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June 24, 2010

Visually seductive: Julius Shulman on the big screen.

Julius Shulman’s 1947 photograph of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs, CA. Courtesy of Getty.

We’re always gushing about the work of architectural photographer Julius Shulman (1911–2009) so when we found a director who shares our passion enough to make a film about the man, we knew he was someone we wanted to meet.

Director Eric Bricker (left) with photography director Dante Spinotti filming Visual Acoustics at the Case Study House #22. Photo by Aiken Weiss.

I spoke with director Eric Bricker, whose film, Visual Acoustics: The Modernism of Julius Shulman, appeared in theaters last year and was recently released in DVD. Like everyone who spent time with Julius, Bricker has wonderful stories to share. And rather than archiving them away, decided to bring them to the big screen for all to enjoy.

Julius Shulman’s 1960 photograph of Case Study House #22. Courtesy of Getty.

Gwendolyn Horton: Why did you make this film?

Eric Bricker: While working as an art consultant, I was looking for black and white photographs for a project, and I was introduced to Julius and we became friends. Up until then, I wasn’t familiar with his work, so you could say that I met Julius and his photographs at the same time. Getting back to your question, I made Visual Acoustics for two reasons: One, because I wanted Julius’ photographs to be seen on the big screen – to see them large – they’re worthy of that; and two, to allow more people the chance to meet Julius and get to know his work.

Julius Shulman’s photograph of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. Courtesy of Getty.

GH: Tell me more about what you call the “profound energy” in Julius’ photographs.

EB: To me, Julius’ photographs “sing” – I can feel him in these photographs. Julius always told his students to “infuse all that you see, hear and feel into one frame.” That’s what gives his photographs life and movement.

Julius Shulman’s photograph of Duffields Lincoln-Mercury Showroom. Courtesy of Getty.

GH: Do you think that Julius himself also possessed this profound energy?

EB: Yes.

GH: What surprised you about working with him?

EB: He helped me reframe the way I look at things. I have a greater appreciation for the built environment. However, what surprises me the most, is where I find Julius now – and it happens almost daily – is in the blue bonnets, the clouds, the blue sky. It’s through nature. It doesn’t happen so much through the built environment.

Enjoying nature with Julius Shulman. Courtesy of Arthouse Films.

GH: What would you change about Visual Acoustics?

EB: I’ve spoken with other filmmakers and they all tell me that there are things they’d change about their films – like a picture that’s crooked on the wall that they didn’t notice when they were filming – and they all say that you have to let that go, you can’t help having some inconsistencies. With VA, what I would change is that I’d like to slow down some of the images to allow the eye to linger longer.

Julius Shulman’s 1963 photograph of the Culver City Auditorium. Courtesy of Getty.

GH: What are you working on now?

EB: A hybrid documentary/narrative film called “What If: How Geeks and Gamers will Change the World.” It’s a project that explores my belief that through aligning and utilizing social media and social gaming with social causes, we can make powerful changes on a global scale.

GH: How so?

EB: Well, my goal is to inspire people through the film, and then give them an interactive game through social media, like Facebook, to use as a tool to go out and make a difference.

Julius Shulman’s 1958 photograph of Convair Astronautics. Courtesy of Getty.

GH: Why did you decide to make this film so different from Visual Acoustics?

EB: They’re actually similar, in that this new project is about looking at technology and how we can apply this system to better the lives of many people. Which is just like modernism or, as Charles Eames said, it is about making “the best for the most for the least.”

Design Notes readers are invited to learn more about Eric Bricker and his work by watching an interview he gave with Leo Marmol at the DWR Studio in Austin.

And if you haven’t seen Visual Acoustics, I highly recommend that you do. Peppered with Shulman’s quips and anecdotes (and a bit of gossip) about some of architecture’s most iconic figures, the film is a marvelous refresher course on the subject of modernism. You’ll also pick up photography tips from the master himself, as Shulman discusses his use of one-point perspective and how to avoid distortion through a wide-angle lens. He jokes, he reminisces, he basks in well-deserved praise. A fun ride that’s touching, informative and stunning, I strongly recommend it.

-Gwendolyn Horton

May 25, 2010

Yellow dresses, naked men and a furniture show.

When I heard that seven women were sharing a 100-square-foot platform for five days in Bryant Park, I was curious. When I heard that they were wearing matching yellow dresses and were not allowed to talk to each other, I knew I had to see it. I caught the end of their “act” when I flew to NYC for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF).

Seven women in taxicab yellow dresses participating in an art project in Bryant Park, NYC

The “Walk the Walk” project was the work of Kate Gilmore, who asked her volunteers (a questionable term since a ladder was required to escape from the eight-foot-high platform) to walk with purpose from 8:30am to 6:30pm. However, even with a shift change at midday, the hours spent in matching ivory pumps had turned the walk into more of a hobble, and the answer to “is there a Dr. Scholl’s in the house?” was clearly “no.”

In contrast to the yellow-clad gals on the move is the Antony Gormley exhibit of naked men who don’t move at all. The lack of movement is because they are iron statues, and it’s a good thing too, because they are perched on the edges of rooftops.

Two of the life-size naked figures perched on buildings in NYC.

The figures were controversial when they first appeared – not because they’re nude, but because people thought they were jumpers. But after New Yorkers understood that it’s just art, they embraced the idea of looking for naked men on buildings around the Flatiron District. What could be better? Like an Easter egg hunt for grownups, there are 31 life-size naked figures to find in NYC; the identical forms are cast from Gormley himself.

It’s ironic that the ladies in yellow were so desperately in need of a chair (and I suppose the naked Gormleys might have enjoyed a bed) since the event happened during Design Week. The International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF) is an annual event held at the Javits Convention Center, and while it lacks the punch of Milan’s Salone, there are still interesting things to be found.

Here are some of my favorites:

Cloud Softlight by Molo Design. Made from recyclable Tyvek, these floating forms are lit up by LED bulbs.

