Is Political Satire a Match for the Times We Live In?

Satire has a long and complicated history, with writers using wit and parody to draw attention to cracks and flaws in society from Ancient Egypt all the way through to contemporary life…

Satire has a long and complicated history, with writers using wit and parody to draw attention to cracks and flaws in society from Ancient Egypt all the way through to contemporary life—The Onion and Private Eye are prime examples. It’s integral to Thomas More’s Utopia; James Gillray and William Hogarth’s paintings and political cartoons; Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; and TV shows including Spitting Image and Have I Got News for You. Unlike sarcasm, and its reputation for being the lowest form of humour, satire manages to criss-cross through society, aiming both high and low, and occasionally toppling those in power.

At the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts, curated by Slavs and Tatars—whose practice takes the form of exhibitions, books and lecture-performances, rooted in themes and ideas concerning “an area east of the former Berlin Wall and west of the Great Wall of China known as Eurasia”—the radical potential of satire today is being considered via a mix of works, from furniture and market stalls, through to magazine archives and itinerant voting booths. Now in it’s thirty-third edition, it has also provided an opportunity for Slavs and Tatars to consider the biennial’s heritage in graphic arts, and how that ties in with the history of satirical periodicals; the affordability of print and potential of distribution in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, and the increased access we have to hardware and software today.

A selection of Slovenian satire periodicals from the International Centre of Graphic Arts’ (MGLC) archive are displayed among the exhibition, chronicling responses to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom and the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia. The use of illustration and caricature in satire periodicals is effective in its potential to create archetypes and popular characters, in its immediacy in communication, and the fact it can cross language barriers—both as a sort-of visual Esperanto, and as a form of communication that could negate issues of literacy. Many of the publications are named after animals or plants known for being prickly, including Jež, or “hedgehog”; Kača, or “snake”; and Bodeča neža, or “silver thistle”; and Pavliha, the longest-running journal, had a repeat character, Martin Krpan, who was known for being a trickster, and has since become a sort of folk hero “drafted to bolster claims of self-determination”.

Another example of popular culture displayed as part of the biennial, is Top Lista Nadrealista, or “The Surrealists’ Top Chart”, a TV sketch comedy that aired in Sarajevo in the 1980s. For its first season Nadrealista focused on themes including Yugoslavia’s preparation for Euro 1984, lampooning Star Trek, and an ongoing parody of Romeo and Juliet that told the story of star-crossed lovers separated by a cross-town football rivalry. By its second season, which aired in the period leading up to the Yugoslav Wars, it dealt more directly with politics, thanks to the willingness of its network-assigned executive producer to trick his TV Sarajevo superiors by airing sketches that directly mocked those in power.

In line with the approach of Nadrealista, in their introduction to the biennial, Slavs and Tatars suggest that living in “sour times” requires “sweet-and-sour methods”. They frame satire as something that has the potential to “tease, stunt or terrorize”, and raise the question: “Is each joke, as George Orwell maintained, really a tiny revolution? Or do laughter and satire release the pressure that would otherwise lead to political upheaval?”

In America, TV shows such as Saturday Night Live and Veep, and commentators Samantha Bee and Stephen Colbert, among others, have gone from being enjoyed as light-hearted fun, to being considered as essential political devices. Political cartoons throughout the world are becoming ever more meaningful and potentially divisive, and as the news becomes increasingly absurd, The Onion somehow manages to stay ahead of the daily cycle—but could it be going further? Even when European and American politics seem to be hitting new heights of stupidity and new ethical lows, when writers, comedians and artists take shots at politicians, policy and the news of the day, the stakes are often low. Of contemporary, Western satire, Slavs and Tatars’ Payam Sharifi says: “Satire has the potential to be quite conservative, suggest[ing] it was better as it was before—a true progressive agenda would be bringing down those norms full stop,” he says. Considering the freedoms we enjoy, and the lack of real pressure or force on those who speak or act out against government, are we achieving the revolutionary potential of satire, or as Slavs and Tatars suggest, just “releasing pressure” that may otherwise create change.

In their selection of work for the biennial, Slavs and Tatars focus on practices that make use of the “slipperiness” of definitions, in terms of both context and meaning. A lot of the work sits between art and design, between so-called high and low culture, and rather than reflecting directly on present-day politics, offers ideas that could inform the future. They engaged with the history of the biennial, which is rooted in graphic arts, not through showing graphic design practice, or showing the work of graphic artists, but by considering the “democratic potential” of its heritage, and the ideas of satire and publishing as a form of “popular philosophy”. Showing work by historical and contemporary artists—including Fluxus artist Endre Tot, and contemporary artists Martine Gutierrez, Zhanna Kadyrova, Kriwet, Ella Kruglyanskaya and Lawrence Abu Hamdan—as well as interventions by activists, new media polemicists, scholars and stand-up comedians, what pulls it all together is a sense of humour “with a level of sophistication behind stupid or simple gestures, a thickness behind the facade”. 

Uninterested in work “where the discourse is clearly available”, they focus on pieces that draw you in without giving everything away. Kriwet’s text signs, a series of circular, badge-like layouts of letters that “slip” between forming various words—including “YOUTHIRSTY”, “SUBURBANDIT” and “SODOMESTICK”—interrupt conventions of reading and the structures of language. Artist Dozie Kanu’s work sits somewhere between sculpture and furniture, bringing together what’s perceived as incompatible ideas, in regards to form and function, and the potential for objects to carry multi-layered narratives—of dreams of mobility, car parts, hip hop and the performance of blackness. In Martine Part I-IX, Martine Gutierrez explores the complexity, fluidity and nuances of both personal and collective identity in a video filmed in a variety of locations—including Providence, Central America and the Caribbean—which symbolize her character’s process of self-discovery, and how they negotiate various perceptions of gender identity. A trans, Latinx artist of indigenous descent, Gutierrez asserts control of her own image by taking control of the entire creative process, in a characteristically subversive look at how society seeks to control “unruly” bodies, and how deeply embedded sexism, racism, transphobia and other biases are within our culture.

One of the more direct engagements with the theme of satire is No More Fuchs Left to Give—a collaboration between book dealer Arthur Fournier and scholar Raphael Koenig. The installation of books, editions and periodicals considers the work of German book collector, art historian and Marxist activist Eduard Fuchs; who, through his publishing programme, was key to the development of ideas around the role of mechanically reproduced satirical images in the production of political discourses in the early twentieth century. In a great twist, prints from his out of copyright books are now available to buy from walmart.com, as “canvas wall art for your home or office”, and Fournier and Koenig ordered a few for the exhibition, which draws on Koenig’s recent work as a scholar in comparative literature at Harvard University. Aware of the potential for satire to both talk back to power and reinforce existing mechanisms of discrimination and oppression, Fuchs’s research and collection is a rich resource for clues about how we might grapple with authoritarianism, nationalism and neoliberalism today.

Of the value of satire, Sharifi suggested it’s in the balance of “sophisticated, deep research with stupid gestures”; “too often, people who do one, don’t take the risk of the other”. Artists engaging with satire often do so with the intention of taking on political and economic systems and tropes, but they also almost self-satirize, or parody the smaller world in which they move (as do films like The Square and Velvet Buzzsaw). Marcel Duchamp satirized the art establishment, Andrea Fraser’s institutional critique parodied museums and their various hierarchies, Elmgreen and Dragset satirize via theatrical installations, and Jeff Koons thinks he’s a satirist. 

In Crack Up – Crack Down, the potential of humour—balancing sophistication with stupidity—and work that is “slippery” in regards to its implications, is presented with confidence; but the study of satire, from its roots in journals to the present day, has left Sharifi with mixed feelings about how we employ it. “As things become more common, they lose a certain power, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that [satire] isn’t as effective as it was before,” he says. “But I still have a lot of hope. I believe that words are powerful—the way that stand-up comedy puts pressure on language, poetry, new terminologies for gender and sexuality. Language has a lot of power and always will; it’s a good antidote to the glut of visuals we’ve had recently.”

June, 2019

Originally published by Elephant.


Ornament Takes on New Meaning at Artmonte-Carlo

Monaco’s beach-front promenade stretches along much of the principality’s coastline, interrupted by luxury beach clubs, rocky cliff edges, private villas, the occasional drained pool and, for the last few years, construction boards depicting a photographic render of the horizon line they obscure…

Monaco’s beach-front promenade stretches along much of the principality’s coastline, interrupted by luxury beach clubs, rocky cliff edges, private villas, the occasional drained pool and, for the last few years, construction boards depicting a photographic render of the horizon line they obscure. It seems to be a year-round festival of construction and Formula 1 prep. In a country with more billionaires per capita than anywhere else in the world, Monte Carlo’s lap of luxury is draped in elaborately decorated hoardings, wire mesh fencing, overlapping Belle Époque villas and peach-tinted skyscrapers; as well as the obligatory palm trees, gold-plating and jardins exotiques. 

Navigating Monte Carlo on foot, between the Grimaldi Forum, where artmonte-carlo is held, the National Museum’s Villa Paloma and Villa Sauber, and the art fair’s various satellite events, is like being in an arcade game won by dodging Ferraris, locating hidden staircases, crossing world-famous hairpin bends, and counting the number of bedazzled, bouffant-ed, stiletto-ed women ambling along the sides of A-roads. It’s difficult to ground yourself in any sense of recognition, or reality, when even the high-gloss landscape is part simulation.  

The fair itself mirrors this atmosphere of Riviera gloss, ornament, and pastel excess, playing on the absurdity while existing within it and, in certain instances, utilizing its own visual language to critique it. Genova gallery Pinksummer’s exhibition of works by Invernomuto—a collaboration between Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi—was focused on Italian colonialism and, in particular, Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia. It’s Invernomuto’s second project focused on the Mediterranean, the first being Black Med, which was exhibited at Manifesta 12, Palermo, and “explore[d] different journeys of sound movement, touching topics such as alternate use of technology, migrations, peripheries and interspecies”, rooted in Alessandra Di Maio’s adaption of black Atlantic theory to the Med.

MED T-1000 has the (knowing) feel of a Mediterranean, glass-fronted estate agent, with ceramic heads, a giant white rug, vending machine, photographs and postcards depicting bright blue skies and lush landscapes. On closer look, the ceramic heads are actually Moor’s Heads, turned into robots with laser eyes and the mass of picture-postcards is being “harassed” by a T-800 cyborg from the first Terminator film. The vending machine is dispensing water in plastic bottles labelled “Mediterranean Sea Water Not Suitable for Drinking” (a limitless edition by the artists) and has a still from Invernomuto’s film Negus—a documentary starring Lee “Scratch” Perry, which “explores the convergence of history, myth and magic through the complex and competing legacies of Ethiopia’s last explorer Haile Selasie I”—printed on its plexiglass front, and the carpet depicts a technical drawing of Selassié’s last visit to Italy in 1970. The installation is playful in its approach, and effective in presenting the Mediterranean sea as “the battleground for increasingly complex identities”: “once understood as a fluid entity aiding the formation of networks and exchange, [it’s] now the scenario of a humanitarian crisis and heated geopolitical dispute”.

