Disegno

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

An eye for the uncanny: Viviane Sassen on her concurrent exhibition with Lee Miller

Lee Miller and Viviane Sassen’s work, intentions and verve crossover in ways that may be unexpected considering the close to a century’s gap between their births. Both started out as models: for Sassen, her shift to photography was initially driven by a desire to show a kind of sexuality that was different from that created by the male gaze, “one that’s more fractured and disjointed”

Viviane Sassen, Ra
Lee Miller and Viviane Sassen’s work, intentions and verve crossover in ways that may be unexpected considering the close to a century’s gap between their births. Both started out as models: for Sassen, her shift to photography was initially driven by a desire to show a kind of sexuality that was different from that created by the male gaze, “one that’s more fractured and disjointed”; for Miller, it was frustration with the passivity of life in front of the lens. In a manuscript from the archive found and maintained by her son, Antony Penrose, she’s reported by The Guardian as having written: “I looked like an angel, but I was a fiend inside”. For both women, the move from simply being seen, to being the authors of their own image, was soon recast as an opportunity to convey their ideas and experiences, and to show the distortions inherent to subjectivity. In concurrent shows at the Hepworth Wakefield – Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain and Hot Mirror – Miller and Sassen’s affinity with the surreal will take centre stage.


Having played model and muse for a number of Surrealists, Lee Miller went on to become an accomplished artist in her own right, and alongside her art practice, she set up a portrait studio in New York and was instrumental in the invention of “solarisation” – a technique that involves the reversal of tone in photographic prints, creating a silvery aura. As a London correspondent for Condé Nast, she worked first as a fashion photographer before moving on to war reportage. Her eye for the uncanny continued to influence her practice – framing photographs of bomb-sites in ways that distorted their form and challenged perceptions of scale and tone – until the playfulness that defined the Surrealist approach no longer seemed appropriate, with the impact of WW2 unravelling as she followed the German retreat through Europe.


Like Miller, Viviane Sassen splits her time between commercial and fine art practice – working in advertising and editorial, as well as making books, installations and works for exhibition – and while there are various points where the nature of these contexts diverge, Sassen considers each element as part of one whole. “They feed off each other, it’s still my brain and eyes making all the connections. Fashion photography allows me to experiment in a more frivolous way, and I love the playfulness and energy of the collaborations” she says. “In my personal work, it’s really exactly that – it’s personal and introverted. I’m interested in material, texture and tactility. I’ve always been drawn to sculpture and painting, and photography – being a medium with such smooth surfaces – makes me particularly obsessed with texture!”

In Hot Mirror, Sassen presents work from the last ten years, alongside and mixed up with new photographs, collages and installations in a series of what she describes as “image poems”. Drawing upon Surrealist strategies of cut-ups and montage, the “image poems” offer new and unexpected juxtapositions between locations, ideas and forms; foregrounding the fragments, shadows and magical thinking that defines Sassen’s practice. “I realised that rather than making a chronological or historical overview, it would be much more interesting to mix the works, so new narratives and connections appeared” she said. “I’ve always been interested in how the meaning of an image can change, sometimes quite drastically, when you change its context. In that sense, I see these images as single words; together they can create new sentences, based on how you combine and order them. The meaning of an image is never fixed, it has a fluidity I like to play with.”

Of showing beside Miller, she says: “We both have an eye for the uncanny, the slightly off, a fascination with shadows, a darker side – and with a pinch of humour. The Hepworth Wakefield asked me to do a show next to Lee Miller, as a contemporary counterbalance to her work; as the exhibition of her work focuses on the Surrealist period, we agreed that it’d be interesting to look at the same elements in my work. Like them, I’m very much involved with the idea of the subconscious, the dream world, magical thinking.”

In Lee Miller and Surrealism in Britain, the first exhibition to explore Miller’s involvement with surrealist circles in Britain, the story of the period is told through her lens, focusing on both her work and that of the artists she knew. Featuring works by Eileen Agar, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Henry Moore; the exhibition considers Miller’s role in gathering the community of artists together, many of whom were forced to leave continental Europe due to the tensions and trauma of WW2. Miller’s husband, the artist Roland Penrose, had put together an organising committee for the first International Surrealism exhibition in London in 1936, and an exhibition in Cornwall in 1937, which showed Miller’s work – and works featuring her – alongside that of her contemporaries. After the war, Miller and Penrose moved from London to East Sussex, where they hosted many of the artists they’d worked and shown with at their home, Farley Farm House. They’d hold elaborate dinners – according to a New York Times piece from 2007, Miller would make “historical food like roast suckling pig and Surrealist fare like marshmallows in Coca-Cola sauce” – and photograph their visitors during walks on the South Downs including, most famously, the photograph Miller took of Henry Moore clinging to his sculpture, Mother and Child, in her garden at Farley’s.

It was also during this period that Miller would shut away her archives – her art practice and her work as a fashion and war photographer – which her son Antony Penrose only found after she died in 1977. According to Penrose, as reported by Janine di Giovanni in The New York Times, her experience during the war had left her traumatised: “How could he not have known [about her life as an artist and photographer]? ‘When Lee closed something, she closed it,’ he said firmly. “I knew she was handy with a camera when I was little – but that was about it. She never talked about the war.”

A surreal approach can be a way to escape from, challenge or play with reality, or a way to return to a heightened, magical view of life, a more child-like perspective. Viviane Sassen is very much of this view, seeing mystery, atmosphere and memory as her focus rather than prioritising absolute clarity of context, position or form. “I’m not interested in making statements, I usually don’t believe in them” she says. “I’m much more interested in confusion, the unknown. I think that doubt is underrated.” She describes her intention as wanting a “round” image, “I want to leave out distractions and simplify my images, so viewers can’t really grasp or relate to the situation. They’re lost, in a sense, which I like. For me, it’s a way to make these works less about a specific subject and more about a feeling, a broader message, which allows them to behave more like archetypes.”

The aim for doubt, to disrupt the clarity of time and place is anti-ethical to the principles, or rather purpose, of fashion photography, and in some ways most applications of photography, which has so much to do with the specifics of time. In Sassen’s view, “photography is a magical thing”: “It somehow connects the real and the unreal, the past and the present. It’s like a magical portal into a parallel universe. Working with photography makes me into a little bit of a magician, which I love.” And while Sassen works more within the recording and conjuring of feeling, Miller was very much focused on recording life as it happened, on the real, even when framing it in the uncanny. Having originally worked as a fashion photographer, with the outbreak of WW2 she shifted to reportage. Perhaps her most famous image from the period, Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub, taken in 1945, exemplifies her approach. There’s little room for confusion in the composition or intention, with Miller both nonchalant and defiant, curled up in the bath; her boots dirty with mud from Dachau soiling the bathmat. She’d been one of the first to arrive at Hitler’s secret apartments after it had come under US control, and would later recall the moment with something close to disregard for the strength of her response. In Janine de Giovanni’s aforementioned New York Times piece, she quotes an interview Miller did with celebrity radio interviewer Ona Munson, where she spoke about the photograph: “‘Naturally I took pictures’ [said Miller] in her deep movie-star voice. ‘What’s a girl supposed to do when a battle lands in her lap?’”


Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bath features in the Hepworth exhibition, and while it’s an example of her practice that sits outside of the Surrealist tradition, it’s haunting and strange, in a way that only reality can be. It’s intimate and detached, private and public, both calm and full of rage.


On the complexity of navigating the personal and public, or political, in photography, particularly in the context of art practice, Sassen says: “While I’m in the act of photographing, I never really think of the public; it’s usually a very intimate process. Once a photograph goes out into the world, gets exhibited, published, put online, it is out of my hands. It starts to lead its own life and I don’t have control over it anymore.” She continues, “It can easily be pulled out of its original context and become something else, sometimes even the complete opposite of what my intentions were. It’s rather useless to try to control that, since the viewer will project their own subjective thoughts and feelings on it – suddenly these images become mirrors, reflecting our own image. We’re all pre-conditioned by our personal history; photography as a medium is especially prone to this.”

In the same way that an audience is pre-conditioned by their personal histories, so is the photographer, or artist. Sassen readily admits that “most artists make self-portraits”: “In some instances it’s more obvious than others. In my work, all the themes are personal in one way or another. That’s the red line that runs through it. It’s only natural for me to make use of my memories, mix them up, revisit old ones, and put them in a new light. But then, I do like the idea of witchcraft.” Drawing upon her personal history – and recasting it in a way that’s focused more on magic and atmosphere than accuracy and clarity – allows for Sassen’s work to be accessible in a way that it may not be if it were more straightforwardly autobiographical.

