Where’s My Space Age

Originally posted June 3, 2010 on interiordesign.net

I got around to perusing a design book this week that was on my summer reading list. Published in 2003, it’s called “Where’s My Space Age,” by Sean Topham. Subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Futuristic Design,” it traces the roots of the Space Age to WWII rocketry (Werner von Braun et al) and Cold War technological competition, though after a chapter on space flight it brings the disquisition down to earth with a long section on the impact of space-mania on 1960’s living environments.

Rather than a book review, this is a book reaction, and that reaction is visceral. Topham sets the stage for his book with a comment from a 12-year-old boy on the eve of the lunar landing in 1969. I was ten at that moment, and so was a child when manned space flight went from dream to reality. Part of Topham’s argument has to do with a child’s sense of wonderment representing a broader cultural reaction to the exploration of space-he suggests the idea of a fresh start several times, and notes that space travel entered the home first in the form of children’s toys.

It is hard for someone my age to look back at the imagery of the early postwar space age without a tinge of nostalgia, but look back we must because Topham argues, rightly, how important visual information was in disseminating ideas about space travel. From Arthur Clarke’s 1951 “The Exploration of Space” on, a succession of images prepared people for the coming conquest of space. Confidence, swagger, and technical mastery were suggested graphically, and awe was elicited with photos of rocket launches and breathtaking views from space. Shown here is a rendering from Clarke’s factual rather than fictional account, and a shot of the jammed nose cone on Gemini 9.

This visual component was brought home, literally, by architects and designers during the 1960’s. For Topham, the futuristic “look” of the 60’s was deeply influenced by themes and imagery drawn from space, more directly in references to space helmets, space suits, satellites, and capsules, less directly in the use of aluminum–the material of early satellites–and perhaps the vivid blues of shots of earth from space. Moreover, space helped usher in an era characterized by disposability–multi-million dollar rockets were discarded after one use, as were paper dresses, while plastic chairs and tables would be replaced rather than repaired.

Topham illustrates a wide array of futuristic 60’s design, including Haus-Rucker-Co’s “Fly Head” (1968), shown here, but the essence of it, for him, can be distilled into Matti Suuronen’s ellipsoid Futuro House of 1968, and the furniture designs and interior landscapes of Verner Panton. Topham points out that the flying-saucer shaped Futuro House, shown here, which represents the concept of pod living, was designed as a transportable ski cabin. Panton’s Visiona 2–depicted here–captured the exuberantly colorful and youthfully irrepressible (and irresponsible) character of space age design, while shifting styling from the clean lines inspired by spacecraft interiors to a more organic terrain–more “Barbarella” than “2001.”

Ultimately, according to Topham, the era of space age design was undone by its own excesses and by the oil embargo and recession of the early 1970’s–the cost of plastics rose with the price of oil, and a scenario of resource scarcity trumped the scenario of disposability. Curiously, Topham fails to bridge the idea of pod living into the era of sustainability. Surely, some notion of living in a compressed space, analogous to a spaceship or space capsule, remains relevant at a time when our greatest drain on resources comes from our egregiously outsized residences.

Ironically, the smallest prefab dwelling at a recent MoMA exhibition was intended as a ski cabin–40 years later, an idea of pod living still has to be couched in recreational terms.

What’s in a Catalog? George Nakashima, 1962

Originally posted May 6, 2010 on interiordesign.net

“Furniture, we feel, is a development of mood besides being purely utilitarian. Basic forms with the reflection of the constancy of nature find satisfaction in times like ours. A small poetic haven in an unsettled world where excitement seems so necessary.” 

George Nakashima, from his 1962 catalog

The 1962 Nakashima catalog shows the same artistry and meticulous attention to detail as his furniture. Like his tables, chairs, case pieces, and lamps, like his writing, architecture, and his business, it is suffused with his philosophy. Humility, simplicity, serenity, natural beauty, harmony, pride, dedication—all were a way of life to him. The catalog expresses his philosophy in its artful and well executed photographs and uncluttered layout, in the choice of fonts, the use of Japanese hand made wrappers, endpapers, and pages, and hand-sewn binding. It states his philosophy and his approach, succinctly, in its text.

On craftsmanship and modern design:
“In a world where fine manual skills are shunned, we believe in them, not only in the act of producing a better product, but in the sheer joy of doing or becoming. We feel that pride in craftsmanship, of doing as perfect a job as possible, of producing something of beauty even out of nature’s discards, are all homely attributes that can be reconsidered. It might even be a question of regaining one’s own soul when desire and megalomania are rampant…”
“In proportion to the flood of consumer goods, we are probably at one of the lowest ebbs of design excellence the world has seen. It requires a genuine fight to produce one well designed object of relatively permanent value.”

On the idiosyncratic nature of his output:
“Many of our pieces are one-of-a-kind and cannot be reproduced nor accurately shown. They often depend on a particular board with extraordinary characteristics. Such boards are at times studied for years before a decision is made to its use, or a cut made at any point. Distinguishing features are fine figures in graining, burls, rich and deep coloring, unusual profiles, and even areas of decomposition.”