Paris- and Marseille-based gallery Crèvecoeur showed works by a mix of practitioners working between textiles, sculpture, photography and painting, including two South American artists, Ad Minoliti and Sol Calero, from Argentina and Venezuela respectively. Minoliti’s work, Untitled (Logos 2), draws upon early modernist iconography, and like Invernomuto’s pieces it seems at first to be light and decorative, while tackling complex ideas around techno-feminism, queer theory, geometry, space travel and colonialism. Minoliti’s work is concerned with intersectionality in terms of both its core themes and use of disciplines—its radical politics told through light-hearted, colourful exuberance.

Similarly, Sol Calero’s work, often taking the form of brightly painted, immersive installations, can be considered social practice in its broadest sense—both in terms of engaging with political issues, and a want to engage her audience directly with and in the work. Calero’s projects can be informed by everything from hyperinflation to how salsa music reflects identity, interested in reflecting on the ambiguity of cultural signifiers, and how meanings can proliferate and change. She’s particularly drawn upon the popularization of Carmen Miranda, and the appropriation of Latin American culture by the USA in the mid-twentieth century; taking recognized and re-appropriated cultural codes and putting them back into context. In her series of Frutas paintings, Calero roots her work in the visual language of 1930s Latin America, focusing on lines, shapes and bold colours; in a study of the mis-appropriation of Carmen Miranda, who was seen to represent “the exotic beauty of Latin America”, when the context of her costume was based on clothing worn by Afro-Brazilian Baiana women who made their living selling fruit.

Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s Excessive Sensual Indulgence, exhibited by Blain Southern, also typifies this potential for misunderstanding. The title, and the work itself—a dazzlingly absorbing and perpetual fountain in lights—immediately conjures up visions of the Las Vegas strip, but the work was apparently made more with Blackpool in mind; in particular, its illuminations, the carnivalesque annual event founded in 1879, which sees out the ending of the seaside resort’s season.

Torino-based Galleria Franco Noero showed Francesco Vezzoli’s People People (Fighting Sexism with New Tactics – America Loves Her Again), two framed covers of People magazine side-by-side, one of Gloria Steinem, the other of Jane Fonda, each embroidered with tears in his signature needlepoint technique. It seemed to be Vezzoli’s only work at the fair, which is surprising considering how the whole of Monaco could so easily pass as an elaborate, site-specific Vezzoli performance; his core concerns being power and seduction in contemporary culture, and the ambiguity of what constitutes truth.

May, 2019

Originally published by Elephant.


The Seductive, Revelatory Art of TV Drama

This year marks two decades since the pilot episode of Sex and the City. When Carrie Bradshaw first broke the fourth wall, Samantha Jones introduced us to the rules of the free-market-feminism…

This year marks two decades since the pilot episode of Sex and the City. When Carrie Bradshaw first broke the fourth wall, Samantha Jones introduced us to the rules of the free-market-feminism that bound the show, Miranda Hobbes wore a bucket hat over a hoodie, and Charlotte York went back to Capote Duncan’s to “see the Ross Bleckner”. Not for the first time, or the last, contemporary art was brought in on the action (or as part of a ploy to get some).

A year earlier, in Los Angeles, Amanda Woodward, the head of advertising agency D&D, had brought her love interest, Kyle McBride, to an art opening at the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles (MOCA), in episode 28 of the fifth season of Melrose Place — a spin-off of Beverley Hills, 90210, which followed a group of twenty- and thirty-somethings living in the same apartment complex. Much of their date took place in front of a Bleckner-like painting—as described by William Grimes in The New York Times —which alluded to the American bombing of Baghdad.

Amanda: You know, I wanted to major in art.
Kyle: (Sighing) Aaah!
Amanda: But it wasn’t practical. So I majored in business and minored in art. I went through this bohemian stage, where I considered forgetting about money, and I just wanted to travel and paint. That was my dream.
Kyle: What changed?
Amanda: Poverty sucks!

Kristin Davis, who played Charlotte York in SATC, had previously been entangled with Amanda in a web of blackmail and drama in season 4 of Melrose Place, as Brooke Armstrong, an intern at the ad agency. She missed the MOCA show having drowned in a courtyard pool in episode 20, after a boozy argument with her ex-husband (and Amanda’s ex-lover); she also missed the grand unveiling of the PIMs (Product Insertion Manifestations), orchestrated for Melrose Place by the GALA Committee.

Conceptual artist, and GALA Committee founder, Mel Chin had stumbled upon Melrose Place when his wife, flipping channels, landed on a scene with Heather Locklear, who played Amanda Woodward, speaking in front of a painting. It was the mid-90s and he’d recently been approached by the curators of the MOCA exhibition Uncommon Sense, a show that would comprise the newly commissioned work of six artists who were interested in both social issues and engaging people who wouldn’t normally frequent galleries. The clip from Melrose Place, plus his interest in working out how artists might work with TV—a theme Chin was exploring in his teaching at the University of Georgia and the California Institute of the Arts—led him to the conclusion, “That’s the gallery”.

Although the cast of Melrose was older than that of 90210, they swung between love and hate like teenagers, and created countless opportunities for new layers of meaning to surround their absurd interactions. The show’s production team went for it and, for the next two years and two seasons of Melrose Place, the Gala Committee embedded PIMs in the storylines, homes, and workplaces that made up the show.

In its artist’s statement, the GALA Committee wrote: “[We] sought to work with commercial television by actively approaching it as a proper site in which to develop possibilities for education, to generate the transfer of information, and to layer narratives and poetic construction.” They called the project ‘In the Name of the Place’, and recognized it as a viral, conceptual public artwork to be conducted on primetime TV.

The GALA Committee’s interventions included bedsheets with a repeat pattern of unrolled condoms on the bed of womanizing Dr Peter Burns, and a quilt appliquéd with the chemical symbol for the then-illegal abortion pill RU-486 that covered the accidentally pregnant Alison Parker (when unwanted pregnancies on the show had previously been dealt with by a dramatic fall-down-the-stairs, rather than any storylines involving reproductive rights).

Hockney-esque paintings (supposedly painted by Samantha Reilly, the show’s resident artist) depicted the infamous locations of LA deaths including Sharon Tate’s house, Marilyn Monroe’s bungalow and the Ambassador Hotel where Robert F Kennedy was assassinated, and Chinese takeaway boxes that read “human rights” or “turmoil and chaos”, referenced the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

The PIM that created the biggest stir, and finally provoked the attention of Aaron Spelling and the cast, was a vodka ad campaign called Total Proof, which depicted the wreckage of the 1995 Oklahoma Bombing (and took its title from an altered photograph of the site), with the shadow of a vodka bottle embedded in the building. The piece had been ruled too offensive, but somehow ended up on the wall of D&D Advertising, behind Allison and Amanda in their last showdown at the company—which also nearly became the GALA Committee’s last hurrah.

Back at MOCA, Amanda and Kyle’s in-situ date coincided with a piece in The New Yorker, titled “Agitprop”, which coincided with the real-life opening of Uncommon Sense. In the piece, Mel Chin was interviewed about ‘In the Name of the Place’, the thematic links between the props and the show’s treacherous characters, and how he’d been inspired by Goya’s Los Caprichos—the salacious etchings of the Madrid aristocracy that he subsequently sold back to them. Chin imagined an ecology for ‘In the Name of the Place’ that would rely less on the project’s time in the gallery, and more on the space of TV, where ideas could re-run until we all “got it”.

It could be understood as a form of parasitism, informed by the revelatory potential of fiction, and the power of broadcasting secondary messages and meanings within an endlessly repeating and comfortably recognizable structure. In his synopsis of the work on his portfolio site, Chin explains: “This project of covert insertion wasn’t intended to be subversive, but to offer a blueprint on how artists can collaborate with commercial production from the ‘inside.’”

For the GALA Committee, the belly of the beast was the centre of the action. In the Name of the Place culminated in a glamorous charity auction in Beverley Hills, where its collectively-made works of art were sold off by Sotheby’s to patrons that resembled their fictional peers.

Melrose Place faded out with the twentieth century. Its final episode, “Asses to Ashes”, aired in the summer of 1999. A couple of seasons earlier, the character Megan Lewis had been introduced. She was a hooker employed by the wife of Michael Mancini (long story) who was played by Kelly Rutherford. Despite her various entanglements, marriages and attempts at murder, Rutherford held out until the show’s final episode, and a few years later, reappeared as Upper East Side matriarch Lily van der Woodsen, in the teen drama Gossip Girl.

Developed by Josh Schwartz, who had previously created The OC (a show indebted to the 90210/Melrose Place family), Gossip Girl also adopted the principle of the TV drama as gallery. Working with the Art Production Fund—a non-profit producing public art projects—the Gossip Girl team had the work of contemporary artists installed throughout the show. The main location was Lily van der Woodsen’s apartment, from which party guests could enjoy works by Kiki Smith, Richard Phillips, Marilyn Minter, and Elmgreen & Dragset (whose Prada Marfa sign was specially commissioned for the show).

But rather than being a project of “parasitism”—as Chin had described, ‘In the Name of the Place’—on Gossip Girl, the art wasn’t adding layers of meaning, it was rather, inserting itself into the centre of abundantly meaningless escapades. In perhaps the next logical step of Chin’s intention to show how artists could collaborate with commercial production from the “inside”, artists and the APF appeared on the show as characters, the work itself often took on central roles, and could later be bought as prints.

When Richard Phillips’s Spectrum got embroiled in Chuck Bass’s scheme to have his back-from-the-dead father imprisoned on the grounds of an illegal oil deal with a Sudanese sheikh, the painting took on a character as central as Bass, or any of his vapid frenemies. In both Melrose Place and Gossip Girl, the revelatory power of fiction was explored. For the former, it was in the Gala Committee’s PIMs, adding meaning while hiding in plain sight; in the case of the latter, it was in the way the artworks were co-opted into the teen drama, caught up in the fizz, and giving up meaning for the sake of becoming a piece of the action.

August, 2018

Originally published by Elephant.


The flexible radicality of the Camaleonda

Camaleonda is a portmanteau of camaleonte, meaning chameleon, and onda, meaning wave; two bodies that shift and change according to the conditions of their environment. The Camaleonda sofa…

Camaleonda is a portmanteau of camaleonte, meaning chameleon, and onda, meaning wave; two bodies that shift and change according to the conditions of their environment. The Camaleonda sofa, designed by Mario Bellini for B&B Italia in 1970, was part of a collective shift in Italian design against bourgeois, establishment practices. The radical design movement, which engaged with Italy’s socio-political context through its utopian ideals and material experimentation, pushed for new ways of inhabiting space, while maintaining a productive relationship to nature. The Camaleonda went a step further, by grounding its radically in the day-to-day realities of peoples homes; challenging the relationship between the evolution of new patterns of behaviour in the home, and the limitations of furniture available at the time.  

The Camaleonda is a modular sofa made up of padded, capitonné, 90x90cm seats, with detachable back- and armrests; individual parts strung together by a system of cables, hooks and rings, which can be unhooked and recombined in potentially infinite configurations. It quickly became popular, and was adopted by many households — including New York’s Gracie Mansion, where ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, alongside another dancer, was photographed performing a naked handstand on the Camaleonda in the “champagne room”, during a reception for the Russian Winter Olympics team.

