Head, Heart & Hand

The Greenhouse

The Greenhouse was closed in the early 1990s following the end of the Environmental course a few years prior. It had been built in 1961 according to the intention of then Rector Robin Darwin, whose studio sat at the back of the ‘house amongst the canopies John Norris Wood had been appointed tutor of Natural History and Ecological Studies in 1971, caring for the plants…

The Greenhouse, courtesy of the RCA Archive
“At the top of the Darwin Building, high above the concrete jungle of London, the Greenhouse is situated as if in a glass cloud almost oblivious to the industrial city outside…

Sir Robin Darwin had the place built as an integral part of the college, consider[ing] it important as a reminder of the natural world beyond the city limits.

The plants and animal life are now well established with mature trees up to the roof, many sub-tropical birds, fish and some reptiles. The large amount of leaf canopy and vegetation enable the birds to co-exist together, forming their own territories and social pecking orders.’

The light filters through the leaves with a glow of colour and dappled tones.

After watering, the humid air is heavily scented like a downpour on a summer’s day.

The rich warbling, musical notes of the canaries fill the air with song, accompanied by the continual ze-ze-zeee-zeee of the zebra finches.

In the background, a loud abrupt whistle interrupts the flowing cascade of the canaries. Looking down from the foliage, a large gleaming yellow eye stares like a sulphurous sun against the darkest of skies. The glossy starling watches and then with remarkable agility and quick angular wing strokes, flies off; a blaze of topaz blue and emerald green.”

The Greenhouse was closed in the early 1990s following the end of the Environmental course a few years prior. It had been built in 1961 according to the intention of then Rector Robin Darwin, whose studio sat at the back of the ‘house amongst the canopies.

John Norris Wood had been appointed tutor of Natural History and Ecological Studies in 1971, caring for the plants and animals and holding specialist drawing classes up ‘til it was shut in order to make space for new developments in the Darwin Building. As described in Boys’s book: ‘On looking further out beyond the glass is a back-drop of irregular sharp-angled buildings. The artificially created world outside is enveloping all around.’

At this point the only comparable space would be the enveloped Fern Garden, a gift from the USA Olympic Team – a thank you for ‘our’ hospitality and the lending of the College as a Conference Centre and hangout for the sporting elite.

The Fern Garden is off limits. Described as the Rector’s ‘private project’ they are protected by bolts, balconies and the backs of bureaucrats as they type faceless emails concerning the protection of the ground against artistic endeavor. Reported to have cost millions to ship from Australia, the Ferns drain further thousands on each specialist hydraulic act, momentarily flooding their canopies in this false climate.

June, 2014

All text originally published in Head, Heart & Hand by the Royal College of Art. All images courtesy of magazine and artist. All text copyright Billie Muraben.

It’s Nice That

Inside The Happy Reader, the Perfect Foil to “Binge-Reading” Online Content

The Happy Reader has attracted a vast and loyal following since it first flew through letterboxes and landed on newsstands in the winter of 2014 Each issue of the quarterly has two halves: an in-depth interview and an in-depth look at one piece of classic literature. The first issue featured…

Endpaper from The Happy Reader
The Happy Reader has attracted a vast and loyal following since it first flew through letterboxes and landed on newsstands in the winter of 2014. Each issue of the quarterly has two halves: an in-depth interview and an in-depth look at one piece of classic literature. The first issue featured actor Dan Stevens and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and the magazine has since seen cover stars including Kim Gordon, Grimes and Alan Cumming.

The publication grew out of conversation between Penguin Books, Jop van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers about how their way of making magazines could be applied to classic literature. To mark the launch of its sixth issue, with Ethan Hawke and Selma Lagerlöf’s The Saga of Gösta Berling, we spoke to The Happy Reader’s editor Seb Emina about the process of making the magazine to read.

Q: The Happy Reader really lends itself to becoming dog-eared. Was getting away from print as an object “to be seen and not read” an important consideration?

Yes, print can easily become a fetish, like the hipster romance novels in a cafe that no one looks at, but everyone loves to consider. We really wanted The Happy Reader to be interacted with, and that’s an instance where print just is better. It gets battered, you can read it whilst walking, fold it over, hold it in one hand like a book and have your coffee in the other – you don’t feel like you can’t use it. That’s something that Jop van Bennekom and Helios Capdevila were thinking about [when developing the design concept].

