“She’s a show stopper…she’s a jaw dropper…she’s burning hot like fire! She’s my Miss America!”
Tesla is on fire right now! (And I mean that in a good way). If cars had a Miss America pageant, Miss America Electric Vehicle 2013 would definitely be the Tesla Model S. She’s got the personality and the looks. Also, Tesla, the ten-year long shot, made a profit—this is better than the underdog winning the Miss America pageant! Consumer Reports recently gave the Model S a glowing review: “[the Tesla Model S] performed better, or just as well overall, as any other vehicle—of any kind—ever tested by Consumer Reports.” She also received a score of 99/100. Wow. She must have nailed that dance routine. Electric vehicles (EVs) have had some trouble getting out of the gate the past few years—so this review bodes well for the start-up and gives some hope to the EV cause.
The Tesla Model S is still very expensive and does require some more infrastructure planning in order to make it a serious “every-day American driver,” but the sedan is starting to look like the “It girl”–oops, I mean car–of green transportation. So what is different about the Tesla that is making it eclipse other EVs? How did Tesla clinch such a great review and why is she taking the auto world by storm? I’m not an engineer, thus I will not regale you on its potentially superior features that blow its competitors out of the park, but I would like to talk about Tesla’s design.
The bazillionth episode in the tomb-raiding life of Lara Croft hit Tuesday. Most of the previous episodes have not been good. Many came with flaws that rendered them nearly unplayable in spots. Unlike most of the previous, and especially the most recent, installments, reviews for the 2013 installment have not been mixed. Lara is scoring about a 9.25 across the board on video game-review sites. But is this hype fanboys falling in love with a game babe, or a reflection of a strong game that may just bring a storied but troubled franchise back from the dead?
I spent about an hour with the new Tomb Raider, so while I don’t yet have a comprehensive view of the game’s full story arc, I do have some strong first impressions.
Tomb Raider 2013 is an origins story, picking Lara up on an expedition to find a lost civilization off the coast of Japan. A nineteen year old on her first adventure, Lara isn’t yet the boss chick who greeted the gaming world in 1996. She’s young but determined, and convinced that if the expedition changes course, it will find the lost civilization they’re looking for. Changing course also risks entering the Dragon’s Triangle, an allegedly dangerous region of the Pacific similar to the Bermuda Triangle off Florida.
Things go about as you’d expect when a game amps up a threat — the expedition suffers a shipwreck and Lara finds herself stranded and alone. A knock on the head later, and she’s in a creepy, gory cave filled with bones and hanging corpses. It’s environments like this, and Lara’s tendency to lean on a couple of swears when she reacts to threats, that earn the game its M rating. No longer a cartoon, Tomb Raider is a cinematic beast.
The younger Lara is vulnerable. She picks up knocks and wounds. She scavenges and improves weapons as she goes. She gets hungry and has to hunt, which turns this Tomb Raider into more of an open world than any previous episode. She learns skills and, based on the dialogue, learns to overcome her fears. She thinks.
This Lara develops as the story goes, and is far more interesting and more realistically rendered than in any previous episode. She also eats meat, so she is more Duck Dynasty than Morrissey.
The story of Tomb Raider works extremely well, at least in the early going of the game that I’ve played.
Some things just deserve to be shared far and wide. I stumbled upon these adorably clever Valentine’s Day cards designed by Ben Kling. It’s not too late to share one with your sweetie, assuming he or she is intellectually deeper than your average Honey Boo Boo, Kim Kardashian-watching zombie straight out of Fahrenheit 451. If you know the last reference but not the first two you are to be congratulated. To buy yours go HERE.
More satire from Sunny at PJ Lifestyle:
With the publication of Amity Shlaes’ biography of Coolidge, you might expect a sudden burst of Twenties Nostalgia. Everyone will get it wrong. There wasn’t any such thing as “the Twenties.”
But we think there was. The Simpsons’ Kent Brockman summed it up perfectly: “The Twenties! When Al Capone did the Charleston atop a flagpole.”
That’s as accurate as saying that everyone in Seventies was Kung Fu Fighting.
Decades get boiled down to songs, pictures, celebs, and fads, and we think we know them. The Forties: War! Then five years of something-or-other. The Thirties: everyone stood in breadlines waiting for the Wizard of Oz to be released so they could have some color. The decade before the Twenties — well, not so clear. The Titanic sunk, triggering World War One, somehow. The Twenties? Jazz and bathtub gin and F. Scott Fitzgerald throwing up on a flapper during a Jolson movie.
So what was it like? I’m no expert on the era, but I’ve studied the pop culture — movies, songs, magazines — for the segment of my Website devoted to the 1920s. It can be a stubborn era to grasp. The Gatsby stereotypes loom too large; 1929 seems like a different world than 1921; the era that followed reinvented movies and created characters much more vivid than the overacting shades of the silent era. The ‘30s speak to us. The ‘20s gesture.
In retrospect, it seems rather goofy. Like this:
A Woody Allen movie parody — except that’s exactly what it sounded like. Quaint to modern ears. Now try this: a tune made popular by the most unlikely fellow to be known as the King of Jazz, Paul Whiteman. Okay, it’s dated 1930, but this is right out of the top of the bubble.
The song is all over the place, throwing one instrument after the other — full band, then violin and guitar, heading towards that 2:22 spo-de-oh-dee moment where everyone puts their hands up in the air and shimmies their palms. Because the good times are here and youth culture is finally giving grown-up culture a run for its money, and everyone’s spifficated on liquor the crooks brought over the river from Canada.
Here’s what it sounded like if you were there:
It’s different when you hear the Twenties in stereo, isn’t it?
(The graphics chosen for the video, by the way, are from the game “Fallout,” which uses ’50s-style graphics in a post-apocalyptic world. But hey, does it matter? Anything that didn’t happen before 1995 is “retro” now.)
So is that the Twenties? Yes and no. The Twenties led up to that; the music evolved. Everything evolved — or least got faster and racier, if you call that progress. You start with a naughty joke book in 1921, and by the middle of the decade, the lid’s off:
My new car comes equipped with a three month trial subscription to Sirius XM radio and when Patriot Channel talk gets repetitive, I occasionally switch to 60′s on Channel 6, where I know the words to every song.