Despite its early popularity, the sofa was only manufactured for eight years, until 1978, and has since become one of the most sought-after sofas on the secondary market. This year, B&B Italia reissued the Camaleonda in celebration of its 50-year anniversary. The new edition honours the original design, B&B Italia’s Research & Development Centre — which was established when Busnelli, B&B’s co-founder, built what was once called the most fully automated furniture factory in the world — has finessed the balance between the rigorous geometry of the seating, and roundness of the padding, and replaced materials to be representative of new technologies and requirements. They’ve maintained, and progressed, the Camaleonda’s reputation for adapting to shifting conditions, lifestyles, and new ways of inhabiting space; recognising that the only permanent state should be a constant will to transform.

Originally published in Port.


Formal Poetry: Commemorating Carlo Scarpa’s Brion Cemetery

Giuseppe Brion, the founder of Brionvega – the electronics company famous for the Cubo television – died in 1968. His wife Onorina, wanting to memorialise her husband, extended the family plot at the local cemetery…

Giuseppe Brion, the founder of Brionvega – the electronics company famous for the Cubo television – died in 1968. His wife Onorina, wanting to memorialise her husband, extended the family plot at the local cemetery of San Vito d’Altivole, the village in the shadow of the Dolomites where Brion was born, and approached the Italian architect Carlo Scarpa to design his tomb.

Scarpa stood between the ancient and modern; in Venice – the old, crumbling city where he was born and lived – the architect introduced a modernism sympathetic to the canals and palazzi: the Olivetti showroom on St Mark’s Square; the Biennale ticket booths and the Venezuelan pavilion in the Giardini; the renovations of the Gallerie Dell’Accademia and the Fondazione Masieri. But it is his work with the Brion family, the only project he would “go to look at with pleasure”, that is his most studied and visited, and, ultimately, the place where he would be buried.

It started, simply, as a tomb, but between 1970 and 1978 the memorial would grow to include a chapel and meditation pavilion, all set around pools of water and surrounded by a garden, approached and enclosed by tall cypress trees. Rendered in concrete and ornamented with tile and glass and metal, the elaborate stepped surfaces evoke ancient Mesopotamian ziggurats, which raised temples closer to the heavens – a motif that echoes throughout the cemetery, creating bands of light and shadow, cutting through and framing rooms, corridors, and terraces. The steps, submerged in water, moulded into concrete, seem either to lead to something or nothing; it’s disorienting, but in a way that appeals to the subconscious, inviting you to move through the space. Scarpa described the complex as being designed with a sense of “poetic imagination”: “Not in order to create poetic architecture, but to make a certain kind of architecture that could emanate a sense of formal poetry.”

It’s a place rich in material symbolism, from the use of interlocking circles, which represent husband and wife; to the bodies of water, between and beneath the cemetery buildings, both life giving and morbid, the Nile and the Styx; and the way nature is left to grow over and around the structures. “The place for the dead is a garden,” Scarpa said. “I wanted to… approach death in a social and civic way; and further what meaning there was in death, in the ephemerality of life – other than these shoe boxes.”

Originally published in Port.


Stanley Kubrick’s Meticulous Set Designs Made His Films Strikingly Eerie

Stanley Kubrick once said that “most films are little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action.” Going beyond the relationships between a scene and a sentence…

Stanley Kubrick once said that “most films are little more than stage plays with more atmosphere and action.” Going beyond the relationships between a scene and a sentence, the director relied on an expanded definition of film grammar to underpin his stories: The lighting, sets, and props acted as commas, semicolons, and dashes to join his narratives and define their rhythm. In an exhibition about Kubrick at London’s Design Museum, which runs until September 15th, it’s these environments—and the meticulous research on which they were based—that take center stage. There’s a model of the war room from Dr Strangelove (1964); a re-staging of the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange (1971); and drawings, paintings, photographs, and diagrams from each of his films.

Kubrick often sent teams of people around the world to measure and photograph locations—from precise documentation of New York streets to tens of thousands of location-scouting photographs for Kubrick’s unmade film on Napoleon Bonaparte. The director recreated these real-world locations in London studios in part because of his fear of flying, but also to have command over every element of the set and make use of it as a narrative device. Kubrick’s stories may have had a degree of abstraction, but they were never lacking control. More interested in raising questions than providing answers, the director was driven by an interest in symbolism and the subconscious, considering an emotional response potentially more powerful than an intellectual one.

Before Kubrick started making films, he made a small living playing chess for cash in New York’s Washington Square Park. The nature of chess as a game that requires strategy and big-picture thinking made it a logical precursor to his approach to film. The ability to maintain control, to move artfully and tactically from beginning to end, mirrors the exacting attention to detail that defines his filmmaking.

Around the same time, in the mid-1940s, Kubrick started working as a photographer for Look magazine, which informed his approach to composition and mise en scène. In an interview with Michel Ciment for the book, Kubrick (1983), the director emphasized: “To make a film entirely by yourself, which initially I did…you must know about photography.”

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Kubrick’s intention in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was to create “a visual experience, one that…directly penetrates the subconscious with an emotional and philosophic content,” he told Playboy in 1968. The sci-fi flick was filmed during NASA’s Apollo missions, and the set had to outpace emerging technology to successfully look futuristic. Alongside art director John Hoesli and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth (and later in production, John Alcott), Kubrick meticulously researched NASA’s design and employed a team of astronomical artists, aeronautics specialists, and aerospace engineers to design the spacecraft interiors. Dialogue is scattered sparsely throughout the film—totaling only 40 minutes over two hours of film—so the sets, props, and costumes play a prominent role, drawing viewers into the atmosphere of the film and its vision of the future.

Conversely, A Clockwork Orange utilized real locations, in particular London’s Thamesmead estate, a utopian social housing project built in the mid-1960s. The Brutalist architecture was the backdrop to much of the action, and its position as a project meant to represent the future of cities made it a fitting space for a film that was as much a social document as it was dystopian science-fiction. It was also cheaper to film there (Kubrick’s budget was considerably smaller after 2001), but shooting in London suited his creative aims, to show a future already being shaped in the present.

Although set in Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket (1987), was also filmed in London, the battle scenes in the city of Hué captured at Beckton Gasworks in the Isle of Dogs. The gasworks had been built by a company of architects who’d worked in Hué, and the Docklands location only needed a few details added before it became the site of the action. Kubrick’s ability to work with believable reconstructions is also evident in his final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which was set in New York’s West Village and filmed at London’s Pinewood Studios. He sent a set designer to photograph and measure shop fronts, the width of streets, and distances between locations and recreated the area, complete with faded shop signs, jazz dives, and apartment buildings.

Accuracy also drove the set design of The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel. “We wanted the hotel to look authentic rather than like a traditionally spooky movie hotel,” Kubrick told Climent. Designed like a labyrinth, with impossible corridors and rooms, the oppressive space disoriented even the actors and crew. It was spacious and modern compared to the tradition of dusty horror sets, and rather than building tension out of claustrophobia, it achieved it in the use of high ceilings, elaborate patterns, and vast expanses that would dwarf its characters.

The Overlook’s interior was based on American hotel rooms photographed by the set designer, Roy Walker. Kubrick felt that in order to really affect his audience, the film needed a balance of realism and fantasy that he likened to author Franz Kafka, who balanced fantastical, allegorical stories with straightforward writing. The idea of taking a familiar space and turning it on its head is evident in much of Kubrick’s work. “I’ve never been able to decide whether the plot is just a way of keeping people’s attention while you do everything else,” the director once mused, “or whether the plot is really more important than anything else, perhaps communicating with us on an unconscious level which affects us in the way that myths once did.”

Originally published by Artsy.

Maharam Stories

The End of the Plain Plane

In 1965, Alexander Girard was hired with Emilio Pucci to redesign every aspect of Braniff International Airways. Pucci was tasked with overhauling the uniforms, with Girard responsible for the design of…

In 1965, Alexander Girard was hired with Emilio Pucci to redesign every aspect of Braniff International Airways. Pucci was tasked with overhauling the uniforms, with Girard responsible for the design of more than 17,000 elements—from the airplane livery to blankets and even sachets of sugar. They were brought on board by advertising firm Jack Tinker & Partners, namely by account executive Mary Wells, who’d been charged with transforming Braniff from a relatively small name in the aviation business to the airline representing the golden age of travel. 

Braniff had recently been bought by Troy Post, who worked in insurance. He’d appointed his brother-in-law Harding L. Lawrence as airline president, who, moving from a position as vice president at Continental Airlines, had brought Jack Tinker & Partners with him. The agency had already earned a reputation for its innovative approach; in its work for Braniff Airways, Jack Tinker & Partners not only created a new identity for the airline but shifted the approach to identity design within aviation as well. 

Economy fares had only recently been introduced, and the opportunity to fly still existed mainly in the realm of the rich and famous; planes were white and grey, and airports resembled military aircraft hangers. There was no broad market for air travel, and there were also no differentiating features in terms of aircraft design or speed, so in its work with Braniff, Jack Tinker & Partners stepped away from facts and statistics in favour of creating a mythology. “The problem, as I saw it, was to destroy the monotony,” Girard is quoted as saying in Alexander Girard, written by Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee. “Do something to make the performance lively and interesting. With this in mind, I prescribed seven or eight colour schemes with seven or eight specially designed textiles for the interiors.” 

The airline’s fleet was painted with a palette of soft pastels and bright primary colours, the plane seats and carpet upholstered in Girard textiles, and the in-flight experience packaged and presented in a typeface designed by Girard, with a custom bird logo, “The Bluebird of Happiness.” His typographic treatments and bird silhouette appeared on everything from matchbooks and glassware to timetables, stationery, badges, and ashtrays. He designed posters featuring art from South America for Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s lounge, and furnished it with pieces by Charles and Ray Eames—his colleagues at Herman Miller. It was a project most designers could have only dreamed of, and one of unprecedented scale. 

In a television advertisement for the new-look Braniff International, a suited man announces: “We hired Alexander Girard to do our planes—we have blue planes, orange planes, yellow planes. You can fly with us seven times and never fly the same colour twice . . . Inside [we have] seven different colour schemes, and since we fly to Mexico and South America, and from Peru, Brazil, and Argentina . . . Cha-cha-cha. Braniff International announces the end of the plain plane. We won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but it’ll seem that way.”

The uniforms designed by Emilio Pucci were another revolutionary spin on the characterisation of air travel. Where air stewards had previously been presented as staid experts in safety, at Braniff, they were reappointed as “air hostesses,” dressed in uniforms that reflected contemporary fashion trends. This also created the opportunity for the “Air Strip”—an in-flight experience targeted at attracting business fliers, who at the time were mostly men. The “Air Strip” was the brainchild of Mary Wells, and Pucci designed a multilayered outfit of a coat and space helmet (or “Rain Dome”), a jacket and wraparound skirt, a dress, and a jumper/culotte two-piece, which would all be worn together, a layer being removed at each key in-flight interval. 

