Saturday, May 1, 2010

Coffee with meme:
Leslie Buck’s gift to New York

Back in the analog day of the mid-1980s, your humble narrator was a word wrangler in midtown Manhattan, working on various copy desks at the castle-on-the-Rhine headquarters of The New York Times, at that time on West 43rd Street. The Times building was its own crossroads, with a number of cafeterias and delis in hailing distance, and mercifully open at all hours (even the hours of the graveyard shift I came to know intimately).

Besides sandwiches and any number of dishes already prepared, there was always coffee available — of varying quality, from sublime ambrosia to battery acid. The one constant if you ordered coffee was the cardboard cup it came in. We have Leslie Buck to thank for that.

The man born as Laszlo Büch and Americanized as Lester Buck died on Monday died at his home on Long Island, N.Y.; the cause was complications from Parkinson's disease. Among his many accomplishments before he exited our world at the age of 87 — a survivor of two Nazi concentration camps, a refugee, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a brother, a businessman in import-export — Buck designed what must be considered the archetypal coffee cup, a signature of New York City life for decades.

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If you’ve ever been to New York in the last quarter-century or so, you’ve seen Buck’s handiwork: a blue, gold and white Grecian motif framing the words WE ARE HAPPY TO SERVE YOU in a font identical to that used in any ancient Greece-related sword & sandal movie made during the modern era of motion pictures. Below the words are three coffee cups, steam rising in welcome.

Margalit Fox of The New York Times (who came after I’d departed) reported on Thursday that in the 1960’s Buck joined the Sherri Cup Company, then a Connecticut-based startup, as the company’s sales manager.

“Sherri was keen to crack New York’s hot-cup market,” Fox reports. “Since many of the city’s diners were owned by Greeks, Mr. Buck hit on the idea of a Classical cup in the colors of the Greek flag. Though he had no formal training in art, he executed the design himself. It was an instant success.”

New York City is rife with what these days we call memes — signs and symbols that communicate meanings and significance beyond the signs and symbols themselves, through constant imitation and repetition of appearance. The Empire State Building is one such meme; the World Trade Center was another; its destruction on Sept. 11, 2001, became the standing meme for terrorism in America.

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But for millions of people, whether they know the word or not, the so-called Anthora coffee cup was a meme for New York’s everyday people: the cop on the beat looking to warm his hands with more than body heat; the legions of shoppers in the city seeking a pick-me-up … those of the shadow work force at The Times who craved a coffee (always “a coffee,” mind you, never just “coffee”) hours after the in-house cafeteria had closed.

Fox appreciates this. “Though the Anthora no longer dominates the urban landscape as it once did, it can still be found at diners, delis and food carts citywide, a squat, stalwart island in a sea of tall, grande and venti. On the street, it warms the harried hands of pedestrians. Without the Anthora, ‘Law & Order’ could scarcely exist.”

Like any worthy work of art, the Anthora saw its share of imitators, with slight variations on Buck’s original theme. But the original design held sway for years; in 1994 The New York Times reported that Sherri sold 500 million of the Anthora model. That number declined to about 200 million a year in 2005, the Times said.

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By then, of course, the cup had achieved what could fairly be called iconic status as a talisman of New York’s shadow urban lore. In a way, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup can, the Anthora cup came to symbolize a dovetailing of art and commerce — not art in a lower-Manhattan-gallery sense, but accessible art for ordinary people.

Maybe Buck’s greatest contribution was one of emotional connection. Today in New York, where Starbucks outlets litter the landscape and go-cups are likely to be bland, sterile constructions of plastic, the Anthora cup is still a sign of stability in a changing world — a happy indicator that, sometimes, things don’t change; sometimes what we value stays in place, reliable and wonderfully immobile.

I propose a toast to Leslie Buck. A light coffee, please, with two sugars and extra meme.

Image credits: The Anthora: Mike Licht/ Leslie Buck: New York Times via Twitter. Campbell's Soup can: Andy Warhol 1964. © Artists Rights Society for the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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