On one of those luminous days, with mounds of snow melting in recently blizzard-ravaged Connecticut, I went to visit with Niels Diffrient in his studio. He asked me to try out a working model of a lounge chair, his current project. Not your father’s lounge chair, this one is designed to accommodate the analog and digital media we use every day. As I stretched out and felt the comfort and support of the chair, I recalled that Niels had designed a similar chaise at the beginning of the digital revolution when we predicted that work would change dramatically, but had no idea what that change would look and feel like.
It was 1987 and I was working on a Metropolis article, “Chaises Lounges,” writing, “For most people, working and relaxing suggest different body positions but the two can be reconciled by the long chair.” As one of our illustrations we showed Niels sitting, feet up with his bulky desktop computer raised to the ergonomically correct height and placed on the swiveling tablet attached to his then new Jefferson chair.
Niels Diffrient is a tinkerer, a fixer, an ever-restless experimenter, and an industrial designer who is not afraid to go back to his old ideas and make them better, more appropriate, more useful. His approach is aided and abetted by his constant search for new information and ideas, gleaned from the great big world of human knowledge we all have access to, but few bother to dive into as Niels does. He is truly a practicing generalist.
So when his new book, Confessions of a Generalist, a self-published and self-marketed biography designed by Brian Sisco, appeared on my desk, I was eager to dip into the details of a life that I knew only through anecdotes. To give you a shorthand idea of Niels’s thought pattern, I decided to excerpt a portion of the book, a section entitled “The Foundation of Generalism.” It’s a start. –SSS
The first thing to understand is that design is not art. As Oscar Wilde is purported to have said “Art is absolutely useless.” In spite of some topical conceits such as “Functional Art” or “Art Design” and other such oxymorons, art remains without utility; design is integral with utility and usefulness. This means fulfilling the needs of people which includes aesthetic considerations, separating it from engineering design and other technical, specialized pursuits.
The next thing to understand is that design, as currently practiced, is an activity not a profession. Whether one is a fashion designer, graphic designer, product designer or interior designer, one is still pursuing an activity or applied practice. Design, as a word, is a verb, not a noun, and as such is not a suitable identifier for a practice that has not yet reached the standards of a profession. (more…)
It seems somewhat silly to publish a book filled with pictures of nothing but trademarks; after all, how useful can a book be that deliberately shows pictures of the things that already permeate everyday life? There are trademarks on the clothes I wear, on my coffee cup, and on nearly every product I see on store shelves. One would be hard-pressed to find a more ubiquitous subject matter.
You wouldn’t be wrong to ask such questions, however, Marks of Excellence is much more than a catalog of brand logos. Revised and expanded for its latest edition, the book is filled with over 1,000 color illustrations, each one carefully selected to be an object lesson on some aspect of trademarks the purpose they serve. Used as a launching pad, this collection of trademarks is able to draw connections and bring insight to almost every aspect of their use. (more…)
Sport is among the most insistent reasons for large-scale architecture. Think of the Colosseum or Fenway Park, not to mention a new crop of Olympic venues every two years. Every society builds large-scale venues for sporting entertainment; only the purpose varies. While we’ve forsaken such diversions as public executions and mock sea battles we continue to build for baseball, football, soccer, or basketball using new specifications. Amidst this larger shift, from the trident and the net to the diamond and the catch, there are occasional continuities. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of horseracing and the structures erected for its viewing. This specialty is finally given due attention by Paul Roberts and Isabelle Taylor in their intriguing new book, Racecourse Architecture.
The Hippodrome is one of the oldest of sporting forms. And while the Roman-built Leptis Magna may not be hosting the Libyan Triple Crown today, a number of racecourses can boast traditions of continuous use that put any other sport to shame. Chester Racecourse, which operates to this day, held its first races in 1539; the Grand Écuries at Chantilly were completed in 1736; the original York Racecourse Grandstand (they naturally have a larger one now) dates from 1756. Even comparatively youthful racecourses frequently boast architecture older than any extant American sporting venue, not to mention any worldwide soccer venue.