The new look, and particularly the in-flight experience, blurred the lines between empowerment and objectification, and was emblematic of a broader shift in culture and attitude, with Madison Avenue’s ad agencies seen as modern pioneers of this mindset. Magazines like Rolling Stone and Playboy were foregrounding the pursuit of leisure, entertainment, pleasure, and luxury, and Braniff was following suit. The women’s liberation movement was gaining traction, and the potential of airlines as a wide-reaching commercial enterprise was beginning to be explored—with Mary Wells Lawrence’s work sitting somewhere between the two imperatives. The positive impact of the “Air Strip” for the feminist cause is debatable, but at the time it struck a chord (not to mention made Braniff the go-to airline during the Sinatra “Come Fly with Me” era), and Mary Wells Lawrence went on to become the first female CEO of a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, as founding president of ad agency Wells, Rich, Greene. Wells, Lawrence, and Braniff were chasing—and enjoying—the sweet smell of success. 

After its initial collaboration with Girard and Pucci, Braniff worked with Alexander Calder and Halston. In 1973 and 1975, Calder painted a series of aircraft liveries with designs that reflected the bright colours synonymous with South America, and a commemorative design to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States; in 1977 Halston redesigned the air stewards’ uniforms and overhauled the plane interiors in the “Ultra” look, regarded as “quiet, classic, elegant in [its] simplicity,” and befitting the “maturity” Braniff wanted to communicate. Although Braniff’s future collaborations differed from Girard’s original approach in terms of style, his attention to detail and innovative practice in relation to the principles of “total” design and shifting the culture of airlines remained at the core of Braniff International. Girard’s work also influenced other airlines, including Continental’s commission of Saul Bass, who redesigned its logo in 1973. 

In the 1968 ad campaign accompanying the “End of the Plain Plane” project, Andy Warhol and Sonny Liston, and Salvador Dalí and Whitey Ford, among other odd couples, sat in conversation, performing a version of the in-flight seating assignment lottery. While their conversation points varied, each ended with the slogan “When you got it, flaunt it”—the idea of art director George Lois, who saw the “out-flaunting” as characteristic of Braniff, with the implication that you might bump into Warhol mid-flight. It also further cemented Braniff’s reputation for blending style with arrogance, the flip side of its relationship with Madison Avenue—and it was precisely this arrogance that would ultimately lead to the airline’s demise. 

Braniff ceased operations in October 1982, after suffering spiralling debt and eventual bankruptcy. The airline had made brave, transformative decisions regarding design and culture. It had been open to the potential of design to transform an experience and an industry—open to what Alexander Girard described as “uncovering the latent fantasy and magic in [a project] and convincing [the] client to join the process,” which they very much did. But what Braniff may have failed to see is the way that Girard grounded that fantasy and magic in modernism—playful decor and masterful reduction, craftsmanship and industry, fantasy and logic—rather than style with arrogance.

Originally published by Maharam Stories.

Maharam Stories

A State of National Recline

Eero Saarinen had been experimenting with the idea of conversation pits for a few years when he received a commission from industrialist J. Irwin Miller to design a family home in Columbus, Indiana, in 1953…

Eero Saarinen had been experimenting with the idea of conversation pits for a few years when he received a commission from industrialist J. Irwin Miller to design a family home in Columbus, Indiana, in 1953. Saarinen was interested in the potential for sunken living rooms to create productive divisions in open-space floor plans—informal, intimate spaces within large expanses, which would solve “the problem of furniture, with its inevitable ‘slum of legs’”—and the Miller House provided an opportunity to test his solution. 

In 1959, the house appeared in a twenty-page feature in House & Garden, where the conversation pit was described as a “brilliantly cushioned well”—the back cushions made thicker than standard to help people get in and out more easily, the steps angled so sitters couldn’t see up women’s skirts, and the underside of the piano painted pillar-box red—an intimate, low-profile setting where guests could lounge and look at nothing but each other. Creating a dedicated space for conversation might have been less unusual at the time than it would be now, particularly considering current suspicion around technology entering the home, but it was undeniably decadent and challenged ideas around social decorum and propriety. In a 1963 edition of TIME, an argument against conversation pits, and their many dangers, was published:

“At cocktail parties, late-staying guests tended to fall in. Those in the pit found themselves bombarded with bits of hors d’oeuvres from up above, looked out on a field of trouser cuffs, ankles and shoes. Ladies shied away from the edges, fearing up-skirt exposure. Bars or fencing of sorts had to be constructed to keep dogs and children from daily concussions.”  

In an April 1964 edition of the New York Times Magazine, writer Sylvia Wright described them as an “anti-chair,” a “transitional device backed by many architects who lack the courage openly to advocate lying down.” She argued that, rather than too radical, they could go further to accommodate modern America, a “uniquely non-chair sitting people,” who “only sit when engaged in activities of great importance, those which identify them as men of position and substance” and prefer lying down or standing. “There seems to this writer, however, to be overwhelming evidence that [. . .] the United States is gradually ceasing to be a chair-sitting nation,” she writes. It “is becoming instead a nation where one of the most characteristic positions is a state of collapse.”

Conversation pits appeared at a time of broader cultural shifts and upheaval, when “the vogue for suntans brought the freedom to lie down in places our parents wouldn’t have thought of,” and with so much up in the air, rolling down or climbing over seats seemed just as plausible as any other future. They featured in various homes, in projects by Saarinen, Girard, Goff, and Paul Rudolph, both domestic and in the exciting new realm of the airport—such as Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK. However, by 1960, Saarinen decried them as a cliché, fearing they were overdone and lamenting that he hadn’t come up with a better way to restructure the formal parlor. And so, for a while at least, they disappeared. Then, in the 1980s, conversation pits had a resurgence amid New York’s boom in Midtown lofts and bachelor pads. When architect Janusz Gottwald designed a loft interior for a wealthy consultant who “wanted to be freed from the limitations of ordinary seating,” Gottwald realized the versatility of the form—“you can even lie on it as if it were a grassy knoll.”

Originally published by Maharam Stories

Maharam Stories

Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium

“Human life is a combination of tragedy and comedy. The shapes and designs that surround us are the music accompanying this tragedy and this comedy,” said Alvar Aalto, whose approach to design and production was defined by…

“Human life is a combination of tragedy and comedy. The shapes and designs that surround us are the music accompanying this tragedy and this comedy,” said Alvar Aalto, whose approach to design and production was defined by both his exacting attention to detail and, conversely, a lightness of touch. Considered one of the less dogmatic faces of modernism (at the Riihitie House in Helsinki—which he and his wife Aino designed, lived, and worked in—among the Japanese-influenced decor and modernist furniture was Alvar’s favorite armchair, a sturdy blue seat as aesthetically out of place as it was comfortable), Aalto’s designs embraced both International Style and the practicalities of people’s wants and needs.

In his designs for the Paimio Sanatorium—a tuberculosis sanatorium near Turku, Finland, built in 1929 after Aalto was awarded the commission in an architectural competition—Aalto’s intention was to build “a cathedral to health and an instrument for healing”; an environment that, before medical treatments for tuberculosis had become available, could provide the literal breathing space that was thought to help rehabilitate patients. Set on a sandy terrain in the middle of a pine forest, the main building sits at the area’s highest point—a central core from which various wings jut out into the forest. The patients’ quarters and sun deck face south, filling the rooms with natural light—the heat broken up in the shade of the pines—and allowing patients to follow the course of each day. The walls are white and the ceilings a muted shade of green, which Aalto thought would make the general tone more peaceful from the perspective of a recumbent patient; the lighting is set both above and below sight line to avoid glare, and almost every detail of the furniture in patient rooms is curved. The door handle leading into the room loops inwards to avoid catching on sleeves, wardrobe doors form soft waves, and the sinks were designed to sit on an angle that would reduce splashing noises, to avoid waking roommates.

Curved forms were integral to the design of the Paimio Sanatorium—and throughout Aalto’s practice—from the edges of the building itself to the reception desk, walkways, staircases, and furniture. The Paimio chair, designed to be its namesake’s staple seat, was made from cantilevered birch wood bent into scrolls—taking form in two closed loops of laminated wood that support the central seat, angled back for optimum ease of breath. It’s Aalto’s best-known piece of furniture, which at the time tested the limits of plywood manufacturing, inspired his peers—including Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen—and was one of the works that drove the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne to, in 1933, cite him as “the new voice from the northern fringe of Europe that was soon to add color and richness to their somewhat austere vocabulary.” And while Aalto did receive acclaim from his peers and the design establishment, it was the general public, in Finland in particular, who’d been the first to embrace him. Pieces produced by his and Aino Aalto’s company, Artek, furnished not only Aalto buildings but schools and public buildings across Finland as well.

The color and richness of Aalto’s practice went far beyond the literal sense of these terms; how it really came through was in the form of broad influences, experiences, and viewpoints. With an approach more complex than being straightforwardly modernist, for Paimio, Aalto placed International Style within the context of ancient cultures, Finnish traditions, and new knowledge, as well as, fundamentally, the needs of the people inhabiting the space. It was this pragmatism, somehow both inspired and practical, this openness, and this lack of pomposity that allowed him to appeal to both the people and the establishment—and be known for both “pushing the vocabulary” of modernism and grounding his work in the requirements of everyday life.

While today most of the original interior details at the Paimio Sanatorium have been replaced or repainted, the colors and forms still adhere to Aalto’s vision. The stairs are banana-yellow with a turquoise trim; the cafeteria walls are dappled with pink light from the bright marquees and the room completed with similarly “candy” orange chairs; and mint-green details line the communal areas and patient rooms. On the one hand, the color choices may be seen to undermine the principles of Functionalism and the practicalities that defined so many of Aalto’s design choices; but on the other, the proposition that design ought to be either purely functional or purely decorative misses the mark. It misses the difficult fact of people, and the contradictions and complexities that make up our wants and needs—it misses the value, and functionality, of having music to accompany the tragedy and comedy of life.

Originally published by Maharam Stories.


All in the Balance

There is a distinct lack of dogma to the designer Peter Ghyczy’s practice. Although concerned primarily with function, his approach has never discounted form, decoration, beauty or, indeed, even the principle of design as a sort of divine intervention.

Peter Ghyczy, Garden Chair
There is a distinct lack of dogma to the designer Peter Ghyczy’s practice. Although concerned primarily with function, his approach has never discounted form, decoration, beauty or, indeed, even the principle of design as a sort of divine intervention.

In Peter Ghyczy: The Evolutioner, the book accompanying Ghyczy’s new exhibition at Brussels’ Design Museum ADAM, the designer writes: “My work takes its orientation from its purpose […] Nonetheless, design can be a spiritual passion. The designer is close to the divine, practicing a profession that affords them the chance to further evolution […] As in natural evolution, not every new species represents a desirable step forward with a promising future. The phenomenon has borne strange fruit, especially since design took up with art.”

The exhibition commemorates 50 years since Ghyczy designed his famed Garden Egg chair, an early experiment in a then new material, polyurethane, for the manufacturer Reuter. The form was inspired by that of a suitcase, and the intention was to design a chair that was light and easy to transport, comfortable and water-resistant. The curved form, manufactured in a range of iconic Pop colours, became a key piece for the atomic age and, paradoxically, East German culture. When Gottfried Reuter – “a capitalist with Marxist leanings”, as the book describes him – sold his company to BASF Group in 1972, he also sold his knowledge of plastics and the rights to the Garden Egg chair to the German Democratic Republic. The Garden Egg chair remained in production through the Cold War, and while plastic furniture became less economically viable elsewhere due to the oil crisis, it remained popular behind the Iron Curtain because of a quirk in Cold War regulations. The chair forms the centrepiece of Peter Ghyczy: 50 Years of Functionalism, which traces Ghyczy’s design practice from his early works to the material experiments that still occupy him today.

