The trigonometry of tortellini

An architect has created a visual dictionary of pasta, complete with math formulas
The trigonometry of tortellini
George L. Legendre; Photo Illustration by Sarah Mackinnon

Like many brilliant, if lunatic, brainstorms, the idea for Pasta by Design was hatched late at night over good food as the red wine flowed. Architects George Legendre and Marco Guarnieri, who share an address in London’s Bermondsey district, were dining on spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino two years ago when talk turned to the mathematics of various pasta shapes. Such inquiry comes naturally to the Paris-born, Harvard-educated Legendre. The 42-year-old principal of IJP Architects uses a “mathematics-based knowledge model” that reduces objects to schematics and trigonometric equations which are then used as a blueprint for everything he makes—from bridges to playground slides.

Why not subject fusilli, orecchiette and linguine to the same scrutiny, they wondered. So Legendre did. The result is an oddly surreal, poetic paean to pasta that invites readers to view it not as a carb smothered under sauce but pure, beautiful form in itself.

Legendre has created a taxonomy of 92 pasta types—from tiny peppercorn-shaped acini di pepe to tubular ziti. The presentation is elegant: on one page, a photograph of the pasta; beside it, its ghostly reproduction in Matrix-like schematics with a trigonometric equation, cross-section and data on its physical properties. A brief note on regional provenance and serving suggestions is also supplied. Curled gramigna, or “little weed,” from Emilia-Romagna, we learn, is best with a chunky sausage or light tomato sauce. As a bonus, Legendre includes a zany three-page pull-out, “Family Reunion Seating Plan,” a phylogenetic diagram of pasta types that’s delightful in its inscrutability.

Publisher Thames & Hudson saluted their “insanity,” Legendre tells Maclean’s. He sees the book as “the first visual dictionary of pasta,” to be used as an inventory, guide and culinary resource. Pasta, a design born of necessity, has spawned creative regional variations, which made research difficult, he says. Names vary, reflected in four variations on fusilli in the book. He relied on Oretta Zanini De Vita’s Encyclopedia of Pasta, which has no images, and the Internet, before buying and ordering reams of dried and fresh product. He discovered more arcane shapes—quadrefiore and galletti—being produced in California by Francis Ford Coppola’s Mammarella pasta line.

Legendre is not alone viewing pasta as design. He’d just completed research last year when he heard of The Geometry of Pasta, by British designer Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy, the chef/owner of London’s Bocca di Lupo. The cookbook, with its clever black-and-white graphics, was a sensation when it was published in May 2010. “We nearly fell down,” Legendre says. “What is the likelihood of two books on this subject emerging a mile from one another?”

Fascination with lesser-known pasta shapes is destined to grow, with emporiums like Mario Batali’s Eataly in New York offering a staggering variety. Legendre, who names fluted gigli his favourite shape, sees the amazing variety of pasta as an alternative design universe: “In the world of pasta, exceptional curviness and smoothness is the norm. Look at saccottini: they’re beautiful, like dumplings. But the real world is very square—square tables, square buildings.” An exception is trenne, he says, which looks like a hollow beam: “It stood out because it’s boring and rectangular compared to tortellini.”

New shapes are emerging. An industrial designer in Tel Aviv just designed a whistle-shaped pasta that can be blown before it’s boiled, Legendre says. He too has designed one—a small hollow spiral reminiscent of the Guggenheim’s interior, named “ioli,” after his daughter. He’s having five kilos of it made, which he’ll sell at a book-related charity auction, and he hopes a retailer latches on.

The book is garnering buzz in design circles, which pleases Legendre, though focus on his schematics disappoints him. “I know it’s the strangest aspect, but I never saw mathematics as the point of the book. I wanted to help people buy pasta,” he says, allowing that it’s also “a delightful, slightly quirky art project.” That it is. How many books can transform a common staple into an astounding flight of visual fancy?