Thursday, June 30, 2005

Should we let certain designs go extinct?

June 26, 2005
Urban History to Go: Black, No Sugar

By JOHN FREEMAN GILL
One morning a dozen years ago, a sculptor named Rodger Stevens got on a subway at 116th Street and Broadway and had what he calls a "Twilight Zone" moment. Everyone in the train seemed to be holding a paper coffee cup, and every cup was white, with no image or words whatsoever. The effect was so striking, Mr. Stevens said, "it was as if no one had eyebrows."

Suddenly, he was stricken with fear that New York's iconic Greek blue-and-white coffee cup - the one adorned with the words "We Are Happy to Serve You" and the trio of steaming mustard-yellow cups flanked by tall Grecian jars - was on the verge of extinction.

Horrified, Mr. Stevens began assiduously collecting - or, more precisely, not discarding - as many different cups as he could find. Even after realizing that his panic had been premature, he continued adding to his collection. Today he has about 100 cups representing more than 50 distinct New York varieties, which he keeps in a glass-doored display case in his apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

To Mr. Stevens, the cups represent a kind of overlooked New York. Or, as he put it, if one regards the skyline as a silhouette of the city's body: "These little cups are its distinctive birthmarks. They are all little bits of proof that this is New York and not someplace else."

Mr. Stevens is a native New Yorker, raised in Bay Ridge, and the idea that the unglamorous deli cups he had grown up with would be replaced by upscale white ones featuring sleek coffeehouse logos struck him as "something akin to plastic surgery, an eradication of blemishes that might denote age or a certain, lower status."

Then he just got hooked. Once he began collecting cups, he discovered that there was not just one Greek-themed New York cup but a great many. Soon he was as obsessed with observing the minute differences among his specimens as any collector of orchids or roses.

The classic "We Are Happy to Serve You" cup, Mr. Stevens believes, is the progenitor of all the current cups. The design dates to the mid-1960's, when the Sherri Cup Company of Kensington, Conn., designed it to appeal to the hundreds of Greek coffee shops then operating in the city. The cup was named Anthora, a muddled version of Amphora, the Greek word for the ancient jars depicted in its design.

"Sherri Cup used to be the only one," said Elisa Deixler, co-owner of Zahner's Cash and Carry, a 50-year-old restaurant supply wholesaler in Woodside, Queens. "Then they all jumped on board. Now you have all the major cup companies from across the country making them. If they want to sell in the New York market, they need to have a Greek design."

The Anthora, which comes in 8- and 10-ounce sizes, has always been a New York cup, and it remains a strong seller. The Solo Cup Company, an Illinois firm that now owns the design, produces about 200 million Anthora cups each year, said Angie Chaplin, a Solo spokeswoman. The Anthora is sold almost exclusively in the New York region.

Mr. Stevens owns dozens of latter-day versions of the Anthora, which he terms varietals, although the nonspecialist might call them knock-offs.

In these descendents of the ur-cup, amphoras morph into columns, the pattern of the Greek frieze is altered, the shield holding the cup's aphorism changes shape, and the words themselves recombine into dazzlingly unoriginal combinations: "We Are Pleased to Serve You," "It's Our Pleasure to Serve You," "Serving You Is a Pleasure." In one version, the prototypical New York cup becomes even more local, with each amphora replaced by the Statue of Liberty.

Another long-running Greek cup is a blue-and-white design depicting a discus thrower. This design is manufactured by Premier Cup, a Westchester company, and when you call the "800" number on the cup, the phone will be answered by Arnie Baum, Premier's president. Mr. Baum will inform you that the company's discus thrower dates back to 1966 or 1967, adding that Premier still sells more than a million a month, mostly in the New York metropolitan area.

Mr. Stevens's collection is not the first to include the discus thrower. In 1995, Mr. Baum was asked to donate one of the cups to an exhibition called "The Persistence of Classicism" at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

"So I go up there," he recalled, "and I go into this room, and they've got all these pieces of artwork and sculpture and these Greek vases and urns and stuff, and sitting there, literally under glass on a pedestal, was this one paper coffee cup."

In New York's delis and greasy spoons, however, a shift away from the classical Greek-themed cup was already in progress. Greek dominance of the coffee shop industry was diminishing, while the arrival of Starbucks in New York in 1994, and its rapid expansion to about 185 cafes in the city, put pressure on the city's delis and diners to offer their takeout coffee in a tonier package.

In the 70's and 80's, Greek designs were the standard. "Now, a lot of businesses are trying to move away from it," said Ms. Deixler of Zahner's Cash and Carry. "Everybody's trying to look a little bit upscale."

In the mid- to late 1990's, Mr. Stevens noticed a blizzard of cups with an "I Love New York" theme, a trend that accelerated after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which also gave rise to cups bearing American flags and other patriotic themes. Soon afterward, a rash of red, white, and blue advertising appeared on coffee cups, promoting companies like New York Waterway and MetLife.

ALONG the way, Mr. Stevens recalled, coffee cups shook off some of their traditional blue-collar grunginess and got hip. The Anthora image popped up on change purses in Brooklyn boutiques and on ceramic mugs at museum gift shops. In 2002, Ryan McGinness, the New York whiz kid of street-smart graphic design, created a set of 10 white cups decorated with clusters of quirky blue images.

"If ever there was a transition from the crusty old cabdriving, smoking New York guy to the young, cutting-edge hipster kid embracing that as his own, that seemed to be the bridge cup," Mr. Stevens said. "I thought that was an important cup."

For all the recent changes, cup makers estimate that Greek motifs continue to adorn up to 40 percent of 10-ounce cardboard cups in New York. But Mr. Stevens believes that the Greek designs will ultimately come to represent a bygone aesthetic, like bell-bottoms or tail fins.

"I have this fantasy of showing up at the Smithsonian some day," he said. "And I'll say, 'Here's my U-Haul,' and they'll see these are an art form that were just tattooed to the body of New York City, so much so that people didn't even notice it. And they'll say: 'That's so interesting. We don't do that anymore. Who ever heard of drinking coffee from a Greek paper coffee cup?' "


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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