Dec 2, 2008

Russel Wright House and Studio, East 48th St

In my last blog entry, I mentioned a possible connection between architect William Lescaze’s house on East 48th Street and designer Russel Wright’s house on the same street. Geographically, the connection is closer than I’d imagined – Lescaze lived and worked at 211 East 48th St, while Russel and Mary Wright lived at 221. Historically, while both were designer home-cum-offices in midtown Manhattan, Lescaze’s 1934 house can be seen as a continuation of a certain austere and uncompromising version of prewar International Style modernism, while the Wright’s 1949 house might represent a alternative attitude towards modernism, with an emphasis on informality, relaxation and an intimate relationship between interior and exterior. The Wrights’ townhouse on East 48th St is also significant as it served as a kind of laboratory for their ideas about modern American lifestyle that culminated in their 1950 bestseller, Guide to Easier Living.

American Modern Lifestyle

Although best known as an industrial designer, Wright began his design career in the 1920s designing sets, props and costumes for Broadway productions. In the early 1930s he shifted into product design, creating a series of bar and serving accessories from spun aluminum. Marketed and successfully sold during the Depression years, Wright’s serving accessories were designed for informal dinners or cocktail parties rather than formal dinners or afternoon teas. Wright’s most commercially successful and best-known design was for the ceramic dinner service, American Modern. First marketed in 1939, American Modern quickly became the best selling dinner service in the United States, and remained so until the mid-1950s. The dinnerware was innovative in a number of ways: it was marketed as flexible (as consumers could mix and match pieces within a range of modern colors), easily washable, durable and importantly, inexpensive. But most of all, it appealed to an emerging informal lifestyle, characterized by a shift away from the excessive number of delicate and decorative pieces needed for formal entertaining.

The hand-crafted look of the American Modern pieces belied their mass production, allowing them to retain the aura of human craftsmanship in an increasingly mass-produced and mechanized world. A further key to the success of the American Modern line was its marketing, largely overseen by Russel’s wife Mary. She created “stage sets” for department stores and promotional material (see photo above). In these, domestic life was portrayed as theater and its commodities were sold as part of a new, casual American lifestyle, free from formal European models that had been the mainstay of an aspirational American middle class for generations.

Staging American modernism: The Guide to Easier Living

After creating some of the props for this emerging lifestyle, Russel and Mary Wright published the script in 1950. Their Guide to Easier Living focused on not only how to design interior spaces that would be suitable for modern middle-class living, but also as a guide to housekeeping and casual entertaining. Their proposals included open floor plans which flowed seamlessly between kitchen, dining room and living room, and an emphasis on open, flexible interior spaces with lightweight modern furniture. There was not only an emphasis on practical, easy to clean and maintain homes but also a shift away from the formal, rule-bound Victorian lifestyle of previous generations to a more relaxed, spontaneous way of living.

Rather than a guide to taste, the Wrights’ book functioned more as a Do-It-Yourself manual. While they emphasized modernism in general, the Wrights were not too proscriptive as to precisely which furnishings, appliances or décor to adopt. Instead, the book contained detailed analyses of many new materials and their properties – new textiles, flooring materials, synthetic coverings for furniture – all analyzed in terms of their practicality, durability, cleanability and comfort (rather than their aesthetic appeal). Of course, Russel’s own American Modern dinnerware was a perfect fit for the Easier Living lifestyle, as were his various furniture designs of the time, particularly the Easy Living range.

East 48th Street: the Easier Living Laboratory

During the late 1940s, the Wrights’ renovation of a New York city townhouse functioned as a laboratory for this new vision of a more relaxed and casual, yet distinctively modern lifestyle. In 1949, the Wrights moved to their newly renovated townhouse at 221 East 48th Street. It included a design studio on the first floor, living space on the second floor, with the third and fourth floors rented out. Rather than a machine for living, here was postwar modernism American-style, where efficient and functional meant easy to maintain, flexible and comfortable. Rather than the purity, abstraction, universal truths and technological fetishism associated with prewar modernism, the Wrights’ were creating modern life as style. Although this was a New York townhouse situated in dense midtown, the modernism is perhaps closer to a Californian suburban model (and not surprisingly the Guide features various references to Californian designers and architects, particularly Richard Neutra and Harwell Hamilton Harris).

The first floor design studio included a small reception room and conference room as well as the working studio at the rear. The reception area featured a frosted glass partition and built-in desk, while the conference room was similarly spare but both revealed a careful attention to lighting and presentation as these were public spaces for meetings with clients. The rear studio space featured an S-shaped wall comprised entirely of six foot high double hung windows overlooking the garden (see photo above). This curved window wall not only created a distinctive effect from outside but also shaped the studio from inside as a kind of garden pavilion as much as a rational modern workspace. An anonymous writer in a contemporary issue of Interiors described the studio floor like this: “It is difficult to find a single non-functional object, and extraneous ornament is conspicuous by its absence.” Although sparse and functional, the studio was also described as “unexpectedly poetic” due to the lemon yellow ceiling and the intimate connection with the exterior garden.

However, upstairs, Mary’s bedroom combined modern built-in cupboards with pink lace curtains, pink walls and a deep green carpet. The Interiors writer continued: “The uncompromising puritans of contemporary design may be disturbed by the fact that the Wrights have set redolently Victorian rooms side by side with pristine modern ones on the upper floors of the house … the melange suggests that the Wrights are practical people (they had a number of Victorian pieces) and that they have a sense of humor. Or perhaps they decided that it would be stimulating and not at all unpleasant to step from the Hardoy chair and raised fireplace of the living room, into a quaint bedroom (Mary Wright’s) where festoons of Nottingham lace dyed solid pink adorn the windows, and thence back to a terrace curved like the desk of an excursion steamer.” It may also be because their vision of modern design was not primarily aesthetic nor technological, but about how individuals could style and inhabit spaces to suit their particular needs.

The Wrights’ living spaces were open and flexible, with built-in desks and cupboards (to maximize both storage space and floor space) and fluorescent lighting hidden under bookshelves (to create an intimate atmosphere). Idiosyncratic innovations included a storage wall that concealed both a piano and a movie projector which could project onto a window blind opposite which doubled as a movie screen (see photos below). This was modernism from the inside out, transforming a small living space into a movie theater, its furniture designed for comfort, ease of cleaning and ease of moving. The living space continued almost seamlessly onto the terrace outside which featured outdoor furniture covered in yellow sail cloth to contrast the lush greens of the carefully designed garden.

A link to Lescaze’s house on the same block was mentioned in the Interiors article when the writer added that Lescaze’s staff had dubbed the house “A Streetcar Named Desire” due to its curved studio windows and spiral metal stairs which resembled a contemporary streetcar. However, I believe this resemblance was short-lived. An inconsistency in the photographs I have of the ground floor confused me for a while (see the photo above of the rear of the studio and the one below it of the living room looking out onto the garden) and I can only assume that the curved studio was replaced by a living room between the visit of the Interiors writer and the photograph above taken from Albrecht’s book. Perhaps this adds to the Wrights’ ideas about the flexibility of modern living! With Mary’s death in 1952, while Russel continued to live at East 48th St, he devoted increasing time and energy into creating the ultimate stage of his lifestyle vision: the designer house and landscape, Manitoga.


Albrecht, Donald, Robert Schonfeld and Lindsay Stamm Shapiro, Russel Wright: Creating American Lifestyle, New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.

Wright, Russel, Good Design is for Everyone: In His Own Words, Garrison, NY: Manitoga/Universe, 2001.

Writer unknown, “Idyll on 48th Street: The Russel Wright Homestead”, Interiors, No 109, 1949.

The website for the exhibition "Russel Wright: Living with Good Design" has some excellent essays on Wright's life and work.

Nov 9, 2008

William Lescaze House, 211 East 48th St

While reading Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York recently, I came across a 1934 article by Mumford on William Lescaze’s Manhattan home. Lescaze House is in midtown, specifically, 211 East 48th St between 2nd and 3rd Aves. Last year, a colleague mentioned Lescaze House to me after a lecture I gave at Pratt on Russel Wright’s nearby house and studio (the connection will become clear in a future blog entry). So I sought out the house, took a few photographs and always meant to find out more about it. Finally, last week, I discovered a reference to an article and photographs of Lescaze House in a 1936 issue of Decorative Art, the Annual Issue of the Studio Yearbook, which I knew our library would have. So, to accompany my photograph (below), I have included some initial research on Lescaze House along with photographs scanned from the 1936 issue of Decorative Art, as well as an earlier Lescaze project I found in a 1934 issue of the same journal. My interest here is both early modernist architecture in New York City, but also in the figure of Lescaze, a modernist pioneer on the East Coast whose work (and biography) seems comparable to the better known West Coast modernists of the 1920s and 30s such as Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler.