So the other day I happened to hear a song which really jolted my memory bank. It was A Taste of Honey by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, but while listening, all I could think about was the album cover.
And if you are of a certain age, you know exactly what I mean.
In 1965 when the album, Whipped Cream and Other Delights, was released the cover was considered “veddy” racy.
And here is the hit song, A Taste of Honey from the album.
Whipped Cream was my parent’s album, but even as a Beatles loving 10-year-old I enjoyed it along with them. However, it was the cover that really made an impression. I even remember spreading whipped cream all over my arms in tribute to the girl on the cover.
This Sirius XM Radio childhood flashback got me thinking about what other album covers made lasting, even mind blowing visual impressions. So here is that small stack of album covers which came tumbling off a dusty shelf in the far reaches of my brain — presented in chronological order.
The Mamas and the Papas — If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears
In the middle of 1966 Beatlemania, this album by the Mamas and the Papas was released. To me, the music and the cover were equally impactful, for sitting in a bathtub fully dressed struck me as rather extreme. Chiefly responsible for the brain dent was Michelle Phillips, who was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen, wearing those jeans and cowboy boots. I remember getting into our dry bathtub pretending to be her. Yes, I was an impressionable pre-teen!
The Beatles — Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Of course the most famous album cover in history absorbed hours of 1967 summer time fun for me and my friends as we tried in vain to identify all the faces on the cover. Since we were stumped by so many, I remember having to ask my parents. (Oh the horror of asking your parents to explain a Beatles album cover!) But I had no choice since Google was 31 years in the future. Now, in one Google second here is the complete list. (How I love the modern age!)
Psychedelic flower power anyone? Released in November of 1967, this album cover fascinated me. On the inside I loved Cream’s music too, but something about the album design with all the fuchsia colors, totally blew my 12-year-old mind and opened doors of endless creative possibilities.
Traffic – The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys
This 1971 album by Traffic was so graphically unique with its die-cut design, it truly broke new ground and decades later the title song is still one of my favorite classic rock tunes. So here is a 1972 live version to enjoy, especially if it has been awhile since you have heard Low Spark of High Heeled Boys.
We must not fret about the passing of album cover art for it now lives on the net with many sites dedicated to its greatness. There are also numerous cover art quizzes that will be used as “game time” trivia at nursing homes around 2040 when I am in my 80’s. (Now at my mother’s nursing home they play trivia contest games with Broadway show tunes and my mother is often the proud winner of a new fluffy nap blanket.)
Speaking of getting old, here is the Whipped Cream girl from that famous 1965 album cover now age 76.
So what classic rock covers blew your mind at a tender age?
And if you can recall them now, remember them for later when a new fluffy nap blanket is at stake.
(We take a break from the usual day to day political and media bias stuff for a long rambling discussion on modern architecture and aesthetics written in the first person voice. As with our earlier explorations of the topic, we’ll understand if you bail on this one. And yes, that’s my use of the royal we. At least for this post.)
I’m not sure what initially attracted me to the aesthetics of modernism. I do remember studying Art of Western Civilization in college, which, as with Western Civilization itself, largely concluded with the arrival of the 20th century. But modern art fascinated me — unlike traditional aesthetics, cracking modernism, whether it was architecture, or artists such as Mondrian, was a bit like deciphering a puzzle box. Of course, that complexity was considered a feature, not a bug, by the men who founded the movement. Reviewing C.P. Snow’s 1959 book, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, Orrin Judd of The Brothers Judd book review site and blog wrote:
As Snow notes, as late as say the 1850s, any reasonably well-educated, well-read, inquisitive man could speak knowledgeably about both science and the arts. Man knew little enough that it was still possible for one to know nearly everything that was known and to have been exposed to all the religion, art, history–culture in general–that mattered. But then with the pure science revolution of which Snow spoke–in biology and chemistry, but most of all in physics–suddenly a great deal of specialized training and education was necessary before one could be knowledgeable in each field. Like priests of some ancient cult, scientists were separated out from the mass of men, elevated above them by their access to secret knowledge. Even more annoying was the fact that even though they had moved beyond what the rest of us could readily understand, they could still listen to Bach or read Shakespeare and discuss it intelligently. The reaction of their peers in the arts, or those who had been their peers, was to make their own fields of expertise as obscure as possible. If Picasso couldn’t understand particle physics, he sure as hell wasn’t going to paint anything comprehensible, and if Joyce couldn’t pick up a scientific journal and read it, then no one was going to be able to read his books either. And so grew the two cultures, the one real, the other manufactured, but both with elaborate and often counterintuitive theories, requiring years of study.
Or at very least, a crash course for an enthusiastic auto-didactic to pick up the basics. I began by taking out books on modern art and New York’s Museum Modern Art from my college library and my local public library. Eventually, I came across Henry Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson’s early 1930s book, The International Style, which put modernism on the map in America, and Peter Blake’s mid-‘60s book The Master Builders: Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright, both of which have been perennially in print and still available from the gift shop at NY MoMA. And given that I had loved the Right Stuff, The Purple Decade and The Bonfire of the Vanities, I also read Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House.
Oddly enough, reading From Bauhaus to Our House, I found myself loving the satire, but also finding myself strangely fascinated by the images, in spite of Wolfe’s best efforts to take the mickey out of them. Reading Blake’s Master Builders, and other books on modern architecture, initially, I admired Corbusier’s works, particularly his pre-WWII buildings, but found myself increasingly put off by his post-war efforts, which replaced the white stucco of the homes he designed for his earliest wealthiest patrons with massive forms built largely out of raw concrete. Corbu’s postwar style was dubbed Béton Brut, and the New Brutalism, and brutal it was indeed. (Even Blake, the former editor in chief of Architectural Forum magazine, would have second thoughts.)
But Mies van der Rohe had worked out an architectural language that was logical (or at least seemed logical), and at its best a sort of industrial poetry. It was also the vocabulary of post-war American cities. As Wolfe wrote in From Bauhaus to Our House, Mies, the Bauhaus’s last director, and Walter Gropius, its founder, both settled in America after fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, and both we’re welcomed by academia, as Wolfe famously wrote, as…The White Gods!
