of overflow reservoir. This raised shape served very well to protect foam. The Traveler is one of the few lids that don’t just claim patent protection, but print the patent number–4589589–on the lid.

Solo soon locked up the business of Starbucks and found itself in an fortuitous position to challenge market leader Sweetheart. But in the world of coffee lids, leadership can be short-lived. Thrown on its heels, Sweetheart put together an effort to match Solo without violating its patents. An engineer named Al Bibeau and other designers at Sweetheart’s Owings Mill, Maryland, factory and engineering center responded with the lid trademarked “Gourmet”, which is only now being rolled out across the country. The most visually elegant of lids, it resembles a small architect’s model for a modern civic arena, with gently angled, curving lid.

Sweetheart had to beat Solo without violating its patents and add additional features. The opening for sipping is set on a raised ridge. The literature boasts of the “plug type lid seat,” and the often overlooked stacking ring for nesting cups–for those occasions when you bring coffee back to the office. And the Gourmet offers something else new: the model for sixteen ounce cups also fits ten and twenty ounce ones, meaning fewer items for companies to stock in their inventory.

The Gourmet is the Cadillac of Sweetheart’s line of lids, which move upward in cost and sophistication from the simple vented to the sip then to the lock back before reaching Gourmet. Its sales literature boasts of the Gourmet: “Even before the first sip, the elegant domed lid that tops your customer’s cup speaks to the freshness and quality of the coffee about to be enjoyed. The upscale look and the modern design of this paper hot cup lid is ideally suited for serving gourmet coffee. Customers appreciate the form, the function….and the shop that features it.”

Almost every lid bears the words “Patented” or “Patent Pending.” So, it suddenly occurred to me, where else to look but in the patent records–the place where the secrets the engineers must publish the trade secrets they so zealously guard in order to protect them. There is a dizzying wealth of patents for beverage lids. As crisp and carefully turned as a lid itself, the prose of the patent claims is suffused with a bright white light of literalness and legality lends them an almost Beckett like tone to some of them.. There is talk of “the prior art” and of tabs and posts and sockets that “frictionally engage.”

But occasionally more prosaic and human justifications of design features break through. This lid is good for “drinking with one hand;” that one claims “less harsh lip feel.”

After running a search on the Commerce Department’s World Wide Web patent sections, I learned I could not download the figures–the drawings. To get them, I tromped to the patent department, room 150 of the New York Public library, fighting through potholes and construction diversion that jolted the coffee cup in my hand, filling the reservoir in my cup lid.

Here, I found the information infrastructure as decrepit as the transportation one. Ancient computers and microfilm machines barely worked. I searched through drawers for cassettes of microfilm corresponding to the numbers of patents I sought and tried to print copies. Copies required dimes, and I had none, so I had to travel two floors to a change machine–which rejected my first bill as too wrinkled before finally accepting as second.

But the vital number–4589589–was on a cassette that was not in its place in the drawer. I scrambled through the return cassettes randomly scattered on the top of the filing case.

I had used all but thirty cents of my change when I hit gold: the original Solo Traveler patent. Another trip to the change machine, another frayed bill rejected.

It occurred to me on the trip back to the Patent Room that what appealed about cup lids was the neat way in which they disposed of a problem, a small problem, to be sure, in life, while the rest of the culture around them remained ragged and uncertain in its dynamics. A lid that works is a small raft of functional mercy in the stormy sea of computer incompatibility, panty hose runs, dead batteries, construction zones, traffic jams, and unprogrammable VCRs, that is modern life.

On the way out of the room, something caught my eye with a white flash. In the waste basket beside the librarian’s desk, floating atop a pile of crumpled papers, sat a Solo Traveler, lightly stained with remnants of brown coffee, a specimen of Jack Clement’s invention, the very device whose Ur Gestalt I had just been looking at on the microfilm reader, the Solo Traveler.

Patent Text: “A drink-through lid for beverage containers is disclosed in which a pre-scored drink-through section is included which is removable by squeezing gripping surfaces on opposite sides of a score line which fractures the score line and permits the section to be pulled from the lid while causing the score to initiate a tearing action through the peripheral bead cavity of the lid to facilitate such removal. A continuous thermo-forming and scoring process and apparatus are provided to manufacture lids with scored sections having a predictable response to applied squeezing pressure on the gripping surfaces.”