Born in Holland, Sassen spent three years of her childhood in a village in the west of Kenya, and often returns to the memories of her time there. Although a brief period, it seems to be one that had a profound impact on her. In various photographic series’ and books, she draws upon her personal experience with almost child-like naivety. Although not interested in reconstructing her childhood specifically, she says: “I rather seek ways to allow the subconscious to flow, to reach a kind of child-like view on the world around me; a vision of wonder and freedom, unbiased by our preconceived ideas and prejudice, etc.”

As a medium, photography is intrinsically linked to political, colonial and historical baggage, a form for “othering” and exoticism; and Sassen’s work sits in an interesting, complex position – her experience of living in Kenya can’t be denied, and it’s a memory she certainly has ownership of, but it’s also a very specific one. A brief moment, which coincided with – as she acknowledges – a time when her vision was “of wonder and freedom”. It’s, in many ways, a positive outlook, but also one that lacks complexity, in a way that child-like expression often does. But on the other hand, that’s also part of what makes Sassen’s work so engaging – it’s challenging in its compositions, it’s full of contradictions, and doesn’t define clear positions formally or thematically. In certain instances, the abstract forms, vivid colours and energy of her photographs combine to make them appear as if they could be blurred visions speeding past in your peripheral vision. Sassen’s work makes you doubt yourself, and your assumptions about what you think you know and understand.

All text originally published by It’s Nice That. 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.

It’s Nice That

M/M (Paris) and the ongoing conversations that define its practice

On a rainy Paris morning, I met with Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the namesakes of renowned agency M/M (Paris), at their studio in the 10th, beside Canal Saint-Martin.

TV 70, photographed by Alessandro Furchino Capria
On a rainy Paris morning, I met with Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, the namesakes of renowned agency M/M (Paris), at their studio in the 10th, beside Canal Saint-Martin. Greeted by Michael’s Siberian Husky called Indy, we settled at the table of their meeting room, adjacent to the studio, where individual workspaces line two walls, a long, communal table forms the main drag, and skylights, dappled with raindrops, illuminate the room.


Since its founding in 1992, M/M (Paris) has collaborated with the likes of Björk, including the book Björk: Archives, which accompanied the 2015 exhibition at MoMA; JW Anderson, embroidering crochet pieces on a canvas printed with a vintage photograph, which evokes a smartphone home screen, for his FW17 campaign; and have often collaborated with artists Pierre Huyghe, Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin, and Philippe Parreno. More recently, M/M (Paris) worked with Acne Studios on their campaign featuring Kordale and Kaleb and their four children, the first black LGBTQI family to star in a major fashion campaign.


As Mathias unravelled his fountain pen from its leather case, and began sketching the conversation, I asked about their collaboration with Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli, on his project and exhibition TV 70: Francesco Vezzoli guarda la Rai, at the Fondazione Prada, Milan: “We met Francesco a long time ago, but it was more a kind of social meeting, we navigated in the same world.” And Matthias and Michael are known for their ability to expertly navigate a variety of contexts, “We are operating at the crossover of many different media in our work, because of the nature of what we do.


“We are trained as graphic designers and our main interests are the building of images, signs, or alphabets, which can circulate very fast”, says Mathias. “We’ve always worked between different worlds – the world of art, the world of fashion, the world of music – and what makes those circulations possible is the media. And Francesco, in his work, is always obsessed with the media. For him, it’s a raw material, like stone or painting, it’s the core of his work.”


Vezzoli’s practice explores the power of contemporary popular culture, the power of fact and fiction in relation to our understanding of both ancient and contemporary history, and meta-collaborations that criss-cross between varieties of contexts and periods. He has worked in collage, installations, painting, printmaking and film. One particular project, Greed, was a social sculpture, an advert for an imaginary perfume that starred Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams, and was directed by Roman Polanski, with costumes designed by Miuccia Prada. It culminated in a star-studded launch at Rome’s Gagosian gallery in 2009, inspired by Italy’s radical Arte Povera movement of the 1960s, in which artists created ephemeral works that challenged the corporate status quo.


“Each time we saw each other we’d say ‘Hi,’ and then eventually, maybe two years ago, he phoned us: ‘I have a very dear project I would like to share with you, I can’t tell you on the phone what it is, but it is something I would love to tackle with you’”, Mathias recalls. “So we went to Milan, and we had a very exciting discussion over lunch. He presented us with this project he had in mind, an exhibition about Italian television, in the period when it was dedicated to culture, and by extension to politics, music and art. It was vibrant and vivid – where Italian thinkers, artists or politicians would express themselves. Francesco said: ‘I know you’re interested in signs and images,’ and furthermore, we were interested because television had a similar approach in France at that time [between 1968 and 1982]. It truly belonged to the state, and it was a way to engage in conversation with the public.”


Mathias continues: “The project was also interesting to us because of the Fondazione Prada. It recalls the freedom of approach that Centre Georges Pompidou had when it opened in 1977. It was more than just an art centre, a display place for pieces to become valuable. It was more than just entertaining the mass, it was truly a factory of ideas. A place where people could meet, share ideas, and then build the world.


“For instance, in early discussions we were recalling [the 1985 exhibition] Les Immatériaux, curated by philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, which was an example for our generation.” The exhibition re-cast Emmanuel Kant’s definition of aesthetics, which had characterised the preoccupations of art history since the 19th Century, and formed ‘a presentation of ideas,’ and a re-working of what exhibitions could be in the so-called postmodern moment. “It was a model of what an exhibition could be beyond the fact that it’s just a retrospective. [The exhibition is] the work, the space of the exhibition is the art in itself.”


The exhibition, a collaboration primarily between Vezzoli and Rai, Italy’s national broadcasting company, explores 1970s TV production, and conveys its influence as a driving force for social and political change. And as Mathias confirmed: “Francesco is an amazing historian, he knows Italian television by heart, he’s an expert. And beyond that, he sees things by association, and he can produce more meaning.”


Set across the grounds of the Fondazione Prada – a complex of buildings, which are contrasting in style, and each designed or adorned by architect Rem Koolhaas’ studio OMA – TV 70 opens in black and white, and slowly moves to Technicolour, through grey scale and shocking bursts of red, in both the programmes on show, and M/M’s exhibition design.


“Vezzoli was brilliant in the way that he applied us and our practice as sign-makers at the scale of the space – which has been an obsession of ours since we started working together,” Mathias remarks. “We thought: ‘OK, there is an alphabet that can be printed and displayed on the page,’ but we are now living in the 21st Century, you can go further than signage systems or way-finding. We have passed the forest of signs and symbols of the 19th Century, we can deliver meaning, feeling and sensation, with spatial design.”


Elaborating on their intention, he says: “You can encourage the viewer to be lost, recoup them and then re-project them in another space. This is where, because all the material we had to deal with [in TV 70] was completely immaterial, we had to give it a materiality.


“We applied the creative strategy that we have applied many times, where we say: ‘OK, let’s build a set of signs.’ Those signs could be produced in an alphabet for sure, and write the title of the show, but they are also designed in a way that they can be piled on top of each other, on a vertical or horizontal axis. With those signs you can build a space, one that is equal to, or enhances the television material displayed in the show.”


The letterforms are oversized and abstracted, and while they remain readable in form, due to their settings and monumental scale, they take on secondary roles: to be reminiscent of grandiose church architecture, nightclubs, or fittingly, TV sets. As a spectator, it almost feels like you’ve been shrunk back to child-scale, when your surroundings overwhelm, enthral and consume you. You’re invited to clamber onto and over the scattered letterforms, to be at the centre of the show, and outside of any reliable sense of time or space.


“Our aim was that entering the exhibition would be like entering a TV programme, and furthermore, like you are entering a portal, or a programme in it’s truest sense” says Mathias. “Time is the true material of the exhibition, we could compress it or elongate it, take the viewer from A to B, and then into another time zone through C, D and E. The spaces go from daylight to darkness, and the spectator feels like they are part of the exhibition, interacting, and not just by pressing a button. There is the quality of strolling through a garden, where they feel with nature, but everything is well-sequenced and designed, you feel like there is something going through you,” says Mathias.


