A Weird and Wonderful History of Design Patents

A new book pulls from the more than 750,000 design patents issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) since 1900, bringing together a fascinating range of products, including cars, buildings, domestic appliances, electronics, and more. Patented: 1,000 Design Patents by Thomas Rinaldi (Phaidon, 2021) is an illustrated journey through more than a century of American trends and technologies, necessities and innovations. The evolving designs across its pages tell the story of an unceasing human creativity that continues to this day.

Patented: 1,000 Design Patents by Thomas Rinaldi (Phaidon). Fountain Pen, Kenneth S. Parker, for the Parker Pen Company, (1929/1930) (left); Cash Register, Bernie M. Shipley, for the National Cash Register Company (1929/1930) (right)

If you’ve ever wondered about the original design of the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile, the Porta Potty, the iPhone, or the toasters, tape dispensers, and other products that populate our daily lives, then Rinaldi’s book is for you. Not only do we get to see the original patent drawings behind everyday American objects and oddities, but we also learn about their diverse, often-forgotten designers.

Chapman J. Root, “Bottle” (1922/1923), Patent Number: USD 63,657, US Patent Office

During the Industrial Revolution, as manufacturing processes improved and mass production increased, a product’s appearance became an important way to signal its quality (or to mask its lack thereof), and to differentiate one company’s output from another. To prevent ‘design piracy,’ the Design Patent Act was instituted in 1842. Those seeking a patent for their designs would submit a detailed line drawing accompanied by the object’s name and creator. In recent years, some design patents have included photographs, color images, or 3D renderings, but the original formula — and the one represented in the book — remains the same. The succinct, descriptive drawings make it easy to trace shifting styles and technical improvements through time.

Hildaur L. Nielsen, “Rotary Card File,” for Rolodex Corporation (1977/1981), Patent Number: USD 258,669, US Patent Office

Patented includes big-name 20th-century product designers like Dreyfuss, Eams, Saarinon, Knoll, Loewy, and Starck, along with artists like Isamu Noguchi — who patented futuristic radio casing (1938), spoon (1957), and table (1958) designs — and László Moholy-Nagy, who created a finger-like fountain pen (1947). The book features signature products by brands like Apple, Dyson, General Electric, Honda, and Nintendo, plus fleeting trends like the Thigh Master and fidget spinner. Once-essential items that are now obsolete, like phonograph cabinets, typewriters, and floppy disks, are joined by older products we still use today, like Joseph A Gits’s now-ubiquitous 1944 ice cube tray or Harry E. Lambert’s 1960 egg carton. Another highlight is the book’s focus on overlooked designers’ wide breadth and vision: for example, Greek immigrant and former WWII spy John Vassos designed everything from an accordion to a bicycle. 

Don Bickler, Kenneth Jewett, Howard Eisen, Lee Sword, “Mars Rover” for the California Institute of Technology (1996/2001), Patent Number: USD 437,255, US Patent Office

The Industrial Design profession officially emerged in the 1930s, a time Rinaldi calls the golden age of design patents. But in the past two decades, the USPTO has issued more design patents than in its entire 157-year history. Since the office doesn’t restrict patents by citizenship or residency, designers from all over the world are free to create whatever they can imagine.

Patented: 1,000 Design Patents (Phaidon, 2021) by Thomas Rinaldi is available online at Bookshop.

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