“Simple materials, elegantly designed, can form beautiful and useful objects.” – founding principle of AMAC
I was in the bay area recently and it reminded me of a story about some boxes we sell at The Container Store. While Cincinnati and other cities around the country are trying to rebuild their Streetcar past, San Francisco’s relationship with this iconic public transportation has endured.
Gene Hurwitt, founder of AMAC plastics in 1960, began his first company after a spirited conversation with a stranger on a streetcar. This was during the Great Depression. Using his charm and the simple idea of connecting department stores to a fur cleaning contractor, he wooed this stranger who offered to fund the new company. A surprised and humble Hurwitt replied that he couldn’t accept because the investment may not be returned. The stranger replied “Someday, you’ll be in a position to help somebody else out, and you will.”
In 1960, Hurwitt left the fur cleaning business and made a big gamble buying a plastics company in Sausalito, California. I recently visited Sausalito and found it to be one of the most beautiful settings in the country. With beautiful views of downtown San Francisco and sweeping vistas of the whole bay area, it is difficult not to be inspired. The following picture is from my trip this week.
From small square boxes for pharmaceutical needs, the company exploded onto the counter-culture scene (often as stash boxes) when Alan Spigelman (a salesman with an eye for “cool” who sold lava lamps as late as 1988) saw them and convinced Hurwitt to share them with influentials in the design community.
Ben Thompson – an architect and World War II vet who founded a designer accessory and furniture store called Design Research – was one of the first on board.
Ben said, “I see these boxes. They are so perfect. Are the ones I am going to get as perfect as the ones you are showing here?” Alan said, “They will be even more perfect because I have been handling these.” Ben ordered 100 of each size, in seven sizes. Then he called up and said, “We never put them on the floor because the employees used their discount and bought all of them.” (excerpt from designobserver)
(more on the incredible achievements of Ben Thompson here).
“For art to be part of our life we must live with it, not just go to museums,” Mr. Thompson said in a 1963 interview in The New Yorker. “In a way, things like museums and Lincoln Center kill art and music. Art is not for particular people but should be in everything you do — in cooking and, God knows, in the bread on the table, in the way everything is done.” (nytimes obit)
Andy Warhol used AMAC for a piece entitled “Portraits of the Artists,” and the “perfect boxes” were eventually added to the permanent collection in the Museum of Modern Art.
Ideas come in small packages (sometimes as small as a 1″ square piece of plastic). Talk to your fellow commuters about what you are passionate about (unless you are Artie Isaac). Follow the Studs Terkel* approach and your next train/plane/bus ride may lead to a counter-culture revolution. (more on how riding trains can change the face of human history later).
talk to you soon
*Studs Terkel, a self-proclaimed “streetcar student” who never learned to drive and wrote books based on his conversations with “ordinary people” said in his memoir, “In most cases the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person. ‘Ordinary’ is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.” He knew the power of a good story, like Gene Hurwitt’s story on the streetcar to the generous stranger. “People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality too. It goes from one generation to another.” AMAC boxes, like storytelling, have gone from one generation to another too.