“Happy Hardcore” (right) is a tire and hemp seat designed by Fernanda Fajardo, a student at Pratt. “The tire is a symbol of extreme toughness and unwanted filth,” said Fajardo, “while the hemp twine symbolizes the unity and support within the HardCore punk culture.” On the left is Philippe Starck’s lamp for Baccarat (a symbol of the hardcore penthouse culture).

The Private Cloud by Kloker. I imagine that those ladies in yellow dresses would’ve paid money to take a break in this. Add one of Gormley’s naked statues to the mix and we’ve got a showstopper.

Eco-friendly wall coverings by Miss Print (left), made with organic pigment inks. On the right are Jeff Taly and Greg Benson, the designers of our Adirondack Chair and other outdoor furniture. While it looks like Greg is thinking about having some milk, the wall graphics depict the fact that their furniture is made out of recycled milk jugs.

Norman Cherner’s iconic 1958 armchair, shown in natural Redgum. On the right are 1006 Navy® Chairs in a quiet moment before the DWR launch party of the 111 Navy Chair®.

I’ll be posting more images from NYC, and writing about the Hospitality and Design Expo in Las Vegas, so be sure to check our blog this week to see what’s new.

May 01, 2010

Under the ash plumes in Milan.

Despite the horror stories of being stranded in Italy under a veil of volcano debris, I’m still incredibly jealous of the DWR group who just returned from the Salone Internazionale del Mobile. Fortunately, our outdoor buyer Ben was kind enough to share his photos with me, and now I’m inviting you to share in this virtual journey to Milan.

The foliage-studded exterior of the Hedgehog (left), and it’s interior as seen when looking up at the sky (right).

Continue reading "Under the ash plumes in Milan." »

April 08, 2010

Dear DWR Readers,

Wow! We’ve just mailed our first new catalog in months. Welcome back to the DWR world. I have been on the job since January, and I’m so excited about our beautiful company. For the past 11 years, I have been a fan of DWR just like you. I have purchased Bubble lamps, lounge chairs, a fire pit, a bottle opener ... you get the idea.

John Edelman at the DWR Studio in Westport, CT. Photo courtesy of Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times/Redux

I have spent the last 15 years working with my family and my closest friend, John McPhee, producing the finest leather in the world for interior design. After we sold the company to Knoll, it was time to move on, and the opportunity to become the leaders of DWR came at the perfect moment.

Continue reading "Dear DWR Readers," »

March 26, 2010

Brutal love.

UC Berkeley has had a decades-long on again, off again love affair with the Brutalist structure designed by Mario Ciampi for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA). Built in 1970, the building was the largest university art museum of its time. A behemoth of site-cast concrete, the fan-shaped building lacks wow-factor from the street, but when you walk into the courtyard, it engages you with its gravity-defying spans of (originally unsupported) cantilevered concrete. Inside it’s organized chaos. Satisfying in how the floors and ceilings mirror each other, creating the essence of walls where there are none, while natural light coming through skylights softens the grayness, and makes the artwork pop.

The Berkeley Art Museum entrance on Bancroft Way (left). The cantilevered sections that fan out as you walk around the building (right).

Despite its bunker-like appearance, the structure was designed as two axes (aligned with the energy centers in the Egyptian zodiac – lest you forget we’re in Berkeley) that rest on just five columns. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake seriously undermined the building’s long cantilevered sections, and that’s when the romance began to crumble. Topping the list of the “most unsafe buildings on campus” (it’s not you, it’s me), the Ciampi building was given a $4 million seismic retrofit in 2001, but that wasn’t enough to restore the broken trust.

The interior of the Berkeley Art Museum.

The 2001 upgrade was really only a partial seismic retrofit – just enough to keep the museum open while they planned for a new facility. Funds were raised for a complete retrofit, but the folks at UC still weren’t embracing this building, which was suddenly deemed ill equipped to handle the latest multimedia installations. (Um, films? For which you need … walls?) Claiming that they needed space, the Pacific Film Archive Theater moved to “temporary” campus quarters in 1999, but has not moved back.

The goal of having a new museum in downtown Berkeley became the mantra, all the while, Ciampi’s design, wearing the stigma of being “seismically inadequate” awaited its fate. Ten years and a handful of (albeit small) earthquakes later, the BAM remains open despite the claims that it’s needy of attention, stubborn about how its space is used, ill equipped to try new kinds of installations, too far from public transportation and poorly located because it’s not downtown.

In the 2001 seismic retrofit, black steel columns were added to the exterior (left) and white steel columns to the interior (right).

In 2005, the building was slated for demolition, and architect Mario Ciampi was still proposing solutions to save it until his death at age 99 in 2006. “Now we have a seismic problem,” said Ciampi, “but I have not received a seismic report.” One of the architect’s ideas was to add an extension that would house a museum store and act like a brace. But the university was already wooing another architect, smitten with a shiny new plan for a visual arts center by Japanese architect Toyo Ito.

But after toying with Toyo, UC cancelled those plans in 2009, citing economic challenges and the weak economy. The goal then shifted to a retrofit of the former University of California Press printing plant (which was going to be razed to make room for Ito’s design). “The adaptive reuse of an older building is the greenest thing you can do,” said Berkeley City Councilmember Susan Wengraf. And while I agree, one has to wonder why the same can’t be said for the Ciampi building.

At top, Aristide Maillol’s 1922 sculpture “La Douleur” (“grief” in French) awaits the museum’s fate. Below, Alexander Calder’s “The Hawk for Peace” (1968) greets museum visitors of all ages.

There have been suggestions that the Ciampi building will saved, given an $80 million retrofit (the funds have been raised), and used for another purpose (let’s just be friends) – but nothing specific has been identified. So, while the art center sits by the phone waiting to hear about upcoming plans, the university’s long-range development map suggests a new campus building might be earmarked for the Ciampi site. 

