In Slate: “The Propaganda of Concern”

I have a piece in Slate on help-Japan products:

Of course you’re concerned about the well-being of the Japanese people in the wake of the earthquake, tsunami, and still-unfolding nuclear crisis. But do you have the tastefully designed products to prove it?

It’s an ugly question, sure, but one that’s becoming hard to avoid, given the onslaught of help-Japan posters, T-shirts, and so on and so on, popping up all over the Web.

The rest is here. Big, big thanks to all have emailed/tweeted/otherwise spread the piece!

There are even more examples out there since it went up, far too many to include. But here are a couple of things people have let me know about:

“Scalies” update

[2/12: Be sure to see the updates at the end, and also I’m adding a “Scalies” tag to my Letters From Here Tumblr to track future notable items. Click here.]

I couldn’t be more pleased with the reaction to last weekend’s Consumed, which has practically made it mandatory for me to take time I really don’t have to assemble this post.

If you read the column, you know the most recent one was about the little figures in architectural renderings, and their function. On one level that function is simply to suggest the scale of whatever building or project is being proposed, which is why, as I say in the column, one architect friend of mine refers to these figures as “scalies.” (Revealed here exclusively: That friend is Kirsten Hively. And as of this moment, there’s evidence on Twitter that people like that term; thus I feel she should get credit.)

The reason this update is mandatory is that the feedback I’ve gotten has included lots of great visuals, so I am collecting them below.

But before I get to that: Maybe the most surprising response I got was from Amy Herzog, Associate Professor of Media Studies at Queens College, CUNY, who is presenting a paper on this very subject at the Rendering The Visible Conference, this very weekend, in Atlanta. I so wish I could attend! On the off chance any of you go, please report back.

Now on to more reactions & visuals:

Most of all, I was thrilled to see a follow-up (click on the image above) on BLDBLOG, a truly great site whose proprietor, Geoff Manaugh, I interviewed for the column. In addition to what I was able to include, he made at least two excellent observations that I couldn’t get in for lack of space. Both are revealed in this post that you should read right now. One involves parkour, the other Don DeLillo.

I also really recommend clicking through the images and reading the captions on this Curbed post. Smart, entertaining, funny — exemplary critical/design writing in my opinion!

On Twitter, @jmuspratt asked: “Have you ever seen Kapitza’s human typologies as fonts?” (Above.) I had not! But what a great tip! Check it out here, pretty fascinating.

Longtime pal Marc Weidenbaum, a font of unexpected knowledge on all things, dropped a line to draw my attention to An Apartment For Space-Age Lovers. The image above will probably make it clear why he made this connection.

Also via email: K.B. Norwood alerted me to this post on Never Learned, comparing scalies to the famous “Little  People in the City” street-art project of Slinkachu. An insightful connection.

Finally, there were a lot of really useful and smart reactions on the Consumed Facebook page, but since this post is getting long I’ll just single out Andy Hickes, who said he is writing a history of architectural rendering in the 20th century, an idea that I think is laudable. If you like looking at renderings you’ll love this site: Some fabulous examples. [Feb 10 update: To be clear, that site is not connected to his historical project; see comments. Didn’t mean to imply it was related, but I did.]

The other FB comment I have to note came from Laura Forde, who wrote about how interesting she found it that “architects refer to not just the people in the renderings—but trees, plants, vehicles—as the grammatically singular word ‘entourage.’ It certainly makes everything subordinate to the building. The ‘scalies’ may be chosen for their style, but are a group of faceless attendants (in the same category as plants) more than individual participants.”

Also taking note of the column: Unbeige, with a nice post, @architectmag, which declared “scalies” the “word of the day.”

Feb 10 Update: This morning I came upon this post on Things Magazine, which cites the column and observes that “generic digital offerings” have “largely replaced the characterful and highly detailed figures made by Paul M.Preiser, many of which have that casual central European sauciness.” I clicked around on that Preiser site for quite a while. I don’t totally get what’s on offer (reader Mike D. says these appear to be railroad model figurines) but I sure enjoyed looking.

Also: The comments on the above-mentioned BLDGBLOG post are particularly good. Aside from thoughtful reactions, somebody chimed in with nothing more than a link — but it’s an awesome link: People For The Architecture is “an index of imagined realities from a growing list of architectural offices, minus everything but the people.” The screen grab above (“Zaha Hadid / Cairo”) does not do it justice, please go waste some time there, it’s great.

