Monday, December 8, 2008

Keep Rocking

A certain house basement in Dubai’s Springs Compound hides an underground talent. Here, Ghassan Zoghbi—a Lebanese art director who works in a big UAE advertising agency by day—realizes his real passion. For the past eight years, Zoghbi has retreated to his home basement to build exquisite electric and acoustic steel-string guitars in his spare time.

His guitars are hand built from blank tone wood with a pure love for rock and roll. His process is modest: “I always use very simple, home-friendly tools,” Zoghbi explained to me. Yet there is nothing crude about his work. Carefully designed to the last detail, each piece of instrument is flawless.

Zoghbi was born with love for music and learned how to play the guitar in his youth. He pours his understanding of great sounds and experimentation of material into his pieces, as he did not have any formal training. Unfortunately, he is located in a place where there was no way to express his flair. The Middle East does not have the market or companies to house such artists. He decided to go ahead with his designs privately, despite all of the hardships and he now sells his work through private connections and word of mouth. His latest guitar, the Galvanised, is an electric guitar made from the finest North American tone woods, priced at $1850.

Zoghbi’s brand, “Zoghbi Guitars,” is a dream, not about money nor profit. Zoghbi wants to make better quality and purer sounds to share a complete product with other music buffs. His custom made guitars are executed with precision, something that is lacking in a lot of our commercialized mass produced world today.

In the most unexpected places, great talent is hidden; design has no national boundaries. Unfortunately a lot of what is produced and sold today in profit-driven industries is not designed well, if at all. In the move to cheaper and bigger quantities of product, big corporations have lost idealistic standards. So many companies could benefit from Zoghbi’s example.

Mainstream media generally follows mainstream topics. Different magazines and TV stations seem to cover similar events, buildings, places, graphics and choice of merchandise. What about the underground activities of the Zoghbis of the world?

It is unfortunate that there is a whole section of the world that is not even considered on the design front. I would hope that one day designers like Zoghbi will be able to have a platform to promote ideas and reciprocally have certain media segments shed light on their work.

I would like to see a column in mainstream newspapers (and their respective websites) covering the likes of Zoghbi Guitars around the world. Maybe then the big corporations will start to understand the need of hiring passionate designers. A model that might be present in some blogs but it needs to be taken to a broader macro level. Hopefully a future kind of exposure for the little people from all over the world will least give Zoghbi an option to come out of the basement.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Typology Watch: Post Cards

In keeping with our effort to record typological approaches to design, we noted a new exhibition at Dia, in Beacon, New York. Last weekend I dropped in onYou see I am here after all, a new work by American artist Zoe Leonard. It will be on view through September 7, 2009. You see I am here after all is made up of hundreds of postcards of Niagara Falls arrayed on a white wall. Leonard was born in the area of the Falls and collected the cars in flea markets and online auctions. It took me a while to realize that the cards are arranged not just randomly but according to several factors. They are organized by a typology: One factor in this typology is the perspective of the viewer with regard to Niagara falls. Another is the age of the car, which roughly corresponds to the evolution of postcard technology ranging from black and white photographs that are crudely color tinted to into later Kodak color photos.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Change of a Dress

It is the Saturday after the 2008 Democratic National Convention, five days after Michelle Obama addressed the DNCC and the country, impressing us all with her eloquence, grace, family stories, and reverence for the United States of America.  I am still reeling from the excitement from the well-orchestrated week of orators, signage, and unified mantras.  And I must admit that style is still on my mind.  I know fashion is not even an issue on the table, but Michelle (I feel I am on a first name basis with her now) rocked the fashion world while her husband rocked the vote.

During and after Michelle's speech on Monday, I studied her turquoise Maria Pinto dress, examining the lines and the color, noting that it appeared asymmetrical at the back, relaxed at the shoulders, carefully adorned with a turquoise starburst brooch, and very different from the typical look of a presidential wife.  This was not a business suit, but the dress of a mother, wife, and lawyer with style.  This look told me that Michelle can manage household duties, run a meeting at Public Allies, join Barack at a rally, attend a dinner meeting with campaign staffers to strategize for the next day, and get home in time to make sure Malia and Sasha brushed their teeth and said their prayers before bed.