Racecourses continue to exercise a grip on the public imagination. This image might have drifted more in the direction of the corporate and the raffish in recent years but still manages to accommodate both staggering seediness and considerable gentility. HBO’s short-lived Luck featured a standard cast of racing degenerates. Joseph Bruno until recently held court over his seeming lifelong fiefdom of the New York Senate from the Saratoga Racecourse. Cary Grant met Ingrid Bergman at the racecourse in Notorious, seeking news of Nazi Claude Rains’ doings; Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin raced horses at Chantilly in A View to A Kill, which naturally Roger Moore had to investigate. My Fair Lady featured the “Ascot Gavotte”:
Every duke and peer is here
Everyone who should be here is here
What a smashing, positively dashing spectacle
The Ascot opening day
While today’s Alan J. Lerner would be unlikely to choose such a topic, Ascot continues to possess a distinct grandeur. And just as unglamorous racing events have not swept away swank ones, undistinguished racing architecture has happily failed to carry away many glorious examples of the form. Horseracing in the contemporary sense began to take form, unsurprisingly, under the aegis of those Stuart monarchs, who tended to possess enthusiasms for the divine right of kings and for fun in equal measure. Enthusiasm may have outstripped talent. James I was described by one historian as “the worst rider in the world” and it is rumored that Parliament once dispatched a group to request his return to government from racing. No wonder his grandson should want to rule without them. (more…)
As Neil Harbisson lifted a red sock up to the end of the narrow, black device extending from the back of his head, a note sounded. After a moment he set down the red sock and reached for a blue sock, this one playing a different note as he brought it to the sensor suspended over his forehead. Repeating the gesture several times, new notes sounded for each different sock – he was playing a “color concert”. Although Harbisson cannot see colors, the device attached to his head, known as an eyeborg, allows him to perceive them through the frequencies they emit, including many which are not perceptible to normal human eyes. The performance was a fitting end to the 2013 PSFK Conference, a day of talks, panels, and presentations centering on the latest in technology, design, and brand innovation.
Neil Harbisson performs a concert using his eyeborg and different colored socks.
Much of last week’s PSFK conference, which took place April 12th at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan, centered on the connections between humans and technology, and how advances in technology are changing how we relate to the world. Other major topics of the day were strategies for successful branding, and several plans to reshape New York City for the better in the coming years.
Harbisson, who in addition to his concert was also the day’s first speaker, explored the possibility of augmenting human senses with technology, similar to how he has done. He believes that, in a way, we are all handicapped in that our natural five senses do not allow us to perceive the full range of inputs from around us. Through the use of technology, our range of perception can be expanded and our awareness increased. His group, the Cyborg Foundation, works to help people augment their senses through technology, as well as advocating on behalf of cyborgs like himself.
Douglas Rushkoff discusses the phenomenon of “present shock.”
As much as the boundaries between design and art fade away (at DesignMiami galleries sell design through an art market structure, such as a $50,000 limited edition of 3 “designer” chairs), yet we continue to need to categorize and make distinctions between the two. And when we can’t see the distinction, bewildered, we cry for an explanation.
A recent post here by Starre Vartan elaborated on one of the defining factors of that distinction: the relationship between the creative and the commercial and what it means to both. This was a great insight. Then my visit to Indianapolis and the new art hotel brought even more clarity to the topic, a case study for discussion.
The Alexander Hotel (a 209 room property, part of the CityWay redevelopment complex in downtown Indianapolis) is the result of an initiative by Indiana developer Brad Chambers, a long-time art philanthropist and collector. With the assistance of the curatorial team, lead by chief curator Dr. Lisa Freiman of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Chambers wanted to bring to the project the inspiration that art, his passion, gives him and, in the process, bring to Indianapolis something new and unique.
Beyond a comprehensive and thoughtful art collection put together exclusively for the hotel, 14 artists were commissioned to create site-specific pieces for the property. All pieces make relevant statements and combine successfully to bring the trendy art hotel category to America’s Midwest. Undeniably, the piece de resistance is Jorge Pardo’s “design” for the bar and lounge, Plat99.
Pardo was given one of the most prominent parts of the project to design. The bar and lounge area is a glass box slightly pulled off the main volume of the Gensler designed building, hovering on the second floor at the corner of the busy intersection where the hotel is located, its curtain walls serving as a teaser, inviting passersby for a closer look at what’s inside.
The art historical legend-making machine has yoked Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978), he of the split-down-the-middle, half-Surrealist surname, with his “building cuts,” particularly the wood-frame house in Englewood, New Jersey that he bisected in 1974. This series of works ultimately led him in two different directions as he shifted his attention to the subterranean city—New York subway tunnels, Parisian catacombs—and finally, looked to the sky, where he imagined floating, sustainable cities. An eye-opening exhibition at New York’s David Zwirner gallery focuses on the ideas and trajectories that Matta-Clark pursued with tools ranging from a chainsaw to a movie camera in the final years of his life, which was cut short by cancer.