Feb 12: Fantastic short film stars animated scalies! Watch it here: Real Estate by Jonathan Weston.

MySpace aesthetics revisited: “The vintage Internet”

Just this weekend I was thinking about an old series of posts here, from 2007, in which I mused about the aesthetics of MySpace. At the time I was trying to figure out why something so “ugly” was also so popular, in an era of supposed mass-good-taste in design/aesthetics. Since then of course MySpace has become much less popular. Are aesthetics part of the reason?

Well before I could hash out an answer, I saw this Observer story with a totally different take. MySpace aesthetics connote the “vintage Internet.” Now that’s a great concept, the vintage Internet. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

“It’s kind of like how you have those bands where they’re like, ‘Yeah we’re putting our record out on cassette,'” said Matthew Perpetua, the founder of the music site Fluxblog and a contributor to Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. “It’s that kind of contrarian impulse.”

At the Williamsburg party, where one of the opening bands had released an album on cassette, a bald design student named Kyle was standing near the merch table and praising a MySpace competitor, the San Francisco-based Bandcamp.

“I go there now. But I don’t want to go there,” he said of MySpace. “I want it all to be on Bandcamp.”

“O.K., I’ve never heard of Bandcamp,” said his compatriot, a diminutive green-eyed artist named Meghan. She blew cigarette smoke back and forth. “So I’m still going to MySpace.”

“No, no, and that’s totally O.K., too,” Kyle said quickly.

Much of the MySpace nostalgia is a response to Bandcamp, the glitz to MySpace’s gutter and a necessary part of the equation, just as cassettes and vinyl would have no cachet without the dominance of MP3s.

Winterhouse Awards

I mentioned earlier I was a judge for the Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism. (The “jury” was me, Steven Heller, Paola Antonelli, and jury chair Jessica Helfand.) I’m sure that ever since I mentioned that you’ve been on the edge of your seat, wondering how it would play out! Well, whether that’s true or not, you still ought to be interested in the winners. Here’s the deal:

NEW YORK—October 5, 2010. AIGA and the Winterhouse Institute announce the two writers selected to receive the fifth annual Winterhouse Awards for Design Writing & Criticism: Daniel Brook is the recipient of the professional Writing Award, based on a body of work; and Aileen Kwun is the recipient of the Education Award, for the single best piece of writing by a student. A program of AIGA, the professional association for design, these annual awards were founded by William Drenttel and Jessica Helfand of Winterhouse Institute to recognize excellence in writing about design and to encourage the development of voices under 40 engaged in critical thinking about design and visual culture in the United States.

More here.

What I can add is that I thoroughly enjoyed reading a lot of great entries, and perhaps even more than that enjoyed the conversation with my fellow “jurors” leading up to the decision. It was surprisingly fun, probably because of the people involved.

Big congrats to the deserving winners.

In The New York Times Magazine: “Junk”ing up carrots

A vegetable borrows from the junk-food branding vernacular

It’s hard to say who gets the last laugh here. The makers of Doritos aren’t exactly complaining. (“We’re happy to serve as inspiration,” a Frito-Lay spokesman told USA Today.) And the reality is that marketers have long since recognized and accepted that “how your snack looks” makes a difference, to kids in particular.

Read the column in the September 26, 2010, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

Dept. of Where can I get some of those?

I think it might be useful to have some of these SECRECY ENVELOPES.

In The New York Times Magazine: Fruit branding

A design campaign that has made the most of minimal packaging.

Humans have always noticed novelty, but it’s harder to get our attention in the multicolored and abundant context of a megamart, where one heap of bananas looks much like another. This makes it all the more impressive that Chiquita has received so much notice by being creative with the little blue stickers that adorn its flagship fruit

Read the column in the August 22, 2010, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

A Droid Named HAL?

During a recent viewing of 2001, I got a bit fixated on HAL‘s “eye,” as a kind of icon of creepy machine intelligence that seems like it might be a useful visual reference point for someone to exploit around about now, when speculation, euphoria, and paranoia about computers, privacy, and digital intelligence are frequent topics of discussion:

And yesterday E (aware of my interest in the above) pointed out to me this promo image of the next Droid phone.

What do you think? Is that an intentional HAL reference?

Books: The Idea: Not here anymore!