As the years went on and my collection of lids expanded, certain patterns became clear.   The evolution from simple to complex lids, for instance.  And a natural, human tendency to see in those lids resemblances to other things—faces and figures, notably.

The first simple, plastic disc lids were soon reinforced with ribs, some radial, some circumferential.  The addition of a pre-scored simple disc  was perhaps a response to the careful informal tearing of the lid to provide such an aperture.

As time went on I began to think of names for lids based on their physical similarities to other things. The common lid used at Dunkin Donut, for instance, I called the hide or oxhide, since its central patterns suggested the stretched skin of an animal. The makers referred to one lid  as the spider but  to me it looked more like a stubby little man with limbs extended, or Leonardo da Vince’s Vitruvian man, the famous man with extended limbs, inscribed in a circle. The little inside tray of the Solo travelers evoked Homer Simpson modeling the positions of same.

Burger King changed one lid so it appears to be winking.  The shape of the large sip area looks like a large, upturned  mouth, so the whole thing gives the impression of a winking clown.

Collecting makes you see differences where previously  you saw only similarities.

The more you collect, the more different your specimens appear.  All cars in old movies look black and square, right?  All beetles and ants tend to look the same to me or you but not to Edwin O. Wilson.  The real connoisseur of, say, stamps is he who can tell the difference among seemingly identical ones which vary slightly in the color salmon  or  pigeon blood pink, or with ten perforations or eleven perforations.

I was constantly being surprised, year after year, by the ingenuity and variety represented by the lids.

I came across the Dopaco for the first time a decade after beginning to collect lids, early one June morning  at four thirty AM when I was picking up my son, returning from a school trip.  I pulled into a convenience store and there encountered the Dopaco coffee lid. An enterprising inventor had a whole new idea. The Dopaco is based on the idea that the lid needs to align the weakest portion of the lid, that is, the part with the sip hole, properly with the seam of the paper cup, reducing potential failure when compressed by a grasping hand. It had never occurred to me that this was an issue, and I could not imagine many users being, well, finicky or picky enough to stop and check that alignment, not to mention busy coffee servers, pouring the brew and applying the lid, having time to make the alignment.

Then there was that name: Dopaco!?  And the instruction: “Ensure lid is firmly on cup rim.” Or, I should say, it read: “ENSURE LID IS FIRMLY ON CUP RIM.” Lid language, generally I’ve found, tends to all caps, and no punctuation.

I never met anyone who stopped to read the words on the Dopaco lid or spent much time worrying about aligning the lid with the seam on the cup.

I learned there were other collectors. Two architects in Texas, Louise Harpman and Scott Specht, became fascinated with lids and wrote an essay about their collection in the magazine Cabinet.  They attempted to define a typology based on the way the sip slot is accessed or opened. Peel, Pucker, Pinch, Puncture are their categories.

They had a show of their lids in Brooklyn at Proteus Gowanus, a new Brooklyn-based exhibition venue and reading room, in 2005.

For lid collectors, as for collectors I suppose of butterflies or Empire furniture, the places where favored specimens were located is very important.  Stories attach themselves to the discovery or acquisition of particular items. 

Some collectors associate unusual lids with the unusual places where they discovered them. This, too, is a natural feature of collecting. Perhaps it is because we only pay attention to lids while traveling. One case: Harpman and Specht wrote of fondly of a lid  they had discovered on a ferry crossing in Isleboro, Maine. From their tone, I sensed they had a good time on the trip.

I suspected that some of the lids became memorable because they were found on trips that were memorable–that the lids had become souvenirs.

I recalled a Thanksgiving trip on the road, driving from North Carolina to Florida to see my father, when I found several new items at fast food spots along the way.

I thought of that early morning when, groggy, up early to pick up my son when he returned from a school trip of some sort, I stumbled into a convenience store and stumbled upon the Dopaco lid. I made a note on another one later, that “Dopaco found June 12, 4:30 in the morning.”

Robert Sullivan, author of Cross Country and Rats, also tied coffee cup  lids to places when he wrote about them.

