Seattle in the Time of Amazon

Martin Pedersen was my editor when I wrote for Metropolis. He's now the executive director of a group called the Common Edge Collaborative, which is dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the broader public that it's supposed to serve. He saw me fuming on FB about someone else's thinking how great Amazon might be for Philadelphia, and suggested I write my own essay. (Just click on the arrow after the title.)


The Garage of Last Resort

My identity recently got a jolt from one of those things nephews say when they aren't really talking to you and you aren't really listening. I didn't hear what Wes said until hours later, when collapsed in a chair with my feet up later in the evening. My sister had asked him to bring me some chairs she was giving me, so he'd driven them over. We'd met in my garage. He's tall, charming and laconic-- not a big chit-chat kind of guy. He'd grinned, brought the chairs in and stacked them in the back. Straightening up, he'd looked slowly left and then slowly right, paused, and said, "Lots here." A smile, the engine starting, gone. "Lots here." I hadn't really heard him, since when he said it I was edging my way between his chairs and a table stacked with a case of champagne, three white fake poinsettias, a rolled rug and a box of over-wintering potatoes, while sort of muttering to myself about whether I needed more Dry-Z-Aire. But I thought about what he said-- as I say-- later that night, when collapsed in the old wing chair. Truth is, up until that "Lots here," I had believed myself to be a minimalist. Minimalism is part of my identity. I know I say a lot of mean things about Modernists, particularly the Germanic sort, but they got their aesthetic hooks into me when I was young, and I must say I like things spare. A lot of craposis around the house drives me nuts. Not for me the Pottery Barn candlesticks. Not for me the faux-rustic painted signs that say "Beach -->" or "Just Another Day in Paradise." I don't like stuff for stuff's sake. A nice table, a couple of chairs, perhaps a few blossoms in a vase. That's all she wrote.

My love of the minimal dictated that I prefer beige. My living room is so beige that certain people have mentioned a Sahara-like quality, a sand-blindness that prompts them to crawl to the refrigerator for a beer. But beige or no beige, Wes's comment brought a truth to light. Something happened to my minimalism in the last twenty years, and it happened slowly, like the accretion of pounds around the waist or the silent, secret progress of spider veins. Sitting in my wing chair, I thought back to when the erosion must have begun.

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VSD: The Designer's Impairment

Not long ago, a doctor furrowed his brow and told me that I had registered off the scale on a test of my "visual sensitivity." For some reason, this tickled my funny bone enormously and I went around telling others the news, laughing uproariously, and receiving only a blank stare in return. After a few blank stares, I forgot about visual sensitivity and went back to normal jokes about fleece and Northwest fashion. But lately I'm thinking that a honed and heightened, not to say morbid, visual sensitivity could be the reason that designers find life just a bit rough around the edges. I'm beginning to think that what we once believed was a valuable aesthetic sense might just be detrimental to long-term comfort.

Perhaps it's time we design people give up flaunting our talent and start defining ourselves in terms of maladaptation, just as psychiatry has done with other non-concentric groups since Freud took the stage. A shift like that could really change the game. Instead of prancing into meetings, trailing a light waft of hipness and edge, designers could shuffle in slowly, wearing huge dark medical glasses, accompanied by caring assistants. We could speak in slow and halting voices, garnering the respect of others with our obvious fortitude. For do we not rate big medical glasses? Do we not go through life as though we've just had our cataracts removed?

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Apparel Designers, Repeat After Me: "Dolman, Raglan, Set-in, Cap"

If I had done this trick for the camera, my arms would still be moving.

If I had done this trick for the camera, my arms would still be moving.

Finding myself with a few relaxing days off, I broke out the bubble bath and climbed into the tub with a large pile of catalogs, planning on ordering a few choice pieces to perk up my closet's traditional suit population. Colors and patterns and weird mixes of prints abounded, jumping off the page with a quasi-Seventies fervor. OK, fine. But every time I was attracted to something, it had the Fatal Flaw, and I turned the page.

Dear designers of supremely non-hipster clothing like Talbots and Pendleton, I know you'd rather be at the Paris shows with your friends at Prada, but when you're working in front of that CAD monitor doing your day job--that is, designing clothes for me, the non-hipster-non-Prada wearer--put on some sleeves. SLEEVES.

What has to happen in the design process of a major brand in order for many pieces in the collection to not have sleeves? What has to happen in the mind of a designer to think for a split-second that any woman in his target market (age 40 and beyond) would EVER buy ANYTHING with no sleeves? Perhaps it is a blind spot.