It was also designed to work on a subscription basis, so you already know that the audience will receive the magazine in an envelope and read it. You don’t have to worry so much about how it’s going to battle it out with other magazines. But as it’s turned out, we sell loads over the counter, and because Jop and Helios made such a beautiful product it’s displayed really well.

Q: The design shifts slightly with each issue, with elements of the layout changing position and shape. What’s the thinking behind this?

We want it to be a living thing, rather than just having a template that we keep dropping content into. The cover is always slightly different, the contents have moved to the front in this issue having always been on the back page, and the endpapers always change and often have a subtle link to the book of the season. Penguin’s designer Matt Young, who designs every issue, is brilliant at shaking things up in a way that still always leaves it feeling like it’s recognisably The Happy Reader.

One constant is that every issue is 64 pages. That’s a very important constraint – for example the interview has to end at at the very centre, at the staple, because the magazine effectively has two covers, one for the interview and one for the book. All of the small changes are much-debated every time and hopefully at least five vigilant people will notice them and appreciate them, but even if they don’t, that’s OK, we know.

Q: The design also ties in to where The Happy Reader sits between the literary and magazine – having thumb-space on each page and the notes that combine key points with witty sideways glances.

The side notes can seem like they’ve been dashed off but sometimes we spend four hours writing two sentences. I never want us to just go onto Wikipedia and paraphrase what we find there, I always want something that takes work to research.

For example, in the winter issue, there’s one note I wrote that’s attached to a comment in the Grimes interview about the unbelievable vocabulary Joanna Newsom uses in lyrics. Starting at 11pm, I looked through all of her song lyrics, and I finished around 3am. All to create a miniature list of odd words she uses like ‘asterisms’ and ‘burro’. Was it worth it? Who knows.

Q: When putting something into context, you never really know how far it needs to go until it’s there, or it’s gone too far.

Yes, I always feel like there’s an intangible way that you can tell when there were loads of options that weren’t used. I’ve had painful moments where I’ve had to kill whole articles, even when it’s a good piece as sometimes the balance of the issue just won’t allow it. And working with Jop and Gert, they’re real perfectionists. They’ll keep sending back your headline until it passes muster. It’s nice to be held to a standard.

People know that if something is in the magazine it is worth reading, that’s a great thing about print in many ways, there is a limitation to space. Having had this kind of binge-reading relationship with online content for 15 years, we’re starting to think “Hang on, we only have finite time and there is infinite content”.

Q: You used to run The London Review of Breakfasts – a blog devoted to the most important meal of the day – and there is a similarity between that and The Happy Reader in that they are both framed by a loose but definitive theme.

Yes, with both the breakfast blog and any given book of the season in The Happy Reader, I suppose it’s about looking at something really closely and then connecting it to a load of other stuff. So a book about people living in a remote part of Sweden can give rise to an article about the resurgence of wolves in Scandinavia, or a piece about why there are two bands that have taken a novel as their name.

Q: How do you decide on the Book of the Season for each issue (which occupies the second half of the magazine, with a selection of writing on and around the book in question)?

It’s based on a lot of different factors. Partly, it’s looking at books we’ve already had and asking how we can make the next one different. We also always want to have a vague link to the calendar season. So for the winter 2015 issue it was Émile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames, a book about shopping, which is exactly we are always pressured to do in winter. It was a mischievous way of doing a kind of Christmas special.

The book for this season is Selma Lagerlöf’s The Saga of Gösta Berling. The link to spring isn’t so literal but the sections of the book that talk about that season are really beautiful. When you live in a wintry country, spring’s arrival is far more dramatic. We wanted to emphasise that – the folktale-ish-ness of it all.
In a way, the whole concept of the magazine is the endless rich well of beautiful ideas and images contained in classic literature, as refracted through the prism of Jop and Gert’s magazine aesthetic.

Q: It introduces so many interesting themes, each essay feels so much about that essay rather than being chapters of one thing.

I always think about two types of reader, one who has and one who hasn’t read the book of the season, and I try to play both sides. You can read, I don’t know, The Book of Tea section and just enjoy lots of cool writing about international tea culture, but if you’ve read the book you’ll get these little winks as well.

There’s a piece about a florist and it doesn’t say why it’s there, but if you’ve read the book you’ll know there is a beautiful chapter about flowers… it’s almost like a puzzle. I think of it as: If a book were to be guest editor of a style magazine, what would it commission? What would it want in the magazine? And that’s what we try and come up with.