Sullivan  describes noting a lid. He picks up a cup of coffee, removes the lid and, he writes, “I study it as I open it, if only briefly, with anticipation of rejuvenation, in the same way that I might look at a church door.” He noted the variety of lids, as so many of us had, in parking lots late at night.  “But it is only now, years after I first opened a drink-through lid, that I realize I’ve been traveling the country in the golden age of coffee lid development.”   He was pleased, he wrote, that “streamlined conformity has not yet penetrated their last vestiges of differentiation.”  Still, he feared things might change.  “I don’t like to think that we would ever be a one lid nation but  that day may come.”

He, too, seemed to link lids to places.

He talked about lids he found and still fondly remembers in Raton, New Mexico, and Reynoldsburg, Ohio. 

Three other fans of lids were the architects of Ini Ani, a coffee house on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Louise Harpman pointed me to the café whose walls were covered with lids.  Opened in 2004, Ini Ani was designed by the firm Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis, which was becoming famous for clever, inexpensive interior designs. The whole shop cost only $40,000. They used 429 lids used to cast plaster lids for the wall. Another of their interiors included a roof of stirring sticks.

The firm was founded by partners Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki and David J. Lewis in 1997. They declare that their “ approach is to realize inventive solutions that turn the very constraints of each project into the design trajectory, exploring overlaps between space, program, form, budget and materials.”  Which, if you think of it, is a pretty close approximation of the approach of most lid designers.

I was at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum the night they won a National Design Award for architecture.  They call their work architectural opportunism.

Lids’ warnings about hot contents goes back to the 1990s and the case of the unfortunate Stella Liebeck. In 1992, Mrs. Liebeck rode through a McDonald’s drive through in Albuquerque. The car was driven by her grandson. She stopped to pull the lid off the Styrofoam cup of coffee and spilled it between her legs. Poor Mrs. Liebeck, a retired department store clerk, spent eight days in the hospital for treatment of burns.   

Her burns required skin grafts and abrasion.  She sued McDonald’s, asking for an amount roughly equivalent to her medical bills, or between ten and twenty thousand dollars. The jury awarded her compensatory damages of $20,000  and  punitive damages of $2.7 million, a figure equivalent to two days’ coffee sales at McDonalds and chosen for that reason.

The case provided a political Rorschach test.  To some, it was proof that we were an excessively litigious society.  Of course the coffee was hot, that was the point; why should the customer have to be so warned–and didn’t we have too many lawyers? To others, it was proof that we were a kind and thoughtful society willing to work to improve the most mundane factors of life to reduce danger and discomfort.  Doesn’t a  great society provide protection to the most innocent among us, especially grandmothers?  So this side held.

It turns out that McDonalds had faced complaints and even lawsuits about its hot coffee before. She would have settled for something close to her medical bills, it emerged later.

McDonald’s lawyers proved ham handed. They put a “human factors” expert on the stand who argued that the few people who suffered burns from hot Mickey D coffee were statistically insignificant compared to those millions who did not. An operations manager testified that the company kept its coffee at 180 degrees, give or take five degrees (a temperature known to cause serious burns), and intended to keep doing so.

When Mrs. Liebeck’s attorneys attempted to introduce testimony by other people who had been burned by McDonald’s coffee, the lawyer for McDonald’s derided the effort, saying, “First-person accounts by sundry women whose nether regions have been scorched by McDonald’s coffee might well be worthy of Oprah.”

By some calculus, the jury decided that Mrs. Liebeck bore 20 percent of the blame and so reduced the $20,000 amount to $16,000. The jury-awarded punitive amount of $2.7 million was later reduced, in the negotiations between lawyers, to $480,000.

Soon most lids began to bear the legend, “CAUTION CONTENTS HOT” or something similar.  But in the fall of 2007, in Canada, crossing from Detroit to Niagara en route to Boston, I found a McDonald’s lid that was very different from the U.S. version and completely lacked any warning about hot coffee within.

The basic lids evolved in other ways. By the turn of the millennium, darker brown and black and one mocha sort of color were replacing white lids.

Despite the dominance of a few models and big companies such as Solo, there continued to be markets for smaller companies and unusual lids. These innovators gave a human touch evident even in the plastic discs.

