This Engineer’s Earplugs are Now a 'Work of Art'

    Meet the artist who designed an elevated everyday object that's in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art

    Object number 202.2006.1-3 – Matrix No-Roll Single-Use Earplug – is in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York

    A true example of form meets function, the earplugs were created in 1995 by engineer John Jenkins

    We caught up with John to find out the story of how a simple piece of safety equipment became such a big deal. 

    What made these earplugs museum-worthy?

    The museum curator’s interpretation of contemporary arts influence on industrial design. Indeed, when the earplug was designed, we specifically made effort to keep the design as simple as possible, so that the focus would be on product performance and function. Contemporary art played a role in influencing that initial design direction and remained part of the project throughout.

    When were they on display?

    They have been part of two exhibitions in MOMA in Manhattan. The first was an Exhibition called “Born Out of Necessity” and the second called “Safe: Design Takes on Risk.” They were in a display wall behind glass. It was super cool. They welcomed me like a rockstar. They knew I was coming because they sent an invitation that I accepted and they asked me to show a card that I was given when I arrived, and I have a lifetime membership as an artist. 

    What was your inspiration with the design?

    Contemporary art being a challenge to what is accepted today, with a focus at on functionality and performance, devoid of design features that are non-functional or only aesthetic. I wanted to even do them without color and we only added color as a differentiator within variations of the product within the family.   

    Can we get a pair today?

    We just discontinued them end of last year.  A sad day but alas, not everyone understands art's enduring value… 

    How did you find out about being in a museum?

    I found out when the curator called my desk phone directly and asked for permission to use the product in the exhibitions. We proceeded to provide samples of the product, and all of the legal work that needed to be performed in order to make it happen. 

    What inspires you?

    I get inspired when given the opportunity to do something with my background, education and experience that has not been accomplished before, occasionally, by being told that something is not possible.

    Who’s your favorite artist?

    Prince. Because his work was very personal to him and because of that, he made so much of who he was a part of what he did. This carried over into not only his music, but his style and entire life. That’s a real artist to me, someone who lives his work and allows others to enjoy it, or not enjoy it, but still remains true to themselves.

    What are you working on now?

    Several projects bringing some of our hearing protection products up to date. Bluetooth Impact Sport earmuffs, and in-ear lanyard style bluetooth and hear-through earbuds.

    Is engineering like art?

    Engineering is very much like art. The interpretation of the market need into a product can take many different directions and while direction is given by business needs, the decision made along that journey are on many occasions made personally which is where the art comes in. Engineers are very much creating something where nothing existed before, from external influence, suggestion and direction, which invariably includes their personal experience -- and then sharing it. That’s art.