As with all relationships, it’s important to compromise, and perhaps there’s a lesson in Alexander Calder’s sculpture near the museum’s entrance. Titled “The Hawk for Peace,” we should consider that “hawk” can also be a verb. 

Gwendolyn Horton

January 26, 2010

Removing stains and neon signs.

Your clothes say a lot about you, but if they could literally speak, they’d tell you a secret: Dry cleaning and French cleaning are the same thing. The latter just costs more because it shows that the proprietor knows his history (thus, earning that history degree left him with student loans to pay off).

As the story goes, a Frenchman named Monsieur Jolly-Bollin noticed that camphene from a spilled lantern removed stains from a tablecloth. Sadly, his discovery was named “dry cleaning” and not “jolly cleaning,” which would've been more relevant (your clothes need cleaning after you’ve been jolly in them) and less misleading since the process is very wet. When clothes are dry cleaned they’re washed in a solvent called perchloroethylene or “perc” for short. The perk of perc is that it’s good at removing oil-based stains. Unfortunately, it’s also toxic and a source of ground-water pollution. And that smell? It’s actually caused by dirty perc, so if you don’t like the odor, find a place that consistently uses fresh perc.

The question of “organic” dry cleaning is a lint trap I’ll avoid right now, but I’ll share with you that when I pushed my dry cleaner to tell me what makes his process organic, he told me that he will wash my clothes in water (no perc) if I request that service. All-righty then.

What got me on the topic of dry cleaning are neon signs. Dry cleaners have some of the best ones around. In contrast to how neon is used for Vegas and beer signs, the medium is simplified and a bit architectural when it’s used to distill a white button-down shirt into a crisp illustration made with tubes. It’s simple and straightforward – a world where being wild means putting on a tie.

In a case of stating the obvious, I especially like the sign that says “SHIRTS,” as if that’s hard to find in a cleaner. It’s like me creating a sign for myself that says “WORDS.”

In a case of stating the obvious, I especially like the sign that says “SHIRTS,” as if that’s hard to find in a cleaner. It’s like me having a sign that says “WORDS.”

Neon is a noble gas, and that’s not a reference to Prince Charles and baked beans. Rather, the term refers to an odorless, colorless, monatomic gas that has a low chemical reactivity. When a high-voltage current is run through a glass tube filled with neon (or argon or phosphor), the gas glows. The tubes are often made of borosilicate glass, which is highly heat resistant. (We sell glass coffee mugs made out of this stuff.)

There’s an art to how the glass tubes are bent into words and images, and some of the most outrageous examples of neon signs appeared in the 1940s and ’50s in Las Vegas. Unlike the furniture that defines mid-century modern, the signs from this era are aces in decorative excess.

The Stardust Hotel in 1958 (left), and the updated façade and roadside sign in 1964 (right).

The Stardust Hotel in 1958 (top), and the updated façade and roadside sign in 1964 (bottom).

Doing justice to neon was the Stardust Hotel, with its façade covered in an exploding solar system and sparkling neon starbursts. Using 7,100 feet of neon tubing and more than 11,000 light bulbs, the sign was visible from 60 miles away. In 1991, the typeface was updated to a less groovy-age font but that wasn’t enough to save the hotel, which closed in 2006.

The first neon signs in the U.S. were in 1923, for a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. At right, signs in the “bone yard” don’t appear to be as randomly placed.
The first neon signs in the U.S. were in 1923, for a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles (top). Retired signs in the “bone yard” continue to make statements (bottom).

The Stardust building was demolished, however its signage went to the “bone yard” of retired signs at the Young Electric Sign Company (YESCO). In the mid 1990s, the Allied Arts Council realized that YESCO had hundreds of these cultural relics on their property, which led to the creation of the Las Vegas Neon Museum. The Museum’s holdings of decommissioned signs are currently stored in two open-air lots, but in 2011 it will open a park filled with neon artifacts from 70 years of Vegas landmarks. The Museum’s visitors’ center will be in the former lobby of the La Concha Motel, designed in 1961 by Paul Revere Williams.

The lobby of the La Concha Motel in its original location, before being moved to the Neon Museum’s property.

The lobby of the La Concha Motel in its original location, before being moved to the Neon Museum’s property.

Like a neon sign that was saved when its hotel was demolished, the La Concha lobby was rescued by local preservationists when the hotel’s owner wanted to make room for a larger casino. To move the lobby, with its 28-foot-high swooping concrete roof, the structure was cut into eight pieces and reassembled on the Museum’s property.

I look forward to checking out the Neon Museum when it opens, and I’m especially interested in seeing the museum’s own signage – will it be outrageous neon or simple and straightforward, like a dry cleaners’ shirt?

Gwendolyn Horton

December 17, 2009

Building time at MIT.

I could do my job with a typewriter and a bench (and the bench is optional), which is why I’d be lost in a workspace described as: “housing a gigabit fiber-optic plant connecting a heterogeneous computer network, ranging from fine-grained, embedded processors to supercomputers. There are 3D printing prototyping resources, and laboratories for DNA labeling, new sensors, micro-encapsulation, quantum computing and perceptual studies.”

I’m betting that one of those things is MIT-speak for a typewriter, but if ever there were a building packed with gizmos I don’t understand, it would be the space described above. Namely, the newly expanded Media Lab at MIT, which I checked out last Saturday on a 22-degree, “I’m a genius for relocating to California” morning. 

The recently completed Media Lab expansion at MIT.

Designed by architect Fumihiko Maki, the exterior of the MIT Media Lab expansion is spot-on with its balanced proportions, sense of scale, use of materials and appreciation for setting. There’s a satisfying rhythm in the repetition of rectangles and squares, creating a composition that’s elegant and sophisticated. Parts of the building are veiled in metal screens that filter light for a more comfortable interior while providing a bit of privacy. These screens will also help maintain a uniform aesthetic after the occupants move in and MIT-ize their new spaces with robotic window blinds and convolution theorems taped to the glass. 

