My Father Used Casals' Trick

My father, now 92 and such a paragon of successful aging that KQED once interviewed him, called me this morning just to yak. After our usual back-and-forth cataloging of birthday parties attended, dinner parties attended, his work and mine, various changes in the weather and kinds of soup each of us happened to be cooking at the moment (short recipes included), he mentioned that last week Russia's Pushkin Museum had sent over a curator to look at all his paintings, particularly his watercolors, and to decide what the museum would be interested in owning.

Seems the new vogue in Russian museum curation is to try to figure out just what the culture lost with the stream of refugees that left before the borders were sealed, in the 1920s. Many never got out. But my father did, no artist yet, just a small, swaddled infant more or less attached to his 23 year-old mother.

And so it is an ironic and a great thing to hear that the Russians are interested in my father's work, and that the Pushkin Museum curator also wants to find a Russian publisher to translate his latest manuscript.

"It's amazing," he said to me this morning, "that these things keep happening at my age. When I look around at other old people, they don't seem to have these opportunities."

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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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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.

Goodbye to the Art Ball

Since the inception of design, the myth of the black-clad, chain-smoking, heavy drinking, overworked designer has been the Romantic ideal. Where I went to school, these slumped, hung-over, chain-smoking designers perched on studio stools all over the design building. We called them Art Balls. Gender didn't factor in. Sometimes a studio looked like it had been taken over by these black blobs with four metal legs.

Designers-- graphic, game, motion, apparel, architectural, or interior-- have amazingly sensitive antennae that pick up the smallest social indications about what they should act like, what they should emulate and how they want to be perceived. In response, they become semiotic semaphores, signaling their hipster-ness, their nonconformism, their sensitivity or, alternatively, their conservative modernism, their neo-modernism or their eclecticism through their clothing and their actions.

Is it a left-over pose from the myth of the Romantic Hero-- the wild-eyed painter swashing away at his "Liberty Leading the People?" Is it a feint at the garb of shamanism? At dividing oneself from the "average" person in order to retain mystic connection to powers greater than Self? Is it a hangover from the avant-garde of 100 years ago, a monk-like resistance to the luxury and lures of the comfortable bourgeoisie? Or is it the stance of the basement guitar hero who knows, deep inside, that no girls will ever scream for him?

Embracing and living the Art Ball life of chain-smoking, energy-drinks and alcohol may be a pleasant way to form an identity at 19, but if you're living that way at thirty you're going to have all the mental freshness of a Goodwill sofa. By 40 you'll be enjoying a Thorazine highball daily between managing hacking cough-spasms and auto-dialing your ex, begging for permission to see the kids. Rock stars don't need to come up with new ideas all the time. Like restaurant chefs, they perfect perhaps 40 standard recipes and spend their lives repeating them to different audiences. Not so the designer. Every pancake is a new pancake; every song a new song, sung once.

So here's an idea. Design could start to value the idea of the happy, balanced designer. I know. It sounds so wrong. The entire structure of design is against happiness and balance in its practitioners. What would we talk about if we didn't talk about how tired we were, how overworked, how busy, how stressed? Imagine knowing a designer that wasn't hurting himself in some way. Such a designer would turn the whole mythology of design on its head. Which needs to happen. Because, let's face it, if a designer does not understand what it takes to sustain Self and spirit, do you really want his taking on designing sustainable things? For sustainable things, at this point, are really the only interesting design things.

Sustainable design must start with teaching designers to sustain their own lives, their heart. It's time we say goodbye to the Art Ball.

More on the Place at the Table

I so appreciate the continuing comments on "Why No Place at the Table," which was mentioned by DesignObserver recently. Many of the comments I've received put the blame for American designers' being functionally illiterate squarely on the shoulders of the public school system.Two things come to my mind here.

First, I went to public school in California--Terra Linda High School: a big, sprawling place that, at the time I was there, enrolled more than 2000 students. I am sure that plenty of people came out of that school functionally illiterate. But if they took writing with Patrick Skinner, they came out writing well, no matter how poorly they had written when they came to his class. It takes one motivating teacher and one semester of weekly writing assignments to train a person to write well.

I'm not saying that that person will be "a writer," but she will know where to put a comma, when it is "it's" and when it is "its," and all the rules of writing that my students do not know. Like drawing, writing is a skill, and anyone can learn the basics.

Second, because a person did not learn to write in high school does not mean he is doomed to drag himself through his life as a designer not knowing how to argue on paper, nor does it mean that he wants to do so. As I said, learning to write takes one semester. Of all the students I have encountered, not one has told me that writing is unimportant. I have never had a student tell me that she is not interested in learning to write well. I have never had a student tell me writing is valueless. Most students look sheepish when they turn in their papers. They feel inadequate to the task. But they are not uninterested. In fact, they look a bit desperate for help.

Perhaps I run into especially motivated students. Or maybe they fear me and feign interest. ( I can hope.) But I think we do students a disservice when we assume that they do not want to write. I think we need to teach them. We need to expect it of them-- and of ourselves.

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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Symbols and Tools, redux

I rerun this Valentine's Day post since it is on the subject of gift-giving, a touchy subject always. Just substitute "Xmas" for "Valentine's Day" and it should work, though there's so much more to Xmas in terms of cultural storytelling, but I need to be working on something else right now so can't go into it unless someone responds who really wants to dig through.