Q: So the florist in The Book of Tea might read the piece about the florist in The Happy Reader.

SE: Yes, exactly. It’s like you’re pushing the book through this strange magazine machine and an issue of The Happy Reader pops out the other side. In Issue Four with Alan Cumming on the cover, we chose The Purple Cloud by M.P. Shiel, an early sci-fi novel in which a volcano erupts in the South Pacific, killing everyone on the planet except for one man. It’s a very weird book and our section on it is accordingly apocalyptic. But there is one brief moment where he’s living in a palace of gold, just because he can, and every night he takes a bath in a lake of wine. So we sent this wine writer from Paris to go and have the closest thing that exists to a wine bath, which is this spa in France offering a treatment called ‘vinotherapy’, where you bathe in red vine extract.

Q: I think the confidence to stick with a subject really adds to The Happy Reader. It encourages a commitment that isn’t often asked of you by a magazine.

People underestimate their attention spans, especially with something like a Q&A – they really keep your interest, and even when you’ve only been talking for an hour, you have so many words. We wanted to say, “Look, we’ve got this time with a really significant cultural figure. Someone who we all recognise, so let’s make the most of it”.

When two people sit down and talk for a while there can be an amazing meeting of ideas and personalities, and you can feel them at best becoming friends. And as a subject matter, what could be more intimate than reading? And yet, what could be more inviting for someone to talk about. It’s not like we’re asking people to tell us about the breakdown of their relationship or to speak positively and briefly about their latest project, it’s much more real. Once you have someone on board, through the prism of reading and books you can talk about just about anything.

March, 2016

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

It’s Nice That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January, 2017

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

It’s Nice That

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November, 2016

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

It’s Nice That

Tears Shared: work-form on Collaboration, Ornamentation and Bootlegging Their Own Work

NOIT is a journal that revolves primarily around the work of conceptual artist John Latham, his practice and theoretical concerns In previous issues it has been a sort-of memoriam for the artist and his work, and considered how burning is used by Latham and his contemporaries…

NOIT, photographed by work-form
NOIT is a journal that revolves primarily around the work of conceptual artist John Latham, his practice and theoretical concerns. In previous issues it has been a sort-of memoriam for the artist and his work, and considered how burning is used by Latham and his contemporaries. The third edition of the journal – guest edited by artist Marc Camille Chaimowicz and Andrew Wheatley, co-director of Cabinet gallery – is a record of Chaimowicz’s exhibition, Tears Shared, at Flat Time House and NOIT’s previously austere aesthetic is dressed up in the artist’s ideas of ornamentation.

Designed by work-form and Flaminia Rossi, the studio describe NOIT–3 as having been somewhat “hijacked” by the artist: “In some ways Chaimowicz hijacked his exhibition at Flat Time House to show the work of Bruno Pélassy, so the exhibition sits in between Latham and Pélassy, with him in the middle. It made sense for him to do the same in the journal. As an artist he has a very keen sense of design and his ideas of decoration and ornamentation are so in contrast to John Latham’s, there needed to be some sort of interruption or intervention in the pages. It was great to be able to kind of bootleg our own work in a sense too.”

NOIT–3 is lined with borders and filigree drawn by Chaimowicz, with photographs laid out to reflect the theme of domesticity key to both the exhibition and Flat Time House as a space. “We wanted the photographs to be a literal retelling of the journey through the house, with a sense of movement that would give the impression of a tour. In and between each four-page section there’s the suggestion of a ‘full turn of the head’ connecting each space; the perspective is flattened and colours are juxtaposed against each other in a way you wouldn’t necessarily detect if there in person, but it reiterates the sense of a connection,” says work-form.

Chaimowicz and work-form’s design flourishes in the issue lend it a certain ambiguity. “For the most part it feels like it was made in the 70s, but the borders feel quite Madame Bouverie-era book design, and this is an artist who works with really cheap carpeting, which suddenly brings you back to the 70s again. It’s not ahistorical, but it’s not tied to a particular point of view or time either.” Another addition is a bookmark printed with a selection from Chaimowicz’s collection of pressed glassware. “We kept talking about the vases being cut out and sat throughout the book in unexpected places, but we couldn’t slot them in. A vase cut out by itself looked so incongruous, but as a collection, and a bookmark, they could sit on both every page and no pages – it’s a nice way of adding something extra, that’s mobile.”