Gropius had the healthy self-esteem of any ambitious man, but he was a gentleman above all else, a gentleman of the old school, a man who was always concerned about a sense of proportion, in life as well as in design. As a refugee from a blighted land, he would have been content with a friendly welcome, a place to lay his head, two or three meals a day until he could get on his own feet, a smile every once in a while, and a chance to work, if anybody needed him. And instead—
The reception of Gropius and his confreres was like a certain stock scene from the jungle movies of that Bruce Cabot and Myrna Loy make a crash landing in the jungle and crawl out of the wreckage in their Abercrombie & Fitch white safari blouses and tan gabardine jodhpurs and stagger into a clearing. They are surrounded by savages with bones through their noses—who immediately bow down and prostrate themselves and commence a strange moaning chant.
The White Gods!
Come from the skies at last!
Mies in particular created a sort of systems-based design philosophy, which he taught to his students at the Illinois Institute of Technology, which was essentially his private educational fiefdom in the 1940s and ‘50s. By the 1960s, it became common to say that Mies’s architecture was the easiest architectural language to teach, as Blake himself writes in The Master Builders. But as Chicago-area architectural historian Franz Schulze, Mies’s best biographer, would write in 1985, “Indeed it was not at all, and may have been among the least teachable. The acres of stillborn design in the Miesian manner that transformed the American cityscape in the 1950s and 1960s are a palpable indication of this.”
If you have ever enjoyed a drawing of a wild hot rod, put together a plastic monster kit as a child, or wore a t-shirt embellished with automotive art, you probably owe a debt of gratitude to Stanley Miller, better known as Stanley Mouse, of Mouse Studios. His seminal role in hot rod culture, though, is not that well known because his early success in automotive art was greatly eclipsed by his later work associated with rock ‘n roll. In 1960s San Francisco, Mouse, on his own and with his artistic partner Alton Kelley, created concert posters and album covers that literally changed the face of commercial art. Styles and motifs that Mouse either originated or revived have become so commonplace that his influence can now be widely seen in the work of graphic artists that may not even realize they are channeling Mouse’s work.
If you’ve got a film buff or a friend with an interest in graphic design on your Christmas list, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design, is a giant, heavily illustrated 428-page coffee table book with an enormous “wow” factor – and not coincidentally, a fair amount of heft at seven pounds, with dimensions of 11.7 x 10.6 x 1.7 inches. It was designed by Saul Bass’s daughter Jennifer, and written by design historian Pat Kirkham, who knew Bass personally, with an introduction from longtime Bass admirer Martin Scorsese. It’s published by Laurence King Publishers.
Saul Bass (1920 to 1996) began his career designing the film poster for 1954’s Carmen Jones, and the title sequence the following year for The Man with the Golden Arm, both produced by Otto Preminger. He would go on to design groundbreaking title sequences for Hitchcock’s Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, John Frankheimer’s Seconds and Grand Prix. Along with all of his film work, Bass eventually became a respected corporate graphic designer for such businesses as AT&T, The Bell System, United Airlines, Dixie Cups, Minolta, Lawry’s Foods, Warner Brothers, and Quaker Oats. For many years, his film career and corporate design work overlapped, until his career as a title designer appeared to slow in pace in the 1980s, only to see it revive with such high profile Martin Scorsese films as Goodfellas (which marked the beginning of a career resurgence for Scorsese as well), Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and the last title sequence designed by Bass, Casino.
There are two audiences for this book (with plenty of overlap of course). The first are film lovers and film historians who have thoroughly enjoyed Bass’s title sequences and his contributions to films such as Psycho, including storyboarding shot for shot its legendary shower sequence, which this new book discusses at length. The second are students of graphic design. Much of the work that Bass created would be rendered infinitely with today’s technology such as Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and Adobe After Effects. And yet, Bass created his iconic still images and what we now refer to as “motion graphics” decades before such computer technology existed. As with the soundscapes that George Martin created for the Beatles 20 years before digital synthesizers and samplers, these pioneering analog efforts led the way and helped to shape the digital technology we enjoy today.
Bass is perhaps best remembered for elevating the movie title sequence into art, but fortunately, Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design doesn’t overlook his work as a corporate designer. While Bass was an extremely talented and endlessly creative corporate designer, because of the simple modernist elements he typically worked with, what began as art with Bass was quickly boiled down into formula by other, lesser designers. The result was a corporate sameness by the early 1970s, which was brilliantly – if entirely unintentionally – summed up in the best-known moment of the design and typography-related documentary, Helvetica:
In that sense, as a corporate designer, Bass’s influence was similar to that of Mies van der Rohe. While Mies an extremely talented and inventive architect, too many lesser architects (cough — Philip Johnson — cough — Gordon Bunshaft) who following his lead saw only the plate glass and black I-beams and could never imitate Mies’ sense of proportion and willingness not to be bound to the rules of Miesianism.
Which is a useful lesson for anyone considering a similar career in corporate design work. But then, despite going off to the great artists’ garret in the sky 15 years ago, there are all sorts of lessons still to be learned from Saul Bass.
You gotta start somewhere, and here’s what moviegoers were told in the very early 1930s about a technological breakthrough soon to appear in their homes, with a steep, steep learning curve.
The rotary phone:
Twenty years and a World War later, television went national, as the first transcontinental coaxial cable was run, as Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal writes:
In present-tense culture, golden anniversaries tend to get swept away by the whirlwind of current events. Here’s an example: Network television as we know it came into being on Sept. 4, 1951, when AT&T threw the switch on the first transcontinental coaxial cable. Up to that time, TV had been an essentially regional phenomenon. The most important network shows were all performed live in New York, and the only way for West Coast viewers to see them was for fuzzy-looking film copies called “kinescopes” to be shipped to Los Angeles and broadcast a week later. The coaxial cable changed that by making it possible to transmit live video signals from coast to coast–in both directions. Within a matter of months, Hollywood had become a major center of TV production.