Whether a deliberate tactic or not, this shift from business suit to tailored dress makes a statement.  It brings Michelle home to everyone.  Her look, like the campaign message, is the look of everywoman, not solely a high-powered attorney.  And it shows she is comfortable in this role.

I continued my fashion watch during the rest of the week, noting Michelle's choices on each night while assessing the oration.  Michelle continued to surprise with olive and dreamy white concoctions, all with appropriate and matching jewelry.  The night of Barack's acceptance speech, her patterned and again brooched Thakoon Panichgul kimono dress was powerful in its uniqueness, telling of culture and fashion awareness while being extremely approachable.  Bravo.

Today I was standing in my neighborhood bodega, perusing the magazines, and I noticed all of the press photos on the covers of local and national papers of John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, austere in her black skirt suit, and I felt a longing for more color, more stylistic variety.  The suit no longer holds the same power it once did thanks to Michelle Obama.  Mrs. Obama brought about this change by displaying the work of new and fresh dress designers on the most important stage of all.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Hot Wheels

Photos: New York City Department of Transportation

Not too long ago, pretty much the only people to be seen on bicycles in Manhattan were messengers. And with good reason: the New York City environment is hostile to bikers. The mean streets in many parts of town are too narrow for today's huge SUVs and trucks trying to squeeze through, midtown traffic is intimidating, double-parking is rampant, and the unpredictability of peds X-ing is a constant hazard for a bike rider. But recently lots of folks riding bicycles can be found tooling along the streets and avenues, on their way to office jobs or lunch meetings or school, sometimes with kids and pets in tow. What gives?

The growing national awareness of the value of green lifestyles has led to wider acceptance and visibility of transportation alternatives. But the city has also made it easier to get around safely, by increasing and improving the number of separate bike paths and greenways, and by conducting an experimental program for the month of August. Called Summer Streets, selected north-south routes are closed to traffic but open to bike riders and pedestrians for 6 hours on Saturdays. These have been well-attended by the public; after all, who doesn't like to play in the street?

Increasing the hipness quotient of the trend, David Byrne has designed a series of bike racks appearing around town, each keyed to its location. The Olde Times Square, based on the female silhouette best known as mudflap Tammy, is genius. The visual of a hot babe with bikes chained to her in bondage works nicely with the memory of the once-seedy triple-X personality of the neighborhood. Almost as good is the irony of a bike locked up to the car-shaped Jersey. Byrne hopes to eventually sell the collection as works of art upon their retirement next summer.

During their year on the street the racks are bound to acquire an accumulation of dents, stickers, graffiti, abandoned locks, and bike frame carcasses. No word on whether they will be sold as-is, but I’m all for it. The reminders of their former public service will reinforce the message that there is art in the useful act of riding around on a bike.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prefab Architecture: Prefabricated or Pretty Fabulous?

“I didn't like what happened to the humans in Wall-E. It wasn't bleak enough. The children need to know that there isn't going to be a spaceship to rescue you from earth,” my friend Zaira said as we were waiting in line for the Museum of Modern Art's exhibit on prefabricated architecture, “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling.” After that disturbing comment, I thought, hmmm, I need to get more upbeat friends. Wall-E is a Pixar computer-animated movie (already referred to in the previous post, “Wall-E & Our Humorous Future” by Chappell), which, despite dark undertones, I found rather charming. And seeing this new exhibit—an elaborate exploration of pre-fabricated architecture in the past and present—renewed my optimism about our future. In these supposedly dark times, even when friends have such a bleak view of the future, I can't help but be giddy about new designs that try to solve environmental and societal problems by introducing a much needed “cool factor” to older concepts—like prefabricated homes.

Why prefab? Prefabrication is a process by which the building components are ready-made in a factory —as opposed to on site—thereby greatly reducing construction time, energy and labor needed to build a house. In addition, there is less waste of materials when the process can be controlled in a factory. While many larger buildings have elements of prefabrication in them, the process seems to have a certain social stigma when applied to homes. This exhibition, however, showcases many intriguing constructions from a selected group of architects and designers that manage to create interesting modern design via prefab methods.

The MoMA building, renovated in 2004 by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi in his first U.S. work, is is a combination of the modernist International Style (orthogonal, steel structure, extensive use of glass, minimal in style and ornamentation) but filtered through a unique Japanese perspective (framed views, interior-exterior dynamic, material and joint fetishes). Its fenestration is organized around the central courtyard while the building structure is draped in strong, flat, metal-clad planes that seemingly float above the building. It is Taniguchi’s control of materials that make the building a success. While prefab employs different construction methods, it should maintain similar values and be judged with the same criteria if it is to inspire.