The journal is produced by a print-on-demand service, which can be limiting in some ways but also introduces a flexibility that allows for shifts and additions in each edition. “There are ways of sprucing it up, we had the covers printed separately, added stickers and the bookmark. The photographs aren’t perfect but the artwork has come out really nicely. Any designer, given the chance, wants to make work in its most bespoke form, but there’s also real satisfaction in producing something that is right for the budget, the people and the timing, that actually works functionally. Something that isn’t a gilded block of lead that you’ve got to carry around, that’ll take up dust and you’ve spent loads of money on,” says work-form.

While NOIT–3 is a record of and reflects the ideas in the exhibition, it also very much stands apart – with essays that are responding to, but not necessarily about Tears Shared. “Chaimowicz was very sympathetic to the writing, and the contents of the journal, we spent a lot of time talking about what sort of typefaces would suit each contributor and what approach would work – in a certain way the character of each typeface reflects the character of each writer, and their writing” explains work-form.

Returning to the design of the journal, work-form says: “It’s measured, there are points at which it could go too far, fall off the edge and not really make sense but we really like it. There’s this idea that books are very fixed, particularly if you’re designing for a series – you have to be conscious that if you make the wrong decision on the first book you’ll be repeating it throughout. It’s so much more exciting to say, ‘well, how much can we change this before it becomes something else?’ Working with Marc Camille Chaimowicz was a great reminder of the fact that you can do that, you can skew and really alter the identity of something without compromising it. You aren’t tied to a decision you made two years ago, which perhaps wasn’t even that good.”

August, 2016

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


Larry Sultan’s Iconic Pictures from Home, 25 Years On

Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home was first published in 1992, the culmination of a decade-or-so of travelling up and down California’s coastline, with the intention of creating a portrait of his father..

From Pictures from Home, by Larry Sultan
Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home was first published in 1992, the culmination of a decade-or-so of travelling up and down California’s coastline, with the intention of creating a portrait of his father. “Unaware of deeper impulses, I convinced myself that I wanted to show what happened when—as I interpreted my father’s fate—corporations discard their no-longer-young employees, and how the resulting frustrations and feelings of powerlessness find their way into family relations”, Sultan wrote, early in the first chapter of the book. “These were the Reagan years, when the image and the institution of the family were being used as an inspirational symbol by resurgent conservatives. I wanted to puncture this mythology of the family and to show what happens when we are driven by images of success. And I was willing to use my family to prove a point.”

Pictures from Home was released to great critical acclaim and quickly sold out, only available for a vastly escalated price. So in time for Sultan’s retrospective, first at LACMA and then at SFMoMA, his wife Kelly Sultan, with publisher Michael Mack and designer Lewis Chaplin, set out to publish a second edition. One “that holds sacred the sequencing and the relationship between text and image that Larry chose”, said Kelly.

“What I appreciated about the second edition was Lewis Chaplin and Michael Mack’s un-compromised commitment to Larry’s original intentions for the book. Their commitment to opening the images up to their full intended frame, making it more available and explicit”, she continues. “Another thing that is critical about Pictures from Home, that I was nervous about approaching, was finding a way to republish that would respect the rawness of the project. Larry wasn’t sure about what he was doing, when he was doing it, but he did it anyway; and that uncertainty, that confusion, allowed the reader to feel that rawness. It allows you to explore, simultaneously, what he is exploring. To have refined it, or resolved it, would have been a disservice to how Larry felt when he did the book, and the way he approached picture-making.”

Publisher, Michael Mack, says of the process: “We worked hard to establish, or maintain what we could see was his vision [in the first edition], and the relationship between each voice; the thought processes and chronologies, and just pick them apart.” He continues, “The challenge was, in the absence of the author, to attempt to improve it without his input, which is a treacherous line to walk. It was important to maintain the authority of his voice, in the photographs and in the text, which is so brilliant. The way he speaks is incredible, every word is there, it’s not wasted.”

“We had to clarify the distinct voices, of Larry, and his parents; to distinguish the mediums he was working with, and their reference points; his own work from the ephemeral, historical pieces. Not to simply exalt his photographic work as better than the found work, but to establish him as author.”

The stills from home movies, which sit among and between the chapters, represent “how Larry’s parents saw themselves”, says Kelly. “Larry considered his immunity as a maker, and the betrayal inherent to portraiture. He felt conflicted about taking part in that without offering his parents the power and responsibility of sharing their side of the story. In Pictures from Home they are more than simply subjects.”