Born in Onex, near Geneva, Switzerland, in 1896, Lescaze studied architecture at Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hoschscule. As a student there between 1915 and 1919, he was mentored by the progressive architect Karl Moser, who would later become a founder of CIAM (an organization which Lescaze was also involved in). Lescaze’s student years in Zurich were marked by his exposure to early European modernism – from Dada and Futurism to calls for a new architecture by Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut and Erich Mendelsohn. After graduation, Lescaze spent a brief time working with pioneer modernist Henri Sauvage in Paris before emigrating to the United States in 1920. His early interests included large scale public housing and urban planning, and he hoped there might be more work of this kind in America than there was in postwar Europe.

Lescaze initially found work as a draftsman in Cleveland, where he lived for several years with little hope of fulfilling his modernist ideas. However, he befriended the poet Hart Crane and became known for his radical expressionist, cubist-inspired paintings. In 1923 he moved to New York and survived for several years designing interiors for restaurants and nightclubs before settling into a more austere modernist vein in the late 1920s for office, retail and apartment interiors. In these, Lescaze was dedicated to interiors in which furniture and interior spaces were integrated into a unified whole, characterised by a rational, geometric aesthetic without decorative detail. His design of a studio apartment for the conductor Leopold Stokowski on E71st St in 1928-29 was uncompromisingly modern – an open space multipurpose sitting room/dining room/library featuring built-in bookshelves of finely crafted wood and modern tubular metal furniture – the emphasis was on functionality, simplicity, economy and comfort. Similar ideas about designing for efficient yet comfortable modern lifestyles were emerging in the late 1920s in California, the most notable example being Neutra’s Lovell Health House, but I suspect Lescaze's lack of recognition in many histories is related to the fact that his 1920s work was entirely interiors.

In 1929, Lescaze began a partnership with George Howe and began working soon afterwards on their first major commission, the Philadelphia Saving Fund Society (PSFS) building in Philadelphia (above). Completed in 1932, the PSFS building is widely cited as the first International Style, or Functionalist, skyscraper in the United States. With its inclusion in Philip Johnson and Henry Russell Hitchcock’s MoMA exhibition on The International Style in the same year, the PSFS building became Lescaze and Howe’s best known project. Featuring a unified exterior and interior design scheme, with an emphasis on transparency (rare for a bank), tubular steel furniture throughout, and technological innovations such as central air-conditioning and aluminum-framed windows, the PSFS building’s fine detailing and meticulous design was made possible by a pre-Depression budget which then bought materials (such as marble for the walls and exotic woods for furniture) and labor at Depression-era prices.

The Howe and Lescaze partnership was never close and dissolved in 1933 (though officially a year later). In the few years they were together, they completed some innovative modernist projects in both the US and in England, including the Fredrick Vanderbilt Field House in Connecticut in 1930-31 (see photos above and below). Ideas developed by Le Corbusier and De Stijl were successfully integrated on the East Coast for the first time in a project such as this freestanding house: the flat roof, the unadorned geometric forms and large windows, the free flowing interior spaces, the rooftop garden, and technological devices such as central heating and air conditioning. The Field House was described in the 1934 edition of Decorative Art these photos came from as “The Machine for Living”.

Lescaze’s own house and studio in Manhattan which he designed and built 1933-34, may be the first modernist house in New York City. It sat among a row of 19th century brownstones, its white concrete and glass bricks proudly proclaiming its difference. This 1938 Beatrice Abbott photograph clearly shows the contrast between Lescaze House and its 19th century neighbor. Continuing in an uncompromising modernist vein, Lescaze’s exterior facade features a white concrete rectangle punctuated with rectangles comprised of glass bricks, no applied ornamentation, no historical references and little aesthetic consolation to its context apart from the scale and floor divisions. Glass bricks were almost unknown in the US at this time but had been used in Europe, by Le Corbusier for one, but most notably in Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet’s “Maison de Verre” of 1927-32. In Lescaze House, the glass bricks create “window-walls” that are impervious to the human gaze but let light penetrate, both from outside in during the day, and from inside out at night, to spectacular effect (see below photograph of the house at night).

Lewis Mumford was particularly excited about the clearly visible number on the house’s facade: “plain numbers and visible signs,” he wrote, “ are one of the real contributions of modern architecture. Howe & Lescaze set an excellent precedent in their Philadelphia bank.” (Sidewalk Critic, p.116) I couldn't see the number so can only assume it's gone. Mumford was also excited about the use of airconditioning and Lescaze’s maximization of light in a city where bringing natural light into 19th century brownstones was proving challenging for modernist architects.

The house follows a basic brownstone footprint with a narrow street frontage, but this particular site extends back an unusually long way. It comprises four stories: the right-hand stairs go down to the ground floor studio and office space for Lescaze’s architectural practice; the left-hand stoop goes up to the first floor, comprising kitchen, dining room and library; the second floor contains bedrooms; and the third floor a living room. The interior follows the logic of the exterior – absence of applied ornamentation in favor of austere geometric forms, an emphasis on spare, functional furnishings and technological innovation. With the exception of the piano and a couple of Aalto bentwood chairs, all of the furniture was designed by Lescaze.

The third storey living room (above) was described in Decorative Art as follows: two walls were painted “chrome yellow” with the wall facing the street comprised entirely of glass bricks and the rear wall almost entirely windows. Built in furniture was made from walnut, and the carpet, upholstry and fabrics were described as “chocolate-colored”. While the emphasis was on natural light, artificial lighting in the house was mainly concealed in alcoves behind built-in units. Technological innovations included a central radio with speaker extensions in every room, telephone extensions in every room and “heating and ventilation by air-conditioning”, unheard of in domestic interiors at this time.

The dining room, overlooking the rear terrace (which sat atop the ground floor studio), featured walls painted a light, neutral color, grey rubber floor tiles and chromium-plated furniture upholstered in corduroy. Lescaze House is an exercise in design for a modern lifestyle: Lescaze was interested in efficiency and simplicity in housekeeping, economy in materials and labor, as well as maximizing the health-giving properties of natural light both in the interiors and through the rear terrace (the floor of which was partially made of glass bricks, to allow light to penetrate the studio below). Lescaze developed his modernist ideas further with a series of projects for the broadcaster CBS in the late 1930s and finally, in a fulfilment of his earlier ambition to build large-scale modernist housing, through his work on the Williamsburg Housing Development in Brooklyn (1935-38).

Color photographs of Lescaze House and PSFS Building by D.J. Huppatz


Albrecht, Donald, and Thomas Mellins, “Going Gershwin”, Interior Design, March 2007 (article on Lescaze and Howe’s PSFS Building).
Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York, proposal to designate the Lescaze House as a Landmark, January 27, 1976.
Lanmon, Lorraine Welling, William Lescaze, Architect, Philadelphia: The Art Alliance Press, 1987.
Wojtowicz, Robert, ed., Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford’s Writings on New York, New York: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Aug 23, 2008

Kenneth Goldsmith: the New York Trilogy

Kenneth Goldsmith’s “conceptual writing” has been the subject of some debate in recent years, much of it fuelled by Goldsmith’s provocative and quotable quotes. In interviews and theoretical essays, Goldsmith refers to his writing as “boring”, “unreadable”, “uncreative”, and even describes himself as “the most boring writer that has ever lived” (from Goldsmith’s
Conceptual Writing Journal. See also the extensive bibliography on his EPC site). While such quotes make “controversial” copy for literary journals and fodder for online debates, it seems that much of the critical material on his writing is actually framed by Goldsmith’s own terms. He has shaped the discussion of his own work so that it focuses almost exclusively on the creative processes he uses and his theories about them. To emphasize this focus on the process rather than the end product, Goldsmith stated recently: “You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.” (Conceptual Writing Journal) Given that the author died some time late last century, why are we still intent on granting authority to his (sic) ghostly voice? In the following reading of Goldsmith’s recently completed Trilogy – comprising the books Weather (2005), Traffic (2007) and Sports (2008) – I want to put aside Goldsmith’s framing of his work as merely conceptual processes and instead attempt to read the unreadable.