Click to continue the series in its new home.

Back in April I posted a couple of items about a fantastic 1995 Nicholson Baker New Yorker piece about books used as props in catalogs. And on April 23 I promised “one more post” on the subject, “next week.”  I forgot to do so — and not one of you reminded me! Sheesh. No wonder this series has moved.

Anyway I found the draft of that “lost post” this weekend, quickly updated and finished it, and here it is:

This site’s occasional series on the idea of the book has included several instances of things (a necklace, a ring, etc.) made to look like books. That 1995 Baker piece, as it happens,  mentioned similar stuff from back then:

Not only is the book the prop of commonest resort in the world of mail order, but objects that resemble books – non-book items that carry bookishly antiquarian detailing – are suddenly popular…. Catalogues now offer book-patterned ties, book brooches, and settes covered in tromp-l’oiel-bookshelf fabric.

He gives other examples: a table whose base is “a fake stack” of leather-bound books, a “book-shaped box of candy bars,” book coasters, a magnifying glass with “faux bookspine handle,” and even a “Faux Book Cassette Holder,” to disguise the evidence of your middlebrow listening habits with a suggestion of more respectable reading ones.

On an aesthetic note, Baker suggests all this leather-bound book signifying might be replaced, or at least complemented, with visual suggestions of Penguin paperbacks and the like: “Our working notion of what books look like is on the verge of becoming frozen in a brownish fantasy phase that may estrange us from, and therefore weaken our resolve to read, the books we actually own.”

A fascinating point, probably even more salient now that the proposition of ebooks squeezing away physical ones is so widely discussed. Many argue that such judgments are premature — but surely there’s a good case to be made that our idea of what a physical book is may well cease to evolve soon, if it hasn’t already.

Anyway, this series is continuing, but not here. Please visit to follow along, if you like.

Books, the idea, cont’d: Too beautiful to read?

In general, the series Books: The Idea is currently migrating over to MKTG. But here’s one last entry on this site.

Correspondences. Click for more.

Ben Greenman’s book Correspondences, published last year, was described like so by its publisher:

Each hand-crafted, signed copy is composed of an unfolding chip-board casing built by letter-press maven Brandon Mise, which contains pockets for three accordion books bearing two stories each. The seventh story, which is written by Mr. Greenman with intentional gaps in the narrative, is printed on the casing and does something unprecedented: It invites the reader to contribute to the collection.The fourth pocket in the casing contains a postcard that the reader can use to fill in the gaps in Greenman’s narrative and send to Hotel St. George Press for possible publication in future online and paperback editions of the book.

Now that’s a book in the form of a beautiful object! Not surprisingly, it cost $50. Time Out Chicago said: “As an object, Correspondences is a genius invention. But as a book, it works just as well.”

Note the two distinct categories: “as an object” and “as a book.”

The book is about to be published again, under the title What He’s Poised To Do, and in the form of, well, of a traditional collection-of-words object. (On a not-unrelated note, Mr. Greenman, a three-time contributor to Significant Objects, has guest-curated a week of objects and epistolary stories for us over on that site, starting today.)

It seems that one reaction to the original version was that at it was such a great object  that it was, in effect, too nice to monkey with — that is to say, it was too beautiful to read. Perhaps the new, more trad-book version will actually be more widely read. And is this not the idea of the book? To be read? Maybe, maybe not.

Personally, I’d opt for the fabulous-object version, if I had a choice.

Meanwhile, as long as we’re on the subject of the super-objectified book, Gabriel Levinson recently hipped me to this: Read more

In The New York Times Magazine: Merit badges

The appeal of the (sort of) grown-up, geeky merit badge

Much about the function of the merit badge actually fits pretty neatly with the spirit of the time. The nagging sense of needing to acquire new skills, all the time, is palpable. That anxiety dovetails with a self-improvement ethos that fills whole sections of bookstores, cross-matched with the various ways technology prods us to tabulate parodic amounts of personal-behavior data. If we rack up badges for our online “achievements,” we may as well do the same for our offline victories, too. And if we use a form associated with preadulthood, it makes sense, since all of the above comes with a chaser of nostalgia and widespread reluctance to completely put away childish things.

Churlish? To the contrary, I can’t think of a more sweetly upbeat response to a turbulent culture than an actual grown-up sporting a merit badge.