Curated by independent design curator Kunty Moureau, the exhibition features some of Ghyczy’s most famous pieces –the Garden Egg chair, Spring chair and T24 table – alongside drawings and limited edition works including a neon tree lamp and brass dumbbells. Current projects such as the new Safari chair, an extendable sofa and brass-fronted cabinet are also included. The walls are lined with quotes from Ghyxzy, reflecting on his practice – both past and present – and the legacy he’d like to leave behind: “Timeless, functional design that leaves minimal waste and respects nature,” reads one. There is a mock-studio space, its desk stacked with sketches and tests for structures, forms and joins.

As we sit down for an interview at Ghyczy’s family home in Bessel, in the southeastern Netherlands, Ghyczy describes how he thinks of his practice: “It’s difficult to explain something that comes so naturally. Ideas surface in my mind – like a composer hears a melody, I imagine a design.”

Ghyczy’s process is a balance of science and intuition, and although he is known for artistry and invention, he considers himself primarily a craftsman: “I’m a joiner first – I’m interested in finding the most simple and effective solutions. ‘How does it function? How does it fit together?’ I always start with the clamp, and without a product in mind, I test how it can be loosened and tightened, how it can move and adapt. I’m interested in invisible connections, or frames that fix with a single screw. They’re primarily functional, but something of the result is decorative and beautiful. A good solution is always beautiful.” 

The principles of adapting and connecting, and employing problem-solving as the root for form and function, may be a practice that stems from Ghyczy’s personal history. Migration plays a significant role in the history of 20th-century design, and specifically in regards to Modernism – from the Bauhaus, and particularly Marcel Breuer’s move from his native Hungary to Germany in the 1920s, to the collective shift of mid-century Modernists from Europe to the US during the Second World War in the 1940s. In Peter Ghyczy: The Evolutioner, writer Bernd Polster suggests: “The emigrant’s simultaneous experience of gain and loss and his position between two different worlds can evidently provide extremely fertile ground in creative personalities.”

Ghyczy was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940 to an aristocratic family, and his father was killed during the Red Army invasion in 1944. He was moved first to the Hungarian countryside, then to Belgium as part of a Red Cross aid programme, before returning to Hungary to attend a Benedictine boarding school. In 1956, Ghyczy fled Hungary for Bonn, via Vienna, where he joined his family. His mother had exchanged a portion of her family’s jewellery for a smuggler to lead Ghyczy on a three-day trek across the Hungarian border and into Austria. Once settled in Bonn, and on completing school, Ghyczy attended the Polytechnic University Aachen, where he studied architecture. On graduating in 1967, he took up the position of head of design at Reuter, a chemical and product design company helmed by German chemist Gottfried Reuter. Here, Ghyczy specialised in experiments with polyurethane, components and design systems. It is also where he designed the Garden Egg chair in 1968. By 1972, however, Reuter had been sold to its main competitor, and their design research output had been defunded.

Having gone freelance, Ghyczy subsequently started testing the idea of a frame-less glass shelf, which would be wall-mounted by a clamping bracket. “What is key is an understanding of the flow of weight,” he says, holding a hardbound book between his thumb and index finger to mimic the bracket. “I made the glass wall shelf and tried to sell it to a few companies, but they said it was too simple. It fit well with the aesthetic of the period, but they couldn’t see it; it was too new. I decided I’d have to produce it myself, so it was then that I founded my company.” The oil crisis and subsequent economic crisis was at its peak, but by 1975, Ghyczy’s furniture company was off the ground. His frame-less glass shelf became a commercial success, revered and imitated by his peers, and he’d moved with his wife and children to Beesel, a small town on the Netherlands’ river Maas. “I was young,” he says. “I didn’t know how difficult it was to run a business. And I’m very happy that I didn’t know, otherwise I wouldn’t have done it.”

“To be a designer is not easy,” Ghyczy continues. “You have to be strong and able to defend your work. Either your ideas are too ‘known’ or too ‘unknown’. That’s why I’ve been happy to be on my own, I haven’t had to defend every new idea. It’s turned out to be a blessing. Now, I can look back with satisfaction. I’ve had success thanks to my own work.”

Although born to an affluent family, Ghyzcy’s life as a near-constant émigré – with, as he attests, “no mother tongue” – has afforded him a sense of openness and independence in terms of thinking and practice  which can often be impossible for those solidly rooted in a particular culture. He designs with a consistent focus on innovation and timelessness (in his frames, joints and applications of material), human comfort (in his padded, flexible furniture), and environmental impact (in making his furniture to order, with low impact materials). While his practice centres around functionality, there is a clear thread of Art Deco that does not only run through its details and forms, but also its ethos of social and technological progress, glamour and exuberance.

Ghyczy’s arguments for aesthetic charm sit firmly outside of cold perfectionism. “I have a theory on this”, he says. “If people are ‘high gloss’, or behaving ‘high gloss’, they get damaged. Hollywood beauties, they have to repaint everything, every morning, because no fault, no scratch is allowed. Every day they go to the hairdresser and do their make up and everything, this is not the solution. I like it much more when people are natural, they have flaws, lines, scratches. We are ageing, and I like furniture to age too. To have a patina conveys a life.”

All text originally published by Disegno Daily. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

The Ulm Model: A School and Its Pursuit of a Critical Design Practice

“My feeling is that the Bauhaus being conveniently located before the Second World War makes it safely historical”, says Dr. Peter Kapos. “It’s objects have an antique character that is about as threatening as Arts & Crafts…

Foundation course exercise, courtesy of HfG-Archiv/Ulmer Museum
“My feeling is that the Bauhaus being conveniently located before the Second World War makes it safely historical”, says Dr. Peter Kapos. “It’s objects have an antique character that is about as threatening as Arts & Crafts, whereas the problem with the Ulm school is that it’s too relevant. The questions raised about industrial design [still apply], and it’s project failed – their social project being particularly disappointing – which leaves awkward questions about where we are in the present.”

Kapos discovered the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, or Ulm school, through his research into the German manufacturing company Braun, the representation of which is a specialism of his archive, das programm. The industrial design school had developed out of a community college founded by educationalist Inge Scholl and graphic designer Otl Aicher in 1946. It was established, as Kapos writes in the book accompanying the Raven Row exhibition, The Ulm Model, “with the express purpose of curbing what nationalistic and militaristic tendencies still remained [in post-war Germany], and making a progressive contribution to the reconstruction of German social life.”

The Ulm school closed in 1968, having undergone various forms of pedagogy and leadership, crises in structure and personality. Nor the faculty or student-body found resolution to the problems inherent to industrial design’s claim to social legitimacy – “how the designer could be thoroughly integrated within the production process at an operational level and at the same time adopt a critically reflective position on the social process of production.” But while the Ulm school, and the Ulm Model, collapsed it remains an important resource, “it’s useful, even if the project can’t be restarted, because it was never going to succeed, the attempt is something worth recovering. Particularly today, under very difficult conditions.”

Max Bill, a graduate of the Bauhaus and then president of the Swiss Werkbund, arrived at Ulm in 1950 – having been recruited partly in the hope that his international profile would attract badly needed funding – and tightened the previously broad curriculum, established by Marxist writer Hans Werner Richter, around design, mirroring the practices of his alma mater.

Bill’s rectorship ran from 1955-58, during which “there was no tension between the way he designed and the requirements of the market.” The principle of the designer as artist, a popular notion of the Bauhaus, curbed the “alienating nature of industrial production”. Due perhaps in part to the trauma of WW2 people hadn’t been ready to allow technology into the home that declared itself as technology. “The result of that was record players and radios smuggled into the home, hidden in what looked like other pieces of furniture, with walnut veneers and golden tassels.” Bill’s way of thinking didn’t necessarily reflect the aesthetic, but it wasn’t at all challenging politically. “So in some ways that’s really straight-forward and unproblematic – and he’s a fantastic designer, an extraordinary architect, an amazing graphic designer, and a great artist – but he wasn’t radical enough. What he was trying to do with industrial design wasn’t taking up the challenge.”

In 1958 he stepped down, having failed to “grasp the reality of industrial production simply at a technical and operational level… [or] recognise its emancipatory potential.” The industrial process had grown in complexity, and the prospect of rebuilding socially was too vast for single individuals to manage. It was no longer possible for the artist-designer to sit outside of the production process, because the new requirements were so complex. “You had to be absolutely within the process, and there had to be a team of disciplinary specialists – not only of material, but circulation and consumption, which was also partly sociological. It was a different way of thinking about form and its relation to product.”

After Bill’s departure, Tomás Maldonado – an instructor at the school, “set out the implications for a design education adequate to the realities of professional practice.” Changes were made to the curriculum that reflected a critically reflective design practice, which he referred to as ‘scientific operationalism’ and subjects such as ‘the instruction of colour’, were dropped. Between 1960-62 the Ulm Model was introduced: “a novel form of design pedagogy that combined formal, theoretical and practical instruction with work in so-called ‘Development Groups’ for industrial clients under the direction of lecturers.” And it was during this period that the issue of industrial design’s problematic relationship to industry came to a head.

In 1959, a year prior to the Ulm Model’s formal introduction, Herbert Lindinger, a student from a Development Group working with Braun, designed an audio system. A set of transistor equipment, it made no apologies for its technology, and looked like a piece of engineering. His audio system became the model for Braun’s 1960s audio programme, “but Lindinger didn’t receive any credit for it, and Braun’s most successful designs from the period derived from an implementation of his project. It’s sad for him but it’s also sad for Ulm design because this had been a collective project.”

The history of the Braun audio programme was written as being defined by Dieter Rams, “a single individual – he’s an important designer, and a very good manager of people, he kept the language consistent – but Braun design of the 60s is not a manifestation of his genius, or his vision.” And the project became an indication of why the Ulm project would ultimately fail, “when recalling it, you end up with a singular genius expressing the marvel of their mind, rather than something that was actually a collective project to achieve something social.”

An advantage of Bill’s teaching model had been the space outside of the industrial process, “which is the space that offers the possibility of criticality. Not that he exercised it. But by relinquishing that space, [the Ulm school] ended up so integrated in the process that they couldn’t criticize it.” They realised the contradiction between Ulm design and consumer capitalism, which had been developing along the same timeline. “Those at the school became dissatisfied with the idea of design furnishing market positions, constantly producing cycles of consumptive acts, and they struggled to resolve it.”

The school’s project had been to make the world rational and complete, industrially based and free. “Instead they were producing something prison-like, individuals were becoming increasingly separate from each other and unable to see over their horizon.” In the Ulm Journal, the school’s sporadic, tactically published magazine that covered happenings at and the evolving thinking and pedagogical approach of Ulm, Marxist thinking had become an increasingly important reference. “It was key to their understanding the context they were acting in, and if that thinking had been developed it would have led to an interesting and different kind of design, which they never got round to filling in. But they created a space for it.”

