Which Craft?

I’ve been accused of living in a bubble. Supposedly, the real world is very different than the one I inhabit. One of the issues with my bubble world is that I assume everyone knows the same things I do. Last week, one of my students told me she had read only ten books in her entire life. The week before someone told me they like old movies, especially Clueless. I assumed my Vertigo references and discussions about Ginsberg’s Howl made sense to everyone. A light bulb went off in my head, and I discovered that references I take for granted are not as universal as I thought. Of course, it’s a 2-way street. When someone asks if I like any new music, I say Thompson Twins.

Jerome and Evelyn Ackerman are remarkable artists. I presumed everyone knew their work. But, as I have learned, sometimes that isn’t true. The Ackermans are integral to the fabric of California craft. Since they opened Jenev Design Studio in 1952, they opened the door to the idea of craft combined with modernism. Their ability to swing from ceramics, wood, textiles, metal, and glass is remarkable. And across all these media, the sense of exuberance and joy is apparent. Bad design can sink under the weight of its own importance.

The Ackerman work is incredibly important. It inspired generations of artists in California as well as everyday people who wanted to dabble in craft. Yet, it never is self-important. The work always communicates the idea of the human hand. And it invites viewers to stop whatever they are doing and begin to create.

Many of these images are from one of my favorite sites, http://www.midcenturia.com.

In a Landscape

We’ve discussed my musical taste here previously. It’s exactly what would be expected: Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and American patriotic music. Fly Me to The Moon is fine at the office, but I’ve been discouraged from playing John Philip Sousa’s version of The Stars and Stripes Forever. Years ago, when we worked with MTV, I had to nod and pretend I knew who everyone was discussing. Fortunately, Noreen is hip, so she could explain it to me.

There was one music related project, however, that I understood. The Getty Research Institute exhibited a collection of musical notations in 1995. We designed the catalogue. I paid attention in college when experimental twentieth century music was discussed. So I could grasp the idea. Experimental music requires a different type of language to be played correctly. Musical graphic notation allowed for symbols and other forms to convey the information as to how the piece should be played. In some instance, the idea of chance is included with the usage of materials such as multiple layers of acetate.

I may not recognize Nicki Minaj when she is standing in line with me at LAX (I just thought this woman in front of me was oddly overdressed), but I can tell you how the I Ching is an influencer in John Cage’s music.

Delight and Disgust

Everyone loves a story about the misunderstood artist, reviled in his time, and then lauded in his old age. Morris Lapidus is that story. When the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau Hotels were built, Lapidus was called vulgar, pretentious, artificial, and tasteless. Both hotels, however, were incredibly successful. The design challenge was to build a hotel where “the guy who can afford to pay fifty bucks a day will look around and think that a fortune had been spent to create the hotel.” The result did this. Lapidus used a cinematic approach to architecture. His buildings look the way America in the 1950s thought luxury looked like, via Hollywood. Granted, some of the design, such as the Lapidus Residence bathroom, escapes me. But, if you like fancy, it sure is “fancified”.

I find it endlessly fascinating that populist work is typically deemed, “unworthy,” while something created for a small minority of elite intellectuals is “worthy.” If a basic tenet of Modernism is to create good design for the masses, this is contradictory. Lapidus weathered the decades of criticism and kept working. In 1970, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s critique of Lapidus was typical: “Lapidus is a sleazy, self-promoting careerist, an architect on the prestige-make. Lapidus is a well-known phenomenon in the profession. He made his pile and excuses his aberrations with the nauseating clichés of ‘what people want’ (as if taste pollution did not go the other way from designer to public).”

We can dissect the virulent antagonism in multiple ways. Since the work was designed to appeal to the masses in Florida, and was not in New York or Chicago, there is a distinct sense of regional and class elitism. Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times that his work was “uninspired superschlock.” This was a criticism of Lapidus’s ornate decor, but Huxtable’s use of Yiddish words subtly raises the question of the hotel’s Jewish architect and clientele, suggesting anti-Semitism.

Fortunately, by the time Lapidus had retired, and was 97, the architecture community began to acknowledge his work. The book, Morris Lapidus: The Architecture of Joy, is a wonderful collection of exuberant and interesting work that challenges our ideas of taste and modernism.

Images below are from this book

Horrid Martinis and Other Disasters

Lack of etiquette is an issue that is the “hot topic” of the month. At a dinner last week, several people complained about “people and their rudeness.” My mother is incredibly uptight about etiquette. If you spend time with her, do not ever speak loudly in public, eat soup with the spoon pulled toward you, or forget to say, “Please excuse me,” not the rude command, “Excuse me!”

