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The Oddly Fascinating, Fantastical History of Eyeglasses

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AS TECHNOLOGY ADVANCES, you would think it might make eyewear irrelevant. Contact lenses and laser surgery, for example, surpass eyeglasses in comfort and convenience. Yet technology continues relying on eyewear as a form factor. Google Glass, virtual reality, and Snap’s Spectaclesaren’t medically corrective, but they certainly shift your vision, and they all live on your face.

Overview, an exhibit at the Design Museum Holon in Israel, explores this odd dynamic. It features glasses of all shapes, sizes and colors, organized into two sections: A private collection of historical pieces owned by an Israeli optometrist, and 50 conceptual eyeglasses by contemporary Israeli designers. Taken together, they chart the evolution of eyewear from medical device to intellectual signifier to fashion accessory. Often, new technology encouraged the change.

The exhibit starts centuries back, with a jar of water. “That is the first magnifying glass, from when scientists realized that when you look through a bottle full of water you can better read what’s written behind it,” says curator Maya Dvash. That insight led to crude eyeglasses for people with farsighted vision. Over time, scientists and designers figured out how to keep glass and metal eyeglasses perched on the nose. That freed people’s hands for writing, opening the possibility of clerical or literary work. Around the 13th century, Dvash says, people started associating glasses with reading and writing, and therefore intellect.

Centuries later, the industrial revolution ushered in new forms of manufacturing. “You could invent anything you had in mind—you could have eyeglass more for the the look than for the eyesight,” Dvash says. That helped accentuate eyewear, and hide it: In 19th century France, the wealthy avoided wearing eyeglasses, which were seen as admission of a flaw. Instead, they hid their corrective lenses in intricate foldable necklaces and complex monocular opera glasses.

Skip past Le Corbusier’s architect frames, past John Lennon’s round spectacles, and past the ubiquity of LensCrafters to the present. Eyewear is poised to move from fashion statement into the realm of technological assistant. To explore that future, Dvash asked 50 Israeli designers to craft fantastical eyewear designs. These conceptual pieces are way out there: they rethink the nose piece with tiny sculptures, or feature an extra lens for your third eye. You can’t practically wear any of them, but the idea wasn’t to land the next big thing in eyewear. It was to see how modern designers think about the topic. After all, you couldn’t wear a jar of water on your face, either.

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