The process common to all three books of the Trilogy is transcription: transferring oral language into written language. In Weather, Goldsmith transcribes a year’s worth of daily weather reports from a radio station; in Traffic, he transcribes a twenty-four hour period of traffic reports at ten minute intervals; and in Sports, he transcribes an entire Yankees-Red Sox baseball commentary. This kind of appropriation and reframing has many precedents in twentieth century creative (or uncreative, if you will) practice, and Goldsmith himself has pointed out many of these — Dada, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Pop Art, Language Poetry — in fact, Goldsmith’s remarkable
Ubuweb can be seen as an ongoing charting of this territory. While the idea of creativity as simply recontextualizing something already out there in the world seems hardly revolutionary in the visual art world, for some reason poetry, at least in its popular understanding, seems inextricably linked to individual expression. Poetry has remained, for some at least, the last bastion of the personal, the private, the intimate and the profound. If we were to adopt this definition of poetry as profound and personal, Goldsmith’s transcriptions of public voices communicating everyday information would seem boring and trivial. But are Goldsmith’s books any more mundane than, say, Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, comprising photographs of cowboys appropriated from various Marlboro advertisements? Are these books unreadable? Perhaps not for a generation growing up in a culture that is comfortable with “uncreative” musical forms such as mashups, regurgitating past design and fashion styles in various manifestations of retro, and the staged intimacy of MySpace and Big Brother.

Although Goldsmith has referred to this trio of books as his “American Trilogy”, the subject matter is actually more specific than that. Despite the implication of conceptual writing’s universality, these works are the product of a particular American city, New York (although many New Yorkers seem to believe that New York is America). The “New York” Trilogy is also more fitting given the specificity of the material Goldsmith appropriates – New York City weather reports (Weather), New York City traffic reports (Traffic) and the commentary from a New York Yankees baseball game (Sports). On this note, earlier Goldsmith books might also be seen in a New York context. In Soliloquy (2001), for example, he transcribed every word he spoke for a week, and given he lives in Manhattan, New York references abound. In Day (2003), he transcribed every word of the New York Times. Rather than read Goldsmith’s New York Trilogy as simply the end product of conceptual processes, it is also productive to read the Trilogy as the documentation of the specific rhythms and voices of twenty-first century New York.

The Weather

The first book of the New York Trilogy, The Weather, comprises transcriptions of daily radio weather reports. Each daily report is a paragraph long, and they are arranged into four sections according to the seasons. New York City’s weather is characterized by its dramatic variations – from Summer’s humid, tropical heat, to Winter’s accumulations of snow; from Fall fogs and Spring flood warnings from melted snow, to high winds from off-shore typhoons. While New York City is at the center of The Weather, its weather patterns are not restricted to geographical or political divisions of the city. Cold fronts move across state and county lines, creating a space in which the city is connected to Long Island, New Jersey, the counties of the Hudson River Valley, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Even storms out in the Atlantic Ocean spread moisture or raise winds in midtown Manhattan.

Given New York’s hectic pace and intense pressure, the weather is a significant factor on its circulation systems (traffic, airports, subway and rail systems) and subsequently a cause of much anxiety for its residents. Imagine, for example, a similar project appropriated from, say, Sacramento’s weather reports – not only would there be the absence of dramatic seasonal contrasts, but due to the slower pace of life, there would also be less riding on a particular storm. In New York’s dense urban environment in which nature is tightly controlled (Central Park is a prime example of this), the weather’s elemental forces still affect everyday life, despite our scientific attempts at anticipating them. This sense of unpredictable forces is displayed in the following quote by both the uncertain language and the imprecise means of tracking and measuring these forces:

“Ah, yes, indeedy, and actually it’s a ... uh, you know... fairly tranquil as well, with sunshine getting dimmed by high mid-level clouds, high temperature thirty-four degrees. Clouds easily thicken tonight, low thirty. That’s the easy part of the forecast. The question mark is whether or not the, uh, rain that’s currently over the Delmarva Peninsula will actually come this far north, or will it get to a certain point over central Jersey, then pivot offshore?”

This short excerpt may also belie Goldsmith’s claim about his writing being “boring” – presumably, a truly boring weather report would be the purely “informational” language from a newspaper or internet source (ie. written language). In these radio transcriptions, the human voices are distinct and the language is idiosyncratic. The informational aspect of the language is not the only focus – reading The Weather as literature is very different from listening to today’s forecast in order to find out whether you should be wearing a coat or packing an umbrella. Even supposedly “functional” information often abounds in poetic phrases such as “clouds easily thicken tonight”, a snow system that seems to be “hustling away”, or this evocative imagery to describe the movement of a storm front:

“Feels pretty quiet across the country this evening. We do have a front, uh, draping from Michigan back into the Central Plains, and curling back up into the northern Rockies.”

The tension between a scientific/technological, or “objective”, means of measuring heat, cold and wind, and “subjective” human perception is highlighted in The Weather by the numerous references to the “real feel” temperature. “Real feel” takes us beyond the precision of “scientific” measurements where wind chill can make the air temperature seem colder than measured by instruments (see also Marjorie Perloff’s essay "Moving Information": On Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather). Doubt begins to creep in at various points as this conflict between the objective and subjective appears from time to time, but nowhere more so than on Ground Hog Day, when the official groundhog meteorologists of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio offer differing forecasts:

“Now Staten Island Chuck did not see his shadow, meaning that Spring is, uh, getting reading to spring. But of course, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter. We’ve also heard from, uh, from, uh, Buckeye Chuck out in Ohio, and he agrees with Staten Island Chuck, and they’re against old Punxsutawney Phil. So, uh, we’ve got battling groundhogs here, and I guess time will tell, as it usually does.”

Here, scientific and technological precision is replaced by mythology as the movements of the unwitting groundhogs predict how much longer winter will be. Even comedy enters the forecasts occasionally, as displayed in this irresistible example of meteorological humor:

“It’s going to be beautiful today, high temperature sixty-eight with the sunshine. We do have bad news for one Halloween monster, however, who likes to fly it’s kites in a thunderstorm, the Franklinstein. Anyway, partly cloudy tonight, going down to fifty-eight.” (sic)

The Weather is neither unreadable nor boring, and indeed these terms say more about contemporary expectations of what constitutes literature and how to read it than they do about Goldsmith’s creative processes. The transcription and repetition of daily reports allows us to reflect on the content, language and aims of this everyday language, exposing it as compressed fragments of scientific data, technological measures, poetic imagery and phenomenological experience. In a New York context, the narrative traces the city’s ongoing struggle to measure and predict natural forces that ultimately remain beyond our control.


Goldsmith’s second book of the Trilogy, Traffic, comprises transcriptions of New York City traffic reports taken at ten minute-intervals over a twenty-four hour period. Like The Weather, Traffic charts the rhythms of the city’s circulation system. While constructed and artificial, the city’s traffic patterns seem to have the randomness and unpredictability of the weather. Both weather and traffic reports are commentaries on the present (current conditions of the skies or the roads) as well as predictions about the future – while the weather forecast warns us to take a jacket, the traffic forecast warns us to avoid the George Washington Bridge. As well as auto traffic conditions, the reports also occasionally update information on railroads, ferries and water taxis. At one point during the morning gridlock, a reporter even recommends riding a bike or walking.

For his traffic reports, Goldsmith has chosen not just any day, but a particular day, that is, the beginning of a major holiday weekend in New York, when there is bound to be a lot of traffic, and a corresponding amount of drama. The narrative begins with image of “midnight gridlock” as traffic delays caused by road repairs, accidents, and a stalled bus convey the unpredictability of New York’s traffic:

“Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You're talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that.” (12:01, opening lines)

By two or three in the morning, traffic clears for a few hours before the remarkable morning rush hour begins around 5am, when the situation is like this:

“Well, the weekend getaway morning rush is in full swing and what a doozy it is. It looks like some of the first early delays I'm seeing here on the, uh, Jam Cam is on the westbound side of the Long Island Expressway service road coming up towards the, uh, Grand Central Parkway in Queens as I see it live on the Jam Cam. So it's gonna be, uh, again, the makings of a rough ride.” (5:01am)

While the vocabulary of Traffic is generally not as colorful as that of The Weather, New York traffic reporters often resort to metaphor (“Hudson River horror show”), quirky phrases (“what a doozy”) and sponsored jargon (“Panasonic Jam Cam”). Most notably, they have a particularly extensive range of descriptions for a traffic jam and its effects: stacked up, jammed-up, gridlock, backed-up, bumper to bumper, tie-up, clogged up, slowdown, extra heavy traffic, snail’s pace, absolutely crawling, big backup, a major mess, a total mess. While the reports are generally less “poetic” than those in The Weather, the particular rhythm of Traffic is established during the morning part of the narrative via a refrain at the end of most paragraph-long reports. This appears as a variation on the line, “Alternate side around town suspended, but you do have to pay the meters.” (10:41)

The refrain recurs all day in variations such as:
“Alternate side suspended for today.” (11:31)
“Alternate side remains suspended, you will have to pay the meters, though.” (11:51)
“Alternate side is suspended around town but you do have to feed the meters.” (12:21)
“Remember, alternate side of the street parking is suspended today and for the duration of the weekend.” (3:31)

The Weather featured a similar rhythm established through a repetition of the day’s temperature at the end of many reports (“Repeating the current temperature thirty-five headed up to forty in midtown.”). Such refrains make the book as a whole readable by establishing rhythmic continuity. Traffic’s story is ultimately that of New York City’s remarkable traffic situation – its decrepit, overburdened infrastructure and problematic auto-dependency. Finally, New York traffic delays are measured in time lost or gained by taking this or that route, indicating that space has been eclipsed by time, and time itself is at the mercy of traffic’s uncontrollable circulation patterns.


