A New Book Chronicles the 125-Year History of the Button, Its Design, and Its Role in Cultural Change
If something is “fit for the back of a postage stamp,” it’s generally understood as lacking depth and nuance. A similarly sized object, however, has been upending that saying for 125 years. From political campaigns to punch lines to keepsakes, the button has packed bits of incredibly rich history into just a few inches. “It seems like a niche little object, but it really tells a very general American history,” collector and manufacturer Christen Carter tells Colossal. The wearable item is, in fact, an entry point into the complexities of the past.
Carter recently co-authored the forthcoming book Button Power—which is available for pre-order on Bookshop—with notable dealer Ted Hake, who’s been collecting the objects for around 60 years. Through composed displays and black-and-white photos, the tome delves into the item’s history, spanning its invention in 1896 to contemporary usages. “Early on people were wearing buttons, and mostly it’s a temporary thing. It’s a moment in time,” Carter says. “They connected you to something else. One-hundred-twenty-five years ago, images weren’t as prevalent as they are now.” Button Power compiles a diverse array of notable figures, from Shirley Chisholm and the Ramones to Rube Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, each represented through the wearable item.
Originally a casual collector, Carter now is responsible for the world’s only museum dedicated to the medium, which is housed in the Chicago-based manufacturer Busy Beaver Button Co. The institution currently boasts more than 40,000 buttons and is accepting donations. Currently, it’s closed because of COVID-19, although a virtual archive of about 9,000 is available to scroll through on its site.
A medium with popularity perpetually in flux, the button has risen and fallen since its creation and notably surged in the 1960s and 1980s as it was used more widely for countercultural movements and protests. Of course, mainstream efforts from political campaigns, public figures, and large-scale events generally still sought out buttons to share their visions. Many of the slogans and broader undertakings of alternative movements that may have evaded popular narratives, however, also are preserved by the object. “It’s a people’s history, too. There are so many things I learned,” Carter notes. One example involved a series centered on transportation. “What is this ‘good road’ stuff about?” she wondered. “I learned that before there was income tax, there was a movement to have infrastructure built.” Telling a story she didn’t learn in school, the buttons offered a glimpse into the advocacy of previous decades.
While the manufacturing process and function hasn’t evolved much, the objects’ value has. Carter notes that when they first emerged, people regarded them as collectibles that were prized as a piece of printed matter. Today, they remain a symbol of the wearer’s political affiliations and interests.
Even social media hasn’t eclipsed the ephemeral object. Although the pithy messages and quips prevalent on sites like Twitter function similarly to the sayings of the button, they lack a material presence and are subject to being deleted or lost when a platform folds. The physical item, on the other hand, has a lasting effect. “It creates a momento,” she says. “It’s not something you can as easily forget about like a Tweet or something like that because you’ll come across it in your sock drawer.” They’re also a more intentional medium, Carter notes, due to the design, manufacturing, and distribution processes and the effort those require.
Overall, buttons are overwhelmingly uplifting, inspiring, or humorous in messaging, even when centered on serious topics or issues. One tells people to “hang in there” while displaying a rendering of a cat clinging to a rope nearby, while another (shown below) simply is emblazoned with the words “I Love Ringo.” The optimism helps to start the inevitable conversations from a constructive point. “More positive buttons make them more wearable,” she says. “A button you have to stand behind. Where online stuff can be pretty anonymous, there’s something about having some skin in the game.”
Despite the mediums’ changes during the last 125 years, the ability to provoke conversation and inspire change is constant. “The person-to-person stuff is just so important, and I think it’s something we’re missing. I would love for buttons to help bridge gaps between human beings because I think in the end, we all want a lot of the same things,” Carter adds.
