Lost in Inner Space

This morning, driving to work, I was thinking not about an upcoming presentation, but about robots. I was trying to determine why I preferred the 1960s Lost in Space robot to Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet. They’re both clumsy, have difficulty navigating around a rock, and have trouble grabbing items. They make a lot of noise and have lighting effects. These would be dangerous in a stealth operation on another planet. But I like the saucer top on the Lost in Space robot. It has the style of a hair dryer at a beauty parlor. He has treads like a tank, or the vehicle used to move rockets at Cape Canaveral. Robbie, however, is like the Michelin Man. Why all the balls? The advanced civilization couldn’t smooth him out and help with his limp?

Now the vehicles are another story. When I was a kid, I loved the RV on Lost in Space. The all glass exterior is a fantastic design to drive around a planet and see the sights. The drawbacks are, of course, the weight. Schlepping that thing around in the space ship must have taken a lot of extra fuel. And it was bad dealing with falling boulders. Their spaceship, the Jupiter 2 is a great flying saucer design. It’s not as svelte as the Forbidden Planet one, or the fatter saucers from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. It’s functional, though. The Forbidden Planet saucer is like a 1954 Corvette. It’s sleek and hip, but seemed to break down often. The Jupiter 2 is more reliable, like a 1964 Mustang, but had a crap navigation system.

Snowflakes from Hell

My friend, Terry Lee Stone, introduced me to the term, “special snowflake.” This applies to young people who have attitude problems. Typically, for their entire lives they were told, “You’re special. You’re unique. You can do no wrong. There is no such thing as competition, everyone is a winner.” So they start college and are shocked when they are told to do a project over, or that their solution is not world changing. Oddly, there is competition in the world. Oddly, some people are better than us at something. Part of the problem is society’s need to celebrate every aspect of a child’s life.

Now I know there will be huge outcry over my next opinion, but the truth must be told. I believe in positive reinforcement. But I do not understand the graduating ceremony for the end of grammar school and middle school. Graduating from high school is an achievement. Some people don’t. Unless you are taken to live in a Unabomber cabin in the woods, everyone will automatically move from grammar school to middle school, and middle school to high school. There is no choice, and no risk of not achieving this. So, why have a graduation celebration?

This leads me to typewriters (I know it’s disjointed, but imagine living in my head all day). When I started high school, my parents gave me a portable red Olivetti Underwood typewriter. They did not throw a big party for my ability to pass the 8th grade. They didn’t send me on the Grand Tour of Europe for the summer. Sensible and appropriate? Yes.

Olivetti's commitment to design was inherent in all aspects, from product design to graphic design. The roster of design consultants could have been made by following the AIGA Medalist list. Olivetti's designers included Bayer, Rand, Lionni, Pintori, and Ballmer. As opposed to other corporations in the 1960s approach to good corporate identity, which was typically a whitewash, Olivetti's made design part of every aspect of the company.

The Rape of the Northland

I was once asked after a lecture, “How do you respond to the accusation that you are mining the past?” I should have talked about appropriation, pastiche, nostalgia, and using familiar forms to create a sense of reassurance. But did I? No, of course not. I said quickly, “Mining the past? I’d say raping the past.” This is one more example of my nitwittiness adding to the sense that we are shallow and stupid people spending their days surfing.

Years ago, we designed the signage program for all Old Navy stores. I was especially happy with the primary directional signage for the flagship stores. The sign was made with interchangeable disks that could be rearranged by a store manager. There was concern that children might try to climb it, but my idea of adding barbed wire fencing around it was dismissed.

Then I found an example of Alvin Lustig’s exhibition for American Crayon at the Aspen Design Conference. Damn that Alvin Lustig, he beat me to the lollipop idea. Lutsig’s environmental work is light and delicate. The signage for Northland Shopping Center is one of my favorite programs. Why don’t shopping centers still look like this? The signs are fresh, optimistic, and functional. They use three-dimensional space structurally. And they are not garish, desperately screaming, “Look at me! Look at me!” Now I need to be careful not to design a sign that has an asterisk symbol on the top of the poles. Wait, I think I have.

The Eyes of Lester Beall

One of my favorite clients is Cedars Sinai. I love learning about complex medical issues, and working with smart and logical people. A common issue I face is trying to communicate a difficult and unappealing subject, such as prostate cancer, in a way that invites the audience. I want to be true to the subject, but detailed images of surgery tend to not be good for publication covers. Upjohn Pharmaceuticals produced Scope magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. Incredible designers such as Will Burtin and Lester Beall designed arresting and seductive covers. These offer an alternative to the high rez 4 color digital photography that is the default medium for everyone this day. They may look light and playful, as if the designer threw it together on a sunny afternoon. But, guess what, it probably took some time, and I like to imagine Beall slaving away in a dark Dickensian hovel as it snows outside.

from the Lou Danziger collection

 

No More Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee

One of my bizarre obsessions is riverboats. I don’t particularly want to take a ride on a new casino riverboat in St. Louis, but I’d be fine taking a riverboat cruise in 1850 up the Mississippi. I’ve found a repeating motif of riverboats in illustrations between 1950 and 1960. They were used on ads for pharmaceutical products, handkerchiefs, posters, and wallpaper. If the riverboat craze happened in 1940 it would make sense. Gone With the Wind was released in 1939, and all things antebellum south were the cat’s pajamas. Perhaps the 1950s trend with riverboats had something to do with the nostalgia for a simpler time when atomic warfare was a constant worry.

Maybe that’s my issue too. Noreen keeps telling me, “Sean, it’s not 1955. The Soviet Union is not planning a strike. You can stop digging that bomb shelter.” Or, maybe I just like the way these riverboats look. Like Mark Twain said, "Riverboats look like floating wedding cakes." In the past few months I’ve been able to use riverboats on two projects. I made one for my lecture poster for AIGA Orange County, and I used a wonderful painting of another riverboat in the latest Mohawk Via promotion (to be released soon).

In My Own Little Corner

Florence Knoll Bassett, CBS, 1954

I have a horrible guilty pleasure, Tabitha’s Salon Takeover. I stumbled across it over the holiday break and was riveted. There’s something wonderful about unruly and terrible business owners going head to head (no pun intended) with the hard-boiled, no nonsense Tabitha Coffey. Strangely, I think I’ve gotten some good advice from her show. Typically she visits a salon that has awful management, out of control hair stylists, and filthy working environments. I’m pretty sure we’re decent at management, and everyone on my staff is smarter than I am, but the office was starting to look a little ragged. We’ve been in this space for 10 years and the carpet shows it. I suggested today that a section by the kitchen looked like someone threw up and then walked away. Of course, everyone denied this, and then it might have been me. So we’ve decided to freshen things up.

I immediately thought about Florence Knoll’s designs for CBS in 1954. My office should look like this, but it would mean moving everyone out of the space except me.  Florence Knoll is an American furniture designer who studied at Cranbrook and worked with Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. She was instrumental in the hiring of architects to design furniture. Her work is minimal and rigorous. The construction is more closely related to Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building than traditional furniture. The materials are what they are: metal, wood, simple textiles. Somehow all of this combines to create a harmonious effect. But, I don’t think I’ll be getting my 1954 CBS executive office. I get to keep my Knoll lounge chair, but nobody is willing to move their desks into the storage room.

Florence Knoll Bassett, CBS, 1954

Florence Knoll Bassett, General Life Insurance Company, 1954

Florence Knoll Bassett, Knoll Showroom, 1955

Florence Knoll Bassett, Knoll Showroom

Florence Knoll Bassett, CB Credenza, 1954

Florence Knoll Bassett, Lounge Chair

my little corner