Speaking of a moment that conveys the complexity of the roles played and projected in the book, Michael pinpoints: “When his father says, ‘But it’s not me? You’re projecting on me what you want me to be’—and its completely the other way round as well, the father is completely projecting too—that’s how parenting works! It’s reversed, and that’s the genius of the project. While it appears to be so linear and specifically about his relationship to his parents, and that particular period in American history—the rise of capitalism and the American Dream—the reality is it’s a pretty universal experience.”

There’s something in the way Larry Sultan tells a story of such a specific time and place, yet manages to cut through it, “taking the ordinary and making it sublime”, as Kelly says. “And the more specific and idiosyncratic you got, the more people could recognise something that was a larger truth.”

“You don’t need to create a fiction to create mystery”, says Kelly. “Mysteries are elusive because they are so embedded in your daily life, and that’s what Larry was interested in. He hoped that by focussing on daily life, he would capture something mysterious that was just out of view. When you slow life down, and look in between those big events that you think to capture, you see the stuff that people live every day, and that’s what really hits home. That’s what is poignant, and mysterious, and a challenge. If he looked for that mysterious thing he’d never find it, but if he just kept focussing on what was interesting to him, it would appear. And that’s what happened with Pictures from Home.”

Towards the end of the book, when Sultan’s photo-series comes to a close, it is followed by a series of fuzzy Super-8 stills from home movies, a decision made, as Kelly Sultan remarked to Michael Mack, “ because the fact is, he didn’t want it to drop off the edge of a cliff’”. Michael says of the decision, “There’s not a terminal moment in the book, where it’s over. Pictures from Home has a more open-ended notion of memory, and the fact you continue to exist in ways other than physical. That’s an indication of Larry Sultan’s process, and how clearly he intended it to work in a very particular way, rather than it ending with just a full stop.”

May, 2017

All text originally published by AnOthermag.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.


Ten Things you Might not Know About David Hockney

Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire in 1937, David Hockney has been relentlessly reinventing and evolving his practice ever since he won a scholarship to his local grammar school. This week, the best part of a century on, London’s Tate Britain opens its extensive survey of his work…

By David Hockney
Born in Bradford, West Yorkshire in 1937, David Hockney has been relentlessly reinventing and evolving his practice ever since he won a scholarship to his local grammar school. This week, the best part of a century on, London’s Tate Britain opens its extensive survey of his work, criss-crossing between the big sky of California and the rolling hills of Yorkshire, comprising vivid paintings and hazy faxes; bare bums and sharp slacks. But a retrospective it is not: as he edges into his 80th year, Hockney is showing no sign of slowing down. “It’s always what I’m doing now,” he told The Guardian in 2015. “I don’t reflect too much. I live now. It’s always now.” To mark the show, here are ten things you might not know about this prolific artist.

He’s a sort of anarchist

Describing his politics, Hockney has previously defined his views as “a sort of anarchism that took from both the left and the right. Personal responsibility is sort of a rightwing thing that anarchists would support, and so do I. Looking after your neighbour is a leftwing thing, and again I would support that. Ultimately, I’m about liberty and I think you have to defend it.”

He’s a synesthete

Although not apparent in the abundance of his practice, Hockney was born with synesthesia, and he sees synesthetic colours in response to musical stimuli. He does however make use of it in his work, designing the stage sets for ballets and operas including The Rake’s Progress and Magic Flute, where he bases colours and lighting on tones and shades seen whilst listening to the productions.

He’s responsible for more than just lining the walls at the Royal College of Art

While studying at the Royal College of Art, Hockney refused to complete the essay requirement on the grounds that his work should be judged entirely on his art practice. The RCA withheld his diploma, and he retaliated by producing his own parody of the requisite, where he satirised the bureaucracy that weighed down the students. They changed their regulations, and he graduated with the gold medal in painting.

He’s an ardent supporter of living in the now

Henri Cartier-Bresson remarked at the age of 93, “It’s not longevity, it’s intensity that counts.” And Hockney – in spite of the fact that, like Cartier-Bresson, is already doing very well – agrees: “It’s a different attitude to time,” he told The Telegraph. “That’s what I have. We all get a lifetime. They’re different, but we all get one.” A defender of a person’s right to smoke, Hockney also asks: “Why is everything now geared to longevity? If everything’s directed at longevity, you’re denying life. There is only now.”