Don’t be embarrassed if you didn’t know any of this. So far as I know, no one has taken note of the golden anniversary of the coaxial cable, or celebrated the fiftieth birthdays of three influential series that the cable made possible. But if you owned a TV set in 1951, you might well remember these Truman-era debuts:
* * * * *
Nov. 18, 1951: “See It Now,” the first TV newsmagazine, whose first episode opened with a shot of two control-room monitors. One showed a live picture of the Statue of Liberty, the other a live picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. Edward R. Murrow, the host, was visibly impressed: “For the first time, man has been able to sit at home and look at two oceans at the same time.” It may sound quaint now, but 60 years ago that image took people’s breaths away.
Today, we take smart phones, video conferencing, and — to coin a phrase — a World Wide Web of information for granted. But it took plenty of experimentation with analog technology to build the knowledge base for today’s technology. Assuming our betters in Washington and academia allow us to keep it.
I have been a loyal and enthusiastic Apple customer since 2002, when I bought my first iMac, the “Sunflower,” and wrote this review. I did not, however, get involved in the “cult” of Steve Jobs. I knew little about him until the media coverage of his deteriorating health made him almost impossible to ignore. I recall watching only one of his famous keynote addresses live, the announcement of the iPad in January of 2010. Around the time of his retirement in August, I, like so many others, watched his wonderful Stanford Commencement Address for the first time.
People like me — who love Apple products, who are grateful to Jobs for the indispensable role he played in creating them, but who knew little about Jobs the man — found ourselves “caught flat-footed”, as Jobs might have said, when we learned about the the seriousness of his illness, his retirement, and then his untimely death last month. We wanted to know more about this great innovator and businessman. We wanted a complete and accurate picture of the man who produced so much of value in his short life. Enter Steve Jobs, the authorized biography written by Walter Isaacson. For reasons I’ll explain, Steve Jobs’ getting Isaacson to write this biography was pure genius.
Before the book even came out, we learned that Jobs gave Isaacson hours upon hours of exclusive interviews, that he told Isaacson to feel free to interview anyone whom he wished, and that the interviewees were told to speak freely about Jobs, warts and all. In addition, Jobs said he would not ask to see the finished product before publication. All this, plus the fact that Isaacson was an experienced and respected journalist and biographer, someone picked by Jobs himself, combined to make the book a must-read, and so I pre-ordered it — on my iPad, of course.
After watching some of the pre-publication media appearances by Isaacson, I was concerned about the tone he would take in the biography. While Isaacson said he liked Jobs, some of the interviews seemed to emphasize Jobs’ least desirable and most controversial character traits. And, towards the beginning of the biography, when Isaacson used some of the value-laden terms critics have used to refer to Jobs — such as “Reality Distortion Field” — it seemed unjustified. But after reading about half the biography, I realized (1) there were some character traits of Jobs that served neither him nor anyone well, and (2) given the information he presented, Isaacson came across as both respectful and objective.
Next: The best and worst of what we learn about Jobs in the biography, and my opinion of Jobs after reading it.
We take shopping malls for granted, although they’re actually a relatively new phenomenon, all things considered. The first indoor shopping mall in America opened in 1956 and is — not surprisingly — located in Minneapolis, which seems during wintertime to be located above the arctic circle. James Lileks has a section of his sprawling Website devoted to its history.
But malls change and adapt to current trends, or risk dying (and for shopping mall necrophiliacs, Dead Mall.com is your Website). Around 20 years ago, Starbucks and other retailers began to implement the idea of the Third Place, a term which was coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg in the late 1980s, and explored by Virginia Postrel in her 1998 book, The Future and its Enemies:
Or consider the proliferation of coffee houses in the 1990s. Until recently, many U.S. social critics made much of the lack of “third places,” neither home nor work, where people could hang out and chat. Unlike Europeans, they complained, Americans have no café culture; shopping malls, suburbia, and commerce in general, they charged, have destroyed the democratic conversation of bars and social clubs.25 Such criticism was overstated, ignoring the many informal interactions that occur in such places as malls, restaurants, and doughnut shops. But the “third place” critique did identify a real source of discontent—as Starbucks discovered when its stores took off in ways the company never expected.
The original idea, writes CEO Howard Schultz, “was to provide a quick, stand-up, to-go service in downtown office locations.” Instead, the fastest-growing Starbucks stores turned out to be those near where people lived—the ones that functioned as neighborhood watering holes. The young adults who had grown up hanging out in shopping malls were looking for safe, friendly places to be with other people, places where, in Schultz’s words, “No one is carded and no one is drunk.” In focus groups, Los Angeles customers said they went to Starbucks because the place felt social. The company adjusted its strategy accordingly, building more and larger neighborhood stores, with more tables to sit around. It now deliberately seeks to foster a social, European-style café environment.
But what happens if you build a whole mixed-use development, a combination of stores, restaurants, professional offices and apartments around that notion of “a social, European-style café environment”? You get San Jose’s Santana Row development, which opened slowly in November 2002 and has since expanded into a sprawling project, despite California, and America’s, current sluggish (dare I say European-style) economy.
As I wrote on my blog back in early 2005, my wife and I stumbled onto our own local European-style development rather by surprise:
There’s a sort of mixed use shopping center/condominium complex that opened in San Jose a couple of years ago called Santana Row. (No relation, best as we can tell, to the psychedelic guitarist.) It’s located opposite a conventional indoor shopping mall that’s existed for decades. Whenever we’ve driven past its new opposite number, all we’ve seen are a few megastores, such as an enormous Best Buy and a surprisingly large Crate & Barrel. One night in 2003, we drove over there–I think to check out the Crate & Barrel, or maybe just to explore. After parking the car in the requisite multistory concrete garage, we emerged…in the Village.
[Enough with the Village stuff, OK??-Ed]
I dubbed it that when I first saw it, because its developers chose to house its group of smaller high-end boutique stores and restaurants in a sort of pretend 19th century-ish Parisian block, with condominiums on top of them (and a high-tech network underneath. But for better or worse, no signs of evil weather balloons patrolling the perimeter). Leaving the sprawling suburban section of San Jose that it’s located on and entering this alternate universe for the first time really does feel like you’re Patrick McGoohan being knocked out in London and waking up in the who-knows-where-in-the-world Village.
The photo above gives a sense of the Santana Row’s McGoohan-esque feel. Its the facade of a small stone chapel imported from France, and serves as Santana Row’s “Vintage Wine Bar.”
