The Avant Garde in Felt

Sean Adams, AIGA 100 project: 1955

A few weeks ago, I was asked to create a solution for an AIGA project celebrating the 100 year anniversary. 100 designers were asked to choose a year, and design a piece that highlighted an event from that year. Michael Bierut got to 1968 before I could, so I took 1955. In 1955, the Ford Thunderbird was released and Disneyland opened. Obviously, Disneyland ended up as my subject.

As a roundabout explanation of the process, I've been a huge Cathy of California fan for years. I was having lunch at our local groovy Los Feliz Mexican restaurant, Mexico City, when I recognized Cathy Callahan herself. I'm not easily impressed by celebrity. I've met my share of famous actors and such. But I was super freaked meeting Cathy in real life and probably a babbling fool.

Around the time I started the 1955 project, I bought Cathy's book, Vintage Craft Workshop: Fresh Takes on Twenty-Four Classic Projects from the '60s and '70s. Something clicked, or broke, in my brain, and I decided to make my piece out of craft materials. It seemed fitting for a 1955 concept and I obviously have too much time on my hands. I could have cheated and Photoshopped the whole thing from stock images, but I actually went to Michael's craft supplies (that was a terrifying experience) and bought stuff.

I cut up my felt, raffia, burlap, and glitter paper. I found old buttons and cufflinks. I used the hot glue gun to attach the stuff to the burlap (which smells weird), and voila. I know most designers are looking for a cutting edge, an extreme approach to the avant grade, and the next big thing. I now have clear evidence that I am as far from hip and cutting edge as Lawrence Welk or Barry Goldwater. At the same time, I think my craft solution this proves that I am incredibly brave or, more likely, clueless.

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Lazy, Crazy, Hazy

Laziness is a common theme with most of the successful people I know. I’ve talked with some of the best-known designers, who have endless energy and are always tackling something. They all think they are lazy. Of course, that can’t be true, these are people who are propelling the profession forward with new ideas, volunteerism, and new technologies. I, on the other hand, am actually lazy. Knowing this, I keep myself busy. I’m always on alert for any lazy thinking. If I feel like waiting to do something, I don’t. I take on that task right then. If I feel like sitting on the sofa and watching television on a Sunday afternoon, I get up and work in the garden.

When I run out of things to do, I can turn to our collection of Sunset Books. There are endless ideas to keep me busy. One of my favorite objects is a driftwood hanging my grandmother made. She collected the driftwood on a trip up the Pacific coast and used an idea in one of the Sunset Books to create the hanging. This is a good example of fighting the lazy temptation of sitting on a beach.

Bag That Bleach, Dude

One of my favorite blogs is Cathy of California. There are always wonderful ideas and images. I don’t have the time to make many of the incredible items, but a blog that has appliqué items is all good. As you know, my grandmother did have the time and talent to make items. I spent an entire summer organizing her felt, Styrofoam balls, jeweled pins, tacky glue, and thousands of other craft materials. They are all still sitting in 100s of plastic bins. We donated several boxes of yarn to Terry Stone who was teaching knitting to at risk teens. But jeweled pins have limited appeal today unless you have hours to watch reruns of Lawrence Welk and make ornaments.

One of my favorite items is a bag my grandmother made from plastic bottles of detergent and bleach. I use it to carry supplies to school, or as a tote bag when I need to cart items between the house and office. Of course, it’s disturbing to many when the see me carrying an old lady craft bag, but get over it. It’s got everything: orange, ochre, pink, yellow, plastic, imprints of numbers, and a handy pocket on the inside to hold knitting needles. When anyone talks about sustainable practices, take note: we should all make usable items from our empty bottles, or other debris.

Making Something Wonderful from Nothing

The amazing MJB peacock, LaPrele Adams, 1965

My grandparents passed away two years ago, and I think about them every day. Of course, at Thanksgiving, we still honor them in some way. My grandmother was like me. She was unable to sit still, and was constantly doing something productive. She had a remarkable talent visually and put that talent to good use, making amazing objects. Being a product of her time and place, she didn’t consider being a designer, which is unfortunate. Her sense of color was unique and always worked.

This peacock is one of two. My brother, Ian, has the other one at his house. At first glance, it seems like a nice piece of metal sculpture from the mid 1960s. That’s what it is. But it’s more. My grandmother made it from MJB coffee tins. The damned thing has tons of sharp edges, and I always cut myself when I move it. So I don’t know how she managed to cut and twist the coffee cans to make this without slicing off a finger. This goes far beyond felt animals with sequins.

I had a well-known editor of a major design magazine at my house for a dinner party a few years ago. When she saw my grandmother’s peacock on the wall, she looked at it condescendingly, and said, “Sean, what a remarkable collection of kitsch you have.” She has not been invited back.

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MJB cofee tin

Russell and LaPrele Adams, 50th Anniversary, 1989