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In Defense of Fruitcake

In our era of political correctness, when racial, sexual and stereotyping “jokes” have finally been swept from the public conversation because of their being disgusting, mean, crass, unenlightened and just plain boring, I find that I must bring to my reader’s attention a small nook of said public conversation that has not yet been tidied: the totally acceptable public humiliation and shaming of those who love what amounts to a small pile of dried and glaceed fruits held together by a winsome batter of butter, flour, eggs and spice. It is time for a new maturity on the part of the pokers and prodders. It is time to stop sending those blasted cards. It is time for the thoughtless, painful, embarrassing jokes to end. I urge you to join me in the ushering in of a renewed era: an era during which fruitcake can take once again its honored place upon the pantry shelf.

Fruitcake. Most Americans today have never tasted a real one. If your idea of fruitcake is something that you can order from a boxed fruit company or buy in a Dollar Store redolent of cheap candy and caramel-corn, well. What can I tell you. Your world is very small. Anything that is more sickly-sweet “cake” than fruit, anything that has small, unidentifiable green things in it, anything that is made by a machine and comes wrapped in plastic is, by definition, not a fruitcake. It’s a pathetic blob of sugars and preservatives aimed at separating the consumer from his dollar by imitating and commodifying That For Which Real Fruitcake Stands.

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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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The Graphic Eye: Photographs by Graphic Designers from Around the Globe

I forgot to mention here that Stefan Bucher's new book is out. He and the publisher had a big party for it in L.A. but I had the flu and couldn't budge. This was annoying for I imagine that they did things right.

The Graphic Eye: Photographs by Graphic Designers From Around the Globe is the perfect present for your design friends this year. And add one in for yourself. Stefan's stringent editing and thought-through book design make this the object with which to collapse into a big leather chair after holiday preparations have taken their toll. The photos are so revivifying that soon you'll be humming "It's Cold Outside" and warming up the hot buttered rum.

The Pea Patch Fight

What a summer. First New York and then an unexpected 6 weeks in Providence, and now this-- a week in San Francisco. I've barely spent a minute on my island, and believe me, my Peapatch Garden neighbors have noticed.

Most of the tenants of the communal garden are amazing and nice people. I've met some real friends there. The woman who runs the Senior Center. The woman who just retired as head librarian. But I also have an enemy in the Patch: the self-appointed duenna of the garden. Long retired from who-knows-what, white polo shirt and big fuschia walking shorts, helmet hair and a deep, abiding belief in herself and her views of Right and Wrong. Wouldn't you know it. Of all the plots in the garden, she has the plot right by mine.

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Ernesto Aparicio on Design Competitions

"...Designers who win awards for edgy design they did for a friend's business-- with a print run of one hundred or something like that? They've got no art director, no creative director, no client's representative, no agency person. Where's the obstacle to good design there? But take something like a cheese. When I see a really good package for a cheese-- I know what that designer went through to get there. It makes me want to fall on my knees and kiss that designer's feet, that cheese."

Ernesto Aparicio

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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Douglass Scott: teacher sublime

When I was an undergrad, I had a professor ( Sr. Nicholas Maltman O.P., PhD.) who started each day by studying archaic Italian for a full hour. My uncle Nicholas Boratynski, held as the family genius, used to start his day at the office by solving a fresh mathematical problem posed to him by his colleagues.

Now I have found what I would do had I their perspicacity and mental drive. I would start each day first thing with a lecture by Douglass Scott. Hard to pull off, since he lives in Boston and I in Seattle. But worth it should one have the opportunity. Blows the carbon right out of the engine. All those gorgeous examples of type and image and color and texture, his deep knowledge and great love of his subject-- by each lecture's end you're ready to tear out the door and attack your own work.

In a design world so often dominated by "personalities," by people who can be harsh or patronizing about student efforts, Scott's dynamic yet even-keel approach makes a place where students can open up and absorb and create without risking life and limb. Of greater value hath no teacher.

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.

My Old Island

I hadn't been to New York in a while because I had been avoiding my literary agent who expected a manuscript. So going from my island, land of orcas, trees and fog, to my old island, land of traffic, people and big buildings, was a reentry into contemporary life. A few observations on cultural changes since 2007:

1. More beeping, less chatting:
Many more single beeps around, signaling the turn of lights or the readiness of a bagel, but far less public chatting on cell phones. A great thing about texting! All those teeth-meltingly tiresome overheard conversations on the bus now relegated to the keyboard. Lovely.

2. Anyone who thinks he is in the fashion business is actually in the jeans business and must accept his fate.

3. The nasal labial fold is a thing of the past. In the last two years, the usage of facial fillers has hit my business contacts.

4. Light blue is the new white for teeth. Scary when you don't expect it.

5. Bookstores have more tables and fewer books. Hardcover books sport newsprint pages. Vampires rule the racks. And books about green eating. And about how not to look old.

6. A lot of old people are going around with chopped bangs and low-rise jeans and big belts, squinting to see the tiny type on their ipod touch and looking pathetic. Luckily, their corns keep them from sporting gladiator sandals.