“Another important ingredient is the use of art, and it is not an art show, rather, the art pieces were used as signage systems somehow. We reverted the hierarchy, so instead of having a graphic system that allows you to view art, the graphic system creates a space where art accommodates, or helps the viewer to watch television footage, providing time markers or a signage system” says Mathias. “We shifted the paradigm to create a work that is a complete cosmogony, of many different voices. It’s almost a cliché to say, but it’s like a polyphony.”


The exhibition covers the best part of Fondazione Prada’s vast grounds, splitting each room and stand-alone building thematically, and, by and large, chronologically. In gallery Nord, which represents the “professoral” period of Italian public service television, M/M (Paris)’s exhibition design is shaped entirely in black and white, with towering letterforms lining each wall. Mathias describes it as being: “Like a church, or a 1930s fascist building, where the weight of knowledge is impressed upon you”. He continues: “That had been the principle of television, when you had a lot of interviews with men talking to men, very ‘professoral,’ with big icons of Italian art.”


From here, the exhibition moves through a variety of spaces; in its physicality, as well as intellectually, periodically, thematically and emotionally. First is a long, dark, claustrophobic corridor that presents that present periods of trauma and socio-political turmoil, such as Italy’s ‘Years of Lead,’ which, spatially, behave “like a sting”; and second, a facsimile of a Milan gallery, which plants you in a readymade that reflects the familiar model of exhibitions for the period in question. The next space, Podium, shows the work of artist Carla Accardi, alongside TV clips about the feminist and civil rights movement in 1970s Italy. “The space, and deploying art within a system, was very much part of Accardi’s work. She was building a world to express an ideology. Her work is shown in relation to TV programmes about women’s lives, where they expressed their doubts, certainties and questions regarding their position in Italian society.”


It’s the first room of the exhibition to appear in vivid colour, covered floor to ceiling in red velvet. “The red curtain represents theatre and entertainment, and of course, it’s like a womb, where we all come from. The typographic elements of furniture are flattened out, designed to be like a landscape, or being in the mouth of a giant. The final part of the exhibition, the Sud gallery, was designed to be in between a nightclub and a house”, says Mathias. “It’s a series of spaces that are kind of plugged into each other. The scale is reduced to a more domestic one, and it stays public because it’s like a nightclub – not a discotheque. It’s in between night and day, and deals with the intimacy of the woman, men and women, it’s multiracial and gender fluid. For the time, the images were very daring.” The letterforms that form the structure and furniture of the space are patterned in the style of the holding screen for when programming would cease overnight. “Very crude, RGB colours, because that’s how electronic television worked, it would be dealing with the activation of those three colours. The grid was designed to align the electrons, not because it was cool,” recalls Mathias.


“We added the crosswords, which weren’t supposed to be there. And why? There were crossword magazines produced in the same period, which were a way of dealing with culture” Mathias remarks. “Crosswords were also the first game to be analysed by a writer or artist, where you have very simple rules. It’s a way of compressing time, of putting your intellect into a grid, and finding a solution. Crosswords are caught between knowledge and entertainment, and that’s the friction, that’s what television invented somehow.”


“We are extracting something from the past, and plugging it in to our carefully designed world, with a retro-future effect. It’s a principle that can be used in a book, where you go from full colour to black and white, to colour again. A movie, where you cut between scenes. Or a television, which cuts between programmes”, says Mathias. “It leads the viewer from one programme to another, and conceptually, they aren’t just in the position of a consumer, as they are today. You could watch TV from 10am ‘til 12pm, and feel enhanced, like you had learnt something.”


The book Televisione 70, which accompanies TV 70, embodies a similar approach to the aforementioned crossword puzzle, splicing knowledge and entertainment in its structure, texts and visual contents. A compendium of voices and perspectives – much like the exhibition and it’s contributing authors – there are texts by Vezzoli, M/M (Paris), and curator Cristiana Perrella; as well as essays by Nicolas Bourriaud, Umberto Eco and Marco Senaldi, among others. Likewise, the design of the book criss-crosses in its references, between French literary anthologies and Betamax. “We wanted the book to be a book,” says Mathias. “The exhibition was referring very much to the history of exhibitions, and in this context it was important for us that the television material remained immaterial, that you couldn’t really nail down the scale of the image. It was important that it stayed where it was supposed to stay, within the collective memory of the people. That was the beauty of television from this period, it was for the collective, it was free and it was very generous, and it was important that we maintained that. That’s why, rewinding to the book, it was important that the book be a true book. Although it criss-crosses between high and low culture, it has a book format, and it stays a book. A book that tells the story of television, or a book that tells the story of an exhibition that tells the story of television, with the tricks and tools one would deploy in a very classical book.”


The design draws upon reference anthologies, such as Bibliotheque de la Pléiade – a series of books first established in 1931 by Jacques Schiffrin as a way of providing the French public with complete, pocket editions of the work of classic authors – and it is based on the pocket format. “When you open the book, it falls into cinemascope, and if you turn it, the book becomes square, like a TV screen. The weight of it, and the sleeve, is almost like a Betamax. It was important that the book would proceed in the way that we would proceed through the space. It invites the same mix of voices, attracting many sources and conglomerating them together – and this artistic or intellectual approach, this strategy, it’s always present in our work.” He continues, “With our work you could say: ‘Oh, it’s beautiful, it’s very well-executed,’ but what we love is when it’s possible to connect a variety of references, influences and voices, which when you’re consuming it, or walking through it, develop a further, unexpected state.”


“We have been saying this since we started, because it was part of our obsession: ‘Our work is an ongoing conversation’. This is our relationship to people we’ve been collaborating with, and I say collaborating because it is a lot more than just working, even if we are working in a hardcore, industrial context. We shift it so it becomes a conversation, or we try to, it is never: ‘We have been told to do this,’or, ‘We are telling you to do that,’” says Mathias. “Some people understood us right away, because they could see a connection, while others, they liked what we were doing, but they didn’t understand that to arrive at that point, there was a necessary process. We’ve tried to work with people who want to escape that process, but it produces something that looks like our work, but without the gravity of it. One of the successes of the exhibition, is that it has truly been a conversation between people of good manner and conscience. Another, is it’s optimism. The exhibition goes beyond objects that can be sold, and rather, focusses on producing a moment. A generous moment, where you can access history and be part of a culture that produced an amazing set of materials. I think this ought to be the mission of a museum, to produce exhibitions that nourish the cultural surroundings.”


Returning to a focus on their own practice, Mathias says: “At the beginning of our career it was more complicated. The process of collaboration wasn’t so obvious, or accepted, in the world of design, it was more obvious in the world of art. What we wanted to do was to operate as artists in the world of design, which wasn’t expecting that approach. We’d say we were artists, but we had shifted our world of action or expertise outside of museum and gallery exhibitions. Our practice was a bit surprising at the beginning.”

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

It’s Nice That

Eduardo Paolozzi: On a Singular Teacher and His Devil-May-Care Philosophy

“It’s the one with the red motorcycle outside” said David Queensberry as he gave directions to his west London home. The former head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art, and trustee of The Paolozzi Foundation had agreed to meet to reminisce on Paolozzi’s time as a tutor at the RCA…

Eduardo Paolozzi maquettes, photographed by Jamie Stoker
“It’s the one with the red motorcycle outside” said David Queensberry as he gave directions to his west London home. The former head of ceramics at the Royal College of Art, and Trustee of The Paolozzi Foundation had agreed to meet to reminisce on Paolozzi’s time as a tutor at the RCA, after we were introduced by Neil Parkinson, the college’s archivist.


His house is dotted with masterworks, from archive Paolozzi sculptures, to maquettes, ceramics and prints that adorn the walls of almost every room; as well as his own ceramics, and a vast collection of antique and contemporary pieces. When we returned to photograph his collection of Paolozzi’s work, there were recently returned pieces from the Whitechapel show, leant against sofa cushions, beside fruit bowls on the dining table and stacked behind a dolls house and pile of books.


As Aristotle the cat splayed himself prominently across an Eames footstool, we sat with cups of tea in Paolozzi mugs, and Queensberry started at the beginning. “It just so happened that Eduardo, who was a rather famous artist by then, was also one of my best friends. So I said to him, ‘What do you think about working for a bit at the college? It’s a nice environment, and you can do your own thing there’. He said yes, so he shipped up and started coming in. He had a glorious presence, some people found him rather difficult, other people, quite magical.”