Congressman Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), guest contributing at Ricochet, wonders how culture went off the rails:
A cursory review of American art paints a chiaroscuro chart of our intellectual decimation. In music we’ve tuned out Duke Ellington for R. Kelly. In dance, we’ve stumbled from Gregory Hines to Hines Ward. In television, we’ve turned off Roots for Real House Wives of New Jersey. Mirroring political developments, in motion pictures we’ve replaced Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Jackass II (apparently the seminal cinematic tour de force Jackass insufficiently slaked our thirst for cerebral stimulation). In art, we’ve turned a blind eye to John Singer Sargent’s World War I inspired Gassed to gape at the comic book derived insipidity of the Obama Joker poster. In literature, we’ve skimmed through F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night to Nikki Sixx’s This is Gonna Hurt. (It did.) Keeping abreast of portentous events, we’ve discarded Chambers’ Witness for Kourtney’s Kardashian Konfidential. And, in poetry – the art of distilling intense feeling through the concise use of language – we’ve replaced Emerson with emoticons.
Pardon me, tweeple? “:-)”?
Art has always been reflective of the culture that supports it — and needless to say, culture has changed dramatically over the last couple of hundred years. As Tom Wolfe wrote back in 1975, in The Painted Word:
All the major Modern movements except for De Stijl, Dada, Constructivism, and Surrealism began before the First World War, and yet they all seem to come out of the 1920s. Why? Because it was in the 1920s that Modern Art achieved social chic in Paris, London, Berlin, and New York. Smart people talked about it, wrote about it, enthused over it, and borrowed from it, as I say; Modern Art achieved the ultimate social acceptance: interior decorators did knock-offs of it in Belgravia and the sixteenth arrondissement.
Things like knock-off specialists, money, publicity, the smart set, and Le Chic shouldn’t count in the history of art, as we all know—but, thanks to the artists themselves, they do. Art and fashion are a two-backed beast today; the artists can yell at fashion, but they can’t move out ahead. That has come about as follows:
By 1900 the artist’s arena—the place where he seeks honor, glory, ease, Success—had shifted twice. In seventeenth-century Europe the artist was literally, and also psychologically, the house guest of the nobility and the royal court (except in Holland); fine art and court art were one and the same. In the eighteenth century the scene shifted to the salons, in the homes of the wealthy bourgeoisie as well as those of aristocrats, where Culture-minded members of the upper classes held regular meetings with selected artists and writers. The artist was still the Gentleman, not yet the Genius. After the French Revolution, artists began to leave the salons and join cénacles, which were fraternities of like-minded souls huddled at some place like the Café Guerbois rather than a town house; around some romantic figure, an artist rather than a socialite, someone like Victor Hugo, Charles Nodier, Théophile Gautier, or, later, Edouard Manet. What held the cénacles together was that merry battle spirit we have all come to know and love: épatez la bourgeoisie, shock the middle class. With Gautier’s cénacle especially … with Gautier’s own red vests, black scarves, crazy hats, outrageous pronouncements, huge thirsts, and ravenous groin … the modern picture of The Artist began to form: the poor but free spirit, plebeian but aspiring only to be classless, to cut himself forever free from the bonds of the greedy and hypocritical bourgeoisie, to be whatever the fat burghers feared most, to cross the line wherever they drew it, to look at the world in a way they couldn’t see, to be high, live low, stay young forever—in short, to be the bohemian.
By 1900 and the era of Picasso, Braque & Co., the modern game of Success in Art was pretty well set. As a painter or sculptor the artist would do work that baffled or subverted the cozy bourgeois vision of reality. As an individual—well, that was a bit more complex. As a bohemian, the artist had now left the salons of the upper classes—but he had not left their world. For getting away from the bourgeoisie there’s nothing like packing up your paints and easel and heading for Tahiti, or even Brittany, which was Gauguin’s first stop. But who else even got as far as Brittany? Nobody. The rest got no farther than the heights of Montmartre and Montparnasse, which are what?—perhaps two miles from the Champs Elysées. Likewise in the United States: believe me, you can get all the tubes of Winsor & Newton paint you want in Cincinnati, but the artists keep migrating to New York all the same … You can see them six days a week … hot off the Carey airport bus, lined up in front of the real-estate office on Broome Street in their identical blue jeans, gum boots, and quilted Long March jackets … looking, of course, for the inevitable Loft …
But the best of the original modern artists of the early 20th century were those who had traditional training, but who used those techniques in the quest for new forms and styles. Mondrian could pain exceptional portraits and landscapes before going off in search of black lines and primary colors; Mies van der Rohe was highly influenced by German classical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781 – 1841), and could effortlessly draw buildings in Schinkel’s traditional style, before ultimately narrowing his own palette down to plate glass and I-beams, which keeping a sense of Schinkel’s proportion and grouping in his best buildings.
By the time the Bauhaus arrived on the shores of America in the 1930s and WWII was concluded though, traditional forms of art and architecture were effectively dead, as far as the academy was concerned. In a way, it was a variation on the Whig school of history, which taught that all the divergent paths of history ultimately lead to the liberal freedom of 19th century England, (or the Marxist school of history, for the flip-side). If all roads lead to modernism, minimalism and “starting from zero,” why bother to learn the techniques of the past?
In pop music, the Beatles absorbed large influences of traditional popular musicians such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and via producer George Martin, classical music, in addition to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. But today, so dominant was the Beatles’ influence on pop culture, traditional forms of music have been bulldozed over by rock and rap. The classical orchestra is now reduced to a key on a synthesizer; as McCotter notes above, language has effectively been condensed down to emoticons. Orwell’s outer party worker drones in the Ministry of Truth boiling down the Newspeak Dictionary into successively smaller new editions had no idea how tiny the final version would ultimately become.
Modern art and rock music were both countercultural forms; but today, there’s no dominant popular culture for them to push against, and hence there’s no reason for them not to recall the techniques, or the culture of the past.
By the way, apropos of nothing, there’s a direct line between Wolfe’s artists making the Apache Dance and jettisoning their individuality (and likely a good chunk of their technical skill) for the extremely long odds of stardom in the New York Art World to this.
I met my (now) husband the same year Frank Sinatra died.
(I know it was “before 9/11” but always have to look up “Sinatra” in Wikipedia to get the exact year: 1998.)
