It's The End of The World As We Know It

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A couple of weeks ago I spent a day attempting to go to the Altes Museum to see the Roman stuff. Somehow I lost my way and spend two hours walking in a circle in the Tiergarten. So I gave up my plan to see Roman statuary and stopped at Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

I would sound smarter if I said it was to see the exhibition on the intersection between European and African history, but I needed a bathroom. The exhibition was good, but the building is spectacular.  It was the USA’s contribution to the INTERBAU 1957 building exhibition in Berlin and designed by Hugh Stubbins. This is modernism in its heyday. Today it is beautifully empty. It's like a set from an odd 1960s European film about life after a global pandemic. Abandoned ticket booths, vacant cafés, and a bookstore with one listless cashier.

Now I know what life will be like after the end of the world. I don't think that was the original intention for the building, but it sure does work. FYI, the Fleischmann Planetarium at University of Nevada built in 1963 is a clear ripoff.

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Fleischmann Planetarium, University of Nevada, 1963

Fleischmann Planetarium, University of Nevada, 1963

Soda Pop

There is a fine line in design between clever and trite. Often, I'll see a solution that is trying too hard, forcing itself on the viewer and screaming, "I'm clever!, I'm clever, dammit!" The projects that succeed are the solutions that appear effortless, even obvious. Obvious is hard. It's easy to think something won't work because it's so obvious everyone would have the same solution. But, that's just it. Everyone thinks that, so nobody does the obvious. The best example that is clever, effortless, and once seen, seems completely obvious is the work Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar did for Pepsi-Cola World. It's light, playful, never forced, and beautifully articulated.

The solutions, often a fused image, provide the viewer with the pleasure of solving a problem. The payoff is delight. I don't mean delight as in "That tea set is just delightful." Delight is hard to make. And it's a feeling that makes life worth living.

images courtesy of the Lou Danziger Collection and AIGA Design Archives

Pepsi Cola World, Chermayeff and Geismar, May 1958

It's a Wide, Wide World

The Cinerama Dome is an incredible movie theater in Hollywood. The screen curves at the front of the theater to create a “surround” experience. I recall seeing Vertigo there (the re-digitized re-release. I’m not that old), and sitting on the far left of the front row. The result was a bizarre and skewed Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak. Now the Cinerama Dome is part of the Arclight complex. The Arclight makes other movie theaters seem like filthy places where old men are touching themselves. I especially like being able to reserve a specific seat. I hate sitting in the middle, and prefer an aisle—hence the skewed Jimmy Stewart.

Cinerama was created in the 1950s along with a host of other technologies that would draw the viewers away from television and back into the theater. It was sort of like 3d now. Sometimes this was nifty, as in Lawrence of Arabia, but the un-letterbox version broadcast on television created many odd scenes of people talking to no one. The logos for these technologies were often better than the movie. So here, for you viewing pleasure, are some of them.

The Color of Light

I have a stack of prints that I inherited sitting in my flat files at home. Once in awhile I’ll go through them, and consider framing one and putting it up. But I don’t have room, so they stay in the drawer. There are a couple of Maxfield Parrish (1870 - 1966) prints that I love, but can’t get past the image of one hanging in the den at the ranch. It just seems to “little old lady” to put one up. Nevertheless, they are beautiful. I could do without the lounging androgynous characters in Greek temples, but the landscapes are remarkable.

Both Ansel Adams and Maxfield Parrish worked through the beginning of the 20th-century. They shared the idea of creating images that went beyond traditional landscapes. Adams didn’t photograph the landscape; he photographed the weather. Parrish didn’t paint the landscape; he painted the light. The colors are iridescent. I’ve been told that he painted in layers, much like a printer lays one color on top of another, and the translucency of the paint produces a richer, more complex effect. Parrish also had a sense of narrative. The house in New Moon has a warm glow of a light inside, creating a sense of security, comfort, and warmth.

Nobody Ever Called Pablo Picasso an A-hole

Most good designers know that the best logos are the simplest ones. Of course, it’s difficult to account for a long and arduous process of strategy, typographic studies, hundreds of icons, and system elements, and countless meetings when the result is a simple logo. Simple is hard. Desperation is not pretty on a date, or in design. But, it’s no fun to hear someone say, “That’s it? That took six months and cost ‘X’ amount of dollars?”

This is the same as looking at a Picasso and saying, “I could have done that,” or “my six year old child could have done that.” But, apparently, you or your child didn’t do that, and he did. That’s why he’s Picasso.

One of my pet peeves, including people who don’t use turn signals, is faux handwritten type. If it’s meant to be handwritten, I’d like to see something that was, surprisingly, written by hand. Those fonts that imitate handwriting have been put on earth by Satan to tempt people into laziness. Picasso’s posters should serve as the best example of this. His handwritten copy is light, playful, and energetic. If these posters were typeset in Felt Tip (no offense to the Felt Tip people), they would be flat and dull. And don’t even think about these typeset in Leonardo; you will never close your eyes again and not think about that tragedy. You will wake up in a cold sweat screaming most nights.

Everyone Knows It's Windy

I’ve read multiple essays on the “zen-ness” and subtext of “nothingness” of Charles Eames’ Do Nothing Machine. He designed the object in 1958, and it didn’t do “nothing”; it moved with the use of solar power. It may have been a comment on the psychology and consumerism of late 1950s America, but I can’t stop thinking about its relationship to the Tower of the Four Winds.

Rolly Crump at Disney designed the Tower of the Four Winds for the front of Pepsi/Unicef's "It's a Small World" at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It looked like the Do Nothing Machine, had parts that spun around, and was powered by a natural element. Hmmm. The difference was scale. The Tower was 120 feet and the Machine looks like it was 1 foot tall. Of course, this could have been one of those moments when one designs something and forgets about the original inspiration that is deep in the unconscious mind. In the end, though, who cares? Both the Tower and Machine are incredible. In fact I think more are needed. Household sized Do Nothing machines (not if you have children who will put their hands into it) and a Tower of the Four Winds for backyard usage (unless you have bird migration).

Charles Eames, Do Nothing Machine, 1958

1964 New York World's Fair, Pepsi/Unicef Pavilion

Charles Eames and the Machine

Plastic Soul

Most people think of Tupperware as a slippery, greasy vessel that is used for grape juice or leftover chili. I think it is a miraculous and wonderful achievement of civilized man. It doesn’t break when you drop it in the sink. It has beautiful colors. The shape is graceful and useful. It makes a burping sound if you close the lid properly. Granted, Tupperware did take a tragic turn in the 1990s and fell into the thinking that everyone loved maroon, almond, and teal. Now they seem to be returning to their roots and making classic forms again.

Polyethylene was a new plastic developed for wartime use. Earl Tupper used this to make a range of household materials. Originally, he sold the product in hardware stores, but nobody understood it. Working with Brownie Wise, he switched the sales to Tupperware parties. This filled a need for a population of stay at home mothers loving in the suburbs. They were isolated in new towns that had been potato farms; Tupperware parties brought them together and were hugely successful. By 1958, Earl Tupper sold the company for $16,000,000.00. That was a lot of money in 1958.

We can only hope that Tupperware will do the right thing, and reject the “hip” colors of today, and return to the classic forms, pastels, and earth tones. Face it, if you could buy the original pastel Wonderlier line, you would.