As pleasing as Maki’s work is, I’m wondering if it’s too perfect, like a mathematical proof that’s no longer challenged, it doesn’t make anyone think. Every detail of this building is so well resolved that there’s nothing left for us to do but admire it. And where’s the fun in that? I’m curious to hear how the Media Lab students and faculty like the space, especially since they’re moving from the somewhat cavernous Weisner Building, designed by MIT alumnus (class of 1940) I.M. Pei. The Weisner, with its rounded corners and white tiled exterior, has been compared to an inside-out bathroom (earning it the nickname “Pei Toilet”), and as the target of an MIT “hack” (prank), its gridded exterior was transformed into a Scrabble game. (The next time you play, keep “Pei” in mind for an easy five points.)

The Weisner Building (which I.M. Pei described as “a space-making object”) with the new expansion in the distance.

If Maki’s building doesn’t wake up your cranium, then Frank Gehry’s building is sure to give you a brain freeze. A few months ago, I was asked my opinion of MIT’s Stata Center and I clambered onto my soapbox and denounced the Disney-like cartoonish building ripped from the pages of a Dr. Seuss story with all the fury of someone who’d clearly never been to the building site. Shame on me. And shame on Mr. Gehry for not inviting me sooner. (Not that Mr. G and I are friends or anything. The fact that I mention him in almost everything I write these days is as baffling to me as it is to you.)

The Stata Center at MIT.

After spending time at the Stata Center, I still think it reeks of overreaching – both by the architect and the school – but there’s also something very special about it. It’s packed with surprises. They lurk around every corner. It’s the type of space where if I were an MIT student (all day long I’d biddy biddy bum), struggling with how to make two plus two equal five, a walk through the Stata might just help me generate the idea I’m looking for.

There are unexpected moments of beauty that made me stop and stare. And when I stepped outside and saw the Airstream-like orb that punches through the pavement, I literally gasped (although, that might have been from a blast of arctic air). Yes, it’s very carnival like, and I even photographed my distorted reflection as seen in the orb’s stainless steel siding, but isn’t the whole point of creative thinking to have fun? Think unsystematically? Tear down (or construct, in this case) walls?

The Stata Center, including the Airstream-like orb that extends into the interior space below the pavement.

I was enchanted. Sort of like a date-from-hell who turns into someone you’re actually interested in. This building has got something. In its kaleidoscopic configurations, I see a metaphor for how making random connections can lead to new ideas. We tend to think that places of order and balance (like Maki’s new building) are pleasing environments, but to MIT students, maybe Stata feels more comfortable – providing relief from the order they’ve imposed upon their lives.

What do you think about these (and other) buildings at MIT? Drop me a note in the comments field below.

Gwendolyn Horton

November 25, 2009

Looking beyond the façade.

There’s been some press this week about the completion of the latest building by Jean Nouvel. Much to my surprise (and embarrassment), this is a building I’ve been photographing because I actually thought it was being disassembled, not the other way around. (“Architecture is a visual art,” said Julia Morgan, “and the buildings speak for themselves.”)

Jean Nouvel’s building is located next to Frank Gehry’s IAC Building in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. I first noticed it when I saw what looked like a shirt hanging among the construction debris – as if the tenant didn’t even have time to pack his white chef’s coat before the cranes started ripping off the sides of the building. And as you can see from my photos below, the “façade-removal” theory is not that hard to imagine.

In an awkward building stage, especially with unidentified objects hanging in windows.

Fortunately, no “top chefs” were harmed in the construction of this building, and my apologies to Pritzker Architecture Prize winner Jean Nouvel for the blunder. The building, which is at 100 11th Avenue, is a 23-story luxury condominium tower that showcases Nouvel’s interest in “skins.” The curving façade wrapping around the south and west sides of the building is made up of prefabricated metal grids and more than 1,600 windows of different sizes and shapes. Each window is set at a unique angle and torque, and thus reflects light differently than the other panes around it. The result is that the building appears to shimmer, and some people say it looks like it’s draped in sequins. Personally, I think it looks like a pair madras shorts, but I’ve never been much of a couture gal.

The windows, which are colorless but take on various shades of blue in the reflected light, also make me think of the Kaleidoscope House, the children’s toy with the transparent sliding walls that I seriously wish they’d bring back into production.

Nouvel’s new building at 100 11th Avenue (left); the Kaleidoscope House toy (right).

You can’t spin a protractor in New York without hitting a building by a Pritzker Architecture Prize winner, and this block is no exception. Both Gehry and Nouvel have been honored with the prize and I wonder what the jury would say about how the IAC Building and 100 11th Avenue work in relation to one another. In the States, we spend a lot of time debating whether or not a new building “fits in” with the existing context, but we rarely speak to how one building improves another, or provides an additional benefit to another.

For example, in Masdar City – the carbon-neutral development in the Abu Dhabi desert – the buildings are being designed to work together to funnel hot desert air upward, and in the process create breezes to cool the city. The entire city is orientated to make best use of solar movements and prevailing winds, and “the relationship of one building to the next provides shading and generates year-round useable spaces in between,” say master planners Foster + Partners.

Computer-generated images of Masdar City. “One day, all cities will be built like this,” say Foster + Partners.

I’m both freaked out and awestruck by the Masdar City project, but despite the fact that I think it would feel like being in the movie Sleeper, I would still like to go there. Especially since my little cottage just got “red tagged” by the building department for a permit issue. Silly me, I didn’t realize I had to ask permission to repair my front door so that it opens, closes and (wait for it) locks. My mind must have been elsewhere, perhaps in Abu Dhabi.

Gwendolyn Horton

November 13, 2009

Happy 103rd Birthday Eva Zeisel!