The Letica company chose letters on its lids that look like the familiar script logo of Leica, the great camera company.   The Handi-Kup offered a triple arm spiral form, reminiscent of ancient Sicilian symbols. “ Handi-Kup’s leak-resistant, locking-rim lids make stacking take-out safe and easy,” the company said.

Another very unusual lid was the Philip lid, whose name got my attention for resembling mine.  The name is printed on the lid, along with its patent number (“Patent  4894928”),“Drink with cover on,” and  “Splash Proof.”

There is an almost hand-made or amateurish quality about this lid.  It lacks a rim, for instance, a rarity and not terribly practical.  The word “with” crosses the central rib of the lid so it seems to read, “DRINK WIT COVER ON.”   The H is thinner and sunken into the plastic because of the passage of the central rib of the lid.  It is a clumsy, and somehow winning, conflict between labeling and engineering. The use of the term “cover” instead of “lid” was new to me, as well.

The Dart basic is often used in schools and hospitals and other institutions.  You can’t be much simpler: a plastic disc, no sip slot.   

The Solo Traveler became the best known of coffee lids, praised in several magazines and included in Paola Antonelli’s show at The Museum of Modern Art and book called Humble Masterpieces.

For the Solo Traveler Plus they did something new. It is an expensive and rare lid.  My brother-in-law found one in central Ohio for some reason and sent it to me.  The only coffee vending establishment I know of that really uses the expensive Solo Traveler Plus regularly is one ultra Manhattan.<p”>The Solo Traveler Plus, you see, is something of a rule breaker. The rule it breaks, one I assumed created by cost, was that a lid could be made of only one piece of plastic.  But the Traveler Plus cleverly uses a second, small piece of plastic to create a sliding cover over the sipping port.  The mechanism is similar to permanent plastic cups sold for use by drivers. It is an impressive piece of design, but I have to confess it left me a bit disappointed. I felt it was a kind of a cheat.</p”>

For the Plus, Solo left behind the individual designers and independent inventors.  It went to the pros,  a well known industrial design consultancy called Metaphase.

Metaphase is headed up by a designer named Bryce Ratter. According to its web site, Metaphase “is the world’s leading company for the research, ergonomics and design of handheld products.” It was established in 1991 and is known for such landmarks as the Microsoft ergonomic mouse and a Gatorade bottle, “a new sports bottle paradigm for Gatorade with “The E.D.G.E. (ERGONOMICALLY DESIGNED GATORADE EXPERIENCE). The design is all gear with a choke-hold, grip zones and a mouthpiece that’s shaped to fit your lips precisely. ‘Gatorade’s new bottle design SENT SALES SOARING BY NEARLY 25%.”

The Solo Plus was innovative. With a simple flick of your index finger, you can open and close the sip hole to prevent accidental spills. The finger-operated slide tab is designed to provide both a tactile and audible “click” that tells you are safe to travel without having to look at the lid. The designers say they based the lid on the ergonomics of drinking and anatomic variability; that it fits lips of all sizes and shapes; offers a tight seal to minimize dribbles; and feels like no other coffee lid on the market.

Metaphase bragged about Traveler Plus winning I.D. Magazine’s “prestigious BEST OF CATEGORY AWARD for packaging” in the Annual Design Review. It was also included in MOMA’s  “Safe Design.” No soft sell here.  “At Metaphase, we believe every aspect of design has a reason for being. We design handheld products like no one else in the world, because WE UNDERSTAND THE HUMAN HAND LIKE NO one else.”  No one else?  Even surgeons who work on concert violinists?

One of the patent applications for its lid design includes a list of references to “research.” It sounded pretty much like my research and not a hell of a lot more scientific.  Judging from the notes, the research consisted of somebody going out with a camera and collecting lids.

Lids provided a parable or perhaps also a parody of design: innovation, esthetics,  marketing, collecting.  As a collector, I  thought of myself as part of a legacy of typological researchers. I fancied myself like the Bechers, Berndt and Hilla, the cuddly gemutlich German photographers who assembled their black and white shots of all the different types of coal tipples and industrial water towers.