In 1959, when David Queensberry was appointed head of ceramics at the RCA, the college had been through an overhaul of approach. “Since 1948, when Robert Darwin took over as rector, there was a drive to go back to its roots and be primarily concerned with design,” Queensberry explains. With his appointment came the decision that “this ought to change, the college’s approach to ceramics should be on a wider spectrum. From pre-Ice Age figurative sculpture, to mugs and high technology ceramics; as well as works that didn’t have any umbilical connection with a pot—objects, or artworks.” The design part Queensberry could handle. “I had great experience in the industry, but we were taking on these students who needed something else.” That’s where, and when, Eduardo Paolozzi came in.

“Eduardo wouldn’t give traditional advice. He wouldn’t say ‘Why does the handle on that cup have such a pedestrian angle?’ Instead he’d ask ‘Why do you need a handle on a cup at all? The Japanese don’t.’ He’d bring in portfolios full of the collage material he’d been working with, and hand it out to people. He could be very, very good for certain students, he was like a conjurer, he could pull a rabbit out of a hat.”


Paolozzi would invite students for dinner at the Meridiana, a now long gone Italian restaurant in South Kensington, where “he had given the guy all these sculptures for their terrace, in exchange for unlimited credit at the restaurant. We’d have a huge table, the students would be wined and dined, and sometimes things would go a bit wrong – he had quite a short attention span, and if he got bored with things, he’d leave abruptly.”


A regular guest at the Meridiana, was product designer Robin Levien, a former student and assistant of Paolozzi’s. Levien recalls: “He was one of my tutors, but tutor in an unconventional sense. We didn’t have formal meetings or tutorials, it was more that he was around. There was one occasion where Paolozzi told a student, ‘Come and see me at my studio at Dove House Street tomorrow’, she said ‘Fine, what time should I come?’ And he told her to arrive at 8am, probably quite provocatively to suggest she ought to be up early if she wants to be a serious artist. So she arrives at 8am, presses the buzzer and just as the door opens, three dwarves came out. When she arrived upstairs, nothing was said.”

“I always thought of Eduardo of a bit of an enigma, he’d be giving things away all the time, but it was surprisingly difficult to give him anything,” Levien continues. “It was a way of keeping everybody at a distance—it adds a performative quality to relationships—and it kept him in control” says Levien. “I got to know him reasonably well, because he was interested in my work. He offered to buy some a few weeks before my degree show, and I said: ‘Eduardo, OK, but I’d rather see how things go at the show before saying yes’. And unlike my BA show, I didn’t sell anything—it was all a bit academic, a bit cerebral—so afterwards I asked if he’d still be interested in buying my work, and Eduardo said: ‘No, too late.’ It was a great lesson about not looking a gift-horse in the mouth…”.


After graduating, Levien returned to the RCA to assist David Queensberry, who ran his ceramics business from the college. “I was still around a bit, and so was Eduardo, and on one day I came back from a job interview with Terrence Conran, which David had recommended me for, and was telling Eduardo about it. All he said was: ‘Another one of my failures’, which was really his sense of humour. Eduardo had taught Terrence at the Central, I suppose it was because he had gone into design and not art.”

“Eduardo would be in the interviews, as would some of the students. There was one occasion where, after the interviewee had left, he just remarked: ‘Evening class, not collected.’ It doesn’t get worse than that, does it? He was very sharp, very succinct”, recalls Levien. “He had a wicked streak too. There was one occasion when he bet a girl in my year £100 to streak around the Albert Hall, and that was a lot of money in the 70s. So half the ceramics department went down to the lobby, she took off her coat and ran, and when she came back to the double doors, he wouldn’t open them! He did give her the £100, though.”


That wicked streak ran through to his dealings with the art world, “When he had the Tate exhibition in 1971, which had probably been his biggest show to date, he suddenly became popular on another level”, says Levien. “The story goes that a couple of rich American women came to his studio—and a lot of the things he was doing at the time were tables with objects on top. He would make the works in wax and if someone wanted to buy one, it would be cast in bronze—and these women were gushing about how fabulous everything was, ‘We love it, it looks so great’ [said in a fittingly exaggeratedly gushy American accent], and then they got around to the price. I don’t remember the exact figures, it might have been something like, ‘it’s £10K’, at which point they said: ‘Oh dear, Eduardo, that’s a little more than we’d really want to spend’. So he took a couple of steps back, went at it, and kicked a lump of wax off the top of the work. ‘OK, that’ll be £8K’, he said. He might as well have just kicked them right up the backside.”

“He never really had a good relationship with an art dealer”, remarks Queensberry, “he was suspicious of them. Of course, it didn’t help him. He was prolific, and varied, there’s no obvious theme, and in a lot of ways, Eduardo’s work is difficult. He stood for something different. His work is alarming, the opposite to decorative”, he says. “A lot of work was left unsigned, and he was always giving it away – no good keeping it in the drawer forever.”


One such instance led to a strange incident involving the exhibition of a series of erotic collages, supposedly attributed to Paolozzi. “Francis Morland, who was a sort-of wannabe artist in the 50s, had latched on to Eduardo”, remembers Queensberry. “He was quite rich—his family ran a business that made sheepskin coats in the West Country—and he built a primitive foundry, in which he made primitive castings. He then went on to get heavily involved with drugs, spending eight years in prison in America when he was apprehended with a massive haul while sailing his yacht.”

“Then about two years ago, a London gallery held an exhibition of Paolozzi’s erotic art. And I, not only I, but a lot of us were pretty bloody sure that he didn’t do it. Not with a view to protecting him, but just on an analytical basis of what we knew he had done. I was Popzi’s best friend, somebody would’ve seen it, something, ‘Just a joke David’, anything. But there was nothing”, remarks Queensberry.

“We then started to analyse the work and were convinced that Francis Morland had done them. We knew that Eduardo had given him a lot of collage material he had used, so Morland would have had a lot of stuff. But the big issue was the signature, Eduardo would often leave his work unsigned. But we got them in the end, the auction houses wouldn’t take them and the gallery had to refund their sales, so we did succeed there.”


Paolozzi had a knack for attracting eclectic groups of people. “He had a way – he was not a social climber at all, people found him rather interesting. He seemed from another world, and he was hugely likeable”, remembers Queensberry. “He was curiously childlike, in a way” says Levien. “Life was entertaining and amusing with Eduardo, he had a fantastic group of people around him, and he’d invite you along to parties. He’d take the role of entertainer, and whether it was all totally genuine or there was an element of bullshit there I don’t know. But I’d forgive him that. You make allowances – never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”


Nicole Fahri met Paolozzi when she was casting her first sculpture work at the RCA’s foundry. “He came around next to me and we started chatting. He invited me to his studio, then he came to see me at home, and little by little, we became very close friends”, she recalls, as we settled down to talk in her studio, which is sheltered among the trees at the far end of her garden.


Fahri had been taking classes with the sculptor Jean Gibson, who taught her how to cast: “She was very much about theory, and when she didn’t like something, if I thought it was not bad, I would bring it home to show Eduardo. By then he was coming for lunch or dinner, and he was very encouraging. Eduardo would teach you to decide for yourself whether your work is good or not. He would say that you are the better judge, and no one could tell you that what you are doing is crap”, she says. “Eduardo taught me how to see, how to concentrate and discover things.”


When Fahri met her husband, the playwright David Hare, she stopped making work for a year: “Eduardo kept saying, ‘Love doesn’t suit your art’, and he decided to come once a week to my studio. He suggested I stop working in clay to get ‘a new buzz’, and I will never forget the day he taught me how to sculpt with wax. He would sit at one end of the table, and I at the other, and for six months we would work. At the end, I went back to clay, which was what he wanted, for me to go back to working.”


It was difficult for Paolozzi to be around people who weren’t excited by life, “Many times, when after dinner had ended he was not enjoying the conversation, he would stand up and say, ‘Who is taking me home?’ He would break the party, that was it. But that was Eduardo, he could be the way he wanted to be, I didn’t care,” Fahri smiles.

“If he really liked you he wouldn’t let you go, but a lot of people who he met throughout his life did not stand the test of time. He would fall in love quickly, and then you had to keep him interested—in what you were doing, or what you were saying—otherwise he would get bored. He couldn’t stand small talk.”