We usually shun exclamation points at DWR, but I had to make the exception for Eva Zeisel who turns 103 today. (103!) Truly the matriarch of the industrial design, Zeisel has been producing her signature fluid looks since she was 18, and launched a new career as a furniture designer when she was in her 80s. Her career has spanned centuries, continents and cultural clashes, and the inventions that have occurred in her lifetime include the telephone, jetliner and penicillin, just to name a few.

Zeisel at her 1951 solo exhibition Eva Zeisel: Industrial Designer at the Akron Art Institute. Courtesy of the Eva Zeisel Archives.

Born in Hungary in 1906, Zeisel’s life has all the elements of a great novel, and in fact, part of her life inspired the book Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. (A timely read considering it’s the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.) It was May 1936 when everything changed for Zeisel. She was 29 years old and working as the artistic director of the China and Glass Industry in Russia – an important job that Zeisel says she got because of her “personal charm.” But charming or not, with the job came enemies, and one night “at 4am, the doors knocked and so began a different life.” Falsely accused of plotting to assassinate Stalin, Zeisel was sent to prison for 16 months, 12 of which were in solitary confinement. Her release happened as mysteriously as her arrest, and to this day, Zeisel doesn’t know how it happened. “I hadn’t seen any colors for a year and a half,” says the designer.

Zeisel’s sketch for a collection inspired by the Kispester-Granit factory in Budapest, where she briefly worked in 1926.

Despite this dark period in her life – and perhaps because of it – Zeisel is continually intrigued by what she calls her “playful search for beauty.” Upon her release from prison, she married Hans Zeisel. They lived in Vienna briefly, before the threat of Hitler made them leave for America. “I saw the Statue of Liberty and my fears came down. It was a very touching reception,” says Zeisel of her October 1938 arrival. The next day she went to the magazine China and Glass and was immediately commissioned for 10 ceramic miniatures for $100. She was also hired at New York’s Pratt Institute, where she became the first person to teach ceramics as industrial design for mass production, rather than handicraft.

DWR Design Studio worked closely with Zeisel to launch her Granit Collection. Originally designed in 1983, and inspired by the factory where she worked in 1926, the collection was put into production in 2009.

Zeisel’s work continued to gather acclaim, and in 1946, her all-white modern dinner service – a first by an American designer – was honored with an exhibition at MoMA. Her work is included in the permanent collections of museums worldwide, including MoMA, the Met and the V&A. In 2005, she was awarded the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York.

When Zeisel was in her early 80s, she started designing tables. The medium may have changed, but her Coffee Table (1993) is still very Zeisel, with its whimsical lines and ornamental motifs.

A person of delightfully defiant spirit, Zeisel has never been one to follow the predictable path of the fashionable avant-garde. “I didn’t accept the purism of modern design,” she says. “In my definition, if it gave beauty to the eye, it was beauty.”

To learn more about the woman who many (including me) believe to be the most important ceramic designer of the 20th century, check out the documentary Throwing Curves – Eva Zeisel (click here for the trailer) and her talk at TED.

And of course, please join me in raising a glass to Eva Zeisel and wishing her a very happy 103rd birthday.

Gwendolyn Horton

October 21, 2009

Can it!

In Danish, the function of opening and closing is called “vipp,” which is also the name of a design company that’s been producing iconic pedal bins since 1939. To celebrate their 70th anniversary, Vipp has partnered with Design Within Reach to hold a charity auction that will benefit DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS). Being auctioned are 35 Vipp bins that have been customized by Ralph Lauren, David Rockwell, Calvin Klein, Nigel Barker, Yoko Ono and others.

While you can’t rub elbows with these celebs at the actual auction (it’s by invitation only) there are two other ways you can participate: Five bins are on eBay, and through October 28, all 35 bins are on display and available for bidding at the DWR: Tools for Living in SoHo. And I don’t want to make your head explode or anything (thus, needing a bin for a beastly task) but the SoHo store also has a new window design by artist Mike Perry.

Of the 35 bins, the award for the farthest-flying Vipp goes to Michael Aram, who sent the bin to his workshop in India to be transformed into a golden pear.

A Vipp Bin in size medium at left, and a Vipp Bin transformed by Michael Aram into a Golden Pear at right. (Pear photo courtesy of Christian Larsen.)

“In the world of mythology,” says Aram, “pears represent bounty and gluttony. What’s more perfect for a receptacle of waste than a golden symbol of excess?” Sporting an oxidized bronze stem (the leaf was lost in transit), the brass body was hand-hammered from the inside to give it the somewhat nubby texture of a real pear. Perhaps, however, it was a bit too realistic, as the bin ended up stuck in Customs when it was deemed a botanical and flagged as a possible restricted item for entry into the U.S. Fortunately, the Homeland Security folks didn’t blow up the suspected Trojan Pear, but I’m guessing that at least one of them jumped when they pressed on the pedal and popped open the top.

From a symbol of gluttony to an example of what’s at stake if we do not curtail our habits, the Vipp bin customized by Nigel Barker is wrapped in a photograph he took when he spent two weeks on the ice in northern Canada.

Nigel Barker, and a Vipp Bin wrapped in his photograph titled “Frozen Cauldron.” (Nigel’s portrait courtesy of Nigel Barker LLC. Photograph of customized bin courtesy of Christian Larsen.)

Barker took this photo in 2007 when he went to investigate the horrors of seal hunting. Since then, there have been significant changes, including strong bans on seal product trade, thanks to the efforts of the Humane Society. The seals, however, are still at risk. A few years ago, the ice melted earlier than usual and hundreds of thousands of baby seals drowned because they were not old enough to swim. The concept behind Barker’s Vipp bin is that it provokes the user to think about the climactic effects of waste before throwing something away. He selected his photo “Frozen Cauldron” because “it’s beautiful, and yet the ice also looks a bit angry, as if Mother Nature has something in store for us.”

David Stark with his Vipp bin transformed into a cactus. (Photo courtesy of Christian Larsen.)