Sports, a transcription of an entire New York Yankees game, opens with perhaps the most provocative sentences of all Goldsmith’s appropriations: “1 800 LAW CASH reminds you that this copyrighted broadcast is presented by authority of the New York Yankees and may not be reproduced or retransmitted in any form. And the accounts and descriptions of the game may not be disseminated without the express written consent of the New York Yankees.” Despite Sports also being a transcription from a New York radio station, it is immediately marked as a different information type to that of the previous two books. Here, the information is “owned” by the Yankees corporation and supported by corresponding copyright laws. Presumably Goldsmith is breaking the law by appropriating and “reproducing” the broadcast (technically, though he might escape prosecution on “creative” grounds. Note too that “law” and “cash” are intimately linked, and given copyright law generally comes into effect when there is cash involved, Goldsmith is probably pretty safe circulating this text as literature).

As with Traffic, Goldsmith’s choice of material in Sports is not completely random. This particular game is between the New York Yankees and their old rivals, the Boston Red Sox –not just any baseball game, but a competition marked by intense rivalry, tradition, and, as it happens, drama as well. Unlike the anonymous voices featured in the previous two volumes of the New York Trilogy, the voices here are those of well-known Yankees radio commentators, John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. Less immediately accessible than traffic or weather reports, baseball commentary has a particular vocabulary and its own odd rhythms, as this excerpt describing the end of a Red Sox inning, displays:

“Here’s the 2-2 outside 3 and 2. David Ortiz on deck. Cora leads off second, Youkilis leads off first, two out bottom of the sixth. Myers deals swung on and lined to center. Damon toward right center, makes the catch and ends the inning. No runs, one hit, two left. And now, at the end of six innings of play, it’s 10-7 Boston on the Yanks Radio Network.”

While the informational aspect of language may be lost on baseball-illiterate readers, the game’s narrative unfolds dramatically and the characters and key moments soon become apparent. The characters include the hapless Yankees starting pitcher Sidney Ponson (who the commentators are down on before he’s even pitched a ball); Boston’s unstoppable and in-form players, Manny Ramírez and “Big Papi” David Ortiz (“Is he powerful? Does he have strength?” the commentators ask); and the flamboyant Yankee sluggers Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Key moments include the remarkable outfield catch by Robbie Cano in the bottom of the second innings and Johnny Damon’s two run homer that breaks the game’s stalemate.

Indeed, as the commentators point out late in the game, this is not just any game of baseball, but a particularly long one, and a potentially historic one: “… if this was done in the 30s or 40s or 50s it and you’ve read about it, you’d say, oh I wish I had been there. I can’t believe that it happened. And it’s not over! It’s not even close to being over.” The passion builds until the commentary reaches fever pitch in the seventh inning, with the excitement expressed via exclamation marks and staccato delivery:

“The pitch to Cano lined hard. Base hit! Right center field! Scoring is Abreu! Scoring is A-Rod! Cano holds at first. It’s a two-run base hit for Cano. The Yankees have scored seven runs in the seventh inning and they take a 14-10 lead. Is that amazing? Is that utterly amazing? Timlin has gotten racked.” And this drama continues to build, right to the final lines of the book: “Ball game over! Yankees win! The Yankees win!”

While there were elements of sponsorship that seeped into the commentary in Traffic (notably the “Panasonic Jam Cam”), the baseball commentary of Sports reads as a series of seamless shifts between commentary of the game and advertising material. These juxtapositions of different information types create odd, almost surreal conjunctions such as: “When Bernie Williams grounded out to short to end the top of the third, that was the fifteenth out and GEICO wants to remind you that a fifteen minute call can save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance.” Or this section comprising a sponsor’s phrase followed by a game score followed by some commentator humor followed by the real-time game commentary again: “We are coming to you live from the Loews broadcast booth let’s build something together. We’re in the top of the seventh, one out, no one on, the Yankees are trailing 10-7 in the nightcap which is what I need. The pitch is outside.” Such a compressed pastiche of languages (advertising, statistical information, humor and baseball commentary) and space-time shifting might have been considered text-book postmodernism in the 1980s, but here, postmodern pastiche has become part of an everyday language experience.

Datascapes of Grass

Goldsmith’s radio transcriptions translate ephemeral, spoken voices into permanent, material words. What readers might initially regard as “functional” information, when considered in another context, become very different – when written and read as literature, specific vocabularies, rhythms and linguistic idiosyncrasies become apparent. In the New York Trilogy, Goldsmith has framed a sliver from three everyday information flows and frozen it for close scrutiny, or, to adopt the contemporary phrase, “slow reading”. However, the process of transcription is not entirely objective or as mechanical as Goldsmith would have us believe. As other critics have pointed out, the process of transcription itself is subjective – even on a practical level, how do you to record the ums and ahs, pauses (ellipsis or not?) and indicators of tone (include an exclamation mark or not?). Inevitably, subjective expression (how to express a pause, a question, an exclamation) and “mishearing” creep in (Goldsmith’s earlier book Head Citations, a compendium of “misheard” pop song lyrics, is an illustration of the latter).

The focus on speech also places the New York Trilogy in a specifically local tradition extending from Walt Whitman’s appropriation of the rhythms and voices of nineteenth century New York to the Beats or New York School’s appropriation of the rhythms and voices of post-war New York. Unlike these however, Goldsmith’s language is appropriated directly from the meteorologist, the traffic reporter and the commentator, with minimal mediation by the author. Despite this, Goldsmith still plays the role of the creative genius transcribing readymade material from the everyday, rather than from the turbulent voices within. In this way, both his work and persona continue the avant-garde lineage of artists such as Duchamp, Cage and Warhol. Despite Goldsmith’s emphasis on the conceptual process, or perhaps because of his emphasis on the conceptual process, there remains a lingering attachment to the figure of the author (perhaps reflecting less the 19th century romantic artist and more the contemporary cult of celebrity). In this context, conceptual writing is as much a form of literature as it is performance art, and claims by Goldsmith that his work is boring and unreadable are all part of the act.


While you should buy Goldsmith's books via
SPD and read them for yourself, you could also download complete copies of The Weather, Traffic and Sports, as well as plenty of other Goldsmith material from his EPC site. I only have a copy of Traffic and read the other books online, hence the absence of page numbers in the quotations above.

My November 2007 review of Drew Gardner's Petroleum Hat.
My July 2007 review of Nada Gordon's Folly.

All photos by D.J. Huppatz, NYC 2007

Aug 10, 2008

Design in the Divided City, or, the Myrtle Avenue Style

“But I saw a street called Myrtle Avenue, which runs from Borough Hall to Fresh Pond Road, and down this street no saint ever walked (else it would have crumbled), down this street no miracle ever passed, nor any poet, nor any species of human genius, nor did any flower ever grow there, nor did the sun strike it squarely, nor did the rain ever wash it. For the genuine Inferno which I had to postpone for twenty years I give you Myrtle Avenue, one of the innumerable bridlepaths ridden by iron monsters which lead to the heart of American emptiness. If you have only seen Essen or Manchester or Chicago or Lavallois-Perret or Glasgow or Hoboken or Canarsie or Bayonne you have seen nothing of the magnificent emptiness of progress and enlightenment. Dear reader, you must see Myrtle Avenue before you die, if only to realize how far into the future Dante saw.”

Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn, 1938

The Post Office

Regulated by airport-style retractable tape barriers, the line at the Myrtle Avenue post office snakes around the room to the door, so there is ample time to stand and contemplate the space. It is what you might term “functional”, though perhaps not in the sense that modernist architects had in mind. Little natural light penetrates the barred windows; instead, rows of fluorescent lights illuminate the scene, highlighting the aesthetic sense of a rundown institutional space that may have once been deemed “public”. There is little attempt at “design” in any designer sense: the hardwearing vinyl flooring is speckled in faded pink and gray, worn off-white walls are decorated with a few recent posters for stamps, a self-serve stamp machine stands by the door, a couple of wooden desks strewn with trash stand opposite the teller windows, and a blank TV monitor perches high in one corner. Nothing removable remains in the public space of the post office – no envelopes, boxes or other packaging items. For fear of theft, they are kept behind the teller windows.