MoMA offers an accommodating setting for this exhibit, situated both inside and outside the museum in a neighboring, empty lot. The first half of the show on the sixth floor showcases a history of the prefabricated house. On display is an array of U.S. Patents for building types, like Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic dome. This part of the exhibit was like being in Doc Brown laboratory, the room full of mockups and building types. Still, I was itching to go down and play in the prefab houses outside.

As we approached the outside lot, I was shivering with glee and excitement. This is not an exaggeration—though I did just down a cafÈ mocha to quench my caffeine addiction. The first house we visited, “Burst*008” by Jeremy Edmiston and Douglas Gauthier, was the most expressionistic by far, rife with crazy angles and complex geometry. Unlike simplistic prefab houses of yore (which favored the boxy trailer-home look), this house had planes extending in every direction, which made for fun architecture. Its steel frame and plywood walls were painted a light, off-white color that (unfortunately) turned slightly green in the LED light. Inside, a video projecting in the “entertainment” room explained how a basic structural slotting technique can be used to construct various forms. It was almost a contradiction of my entire preconceived notion of prefab houses, and it was only the first house I saw! I give the designers credit for smashing my brain.

Next door, I visited a laser-cut New Orleans style house by architect Lawrence Sass, appropriately titled “Housing for New Orleans,” whose pieces could be slotted together to resemble a traditional local dwelling. Another neighboring laser cut house, “System3” by Leo Kaufmann and Albert Ruf might have brought to mind the infamous rectangular-box kind of prefab architecture that screams: trailer! trailer! trailer! But done well, this one reminded me of more interesting prefab architecture I had seen in the past, by architects such as Rocio Romero ( “System3” was designed with the user in mind, complete with interesting interior spaces, great lighting, and sleek materials. While one of these suckers runs a cool $130K, they can be stacked and arranged in multiple shapes.

The most frustrating house was the “Micro Compact Home” designed by Horden Cherry Lee Ltd of London and Haack + Hopfer. I was a bit put off by its accompanying description, which implied that the architect was enlightening the resident by encouraging him to limit their possessions. But really, he’s just forcing him to live in a a friggin' small metal box! This embodies what would happen if we allowed Apple to design our homes: looks cool, but crushes your soul. However, this house does win the ease of construction medal: it takes two hours to “install.” Basically, they can fly the teensy metal house around on a cable connected to a helicopter and just drop it on people.

Now I come to the masterpiece of the show: “The Cellophane House.” Designed by KieranTimberlake, this house can rise off the ground—five stories to be exact. Like “Burst*008” this one doesn't feel prefab. Its designers are going for modern values of light, materials and spaces. This one would be closest in style to the MoMA itself: the tower with a twist. The metal frame of the Cellophane house has no welded joints, only bolted connections, and many of the windows are—you guessed it—cellophane, with energy-retaining panels attached. My only complaint is that, as Zaira and I were getting kicked out of the house at closing time, I touched the metal wall and felt the built up static electricity of the entire building being transported into my body. I'm okay now.

Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling at MoMA runs through Oct 20.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Hole in None

Hot beverages these days invariably come topped with a sippy lid, the kind with a little hole so you can walk and drink at the same time. But is this a benefit? There is a Zen Buddhist saying: When walking, just walk. I heartily agree. An adult is not a baby nursing a bottle, and should be able to wait 5 minutes to arrive at her desk, THEN drink the coffee.

The hole in the sippy lid is a spill hazard. It forces people to create hole-covering blotter pads out of folded-up napkins or risk arriving at work covered with coffee dribbles. Recently an official solution has been thoughtfully provided by Starbucks: they now produce little green plastic stirrers/plugs to fit the hole, topped with a jaunty trademark mermaid. Mightn't it be better to just go back to offering old-style flat lids?