To appease Ma Nature, designer David Stark used a material that is normally seen as trash to create his Cactus bin. Made of simple cardboard, the cactus was hand assembled out of 279 individual and uniquely shaped laser-cut pieces. When asked about his inspiration, Stark said, “it was a trip to Arizona and the various sculptural forms of cacti throughout the landscape, along with my ongoing interest in turning everyday unsung materials (including trash) into extraordinary objects.”

The fact that Stark chose a cactus – a plant covered in sharp thorns – is also interesting. As if to remind people that there can be painful consequences to the items we throw away. Congratulations to all the designers who participated in this special event for DIFFA.

Gwendolyn Horton

P.S. To see a Vipp bin transformed into a xylophone, click here, and to see a video of the Can It! exhibit in SoHo, click on the video below.

September 24, 2009

All a twitter about Russel Wright.

I paid $289 for admission to a Russel Wright exhibition in San Francisco. That price didn’t include a docent, but it did include a one-way flight from SFO to New York. You have to be a ticketed passenger to see many of the exhibits presented by San Francisco Airport Museums (SFAM), which have been treating the traveling public to a bit of culture to soften the feeling of cattle herding since 1980.

Through October in Terminal 3 is Wright at Home: Modern Lifestyle Design 1930–1965, an exhibit of dinnerware, furniture and accessories by the American industrial designer. Russel Wright is considered the first brand name or “celebrity” in home furnishings – the Martha Stewart of his time – largely in part to the brilliant marketing skills of his wife, Mary Small Einstein.

American Modern pitchers (left) in the SFO exhibit, and an American Modern pitcher (right) in Wright’s New York home.

It was Mary who encouraged Russel to put his signature on his work – a wise decision considering that 250 million pieces of his American Modern dinnerware were sold between 1939 and 1959. But the pair was interested in more than just giving people the tools for easier living; they also wanted to teach people how to live in more efficient, less formal ways, and in 1950 they published their manifesto Guide to Easier Living.

Speaking of Wright’s signature, it’s worth noting that he spells his first name with one “l” which isn’t a ploy to make him seem more unique (like the Wendy who spells her name “Wendi” with a heart over the “i”), but rather the missing “l” is the result of a typo. In the 1920s, a stationer who is certainly not a household name (except for @*%#$ typesetter!) produced letterhead with Wright’s name misspelled. Always the practical (cheap?) industrial designer, he decided to go with it, and Russell became Russel.

And it’s a good thing too, because if you want to learn more about Wright, and you accidentally google Russell (two l’s), you’ll stumble upon the Twitter account of a Wyoming-based musician who beautifully demonstrates why I think Twitter is a craptacular (thank you NPR for adding a word to my vocabulary last Sunday) use of time:

“Get Joel some wedding cake.”
“What the…”
“He, he”

However, Russell the Wyoming musician did tweet, “Wow, Frank is all that!” which made me wonder what Russel the iconic industrial designer would tweet about Frank Lloyd Wright. Unlike Wright and Wright, Wright has access to new technologies that Wright and Wright could never even imagine. And I’d bet you a potluck dinner that mid-century designers like Eames, Wright (you can pick which one I’m referring to), Bertoia, Panton and others would’ve used Twitter in smart, relevant, compelling and useful ways.

Russel Wright sent the plans for his Hudson River valley home (above) and studio (below) to Frank Lloyd Wright for review. The two met when FLLW was in New York working on the Guggenheim, but there’s no evidence that Frank visited (or tweeted about) Russel’s property.

I don’t tweet because things like, “Everyone in the IT department appears to be wearing the same shirt today,” are better left in my head than expressed to others. Instead, I offer you “tweets” by Russel Wright, taken from the pages of Guide to Easier Living, along with images of his work and Hudson River valley home:

Spun Aluminum designs by Russel Wright. In the 1930s, Wright discovered that this affordable metal was easy to work with and could be made to look like pewter.
The dining area in Russel Wright’s home is next to a wall of boulders and the trunk of a cedar tree, which serves as the building’s primary vertical support post.
Wright built his fireplace to accommodate logs stacked vertically because he believed they burned more efficiently this way.
The bathtub in Russel Wright’s studio overlooks the quarry and has a view of the pond.
Low-maintenance steps in Wright’s home.
The plate-like “Ceramic” clock that Wright designed for General Electric in 1951 is on display at SFO (left) and hangs in the kitchen (right) of his New York home. (Drat! If I’d taken the photo at Wright’s house a half-hour earlier, it would’ve accurately reflected the time difference.)

It’s unclear how the plate-clock is the ticket to easier living (perhaps in a pinch you can serve on it, if you don’t mind that pesky second hand sweeping through your food), but it’s a fun item to troll for on eBay. The original retail of $9 translates to about $75 today, which is close to the final hammer prices I’ve seen online.

Check out the Russel Wright exhibit if you’re traveling through SFO, and if you’re on the East Coast, be sure to visit the Russel Wright Design Center (pay attention to the doors and doorknobs) and if you’ve seen either one, let me know what you think.

Gwendolyn Horton

September 04, 2009

Swinging left and right, north and south.

“Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door,” said Coco Chanel. And yet, Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that “every wall is a door.” As the fashion designer and the transcendentalist agree to disagree, may I present a few doors (and windows) that caught my eye on a recent trip.

The birch-bark door shown below is at the Russel Wright Design Center in Garrison, New York. Wright created this for his own studio, which is next to his Dragon Rock home and surrounded by 75 acres known as Manitoga.

A birch-bark veneered door at Russel Wright’s studio where no two doorknobs are the same.

I applaud Wright for not making the door convex, as a literal tree-door was not what he was after. Both indulgent and playful, Wright used the birch bark to make a connection to the surrounding landscape and show the contrast between it and the few man-made materials used at the property.

It surprised me that this is the door to a bedroom rather than an exterior space, but the latter would have been impractical. Imagine herbalists stealing bits of bark to put in their tea, and woodpeckers tricking you into thinking there is someone at the door. 