“With me, there were no problems. He’d sit at the end of the table, taking the whole side, so jolly and happy”, Fahri recalls. “When David and I got married, he was my witness. My father had died and he said, ‘I will be your Dad’. He really was like a father, he’d come to my house with his friends and I would cook for him, my home was open to him. We became a big family, because Eduardo was gregarious. He liked people to meet, he always enjoyed big parties and his friends becoming friends.”


Fahri’s home is testament to that, with Paolozzi’s presence felt around every corner. From works lining the walls, to small casts of animals from Noah’s Ark as bookends, and giant feet as doorstops; massive pink ceramic hats sit under side-boards, notes and photographs are slotted into frames and prints are racked up in the downstairs loo and run along the staircase.

“We would celebrate his birthday in our garden. I’d take out all the plaster works that he’d given me, put them out in the garden and we would have a party” says Fahri. “And he was interested in everything, theatre, design, music. The house became like a salon, it was so joyful, a beautiful life. I have a friend who is a flutist, they would play music, and Eduardo would be sat at the end of the table. The king of the party.”


Everything about Paolozzi was larger than life, “He had a big voice and big hands, he’d embrace you and kiss you on the mouth,” Fahri remembers. “Everything about him, his appetite, everything, was charismatic. People who are so open to the world, so giving, of course you are drawn to them. You go towards them, because they open your life, they open your world. It’s a great gift that he had, to be giving all the time. The whole of himself, his knowledge.”

July, 2017

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

AnOthermag

Five Talking Points from Milan’s Annual Furniture Fair

Wisteria climbs and collapses over Milan’s streets in spring, and with the bustle of Salone del Mobile, its terrazzo floors and imposing concrete arches are set aflutter with throngs of design devotees and cherry-red Campari…

Salone, by Mary Gaudin
Wisteria climbs and collapses over Milan’s streets in spring, and with the bustle of Salone del Mobile, its terrazzo floors and imposing concrete arches are set aflutter with throngs of design devotees and cherry-red Campari. Built up around land which had largely been occupied by private gardens and allotments, the city’s palazzos can be quite unassuming from the street – at least in comparison to their opulent interiors and lush gardens which, during Salone, are opened up for exhibition.


Their architecture falls between, and often combines, the styles and practices of the 15th and 20th centuries, due to both the need for restoration and aesthetic whim. One architect who fell on both sides of the restoration process was Piero Portaluppi, who had been particularly popular with the 20th century Milanese bourgeoisie, renovating Casa degli Atellani, Palazzo and Villa Crespi, among others. His most famous work, thanks in part to Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 film I Am Love, is the Villa Necchi Campiglio, which would later be renovated by Tomaso Buzzi, combining Portaluppi’s Rationalism with 18th-century Rococo.


This approach, with its fluctuations and shifts of style and purpose, can be felt across the Salone, where ornament and utility sit both alongside and atop one another, and humour and earnestness in an enthralling to and fro. 


New Ornament


Such contrasting styles can also be seen at the Casa degli Atellani, which played host to Passegginata, an exhibition curated by magazine editor Martina Mondadori Sartogo and hosted by Airbnb. It featured a variety of personal collections from Faye Toogood, Forma Fantasma and Ashley Hicks; of rocks, clay forms and textiles, as well as abstract totems, curiosities and utensils.


Set against the frescoes and grand architecture of Atellani – which once played host to Leonardo da Vinci while he painted The Last Supper at the Santa Maria delle Grazie across the street – these cabinets of curiosity read as both expressions of process and abstract ornament.


Meanwhile, Nobody & Co’s Bibliochaise, exhibited down a garden trail with structures decorated by Toogood, is a chair-cum-library – and in the case of the special edition held at the garden – decorated in gold leaf.


Remake/Remodel


Sustainability and social consciousness as principles and behaviours are difficult to communicate successfully through furniture or product design. At this year’s Salone, there were a number of projects which engaged with those media as a form of resistance, or productive output, as well as advanced applications of re- or up-cycled materials.
In the lower floors of the Fondazione Luigi Rovati, Paul Cocksedge exhibited a series of tables, shelving units and sculptures made, predominantly, from his London studio floor. On being handed an eviction notice, he excavated the site, creating concrete rounds and obelisks which contribute to a comment on the uncertainty and displacement inherent to London’s property market. 


For Danish textile company Kvadrat’s new project, Really, whose aim is to up-cycle end-of-life textiles into solid textile boards, Max Lamb designed a series of benches using waste cotton and wool. Lamb’s benches employed curved edges, wavy patterns, geometric stacks and hover-effect structures in an experimental approach to an everyday material and form.


Play


Equally integral to the fair was a focus on entertainment and design as a playful distraction. At the Palazzo Serbelloni, quartz manufacturers Caesarstone collaborated with artist Jaime Hayon on Stone Age Folk, an exhibition of fantastical furniture including a mask as cupboard, clown faces and carousels.


Another exhibition which exemplified the theme was Marni’s Playground, made up of various shades of sand, rocking chairs, out-of-proportion games and picnic blankets, all in a concrete warehouse; while for Atelier Swarovski Home, Barbara Barry designed a series of multifunctional candle holders and vases in mellow, 70s hues which could be stacked, turned and repurposed.


Layers


Layers of material, layered perspectives, stacks and tiers appeared here as both practical solutions and decorative details. At Matter-Made, there was a variety of flat-colour pastel furniture, which could be stacked, slotted or reformed, doubling up materials and cascades of light. At Calico’s Imagined Landscape exhibition, Ana Kraš designed a wallpaper with a linear pattern which created the illusion of slotting papers, while Faye Toogood combined three paintings – of moors, woodlands and fields – into a single landscape.


At Louis Vuitton’s Objets Nomades, pieces were woven, spliced and formed into organic rounds and repeat patterns akin to honeycomb. Design duo Fernando & Humberto’s sculptural Cocoon chairs were suspended over the Palazzo Bocconi’s grand staircase, while cheese plants and palms filled each room, collapsing over a variety of chairs and daybeds which were made for lounging, including Patricia Urquiola’s Palaver Chair and Atelier Oï’s Swing Boat.


Narrative


Design and theatre coalesced at a number of exhibitions as immersive multi-sensory experiences, maximalist installations and temporary TV channels. In a fine example of the latter, students and alumni from Design Academy Eindhoven presented a “mashed-up media and design studio” at the Atelier Clerici, which analysed the relationship between design and contemporary media in both high and low culture. 


Another design school working with an immersive approach was ÉCAL, who presented More Rules for Modern Life, an exhibition by the Fine Art and Product Design students that considered the grey zones between the two practices via crispy golden walls, exaggerated forms and elaborate patterns. Milan-based Dimore Studio presented two exhibitions, one of an Art Deco-inspired geometric interior, the other of a plush, surreal veranda, with palms and pastel pink balloons growing out of tiled beds. Like much of this year’s Salone, the Dimore presentation imparted a sense of having stumbled upon a private oasis, works and spaces that held a wealth of elaborate tales.

April, 2017

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

It’s Nice That

An Exercise in Style: Interviewing John Morgan

As we ascend the stairs from his subterranean studio, our conversation turns to the subject of design writers. “Are there any? And if there are, why?” A point of contention is, if they do exist, “can [they] write about a subject other than design in an interesting way…

By Jack Davison
As we ascend the stairs from his subterranean studio, our conversation turns to the subject of design writers. “Are there any? And if there are, why?” A point of contention is, if they do exist, “can [they] write about a subject other than design in an interesting way, and is there not someone else who could do it better?” This emphasis on quality is an important one, and something that defines the often indefinable work of John Morgan Studio.


Founded in 2000, the studio has and continues to work with renowned artists, architects and cultural institutions including Four Corners Books, David Chipperfield Architects, Art Review and Tate Britain. A recent project is Pierre’s, the inaugural issue of New York’s The Artist’s Institute magazine. The principle of The Magazine is to take each season at the institute as a point of departure for journalism, fiction, interviews and visual projects to be developed around the work of the exhibiting artist. This season it’s Pierre Huyghe and the issue features topics including science fiction and philosophy, alongside fake adverts designed by John’s newly formed and slightly fictitious London/New York agency Vault Six. Another recent project was their review of the signage and way-finding at Tate Britain. The studio designed a new display typeface; a scheme for the templates of maps, menus, banners and posters; captions, maps and threshold dates cast in metal and sign-painted onto the walls and floor. In the synopsis of the project the process was described as “reducing the presence of signs and promotional material to an ‘essential only’ state… the requirements for a gallery like this [mean] the signage could be less present and more dignified”.