He regrets the death of Bohemia

While talking about the abandonment of the bohemian lifestyle, Hockney lamented to The Guardian: “Bohemia was against the suburbs, and now the suburbs have taken over. Bohemia is gone now. When people say ‘well wasn’t it amazing to be openly gay in 1960’, I point out, well, I lived in Bohemia, and Bohemia is a tolerant place. You can’t have a smoke-free Bohemia. You can’t have a drug-free Bohemia. You can’t have a drink-free Bohemia. Now they’re all worried about their fucking curtains, sniffing curtains for tobacco and stuff like that.”

… And the irrelevance of the avant garde

Similarly, but under contrasting conditions, in his opinion “nobody takes any notice of the avant garde anymore”. He told The Spectator: “They’re finding they’ve lost their authority. They thought they would get authority by damaging the other, earlier establishment. But by doing that you damage all authority.”

He’s a loyal friend

Hockney has remained close with many of his former lovers, with whom his relationships simply evolve. Although uninterested in marriage or children, Hockney has maintained a working relationship with Gregory Evans for 40 years. “I’m not one to fall out with people, really. There are some people I don’t see, but it’s because they’re so boring.” 

He is partially responsible for the thesis affirming the role of technological advances in art

In collaboration with physicist Charles M. Falco, Hockney defined the Hockney-Falco thesis, which affirms that advances in realism and accuracy in Western art since the Renaissance were the result of camera obscuras, camera lucidas and curved mirrors, rather than developments in technique or individual genius. The theory has been presented and argued in publications and at conferences around the world.

His fascination with pools is ongoing

Hockney’s most iconic piece, A Bigger Splash, whose enigmatic title and composition has inspired films, visual impersonations and the chasing of the L.A. sun, was in fact part of a series. The set of swimming pool pictures depicting the splash of foam after a dive also includes The Splash and A Little Splash; which in some ways removes from its poetic lyricism, and allows the piece to sit more comfortably within the context of Hockney’s dry wit.

He’s an optimist, in spite of everything 
Despite his dry humour and natural disposition for pessimism, Hockney describes himself as an optimist. “Yes, in the end it’s no good being a pessimist. And I have a good laugh every day,” he told The Guardian. “You’ve got to. That’s what keeps you going. There’s loads of people who don’t laugh at all, you know.” He cites a Matisse exhibition he’d seen at the MoMA as a particular inspiration: “That show was unbelievable. It was pure joy. Pure joy. And joy is a great thing to give to people.”

February, 2017

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

It’s Nice That

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

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

By Tanya Traboulsi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AIGA Eye on Design

Unit Editions Pushes and Preserves Graphic Design by Publishing Books That Go Against the Mainstream

With books on the likes of FHK Henrion, Lance Wyman and Total Design, as well as graphic stamps, corporate manuals and punk records under its belt, Unit Editions has established itself as the go-to for cultivated and rigorous publishing on design…

Unit Editions
With books on the likes of FHK Henrion, Lance Wyman and Total Design, as well as graphic stamps, corporate manuals and punk records under its belt, Unit Editions has established itself as the go-to for cultivated and rigorous publishing on design. Formed in 2010 by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, both graphic designers who were equally disillusioned by the mechanisms of the mainstream, Unit Editions would become the proof of what can be achieved when you do things differently.

On the release of Impact, a double-edition focussed on historic magazine covers, we caught up with Adrian Shaughnessy to talk collaboration, compromise, context and Paula Scher’s opinions on social media.

Q: How did you start publishing as Unit Editions?

Unit Editions came out of a frustration that I shared with my publishing partner Tony Brook. We’d both worked with mainstream publishers on books about design, and we felt that there must be a better way than this traditional model. So we pooled our skills with the intention of setting up an independent publishing imprint, which would enable us to take ownership of the entire publishing process. In other words, we would be our own clients and publish the books we wanted to see in print, and do them in the way we wanted to. Setting up Unit Editions also tied in with something that I’m personally interested in – how graphic designers can go beyond service-based design work and become originators of self-directed projects.

Q: Would you say that Unit Editions is focused on an audience of designers, rather than design fans or the wider public?

It’s definitely qualitative over quantitative. There are books that we publish that we know will have a specific audience, and even when we know that audience is small, that’s OK with us. Setting up Unit Editions made me think a lot about the work I used to do with record companies. My favorite labels were the ones that had a single minded integrity. There was a type of music they wanted to send out into the world and they wouldn’t release anything that wasn’t part of that ethos. We wanted to have that purity of purpose for Unit Editions. We would never publish a book we didn’t believe in.