Sure, you spent your time at FIT designing for your 19 year-old friends and hoping to be on Project Runway and since sleeves can be hard to put in you avoided it. So much easier to fling in a facing or just overlock the armhole and watch it walk. Student days are so gratifying.

But now that you actually have a job, it's time for you to wise up. Roll down the anatomical chart, please. Now for the big news about everyone in your target demo: One day her arms were fine, the next they looked like two blobs of pizza dough. Pumping her bis and tris did nothing. And she can't go back.

Your concessionary short-sleeved bolero and little cardis have had their day. Your target demo is sick of bright little cardis. And the short-sleeve bolero makes her look like an overweight matador. So just stop it. Learn to cut sleeves.

The only thing I can imagine that explains this wholesale stupidity in otherwise talented designers is that China must be charging a lot less for no-sleeve looks. Because why else would perfectly reasonable brands do such a dumb thing? In a recessionary economy, give the customer what she wants. Give her a safe haven for those softening arms. She begs you: Give her sleeves.

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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Grigory Perelman: Genius, Brilliance and the Poincare Conjecture

In an unguarded, light and carefree moment, lulled by sun, the scent of lavender and a large double latte in a big china cup, I recently told a friend of mine that I did not consider him a genius. What an error. Take a brilliant American writer and tell him you don't consider him a genius and he'll crumple like a California poppy at evening. I did my best to explain, but the damage was done. Again the semiotic interpretant reared its sleepy bed-head and stared dully at me through the tousled sheets of communication. Again I wondered that anyone is ever able to get anything across to anyone else.

Oddly, I had meant this observation as a compliment. To a Russian-American like me, being called "a genius" is not a particularly good thing. But of course, this writer is not Russian, did not grow up with Russians, and was using the American interpretation of what "genius" means.

To an American, being a genius is being Alexander Graham Bell. It's being a brisk inventor in a white coat and clean laboratory with some pretty colored liquids bubbling away in retorts in the background. It's the person thinking up and feeding equations into a gorgeous array of computer terminals in order to unlock a cure for Alzheimer's. In the US, a genius is the person who finds the cure, saves the day, figures out how to cap the oil spill-- gets the society out of a sticky wicket by using his brain. In the arts, American genius writers save the day by telling the reader what it is that needs to be saved, and often stand around looking craggy and stalwart. They all seem to have vertical creases in their tanned cheeks. Even the women.

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On Compost and Rose

Much of what my grandmother knew instinctively-- and taught us all instinctively--our culture suddenly realizes it must rediscover. She was not a naturalist or a flower-child, just a normal person, a normal woman of her era who understood where she fit in. Everything was a part of everything else. The compost fed the rose. She treated Nature in the same way that she treated people. They had their ups and downs, just like relationships with people do, but it was a relationship based on respect. That's just the way she thought, and how the people who had reared her had thought. Was she radical? No. Just measured--just related to her surroundings.

I recently came upon the work of Murray Bookchin, a wild-eyed eco-revolutionary of the Rachel Carson era. “The plundering of the human spirit by the market place is paralleled by the plundering of the earth by capital," said Bookchin. His argument was that most of the activities that consume energy and destroy the environment are senseless because they contribute little to quality of life and well being. Is this radical? Thought to be. So radical that these ideas split the American Green Movement right in half.

But the plunder of the spirit being tied to the plunder of the earth was completely obvious--wordlessly obvious-- to my grandmother, whose own grandfather (now we're going back to before the American Civil War) was known around Gaffney for letting a third of his land lie fallow every growing season. He didn't believe in using the new fertilizers, he didn't believe in beating the soil into submission and for this reason he missed out on a third more revenue every summer. Radically stick-in-the-mud? Or forward thinking?

Bookchin, the radical Marxist, said that the function of work is to legitimize, even create, hierarchy. He believed that understanding the transformation of organic into hierarchical societies is crucial to finding a way forward. I'd say that understanding that transformation is crucial to finding our way backward--back to the cyclic rather than the one-off, back to the sustainable rather than the pillaged-- back to the dreams of the lover rather than those of the rapist.

Texting from Everest: Thoughts on Communication Dependence

Mount Everest. That huge mountain-- symbol of human will vs. nature: ice and cold and lack of oxygen and quick decisions and chance and no way out but up. From base camp to summit, Everest has given the climber the chance to unlock everything within himself in order to achieve something great on his own terms. As any climber will tell you, most of the combat goes on inside. Self versus fear. Self alone.