“With this show I want to emphasize how much there was to Gordon’s practice,” says independent curator Jessamyn Fiore, who co-directs the Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark with her mother, Jane Crawford, Matta-Clark’s widow. “There are a lot of layers, but there is a lot still left to be uncovered and explored.” That much is clear upon encountering the first work in the exhibition, City Slivers, a 1976 film that fragments the screen with vertical stripes of footage, each showing a different perspective on bustling city life, yet always with a human scale that Matta-Clark, trained as an architect at Cornell, managed to keep constant throughout his disparate projects, all while fiddling with variables of space, time, and medium.
One of his most ambitious cut works, “Conical Intersect” (1975), in which he carved holes in two buildings that dated from 1690 on the eve of their demolition to make way for the Centre Pompidou, is shown in a sketch, film, and accompanying photographs—cibachrome prints made from collaged still photos, film footage, and jazzy bands of tape—along with a pair of clasped stone hands. Stolen from their pious owner several centuries ago, the hands were discovered by Matta-Clark in the midst of his Paris cutting. “This is what he held on to, as a personal memento in his own home,” says Fiore. “He always loved the idea that he was cutting through history, as if taking a geologic sample but of humanity, and revealing the layers of life lived in these structures.”
GORDON MATTA-CLARK “Conical Intersect”, 1975
Courtesy The Estate of Gordon Matta-Clark and David Zwirner, New York/London (more…)
Amidst all the post-Sandy commotion and the excessive media coverage, it was confusing to keep up with all that was going on, be it just a few blocks away or in the far reaches of the wide spread New York City. This was further compounded by media outlets scrambling to report properly on the unprecedented storm; their efforts were patchy, to say the least.
Last week when I sat down with Local Office Architects, Walter Meyer and Jennifer Holstad to discuss their projects, I was taken aback by their description of the degree of destruction on the Rockaway Peninsula. But I was also positively surprised to learn of the relief efforts they described (and were intrinsically involved with, having spearheaded some of them), and some of the initiatives to bring that beleaguered community back to life.
One initiative, PS1’s VW Dome 2, officially opens this Friday, March 29th. The temporary dome (a slightly smaller scale version of the one installed at PS1’s courtyard, gifted by VolksWagen) aims to give the Rockaway community a place to gather and be inspired, whether they’re hosting talks, watching movie screenings, or taking in exhibits.
Shenzhen China, Steven Holl
The March issue of Metropolis digs deep into how the creative process happens for a number of designers. From Steven Holl’s watercolors that structurally ideate—and ultimately become—homes, to John Pawson’s travel photographs that inform the museum he’s building, and Matali Crasset’s modern vessel inspired by age-old dishes. These stories not only show how designers navigate the tricky spaces between design concept and final product but also reveal how art is integral to the design process. Indeed, in each of the pieces—the watercolors, the photographs, the African bowls—art is firmly in timeline of the design project it’s attached to.
Is there, then, a line between what is art and what is design? What is the fundamental difference?
Typographer and designer Roberto De Vincq de Cumptich, author of Men of Letters and People of Substance, defines the difference as being about the economics of consumption: Design demands and expects a consumer, art hopes for one but is not dependent upon it. He writes:
“Design is not Art, since Art exists as an answer to a question posed by an individual artist, while Design exists as an answer to a question posed by the marketplace. Design must have an audience to come into being, while Art seeks an audience, sometimes, luckily, finding it, sometimes not. Art pushes the limit of human experience and language for its own sake, while Design might do this but only to humanize and integrate people’s lives in the context of an economy. Design needs an economic system, while Art does not. Art may become a product, but it’s not the reason why it was created, but how our society transforms it into a commodity.” (more…)
It’s no secret that the United States Postal Service is hitting hard times. Budget shortfalls have led to talk of ending Saturday mail deliveries, meanwhile delivery operations have already begun consolidating across much of the country. And while snail mail may be anachronistic in the era of electronic communications, the retrenchment puts at risk many of the storied structures that have housed the Postal Service for decades. In New York City, several historic structures face uncertain futures as they are considered for sale as part of this process.
