Brain Pickings

Pasta by Design: Finding Whimsy in the Geometry of Food

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Phylogeny of the pantry, or what architecture has to do with anellini.

In 2010, London chef extraordinaire Jacob Kenedy with award-winning British graphic designer Caz Hildebrand explored the geometry of pasta — a journey into the science, history, and philosophy of Italy’s most iconic pasta dishes through a minimalist, design-driven cookbook. Now comes Pasta by Design, an even more ambitious design dissection on the beloved carb staple, exploring the intricate, beautiful, almost whimsical geometrical shapes of more than 90 different types of pasta.

(After all, if geometry is good enough a lens for love, it’s certainly good enough for pasta.)

Pasta, it turns out, is a surprisingly apt vehicle for the elements of great design. MoMA’s Paola Antonelli () writes in the introduction:

Pasta, that simple and yet surprisingly versatile mixture of durum wheat-flour and water, shaped by hand or machine, is a delicious example of great design. Just like any other indispensable invention, pasta matches the available resources (wheat — one of the most widely produced cereals in the world) with goals (the human need not only to eat, but also to have a somewhat diversified diet). As well as being a design born out of necessity, it is also such a simple and strong concept that it has generated an almost endless variety of derivative pasta types — and an even greater number of dishes made from them. Moreover, it has proven to be a timeless design; although pasta’s production tools may have been updated across the centuries, its basic forms have remained the same. It is also a global design, easy to appropriate and adapt to local culture — as can be seen from the many regional varieties of pasta dishes across the world. Finally, pasta is a universal success with both critics and the public, thus also passing the market-driven design test.”

Given the astounding variety of pasta types and the often confusing nomenclature of their classification, the book takes an approach inspired by the science of phylogeny — the study of relatedness between groups of forms in nature — to pare down 92 different types based on their morphological features, then charts them in a family tree.

Each shape is described in a meticulous mathematical formula, and expressive minimalist photographs and drawings zoom in on the hidden genius of the classic pantry mainstay.

Quirky in spirit yet rigorously researched and beautifully produced, Pasta by Design at once humanizes mathematics and exposes the captivating complexity of one of the world’s most beloved foods, revealing the dimensionality of design as a cross-disciplinary cultural lens.

Images courtesy of Thames & Hudson; photographs via IJP

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