Stephen Burks: Man Made, the Studio Museum in Harlem’s first-ever industrial design exhibition, closed yesterday. Serendipitously enough, I stumbled upon the show on its last day. The central gallery was arranged in a bizarre (but rather appropriate) hybrid of an Ikea showroom and a gallery of Donald Judds. For this show, Burks of Readymade Projects in Brooklyn presented functional objects with the archetypical Senegalese sweetgrass basket as their foundation. Sheets of plastic and careful wiring transform the polychromed baskets into tables and speakers. At times, the basket isn’t even physically present: a lamp is made of old plastic milk jugs, flattened and compiled into a mound using the inside of a basket as its mold.
Stephen Burks, Untitled (HDPE lamp), 2011 (source)
Stephen Burks, Untitled (HDPE lamp), 2011 (source)
To give us a deeper look into his craft, quotes, videos, and images supplement the furniture designs. A photograph reveals a model imagining a chair made of two baskets, one inverted as a base and the other resting askew, practically inviting your derriere to lounge. The chair has yet to be realized; I doubt that two woven baskets can support the body without some additional support. Still, the image of a chair, composed simply of two half-egg baskets, remained seared in my mind.
It wasn’t until I spotted my tattered linguistics textbook back at home that I realized why. There’s a thought experiment, possibly inspired by everyone’s favorite Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that I encountered in various linguistics classes. And, appropriately enough, it’s all about chairs. Let’s imagine a continuum of chairs: first, the leather armchair in front of a fireplace, next, a fold-out metal chair, then a three-legged stool, and so forth, all the way to the rock you stumble upon during a hike in the woods that just so happens to fit your butt all nice and ergonomically. All of these objects can function as chairs, but some of these seem more chair-like than others. Prototype theory proposes that we categorize things in our mind, and some members of a category are more central, or prototypical, while others occupy the margins.
In my mind, the prototypical chair—the most chair-y of all chairs in the Great Chair Kingdom—is wooden, has four legs and a back, and could easily be found adjacent to a kitchen table. However, we live in a beautifully diverse world, and there are perhaps as many species of chairs as there are insects. From bean bags and flower power inflatable chairs to gilded Vatican chairs, there are a shit ton of chairs.
Back in my day, this inflatable chair would have been emblazoned with N’SYNC. (source)
Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Chair of St. Peter, 1647-1653 (source)
So what makes a chair? Probably not its material composition, as chairs can be built of everything from stone to pillows. Maybe it is a combination of certain elements, such as legs or a back, that we mentally tick off in our mind when looking at an object and making that split-second determination of its chairiness. But not every chair has legs or a back. Perhaps a chair is a chair because of its function: chairs are made for sittin’. But you certainly wouldn’t want to sit in Lucas Samaras’ chair, below. And that butt-fitting rock we talked about two paragraphs ago? When a hiker lays her tush on it to eat a granola bar, it functions as a chair, but it resumes its rockdom the moment she leaves. The moral of the story is that we cannot rely on one, definitive way to categorize something as Chair or Not Chair. Instead, we use a combination of criteria to determine an object’s place in the graded category.
No legs on this chair (source)
This chair quite literally has legs (source)
Lucas Samaras, Chair Transformation Number 16, 1969-1970 (source)
But let’s get back to Burks. The designer takes recognizes how the simple, concave form of the basket can be turned into a chair. Like the ergonomic rock, it part furniture and part vessel, depending on the way it is used and how it is constructed. The basket chair exists somewhere on the fringes of both “chair” and “basket.”
My morning blog skimming lead me to the first map, a recent work by designer Marian Bantjes, but (due to sentimental value and as well as its intrinsic merit) I prefer the second, from the best children’s or grown-up novel around, The Phantom Tollbooth (larger version here).
I’m not a big fan of award shows. Winners of the Academy award are undoubtedly the favorites of a bunch of old white men, and I’m convinced that the people behind the Grammys are completely out of touch with what kinds of music people actually listen to.
Still, I was really excited to find out that, on April 12, Bedsider.org was nominated for a Webby Award.
Bedsider, an initiative of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, is an online resource on birth control. There is so much to love about this website. It provides detailed information about the various methods of birth control, including side-by-side comparisons and side effects. This ain’t no health class lecture, though. The language is colloquial and fun, the graphics are cute and sassy, and the website, with its testimonials from women and Fact or Fiction videos, generally gives off an approachable vibe. These folks are never preachy, discussing sex in a positive way (with no slut-shaming to be found). For those ladies who have trouble remember to take the pill or switch the patch, Bedsider also has a free reminder service: you type in the kind of birth control you take, decide whether you want to be reminded via text or email, and voila—birth control bliss in your inbox.