On using solid wood:
“Solid wood is a challenge. It is continually ‘alive’ and ‘moves’ depending on weather conditions, moisture content of the air, and temperature. Each board of each species is individual and must be understood; the good characteristics exploited.”

And, significantly:
“Furniture should be lived with and not considered something overly precious.”

The Nakashima catalog is unlike any other I can think of. Part admonition, part jeremiad, it enjoins or challenges his customers to see things differently and to share with George his deep respect for craft traditions, nature, and the well-springs of creativity. Cost was not a formidable obstacle. The 1962 price list shows a Conoid triple chest with sliding doors selling for $360.00; a seven-foot hanging wall case with free-edge front for $350.00; a floor lamp for $105.00; a 66-inch slab coffee table for $150.00, a double pedestal desk for $225.00, and a New chair with rockers and arm for $125.00. This at a time when a Dunbar chest of similar size cost up to $1,500.00, a Herman Miller desk cost $500.00, and Eames aluminum group armchair cost $195.00. Clearly, on some level, George was at least as interested in getting his message across as turning a profit, or maybe he just enjoyed what he was doing.

The 1962 catalog shows George walking the walk as well as talking the talk; it is a document that embodies and projects what he is about, both in word and act.

People Who Live in Glass Houses

Originally posted May 27, 2010 on interiordesign.net

Thanks to an invitation from interior designer and friend, Brad Ford, who procured tickets for a group of people including Joan and Jayne Michaels, I was able to tour Philip Johnson’s Glass House last week, my first pilgrimage to a modernist icon outside of New York. 

The White Gods (Tom Wolfe’s term for Gropius, Breuer, Mies, et al) were smiling on us—the day was warm and overcast, with enough sunlight for reflections and shadows. I entered the 47-acre property in New Caanan with an open mind, ready to be enchanted by the combination of natural and man-made beauty, and in this I was not disappointed. The story is that Johnson purchased the initial parcel five minutes after he saw it, because of the promontory overlooking the woods and the pond. Built atop this promontory in 1949, the Glass House took the idea of a glass box, where the view became the walls, to an extreme: farther than the Eames house, which had about half glass and half multicolor panels in its cladding, and as far as Mies’ Farnsworth House, built in 1951 but designed in 1945.

Walking around the Glass House, and the Brick House opposite it, the dynamic and avante garde elements are apparent: with its charcoal-painted steel I-beams and glass walls, the house disappears into the landscape as much as a house can. The relationship between inside and outside is fluid, influenced by lighting conditions and where you are standing. From outside especially, ever-changing reflections of trees make the view layered and complex. In some respects, this was something new and daring, and to the Beaux-Arts establishment, vaguely threatening.

Yet, the overweening impression at the estate is of classicism, or neo-classicism, and the direct representation or allusion to classical architecture. This is not a new observation, and Johnson’s Wikipedia entry points to his classical scholarship at Harvard, and to his two grand tours of Europe. Surely, the stripped-down modernism of the Glass House and Brick House is more Doric than Corinthian, with the vertical steel I-beams and the row of tall trees behind the house referencing colonnades. Also, the triangular paths between the house and the guest house govern the sight lines along 45-degree angles, a Greek practice. In more overt ways, the underground structure housing the painting collection has a façade based on Agamemnon’s tomb on Mycenae, and the building housing the sculpture collection is a postmodern archaeological essay.

What all this means, I don’t know, and when Johnson was alive, it didn’t matter much, as it was after all a private residence. On one level, the Johnson estate makes a statement about the intimate connection between classicism and avant-garde modernism, a connection refuted for a time at least by most practicing modernists.

In Johnson’s life, the abiding relevance of history is tantamount, and this makes it harder to forget Johnson’s more than brief flirtation with Nazism prior to WWII. Given Johnson’s youthful fascistic tendencies, and given his bequest of the estate to the National Trust, what were private issues have become public matters. Did Johnson see himself as a citizen of the world or as emperor of his own domain? Was he referencing Greece of the Agora or Rome of Caesar’s Palace? Was he aware that Agamemnon has been portrayed as stubborn and arrogant? That he left the estate to the common weal is a good sign; what exactly the estate signifies speaks to whether the bequest was an act of altruism or an inside joke.

Czech Modern

Originally posted February 10, 2011 on interiordesign.net

Many mid-century surveys of decorative and industrial arts have an agenda of celebrating and promoting the work of a nation, region, or city. So it is refreshing to come across one that finds industrial production wanting, and posits room for improvement. And you have to like a picture book that begins with a chapter entitled “Craftsmanship and Cybernetics.”

“Modern Design in the Home,” by Milena Lamarova, is the book in question. Published in 1965, it surveys postwar Czech design in furniture, glass, ceramics, and textiles. Glass and textiles had particularly rich and deep traditions in the region. But beyond her national design heritage, the author is absorbed by the Big Questions in modernist aesthetic theory. Like, regarding domestic objects such as bed, bowl, and cup, with prototypes in antiquity, “should (we) take national culture into consideration or simply throw out the old traditions,” and “Should (we) look for totally new forms and shapes or should (we) adapt and develop the traditional ones?” Behind these questions is a reckoning of the role of craft in the machine age.