A heavily-promoted aspect of Starbuck's corporate identity and branding is their social responsibility, what they are doing for the environment, etc. So why come up with a solution in the form of an additional plastic item the world doesn’t really need, one that will end up in landfills or washed up on beaches, when it would be cleaner to just solve the original design problem? Lids should not have holes in the first place.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Crane Street: Always on Display

If you appreciate graffiti as art - made by artists working from dusk until dawn, balanced precariously on ledges to fashion their names and political statements - the Crane Street Studios are worth a visit.  The elevated tracks of the 7 train in Long Island City, Queens surround the studio buildings which are unmistakable even from a distance: the walls are covered from top to bottom in bright inscriptions.

But if you prefer art on canvas to art on edifice, a jaunt to Crane Street Studios might be even more dazzling.  Inside the painted building you'll find a thriving colony of artist workspaces: on the second floor is Marshall Harmon of Brooklyn.  His paintings combine topography and cartography with nature, geometry, and building form.  Name at the Gate: Moment, for example, is vivid and saturated with color, its content - leaf-like textures and tree-trunk patterns - arranged in a modernist structure.

A bit down the hall is Robert Lucy with his collection of extraordinary paintings of antique-mall-findings he calls "American Dolls."  When asked about these vivid portraits, Lucy states, "These paintings reference religious icons and political propaganda posters, yet [as a whole] they seem to be empty, unavailable, and hollow."  My gaze shifted to a an impressive portrait of a green-eyed doll with a huge, silky, blonde beehive hairdo.  Upon close examination, every inch of this painting is provocative and inundated with bold color, and as I peered into her eyes, her magic pulled me into her doll world.

The last artist I visited was Tommy Mintz, who, with his "Strip of Buildings/Window Project," has created a voyeur's dream-view of the city.  Mintz selected snapshots of people in their apartments found on Flicker and inserted them into the windows of buildings he photographed in his neighborhood, Astoria, Queens.  In addition, Mintz has also created a New York City Public Toilet Map.  You can order your own for $2.00 (plus $0.50 for shipping) - click here for link.

The saturated exterior of Crane Street Studios reflects the energy of the spaces inside.  Artworks being produced there feel all the more vivid and imposing - bright monuments emerging from an arcane and industrial location.  Here lies a refreshed vision of the 1980's New York City, where art that has grown within these graffiti-wrapped walls is budding to attract the new urban yupster.  The artists here will surely move on and others will come in for the next showing, but for now the residents at Crane Street live peacefully in the industrial backwoods of NYC.

Visit Crane Street Studios: by subway...E, V trains to 23rd St./Ely Ave...G train to Court Sq....7 train to 45th Rd./Court House Sq.  Visit the website for more information.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Mailbox. Open mailbox.

Design humor doesn’t often enter the mainstream. Serif jokes are generally left to the province of wrists and pixel-pushers. I think that’s a shame, since comedy could open up the field of design to those who normally have a very passive relationship with it—It takes away that elitist separation sometimes associated with the profession. So, naturally, I was delighted to see a video posted by based entirely on typographic wit that not only gets people to take a closer look at type and how we use it, but is actually pretty funny.

The video personifies the classic font library, imagining how individual fonts would look and behave if they were humans. Characters are realized largely based on punning of their names: Wide Latin is an overweight Latino, Comic Sans is a comic book hero, and Futura a time traveler. A designer might criticize that these simple puns do not represent the true nature or origin of the typeface they parody. However, this very basic representation offers non-designers a window into the larger font world (Most casual viewers would likely be turned off by a pure history lesson). But looking past the caricature, there exists a fairly interesting and nuanced peek into the interplay of different typefaces and how they communicate. The video manages to walk the fine line of being funny and accessible to laymen and type-nerds alike.

Some particularly insightful parodies I found were both the overall dominance of the businesslike Times New Roman and the interchange between Old English (a highbrow gentleman) & Joker Man (a clown). Old English declares, “Our charge is to illustrate ideas, reason and logic,” harkening to the oldest and most noble directive of the scribe. Joker Man, agrees less articulately with the sounding of an air horn. This is a great juxtaposition of the ideologies between the two typefaces. One is classic, ordered and serious while the other is inanely loud and flippant. Even when trying to be formal, Joker Man cannot be taken on the same level as his colleague—though he’s probably fun to have around.

For me though, nothing is more hilariously pointed in the skit than the nonsensical Wingdings. Dressed as though he were a mental patient, he desperately tries to communicate vital information to the group, but only manages ridiculous exclamations: “Pencil telephone hourglass! Diamonds candle candle flag!” If Joker Man represents the degradation of “ideas, reason and logic” Wingdings is even worse: He can’t communicate at all, not even with the other fonts. His message is entirely subverted by his gimmick.