Being an interior door also forces you to interact with it, and thereby with nature, each time you enter or exit the room. By snagging your sweater on its curlicues that grab softly at anything that passes by, Wright’s door makes it impossible to forget the source of this door’s (and many doors’) natural material.

Wright’s home is an hour north of New York City, where it was 95 degrees and news reports warned that wearing flip-flops could be fatal. (I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that things percolate on sidewalks when it’s scorching in New York.) Seeking air conditioning, I strolled through the chaotic Chelsea Market at Ninth Avenue and West 16th Street where I was drawn to the gouged and scratched doors (below).

New York’s Chelsea Market.

Looking like an idea that began with a mistake, I discovered that there is an intentional “theme of industrial archaeology that runs through the space” and a desire to showcase damage, not conceal it (lucky break for the construction crew). The door was locked and I wondered what secret it held. Is it a utility closet, conference room or a practice stage for U2? If you know, post a comment below.

Rich in visual texture, it’s easy to imagine these doors having acoustic qualities as well. The look of the New York door reminds me of chains dragging on concrete, whereas the door at the Hatch Cottage (below) elicits auditory mirages of clicking ice in summer cocktails.

The Hatch Cottage in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Speaking of chains, the Hopkins House (below left) by Charlie Zehnder was disparaged in a recent Boston Globe blog for looking like a prison. To which I reply, “Lock me up.” These windows edit the view and accent how light and foliage change with time. And because another house is nearby, the small openings ensure privacy (or maybe the peek-a-boo view teases the heck out of whoever lives next door).

The work of Charlie Zehnder: the Hopkins House (left) and the Kugel-Gips House (right) are in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

Also by Zehnder is the Kugel-Gips house, which has two elevations that are bunker-like in their use of concrete blocks and oblique windows. Facing south and west, however, are ribbons of glass (above right) running the length of each wall, and butt-glazed corner windows that project the living space into the landscape.

The last windows I’ll share with you are in honor of the new school year.

In 1965, Louis Kahn was commissioned by Phillips Exeter Academy to build a library. Described by the American Institute of Architects as a “modern architectural masterpiece,” I’ll tell you more about this library in an upcoming Design Notes. Until then, I offer a preview of its windows, which showcase Kahn’s ability to pull the sky into his buildings, creating fields of blue on the exterior while filling the interior with natural light. 

Gwendolyn Horton

August 06, 2009

Wine, Corian and getting high.

After visiting the Guggenheim, I needed something to stop the spinning, so I checked out Clo Wine Bar’s bar. I went there for the Corian (and that’s not the name of a new wine). Like a built-in sobriety test, this interactive experience has users pointing and dragging in the air to “flip” through an encyclopedia of wine, which is projected on the white Corian surface of the bar. When you land on something you might like, you order a four-ounce taste, and if you like the taste of the taste you can order a bottle.

With images of wine bottles streaming by you like sushi boats from which you can pluck what suits you, your attention will not be on the plain-looking Corian bar. And that’s exactly why this seamless, germ-resistant material was a smart choice for this installation.

“Corian plays well with others,” said Michael Morris, designer of the recently opened Corian Design Studio in New York. Just like Emeco and its use of aluminum, Corian is one of the stalwarts of American post-war design. In the U.S., we tend to think of Corian as a countertop material but, as Morris explained, in Europe this material is used for radiator covers, interior walls, retail displays and more. In Bordeaux, Le Seeko’o Hotel claims to be the world’s first ever hotel to have its façade entirely covered with Corian.

Hospital interiors are an ideal market for Corian since it can be constructed with no seams (that’s where the germs hide) and it is bacteria resistant (even if they could hide, they couldn’t grow). It can also be embedded with LEDs, thermoformed into custom shapes, sandblasted, routed, etched, backlit and easily repaired. One final note about the Clo Wine Bar: Don’t be confused by the fact that there is a seam in that Corain surface. This is not the result of you having one too many (the installer is another story) but rather a mistake that they’ll fix shortly.

From a new bar experience to a new walking experience, the first section of New York’s High Line opened in June. If you’re not familiar with it, the High Line was an elevated rail on Manhattan’s west side that was abandoned in 1980. (Cocktail party trivia: The last train carried three carloads of frozen turkeys.) It then became the overgrown creepy place where bodies were found in NYC cop shows and the subject of a 22-year debate. In 2002, the Friends of the High Line finally received the City Council support they needed, and their reuse plan began.

I was there on the first weekend the High Line opened and was struck by how quickly New Yorkers “got” the space. They were there en masse. Lattes in hand and talking on phones while relaxing on one of the oversized benches that play to every urban dweller’s desire to have an outdoor deck. As I walked, I was intrigued by the geometry of the space, awash in angles, points, lines and grids. The palette consists of railroad tracks, concrete, plants and grasses, with one material leading to the next, giving the space balance and flow. I wasn’t crazy about the uneven concrete that I stumbled over a few times (alcohol, by the way, is not permitted), but visually, I liked the unexpected terrain.

Also unexpected was that I found myself being a voyeuristic tourist, peering into the apartments and offices that overlook the High Line. I watched a bit of a yoga class, saw someone in their kitchen talking on the phone (ordering mini-blinds no doubt) and noticed a handful of other folks watching me watching them watching me.

Over 80 years, these apartments have had quite a ride. Before 1930, many had unobstructed views of the Hudson River. Then the elevated rail was built and freight trains rumbled by at all hours. In 1980 the trains stopped but the drug dealers and vandals moved in. And in 2009, the non-stop parade of people began. The windows of these spaces are 30 feet off the ground, and yet they suddenly have the exposure of a street-level space in Times Square. It’s a lucky break for the folks at Phillips Auction House whose gallery is now clearly visible to every High Line visitor.