A friend’s daughter recently texted her from Everest. Things had gotten a bit lonely hunkered down in the old tent, so she thought she’d check in with Mom. With that call, the entire opportunity of Everest changed from real to pastiche, from true struggle to extreme entertainment.

In this time of ever-fresher apps and endless Facebook and constant texting, the greatest challenge to our growth as human beings and to our society is our growing inability to be alone. America is based on an assumption that, deeply, all of us want independence, want to call our own shots and make our own decisions for ourselves. We celebrate liberty, we admire the lone cowboy. But none of us is a lone cowboy anymore. Nor do we really desire to be one. The thought of riding the range without instant access to someone else is scary. What if we needed something? What if we found ourselves...out of touch?

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Swimming to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi

As you know, Burma is the country currently known as Myanmar. It is called Myanmar right now because its military dictatorship knows that you associate the word "Burma" with the words "human rights abuses," and so, in a nice branding coup, they changed the name a few years back. Now if you see "Made in Myanmar" on a sweatshirt you're buying, well-- where the heck is that and who cares? Which is what they want. I needed to say this first, so you'd be reminded about Myanmar. But this post is really about something else.

It is hard to think that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the jailed pro-democracy leader who has been living under house arrest for fourteen years in Burma, faces a sentence of five years in a disgusting Myanmar prison because a sprightly young American named John Yettaw decided what a fine thing it would be to swim across the lake that acts as a moat to keep people away from her. True, he was arrested, too. But I have little pity for him.

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Rilke on Criticism

Here, now, the birds start up early. The first sleepy chirp sounds at 3:30. A real chirpfest by four am. Head under pillows, what’s left but to push back the percale and stumble out and make coffee and sit watching the light come. The white sky deepens to clear blue--the green of new leaves, the climbing rose spilling yellow blossoms over the balcony.

People have their favorites, but when sleep is not an option I read Rilke. I go back to Letters to a Young Poet. It's not just for the young. In the face of these clear words, everyone is young.

Here’s something from Rilke about criticism. It may seem strange coming from me, since I write criticism. But I agree with him.

“… And let me here promptly make a request: read as little as possible of aesthetic criticism— such things are either partisan views, petrified and grown senseless in their lifeless induration, or they are clever quibblings in which today one view wins and tomorrow the opposite. Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just to them.

Consider yourself and your feeling right every time with regard to every such argumentation, discussion or introduction; if you are wrong after all, the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly and with time to other insights. Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything.

Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.”

How to be a Hack

The other day I was sitting in a meeting with my brand analysis hat on, listening to Pam, my business partner, present a plan for brand alignment to a very bright client. I like listening to Pam’s presentations because her mind works so differently from mine. I always learn something. This time, though, my attention was distracted by a person sitting near me. The thinning, spikey hair with the lightened tips. The slim, rectangular glasses. The worked-out, aging body clothed in the latest techno-wear from REI, chosen to give a sense of health and youth where health and youth are ebbing. Behold: The Branding Hack.

In computer companies, it has become standard for people to scan their email while sitting in presentations. It's incredibly rude, it’s a waste of time, since you can’t hear when you are reading, but it's pretty much standard. However, the hack was taking this behavior a step further. Pretending to listen to Pam, he was looking down at his G-4, scanning the client’s website, familiarizing himself with the way they thought of themselves, then looking up at her and smiling, as if he were listening to her fresh insights.

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Appreciating Consequence

I'm snowbound on a small island. In New York this snow would have been plowed and dumped in the river by lunchtime on the day it fell, and nary a reservation at Nobu cancelled. Not here. No, here in the land of the hearty Northwesterner, land of anorak and parka, land of flannel and technical fabric, we have buses sliding down slight inclines. We have cars without snowtires trying to make it up hills, the drivers' faces cartoons of surprise at sliding backward.

Seattle is caught unprepared for this snow. We don't know what to do with it. I've been in my house for a week. Cabin fever doesn't do the feeling justice. There's just so long that you can obsess about folding fresh sheets. Sooner or later you are forced to think, and sometimes those thoughts are not cheery. Cheery and festive as I love to be, sometimes I think thoughts that are not popular. They are not popular because they do not point the way to a cheery, festive future. They are warning thoughts.

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