Q: Manuals 1 is an interesting example of a book that seems like it’d have a small audience, but it flew off the shelves.

Manuals 1’s success was unexpected. I think it struck a chord because it stands as a counter-blast to the ongoing digitization of design. Brand manuals are now PDFs: the whole process of implementing a brand identity has become templated – you don’t have to think too much, just follow the rules. But in the pre-digital era, you had to follow a printed manual. This required a level of interpretation that has been removed from the digital implementation process. The printed manuals themselves are miracle of compressed information – they are actually wonderful examples of information design.

Q: Could you tell me about the Archive Series?

So far we’ve published two in the series, Graphic Stamps and Action Time Vision. People approach us with their personal collections, and we are also discovering archives that have wonderful collections of graphic artefacts. So the Archive Series is a platform to capture and acknowledge the role of archives – and personal collections – in contemporary graphic design. Action Time Vision, for example, is Tony’s collection of 7” punk singles. Graphic Stamps is the personal collections of Blair Thompson and Iain Follett, two acknowledged collectors – and scholars! – of postage stamps from a graphic design perspective.

Archives and personal collections are also vital for our philosophy of always showing objects. We try never to show flat, cropped images. In order to really understand a graphic artifact, how it looks and feels, you need to see the object. This means getting hold of actual specimens and expertly photographing them, and not relying on scans. Nearly everything in our books is photographed. And if there is a crease or tear in the original, it stays in.

Q: You often publish books that consider graphic design in its expanded field, how do you think it’s shifting?

I think the discipline of graphic design now is really complex. We’re having this conversation a lot at the Royal College of Art, where I teach, about what graphic design is, what it can be, and investigating new ways of shaping the practice. And in a way Unit Editions is putting that into effect. I’m interested in the idea of publishing as an artistic practice. For me, rather than being a mechanistic process, it’s much closer to curation. A lot of publishing activities can be seen as curating, and by curating a book you are considering how to join and combine each element. Designers are natural curators.

Q: The same could be said for the designer as writer, where you’re seeking a balance between complexity and clarity.

Clarity is what we aim for in design and text. Most of our books are historical, and when we’re working with historical material we apply two criteria: the design is always contemporary, and we have to feel that the subject matter has contemporary relevance. Two examples would be our books on FHK Henrion and Ken Garland. Ken is in his 80s and Henrion died in the 1980s, but they are absolutely relevant to designers today. They were both mavericks, Ken still is, and both are absolute blueprints for a certain sort of designer’s practice today.

Q: You’ve published a lot on and around Total Design, why do you think they are so influential?

Total Design for us is a brilliant example of a mid-20th century, forward-thinking and visionary design group – who, thanks to their multidisciplinary approach, are ‘totally’ relevant today. They were graphic designers, furniture designers, exhibition designers… a model for the contemporary scene. Their work has the visual fire to make them completely compelling, they were super-intelligent, and probably the first European multidisciplinary studio. They were interested in art and culture and politics and so on, but they had fights and fallings out, yet even that is instructive.

Q: How about your and Tony Brook’s working relationship?

We sometimes disagree on details but never on fundamentals. Fundamentally we agree that books have to have integrity. Tony looks after the visuals and I look after text. It’s a good functioning relationship. We collaborate most closely on the initial concept, the framing of the subject, and the format. Those conversations are always multi-layered, everything is connected – and that goes back to the idea of publishing as a creative practice, you can’t ignore any aspect of the process.

Q: What projects are you working on at the moment?

Our next books are Impact 1.0 and Impact 2.0, these are two books on design magazine covers. Impact 1.0 starts in 1923, and comes up to the 1970s. Impact 2.0 starts in the seventies and comes bang up to date. Almost by default the books have emerged as a timeline of the most innovative, fluid and attention-grabbing graphic design. It’s a fantastic history lesson in the stylistic twists of graphic design from the past (nearly) 100 years. But ultimately it’s a celebration – a homage – to the role of printed design journals in the evolution of graphic design. It’s also timely: design journals are under such pressure now, and this is a way of showing what they did and why they matter.