The line of impatient people faces a wall of plexiglas teller windows. Shatterproof, bulletproof, the two-inch thick plexiglas screen that separates me from the teller makes it difficult to communicate. The teller speaks into a microphone, I yell at the plexiglass screen, conscious of exaggeratedly articulating my words so as to help the teller lip-read. The transaction between us takes place with the aid of a simple but ingenious device built into the plexiglass screen. It is a kind of hatch containing scales that allows the teller to put boxes or envelopes onto the scales by lifting a screen while the plexiglas screen remains down on the customer side. Then, by pushing a metal bar through, the hatch can be opened on the customer’s side but not on the teller’s side. The metal bar mechanism ensures both sides cannot be open at once, thus no bodily contact is possible between the people involved in the transaction. The transaction is finally completed by exchanging stamps and cash via a metal cash tray cut into the plexiglas. Once outside, I turn to admire the functionalist exterior – a plain concrete stucco façade with only metal window grills for decoration.

The Liquor Store

Walking down the street, I stop in at the liquor store and, upon stepping through the door, immediately find myself enclosed within a plexiglas container, roughly twelve by five feet. Behind the plexiglas, I can see the bottles of whiskey, vodka, champagne and wine, but cannot touch them. I cannot handle them, read the labels or check prices. As at the post office, I must shout my order through a plexiglas screen to the teller, who passes out my bottle through a hatch where I also deposit my cash onto a metal tray which the teller scoops out the other side. If the teller likes the look of me, he may push a button and a door opens so I can walk in behind the plexiglass container to actually handle the bottles. Given that I’m white and generally fairly well-dressed, I get in, but I have seen people refused entry. Most customers simply shout their orders through the plexiglas screen.

I sometimes frequent another liquor store less than a mile away. In fact, more specifically, it is a boutique wine store which sells “handcrafted wines” from small wineries around the world. In contrast to the Myrtle Avenue liquor store, the wine store is an open space with racks of wine bottles lining the walls. There is no plexiglas. It is a space to browse and to linger, with two benches to sit down on. The staff are happy to engage in conversation about wine, the weather, or just about anything. Of course, the wine is not cheap, but if you’ve lived in the divided city long enough, you can sense that unconsciously from the design before you even begin checking the prices.

The 99 Cent Store

Finally, I stop in at the 99 cent store. Before I even enter the 99 cent store, I encounter the merchandise spilling out onto the street – wire racks crammed with clothes, brooms and kitchen items surround the entrance. Inside, to the right, stand racks crowded with an assortment of clothes, loosely organized according to gender, with prominent prices on handwritten cardboard signs above each rack (2.99, 3.99, 5.99). In front of these lie an expanse of plexiglass trays on low tables which contain a colorful assortment of shoes, belts, socks, hats and other accessories. Beyond the clothes are towels, cleaning products, kitchen accessories, curtains and bedding. On the other side of the store I find stationary, personal hygiene products, gifts, toys, electronic goods (including toasters, blenders and stereos), pots and pans and small furniture items. The goods are displayed on wire hanging frames or metal shelving, much of which is difficult to see due to the sheer volume of merchandise covering every possible space. The store is lit by rows of fluorescent lighting above, with floors of beige vinyl tiles below my feet. I wonder if the owners used same floor and lighting designer as the post office and liquor store.

The 99 cent store is a down-market department store, a cornucopia of surplus generic commodities made in developing countries dumped together for high-turnover sales. What all of these commodities share is their generic, un-designer nature, the absence of brand names and poor quality. Instead of quality or designer brand names, there is an emphasis on volume – this is the lowest base of American consumerism – a mass of products that are neither environmentally nor socially sustainable, but cheap and disposable. Within the cramped space stuffed with merchandise, I notice the absence of fitting rooms, attendants, and, on my way out, the absence of designer carry bags (strictly black plastic bags).

Design and Differentiation: the Divided City

In his book, Objects of Desire, Adrian Forty argues that design functions as a means of social differentiation. In his analysis of late 19th century manufactured goods, he suggests that their design “became the incarnation of contemporary ideas of social difference.”(Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750, Thames & Hudson: London, p. 63) It is worth extending this idea into the 21st century to consider these contemporary Myrtle Avenue spaces in terms of how they both reinforce and create social differentiation in New York. Myrtle Avenue, until recently known as “Murder Avenue” due to its high homicide rate, is situated in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Central Brooklyn. The street is currently the site of a predominantly white middleclass incursion into a depressed, predominantly African-American neighborhood – it is thus also an exemplary site for analysing design’s role in urban social dynamics. Following sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, spatial experiences within the city become primary vehicles for the coding and reproduction of social relations (see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Havard: Harvard University Press, 1987). Within the safety of nearby middleclass enclaves, the experience of retail spaces and consumption patterns changes markedly.

The Myrtle Avenue style typifies many spaces in New York’s depressed neighborhoods, far from Manhattan’s starchitect-designed fashion boutiques, hotels, restaurants and condo towers, and beyond the New York design and architecture featured in books and glossy journals. While my examples are from a particular Brooklyn context, these types of spaces are not uncommon in other large American cities. Initially, I was fascinated by the phenomenological experience of such spaces and how they create and reinforce alienation. This is thus an initial attempt to make these spaces visible, as part of an ongoing project of analysing design and architecture in the divided city. In this sense, it is also an analysis of “everyday life” in the mode of Henri Lefebvre’s writings and its more specific outcomes in architectural theory such as Steven Harris and Deborah Berke’s, Architecture of the Everyday, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997. The Myrtle Avenue spaces analysed here can be seen as very specific instances of Lefebvre’s alienation produced by the anonymity and sterility of everyday spaces (see also Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, originally published 1974).

The Myrtle Avenue Style is an outcome of the divided city, a geographic phenomenon which has its basis in the inequality brought about by, on one hand, the shift to a postindustrial city and, on the other, the new style of capitalism, neoliberalism, and its effects on urbanization. From the mid-1970s, New York’s economy has gradually changed from a predominantly industrial one with a strong manufacturing base to a postindustrial city whose 21st century economy is increasingly reliant on the financial and real estate sectors (see the recent book by Kim Moody, From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present, New Press: New York, 2007). While the divided city metaphor is more complex than simply a wealthy white/poor African-American and Hispanic dichotomy that some critics have suggested in the past, it is certainly a useful image of socio-economic differentiation at the extremes, and can be usefully extended to architecture and urbanism. Following geographer David Harvey’s recent thesis on the uneven development of global capitalism, the Myrtle Avenue style highlights uneven design within the global city (David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, London: Verso, 2006).

The Myrtle Avenue style might otherwise be termed defacto design for the poor. These are the spaces inhabited by those excluded from the recent stock market booms, by migrants and poor African American and Hispanic populations who stock the low-wage sectors of the city’s economy, typically working for the professional classes of Manhattan or gentrified Brooklyn. However, former depressed areas such as Myrtle Avenue and its surrounding streets, which comprise rows of late 19th century brownstones, have become attractive for New York’s professional classes as a cheaper alternative to Manhattan.

Other Spaces

New York design is typically situated in Manhattan’s expanding zones of conspicuous consumption that have increasingly become characterized by spectacle. From Times Square to designer hotel lobbies, from fashion boutiques to starchitect-designed condo towers, New York offers a vast smorgasboard of designer “culture”, a series of spectacular experiences that have been sanitised for easy consumption by tourists and local flaneurs alike. This is an image of the designer city constantly repeated not just in architecture and design journals, but just as importantly, in film and TV series. Manhattan has largely become a series of spectacular images, organised theatrically through an eclectic mix of styles, historical quotations, ornamentation and technological effects.

The Myrtle Avenue spaces described above are a long way from this image-world of conspicuous consumption. These are functional, anonymous spaces of exclusion and distancing. If designer Manhattan spaces such as fashion boutiques and hotel lobbies are stage sets on which we can play out our consumer fantasies, the Myrtle Avenue spaces such as the post office, liquor store and 99 cent store frame and limit our possibilities. There is nothing of the heightened aesthetic of Manhattan’s designer spaces – hotel lobbies by Philippe Starck, for example, which might epitomise the “culture of distraction” for those with the luxury of time to be distracted, or “lifestyle living” in starchitect-designed condos for those who can afford it (see also my detailed analysis of recent starchitect-designed condos in New York, Designing Lifestyle in 21st century New York: Starchitect Condos).