(I can’t remember our wedding anniversary, either, except the month starts with a “J.”)
We’ve had unnaturally few fights in all this time, but the first, nastiest, and most persistent is “Mac vs. PC.” Those ads are our relationship (from my P.O.V.)
When I met him, Arnie had never even used a computer before. I, on the other hand, had been working on Apples since the late 1980s, when I was helping put out a 16-page newspaper on a 20MB Macintosh SE. (Somehow.)
That thing took so long to start up, I could push the power button at 9 a.m., walk down three flights of stairs, smoke two cigarettes, come back to my desk — and that adorably homely oatmeal colored box was still churning awake, emitting metallic crunching noises that would have been a clue to call a repairman with any other machine in existence.
I didn’t care. I loved everything about Apple computers and dutifully believed that Bill Gates was the Devil incarnate:
The cycle of urban renewal is always the same. Always. Set your watch by it, count off the paces. A run-down block looks ominous and debauched; developers pitch a new vision with shiny glass walls and lots of chic retail and people walking around having a Pedestrian Experience — that’s a good thing, not a dull thing; means the streets are friendly to low-carbon-impact activities. Eminent domain is applied if the owners balk; money gushes; the ball swings; a new complex arises, and the old ugly block, with its piecemeal storefronts and variegated buildings and venerable architectural styles, is replaced by a big Thing. It’s packed with Chili’s and Applebee’s and a book store and a place that serves premium ice cream. Look ahead five years, and it’s dead. Perhaps the local magazine has a Bygone Days section that runs old photos, and when they show the picture of the block everyone was anxious to raze, well, it looks . . . interesting. It looks cool, in a seedy sort of way. Lick of paint, sandblast the buildings, get a flatfoot to patrol and move along the pervs and bums, and you’d have the very sort of urban environment the new plans promise we’ll get, but never get around to providing.
New York isn’t completely regretting the massive clean-up of Times Square, but they’ve finally conceded one of the lingering, stinging critiques: it’s too clean. C’mon, this is New Yawk. Times Square is supposed to be gritty. (“Gritty” usually means hookers.) If you never saw it at its worst, you probably think the visions in Taxi Driver look almost . . . well, romantic. All those marquees, jutting into the stream of pedestrians like the prows of once-great ocean liners. The vibrant community of hustlers, pornhounds, streetwalkers, square-johns down for a walk on the wild side. Animated neon signs that drew pictures in the night, instead of great blaring walls of color that make you feel trapped in a Blade Runner remake.
But no. Those were the bad old days. That was Beame-time, Kojak-land, an age of sagging civic fortunes and needle-park panic and grindhouse theaters showing chop-’em-up horror films for mouthbreathers who would have to wait years for Quentin Tarantino to tell them how this movie was actually art, man, art. No wants to go back to that. Any other historical references we can slather on the place, then?
Why yes. The New York Post reports:
A new $27 million plan to redesign Times Square’s famed “bow tie” calls for an atmospheric “film noir” look for the five-block area . . .
Of course. The Forties! Times Square in its full glory. Men in hats, women in hats, men in suits, women in . . . okay, suits, but also dresses, and lots of black cars gliding under the marquees, the lights reflected in their shiny hoods. Except that you can’t drive in the area as much as you used to, and no one wears hats that aren’t backwards, but otherwise, great. So how are they going to do it? Dress code? Ban color? Put in some dime-a-dance parlors and some all-night hash-houses and hire guys to walk around dressed as sailors? Require cabbies to be cynical and call the passenger “Mac” and step on it when asked to do so?
If only. The area will feature…
…permanent pedestrian plazas with a smooth, dark pavement studded with reflective metal disks designed to recapture the gritty feel of the city’s past.
“It’s not taking its cues from some pretty little things in Europe or something,” said Craig Dykers, an architect with Snohetta Design, the firm that also designed the 9/11 Museum downtown.
“Our design has a film noir feel to it; it’s more muscular. Paris or London can have these little benches, but New York has a toughness to it,” he said during a presentation to Community Board 5’s Transportation Committee Monday night.
What does that mean, bench-wise? Spikes? Hard to see how reflective metal disks in the pavement stand for the city’s grit-related past, and in fact it’s the opposite of the way things were. Pavement was light, and there were dark blotches everywhere, probably formed by gum spat out by antisocial idiots who couldn’t troubled to dispose of it in a civilized way. If you’re reducing “noir” down to an element of set design, pass the mandatory Venetian Blinds act and you’re done.
If Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal who also blogs at About Last Night, sounds particularly refreshed in our latest podcast, it isn’t because he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Shortly before our interview, he and his wife had recently spent two nights at Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark Seth Peterson Cottage, one of the last residences that Wright designed, in Lake Delton, Wisconsin.
Beyond that experience, Terry and I discuss:
- The life and death of America’s mid-century middlebrow culture.
- Louis Armstrong’s place in middlebrow culture.
- Satchmo at the Waldorf, the play that Terry wrote about Armstrong, which recently debuted.
- The interaction between a counterculture and the dominant culture.
- What would Mencken, an earlier biographic subject, think of the Blogosphere?
- The dangerous challenge of revising a Broadway play for contemporary audiences: “Is the Text of a Classic Ever Sacred?”
- The sequel to Teachout’s book on Armstrong, Pops.
11 minutes long; click here to listen:
If your browser is unhappy with our MP3 player, a YouTube version is also available:
For our previous podcasts at the Lifestyle blog, click here.
I’m Don Draper, and I approve this message:
Postwar optimism, you’re soaking in it, baby.
Seriously though, I don’t get early 1960s automotive styling. I love the cars of the 1950s, with their tailfins and seafoam green paint and the major role they played in shaping the Hog Stomping Baroque period of American optimism, as Tom Wolfe would say. And I love the cars of the mid to late ‘60s, whether it’s the 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville or the great muscle cars of the era. But in order to get to the Mustang, Ford had to first pass through…the Falcon. And looking at this clip, and the early 1960s car ads in Taschen’s All-American Advertising book is a reminder that American advertisers labored long and hard and spent small fortunes to produce beautiful images to sell what were often really crappy cars.