The biggest thing we’re working on currently is a Paula Scher monograph. The book is subject-led and congregates around her big projects, which are mostly identity projects. One of the things that emerges really strongly with Paula is how often she sees opportunities that her clients fail to see to make something bigger and better than their initial expectations. Hearing her talk about that process is great, I often hear designers say “Oh I have a great idea but it got rejected”, but she doesn’t think like that – she is very politically skilled when it comes to dealing with clients of all kinds, committees, powerful individuals, public bodies, and she doesn’t get sidetracked easily. Time and again, she turns a modest brief into a multilayered project. Paula is un-stereotypical. She’s ultra contemporary but also has a wonderful grasp of history. She’s also very funny – she dismisses Facebook as being “the new suburbia”. She has opinions and she’s not afraid to say what she thinks.

November, 2016

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


Inside the Home of Everyday Modernists Aino & Alvar Aalto

Finnish architects and furniture designers Aino and Alvar Aalto had long believed in the integral crossovers between art and technology when they established furniture design company Artek, alongside Nils-Gustav Hahl and Maire Gullichsen, in 1935…

Image Caption
Finnish architects and furniture designers Aino and Alvar Aalto had long believed in the integral crossovers between art and technology when they established furniture design company Artek, alongside Nils-Gustav Hahl and Maire Gullichsen, in 1935. The core principles of the Finnish company were based around investment in material research, quality and sustainability. In short, by producing rational furniture, the foursome hoped to promote modern visual art and popular education.

Theirs was an innovative and influential concept. Their furniture combined form and function, incorporating sculptural simplicity with a softness and adaptability to work with the human form. This was informed by new methods Alvar Aalto had invented for bending and splicing wood. In time, his developments in these areas would alter the shape of modernism – they have since been dubbed “everyday modernists” – and enable them to build their dynamic designs.

One early example, developed just prior to the founding of Artek, was the Paimio Chair – a piece designed for the Aaltos’ Paimio Sanatorium for tuberculosis patients. The chair was made from cantilevered birch wood, and in an innovative new twist, had a seat angled for optimum ease of breath – a key facet for the centre’s patients. 

In addition to its clever chair designs, the Paimio Sanatorium was one of the Aaltos’ first projects to exhibit their ethos of ‘total design’, as well as their interpretation of the International Style, which placed modernist thinking within the context of ancient cultures, Finnish traditions and new knowledge. This meant planning and designing everything about a place, from its location and architecture through to the interior layout and decor, not to mention the signage, furnishings and textiles.

Naturally, the Aaltos’ interest in experimenting with form, function and material extended to their creation of their own home – the Riihitie House in Helsinki – which became a kind of live-in, experimental laboratory. The house presented them with an opportunity to work out their ideas, and to develop a quiet monument to their principles and prowess.
Riihitie House was designed to face away from the street, opening out onto a wild garden on its south side and cocooning the property from both the Finnish weather and passers-by at its north. The overlap with nature was key for both a better quality of life and in creating a synergy between the house’s exterior surroundings and the design of the interiors and furniture – a core modernist value. Birch wood, the curvature implicit to natural forms and sunlight, informed the pacing of the rooms as well as the design of individual pieces. Sunlight was employed as a sort of signpost to guide people through the house, and encourage them to convene at certain points, such as the vast living space on the ground floor, or the central lounging area and terrace on the upper.

Attached to the house was the Aaltos’ first studio, made with contrasting materials to the private space, and divided with a sliding door, inspired by traditional Japanese interiors, that linked the work space to their sunken living room. The space was decorated with their Artek furniture, upholstered in zebra-skin and navy wool, as well as Alvar’s favourite armchair – an unusually sturdy piece that looked somewhat out of place in the otherwise refined environment but was included, unashamedly, for the sake of comfort. This lack of distinction may be what sets the Aalto’s apart: their concerns were greater than aesthetics. Despite being purveyors of ‘total design’, human experience always came first.

The influences which pervaded the house collaged together different materials and references, to reflect the broader adoption of collage in the arts. It also incorporated the Aaltos’ interpretation of the International Style, which meant technical and psychological functionalism alongside that of aesthetics. Alvar saw human life as “a combination of tragedy and comedy”, and the shapes and designs surrounding us as “the music accompanying this tragedy and this comedy”.

The Aaltos’ unique “music” can still be heard all over Helsinki, in office buildings, bookshops, public buildings such as the House of Culture and Finlandia Hall, and the Restaurant Savoy – crossing contexts and generations with ease, and continuing to play out the world over.

July, 2016

All text originally published by AnOthermag.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.