Compare, for example, the 99 cent store described above with the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada flagship store in Soho. In a retro-fitted warehouse, Koolhaas has seamlessly blended the worlds of retail shopping and entertainment. Beyond the huge picture windows onto the street, I enter a cavernous open space and descend a staircase, creating glamorous fantasy of being on display. Hanging cabinets for clothes, though vaguely industrial, gleam with clean, shining surfaces. An excessively large cylindrical glass elevator takes shoppers up and down one floor. In the main shopping space below, numerous playful cameras and plasma screens scattered amongst the clothing racks create visual effects to distract and entertain. Mobile display shelving and constantly changing décor add to the entertainment experience. Rather than plexiglas, Koolhaas installed high-tech privalite glass on the fitting room doors that change from transparent to opaque with the flick of a switch. With helpful attendants, designer shopping bags, and numerous high-tech distractions, Koolhaas has created a glamorous phenomenological experience, with the freedom to wander, explore and enjoy the visual pleasures.

In contrast, the Myrtle Avenue spaces are spaces that discipline and exclude. Rather than the enchanted world of the designer boutique, the Myrtle Avenue style, with its plexiglas barriers, reflects the disenchanted world of raw paranoia. This type of vernacular design is unlikely to appeal to postmodernists who valorise the vernacular (literal followers of Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s “Learning from Las Vegas” thesis). It is difficult to aestheticize or romanticise these spaces, with their absence of decoration, seduction, or nostalgic appeal. However, there is also nothing contrived on Myrtle Avenue, either, nothing artificial or hidden – these spaces, based on raw exchanges, are functional, but perhaps not in a way that Le Corbusieur or Mies would have appreciated.

While there is nothing as sophisticated as a panopticon in these spaces, much of the design of the Myrtle Avenue style functions to allay paranoia – particularly through the separation of customer from retailer via plexiglas in the liquor store and post office. It is also worth noting the similarity here to the design of contemporary prisons, or, as the current euphemism has it, the design of “justice facilities”. Contemporary justice facilities are likewise founded on paranoid walls of plexiglas and similar techniques of separation and exclusion. Ironically enough, the fantasy spaces of Manhattan bars, cafes, restaurants, galleries, fashion boutiques and hotel lobbies might actually reflect no less paranoia – it is simply the way it is utilized that is different. In designer spaces, discrete cameras and sophisticated electronic monitoring systems take the place of conspicuous plexiglas screens to create a seamless illusion of freedom and mobility.

Urban theorist Oscar Newman’s 1970s treatise on space, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, involved extensive research into various aspects of security through design (See Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, Collier Books: New York, 1972, first published 1970). His research focused on low income housing projects in urban areas, especially New York. The book aimed to offer practical solutions to crime prevention such as creating carefully defined territories, strategically organizing surveillance and modifying existing housing projects to counter possible security threats. While Newman was mounting an argument for maintaining ghettoes (albeit safer ones), unwittingly, he also revealed design’s influence in creating stigma and isolation – public housing projects, for example, stand out clearly from their surrounding milieu, stigmatizing and isolating the poor.

By their design, the Myrtle Avenue spaces confirm our suspicion that the street, indeed the outside world in general, is a fundamentally dangerous place. This is particularly clear at night, when metal shutters come down to seal up the street and even the 24- hour bodegas close their doors. The bodegas, however, continue to do business through an ingenious plexiglas window with a revolving cylinder (see photo below). The customer on the street puts money onto the revolving cylinder which the shopkeeper turns and goods come around onto the street-side. Again, raw exchange and paranoia is at the heart of the Myrtle Avenue experience. Although impossible to quantify, there must be some psychological effects on people’s sense of dignity, trust and self-worth when encountering these spaces on a daily basis.

Here, Michel Foucault’s analysis of power might prove useful. In works such as Discipline and Punish, Foucault analysed the physical body’s subjection to regimes of power through indirect means (rather than direct violence. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books: New York, 1979, especially pp. 25-26). Foucault’s research focused on the subtle training of the physical body by way of daily habits, expectations and power relationships. The Myrtle Avenue Style certainly disciplines and frames bodies as criminal. Where point and shout becomes the habit, muffled communication becomes the norm. In the Myrtle Avenue style, the physicality of the plexiglas barrier, without recourse to physical violence or force, disciplines the customer with its mute impregnability and restriction of movement. Foucault also suggested that disciplinary spaces, rather than stopping criminal behavior (as theorists like Newman had hoped), may actually help create criminals by their exclusion and distancing. Even at the 99 cent store, customers rummaging through merchandise heaped together like unwanted scraps sense a similar exclusion from the designer experiences of Manhattan boutiques.

The Heart of American Emptiness

There is no nefarious power directly behind the Myrtle Avenue style – it is not, for example, designed by government agencies or ruthless corporations; indeed; such spaces are largely overlooked by both government and big business. And of course, they are also overlooked by professional architects, interior designers and the attendant design publishing industry. Such spaces are a physical manifestation of the divided city, a concrete realization of the “other” New York and, to those who inhabit these spaces on a daily basis, a constant reminder and reinforcement of their place within the divided city. Importantly, such physical manifestations of social polarization not only illustrate economic and social conditions, but also reinforce them.

Finally, Henry Miller’s evocation of Dante’s inferno in the opening quotation of this essay is perhaps overstated. There is nothing spectacular or poetic about the Myrtle Avenue style – the sheer banality of such spaces is difficult to aestheticize. Further up Myrtle Avenue from these stores, a walk through the back streets, revealing Brooklyn neighborhoods scarred with years of neglect, decaying housing projects, and streets containing burned out, boarded up buildings, is enough to show that the recent gentrification only extends so far. Myrtle Avenue may be gentrifying in parts, but you don’t have to go too far to find the same design principles and the same phenomenological experience in Brooklyn’s outer neighborhoods. Metaphorically, Miller’s quotation seems prophetic: the Myrtle Avenue style continues into the 21st century as a silent reminder of “the heart of American emptiness… the magnificent emptiness of progress and enlightenment.”

All photos by D.J. Huppatz, Myrtle Avenue 2006-07

Jul 9, 2008

Design in the Divided City

My essay, Design in the Divided City, or the Myrtle Avenue Style, has just been published in the new issue of Design, Philosophy, Politics. While the area is rapidly gentrifying (and I wondered about keeping the Myrtle Avenue Style as part of the title), a recent article in the New York Times suggests that the divisions are still very clear.

Jun 24, 2008

Design-Art: Coding and Recoding Design

While no one today would dare define good design, there are, as I suggested in my recent series Signs of Design, some quite specific objects that design museums and collectors collect, and that regularly fill design magazines, glossy coffeetable books and design websites, suggesting an implicit consensus on good design. These objects, which I’ve referred to as design-art, deserve further analysis as they have come to occupy greater importance in the popular discourse of design in recent years. Despite the fact that some design critics and certainly many designers have tired of the term already, design-art is a useful term that can differentiate a certain group of objects and practices from other uses of the word design that might explain processes and practices beyond the creation of a unique masterpiece. In this sense, design-art and its current ubiquity represent a narrowing of the commonsense understanding of the word design, restricting its application to a small range of rarefied objects destined for life in a white cube.

Design-art, as I discussed in an earlier post, is commonly discussed in terms of either aesthetic or technological progress, or both. A “contemporary masterpiece” of design-art will combine the two seamlessly, preferrably including either a historical or pop cultural reference as well. A single exemplary example will serve here to illustrate how design-art operates: young Dutch designer Jeroen Verhoeven’s 2005 Cinderella Table (image below). The Cinderella Table featured in a 2006 exhibition at MoMA called Digitally Mastered, an exhibition built on the twin themes of innovative technology (“Digitally”) plus a high aesthetic value (“Mastered”). Combining CAD (Computer Aided Design) with CAM (Computer Aided Manufacture), the Cinderella Table is technologically innovative in its use of the latest digitally-aided production techniques – in this case, the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) manufacture of a limited edition plywood table. Verhoeven has created a singular object by firstly designing it on a computer, then cutting the material via a computer-guided machine tool, before finally finishing each table by hand. With its historical references to the Baroque, specifically finely crafted Dutch furniture of the 17th century, the Cinderella Table might be described as digitally-driven neo-Baroque furniture. With its emphasis on a continuous surface, manages to maintain exclusivity not via applied ornament or rare materials but via advanced technological design and manufacturing methods (although the fact that it was hand-finished helps retain the aura of fine craftsmanship).

Jeroen Verhoeven, Cinderella Table, 2005: don't touch the design-art

Although we might marvel at the innovative use of technology here, the fact that the Cinderella Table is presented on a raised dais at MoMA underscores our appreciation of it as an aesthetic object as well as a technological object. Despite reference to an earlier historical period, its fluid forms and lines fit into a contemporary design industry-authenticated “digital aesthetic”. Free of applied ornament, its curvilinear forms and smooth surfaces would look equally at home next to the blobjects of Karim Rashid, Marc Newson or Greg Lynn. Formally, the audience understands the table’s connection to 21st century digital aesthetics. And adding to its significance as a cultural object, it is, importantly, a rare commodity. With only 20 tables produced, and one already in the collection of MoMA and one in the V&A in London, it may be no surprise that another Cinderella Table was recently submitted for auction with an estimate of $180 000. Given yet another Cinderella Table was sold at auction in 2006 for $42 000, design-art has certainly emerged in the last few years as a highly profitable market for musuems, collectors (speculators?) and designers to be involved in.