Of course, flash-forward a quarter-century into the future from that 1960 Ford ad, and you’ll see reminders that that’s always been true:
(I wonder how much the would-be Sonny Crocketts of that period actually enjoyed jumping into their 1987 Pontiac Sunbird convertibles?)
But what happened to American cars in the early 1960s? Could somebody explain Detroit’s aesthetic thinking back then? It’s not based on a lack of cultural confidence, which helped to doom American cars in the 1970s. From the 1950s to the death of JFK, Americans sailed from the comfort of Ike in the White House to the brave new world of Kennedy’s New Frontier without missing a beat.
Of course, these days, as P.J. O’Rourke wrote in 2009, virtually all of the glamour has been drained from the automobile by the nannies who would ultimately make GM and Chrysler (not Ford though, at least not yet) wards of the state:
We’ve lost our love for cars and forgotten our debt to them and meanwhile the pointy-headed busybodies have been exacting their revenge. We escaped the poke of their noses once, when we lived downtown, but we won’t be able to peel out so fast the next time. In the name of safety, emissions control and fuel economy, the simple mechanical elegance of the automobile has been rendered ponderous, cumbersome and incomprehensible. One might as well pry the back off an iPod as pop the hood on a contemporary motor vehicle. An aging shade-tree mechanic like myself stares aghast and sits back down in the shade. Or would if the car weren’t squawking at me like a rehearsal for divorce. You left the key in. You left the door open. You left the lights on. You left your dirty socks in the middle of the bedroom floor.
I don’t believe the pointy-heads give a damn about climate change or gas mileage, much less about whether I survive a head-on with one of their tax-sucking mass-transit projects. All they want to is to make me hate my car. How proud and handsome would Bucephalas look, or Traveler or Rachel Alexandra, with seat and shoulder belts, air bags, 5-mph bumpers and a maze of pollution-control equipment under the tail?
And there’s the end of the American automobile industry. When it comes to dull, practical, ugly things that bore and annoy me, Japanese things cost less and the cup holders are more conveniently located.
The American automobile is—that is, was—never a product of Japanese-style industrialism. America’s steel, coal, beer, beaver pelts and PCs may have come from our business plutocracy, but American cars have been manufactured mostly by romantic fools. David Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Louis Chevrolet, Robert and Louis Hupp of the Hupmobile, the Dodge brothers, the Studebaker brothers, the Packard brothers, the Duesenberg brothers, Charles W. Nash, E. L. Cord, John North Willys, Preston Tucker and William H. Murphy, whose Cadillac cars were designed by the young Henry Ford, all went broke making cars. The man who founded General Motors in 1908, William Crapo (really) Durant, went broke twice. Henry Ford, of course, did not go broke, nor was he a romantic, but judging by his opinions he certainly was a fool.
America’s romantic foolishness with cars is finished, however, or nearly so. In the far boondocks a few good old boys haven’t got the memo and still tear up the back roads. Doubtless the Obama administration’s Department of Transportation is even now calculating a way to tap federal stimulus funds for mandatory OnStar installations to locate and subdue these reprobates.
And yes, that 1960 Ford ad can be seen from today’s perspective as high camp, beginning with the giant Freudian phallic telescope that expands into the very first scene and sits looming in the background of virtually every shot afterward. The grass is Astroturf, the sky is a painted cyclorama, and that Ford Falcon was the nadir of pre-seventies automotive design. But I’d give anything to put on a tux, jump in Doc Brown’s DeLorean and visit that set for a few hours.
As long as I can hop into my 1985 Mercedes 500SEL afterwards.
Related: Ford’s 2011 advertising employs a very different, if no less effective tone: “Video: Ford’s Honest, Brutal Anti-Bailout Commercial.”
In April of 1981, I was rolling through the aisles of a fascinating store in Freiburg im Breisgau, in (West) Germany. I’d moved to Germany on the day of Reagan’s inauguration, and after some months in a residential hotel I was moving into my own 12 square meter (129 square feet) apartment. I needed to furnish it, and my German friends had pointed me to this new store on the edge of town, a Swedish firm called IKEA.
I loved the stuff, and still do: the simple clean Scandinavian look has always appealed to me. It had other advantages: it was cheap, it could be broken down and packed if I decided to take anything back to the States with me, and it was cheap.
When I eventually came back to the US and moved to North Carolina, there was an IKEA store built between Richmond and Washington DC, a feasible drive in itself and also something I drove past fairly regularly, as my grad school was largely funded by DARPA and similar agencies. I’d almost always at least stop in and buy some elegant unnecessary plastic objects, kitchen stuff, a lamp, and eat in the cafeteria which specialized in things like Swedish meatballs and smoked reindeer brisket.
So, IKEA finally decided to build a store here in the Denver area, in Centennial. (James Michener fans: the town of Centennial, Colorado, is named after the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado, from Michener’s novel about Colorado history, Centennial. The fictional Centennial was roughly 50 miles north and roughly corresponds to the town of Greeley. Don’t say you haven’t learned anything today.) I was anxious to look it over, plus I’ve just moved into a house and need more furniture. Specifically, I wanted a really simple, round glass-topped dining table, and I was willing to bet IKEA would have it.
My mother decided she wanted to see it. (Insert sinister foreshadowing music here.) She’s 76, has great trouble walking due to hip troubles, has breathing troubles, is nearly blind, and has a continuing assortment of leg injuries from walking into things and/or falling.
This makes the IKEA trip into an Adventure. I checked, and IKEA does provide wheelchairs; I informed my mother we were getting a wheelchair. I get her in my car, we drive to IKEA about a half hour away, arriving at around 11AM.
Now the adventure begins: the store has so much traffic that there are temp workers in orange tabards, directing traffic with orange plastic wands into the parking lots.
Outlying parking lots.
The temp workers don’t know how to get to the Handicapped spaces, but they all either think they do or they don’t want to cope with the increasingly annoyed middle aged man driving: they direct me hither and yon and say “Oh I’ll radio ahead,” although to whom was unclear. We finally find a parking place close enough that Mom says she can walk that far. Park, get her out of the car. Start walking.
