leslie buck, we are happy you served us

mug new

In New York City, before there were three Starbucks on every block, there were hundreds of coffee shops and diners, most owned by Greeks and Greek-Americans. The surviving coffee shops - I feel I know and love each one - still are. At each of those 24-hour restaurants and about a zillion small take-out delis, New Yorkers get their take-out coffee in cups like the one above.

(The cup pictured above is actually a ceramic version of the iconic take-out cup. I wrote about it here and drink my coffee from it every morning.)

The man who designed this classic form died recently. His name was Leslie Buck. He was an immigrant, a holocaust survivor, a Jew, a New Yorker. And a talented designer.

Most of us seldom, if ever, think about who designs the objects we use and the images we see every day. Especially now, as ownership of ideas is seen as outdated at best and at worst an outright evil, and so many people believe that every creation should be free for the taking. But individual artists and designers change the world around us. It's good to know who they are.

Here's Leslie Buck's - né Laszlo Büch - obituary from the New York Times. Click through for photos.
It was for decades the most enduring piece of ephemera in New York City and is still among the most recognizable. Trim, blue and white, it fits neatly in the hand, sized so its contents can be downed in a New York minute. It is as vivid an emblem of the city as the Statue of Liberty, beloved of property masters who need to evoke Gotham at a glance in films and on television.

It is, of course, the Anthora, the cardboard cup of Grecian design that has held New Yorkers’ coffee securely for nearly half a century. Introduced in the 1960s, the Anthora was long made by the hundreds of millions annually, nearly every cup destined for the New York area.

A pop-cultural totem, the Anthora has been enshrined in museums; its likeness has adorned tourist memorabilia like T-shirts and ceramic mugs. Like many once-celebrated artifacts, though, the cup may now be endangered, the victim of urban gentrification.

The Anthora seems to have been here forever, as if bestowed by the gods at the city’s creation. But in fact, it was created by man — one man in particular, a refugee from Nazi Europe named Leslie Buck.

Mr. Buck, a retired paper-cup company executive, died on Monday, at 87, at his home on Long Island, in Glen Cove. The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, his son Robert said. Mr. Buck, previously a longtime resident of Syosset, N.Y., also had a home in Delray Beach, Fla.

The Anthora has spawned a flock of imitations by competitors over the years, but it was first designed by Mr. Buck for the Sherri Cup Company in Kensington, Conn.

Mr. Buck’s cup was blue, with a white meander ringing the top and bottom; down each side was a drawing of the Greek vase known as an amphora. (“Anthora” comes from “amphora,” as filtered through Mr. Buck’s Eastern European accent, his son said.) Some later imitators depict fluted white columns; others show a discus thrower.

On front and back, Mr. Buck emblazoned the Anthora with three steaming golden coffee cups. Above them, in lettering that suggests a Classical inscription, was the Anthora’s very soul — the motto. It has appeared in many variant texts since then; Mr. Buck’s original, with its welcome intimations of tenderness, succor and humility, was simply this:

We Are Happy

To Serve You.

Though the Anthora no longer dominates the urban landscape as it once did, it can still be found at diners, delis and food carts citywide, a squat, stalwart island in a sea of tall, grande and venti. On the street, it warms the harried hands of pedestrians. Without the Anthora, “Law & Order” could scarcely exist.

Laszlo Büch was born on Sept. 20, 1922, to a Jewish family in Khust, then in Czechoslovakia. (It is today in Ukraine.) His parents were killed by the Nazis during World War II; Laszlo himself survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

After the war, Mr. Buck made his way to New York, where he Americanized his name and ran an import-export business with his brother, Eugene, who had also survived the camps. In the late 1950s or thereabouts, the brothers started Premier Cup, a paper-cup manufacturer in Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Leslie Buck joined Sherri Cup, then a startup, in the mid-’60s. Originally the company’s sales manager (for a time, he was its entire sales force), he later became its director of marketing.

Sherri was keen to crack New York’s hot-cup market. Since many of the city’s diners were owned by Greeks, Mr. Buck hit on the idea of a Classical cup in the colors of the Greek flag. Though he had no formal training in art, he executed the design himself. It was an instant success.

Mr. Buck made no royalties from the cup, but he did so well in sales commissions that it hardly mattered, his son said. On his retirement from Sherri in 1992, the company presented Mr. Buck with 10,000 specially made Anthoras, printed with a testimonial inscription.

Besides his son, Robert, and brother, Eugene, Mr. Buck is survived by his wife, the former Ella Farkas, whom he married in 1949; two daughters, Beverly Eisenoff and Linda Rush; and four grandchildren.