“[A Marxian approach] would inevitably lead you out of design in some way. And the Ulm Model, the title of the Raven Row exhibition, is slightly ironic because it isn’t really a model for anything, and I think they understood that towards the end. They started to consider critical design as something that had to not resemble design in its recognised form. It would be nominally designed, the categories by which it was generally intelligible would need to be dismantled.”

The school’s funding was equally problematic, while their independence from the state facilitated their ability to independently validate their social purpose, the private foundation that provided their income was funded by industry commissions and indirect government funding from the regional legislator. “Although they were only partially dependent on government money, they accrued so much debt that in the end they were entirely dependent on it. The school was becoming increasingly radical politically, and the more radical it became, the more its own relation to capitalism became problematic. Their industry commissions tied them to the market, the Ulm Model didn’t work out, and their numbers didn’t add up.”

The Ulm school closed in 1968, when state funding was entirely withdrawn, and its functionalist ideals were in crisis. Abraham Moles, an instructor at the school, had previously asserted the inconsistency arising from the practice of functionalism under the conditions of ‘the affluent society’, “which for the sake of ever expanding production requires that needs remain unsatisfied.” And although he had encouraged the school to anticipate and respond to the problem, so as to be the “subject instead of the object of a crisis”; he hadn’t offered concrete ideas on how that might be achieved.

But correcting the course of capitalist infrastructure isn’t something the Ulm school could have been expected to achieve, “and although their project was ill-construed, it is productive as a resource for thinking about what a critical design practice could be in relation to capitalism.” What’s interesting about the Ulm Model today is their consideration of the purpose of education, and their questioning of whether it should merely reflect the current state of things – “preparing a workforce for essentially increasing the GDP; and establishing the efficiency of contributing sectors in a kind of diabolical utilitarianism.”

January, 2017

All text originally published by itsnicethat.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

The New Look: Looking Back at Roundel’s 1980s Identity Design for British Rail’s Railfreight

At the launch of the Design Business Association in 1986, John Bateson, a graphic designer and later partner at design agency Roundel, met a product designer who was working with British Rail’s Railfreight on a repainting scheme…

Railfreight icons, Roundel
At the launch of the Design Business Association in 1986, John Bateson, a graphic designer and later partner at design agency Roundel, met a product designer who was working with British Rail’s Railfreight on a repainting scheme. To the comment on their “not really knowing what colour to paint the trains,” John suggested that it really depended on “what they were going to put on them, before they could know what colour to use”.

This was the beginning of Roundel’s identity design commission with Railfreight, a project run by British Rail’s now defunct Architecture and Design division, which was headed up by Jane Priestman. The intention was to convey the success and value of Railfreight, and its various sectors – distribution, petroleum, metals, coal and construction; and Roundel were to communicate that via both an inward and outward facing redesign that would change the perception of, and culture within, the organisation.

“The culture had been ‘dirt’. Steam railways were filthy, stations were filthy, so they were designed accordingly,” John says. “Jane Priestman said no to all that, which is why we now have white floors and white tiling in stations – because it rewards cleaning. We carried that through to Railfreight, the locos and everything. It seems like obvious stuff but it changed the culture.”

Each train belonged to a sub-sector and a depot. The sub-sectors were designed to be recognisable as a family –  with symbols containing the letter “F” which also formed an optimistic upwards arrow that sat within each mark. They rejected the drab, camouflage colours that had often been used, in favour of bright primaries that could be read at speed and from a distance. The inspiration came in part from the Mustang fighter jets employed during WWII, both in terms of markings and the need to express confidence and strength. 
The marks were designed by Roundel and drawn by illustrator and Scraperboard artist Ron Mercer, who produced each element by hand. “The tone and form was the domain of Roundel, I was the artworker. I think that since the advent of the Apple Mac there has been some merging of design and artwork but in my day the two arms were quite separate,” he says.

The major Railfreight depots each had their own mascot, including a rat, horse, and cat – “I recall that the Stratford depot were particularly keen on having the Cockney Sparrow for theirs,” says Ron. They had long been key to their unofficial identities, and as part of Roundel’s identity design they restyled each of the mascots and established them as integral elements of the locomotive livery. They appeared as depot plates on the cab side, as well as on lapel badges, mugs, sports kits and signing.

“The mascots were made in chromium, bolted plates that rewarded cleaning,” says John. “The idea was to build a sense of pride in the work and their environment. The plates clarified that the trains were theirs, and prevented the cabs from becoming dumping grounds. It was all part of the culture change.” Previously, the macho culture at the depots had meant that the trains would go around rather than through the cleaning machines, dirty being the look of the day for locomotives. But the pride of ownership engendered through the depot mascots meant that the trains were maintained and rarely out of service, as were the depots themselves. As well as their symbols and mascots, each site and sub-sector had its own internal stationery, improved seating, televisions, washing machines and crisp, bright paint jobs. All of these small details instilled pride, respect and a sense of optimism in opinions on Railfreight, from both workers and the general public.

As part of the drive to launch the new identity, Roundel produced invitations, menus, “After Freight” mints, Christmas cards and a Railfreight calendar. The calendar was shot at various locations – on main-line bridges, at depots, in stone quarries and in front of power station calling towers. “We wanted to establish the trains as heroes. The drivers thought we’d shot train sets initially because they couldn’t believe the scale of the compositions or the operation. We’d have to shut the main-line and shoot overnight, it cost a tonne,” says John. “We lit the coal chimneys with flood lights on one night, which ended up getting us a visit from the local emergency services because someone thought the whole place was about to go up in flames. We had to say ‘Oh actually no, we’re just taking some pics!’, they weren’t best pleased so after that we only had an hour or so to get the shots.” The purpose was to further demonstrate a sense of heroism, value and pride in the work of and by Railfreight, and be another element of the work towards a culture change.

Roundel’s identity design had been commissioned in response to the changes in the UK’s manufacturing industries, and amongst the threat/atmosphere of privatisation. In an internal pamphlet describing “The New Look”, Railfreight’s director Colin Driver described how the British Rail board had issued a design policy statement stressing that “design, in its broadest sense, is fundamental to the efficiency of every aspect of the railway. From livery to to locos, mess rooms to engine sheds, this applies very powerfully to Railfreight. British Rail’s design director Jane Priestman points out that ‘to remain in business we must persuade very discerning customers of the ability of THIS business to perform better than any other.’”

Further elements of their promotion were a “Strategy and Image” conference and customer brochure. The conference was based on an “airforce theme” – a principle relevant because of the aesthetic inspiration, as well as “the ethos of team spirit, interdependence and pride”. Meanwhile the brochure described the weight of experience, competitive spirit and potential to be “poised for Europe” amongst sci-fi imagery in acid tones, produced using one of the first digital editing programs.

Jane Priestman’s department, British Rail’s internal Architecture and Design resource, was one of the last centralised, public sector design departments. And the Roundel-designed brochure for A&D was fittingly of its time. The imagery was collaged by hand, and appears somewhat abstract and postmodern; the bins look like Corinthian columns, while the arches and landscape architecture reflect amphitheatres and palaces. Design for the stations is described in turn as adventurous, decorative and Classical, and it underlines British Rail’s policy of “good design [as] good business”: “Good design helps sell services, improves staff morale and brings about the clearest visual indication of control and commitment to quality performance,” said Anthony Howard, the design manager at British Rail A&D at the time.

This focus on quality and coherence, of the architecture, interior and graphic design being co-ordinated and driven by not only profit but pride seems archaic in the current climate of embedded or threatened privatisation. “Since privatisation the focus has moved towards marketing and commercial enterprise. Centralised control seems outdated and inflexible because it’s all changed. But now though we have lost much of the design clarity and visual cohesion that made for an integrated network,” says John Bateson. “Centralised control seems spooky now, because it’s all changed.” And while in a lot of ways it feels like a change for the worse, there are positives to be drawn. “Company identities can’t, and don’t need to be long-term anymore. The top-down ‘Chairman says’ stuff doesn’t really fly when a tweet can destroy a brand in a day. They have to listen and evolve, if you want to survive you have to be fleet of foot.”

November, 2016

All text originally published by itsnicethat.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia

Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia examined the intersections of art, architecture and design with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s Shown at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis earlier this year, the exhibition was loosely organised around Timothy Leary’s famous mantra, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”…

Spread from Hippie Modernism, published by the Walker Art Center
Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia examined the intersections of art, architecture and design with the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. Shown at the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis earlier this year, the exhibition was loosely organised around Timothy Leary’s famous mantra, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out” and charted the social, cultural and professional revolutions of the period.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition goes further still, considering practices of radical architecture and anti-design movements that emerged through Europe and North America, as well as the print revolution and new forms of theatre and radical politics. Here we speak with the show curator and editor, Andrew Blauvelt, about the work and impact of the critically under-served movement.

Q: Although art and culture has been so clearly influenced by this period, there have been few major museum shows documenting the counterculture. Why do you think this is, and what did you hope to achieve in Hippie Modernism?

There have been many more focussed shows on discrete aspects of the period, which has really come into art historical fashion over the last decade or so. But generally speaking most major museums wouldn’t touch the material because it’s not squarely in the art camp, or the art canon of the period. Too much “ephemera,” or what we call graphic design.

When we think of the 1960s we typically associate it with many of the other important movements: Pop, Conceptualism, Land Art, Body Art, Minimalism, etc. By doing Hippie Modernism I hoped to focus more attention on these highly experimental practices, and by doing so open new spaces for understanding work from the period that didn’t conform to the canonical narrative. Just as we search for evidence of modernism in far flung geographies now, we can also look at the overlooked closer to home.

Q: Could you elaborate on the term “hippie modernism”?

It seems to be an oxymoron, mostly because of what we think modernism is or was supposed to be. I was attracted to this essential conundrum. However, in the course of making the show and the book it became clearer that the term in fact embodies the contradictions of what would later become known as postmodernism (a critique of modernism). And from today’s vantage point, it might be considered simply as “another modernism,” alternate ways of making art, using technology, and shaping society.

Q: In the introduction to the book you mention the shared sense of struggle and need to “start from zero” in the hippie counterculture and modernism. Although elements of culture and technology have progressed in many ways, we are still bound to the problems and hopes of the period, and much of what is discussed in the book and exhibition still rings true today.

Oh yes: climate change, Black Lives Matter to take just two major examples. Progress can be glacial. Struggle seems eternal. We still struggle for our own utopia. I did not want to buy into the failure narrative of the 1960s, which was after all a history underwritten by the conservative political victories of the 1980s. In my opinion, that victory was fleeting as culture continued on a trajectory set into motion during the 1960s. The struggles continue in no small part because the system transfigures its themes and ambitions. For instance, the communalism of the 1960s has been recast as the sharing economy today: couch surfing becomes Air B&B, and so on.

Q: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish”, a phrase published in the Whole Earth Catalogue, was very much key to the counterculture but has now been adopted by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs after Steve Jobs used it in a commencement speech. There is incredible irony in this, when you look back at the ideas of the period – it’s also interesting to consider that the tech industry might now see itself as a counterculture.