Surprise: the big sign that says ENTRANCE is just directions. The actual ENTRANCE is probably 200 years further through the parking garage — which is half-empty, there apparently being a special privilege sticker for garage parking that I don’t have. Um, 200 yards further, Freudian slip After several rest stops, we finally got into the ENTRANCE — which was actually the elevator lobby below the actual ENTRANCE.
There was a quotation above the elevator: “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.” It’s now about 11:30.
Up the elevator, and having now walked further than she probably has in years, Mom was ready for the wheelchair.
The motto at the Unhappy Hipsters photo blog is that “It’s Lonely in the Modern World.” If you’ve never been there (the blog, that is), the site takes beautifully photographed images from various architectural publications, and then writes short snarky captions at how alienated the beautiful people in these expensive, seemingly cutting-edge dwellings are:
- “Yet another morning alone at the table, reading the paper, eating breakfast, and (as always) suppressing despair.”
- “He dreamt of the day she’d forgo the French affectation and serve up a Pop Tart.”
- “On occasion, the playroom’s previous incarnation as a scenester bar reared its ugly head.”
- “The living room arrived with its own friends and refused to mingle, choosing instead to huddle coldly at the far end of the home.”
And so on.
Of course, the key word in our opening paragraph is “seemingly.” As blogger and conservative book reviewer Orrin Judd has been saying for the last decade, “All humor is conservative.” Or in the case of the gang being mocked at Unhappy Hipsters, reactionary, though I doubt the fellas who write the captions probably see it that way. But for those hipsters (a word that itself is 70 years old, according to Merriam-Webster) who think they’re on the bleeding edge of style, the joke’s invariably on them: the aesthetics of modernism are actually nearly a century old. The Bahaus will be celebrating the centennial of its founding by Walter Gropius at the end of this decade. It essentially created what we call “modern design,” not to mention coining the phrase “Starting From Zero,” the letmotif of “progressivism.” Mies van der Rohe’s sleek Seagram building in Manhattan, itself 60 years old, is based on architectural designs he created in Berlin in the 1920s, and the Four Seasons restaurant behind its lobby is stuffed with furniture Mies would design in the late 1920s and early ‘30s as well, shortly before becoming the last head of the Bauhaus before it was shuttered by the Nazis.
Don’t get me wrong — I love a lot of this stuff; I own several of Mies’s pieces myself. But so much for the “Hipster” part. As far as the first half of the equation, perhaps they’re unhappy because modern architecture has always had an alienating impact on many, as the late architectural critic Jane Jacobs had been pointing out since the mid-sixties. But then, when Le Corbusier dubbed his 1920s-era homes “The Machine for Living In,” cozy wasn’t exactly the first thought on his mind.
On the other hand, it could always be worse — while Weimer-era modernism at least celebrated the birth of a new style (which was literally the name of its Dutch counterpart at the time: De Stijl), last year’s Restoration Hardware catalog seemed like it was piped in from the inevitable downfall to follow, beginning with the introductory text from the firm’s chairman:
“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”
Pablo Picasso, one of the world’s preeminent artists and influencers of the 20th century, repeatedly broke down stylistic conventions and was undaunted by the art world’s status quo. His irreverent spirit, captured in the quote above, was unfettered as he pursued his calling and followed his muse – great art that answered to no one, yet inspired everyone.
During the collapse of the global economy, we drew inspiration from Picasso’s words and chose not to listen to the conventional wisdom encouraging us to follow the pack and lower quality to reduce prices. Instead, we saw an opportunity to be liberated, abandoning our past to embrace the future, one that has redefined the essence of who we are. No longer mere “retailers” of home furnishings, we are now “curators” of the best historical design the world has to offer.
We’ve destroyed the previous iteration of ourselves, clearing the way to express our brand in a never-before-seen fashion.
Now those must be some really unhappy hipsters buying that stuff.
(Which brings us to Catalog Living, a Website with a similar look and feel to Unhappy Hipsters, for even more photo-captioning fun.)
Here’s a nifty Website devoted to American book jackets of the 1920s through approximately the 1940s. Compare the variety, and think about the amount of time it took to design each cover, draw the illustration, and lay out the type, with the products featured on this Website, which focuses on book covers from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s.
Even as a kid wandering through through the library at St. Mary’s Hall, my old alma mater, it was obvious that at some point around 1968, the unspoken rule seemed to go out, that every book jacket had to look the same. You could have any colors you like, as long they were black and white. You could have any font, as long as it was Helvetica. You could have a few graphic accents and maybe — maybe — if you were really lucky, a painting or a photograph. And that was it. I think it was a combination of the success of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage book, and our already ubiquitous old friend, the Helvetica typeface, combined with the tyranny of the grid that caused the closing of the American designer’s mind, as this classic moment from its documentary a few years ago inadvertently explains:
Obviously that ethos struck the book business as hard as it did the rest of the corporate design world in the late 1960s. Fortunately, thanks to programs like Photoshop, Quark, Illustrator, and the like, that mindset is long gone, as any visit to Amazon or Barnes & Noble will highlight. For a few years there though in the early 1970s, it was brutal. But then again, what wasn’t?
(An earlier version of this post previously appeared at Ed Driscoll.com)
Made primarily from titanium with an 18K gold fingertip lever, it is indeed a sight to behold:
Price tag? Approximately $71,000.
For that price I’m grateful to see that a beautiful presentation box is included.
Buy it at Sveid.
“Lifestyle blogs often have a PC bent; it will be refreshing to have one for the rest of us.”
Speaking of which, welcome onboard! This is the place where we’ll be discussing movies, TV, music, the sort of food and tobacco products that would cause Michelle Obama and Michael Bloomberg to have a serious case of the vapors, and anything else that doesn’t fit into the rest of the PJM homepage or the Tatler. Not to mention the pop culture of the past, and the gadgets of the future. As you can see on this section’s homepage, you’ll be hearing from many of our PJM and PJTV all-stars on these topics.
And we’ll be having a fair amount of video and audio podcasts as well. First up, to give us a sense of the pop culture of the past and present, and the seismic shifts in the culture over the years is columnist, pioneering blogger and multimedia maven extraordinaire James Lileks:
James and I discuss:
- How much can you learn about a time and a place by observing its pop culture?
- What is the “Overculture” — and what is its current state of health?
- What an era’s fashions say about it.
- And Interior Desecrations, both then — and now.