Read the column in the June 13, 2010, New York Times Magazine, or here.

Discuss, make fun of, or praise this column to the skies at the Consumed Facebook page.

Books, the idea: “Mere decoration”?

Former books "liberated," but still bookylikeish. Click for more.

“Are books on their way to being mere decoration?” asks the headline of this Sacramento Bee article. That of course is a running theme of this series. The article starts out by noting the item above, Antique Coverless Book Bundles, whose attraction is described by Restoration Hardware like so: “Liberated from their covers, stitched and bound with jute twine, the foxed and faded pages of old books become objêts d’art.” Books, or the suggestion of books in a book-derived object, “really do harken back to an older time,” a spokesman for the retailer tells the Bee. “These add texture to a room; they add a sense of age to the room.”

Yes, a sense of age. This is another example of the book as raw material — though in this case not for artists, but on a mass-retail scale. Anyway, the Bee writer, Gina Kim, pivots:

Is this it, the epilogue? As the Kindle, iPad and other e-readers become increasingly popular in the digital age, dog-eared books are no longer simply a tool for transporting literary works. They’ve become decoration.

Surely books have served as decoration long before the Kindle and iPad appeared, but the point is related to my interest in the way the e-book limits what I guess I’ll call the signaling function of physical books: In an e-book future, might we dream up rationales for keeping physical and displayable books around us, filling or fascinating shelves, furnishing our rooms? Kim again:
Electronic chapters and verses can’t be displayed on bookshelves. So people are turning toward companies like Juniper Books and Half Price Books, which sell literature by the yard with the promise that multiple copies of the same book will not be in their shipments.

“What’s interesting to me is in spite of what everyone says about the death of books, people still care to show off that they own books,” said Edward Tenner, a research affiliate at Princeton University’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies.

The best quote in the piece is this hilariously blunt assessment from a librarian in Rhode Island, describing the antecedents for display-only bookage: 19th Century mass-produced collected-works sets that added (“a sense of”) classy erudition to their owners’ homes:

You’re Joe Blow in the late 19th century America and you want a library like Lord So-And-So has but you don’t have the wherewithal to collect books and put them in their own bindings. So you buy the works of Washington Irving in sets. Did you read these books? One hopes, but generally speaking, they’re window dressing.

Books, the idea: Shelf expression

By Oscar Nuñez, click for more

Not available for Kindle,” is the headline on a MetaFilter item: “There may be more ways to shelve your books than there are books.” It links to four posts on a site called WebUrbanist, each of which rounds up multiple examples of unusual (innovative? weird?) bookshelves or bookshelf variations or comments on the form of the form of the bookshelf.

Some examples are things that have come up in this series before, like the “curated” bookshelf, and the work of Jim Rosenau — though here’s one more image of Rosenau’s impressive work anyway:

Bookshelf made of books; By Jim Rosenau; click for more.

I’ve had the passing thought in my ongoing excavation of the previously mentioned Bookshelf blog (actually the source of the top image on this post; it just seemed appropriate) that physical books are going to survive for a very long time, if for no other reason than to supply the demand for something to put on the rather astonishing number shelf solutions designers and artists seem to be dreaming up nonstop.

“Bibliochaise” on WebUrbanist, click for more.

DIY types, too:

Via WebUrbanist; click for more.

Via WebUrbanist, click for more

On the other hand, the second comment to that MeFi post counters: “Only point is, no real book lover would spend so much money on something that has so little to do with reading. Most of the cases linked are for people who buy their books by the colour of the covers.” [UPDATE: The picture below, not attributed on WebUrbanist, is by Flickr user chotda, and can be viewed (with annotations) here. (Thx Cybele).]

Via WebUrbanist

Ah, but on the third hand, with books and shelves on the brain I couldn’t help but be amused by this comment in a Mindhacks link roundup: “Why Humans Have Sex. A podcast for the The New York Academy of Sciences oddly fails to mention wanting to check out people’s bookshelves. Maybe that’s just me?”

Via Web Urbanist; click for more.

Via Web Urbanist; click for more.

Stress ball with (really, really) old-school aesthetic

These stress balls

$152; click for more.

… remind me of the Makapansgat Pebble (discussed here):

The Birth of Want. Click for more.

Stand by, continued

Following up this post, and this one, another take on the stand-by color bars pattern:

Stained Glass Test Pattern on Make site; click for more.