It is precisely in the domestic arena that battle lines between old and new are drawn, literally hitting home. As Lamorova notes, “we look to [familiar and constantly used objects] for the physical assurance that there exists an organic connection between the world of man, the world of things and the world of production.” If these things disappoint, we become disoriented and disturbed.

Ultimately, Lamorova speaks for an extension of mechanical production in service of human needs, including the need for diversity. She sums up thus: “The value and beauty of an object should be related to the force and depth of thought which gives birth to it. There is no reason why it should not be produced by the machine. This is nothing more ore less than an attempt to give a deeper meaning to our modern technological civilization.”

The themes developed in the first, discursive chapters continue through the book. They echo what was going on in progressive design circles in America and Western Europe with the following key difference: in 1948, all Czech industries were nationalized, and in 1959, an umbrella organization responsible for glassware, ceramics, plastics, fabrics, clothing, and furniture was created, called the Institute of Home and Fashion Design. So what developed in the private sector in the West was essentially governed in the command economy of Czecholsovakia, with mixed results.

A cross-section of Czech production design, as presented here, confirms at least one supposition as to why mid-century Czech design is not better-known in the West: much of it is derivative of Danish and American design, and of average visual quality. Still, there are notable exceptions, particularly in the areas of glass—an unbroken eight century tradition in Bohemia—and textiles. Six examples across the board, follow:

A sideboard in natural and laquered ash with metal legs, designed by Frantisek Jirak, and produced in 1963. Also in this shot is a hand-knotted rug by Jiri Mrazek.

Metal-frame chairs by Otto Rothmayer, produced 1960-63.

Blown glass jars with lids. Designed by Vratislav Sotola and produced at the Borske works, 1963.

Decorative bottles in opaline and colored glass, by Josef Hosopdka, also for Borske, 1963.

Tapestry-style woven fabric in cotton. Designed by Vera Drnkova-Zarecka, and produced by Umelecka remesla, Prague, 1963.

Group of vases in coarse clay by Julie Horova-Kovacikova.

Patrick Jouin: MAD Man du Jour

Originally posted November 18, 2010 on interiordesign.net

For Patrick Jouin, ascendant French design star and subject of a solo exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), exposure to the precision, rigor, and poetic potential of the machine came at an early age. His father was a technician and craftsman; in the family basement was a Roger Tallon “Gallic” lathe–a room-sized machine tool designed by France’s pre-eminent modern industrial designer. Jouin cites this circumstance, along with a trip to a Da Vinci exhibition, as formative influences. Da Vinci and Tallon: it would be hard to find two better avatars for a career spent relentlessly sketching and innovating, finding surprising beauty in pushing technical boundaries.

After studying industrial design in Paris, and an apprenticeship with Philippe Starck, Jouin opened his own studio in 1998. Some fifty pieces of product design from the decade-plus since are featured at MAD, in what is Jouin’s first solo show in the U.S. (He has had several elsewhere; most recently at the Pompidou Centre). Included are greatest hits, such as the One-Shot Stool, part of the Solid line of polyurethane pieces produced by 3D rapid prototyping (2004); Optic Furniture Cubes for Kartell (2008); the Alessi Pasta Pot, designed in collaboration with Alain Ducasse (2007); and the Chaud line of ceramic tourines hand-made by Vallauris potters (2002). Also included are current and forthcoming designs such as the Zermatt line of stainless steel cutlery for Puiforcat; the “Bloom” table lamp, also produced by stereolithography, that has a one-piece hinged “bud” that easily opens or blooms; G.H. Mumm’s champagne accessories; and a modular sofa for Bernhardt.

In discussing his work, eloquently, at a presentation last Thursday, Jouin referred repeatedly to simplicity and the role of gesture, obviously two keywords for him. By simple, Jouin means something like direct, honest, and unpretentious; less a matter of egotistic self-expression than a deep meditation on the program and the context. What appears simple or self-evident is the product of a long process of research, engagement with the problem or problems to be solved, technical experimentation, and endless sketching, often done at a favorite café. Beauty is often a byproduct of technical and formal inventiveness bumping into physical and economic constraint.
Gesture, for Jouin, apprehends the context in which design is used, and assigns to design a large social role as non-verbal communication.

Repeatedly, he likens design to dance. In designing the chair for the Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower, for example, Jouin imagined a couple on a first date: the ritual or gesture of being seated at the table became an important part of the romance–the visual impression had to be memorable, the chair had to slide easily, so the lady could be seated gracefully, etc. So too with the Chaud turrine–taking the top off and putting it under the bottom saves the waiter a trip–and the Zermatt cutlery, which are curved so that only two points touch the (dirty) tablecloth. This type of attention to detail and usage defines Jouin’s work. His objects embody a rigorous yet graceful and intimate choreography that plays out hundreds of times a day as his products are used.

Jouin is a household name in France, for his product designs, his public commissions, and his architectural and interior work with Sanjit Manku. It is said that one of his designs is encountered in Paris every 340 feet. In New York, we are more fortunate–we can see one of his designs every 3 feet, but only by visiting MAD before February 6.