In addition to its extensive content on pregnancy and STD* prevention, the website benefits from beautiful design. You can explore the various methods pictorially (above; note how the designers cleverly used a cork to represent the oh-so-trusty** withdrawal method). The website isn’t overly girly, covered in pink and purple arabesques like the packaging for so many women’s health products. I hope that the reason for this is that the site’s creators, while targeting primarily a female audience, want to reach out to both men and women. Because when it comes to baby-makin’, both parties involved are responsible.
Bedsider.org is a great example of how technology and design can promote health and activist issues. I’m sure if you comb the Interwebs hard enough, you can find most of this birth control information floating around somewhere. The difference is that Bedsider makes it easy for women (and men) to learn about their options in just one place, employing a design and language that is both refreshing and inviting. I think we could use a little more innovative web design to aid feminist causes.
So go on, visit the Webby Awards site and vote for Bedsider.org!
*I mean STI, but it still feels weird to call it that so I really mean STD.
**Not. And while Bedsider.org generally seems to steer clear of passing judgment, they don’t seem too keen on coitus interruptus. And I’m with them; maybe sometimes a bit of judgment is a good thing.
Hello, devoted readers*! Have no fear—I am in the midst of working on a thrilling but possibly convoluted post on the word posh, and I have a number of other ideas brewing in my head. This blog was supposed to be about art, right? But instead I spend the majority of my time prattling on about typographical puns and internet memes.
In the meantime…
It’s December, or Desi-spends-an-inordinate-amount-of-time-making-snowflakes month! I figured today was an appropriate day to post about snowflakes, as this morning there were flurry sightings in Yorkville. Or was it the 2nd Avenue subway construction gone awry?
This year, I’ve decided to put my collection of flakes to good use by making holiday cards for loved ones. It’s been an arduous process, mostly because I shouldn’t have bought that faulty paper cutter that didn’t make right angles. (But it was so much cheaper!)
I encourage y’all to get crafty and spread general holiday cheer by making snowflakes of your own. I am a stickler for six-pointed flakes. They are more scientifically accurate, after all. Here are some instructions for folding the right way, courtesy of Kinderart:
*Let’s change that to the singular. That refers to you, E.
My knowledge of graphic design is fairly elementary. I can recognize effective and aesthetically innovative design; I can use the basic functions of Photoshop with relative ease. But in many ways, I am woefully uninformed in the world of graphic design. I resist using Adobe Illustrator for complicated projects! I don’t know which design blogs to read!
Despite my lack of expertise in the field, however, I think I am perfectly qualified to make a few sweeping generalizations about certain trends my inexpert eye has noticed in recent graphic design.* So, without further ado, I present to you two general techniques that keep cropping up in advertisements and printed ephemeral. The names I made up for them are totally unscientific and based on my own amateurish “knowledge” of graphic design.
Observed trend #1: Overlapping CMYK color blocks
What is CMYK, you ask? The letters stand for cyan, magenta, yellow, black, but the whole idea of CMYK goes deeper than that. I think this calls for a quick tutorial in additive and subtractive color mixing!
The primary colors of light are red, green, and blue (see diagram on the left). That is how color mixing works on your computer, which, you know, uses light. If you mix all three of these primary colors together, they make white. If you have a total absence of red, blue, and green, then you’ve got black, or the absence of light. This is what we call additive color mixing.
The secondary colors of the additive schema are the primary colors in subtractive color mixing (see diagram on the right). These colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. If you mix all these colors together, they make black. This is how color works in printing. Has your printer has ever regurgitated a sheet of paper with weird blocks of fading blue, pink, yellow, and black? That’s the test page, showing you how the different ink levels of each CMYK color are faring. Those four create the whole broad spectrum of colors we print in magazines and on billboards. For example, to make purple, your printer will print a little bit of magenta with a lot of cyan. A bit of black might be added to make it a darker shade.
During my adventures in New York, I have noticed that many designers today are incorporating the principle of subtractive color mixing into their own designs. They often use large blocks of these primary colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow). Where the colors “overlap,” they create the secondary colors of subtractive color (red, green, and blue). Simple geometric forms become complex intersections of color. Take a look at these examples that I have stumbled upon within the last month.
MoMA Kids Color activity guide
See the PDF of the full guide (or go to MoMA and pick one up yourself)
Chelsea Wine Vault at the Chelsea Market
from their November newsletter
JetBlue ad on the subway
Observed trend #2: Highlighted text blocks
As I discussed above, designers are using blocks of color for their images. It turns out that they are using blocks of color (and black) for text as well! They are messing around with our sense of negative/positive space. Instead of having colored text printed onto the white background, the words are white, surrounded by a box of color—simulating the look of highlighted text on your computer. Even the Whitney Museum’s website uses this technique sparingly (highlighted in yellow).