Or those students of electrical high-voltage, high tension-line pylons and the chicle electrical lines. Or those world travelers who photographed and displayed manhole covers from around the globe on their web sites. 

I gathered a group of the lids for a show at the Cincinnati Museum of Art.  The installers built a large glass frame that hung from the ceiling and allowed for rear and front viewing.

Here was the copy that accompanied the show:

Humble and ephemeral objects, coffee cup lids–collected from delis, java huts and gas stations–are thoughtful and complex in their design.

As new technologies ranging from computer-aided design and manufacturing to scientific analysis of the ordinary act of drinking have converged on such simple bits of circular plastic, the hot beverage lid has developed an astonishing variety.

We present these lids disassociated from their everyday place atop your coffee cup in order to highlight the variety of visual and sculptural forms conceived by designers en route to fulfilling a utilitarian mission. Despite their practicality and function, many of the lids are delightful, even beautiful, to look at–small-scale sculptures that enhance our day-to-day experience.

I continue to be amazed by the constant arrival of new brands and models.  Insul Air and Pactiv (whose shape echos that of a Sweetheart)–names like trademarked drugs! They seemed to have spread to Europe: in Germany I found the Detpak.

But the number of lid designs also implicitly pointed out how much waste all these disposable lids and cups represented. Despite their nominal recyclability, few lids end up anywhere but in garbage cans and landfills.

The idea emerged to carry around your own cup and lid; designer James Burgess offered a witty ceramic cup and rubber lid, mimicking a paper cup and plastic lid, for $20 or so. “It is Not a Plastic Lid” is a reusable, silicone cup lid that tops off “It is Not a Paper Cup,” a porcelain replacement for disposable coffee cups.

The pair follow in the line  of Chinese food containers and Greek diner take-out cups rendered in other, more permanent materials. The names evoke Rene Magrittes’ famous painting depicting a pipe and the words, “This is not a pipe” (Ceci n’est pas une pipe).  The painting’s actual title is La Trahison des Images (The Treachery of Images).

But in fact the cup and lid may be closer in spirit to Marcel Duchamp and to Duchamp’s spiritual successor Jasper Johns, who rendered Ballantine Ale cans in metal, like bronzed baby shoes.

Whether you can actually manage to save plastic by carrying the reusable cup and lid around is another question. Yes, many environmentally concerned people have learned to carry bags to shop.  But the whole point of disposable cups and lids is that they are light and transportable and immediately available. Starbucks sales would suffer badly if every customer had to remember to pack a cup, like a student’s lunch box, every morning.

Our favorite lids:

          Sweetheart Spider – This Sweetheart lid was patented in 1985 with the purpose of replacing scored, or dotted, sip tab junctures with tear lines. These rely on stamping to within a five mil tolerance. The removable pinch and pull back tab is supposed to reattach to the cup by the bead, the round edge that grips the cup lip, but this is a dubious proposition, even if you don’t lose it.

While the patent refers to the “spider” of supports radiating from the center to the rim of the cup, the actual shape in the drawings has five and not eight limbs. It suggests a starfish rather than a spider–or, on second glance, a cartoon of a fat little man.

          Solo Traveler – The brainchild of one Jack Clements of Ada, Oklahoma, the Traveler was designed to accommodate the nose and lip of the drinker but turned out to be useful for foam topped gourmet coffees. Clements also received a design patent for the “decorative” elements of his design.

          Sweetheart Gourmet – Softer and less complicated in shape than earlier lids, it replaces a flap with a sip chamber and dome.

          Dixie – The era of complexity: the lid looks complicated and technical, with multiple dimples– busy but pleasant to the eye with its crimped edges and air of efficiency.

          McDonald’s lid – Some fast food chains have their own customized lids stamped with their names. But even if it costs only fractions of a penny to customize lids, those pennies add up rapidly when multiplied by hundreds of thousands of copies. McDonald’s stamps its arches and Wendy’s stamps its name and logo, but Burger King does not. McDonald’s also has the only lid we’ve run across with Braille markings (for “decaf” and “other.”) We also appreciate the little steam and overflow chimney, in a tower shape, with its trio of collecting pools at the base.

Related: The Rise of the Plastic, Disposable Coffee Cup Lid, The Atlantic