At the south end of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, the Bronx General Post office commands an entire block. Opened in 1936, the monumental structure is fronted on the outside with grand arched windows and a pair of sculpted figures. Inside, several New Deal-era murals by the prominent Lithuanian-American artist Ben Shahn cover the walls. These magnificent murals depict laborers milling textiles, farming, and engaged in other work. Shahn is well known for his left-leaning political artwork during the first half of the 20th century, as well as for his involvement with the controversial Diego Rivera mural in Rockefeller Center. (more…)
I have satisfied my first order for a large retailer, Anthropologie, and I must say I feel great. I feel great because for young designers, it is increasingly difficult to have our voices heard. And further still, most companies won’t even recognize that you have a voice until you have “proven” yourself. But I did it.
The paper vases, Om, that Anthropologie ordered have been loved and hated. I cannot, sadly, tell you why people like or dislike them; however, I can tell you how they came to be and let you judge for yourself.
The concept of OM grew out of research for my graduate thesis at SCAD. While most of my peers had some working knowledge of furniture’s holy three: leather, wood, and fabric, I was more familiar with industrial processes and plastics—my background is in industrial design. To me the smell of leather was foreign. The differences between quarter-sawn and half-sawn wood were lost on me. And the warp of a fabric was indistinguishable from its weft. I was naïve. But it was this beautiful ignorance that gave me a perspective not shared by most of my peers.
I was intrigued by simple things; the things most people take for granted. I was in love with the pedestrian things of our world. So I felt no embarrassment when I informed my professor that I would be exploring the qualities of wood and its by-product paper. And explore I did! I dyed it. I dipped it. I burned it. I pureed it. I mixed it with plaster. I even sewed it (inspired by a pair of Tyvek pants made by Maison Martin Margiela). I did countless studies and tests searching for…I don’t know what. Then, as things almost always happen long after my class and academic requirement to explore had ended, I came to it.
I was reading an article on the alterity of felt when I realized that this entire time I’d been attempting to bully the paper, bend it to my will. I had ignored the desires of the material, of the paper. After having this aha-moment my process changed. I would no longer tell the paper what to do; instead I endeavored to see if it had the capacity to achieve what I had in mind. I began bending instead of creasing—I viewed a crease as a command, irrevocable once committed, whereas a bend was a suggestion. I would let these bends and folds create both the aesthetic value of each vase while simultaneously acting as their structure. Through this process of “call and response” each vase became nothing like anything else. The shadows became design elements; the surface of the paper became a canvas for diffused light. I was pleased. But not everyone was onboard. Professors thought they were disrespectful; peers thought they were a joke. Others, though, thought of them as poetry made tangible. I thought of them as the zenith of my process. (more…)
In 1975, musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt created a deck of cards called “Oblique Strategies” to break through writer’s block in the studio. Their idea was to collect phrases that would return them to an artistic state of mind when they found themselves struggling under pressure. The cards provided inspirational words of wisdom such as, “Honour thy error as a hidden intention,” or “Work at a different speed,” or “Gardening, not architecture.” The latter is a personal favorite, and here’s why.
Architecture is envisioned, planned, and executed. It is a singular expression or provision, closely conforming to a plan, always requiring control. Ideally the architect achieves success when all the elements are arranged as presented. The architect makes the physical world obey.
Gardening is attentive, responsive, and warm-hearted. It’s about helping living things grow to their potential—living things that are under your influence, but not within your control. The elements provide or destroy, and the gardener is in dialogue with the plants to encourage and heal.
“Gardening, not architecture,” has become my guiding statement for leading a studio of wildly talented, creative, and sensitive people.
While there is certainly a place for highly structured approaches in the design world, I think the gardening metaphor is best suited for studio culture. If creativity is gardening, creative leadership is about selecting and nurturing its gardeners. Let me illustrate.
On the fourth floor of our IDEO Boston studio is a large common area. Three years ago it was essentially a peninsula of empty desks surrounded by project spaces. Sometimes they were occupied, but most of the time they were vacant because people were on projects. After some time it just seemed counterproductive to have this space outfitted as such. We asked everyone with a desk on the fourth floor to move their belongings upstairs with the rest of the gang. We intuited that this newly made blank canvas could serve as a flex space.
It must have been winter because the new space sat neglected for some time until one day a project team decided to make something of it. Frustrated with being confined to their corner project room, they took an afternoon to build a new lounge in the flex space. Sofas, lamps, and chairs (including airline seats from a former project) were relocated from different parts of the studio. The team built a standing height table in the shop and painted it turquoise with an intricate gold interior pattern. The space quickly went from “abandoned” to “owned” and found new uses—from gaming, to coding, to reconciling credit card statements. New life had sprung.