On the surface, the video is laughable and light, and can be enjoyed by most everyone as entertainment. At a closer look though, it opens up a discussion of how our ideas find a voice through our typefaces. More affable than a literal history of typography, it allows the everyman to appreciate that these fonts have become adapted in our panoply of common type. Maybe if more people were aware of the larger world of fonts, they would be less caviler when using them.

And as for designers who watch the video, they might not learn to appreciate fonts any more than they already do. They might just be upset that Comic Sans saves the day and that Curlz MT survives.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Wall-E & Our Humorous Future

Discussing our human condition in the middle of downtown Los Angeles must be similar to pondering Catholicism in Vatican City. I found myself ensconced in that very topic with a stranger during a recent trip to L.A. As she sat comfortably, her hand over her seven-month pregnant belly, the stranger mused over the psychological impact on those who live in what many consider to be an unlivable city. I myself could almost concur, as Mike Davis’s Ecology of Fear had been my choice in light, airplane reading. The stranger, who turned out to be an artist dabbling in the medium of puppetry, expressed her concern with our general outlook on life, fearing that society can only evaluate itself is through a veil of sarcasm and irony. She referenced Team America and Idiocracy, films whose statements are valid and simple while also brutally steeped in cynicism.

It is with this in mind that I took my $10.50 and saw
Wall-E, the story of a robot left to clean up an Earth whose condition was declared to be uninhabitable after being trashed by human’s addiction to Buy N’ Large, a Costco-like corporation that revels in excess. While the first half of the film is a silent homage to Buster Keaton, only focusing upon the solitary life of Wall-E the robot, the second portion focuses on the humans and their massive spaceship that wanders aimlessly through the galaxy, awaiting the day that one of several robots will return from Earth with proof that life can once again be sustained. Yet unlike the biblical Noah’s Ark that only had a waiting period of forty days, the humans in Wall-E remain on their ship for several centuries, causing their bodies to devolve into helpless blobs that rely solely upon hover chairs. Ultimately, the eradication of all physical activity causes the humans to be morbidly obese and lose half of their bone density.

Pixar, a company who made its name by producing classic, animated Modernist cartoons about heroes who work their way to the top despite adversity, finally broke from their mold by crafting a storyline that is relevant to current societal problems. Yet once the humans are introduced in the latter half of the film, Pixar resorts to over-the-top sarcasm, seemingly one of the few ways we are able to deal with the possibility of a self-made, bleak future. While it seems unfair to criticize anything that attempts to discuss our political and environmental dilemmas, it raises the question of whether satire and irony are successful modes to translate an ultimate message. We all know that we have an oil dependency issue, and sure, we got a good laugh from the “I’m Not A Plastic Bag” bag. Yet, did that bag actually deliver it’s environmental directive, or are we simply satisfied with just a laugh?

Now when I think about my artist friend, surely battling her way through L.A. at this very moment, I can’t help but feel that her fears are just. Is it possible to make something, anything, that evaluates our condition without resorting to the sarcasm that quite often comes along with being creatively clever? And if it is possible, will everyone still think you’re cool? Until then, my Tivo is still set to record
The Daily Show, and there’s not much you can do about that.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Derrières on the Frontline

In an age where design meets needs we didn't even know we had, how is it possible that we are still living with fashion that does not function?  When the iPod revolution has made our listening and viewing experiences elegant, ubiquitous, and affordable in the same stroke, why must we still suffer from poor devices for sitting?

A few months ago I went to a job interview, as I had been beating the streets trying to find my place here in NYC.  I had landed an interview with a graphic design firm whose work was extremely profound, and whose website had all kinds of personality.  Naturally, I expected the same from the environment of their office, but I was in for a surprise.  Their building was on Broadway in SoHo and the hallways were honey-colored warm, wood-floored, and reminiscent of historical school buildings, but what lay behind the boardroom door was a monster disguised as high design.  Just as future employers judge their prospective employees by their attire or shoes, this experience launched my need to analyze my prospective supervisors and officemates by their choice of workplace furniture.