In recent years, with the gentrification of the city and its brew, demand for the humble Anthora has waned. In 1994, Sherri sold 500 million of the cups, as The New York Times reported afterward. In 2005, the Solo Cup Company, into which Sherri had been absorbed, was selling about 200 million cups a year, The Times reported.

Today, Solo no longer carries the Anthora as a stock item, making it only on request. Other companies still turn out versions of the cup, though not in the quantities of its 20th-century heyday.

But given the tenacious traditionalism of many locals (“Avenue of the Americas,” anyone?), it is safe to assume that the Anthora and its heirs will endure, at least for a while, in the city’s steadfast precincts. For some time to come, on any given day, somewhere a New Yorker will be cradling the cup, with its crisp design and snug white lid, the stuff of life inside.

MSEH sent me this obit from CNN, also very nice. His daughter is quoted:
His daughter describes him as a self-made man, "He came here with nothing, no parents, no job, no savings. He had nothing."

But that didn't stop him. "Because of what he suffered in the concentration camps he was somebody who really believed in respecting humanity, really was about loving your neighbor and respecting your neighbor," his daughter said.

It was this respect that led him to spend hours in the library, researching Greek history and design. He wanted to honor the heritage of the Greek diner owners who bought his products and gave him his livelihood.

Thanks, Mr Buck. We are happy you did.


M@ said...

I saw this story yesterday and immediately thought of your ceramic cup.

I think it's really cool that this design can be traced back to a single person. So many designs around us are anonymous, and it's easy to forget there are real people with interesting and very human inspirations behind them.

deBeauxOs said...

It made me sad to hear of Mr Buck's death, but your post made me happy to know of such a fine man.

It's corny to say this perhaps, but people like Lazlo/Leslie Buck exemplify the best that people in the US, in any country can be.

I know people like Mr Buck who were instrumental in providing a service or a product that enriched thousands of people's lives in my own community. It's important to share their stories.

Thank you Laura.

L-girl said...

Thank you, deBeauxOs! What a great comment.

I think it's really cool that this design can be traced back to a single person.

I agree!

I was so glad to know you, MSEH and perhaps others thought of me when they saw this. Made me happy.

John F said...

I've never been to New York ,and I recognized the cup right away. It makes me smile that a humble little item like that casts such a long shadow. And now I want a ceramic one just like yours.

L-girl said...

I've never been to New York

Something to remedy first chance you get. :)

I didn't know the cup was known outside of NYC. Cool.

And now I want a ceramic one just like yours.

We Are Happy To Serve You

(Shades of Twilight Zone! "It's a cookbook!")

Amy said...

I read this obituary yesterday also. Isn't it amazing how one man's small creation had an impact on so many people?

Your comments about the current attitudes about ownership of designs, ideas, creative works, etc., resonate for me, especially as someone who teaches and writes about copyright and trademark law. There is so much tension between wanting to encourage and protect those who creative expressive works and also wanting to encourage free speech and commentary by others on those creative works. Despite my firm commitment to free speech, I still find myself often siding with those who claim property rights and control over their own creations.

John F said...

I didn't know the cup was known outside of NYC. Cool.

It's been in a lot of movies and tv shows.

L-girl said...

It's been in a lot of movies and tv shows.

Oh yes, of course. Anything set in NYC that goes for a "gritty, authentic" feel will use it. You must have a good eye for detail.

I read this obituary yesterday also. Isn't it amazing how one man's small creation had an impact on so many people?

Amazing, wonderful.

Despite my firm commitment to free speech, I still find myself often siding with those who claim property rights and control over their own creations.

You know I feel the same way. In school I find myself quite in the minority. People associate intellectual property rights and copyright law with giants like Disney.

redsock said...

A bunch of crappy knock-offs here.

LOVE that site's menu at the left!!! (They have cool magnets!)

L-girl said...

Thanks for those links! This morning I was mentioning that some cups said "Our Pleasure To Serve You".

The magnets are terrific. I love the "clean up after your dog" sign with the tags all over it. Tres authentique!

redsock said...

magnets store is closed right now. :<(

johngoldfine said...

Among the problems I faced when buying a new computer in March was which blog shortcuts on my desktop I really wanted to carry over to the new virgin screen.

There were so many blogs I had once enthused over and now never looked at; so many I guiltily felt I really ought to look at...but seldom did; so many I couldn't remember why I had ever thought I wanted them on my desktop.

There were a few--WMTC was one--whose pride of place I had no need to question.

Something to do with posts like this....

L-girl said...

Go figure. Thanks.