Soon after things were organized and rearranged, an exhibition of non-billable work brought the space to life in a new way. A documentary film series, “The Sundown Film Festival,” sprouted during the darkness of our short winter days. Spring and summer passed and it appeared that interest in the space was waning. (more…)
In the age of ecology and sustainability, landscape architecture, like other design professions, is in the process of finding new areas of exploration, new types of work, and a more diverse group of clients that require renewed research and learning. Gary Hilderbrand’s erudite and accessible essay, in a new book on his firm, is an inspiring guide through a modernist’s commitment to rationality and abstraction while it shows a deep understanding of and respect for the immense variety and unpredictability of the profession’s pre-eminent material, Nature. Combining skill with hope, the firm has created and is in the process of creating, some of our most memorable, yet sometimes invisible landscapes, thus the name of the book, Visible/Invisible: Landscape Works of Reed Hilderbrand, newly published by Metropolis Books. In addition to Gary’s enlightened view of his profession, we hear from such notable figures as Peter Walker and the photographer, Millicent Harvey, among others. But it’s Hilderbrand’s own words that make us want to see, examine, marvel at, and appreciate what his firm is doing. “The landscape is bigger than we are,” he writes. “We alter its substance and its processes, and it grows back at us with force. We can’t see exactly how, but we know it will. We come to embrace a certain image. Is it right?” –SSS
In the early morning light of a photograph taken by Alan Ward in the summer of 2010, a canopy of cedar elms hovers over a pavilion, a swimming pool, and gently graded lawn terraces. The image was made on the bank of Upper Bachman Creek in Dallas, Texas, on a 6-acre property where Philip Johnson designed a house in 1964 for Henry S. and Patricia Beck. When Doug Reed and I first visited this site in 2003, the spatial power of these trees was barely visible. Fully engulfed in a tangle of two species of Ligustrum—one shrublike, growing up to 12 feet in height, the other with 3-inch trunks reaching nearly 20 feet—the land was virtually impenetrable. For perhaps two decades, an aging Mrs. Beck had neglected portions of her property east of the creek and benignly allowed nature to run its course. More than a hundred volunteer cedar elms and a handful of other trees, including several Texas live oaks and a single giant cottonwood, had formed a canopy that merged with comparably overgrown woodlands on either side of the parcel. We saw a degraded, illegible landscape.
Mrs. Beck sold the property in 2002 to a young Dallas family of four, and the new owners committed to a massive project to rescue and reinhabit Johnson’s house and to recover health and functionality for the landscape. Over a seven-year period, we transformed this patch of emergent forest through a set of operations and practices whose evidence is sometimes visible but often obscured. Recapturing a space for family life and for the display of sculpture necessitated significant disturbance and successive rehabilitation efforts: removing dozens of the poorest trees and preserving the most viable; opening up the canopy to improve light and air; eliminating invasive plant species; correcting drainage and soil structure; reinforcing and replanting the stream bank; and establishing several kinds of grassland and prairie and groundcover crops. (more…)
Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto will be designing this year’s Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, came the recent announcement. This prestigious commission is given once a year to an international architect who has not completed a building in England. In th…
Palms reflecting on Glade Lake
As much as I have enjoyed New York and its famous urbanity in the years since I moved here, a recent visit to Miami (where I moved from) reminded me of the softening powers of nature. It’s easy to forget this primeval presence when we’re underground or walking in crowded canyons of grey stone and brown brick buildings. By contrast, in Miami, I am soothed as I go about my day and catch a glimpse of unobstructed skies and expansive bay and ocean views, and the reinvigorating presence of lush flora year around and everywhere. On my last day there I went by the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden to get a good dose of that green paradise, hoping it would last for me through end of winter. The Fairchild does not disappoint!
Winning an award should be in and of itself good enough, but the satisfaction of the win inevitably deflates when you’re stuck with a plastic trophy to put on your desk. That was not the case when our Game Changers received their Corian, laser-engraved, geometric trophies by Tietz-Baccon at this year’s Game Changers awards ceremony.
The awards presented at the ceremony were custom designed, assembled, and graciously donated by the digital fabricators, based out of Long Island City. They were laser-carved out of Corian, with the seven sides of each award carved simultaneously. Their heptadronal shape allows for each model to sit on any side. Put together, they create an entirely different symphony of shapes and capture the spirit of our Game Changers.