Editions Artists’ Books
Shillington School ad in the Village Voice
Ahh, the nexus of our two observed trends! It is appropriate (and perhaps hackneyed) that the Sydney/London/NYC-based graphic design school integrate both the CMYK and the highlighter text blocks. The two approaches work well together: they employ the simplicity of geometric shapes to create complex optical illusions of color mixing and negative/positive space. Oh so trendy. Not to mention the use of Helvetica, the typographic herald of modernity whose prestige was always high among designers and has recently exploded into the mainstream since starring in its own documentary and adorning t-shirts at American Apparel.
*But seriously. When I worked at the Hirshhorn Museum as an interpretive guide, I noticed that some of the best comments came from people who knew nothing about Yves Klein or the history of modern art. I like to think that as a design outsider, I am better equipped to notice these patterns. Maybe.
3. Visual Complexity is my new favorite website. A Parsons MFA grad aims to collect visual representations of complex networks ranging from anywhere from a NY subway map that scales its train lines based on ridership to an application that connects all of your Facebook friends with each other.
4. I’ve read two articles two somewhat related articles from the Washington City Paper and NPR. The latter discusses successful comprehensive (i.e. not abstinence-only) sex ed programs. The former is even better: it discusses a new series of programs implemented in DC public schools that challenges male students to deconstruct gender. The hope is that by understanding why they view masculinity, sexuality, and homosexuality in certain ways, their own actions—specifically in the realm of rape and its prevention—will change. I’m all for teaching kids early on to examine constructions of sex and gender.
I love this, courtesy of Inspiration Lab:
You will need to click on the image to get the make any use of it. This was designed by Danish graphic design student Julian Hansen. (I wonder if he is looking for an endearingly nerdy and yet very cute Puerto Rican girlfriend.) Here’s a little challenge—figure out the path to Comic Sans without working backwards. And here’s an obligatory groan for Comic Sans.
O blog, how I have neglected you! So I though that turning in my thesis last Monday would mean that I would not be so swamped with work. Wrong. I still have to prepare for my defense, make two posters for the undergrad research symposium, actually get to all the school assignments I got extensions for, tend to my room’s cleanliness (or, rather, lack thereof), and forge on with the never-ending job search. I promise I’ll get to those California posts before LA becomes a fuzzy mirage in my memory.
For now, I present to you an image I stumbled upon when I typed “art history research poster” into the Google.
The website where you can purchase your own original print for a mere $450 explains that artist Vuk Vidor describes each 20th century artist’s cultural impact in three words. The art historian in me is simultaneously amused and riled up. What is most visually striking is the seemingly infinite column of sans-serif “owns” that runs down the center of the chalkboard background. The idea that an artist can own some sort cultural (icon/device/symbol—you choose) probably outraged a lot of artsy folks out there. Richard Long certainly wasn’t aiming to own the land, he just wanted to inhabit it in a meditative sort of way. One visitor to Vidor’s site commented that “this is the ultimate expression of retarded name dropping,* half of the ‘owned’ just describes one piece and nothing central to the artists’ body.” So not only are we allowing artists to stake their claim on things like the color white, the square, and slogans, we are also doing an injustice to the broad scope of their contributions to art today.
I could buy these arguments, but that’s one transaction I will not be making. First and foremost I recognize that this is poster intends to be ironic, so I am not going to make a fuss by taking it terribly seriously. Yet there is something that really resonates about this owning business. The reason I find this poster so witty extends beyond name-dropping or organizing artists by their most salient creative practice. Vidor’s cleverness stems from the fact that, in many ways, we art-historians and art-consumers really believe that artists own all of these things. So Roy Lichtenstein did the comic-book thing and Yves Klein patented his own shade of blue. Been there, done that, now any artist who dares approach those iconic symbols will be either be accessing an obsolete practice or, worse, interpreted as trying to be subversive (gasp!). Ruscha did words and McCarthy has trash covered, so artists, don’t even go there. If you want to make it big, all you have to do is figure out what object/material/concept you can make you own. Which is no small feat when Cindy Sherman owns herself, Picasso has the entire twentieth century covered, and Duchamp has dibs on everything.
*Of course this is retarded name-dropping. That’s what art historians do.
Ahh the art journal. Evolving since my first days of tenth grade Art and Culture, back in 2003. Now I limited it to a spiral bound Utrecht sketchbook measuring no more than 5.5 by 8.5 inches. It’s portable in an average-sized purse and easy to glue-stick into on a subway ride home. If you see a crazy girl sitting in a public location ripping up shreds up paper and rearranging them over and over in a notebook, that’s probably me. Here’s a taste from a recent jaunt to D.C.