I entered the office: a nearly-empty, not-even-a-receptionist, pseudo-foyer with an extraordinarily-low black foam couch.  I was asked to wait for a few minutes and then was led into the boardroom with its ever-so graceful Saarinen dining/conference table, peachy walls, swiveling yellow-fin dividing wall, and what are these?  Philippe Starck Ghost "La Marie" chairs.  Hmmm.  How could one balance on this crystal polycarbonate?  Luckily no one was there to witness my game of musical chairs, as I was still waiting for the interviewers to arrive.  I wondered, "Is this a test?"  I chose the lone Ghost "Louis" chair with a seat more than 19 inches wide, but I was already done with this interview.  I think it lasted 10 minutes.  Perhaps my interviewers didn't want to sit there either.

Is there a moral message being promoted by such seating?  Has the role of the humble worshipper on an unpadded bench become the model for chair design and technology?  If this is the case, it is time for Vatican III.  I am finished with the hand-carving, flying buttresses, and cantilevers that cannot deliver good circulation or support.  And no one should feel guilty for this.

On the other cheek, I know that I can spend a cool G per Aeron chair for my office or conference room, but will that meet my needs at the dinner table or in my boudoir?  I'm afraid I do not want to see the super-sporty-tennis-racket chair in such places, much like I don't want to wear my trainers and white socks with my suit skirt, even if they are more comfortable.

Somewhere in a mass of breathable webbing, dovetailed wood, powder-coated steel, titanium hardware, and invisible casters lies the perfect chair.  Since our tools build us as much as we build them, is it possible to develop such a seat without sitting on one to first ponder the idea?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The New Yorker thinks you're stupid

I'm not on board with the explanations of illustrator Barry Blitt and The New Yorker regarding this week's cover caricaturing the Obamas as militant flag-burning terrorists. My complaint is not with the image alone, but rather with the bungled delivery of its supposed message, and The New Yorker's defense that the cartoon was simply misunderstood. Both Blitt and the magazine claim that the image was a satire aimed at those who create false impressions of the Democratic candidate. If this was in fact the case, the lampoon proves to be poorly executed and ineffective: it missed its mark completely (the media), ricocheting toward the very people it purportedly defends (the Obamas).

The cartoon’s visual humor is ambiguous, and its front-cover placement—sans headline, in keeping with The New Yorker tradition—only adds to the confusion. Had it been paired with an explanatory article or even some type of caption clarifying the image’s intent, a great deal of misinterpretation could have been averted. At a first glance, the cover works to play up rather than send up the media attacks.

Since, in the public consciousness, the idea of Obama-as-Manchurian-candidate has not been dispelled, it’s understandable that a reader might take the cartoon’s meaning the wrong way. Its comedy is too subtle: For some, the scene might not be read as preposterous, but rather somewhat plausible. The target of the criticism is also too vague. In order to know that the media is being parodied, the scene needs to change in some way. Something aside from Barack and his wife need to be so instantly jarring, so obviously a crack at the media, that the reader couldn’t possibly take the scene as an attack on the prominent couple. Ultimately, the problem with the illustrations is that this joke about sensationalism, as presented by the creators, is an inside one—and much of the nation is not in on it.

No good ad-man would ever think this situation was merely accidental. As a visual communicator, I find the circumstances highly suspect. It's unconvincing that both an experienced political cartoonist and a major US publication could have so grossly misjudged the public reception of this cover. Perhaps the illustration was never actually intended to be an attack on the media: Could The New Yorker just be cynically exploiting rumors about Obama to generate press and sell magazines? When confronted for being incendiary—rather than owning up to their sensationalizing—the magazine insinuates that the public isn’t sophisticated enough to get the joke. I call shenanigans.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Sperry Topsider, A Shoe for all Reasons

The Sperry Topsider, suddenly, is everywhere—in the pages of fashion magazines, at Barney's, on the feet of young, trendy dudes and dudettes here in New York City...

Not bad for a boat shoe that, until recently, was associated mostly with sailors, yuppies and grandpas.

Like many of the old-is-new fashion trends of recent years, the Topsider’s resurgence is fueled by a number of factors: a timeless shape, which in the Topsider’s case has changed little since the shoe was invented in 1935; perceived versatility and durability, which are less commonly attributed to unproven fashions; and, on at least some level, nostalgia and irony.