As well as his design practice, John has run projects at a number of design schools over the last 15 years, and the recent history of art education is something of a concern. “It shouldn’t be a transactional relationship” he says, “it’s an issue for tutors and students, and the worst educational model. Survival of the fittest is fine, but not in an education environment. Those who will do well, the people who have the confidence to reach out, will thrive, but they always will. It’s people who come to London, go into college once a week and then back off to bedsit land god knows where, what’s their experience?”


We’ve crossed the street from the studio and sat for lunch at a brasserie close-by. “It’s a nice way to eat, although it’s a faux interior, the element of nostalgia tricks you” John says. “They did certain things very well at the turn of the century – the theatre of it all, the settings and the tablecloths.” In a way, such details are a visualisation of the references and intentions of the people who run the brasserie, and how they want to communicate with their audience. On that subject John says “My real audience is the author or artist I’m working with, and myself. To try to second guess anything else often ends in tears. Like the focus group for a film, a real auteur wouldn’t care and has a focus group ever improved a film? Unlikely.”

“Anyway, books aren’t products, it’s a different territory.” Describing his work with Four Corners Books he says: “sometimes you’re a cinematographer, sometimes a director and then all that falls in between. For most of the Familiars series the artist has chosen the book, so it means something to them and that can be conveyed very subtly or in a more overt way. Sometimes we make a fully integrated object and in other instances the artist will produce photographic or illustrative plates.” Although they don’t often commission illustration, “I think I have a phobia of it because there is such a specific voice”, John says. “When you get something back you have to work with that and it can be far from what you had in mind. I love the illustrations in The New Yorker, there they work perfectly well. With photography you can direct a lot more, and the evidence of the hand is a little less present.”


The question of style is an important one, and in his work John aims more for a sense of atmosphere, for want of a better word. In a conversation with eye magazine’s editor John Walters he described it as “a problematic and woolly word, but it’s the best description of what I aim for in my work. It’s the sensation you find when you walk into a building or space and it changes the way you feel… It’s hard to define what gives a book atmosphere, because it can be found in unexpected places, and many books by attentive designers lack it, but you know it when you see it or feel it.”


At this point our conversation shifts, “without being too self-reflective” John says, “I like the idea of you writing this under the construct of this situation, it’s more fun. Ideally just do the whole thing without even mentioning graphic design directly. Do the whole thing about food – who wants to read about graphic design anyway? I’d rather be reading a novel or something, the more literary this can be the better.” So I ask him what he is reading, “Michel Houellebecq, everything by him. People say he’s a misogynist but I don’t see it that way, a misanthrope maybe – but not that either. In Submission the character is an academic who takes on religion as more of a lifestyle choice than one of faith, like people who send their kids to a Church of England school because it’s the better option, this professor works in a Muslim school because the pay and lifestyle is better for him. Houellebecq is so brutally honest, it’s horrific. I’m also reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, best described as a love story. The author records her life, falling for a transgender artist, her pregnancy and the shifts in their own bodies as well as the relationship itself. Both Nelson and Houellebecq are equally uncompromising in their own way.”


Maggie Nelson also wrote the text for Carolee’s, the forthcoming issue of the magazine of The Artist’s Institute (with Carolee Schneemann and published later this year), designed by John Morgan studio. I ask him whether he sees himself continuing to focus on publishing, or to look more to expanding on projects such as the branding of the city of Llubijana: “working with architects, they have a much greater control of space and influence than we do, but still not the impact you’d imagine, for that you probably need to get into politics or government. And as a designer you can only make a very slight imprint, I think I will continue to work with small gestures” Although, whether he’ll stick to that is another matter: “I have this relationship with fashion where sometimes I think it’s the most beautiful thing in the world and sometimes I think it’s ridiculous. And it’s totally okay to think the opposite one day to the next, we are made up of compound sensibilities.”

July, 2016

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

Somesuch Stories

The Garden of Celestial Delights

The Galactic Expressway Resort had been in development for just short of a decade when they celebrated their soft launch ‘Leave to Remain’ on that fateful Friday of June 24th, 2016…

by Stéphane Guisard, for the European Southern Observatory
No matter humanity’s advancements, an intergalactic excursion never fails to thrill. A sojourn to the stars. A promenade among the planets. The pace of life measured in light years, makes one feel light as a feather, instantly. Indeed, whatever earthbound scales might read prior to departure, soon you really will be, effortlessly, as there’s no need for spin class when zero gravity does the legwork for you – leaving you free to feast on the finest freeze-dried fare without counting a single calorie.


The Galactic Expressway Resort had been in development for just short of a decade when they celebrated their soft launch ‘Leave to Remain’ on that fateful Friday of June 24th, 2016. The intention had been to establish a viable competitor for Dick Pickle’s Coitus Galactic, a flight service offering unencumbered views of our Earth to its ordinary citizens. But the commendable group behind the Galactic Expressway Resort weren’t satisfied with offering mere moments of weightlessness, and a quick selfie before plummeting friends and fuck-buddies back to reality. They facilitated, instead, a home-from-home, a glorious escape from this torrid planet for anything from a long weekend to a lifetime stay.


The resort, built in the Future-Elizabethan style, currently offers accommodation for 255,700 people, the population of Milton Keynes. And in a shrewd move from their PR representation, the purveyors of the resort have announced that they intend to expand their portion of outer space to offer rooms to all who voted to remain in the European Union – aiming to open at full capacity in time for the triggering of Article 50.


In its current form, the Galactic Expressway Resort’s rooms circle a central island that holds covered parklands, entertainment hubs, wellness facilities, learning lounges and a food village. On entry, opulent, threaded ropes lead guests through a bustling conservatory, planted with genetically modified trees designed to thrive in these bizarre circumstances, and past a grand exhibition of portraits representing stars of the Remain campaign including David Beckham, June Sarpong and Brian Blessed. Due to the lack of gravitational pull, to access your room friends have to glide up the conservatory ropes and along through the complex of residences; each decorated in tasteful, muted tones with contemporary European furnishings complete with tie-down detailing.


The food village recalls peak-Las Vegan simulation, and on the same vast scale, with each Rue, Strasse, calle and ulica offering up a glut of continental culinary highlights so guests can devour everything from l’escargot to Sachertorte; goulash to Pastéis de Nata in enviably authentic settings. And of course, there is also much scope for creative self-catering, popular with committed residents who can purchase nutritionally beneficial and psychologically satisfying Fresch© fruits and vegetables, as well as sterilized beef steak, or perhaps scones, from the spacious hypermarkets which boast designated aisles for items from each member state.


The entertainment hubs comprise shopping centres to entice all guests whether budgets accommodate Acne or Chanel, Balenciaga or Zara, whilst regular resupply missions mean your style stays light years ahead, whatever the season down below. Naturally, there are also multiple cinemas, galleries, museums and theatres with programming at each institution bespoke to the resort, and carefully edited to remain on-message. By curating entertainment in this way, friends stay unencumbered by the stresses of divergent opinions, triggering imagery of post-Brexit Britain and those who propagated the unfortunate result. The Galactic Expressway Resort really does seem to be heaven off Earth for Remainers, or rather those who would have remained, had Britain!


Fittingly, the on-board currency is the Euro (<3), which when you’ve grown sick of retail therapy and gloriously high culture, can be utilised at the wellness facilities. There are spas, saunas, gyms, yoga and meditation studios as well as complimentary counsellors, and educational playgrounds for the little ones. The learning lounges, which host classes as well as housing a huge array of books, films and periodicals, are elegantly arranged with contents floating rhythmically behind glass shutters.

Life on the Galactic Expressway Resort can be likened to a spell on one of Earth’s most luxurious cruises, one similarity being that due to the intricacies of the Outer Space Treaty, the shuttle cannot moor for longer than 14 sidereal days in any spot, so one’s view is ever-changing. A curious outcome being the ‘Overview Effect’, something often experienced by astronauts from a time prior to commercial flights, where the view of Earth from space would transform their perspective on the planet and mankind’s place upon it. On returning to earth, they would often describe a new-found appreciation for the interconnectedness of life, the lack of real boundaries between nations and the importance of caring for our environment.