I have a copy of Amy Vanderbilt’s Complete Book of Etiquette from 1952. I suspect it was a Christmas gift that I enjoyed, as much as socks when I was seven. I pulled it out recently to look up a form of address issue. Yes, I didn’t now if Senators were referred to as “Senator” or “Honorable.” Much of the book is dated. I certainly don’t bring a tuxedo when visiting friends for the weekend, but maybe I’m just rude and I ruin their dinner plans. Some of it makes good sense. This line is my favorite, and quite true: “There is nothing so horrid as a martini with too much vermouth.”

I also like the telephone etiquette. Rather than saying, “He’s busy. What do you want? Who are you?” it is better to say, “Oh, Miss Johnson, Mr. Adams will be so sorry to hear he missed your call. I can’t reach him right now, but where may he call you? Or is there something I can do?” Much better.

I’ll revisit some of these helpful tips down the road, but I wanted to add my own pet peeve. It is incredibly embarrassing when someone walks up to me and says, “You don’t remember me, do you?” First, I can barely dress myself or remember where to go in the morning. Second, I’m probably senile. I always introduce myself, even if I’ve met someone repeatedly, like this, “Hello, I’m Sean Adams, we met at Betty’s club.” Typically, they say, “Uh, yeah, I know you.” But perhaps they have no idea and now feel much more comfortable. You don’t need to say you met me at Betty’s club. That’s just an example.

Hard Times Come Again No More

I recently read an article about two families that reunited; one side of the family was white, the other was black. Their connection was a farm in 19th century Virginia. Of course, they were slaveholders and slaves. The inspiring part of the story was that both sides, when reunited, talked about the issue head on. They didn’t skirt around the elephant in the room.

I recall talking with my good friend Dori Tunstall at a conference. Tunstall is a family name we share, and we joked about how we might be related. Believe me, I’ll take credit any day to have someone as accomplished and intelligent as Dori in my family. While we were telling stories, we veered into a discussion about slavery, The people around us began to have that awkward smile on their faces, as if we had told a really offensive joke. I guess I should add slavery to sex, politics, and religion as subjects one shouldn’t discuss at a party.

I recently found images from one of my favorite books as a child, The Fireside Book of Favorite American Songs, Illustrated by Aurelius Battaglia in 1952. The site www.goldengems.blogspot.com is a treasure trove of fantastic imagery. Many of the images illustrate songs Stephen Foster wrote. Many of Foster’s songs have a romantic vision of the old south. The illustrations depict cavalier and chivalrous men, refined and delicate southern ladies, and happy slaves picking cotton. My mother is a true romantic, but when she read this book with me, she made it very plain that the reality was not as depicted.

Enjoying these images is a contradictory experience. They are light-hearted and well executed. But many of them are loaded with political baggage. We know the happy images are, in fact, portraying human beings in bondage. It would be easier to put the book away and pretend it doesn’t exist. I think it is better to look at these images, enjoy their technique, but understand them, and face the issue head on.

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.

All the Way with Adlai

Adlai Stevenson campaign poster 1956

Last week, I found a set of slides from my parents’ wedding in a box with a batch of Eisenhower campaign materials. There was nothing particularly surprising to be found. The ceremony was held at my grandparents’ house. A good friend of the family, a judge officiated. Everyone wore tasteful summer wedding attire. The only odd part was that both sets of my grandparents were together. This rarely happened. I remember my paternal grandmother disagreed with my maternal grandmother’s resignation from the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) over their segregation policy until 1952. And they held polar opposite political views. My maternal grandmother, being a good Virginian, was an old guard Jeffersonian Democrat. My paternal grandparents were friends of the Reagans and staunch Republicans.

One of my maternal grandmother’s many cousins was Governor Adlai Stevenson, II. Until her last days, she lamented about “cousin Adlai’s” loss in the 1952 and 1956 United States presidential election. After she passed away, I found one of my favorite posters for Stevenson at her house. The poster is so unusual. It’s missing the red, white, and blue flag motif, and is candid. Of course, Stevenson is looking backwards, which maybe was a bad choice. In both campaigns he lost to Dwight Eisenhower. There has been conjecture that Stevenson was too much of an “egghead”. Or that he didn’t understand the importance of television as a medium (true). But it was highly unlikely he could win. There had been a Democratic president for almost 20 years, since FDR took office in 1933. The Republican Party needed to win the 1952 campaign to remain viable. And then, there was Eisenhower. After losing the 1956 campaign, Stevenson said, “Never run against a war hero.”

President John F. Kennedy appointed Stevenson as the US Ambassador to the United Nations in 1961. After the United States discovered offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba, Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin in an emergency meeting of the Security Council, challenging him to admit the existence of the missiles. This is the moment, for me, that defines my grandmother’s “Cousin Adlai.” Without Stevenson’s aggressive and intelligent confrontation, the crisis might have taken a fatal direction, and I would not be writing this post.

Dwight Eisenhower campaign

Adlais Stevenson 1956