Design-Art at the Cutting Edge of Capitalism

As well as the combination of aesthetic and technological innovation, the three attributes of rarity, authenticity and ubiquity (via media reproduction) round out an initial definition of design-art. Design-Art debuted at the turn of the 21st century as an ideal synthesis of the contradictory forces of global capitalism – in an increasingly homogenized and mass-produced world, rarity and authenticity become valuable commodities, their value increased via the dissemination of images and the cult of designer celebrity. That is, while there are many images of the Cinderella Table circulating in design magazines and books, there are only twenty “originals” authenticated by the creative genius/designer. This is why it is important that design-art is coded as culture in a very restricted sense and continues to operate within a particular luxury market. The restrictive economy of design-art seeks to repress relationships between design and the broader world, focusing solely on aesthetics and technological innovation. However, that is not to say design-art cannot be recoded – imagine, for example, a Cinderella Table as a curious experiment in a science and technology museum. Or better still, like using a Rembrandt for an ironing board, imagine someone eating their breakfast on one.

Jeroen Verhoeven, Cinderella Table, 2005

Coded as a technological and aesthetic object of the highest value, the object of design-art is destined primarily for visual conusmption – in the private realm of the collector, it functions as an object of conspicious consumption, while in the public realm of the museum, infotainment may well be design-art’s ultimate function. Importantly, the design-art object slips easily into the ideology of contemporary capitalism, similarly founded on technological and aesthetic progress as the means by which to create new markets and extract higher profits. In this way, the “cutting edge” of design advances the interests of a consumer culture founded on continual novelty, built-in obsolescence and technological innovation. Modernist ideas about improving the quality of our lives through design seem so last century in this context, and design-art rise to prominence in the 21st century image-world of distraction is at least partly due to its absence of political or social engagement.

Finally, is significant that design-art is a global phenomenon, although global is used in a restricted sense here, anchored firmly to the North America- Western Europe axis. Not conincidently, New York and London are both key centers of global capital flows and key centers of design-art – form follows finance. What is important here is not only the cosmopolitan class of collectors that consume culture in these cities, but the type of design-art that is likely to appeal to them. Spectacular surfaces and technological innovation travel easily; complex local cultural references do not. Thus design-art cannot be too specifically tied to a particular geographical site or culture, as it needs to be accessible in New York, London, Paris or Tokyo. In this light, design-art may potentially suppress local design as global design celebrities and their objects grab all the attention, focusing design discourse on limited editions produced and collected in New York and a handful of European cities.

Decontextualized in the white cube: MoMA's modern design collection

From Art to Design-Art and Back Again

While thinking about this topic over the past month or so, I picked up a couple of books from the library: the catalogue for the 2004 Cooper-Hewitt exhibition, Design ≠ Art, and a collection of essays, Design and Art, edited by Alex Cole (Whitechapel and the MIT Press, London and Cambridge, Mass., 2007). Both seemed to display a continuing anxiety about maintaining the boundaries between the disciplines art and design, and both seemed to be located firmly on the “art” side of the fence. Design and Art contained some classic essays and interviews by both designers and artists, as well as some excellent new ones. Most of the designers and artists featured in the book still hinge their work on the issues of function and intent – design has a practical function and art doesn’t, and the intention of the artist/designer in determining the trajectory of the work also seemed crucial to its reception as either art or design. Artists such as Jorge Pardo or Andrea Zittel for example, working with industrial design, interior design or architecture, claim their work is art, not design. There still seems to be a lingering sense among practictioners that art is somehow more significant than design.

Unfortunately there is no commentary in the book on design-art from contemporary designers – it would have been interesting to include essays on say, Marc Newson or Philippe Starck to contrast with Zittel and Pardo. But I wonder if function and the intention of the artist/designer are overstated and beside the point. Perhaps a sliding scale between “design” and “art” might be better than a strict boundary, with design-art sliding into the art end of the scale. Ultimately, the context in which your art or design is displayed and reproduced, and how it functions in the world may be the most important issues, regardless of the artist/designer’s intentions, including the intended function of the object. That is, what was once design might be recoded as design-art, as is the case in the images from MoMA above and below – modernism as design-art. The question is, once an object has been coded as design-art, can it be recoded as something else, opening up our definition of design as something more than just rarefied objects in a white cube?

Decontextualized in the white cube: MoMA's modern design collection

Further note

My earlier posts on Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale are a case in this issue of recoding design as design-art (part one and part two). Prouvé saw himself as a designer-engineer and his intention in designing the Maison Tropicale was to produce an absolutely functional house appropriate for the climatic conditions of the French colonies in central Africa. However, despite his intention and the Maison’s functionality, the Maison has been recently recoded as design-art with an emphasis on its innovative technology and aesthetics. The question is, can the Maison be recoded once again in order to re-attach it to its particular historical context, as a colonial object?

All photographs by D.J. Huppatz

Jun 2, 2008

Signs of Design III

Undesign: from Wal-Mart to the 99 Cent Store

While there is not likely to be any controversy in referring to the objects of my previous two categories,
Design-Art and Design For All as design, the products found in a suburban Wal-Mart or corner 99 Cent Store in any American city may stretch the definition of design for some. Indeed, the gallons of print and myriad pixels devoted every day to Design-Art effectively drowns out any focus on the anonymous objects consumed and utilized by most Americans on a daily basis. My focus here is a brief look at the generic urban 99 Cent Store (as I know such places better than Wal-Mart or other discount retailers). Outside of the image world of Design-Art and the designer branding of Design For All, the world of everyday objects at the 99 Cent Store generally falls well below the attention of the designer, design critic or design historian.

“Undesign” is the realm of anonymous design: functional, generic, and above all, low-cost. The typical 99 Cent Store features wire racks crammed with clothes, brooms and kitchen items, clothes and accessories, towels, bedding, stationary, toys and electronic goods (including toasters, blenders and stereos), pots and pans and small furniture items. A kind of generic department store, the 99 Cent Store is a cornucopia of surplus commodities dumped together for high-turnover sales. What all of these commodities share are a particular generic, un-designer nature, poor quality, and the absence of labels. Instead of designer brand names, the 99 Cent Store emphasizes the lowest possible price and largest turnover of volume – this is the lowest base of American consumerism – a mass of cheap and disposable products that are neither environmentally nor socially sustainable.

From a design perspective, is a generic 99 Cent Store toaster without added-value, a brand name and an associated lifestyle experience, still considered an object of “design”? Without brand equity, without a sense of cultural identity, without mythologies or narratives to associate with, a 99 Cent Store toaster seems a long way from a Marc Newson Lockheed Lounge or even a Michael Graves toaster. Do such generic objects, clearly standardized, anonymous and homogeneous, thus seem somehow “inauthentic”? Do we read such industrially produced objects as simply remainders that have not yet caught up with the post-industrial image world? One thing is clear: modes of social distinction enter the picture at this point. The 99 Cent Store, at least in its New York context (the one I know best), is associated with poverty.

In thinking about the 99 Cent Store as the realm of the inauthentic, a single example springs to mind that may challenge the absence of branding point raised above: the Yankees cap. At $3.99, a fake Yankees cap from the 99 Cent Store is certainly cheaper than the authentic, MLB-licensed version, which retails for anywhere from around $25-$30 for a standard design to $50 or more for rare or special editions. The design of Yankees caps and their global ubiquity is worthy of another study. But for my purposes here, even street fashion operates in terms of designer distinctions – the expensive authentic caps are authenticated by silver holographic stickers on the brims (proudly worn on the streets rather than removed, presumably to highlight their authenticity), while the inauthentic versions at the 99 Cent Store have fake stickers (similarly silver but without the holograms). Here is design operating beyond function and clearly in the realm of branding and cultural identity, even at the 99 Cent Store. But this example is a rare exception to the absence of branding rule.

Finally, I imagine a conventional reading of design in the 99 Cent Store (if there were such a reading) would be to analyse the 99 Cent Store in terms of a “trickle-down” theory of design. In this reading, design begins at the top with Design-Art, then trickles down in diluted form to the mass department stores as Design For All, and finally, diluted almost beyond recognition, ends up in the bargain bins of the 99 Cent Store. This “trickle-down” narrative operates on three levels of differentiation: aesthetic (art, good design, utilitarian object), economic (price differentials) and historical (last year’s Design-Art is next year’s Design For All, while the 99 Cent Store is just “so last century”). While designers, design critics and historians are generally focused on the discourses surrounding Design-Art and, to a lesser extent, Design For All, design at the lowest level of consumerism is ignored. Beyond “trickle-down” theories of design, it may well be time to start rethinking design from the bottom up.