Joyfully, the whole place is climate controlled to a moderate 23C. Our proximity to the sun makes every day seem like a Finnish summer, 20 hours of sunlight at just the right temperature to play swingball without breaking a sweat. The swimming pool is the only location with its own gravity supply, allowing friends to hone their butterfly or just bob about during a morning chat. For moments when the blackness of space gets a bit too much, guests can also project familiar landscapes from Earth across their windows. There’s everything from the Seven Wonders, through to noisy streets, beach scenes and brick walls; as well as the option to upload your own views from home. This seems to be one of few features that entertains nostalgia, the general consensus being that it is best to leave the specifics of one’s recent past on terra firma. Immersion, and all that.


The pervasive air of superiority on the Galactic Expressway Resort is also appealing. Founded in shared opinions and values it appears there is little to dispute except whose turn it is purchase the next bottle of fair trade Bordeaux! However, one issue that seems to arise, quite literally, is that the lack of gravity causes pages from, or entire books to disappear. This also occurs with film reels, and even paintings. According to Alex – who founded the resort but prefers to not invoke traditional hierarchies of profession or gender, so is simply known by their first name – items are occasionally discovered floating through space, having disappeared through a gap in the system. (And in my experience these gaps may well be floating into peoples memories too – there have been multiple occasions during my stay where the mention of the Tory leadership battle, Stranger Things and even Bake Off has been met with bemusement. It’s as if the population has been brainwashed! In fact, on one evening, a long term resident of a certain age grew positively upset by my conversation, and thus I was informed that I must briskly return up the rope to my suite.)


Addendum


I was unable to complete my stay, or my review, as the next day while floating the aisles of the library I was informed that “Due to unforeseen circumstances, [they] were terribly sorry, but the resort would no longer be able to host me.” I was dispatched home via the return leg of a fruit and vegetable resupply mission, an associate having done my packing, and the whole event was treated with a strange and uncomfortable urgency.


On reflection, it seems that I may have hit a nerve, repeatedly. For the last few months life had been ticking along nicely on the Galactic Expressway Resort, their soft launch had been a roaring success, and in the way that returning to everyday life can cause you to entirely forget a holiday, the friends of the resort seemed to be entirely forgetting their earthly lives.


I was soon contacted by a woman that I had met at one of the evening salons – which had bizarrely been held via a chat service, with each of us sat alone in our rooms while we discussed current affairs – and she informed me she had also been escorted from the resort. It turns out my presence had prompted a shift in the consciousness of the resort, until then they had rather successfully immersed the friends in the culture of life on board, but I had brought along a few too many reminders of life on Earth. A group of dissidents had emerged, challenging Alex and the fellow good friends of the Galactic Expressway Resort on the location of the missing literature, asking probing questions about the development of expansive residences for Alex’s best friends and challenging the long-term safety of the resort’s safe spaces.


It would seem that in all their efforts to create a home-from-home in the heavens for all of us who longed for anything but upheaval, the friends behind the Galactic Expressway Resort had gone and dashed our hopes for moral superiority. What had sounded like absolute heaven turned out to be a rather questionable purgatory; where quality of life was dependent on the degree to which you were willing to fall in line. And soon it transpired that, those unwilling to accept the terms, and adopt every intricacy of the pro-Remain stance of the resort, were informed that they were not Europhile enough, and they would regrettably be advised to leave.


On returning to Earth I took a time out to gather my thoughts and booked a week in Lanzarote, where if you haven’t heard there is a wonderful BBQ restaurant powered by volcanic ash! Anyway, while there I saw what I thought was a shooting star, but transpired to be the Galactic Expressway Resort. A fight had ignited over who would be kind enough to lend an organic match to light a ‘Mindfulness’ candle, and in a truly shocking turn of events the whole place had burst into flames.

October, 2016

All text originally published by Somesuchstories.co. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

AIGA Eye on Design

What Happens When We Reach Peak Magazine?

Issue 01 of Beige, the modern lifestyle magazine for discerning independent thinkers and makers, was released today to a rapt audience of creative influencers the quarterly considers the entire scope of everyday life for the contemporary connoisseur…

Dear Editors, 


Below is a list of the most exciting modern lifestyle magazines set for release this week. I am sure they would all be a perfect fit for your creative platform. Feel free to share the news with your communities on your vlog, Snapchat, or heavily-filtered Instagram, etc!


Please do not hesitate to get in touch if you need any more info, pics, or would like to interview one of the esteemed editors, who are all available via FaceTime.


Issue 01 of Beige, the modern lifestyle magazine for discerning independent thinkers and makers, was released today to a rapt audience of creative influencers. Delving deeply into l’estétique beige, the quarterly considers the entire scope of everyday life for the contemporary connoisseur; from cerebral photo stories depicting fulfilling domestic life, to details of accomplished creative work, revered high culture, and the cultivation of a capsule uniform that reflects your irreproachable ethics, subtle intellect, and economic acumen. Beige promotes quality of life through studied, curated takes on life, style, lifestyle, and the means of achieving that lifestyle through a tasteful, ‘Elephant’s Breath’ filter. It makes for a brilliant addition to the newsstand, and although its scope may seem niche, as with all great lifestyle publications, it is really made for anyone with access to a coffee table. “Against a backdrop of beige,” says publisher, editor, art director, and interior designer, Rosalie Verbleken, “everything is illuminated.”


Another exciting release is Louse, the modern lifestyle magazine that explores the life and times of the modern metropolitan woodlouse. The editors take a poetic view on this oft-ignored species, with personal essays, inspired editorials, and woodlouse-themed sonnets, as well as brand collaborations with independent jewellers and clothing designers who draw inspiration from the form and features of the urban woodlouse, a nocturnal crustacean who feeds off of dead plant material. Not unlike us – pass the kale crisps!


Before I go on, I’d like to draw your attention to a podcast series that I think your readers would love. The Dinner Game will focus on one modern food lifestyle magazine each week, diving into the harsh business realities of making a modern lifestyle magazine, and food. After all, isn’t food the one thing we all share? The first season is already slated to include Caesar Salad, the modern lifestyle magazine for political influencers, where every interview takes place over a tax-payer-subsidised lunch; Bro-yo, the modern lifestyle magazine for bros who LOVE frozen yogurt; and Kimchi, the modern lifestyle magazine for women who are equally interested in knowing what’s going on in the world of Korean fermentation, as they are getting the hottest gossip and fashion tips from Kim Kardashian, Kim Gordon, and tyrannical despot Kim Jong-un.


The second series is already set to explore magazines about hair—not just hair, but dyed hair. It’s incredible how much editorial inspiration and advertorial innovation can be mined from even the most prohibitively specific briefs. One of the early stars of the nascent genre is Brunette?, the modern lifestyle magazine for creatives with dyed (is it dyed?) brown hair. What exactly is the life experience of the dark-haired, jet-setting elite? Brunette? intends to find out.


Also fresh to the newsstand is Haven, the modern lifestyle magazine for creative influencers keen to stash their cash offshore. There’s always been a lot of negative press about tax avoidance, but Haven tells a different story—one focusing on the beautiful landscapes, architecture, and pleasure yachts that embezzling billions can afford. Issue 01 heads to Andorra, a stunning principality nestled between France and Spain in the Pyrenees mountains rumoured to be the hot tip for laundering Russian currency in 2017. And the skiing is to DIE for.

Dérive is the modern lifestyle magazine for creative influencers and thought leaders that takes a look at derivative art and design through the lens of the dérive, a practice made popular by the Situationist International. A dérive involves running around, quite aimlessly, and at pace, and in Dérive the interviews are held in this heightened context of breathlessness to deliver maximum authenticity—making even the most mundane interaction seem relevant.


That’s all for this week, but stay tuned for next week’s magazine update, when we’ll be profiling Drip, the modern lifestyle magazine for shy coffee drinkers; Estatic, the modern lifestyle and interiors magazine for creatives living in on-trend housing estates; and Femilist, the modern lifestyle magazine for feminist creative influencers who enjoy listicles. 


And they said print was dead!

April, 2017

All text originally published by eyeondesign.aiga.org. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

by Sophy Hollington

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.

Book Test Unit

“Who Shot J.R.?”

