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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Happy to Serve You

It's been a hard few weeks for fans of local icons. First we lost Alberto Arroyo, aka, the self-proclaimed Mayor of Central Park and Reservoir Running Dog. On Thursday, it was Leslie Buck, aka Laszlo Buch.

Unlike Arroyo, Mr Buck's face would not have been recognized by many New Yorkers. He wasn't, to my knowledge, a runner. And he didn't even live in the city. But though anonymous, his contribution to NYC culture is so widespread it's hard to imagine the city without him. He was the creator of what is perhaps the most potent symbol of the city: the blue and white coffee cup. It's a testament to how powerful an icon the cup is that despite the fact that Starbucks cups now outnumber the "Anthora" (yes, the cup does have a proper name) roughly 6 million to 1, it's the blue-and-white Anthora that movie directors and Law & Order prop scouts flash in front of the screen when they want to signal an authentic New York attitude. The Anthora—which was introduced in 1960—is the granddaddy of to-go caffeination, a beloved if slightly old-fashioned relic among younger, spiffier receptacles such as the ones we quaff our excellent (and - thanks Gabby! - free) coffees from each week post-run.

Here's something I love about this story: Mr. Buck wasn't a graphic designer. He actually worked for the cup company. Having worked with many designers in my career - some that were legends; none that took design lightly - it definitely made me giggle to think that this iconic artifact was conceived an executed not by a creative professional but by a guy in sales. Vignelli*, eat your heart out.

I'm also tickled by the fact that this monolithic local icon carried on it a phrase most would not associate with NYC: "We are Happy to Serve You."

Fierce loyalty, surprising twists. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere" attitude. That's New York in a nutsh--er, disposable coffee cup.

*From Wikipedia:

Massimo Vignelli (born 1931 in Milan, Italy) is a designer who has done work in a number of areas ranging from package design to furniture design to public signage to showroom design. He has said, "If you can design one thing, you can design everything," and this is reflected in his broad range of work.[3]

1957 to 1960, Vignelli visited America on a fellowship, and returned to New York in 1966 to start the New York branch of a new company, Unimark International, which quickly became, both in scope and in sheer number of personnel, one of the largest design firms in the world. The firm went on to design many of the world's most recognizable corporate identities, including that of American Airlines (which forced him to incorporate the eagle, Massimo is always quick to point out). Vignelli also designed the iconic signage for the New York City Subway system during this period.

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