The Topsider's somewhat idiosyncratic look—loafer-ish body, with floppy leather laces and a low-profile rubber sole—is dictated by its function as a shoe for wet, slippery conditions. That makes the Topsider great for boating. But for the average, non-seafaring citizen, form and function add up to a shoe that's distinct, looks good with jeans or shorts, and lets you walk in the rain without falling on your head.

That people would choose the Topsider for nostalgic or ironic reasons, though, has more to do with preconceived notions about who would wear it. There's a certain comfort in wearing something familiar, something you remember from when you were younger. At the same time, there's ironic pleasure in reappropriating the preppy, fuddy-duddy Topsider.

Urban Outfitters, the popular clothing chain that sells thrift store styles at department store prices, began selling the shoe in 2007. Many of the store's products feed off of the same qualities that make the Topsider relevant now: a classic, sometimes quirky design, good functionality, nostalgia and irony. The national mood, it seems, is calling for products like the Topsider.

Maybe it's because technology is rapidly changing the world and we want to surround ourselves with the familiar. Or maybe it's because people just want a good, comfortable shoe.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Irma Boom, in 3D

A few days before Irma Boom came to Portugal to give a talk I asked a friend — and true Irma Boom fan — if she was worth seeing. It's a bit like asking someone if Feist, for example, is good live (I recently did see her live, and she totally is), or if I should be happy with listening to the albums at home (I'm the proud owner of just one Irma Boom book, her 1998 Vitra Work Spirit catalogue). My friend said she was definitely worth the 3-hour train ride to Porto (Boom would speak at ESAD, a design school just outside Portugal's second biggest city, as part of the Personal Views talk series). Plus, Boom rarely talks in public, my friend said — so I knew I was in for something special.

Personal Views is itself something worth talking about: it's a world-class series of talks by renowned graphic designers and educators promoted by ESAD since 2003 which, as a Portuguese design critic wrote last year, managed over the years to prove there is an audience for graphic design in the country; the school's small auditorium fills up entirely for each of the talks, and at times the public even overflows into other rooms.

On June 6th, and despite the bus-load of design students and professors from Lisbon's Fine Art School, everyone managed to get a seat and indulge in over two hours of Irma Boom's books, stories, confessions and everything she managed to share with us until she grew tired of talking.

The very nature of a talk, or lecture — and a design talk is no exception — is one of sharing. We expect to gain something from the person on stage when we see her "live" and "in the flesh", as much as we expect to enjoy a concert or a show by our favourite artist. The success of that talk — as with so much else in life — depends on the balance between our expectations and our experience of it. That day, Irma Boom not only met my expectations — she surpassed them. Sitting at a table on the right-hand side of the small stage, next to a pile of books, Boom started her talk by reading aloud a list of things she considered fundamental in a book. A long, almost never-ending list, which became a kind of litany of verbs and nouns and adjectives that she seemed to need to get out of her system, so she could be ready — and get us ready — for what was to follow. Over her head hung a (I was told auction-style) video camera, and on the projected image on the wall, to her right, we could see a portion of the table in front of her, not — as could be expected from a design talk — slide one of a Keynote/Powerpoint-style presentation. She then started to bring the books, one by one, from the pile into the image on the wall, live and in real time. Assuming a posture she admits to be both wrong and frequent, she had her back too often arched, her head down and facing her hands — hence on camera; her hands, constantly moving, on and off camera. Boom did not want to call our attention to her, but rather to her books: that was what had brought her there in the first place. If the design world has its anti-heros, she is surely one of them.

Considering the main goals of her work as a book designer to "explore the meaning and significance of the book" and to "give another life to a story", Boom admitted only to accept jobs where she can be part of the editorial board of a given project, and where she has the complete trust of her commissioner. She will not be satisfied with being just the "form giver" of the books she works on, the person who will put other people's images and words together in pages sandwiched between a cover and back cover. That simply won't do it for her, and she shows it to us on camera, live and in 3D. With a career that spans just over 20 years and 250 books, today she is perhaps the best example of a designer who fully understands the book as an object, as something that has a physical, three-dimensional presence in our lives.