In the closing scene of the third season finale of Dallas, dastardly oil baron J.R. Ewing was shot by an unknown assailant The question of “Who shot J.R.?” plagued viewers until close to a year later, when it was revealed that he was in fact alive, and the assailant had been none other than…

Stills from Dallas
In the closing scene of the third season finale of Dallas, dastardly oil baron J.R. Ewing was shot by an unknown assailant. The question of “Who shot J.R.?” plagued viewers until close to a year later, when it was revealed that he was in fact alive, and the assailant had been none other than his sister-in-law and mistress, Kristin Shephard.

The device of the ‘cliffhanger ending’ has long been popular in television, film and literature; and it now applies in our reading and understanding of news and current affairs, and in an escalated form. The Guardian’s red “Live” box, and its flashing button that accompanied much of 2016 and continues to thrive in 2017—with three potential tabs going on its Minute by Minutes section as I write—has offered live updates and instantaneous reflection on the EU referendum, the US election and the March attack at Westminster. Updating information in fits and starts as events, results, impact and context are understood; establishing strange narratives that shift and change as things unfold, creating sort-of limericks out of world events.

It is not that the reporting of breaking news in the media is a new phenomenon—it has long been applied in radio, television and in newspapers, and is an important service—but live updates, ‘Breaking News’ Twitter profiles, or the BBC app that sends alerts to your phone, exacerbate the potential for ‘cliffhanger endings’ in our understanding of daily life. We can be strung to the page, clicking through as each update arises, the tension mounting when you are only halfway through a note when another part of the story unfolds. Unlike the fans of Dallas who had to wait months on their conclusion, ours are resolved and replaced, sometimes in a matter of seconds.

News, or at least the reading of news, moving predominately online and onto personal devices has, perhaps inadvertently, created a slump in investigative or reflective journalism. We often receive news in a mix, as if we are catching parts of various salacious conversations at orbiting restaurant tables, never quite catching the beginning, or most likely the end, either. Our understanding is with dribs and drabs of context, which will often be fact-checked at a later date, and edited a few times over. The expectation of substance, confirmation, and rigour has made way for news that is immediate, flexible and reactive. As the Blue-footed Booby bird feed undigested, regurgitated fish to their young, we are fed segments of information in bitesize chunks, dependent on the source, but without any particular understanding of it.

Our expectation for instant gratification has led to much-publicised accounts of our degrading attention spans, and think-pieces and advice columns on so-called digital detoxes. If we are to improve our understanding of current affairs, the impact of our decisions and the knock-on effect of events worldwide, a considerable space needs to be marked out for reporting and analysis that surpasses “Whodunnit?”

May, 2017

All text originally published in Book Test Unit, by the Royal College of Art. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

Somesuch Stories

Bedding the President

Straddling two continents, the opposing strips of land that form the city are split by bustling seas. Lit by candy-floss skies, this 8000-year old metropolis undulates to the rhythm of traffic and construction, its rising population cocooned by smoke and mirrors…

By Claudia Wiens/Alamy
Straddling two continents, the opposing strips of land that form the city are split by bustling seas. Lit by candy-floss skies, this 8000-year old metropolis undulates to the rhythm of traffic and construction, its rising population cocooned by smoke and mirrors. As summer burns, public life recedes to sloping tea rooms, waterfronts and ’ways, the hum of bazaars providing a backing track for calls to prayer. Bridges adorned with 24-hour neon lights suck hard on the electricity supply. A man-made party island ‘for exclusive people’ lies only meters from the western shore; it is awash with hysterical consumption.

On the streets, blasts of sentimental music, old-world street sellers, multinational chains and slogans lost in translation vie for the attention of passers-by – the city thrives on misinformation. As it shifts from a centre for industry to one of finance and servitude, legal controls are abolished in favour of investment and perceived renewal. As Las Vegas’ signs eclipse their structures, so the structures here overwhelm their city. As neoliberalism struck, the foundations and those who had built them were remade and remodelled, while public services floundered; under- and over-water gateways were developed, creating new fissures between the ever-growing community.

Here, the principles of urban planning and building regulations stretch generously in the hands of gold rush tycoons. This elasticity has led to a long game of demolish-build musical chairs, one that retains only a fraction of its ancient landmarks and preys on the homes of the underclasses. Exploiting the city’s propensity for natural disaster, the risk of earthquake damage is utilised to extinguish shantytowns, apartment buildings and entire districts without the consent of homeowners. Social or low-income housing is replaced with luxury, gated complexes – projects on steroids making unjustifiable profits for their well-connected developers.

The city’s parklands are being evaporated in favour of fabricated, climate-controlled versions of the outdoors – monolithic meccas to the passé trope of the suburban American mall. Looping highways jut from the urban sprawl, overlapping to create platforms for floating discs of landscaped land, these sterile spaces assisting the fictionalisation of recent history. Concrete gardens are policed and cleared of any marks of human presence – be that wear and tear, or congregations deemed to be disrupting the sense of calm. Funded as part of the public programme to establish common grounds, the gardens funnel people into dead ends from which they can be collected up by officials – or left to enjoy the vantage.

Bedded tulips line the roadside, dancing in the sea breeze, unaffected by pollutants. Laid fortnightly in ornate compositions, the flowers recall the city’s rich past in international trade – tulips having been an early form of state currency. Planted in shallow soil, the bulbous heads never droop; they hardly have the time with a life cycle so stunted. The responsibility of putting on the flower show falls to government cronies. The shallow graves are designed to hold out for just long enough for the flowers to convey the beauty and horror of the evolving landscape, before friends of the family swoop in to replant and gather the profits from the generous commissions.

In a trance-like state, participating residents marvel at the beauty of the lustrous city before them, captivated by its live-action transformation. As heritage sites are privatised, the remaining public parks are swathed in shade by residential and corporate developments. These monuments to an advancing economy are intended to steal the spotlight from the president’s more fraught endeavours – from constructions steeped in controversy due to adverse geological impact through to the hollowing out of newspapers that refuse to practise ventriloquy. 

As well as being a tool for aggressive gentrification, the up-down dance of construction includes the art of the replica. Residents are relocated and their homes turned to dust, only to be rebuilt in their own image, to a lesser standard and at an increased profit margin for the firms. Doors open wide for thinly veiled charm, expert bargaining or a solicitous “how’s your father?” Permissions are granted to those willing to trade in party favours. Moving at such a rate, plans become outdated before they find fruition. Open lots and gaping holes dropping over 100 feet dot the city. With the last of the past century’s relics teetering on the edge, concrete is filling every gap, as if the streets are a game of Tetris. 

Planned as a location that could sustain 5 million people, the city now boasts a population of 15 million and it continues to rise. Bursting at the seams, the only way is up – or out. A new airport, due to be the largest in the world, is rising amid formerly protected wetlands, its connections requiring the levelling of millions of trees. Hills that had been preserved for recreation, as well as providing a substantial catchment for the metropolis’ water supply are overrun. One of few remaining public lands, this combined forest and wetland has now been assigned for commercial business. As well as airport services, hotels and shops will line the stretch from the monumental structure. Investment, its pace set by the offer of build-own-operate leasing, is monopolised by those close to the ruling class. Initial development was soon isolated from international interest by a corruption investigation into the firms’ senior executives – which was swiftly halted by government intervention, casting talk of the airport in hyperbole and the rhetoric of empire. “It’ll be the largest in the world!” is the rallying cry, alongside promises that more roads and more structures will ease, rather than encourage the overcrowding. 

As public space vanishes, the haphazard freedoms of social life are ever more curtailed. With views restricted so that all one can see is the show, the captive audiences either sent into waking comas or pitched into palpable unrest. Public space is eroded Revellers and protesters alike gather, celebrating and commiserating the lost world on rooftops, in past palaces, basement flats and peripheral playgrounds. As unrest brought tears of gas, small victories were soon over-ridden by force of government will. Shifting from the busy streets to the shade of overhanging trees, plans for urban revolution are shaped in a quiet hum. Games of cards and catch provide the setting for ground-up change in response to the top-down conversions. As a reflection of society, the city tremors as it is pulled in contradictory directions, stretched to its outer limits. Rapid fire burns public buildings, heritage sites become locations for financial speculation and the megalopolis rages on towards the multifarious conclusions of simulated life. 

May, 2016

All text originally published by somesuchstories.co. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.