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preceding evolutionary forms

July 28th, 2007

Daniel Pontius

Beautiful ashtrays are the vestige remains of a lost religion. Ashtrays have a bare utility, left only to be fetishized by a few and eshewed by many. It is practically unheard of to have a beautiful ashtray. As if having a beautiful ashtray would be lining you up with the trappings of the tobacco industry placing you far right or left a direct supporter of that gasping yet prosperous institution.

One can see evidence of a backlash to anti-smoking bans all over. Last month when in L.A., I had dinner in a restaurant that offered cigarettes on the bar and how could one not indulge in that?

My favorite smoking memory was at the UES apartment of a friend’s mother. It had been my second visit. At the first visit she offered me a cigarette, she having recently switched to Camel filters and I had politely said no thank you, I’ve quit. But I had regretted it that whole year. How could I not smoke with a matriarch who was also a wonderful portraitist and now in her late 90’s! When she offered me a cigarette this last time, I accepted and lit hers as well.

Still, beautiful ashtrays: we don’t have the material objects of the real smoking generation, we seem to have bottle lids, plastic lighters, and the last swallows from a Starbucks Cup to flick our ash in and to smother our fire.

At least one ashtray has been designed in the not too distant past. Ron Gilad developed his ashtray for the Cooper Hewitt. In taking one of Vitra’s miniatures; George Nelson’s coconut chair, and adding a layer of sterling silver, Gilad adds not only to the narrative of tobacco but furthers a conversation of design and the iconic imagery of modernism.

There is a slight ironic humor here. Is Gilad taking a jab at Nelson or at the state of contemporary design? Is he saying that the past is only worth the butt of my cigarette–who knows but Gilad. He might be saying that we can not nor should not be formed by precedent: that we have to develop beyond the past to be new or at least see things in a new way.

All I know, is that it is doubtful that any child of mine will be making me an ashtray in art class and bringing it home to me for father’s day which is really a shame.

Italian ashtray, AREA iD.


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  1. August 1, 2007

    I’ve always like this one, with the little matchbook cleavage…

  2. August 1, 2007

    but one must take into account that Iris was a messenger goddess and sister to the Harpies, who flew around leaving a rainbow trail behind her.

    and we all know what that means.

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