Ah, the catchphrase of the entrepreneur. We should remember that in the 1960s computing was the province of large corporations, big government, and the military. The countercultural dream was for personal computing. That computers (and portable video and even television too) could be radically democratic tools to unleash individual creativity and connect people. This was a revolutionary idea. Jobs and Gates were the beneficiaries of this revolution, Zuckerberg and Brin must contend with its legacy.

The cross-disciplinary nature of the work of the counterculture led to what could amount to a whole “lifestyle” – as embodied by Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue, would you say that in some ways what was being made was a sort of active sketch of what is possible?

Yes. I say in the book that the counterculture was so successful in its moment because it actively ‘prototyped’ the future it wanted to live. If you want sexual liberation you must live it now not simply ask for it, for instance. Don’t want to work 9-5 in a soulless job, then invent a world or counter economy in which you don’t. Even if it fails, it provides a glimpse and a taste of what is possible and that has more lasting consequence and value.
These ideas have become creatively recharged and recast today, and the point is not about claims to originality but rather ideas of continuity. Why does this past look particularly appealing today?

Q: The architectural group Archigram were one who so brilliantly predicted the tethering of our bodies to digital devices, examples including the Electronic Tomato and Info-Gonks – were you surprised by any of the predictions you came across in your research?

Always. Info-Gonks as Google Glass. The Provo legacy project of the Witkar—an electric car sharing program in Amsterdam in the 1970s and 1980s. Archigram’s Room of a 1000 Delights as virtual reality. Superstudio’s Supersurface as Internet. Heineken’s World Bottle: a glass beer bottle as an upcycled building brick. The Videofreex Lanesville TV project, which prefigured community television and “user-contributed content.” Ant Farm’s Truckstop Network and YouTube. It was a visionary period.

Q: Publishing had a really interesting role, particularly in the sense that it very much took on the idea of the role of publishing as creating or being for a public, which magazines would you say exemplify the time?

Three come to mind and are in the show. Aspen, “the magazine in a box,” which was a thematic publication with a unique art director for each issue. It was an assemblage of material and media: pamphlets, posters, loose images, flexidisks, film and music reels—the message in multiple media. The other discovery was Scanlan’s, art directed by the incredible Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, who was famous for her supergraphics. It was a muckraking-type journal, which gave the world gonzo journalism and was the first to call for the impeachment of Richard Nixon. Both were essentially forced out of business ostensibly because they did not conform to postal regulations or were blacklisted by printers. Oz magazine broke ground on both the design and content front. It was subject to censorship.

The book is not like a traditional exhibition publication, in that its focus is on the subject rather than being a record of the show specifically. Could you elaborate on your thinking when putting the book together?

I worked with Emmet Byrne, the design director at the Walker, on the book’s design. We share similar concerns when making a book, on the one hand we are inspired by the content and the period yet we do not want to create a simulation of it. We hope to create something fresh and new but also something that could not have been made without having been influenced by its content.

Materially, physically, it is a mash-up of the heft of a Whole Earth Catalog (including its form as a paperback) and the colouring of the People’s Yellow Pages (a telephone book of free things in the Bay Area). Our initial plan had been to use Helvetica, which was truly revolutionary at that time, but once you see Scanlan’s typography there’s no point trying to emulate that. We needed more hippie in the mix. For the sake of time, we didn’t use rubber stamp type, although it was very tempting. The typewriter and Cooper were deployed instead.

The funky silver paper with color and black and white repros is pure Emmet. These pages function like “ads” for different works in the show, sometimes they simply recreate an actual ad, but often they are fabricated. Here we also diversified the typographic and stylistic palette, Day-Glo was invented in the Bay Area and it hadn’t really been exploited until this period, hence the fluorescent yellow.

My idea was to include the facsimile reprint of “Advertisements of a Counter Culture” that first appeared in Progressive Architecture magazine (and presumably got the editor fired). I wanted to riff on this idea of making ads for a counter culture and extend it. I wish we had time and space to make more of them.

What should the reader take from the use of Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao’s US Pavilion for Expo 67 caught in flames as the cover image?

Well, when the dome burned in 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, it seemed to signify the end of the countercultural era. All those dreams go up in flames. Or do they? From the ashes of the dome (the metal lattice structure survived, the plastic coating melted away), a museum of the biosphere rose inside it. That seemed like an interesting way to think of the fate and future of hippie modernism.

April, 2016

All text originally published by itsnicethat.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

A City of Contradictions: Meet the People Shaping Beirut’s Creative Future

Beirut is a city of contradictions, both buoyed and bound by its past and present the push and pull between its history and future is particularly acute in the divergent experiences of older and younger generations…

By Tanya Traboulsi

Beirut is a city of contradictions, both buoyed and bound by its past and present; the push and pull between its history and future is particularly acute in the divergent experiences of older and younger generations. The Lebanese Civil War ended in the autumn of 1990, and now the generation born at or towards its end, who have lived through its consequences and inherited its legacy from their families are working towards a new creativity, one that recognises but is not necessarily defined by history.

Ayla Hibri, a photographer who returned to Beirut in 2015 after stints all over the world, says: “Not only have we experienced a lot of trauma but we’ve inherited a lot of baggage from our parents. You want to move on and put the ugly past behind you, but you also want to analyse it and understand what the hell happened. There is the residue of war but we don’t have the same frustrations, the work being produced now is very different.”

A steadily increasing number of residency programmes, collective workspaces, independent galleries and publications have played a significant role in the emergence of a new design movement. Mansion, a 1930s villa that had been abandoned during the civil war, reopened in 2012 as a collective space. Funded by donations, as well as providing studios for local artists, designers and architects, Mansion hosts a public programme of films, discussions and exhibitions. Ghaith Abi Ghanem and Jad Melki, who run an architectural firm from Mansion say “it opens up possibilities outside of typical employment and encourages young designers to have a space to experiment and produce in the heart of the city.”

As well as Mansion, there is Alt City and The Olive Grove which is due to open this year. Designed by TWIG Collaborative, an interdisciplinary group of architects and designers who have also worked on the concept, operating model and branding for the site, The Olive Grove will be a co-working space designed to encourage collaboration. “As a design firm, but even more as a collaborative platform, we think socially responsible design is of the utmost importance. Designers play a key role in improving and enriching our lives, how we interact and the world around us,” says TWIG Collaborative’s Sirena Varma. “Our problems arise from the political situation, which has caused so many young and talented people to leave Lebanon. ‘Brain drain’ is an unfortunate phenomenon here, which is why The Olive Grove encouraging and guiding young entrepreneurs is so important,” she continues.

“There are amazing initiatives popping up everywhere despite the barriers of the city, it’s extremely motivating,” says Maya Moumne of graphic design studio Studio Safar. They launched a journal two years ago, “inspired by Mohieddine El Labbad’s series of publications, Nazar, which is Arabic for ‘vision’. Dubbed the ‘Egyptian Milton Glaser’, El Labbad’s Nazar observed and critiqued the visual culture and graphic design in the Arab world from the 1980s onwards.” It was one of few publications to focus on design in the region, and in Journal Safar they are continuing the legacy, publishing bilingual stories on graphic design, food, film, art, comics and poetry.

As is the case in most cities, there is a balance of people working freelance, in collectives or at larger studios and agencies. Beirut is fast-paced, the creative scene thriving against the odds. “It’s still nascent,” says illustrator and designer Cynthia Merhej”. “But it’s becoming more diverse. When people come back [after studying abroad] they want to do something that is going to make a change. We are more flexible [than older generations], you kind of have to be. I work as a photographer, illustrator, DJ, and now as a fashion designer. I used to also be a graphic designer. You have to diversify, nowadays you are just expected to know more”.

Working collaboratively, in groups such as Samandal Comics, a non-profit releasing magazines and comics anthologies, which was founded in 2007, can also motivate broader impact. “Samandal Comics draws attention to authors in Lebanon and the Arab world. We have gained notoriety and inspired similar initiatives in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia,” says Joseph Kai. Late last year they were found guilty of inciting sectarian strife, denigrating religion, publishing false news, defamation and slander with a fine of the equivalent of close to £15,000. The case had been opened in 2008 after the minister of information had taken a disliking to panels in two satirical comics, which he then took out of context. On the Samandal Comics website a statement describes how “the court fell back on the vagaries of an elastic censorship law and a cohort of complacent public servants to criminalise and punish us, in the process committing several legal violations to wit.”

Beirutis defy being defined by trauma, understanding how to tackle day-to-day challenges with flexibility and adaptability. Electricity and water supplies are regularly shut off – sometimes for months; post must be sent via airmail or private couriers due to a lack of infrastructure and volatile neighbours; and in last year’s garbage crisis, refuse wasn’t collected for more than eight months after the closure of a waste dump south of the city.

Sarah Hermez, a Lebanese-American fashion designer who launched Beirut’s non-profit fashion school The Creative Space, says: “Lebanon is a pretty politically unstable country. We lack basic government services and have not had a president in place for over two years, let alone being in between Syria and Palestine, two extremely volatile places. The political gridlock and the greater humanitarian strife around us causes a lot of dissatisfaction and unrest. This, juxtaposed with our very pleasant Mediterranean environment, causes a strange tension which manifests in much of the creative work that comes out of the country.”

Unlike most cities with warmer climes, life stirs up in the summer as much of the diaspora return. “In spite of high temperatures and humidity, people keep working, running and sweating… The messiness of the city makes us want to escape but somehow we can’t seem to live anywhere else,” says art director Tala Safié”. “It’s a peculiar city. When you are away from it, it’s all you talk about. It’s alive, the food is great, the weather is perfect and it’s so small you can ski and swim in the same day. When you’re there, all you do is complain about how chaotic, loud and suffocating it is. You’re stuck in this never-ending love-hate loop – wanting to be there and wanting to leave, wanting to nurture it and turn your back on it,” says Ayla Hibri.

For writer Gilles Khoury”, it’s possible to find the positive among the chaos. “I talk about frustration with a filter of sarcasm; sadness with an aftertaste of hope, that’s how I function. In a way, political life in Lebanon can become a weapon rather than an enemy.”
Stylist Makram Bitar” adds: “I feel scattered when it comes to describing the creative scene in Beirut. There is a certain dynamism and optimism that I appreciate in people, it requires so much courage and energy to make things happen in the turmoil of a city like Beirut.”

An issue that is mirrored the world over is the lack of diversity within the arts, Sarah Hermez from The Creative Space says: “I think in order for design to be an effective tool for progress in society it needs to be inclusive. We can’t let only a select few design the world around us.” But progress is being made via the collective work-spaces and the free school, as well as new museums and galleries opening, supporting and exhibiting both contemporary and historic work. Online publications such as Raghunter also contribute: “We experience, and offer a lot of support to people around us. Especially with emerging talent, the scene is pretty open… We appreciate each other’s work, and having that type of support really helps to expand business reach and dynamism”, says editor Serene Abbas.

Beirut Madinati is a volunteer-led campaign, which in May of this year won an unprecedented 40% of the municipality vote. The campaign goal was to elect a council of non-partisan experts in the fields of urban planning, economics and waste management, who would address core problems of liveability in the city, as well as broader issues of transparency and social justice.

