How I stumbled upon the world’s most perfect eating utensil.
By OWEN EDWARDS
Photography by CLAIRE BLOOMBERG
I have always found a well-formed spoon hard to resist. Though no higher on the utility scale than the knife and fork, the spoon is by far the shapeliest and most charming of the utensil big three.
“Anthropologists have found evidence of prehistoric spoons in the Paleolithic period, made from the shells of sea creatures. By the 16th Century, a standard gift among England aristocrats was a set of 12 silver spoons, one for each Apostle.”
So when I heard not long ago that the great designer Massimo Vignelli had died, I headed right into the kitchen, opened a drawer, and took out what may be the most perfect teaspoon ever created. Thirty years ago, I walked out of Palio restaurant in mid-town New York with their Vignelli spoon in my pocket. I would gladly have bought it, but it’s rare when a restaurant will sell tableware. So theft was the only option for someone who was suddenly lovestruck by tableware design.
The second I took the Palio spoon into my hand I knew it was something special: The respective weights of the spoon’s bowl and handle were so beautifully balanced, like the fore and aft of a good mid-engine sports car, that if you put your finger just under the arch where the handle joins the bowl, the spoon displays an elegant equipoise. The subtle curves remind me of the almost liquid smooth form of one of the great automobiles of all time, Porsche’s 550 RS Spyder (the car in which James Dean met his untimely end). On the underside of the deftly swooping handle are the words, “Calegaro – Italy – Vignelli Designs – Palio.” The fact that this restaurant turned to one of the world’s most talented and in-demand designers to create the ultimate table utensil, just for them, undoubtedly contributed to the steep price of its bills.
Not only are spoons more curvaceous than their place setting companions, and thus more feminine and comforting, they also have a far longer pedigree. Anthropologists have found evidence of prehistoric spoons in the Paleolithic period, essentially the shells of sea creatures or chips of wood. In fact, the Latin word for spoon is cochlea, which means a kind of snail shell (which evolved into the Italian cochiaio), and the Old English spon means wood chip. As time passed – quite a lot of time – handles were affixed to shells and cup-shaped bits of wood, and at some time in the early Roman period, spoons were carved from bone or fashioned from silver. Catherine de Medici is often credited with taking the fork to France, but presumably spoons were already there (knives, with an ancient heritage on the battlefield, already had been slicing cooked meat in Europe for a long time). By the 16th Century, a standard gift among England aristocrats was a set of 12 silver spoons, one for each Apostle. Jumping ahead a few centuries, it’s not an insignificant detail in the movie “Road Warrior” that one of the characters in the dystopian world of the future, where little was left of anything so civil as table manners, wore a spoon on a string around his neck.
Massimo Vignelli, the maker of my most-perfect spoon, probably didn’t have apostles in mind when he set his designer’s pen to paper, though he must have been familiar with them. He was born in 1931 in Milan and attended that city’s Polytechnic University. Years later, after becoming one of the elite corps of truly international designers, Vignelli set up an office in New York City, where he established a reputation as someone who could simplify anything. His accomplishments ranged from a readable revision of the New York subway map to Bloomingdale’s shopping bags, to tableware and wristwatches. One of his repeated injunctions to his staff was, “If you can’t find it, design it.”
Given the breadth of his work, there must have been a lot that he couldn’t find – or couldn’t find in a form that pleased him. Vignelli’s mission, as he once described it, was “to fight and oppose trivia, kitsch and all forms of subculture which are visually polluting our world.” And he walked his talk. The designer Michael Beirut, who worked for Vignelli from 1980 until 1990, wrote in a recent homage to his former boss: “For Massimo, design was life, and life was design.” Vignelli’s devotion to quality could give a manufactured object the feel of hand craftsmanship, the most cherished element in an age of mass production.
The Palio is no more, so I can’t help but wonder what became of all those splendid spoons. An eBay search came up empty, and Michael Beirut can’t recall much about the Palio designs. Who knows, perhaps other spoon-o-philes walked away with the whole supply, one petty larceny at a time.
If elegant thinking and the satisfaction of craftsmanship can be expressed in a single piece of tableware, Vignelli’s Palio spoon makes an impeccable statement. In Italian, Massimo means “great.” Vignelli’s first name was given… and then earned.