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Extending 526.14 meters, a new glass-bottom bridge in China’s Huangchuan Three Gorges Scenic Area now ranks as the longest in the world. The lengthy structure is the project of the firm Architectural Design & Research Institute of Zhejiang University and looms 201 meters above the Lianjiang River. Bright red towers mark either end, with an 8.8-meter-wide deck running between them. Three layers of 4.5-centimeter-thick glass lined with steel compose the transparent bridge, which is suspended with cables and can hold 500 people. According to Dezeen, the previous record-holder was a wobbly 488-meter structure in China’s Hebei province.
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The days of expensive training lessons for your dogs have come to an end. Thanks to Petoi (previously), you can build your own robotic pup that’s programmed to perform basic commands from the get-go. The agile canine, named Bittle, moves just like a live animal would and because of its spring-loaded upper legs, can navigate bumpy terrain and flip itself over when it lands on its back.
Fitting in the palm of a hand, the automated design is battery operated and can be taught new tricks by uploading new programs you can write yourself. The mechanics and color appear similar to Boston Dynamics’ famous utilitarian robot Spot, a substantially larger machine with a much heftier price tag.
With a few weeks remaining, the project’s Kickstarter campaign already has exceeded its fundraising goal, but there are rewards available for those hoping to pick up a new sidekick. To follow the design group’s projects, head to Instagram and Twitter, and watch the robotic creatures in action on YouTube.
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Those looking for an alternative to cars or reprieve from public transit can thank Aldekas Studio for a new set of wheels that’s both stylish and environmentally conscious. The Mexico-based designer repurposed the fenders and headlights of a Volkswagen Beetle— which officially is the Type 1 model that was released originally in the 1930s—into a miniature vehicle named “Bugkart Wasowski.” The kart’s curved body is attached to a bright red frame, which contrasts the olive green exterior. It has chrome handlebars and mirrors that mimic those on the original car, maintaining the integrity of the classic model.
Aldekas Studio shares many of its designs on Facebook, including a 3D rendering of a rustic version of the kart shown here. You also might enjoy this similar, two-wheeled project, aptly named the “Volkspod.” (via designboom)
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On the periphery of a busy city park in Tokyo is a transparent bathroom that offers a few forms of alleviation. Although it seemingly provides little privacy, the translucent facade is designed to let people peer inside to inspect the cleanliness before they venture in. Once users do open the door and step into the structure, the walls turn into opaque, illuminated stalls that hide the person from view. As public bathrooms have shut down and been a source of fear since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the new structure ameliorates multiple issues of accessibility.
The sensitive facility is part of an ongoing project called The Tokyo Toilet, which tasked 16 designers—including Kengo Kuma (previously), Tadao Ando (previously), and Shigeru Ban, who created the two transparent structures—with conceptualizing the public facilities throughout Shibuya. Five of the 17 locations are currently operational, with most of the remaining scheduled for 2021. The result is a diverse series of public facilities designed to be more accessible and attractive to those who need them.
To calm any further worries about cleanliness, The Tokyo Toilet also has extensive plans for maintenance. The Nippon Foundation, the Shibuya City Government, and the Shibuya Tourism Association will work collaboratively to ensure the spaces don’t live up their “dark, dirty, smelly, and scary” reputation, a project coordinator tells Fast Company.
Check out some of the open facilities below, and take a deeper look into the unique designs and their locations on the project’s site. You also might want to take a look at GreenPee’s hemp urinals that were installed recently around Amsterdam.
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A new, woven structure in the Jardins de l’Europe in Annecy, France, offers respite from direct sunlight without completely blocking out the light source. “The Wicker Pavilion” is comprised of pine planks that are formed into a shell, which is covered with 262 wicker baskets that are hand-woven by Latvian craftsmen. When the sun hits the structure, it casts intricate triangular patterns on the grass inside and nearby, allowing it to merge with the rest of the garden rather than blanket it in a shadow. As the pavilion ages, the natural materials will darken and further blend with the surrounding environment.
Designed by Didzis Jaunzems Architecture, the project is part of this year’s Annecy Passages festival. Check out this video that dives into how the structure was made, and follow the Latvian firm’s projects on Twitter. (via ArchDaily)
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