Photos of 99 Cent Stores, Brooklyn, NYC, by D.J. Huppatz

May 8, 2008

Signs of Design II

Design for All: Value-Added Lifestyles

In 1999, the retail chain Target began a partnership with architect and designer Michael Graves in an attempt to mass-market “high” design to American consumers. At the time, Graves was best known for his historicist postmodern architecture (exemplified by his 1980 Portland Building in Oregon), as well as his iconic 1985 Bird Whistle Kettle for Alessi. While one path from 1980s sculptural homewares such as the Alessi Kettle was the one towards increasingly rarefied design-art objects outlined in my previous post, Graves took another path with his designs for Target. His whimsical and colorful household objects such as toasters, jugs, blenders and mixers for Target are certainly affordable and reach a mass audience. However, while Graves’ designs may be (arguably) aesthetically pleasing, they seem unlikely candidates for life in a white cube. However subtly sculpted, a plastic toaster for $24.99 is unlikely to set the contemporary art market on fire (see image below) – it is mass produced, widely available and has thus far failed to generate the avalanche of publicity or celebrity cache of a design-art object.

In 2000, Target expanded their designer range, with a line of clothing by fashion designer Issac Mizrahi, followed by products designed by Philippe Starck (since discontinued) and other less well known designers. The fully-fledged commitment to design became Target’s Design For All campaign in 2005, with a series of catchy TV advertisements aimed at heightening awareness about both design and Target’s stable of designers. Minimal biographies and images of the designers help aid a clear association between the formerly discount retailer and “high culture” – an association that even includes Target sponsoring Free Friday Nights at MoMA (although ironically, it is hard to see the Graves toaster ever making it into that hallowed white cube). What’s referred to by the retailer as the “halo effect” of Graves’ reputation as a well-known designer has improved Target’s reputation as a designer destination, or at least more designer than just your average mass market retailer. For Target, design means competitive advantage. However, it is important to note that Target designers like Graves rarely invent new products or new concepts but simply restyle old ones – in this light, Target’s Design For All can be seen as a kind of Streamline design for the 21st century, with Graves' sculpted plastic forms and colourful knobs replacing speed lines and metallic teardrop shapes of the 1930s. Indeed, this is a marketing lesson that designers such as Raymond Loewy practically invented – design, as styling, can improve the bottom line.

However, another more recent Target design example might prove more innovative and suggest an alternative definition of design in the mass marketplace – design as creative problem solving. As part of her 2002 thesis project, Deborah Adler created a new concept for a prescription medicine packaging system when she realized how easy it was for her elderly grandparents to confuse their medication bottles. Adler’s repackaging, which was developed into Target’s ClearRX system in 2005, is more than simply restyling an existing product to effect the bottom line (though it may affect the latter too). The ClearRX medicine bottle has a flat side with easily legible graphics and a simple colored ring coding system to ensure that medicine bottles and their contents are not confused (see image below). While for Target, the ClearRx design may aid in their market strategy of differentiation via design, it is also possible to see design here as a practical and innovative solution to an everyday problem. In this example, design seems to be a long way from the design-art on display in a white cube discussed below.

K-Martha and Shaping Designer Lifestyles

Target’s Design For All has been successful both as a commercial enterprise and in raising consumer awareness about design. Target’s version of design has effectively become a brand associated with an accompanied lifestyle that is distinguished, by design, from anonymous discount objects of a regular mass retailer. An even more successful example of building lifestyle branding through design is Martha Stewart. While Stewart herself may not actually design any material objects, she is a master designer of American lifestyles. And of course, attaining a contemporary lifestyle inevitably requires consuming objects – from Stewart’s books and magazines to her Everyday line of household goods from K-Mart and, most recently, Martha Stewart homes.

If Target’s Design For All suggests an accessible designer lifestyle, Martha Stewart invented the mass market designer lifestyle in the late 20th century. Using her media image as the prototype, Martha’s lifestyle is an incredibly successful design. The image of mom at home cooking, cleaning, entertaining and decorating may well be a Victorian-era image of woman as domestic servant, but it sure sells Everyday cookware at K Mart. Value-added design here means regular pots and pans are imbued, via the Martha Stewart brand, with an associated lifestyle and its inherent values.

In the Martha Stewart artifice, the values are wholesome and absolutely conventional – the celebration of traditional family values and the fantasy of a life of leisure, with ample time to complete complex craft and baking projects. From her country estate farmhouses with invented names such as Turkey Hill and Middlefield suggesting New England pedigree, to advice on polishing silver and restoring antiques, there is an aristocratic fantasy behind all of this too. In the context of her 1980s rise to fame, Stewart’s values coincide perfectly with the return to family values promoted by the Reagan administration (continued by Bush Senior). In this light, her traditional lifestyle can be seen as a reaction to the increasing divorce rate, the war on HIV/AIDS and promiscuity, and most importantly, a counter to the threat of 1970s feminism. And the artifice must be compelling – even the reality of Stewart as an ex-stock broker running a multi-million dollar lifestyle empire whose insider trading resulted in jail time has not unravelled the image world she has designed.

The suburban developments she is currently promoting are worthy of brief analysis. Coated with the veneer of convention, Stewart’s homes are Levittown-style suburban developments for the 21st century lifestyle generation. The white picket fences of the 1950s have been replaced by ranch-style fences to give the impression of a rural community, while development titles such as Hampton Oaks and Lily Pond continue the theme of country estate, despite their location in the suburbs of Atlanta or Los Angeles. Many of the homes are based on New England homes owned or formerly owned by Stewart herself – the Lily Pond series is based on Stewart's shingled Hamptons home, the Katonah series resembles her two colonial homes in Westport, Connecticut, and Katonah, New York. The bizarre sight of a whole suburb of colonial New England house styles in the suburbs of Atlanta, or in Florida or California, complete with the traditional hearth (particularly useful in Florida!) suggests that the Martha gestamkunstwerk places image above both function and context. In contrast to the badge of class distinction offered by contemporary design-art, Martha’s designer world is mass design for the American middle class in an age of insecurity – a safe, conventional artifice to consume. And consume. And consume.

IKEA: the Second Coming of Scandinavian Design

In the 1950s, the first wave of Scandinavian design invaded the United States. Though it began with organic forms and bent blonde wood chairs of Alvar Aalto and others before the war, by the 1950s, Hans Wegner and Bruno Mathesson chairs provided stylish comfort for the design-conscious while Arne Jacobsen’s minimal Ant Chairs began seeping into the mainstream. Through an economy of materials and means, as well as simple organic forms, Scandinavian design gained a reputation for being modern but not too modern, mass-produced and standardized yet maintaining a humanist resonance conveyed through its organic forms, warm wood and textiles. Initially revered by architects and designers in the United States, Scandinavian design did reach a mass market in the 1950s to some degree. But the second coming of Scandinavian design in the 1990s, the IKEA invasion, penetrated much further into mainstream American consciousness.

Scandinavian design already had a certain reputation in America, which IKEA certainly tapped, but it added a crucial ingredient: low cost. Like Target’s Design for All and Martha Stewart’s empire, IKEA came to mean affordability plus the added value of a designer lifestyle. However, while Scandinavian design has traditionally stood for durability and quality materials, IKEA have traded these for an essential ingredient of American consumerism: built-in obsolescence. IKEA’s vast range of blonde wood furniture and practical home accessories are designer yet disposable. A much larger market can now afford to value-add with Scandinavian style in their home and update their designer lifestyles with the changing seasons.

Other attributes which Scandinavian design became well known for in the 1950s – modularity, compactness and flexibility – were imported to America and mass distributed by IKEA on an increasingly larger scale. Their space saving solutions appealed to both city apartment dwellers and excessive consumers in big homes looking for practical ways to house all of their stuff. Designed in Scandinavia by a range of little-known designers, manufactured wherever the cheapest labor is, then flat packed across the globe to consumers everywhere, IKEA have built a global empire based as much on designing systems as products. While earlier Scandinavian designers are regulars in major museums – Aalto, Jacobsen and company – IKEA’s largely anonymous designers seem unlikely to make the cut. But, as with Target’s Design For All and Martha’s Everyday homeware, consumers at this end of the design market may experience a certain “trickle down effect” from the legacy of Aalto and previous generations of Scandinavian designers (now safely housed in white cubes). At Target, K-Mart and IKEA, are consumers ultimately consuming signs of design?