All of her books are unique, almost precious objects, but Boom is the first to reveal their true nature: she despises handmade books, and insists her work is always the result of an industrial process. From the SHV "Fat" book (her well-known 2500-page, 11cm-thick, stainless-steel-bound mammoth of a book on which she worked on for over five years) to her three-day-fast small book jobs for Rem Koolhaas' OMA, from a much criticised stamp book to "butterfly porno" stamps and the exquisite miniatures she uses as sketches (the ones MoMA wants to get in order to complete her entire body of work, something it has been collecting over the years — but she won't give them to anyone), I would say everyone in that room felt hypnotised by Boom's hands, as they handled many, many pieces of her work, almost of herself. Her hands held the books, opened them, closed them, picked them up, put them down, pushed them aside, pulled them back, leafed through their pages, revealed their paper, their spine, their very existence in the room.

On that day, Irma showed (with all due respect to Eric Gill) things, not pictures of things. That made all the difference to what she does as a designer, and to the way she talks about what she does. But it also meant everything to us, who had the privilege of sharing the same three-dimensional space with her that afternoon.

Irma Boom's talk will soon be available on video soon on the Personal Views website, as other talks by other designers. The Personal Views 2007/2008 season will end with Ian Anderson's talk on June 20th. Photo credit: Luísa Ribas

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Vintage Oral Hygiene

On a recent trip to Rhode Island, I stopped off at an antiques market. It was a fairly typical arrangement: a red barn with vintage cars parked out front, and loads of vendors inside. Tables carried the usual country junk popular for decorating beach homes and offered no shortage of stuffed and mounted deer heads.

In the back of the market, I came across a glass case containing tiny, precious objects. On its very bottom shelf I found something that totally blew my mind: a gun toothbrush, for kids.

Now, clearly this toothbrush came from another era—a much more innocent one, fixated on cowboys, Indians, and the romantic side of shooting things. It was basically a form of something we see all the time: a toothbrush that’s also a toy, aimed at enticing kids into maintaining better oral hygiene. Well that makes sense, I thought, I see cartoon character toothbrushes all the time, why should this be any different? Still, this one really set me thinking.

The “Gun Brush” (labeled above the pistol grip) is “Made in the U.S.A.” probably in the 1950’s or 1960’s, and not only is it a brightly colored plastic gun, but is has a functioning trigger! So you can click away while you brush your teeth, eradicating Plaque, and any inhibitions that you may have had about putting the barrel end of a gun in your mouth. Can you imagine a company being able to get such a toothbrush on the shelves in this era of drive-bys and schoolhouse massacres—let alone finding a parent today that would buy a toy gun specifically designed to go, point blank, into their child’s mouth?

But, despite being so incredibly wrong by today’s standards, I am attracted to this crazy thing. I feel invited to play with it, and can’t help myself. The kid in me thinks its “cool!” and wants to know if it comes with a holster, and if it can be loaded with toothpaste too?!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

If I could save Earth in a bottle

This weekend, I went shopping at Target with a couple of friends. Driving back home, I found that the cashier had placed in my bag a little brochure of different merchandise his store deemed environmentally conscious. One ad in particular caught my attention: It was for a new, more “eco-friendly” variety of bottled water, packaged with thinner plastic. By purchasing this product, the ad copy indicated, consumers can create a healthier world, and ultimately save the planet.

This is a very misleading ad. Its ridiculous premise confounds discourse on environmental responsibility, thus enabling destructive behavior. Though the advertisement acknowledges that disposable plastic is bad for the environment, it implies that plastic’s production and consumption in smaller quantities is good. This is paradoxical: by using thinner water bottles you are not saving the planet. You’re still hurting it—just not quite as much.

I don’t want to downplay the value of designs that cut down on waste. To scoff at the innovation of the water bottle would be the same as denouncing hybrid vehicles since they still use gasoline. Both are great examples of transitional technology and design, but neither are the ultimate solutions to our environmental woes. They are buffers and stepping-stones towards real and permanent solutions that give us time to make deeper change.

So when I look at these new water bottles, I see a sound design, but a branding that is reckless in its message. When advertising these transitional technologies, some level of “sexying up” the benefits—a bit of creative license—is understandable; After all, consumers should go with quasi-eco options rather than their more destructive counterparts. But the branding becomes counterproductive when it uses innovative design to encourage the same destructive behavior that the design attempted to moderate. The ultimate goal is not to use better water bottles, nor to merely use less. To actually “save the planet” we’d need to find a way to not use them at all.