And Contempt for Woman

I'm in the enviable position of being one of the last professors Graphic Design students see at Cornish College of the Arts. I get to spend time with them as they work to create their degree projects: the capstone design and book and film and motion and sound exhibition they make that proves that they have gotten their minds and skills into the sort of functioning order capable of pulling off something big.

I run this class as a series of individual meetings: sort of like sixteen independent studies. Of the sixteen students I have this semester, fifteen are women. This is not an anomaly. Far more women than men are now graphic designers.

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The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism

In addition to being a place for me to put long articles originally published in foreign languages (how much of that did you actually get through?) I see that this blog is also functioning as a Home for Wayward Book Reviews-- this one of The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism, a book by Nicholas Fox Weber. When the design magazine for which I originally wrote this had an editorial shake-up, I wasn't paying attention and forgot to send the darned thing in. However, it occurs to me that this piece will find as many readers here as it would have in the printed magazine for which I wrote it. Thank you, Google Analytics, for that bit of comforting knowledge.

The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism

It took one determined trumpet to fell the walls of Jericho, but it has taken 90 years for scholars and curators to begin to grapple with and dismantle the Gropian curtain wall that created and defends our perceptions of the Bauhaus.

Recent shows at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (Bauhaus 1919-1933: Workshops for Modernity) and at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin (Bauhaus: A Conceptual Model) included many more aspects of the work done at this most influential of design schools than have any previous exhibitions. The great tussle between the Bauhaus’s Expressionists and its Constructivists is more fully exposed than ever before.

Similarly, a current crop of books and monographs (Gunta Stolzl: Bauhaus Master; Bauhaus Women: Art, Handicraft and Design; Bauhaus Conflicts, 1919-2009: Controversies and Counterparts, to name some) seem uninterested in shoring up the heroic quality of their subjects, and very interested in looking deeply into their subjects' humanity. This is a refreshing change.

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Design Education, Cutie and the Deck Shoes

This article was published by 2+3D, a Polish design magazine. I agreed with the editor that I would put it up here after the issue had been out for a while. It was published in Polish, so there's probably not too much overlap in readership here. I do recommend subscribing to the magazine. The images alone are an amazingly valuable thing: you can sort of dope out the gist of the text.

Cutie and the Deck Shoes

Right after Christmas, at the time a fresh new crop of bright sweaters, scarves and hats suddenly appears on the commute ferry from my island, I spied an ordinarily somber acquaintance wearing a particularly festive pair of deck shoes. As I looked closer at her feet, I noticed that along with magenta flowers and acid green lines of varying widths, a large photo of a bulldog smiled up at me from both shoes.
“Shoes!” I said, thinking that by saying “Shoes!” I was neither saying, “I like your shoes!” which would have been an utter lie, nor “Where did you get the tossed salads that are on your feet?” which probably would not have gone down well either. I commute every day with the same people: I must be careful.
“Aren’t they great!” she beamed up at me. “I designed them myself, on Zazzle!” Her habitual dour expression vanished. She was so happy. Curling her toes up, she pointed down.
“That’s Cutie, my dog.”

A sharp pain stabbed at my stomach: A referred pain from 20 years of paying the student loans that financed my design education.
“Your dog!” I said, brightly. “Well, there he is! Hey, I’ve got to get coffee--” and with that I lurched toward the galley and toward the safety of the coffee line.

Standing in line in front of the huge coffee urns, I bowed my head and thought sad thoughts about Cutie and the deck shoes. "It’s the end of design," I thought. "It is the end of aesthetics, of educated decisions, of culture. The Vandals have scaled the wall and they’re wearing bulldogs on their toes."

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Why No Place at the Table

I 've been in design my whole life. During this admittedly lengthening period, I've listened to many designers spend much energy fighting to be recognized, fighting to be heard by the people who make things happen in corporations, in NGOs, in government.

For years I have heard stirring arguments about how designers need "a place at the table" around which important systemic decisions are made. And still that place at the table is not an assured place. Why are designers still not really a part of things? Why are they not an assumed voice in high-level decision-making? Even today, when innovation and sustainability and green are the newest corporate cliches, it is rare to see a designer in the boardroom.

"And why is this?" I asked myself, walking back from teaching tonight. The answer came to me, borne on feathered wings, somewhere between Nordstrom's and the ferry.

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More on Basel, Ornament, Complexity

"Ornament und Bildentwurf," (Ornament and Design Process) is the book created at the Imagelab Workshop at Basel where pattern and ornament and complexity were recently explored. If you can get your hands on it, it's really worth reading. Signals a big change. And may be a response to the interests of the students, a sort of bottom-up reverse osmosis. Which would also be a new thing at Basel.

Here's a quote by Orlando Budelacci, a contributor:

"Ornament is not only adornment, decorative accessory and luxurious decoration: above all, it is no crime."

The walls are closing in. Everything I know to be true is being challenged. I must lie down.

Basel: Reduction vs. complexity

I just had the pleasure of sitting in on a lecture about identity design by Michael Renner, currently Head of the Visual Communication Institute at The Basel School of Design. His review of the creation of marks and systems was very well thought-out and inspiring, but of particular interest to me was the student work he showed at the end of his lecture-- work that explores the signs and symbols people choose to communicate their individuality--their identity. This work is quite unlike anything I had ever seen come out of Basel. The idea of exploring the meanings expressed in complexity is certainly not an idea I naturally associate with Swiss design education, the long-time champion of boiled-down-to-the-essence, ever-simplified reduction. Neither the individual nor the individuality of subjects and objects was high on the list of values in former Basel eras. This exploration of identity and complexity in the layering of meaning represents a sea-change in the way design education is being examined and redefined at Basel. I tip my hat to Michael Renner for balancing reduction and complexity in the current equation.

Perils of Design Writing

I come from a family of writers. Growing up, it sometimes felt as though writing was the family business. It was discussed around the dinner table, the way a family discusses its generational practice in dentistry, or its general store. My Russian grandmother, Olga Ilyin, my father’s mother, wrote memoirs and novels about her youth, and spent months with us every year, “in ze country,” which was actually in ze suburbs. She, with her Chekhovian mindset, didn’t choose to see the white rocks, the tract houses, the cheap stucco.

I grew up with her routine: breakfast at eight; writing from nine to twelve; lunch; a reading of what she had just written for critique by my father, who had spent the same time in his studio, painting; afternoon tea, then friends over for dinner and conversation in the evening. Sadly, growing up with this going on in the house, I missed the fact that most people were not retired, not painting and writing, not critiquing over the Earl Grey but in fact working for a living.

Consequently, I have spent my life trying to resolve these two ways of living, mixing tea and writing one day with hunkering down and hammering out work with clients the next. It’s been Dreams of my Russian Summers meets Marketing For the Small Design Firm every day of my adult life, and for this reason I now offer up a nugget of advice to those who would be design writers: be born wealthy, marry well, or invent something early on, because the bifurcation of spending time in the total concentration of writing-- the other world of it-- followed by the slam of reality that is business is one of the hardest things I negotiate.

The transition is akin to the grinding of gears, and it is a transition I make every day. When I look around at other design writers, it is only lately that I notice that a good deal of family money is floating around backing up the career choice. Heed my wise words. or the grey hair you see at my temples shall be yours at my august age.