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  • 01.13.17

A Visual History Of Eyeglasses

From medical device to fashion statement

An estimated 65% of American adults wear glasses–more than 143 million people–and we tend to think of them as fashion statements more than medical devices. But that’s a relatively recent development, as a new exhibition at the Design Museum Holon in Israel explores.

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The exhibition traces eyeglasses’ long history through the collection of optometrist and collector Claude Samuel. Another floor of the museum is devoted to new interpretations of eyeglasses from 46 contemporary Israel designers; the Design Lab enables visitors to make new glasses from broken pairs.

Monocular opera spyglass fan, france early 1900s, buffalo horn.

Glasses had their European origins as medical devices among monks, who needed some sort of device to help them read, especially as they got older. But the earliest glasses didn’t have the modern design we’re familiar with today–they typically didn’t even have handles. But as literacy spread, so did glasses, and so did the need to hold corrective lenses to your face for longer periods of time. In 19th-century France, wearers used to tie their glasses to their wigs.

It was considered rude to wear glasses in public so magnifying lenses were built into women’s fans and necklaces, meant to be taken to the opera, and lenses were affixed to men’s walking sticks so they could spy on each other while taking a stroll through the park. With the invention of flexible wire in the 19th century and plastic in the 20th, framed glasses like the kind we see today became the most comfortable, convenient way to wear glasses for longer periods of time. And as glasses truly became a fixture of many people’s faces, they became more than just a medical device–they became a statement of identity and fashion. In the 1960s, designer Pierre Cardin’s daring sunglasses designs, from bright orange plastic square frames with circular lenses to golden sunglasses with uneven frames, treat spectacles as an accessory that may not even have a corrective function. Today, kooky cat-eyed frames might act as a deliberate show of eccentricity; square frames might indicate proud geekiness.

Contemporary design by Tal Gur. [Photo: courtesy Design Museum Holon]

Even though corrective surgery and contact lenses exist nowadays, glasses are still hugely popular. According to the exhibition’s curator Maya Dvash, in a world filled with screens, taking care of your eyes is more important than ever. “It is not only for reading and writing anymore,” Dvash says. “It is for so many different levels of seeing today. Surgery cannot solve this at this stage.”

What does the future of eyeglasses look like? For several Israeli designers, flexibility and personalization are important design features. For the exhibition, the architecture firm Baranowitz Kronenberg in collaboration with design firm Superproject created Open Glasses, a prototype for eyewear where the wearer chooses from a variety of lens shapes to use with the same rubbery frames. Others envisioned systems for personalization, with modular glasses that have interchangeable parts, enabling wearers to choose every element of their eyewear. Inspired by the design of tentpoles, the furniture design firm Bakery Studio passed a flexible thread through their eyewear’s joints in order to create bendable glasses that would be right at home at Coachella. But all the designers’ experiments reveal that the eyeglasses’ form is not an inevitability, and that there is room for innovation even in this old piece of technology. “We are not talking about eyewear only,” says Dvash. “We’re talking about sight and the way people see things.”

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[Photos (unless otherwise noted): Eli Bohbot]

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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