Graphic designers and illustrators Jana Traboulsi, Maya Saikali, Sana Asseh and Tala Safié were some of the local creatives to work on the campaign, of which Tala says: “Creative work can always be employed as an effective political tool, whether in a subtle or loud voice. The trick I think is to challenge and engage the audience, favouring active, critical readings rather than passive reception.”

Cynthia Merhej, who returned to Beirut to start a clothing line, studied at Central Saint Martins and the Royal College of Art. When she graduated in 2013 “it was ‘immigrants out’ – with the new government situation I had to leave immediately. My visa didn’t even last passed the graduation ceremony. I had to leave the country and come back on a tourist visa to be able to pack my stuff and leave. I didn’t want to come back yet so I went to New Zealand but ultimately, it didn’t work out. When I came back to Lebanon I realised opening my own business is more feasible here. There’s a good support network, people are encouraging, they like something new happening.”

But there are still social rules and expectations in Beirut, and as photographer Tanya Traboulsi describes they “stem from traditions that date back decades if not more. Some are beautiful, some are discriminating and outdated. But the period of abiding to expectations is slowly changing into more independent mindsets and ways of living.” Generations crystallise in hindsight, and in Beirut “everything somehow keeps moving” as Cynthia Merhej says. “Okay it’s not super-easy, it’s the kind of place where people just to try to find a way around things, they’re not just going to stop living because there’s no water or tourists aren’t coming anymore. You just try to be creative about it.”

All text originally published by itsnicethat.com. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

Elizabeth Friedlander: A Legacy of Letters

On her commission from the then Frankfurt-based Bauer Type Foundry in 1927, Elizabeth Friedlander became one of the first women to design a typeface, and particularly one of such exhaustive variation. Completed in a variety of point sizes in roman letter and cursive, and detailed in bold and swash characters, it took until 1939 for Elizabeth-Antigua and Elizabeth-Kursiv to be cut – six years after Friedlander had been forced to leave Germany.

Elizabeth Friedlander, Prisma
On her commission from the then Frankfurt-based Bauer Type Foundry in 1927, Elizabeth Friedlander became one of the first women to design a typeface, and particularly one of such exhaustive variation. Completed in a variety of point sizes in roman letter and cursive, and detailed in bold and swash characters, it took until 1939 for Elizabeth-Antigua and Elizabeth-Kursiv to be cut – six years after Friedlander had been forced to leave Germany.

Friedlander’s life was one of near-constant shifts, both geographic and in her professional life; born in Berlin, she lived in Milan, went through a lengthy, unfulfilled process of trying for an American visa, lived in London and finally in Kinsale, Ireland. She worked across a range of contexts, from packaging, printmaking and patterns, to calligraphy, clandestine publishing and correspondence. She mixed with the likes of Noël Coward, Jan Tschichold and the Toscanini’s and was equally adept at designing book covers for Mills & Boon as she was at making black propaganda at the department for psychological warfare and forgery techniques as Britain’s Political Warfare Executive.

Born in 1903 to a Jewish family, Friedlander had studied under influential typographer Emil Rudolph Weiss at the Academy of Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, and it was Weiss who introduced her to Georg Hartmann, who ran the Bauer Type Foundry. On graduating, she worked as a designer and calligrapher at Die Dame – Germany’s first illustrated lifestyle magazine for women – and until 1935, been regarded as one of Germany’s pre-eminent graphic designers.

The Reichstag’s passing of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, established a legal framework for the persecution of German Jews. On being informed that she was deemed as “lacking the necessary reliability and fitness to participate in the creation and dissemination of German cultural values”, and forbidden from continuing her profession, Friedlander left Berlin. From here, she moved briefly to Milan, applied for a visa to the USA, and in 1939, moved – at the time, temporarily – to London. It was here that she met Francis Meynell – a poet, printer and editor working at the advertising agency Mather and Crowther – who’d edited the Penrose Annual, a review of graphic arts, in which there was a piece on the Elizabeth typeface.

Meynell would go on to be a great advocate for Friedlander and her practice; and Katharine Meynell, Francis’ granddaughter, has taken on that legacy in an exhibition of Friedlander’s work at the Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft. Elizabeth Friedlander is the first show to focus on the designer’s practice, and, fittingly, it stems from a series of chance events, as Katharine Meynell recalls: “I came across an anthology of poetry that Elizabeth had compiled for Francis’ birthday. It was written out in her calligraphic hand but only initialled E. F. so at the time I had no way of identifying it. She had included lots of Meynell poetry, presumably to flatter Francis, by having his work next to Shakespeare’s.”

“Some years later, I was at the St. Bride’s Library researching another project, and the librarian happened to hand me a book that referenced the anthology – Pauline Paucker’s New Borders: The Working Life of Elizabeth Friedlander.” It’s from here that K. Meynell began her research into Friedlander’s life, initially for her film Elizabeth – on display at the show – and then towards the exhibition. “[Friedlander’s] story runs parallel to things that are necessary to think about again”, she says. “I’m interested in thinking about where people end up, and what becomes meaningful when you having to be constantly moving.”

In the period that Friedlander was working, although Europe had been wrecked by WW2 – literally, figuratively and economically, it was still more commonplace for every household to own, and be engaged with, “good” design. A sort-of leftover from pre-war ideals and orthodoxy: “People had very clear ideas on design, and were all writing didactic texts on what was good and what wasn’t. They were terribly certain about it and convinced that they were writing from a neutral, objective position, in a way that seems odd today.” While the impact was non-hierarchical, the certainty of opinion, and paradoxically of objectivity, kept an inferred hierarchy firmly in place. 
“It wasn’t a star system at that time, but there were big personalities,” says K. Meynell, and a factor that impacted Friedlander’s practice, which was very much outside of the merits of her work, was the fact she was considered “unclubable”. “She didn’t fit to the British class hierarchy, and people couldn’t make sense of her. She didn’t behave right or look right, or do right; and Francis would have been completely cool about all of that, because that was the way he was, too.”

Although there is little information available about her personal life, Friedlander catalogued and maintained her work with precision: “She clearly understood the value of her work, but there was a different idea of what the role of the designer might be. Stanley Morison – a typographer and advisor to the British Monotype Corporation – wrote on how individualism was unhelpful in design. He thought that as a printer or designer you ought to be serving the community, making things legible and elegant. Your job was to do the work, rather than announce yourself in front of it.” This was very much the way Friedlander worked, and although her practice hasn’t been widely recognised by the contemporary design ‘canon’, the Elizabeth typeface has been an ongoing critical and commercial success and her work in publishing – particularly that with Penguin – has remained popular, both in itself and via imitation. “Is it self-effacement or is that your position, which you are happy with because you know you’re doing a good job?” considers K. Meynell. And although the thinking – on designers and their position and purpose – was flawed, as it is in every era, there is still room for nostalgia: “There was a sense of the collective, which feels horribly absent at the moment.”

On her arrival in London — on a Domestic Service visa afforded to her by the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who were helping people flee persecution — perhaps coaxed by the aforementioned Penrose Annual Review, Friedlander knocked on F. Meynell’s door at advertising agency Mather and Crowther, to discuss finding work as a designer. She had arrived from Milan, where she’d worked for the publishers Mondadori and Editoriale Domus, as well as with the Toscanini family. The exhibition includes various commissions from Walter, the son of the conductor Arturo Toscanini – record sleeves and labels, and letters: “There’s a fabulous letter from Walter Toscanini, a political diatribe. He felt that the King of Italy had let them all down, Churchill had let them down, everyone… Italy had become Fascist where it could have been prevented. There are several letters of his, there’s another about the beginnings of a European Union Post-War, which was really interesting”, recalls K. Meynell.

While in Milan, and with the help of the Toscanini family, she had made her first of many applications for a visa to the USA, having been offered a job by the Bauer Type Foundry who had opened a New York office. Before she could secure a visa – although she had received recommendations from Toscanini, Random House and Nöel Coward – in 1939, Italy passed fascist laws under Mussolini, and Friedlander was again forced to leave.

“The Toscanini’s were trying to help various people move to the USA. There were lots of people trying to help Friedlander get there – particularly them, but also Nöel Coward and Bauer Type had offered her work at their New York office – but immigration laws meant it wasn’t possible” says K. Meynell. “We construct the legality of individuals and it’s absolutely bonkers. Somebody being illegal is a social construction that we are complicit in.”
Back in London, Meynell had introduced Friedlander to Ellic Howe – an author writing on occultism and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who at the time worked for Britain’s Political Warfare Executive at Bush House, on psychological warfare and forgery techniques. He employed Friedlander as head of design and put her in charge of designing and disseminating black propaganda. She’d previously shown her political motivations making literacy books and newspapers for Italian and German prisoners of war; and in her new position, she forged Wehrmacht and Nazi stamps, ration books and other false documents for the political intelligence department.

As the war ended, and her position in the UK became more secure, Meynell continued to advocate for her and paved the way for work in both advertising and publishing, with the likes of Penguin, Mills & Boon, Linotype and Monotype. At Penguin, Friedlander worked with Jan Tschichold – who wrote the Penguin Composition Rules as head of typography and production at the publishing house. There she worked on book covers, and was responsible for a lot of their output post-war, while elsewhere she produced borders, maps and drawings for cosmetics labels: “She turned her attention to working on end and cover-papers, book ornaments and greetings cards; and applied the same technical approach she had employed in her typography, to patterns and forms, as well as in her advertising work”, says K. Meynell. “There’s an extraordinary drawing for the mechanism of a lipstick, which employs technical precision in a way that is just bonkers when you look at it. There were also tubes for hand cream, for which she was specifying the milling on the lids, as well as the labels and colour ways – all pastel shades that resemble flavours of ice cream.”

One of her ongoing jobs was the inscriptions for the Roll of Honour at Sandhurst, of the names of Commonwealth officers who had been killed during WW2: “It was virtually unheard of for someone not enrolled in military service to be allowed in, but she wrote every name in her calligraphic hand – and seemed to be good friends with her employers there.”

In the early 1960s, Friedlander moved to County Cork, Ireland, following her friend Alessandro Magri MacMahon, or Sandro – an Irish/Italian author, classics professor and fishing expert – who had also been working in the intelligence services at Bush House: “He had been driven out of Italy because of his anti-fascist activities, and then after being in London, working in intelligence and taking some work as a professor, he moved to Kinsale.” There he worked with the Irish Shark Club, and Friedlander continued to commute to London to work with the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst while designing letterforms for the Shark Club, and other local affairs.

Friedlander died in 1984. There was little in the way of personal accords, but her professional archive went to friends in County Cork, and later to University College Cork, where it resides today. One item, a violin made in 1703, which had belonged to her mother, had travelled with her from Berlin to Milan, to London, to Kinsale, and now to Cork. It was one of the few personal items Friedlander kept when she fled Berlin, and it’s now loaned out each year to outstanding students at the Cork School of Music. The violin is on display in the exhibition, among an array of musical scores with cover designs by Friedlander. Each cover is made up of a pattern that conveys the shifting times – from repeat forms of traditional, strict, detailed line work; to abstract, loose waves; modernist jiggle marks and playful squiggles. What ties the series together is that, however hard to read, they each maintain continual cycles and loops, much like history.

All text originally published by It’s Nice That. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.