Our House


There's an old trick to getting a song out of your head. I tried it this morning, but it didn't work. See, the problem was that The House I Live In by Frank Sinatra was going through my head all night. The trick is to sing God Bless America instead and that should knock the other song out. But it doesn't work to replace one song about America with another. So I still have it running.

It's a good song to have stuck in your head. Sinatra performed it in 1945, right after World War II. It battled racism and anti-semitism. Today, it seems like it can apply to a whole range of issues.

I used to think my grandmother was incredibly racist. Anytime I mentioned one of my friends, she'd say in her long Virginia drawl, "Now tell me Sean, what is his or her last name?" If it was a name she recognized, she then asked, "Is he one of the Burwells I know?" I now realize it wasn't about race or religion. I loved her immensely, but she was just snobby.

The Petrified Fountain of Thought

Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête is one of the most beautiful films ever produced. If you think it is simply a black and white version of the Disney Beauty and the Beast, yes, you are wrong. Cocteau’s 1946 creation is soft, dreamlike, and romantic. It touches on surrealism, Jungian, and Freudian psychology. Each frame is sublime, yet compositionally erratic. Figures are askew, foreground objects hide the main action, and lighting is intentionally operatic. The intention is to create a narrative that is similar to a dream: symbols and the hidden information produce meaning.

The overt theme is that there is good in everyone. However, the characters all behave, at times, cruelly. The Cocteau version is about complex and contradictory behavior. There is subterfuge, hidden agenda, and betrayal mixed with compassion and kindness. Understanding the timing here is important. Cocteau produced La belle et la bête one year after the end of World War II. France was recovering from Nazi occupation, the puppet Vichy Regime, and years of combat. The war forced the French population into complex and unwelcome alliances to survive. The story can be viewed as one of understanding and sensitivity, or a Stockholm syndrome kidnapping. The duality mixed with the surreal set of symbols sets this apart from a simple fairy tale.

As I Lay Bathing

I used to sit across the table from several very well known designers during meetings for AIGA. I was impressed at their ability to take copious notes while someone was presenting an issue. After a couple of years, I felt inadequate, my notes were singular words that later made no sense to me. Then I saw one of the impressive board member’s notes. They weren’t notes at all, only doodles of buildings, and a dog, or someone standing at a write-board. When I later asked this person what was presented, they were able to explain it perfectly. Clearly these notes were some sort of hieroglyph. Some of the doodles were quite nice, but frankly, nothing came close to Saul Steinberg’s spontaneous and simple drawings.

Steinberg is best known for his View of the World from 9th Avenue. This is his famous 1976 New Yorker cover, of the mental geography of Manhattanites. Maybe I’ve seen this one too many times in a New Yorker’s foyer, but I love some of his other work much more. Steinberg was born in Romania in 1914. He came to the United States in the early 1940s to escape anti-Jewish laws in Italy. This outsider point of view is a constant in all of his work. In addition to the remarkable fresh and light style, each piece sees the world through a filter most of us don’t notice. People in this world are dwarfed by the material world, but seem to muddle through with humor.