If you live near the High Line (bonus if you have Corian countertops), I’d be interested to hear how this space has impacted you. Please share your comments below.

Gwendolyn Horton

July 26, 2009

Remembering Julius Shulman.

This special edition of Design Notes is a continuation of the following post that appeared on the DWR blog on July 16:

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of our dear friend Julius Shulman. The legendary photographer died on July 15 at the age of 98. Shulman has been part of our family since the beginning, and it seems like everyone at DWR has a great story about Shulman or one of his photographs above their desk or a favorite book of his work in their library. Shulman amazed us with his talent and kept us laughing with his stories. We loved him dearly, and as my colleague Matt Wilkerson so graciously put it, “we should all be so lucky to live a life as full as his was.”

After posting this, my coworkers sent me photographs and stories to share, and I invite you, our readers, to share your own stories as well.

At home with Shulman.
“In 2003, a group of DWR folks visited with Julius Shulman in his Hollywood Hills home. It was a wonderful visit. Shannon and I sat in matching vintage Egg chairs in his Studio/office.” Editor’s note: The Egg chairs were a gift from his friend Arne Jacobson, after Shulman photographed them in Denmark. “When Shulman spoke to us about his work, it was clear that his approach to life was to stay true to himself. He talked about real living in the modern world and the homes he photographed. He was big on being comfortable and indoor/outdoor living. He also made a point of having us take note of his new plush lounge chairs in the living room. After that visit, I added an Egg Chair to my home. It lives in my son’s room where many books will be read, stories told and fond memories of Julius Shulman will be had.” – L.R.

“I was new to DWR when we visited Shulman in 2003. All I knew was that we were going to some architectural photographer’s home. It was a little awkward at first, but then this man started talking about how perturbed he was at Martha Stewart. Her team had just photographed a ‘Dining Al Fresco’ spread at Shulman’s home for her magazine, and he was disappointed at the proofs they sent over. ‘All they show is this damn tabletop, and the stuff she sells,’ he ranted. ‘There is not one photo that shows any architecture or any space where you can actually dine al fresco.’

“The rant continued for some time, and he was constantly stopping to answer the 1950s telephone on his desk. ‘That was Taschen. I guess they want me to do another book,’ (he’d shrug) ‘I guess, so.’ More rant…another phone call. ‘Shulman. Where? Germany? If you say so.’ Click. ‘I guess I’m going to Germany for some award.’ It was like a scene from a movie.

“While he was talking I noticed a large book promotion poster on the wall. It was at that moment that I realized that this ‘architectural photographer’ was Julius Shulman. And that poster was the front cover of a book that an architect friend had given me for my birthday years earlier. The book was Julius Shulman: Architecture and its Photography. It is a big, beautiful book with amazing pictures of mid-century homes. Up until that point, my education in design and architecture had been focused on heavy moldings, lots of fringe, boxed ceilings and Corinthian columns. But then I was given this book and everything changed. It was an epiphany. I started emptying my shelves and cleaning off my tabletops. I started receiving this very cool catalog from some company in San Francisco called Design Within Reach. My interest grew, and within a year of being given that book, I was working for DWR, sitting in Shulman’s home. It was a magical moment, the kind that affirms you are on the right path. I had made a decision at a fork in the road, and here was confirmation that I went in the right direction.” –M.W.

"A certain talent."

"His humility and almost self-effacing attitude were very endearing as well as refreshing. He told me that as a young man he sent some photos to Frank Lloyd Wright, asking if he could photograph some of Wright’s designs. Wright responded with a very FLLW-type no, saying he did not allow amateurs to photograph his work. At the end of the letter, Wright added a P.S.: 'But stick with it young man. You do appear to have a certain talent.' Shulman still had this handwritten letter from Wright pinned to his office wall when I met him. I knew that Shulman had later become Wright’s exclusive photographer and friend, so I asked him why he kept the letter. He said it was to remind himself." –R.B.

Shulman’s wit.

“Julius Shulman was a regular guest and honoree at DWR Studio events. One evening in 2008 we hosted a book signing at Beverly Boulevard for Julius Shulman: Palm Springs. When Julius took questions from the crowd, someone asked him what the key to his success had been. Julius simply replied, ‘I am a damn good photographer.’ Later that evening, after a few cocktails, he pulled me aside and handed me a card on which he had written ‘Vodka Within Reach’ and chuckled. We are going to miss him very much. I feel so fortunate to have met him.” – S.W.

…and sometimes biting wit.
“For the opening of DWR: Tools for Living in Santa Monica, Matt and I decided to escort Julius to the event in style. We rented a large comfortable car but we got stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard and were very late picking him up. He wasn’t pleased. All the way to the party, he was giving backseat directions to avoid traffic, and referring to our VP as ‘driver.’ Fortunately, he settled down when we got to the party, he loved being the center of attention and basked in the affection of many ladies.” –V.C.
The documentary.

“Julius was a national treasure; mostly cheerful, quick-witted, well weathered and never short to task. If you would like to fall in love with him all over again, I recommend seeing the documentary film Visual Acoustics, the Modernism of Julius Shulman by Eric Bricker. You will cry when, in his 90s, he receives an honorary architecture degree from Woodbury University and laugh with him and his anecdotes through the whole film. The DWR Studio in Austin is working with Bricker to host a reception for the release of the film.” – V.C.

“Driver, pay attention.”

“The night that we picked up Shulman to take him to the opening of Tools for Living – when he was calling me ‘driver’ for the entire ride – that night was the last time I saw him. He was a great man. He inspired me, he helped me realize how much can be accomplished in 98 years. His world was big, and he said yes to so many things, and at 98 he was still saying yes and still enjoying new experiences, people and great design. He will be missed.” –M.W.

A final toast.

“About a month ago, I spent a day with Shulman. We talked, laughed and planned a future event together. He wanted to come to San Francisco and photograph my home and was going to stay with us. As we were making these plans, I noticed a photograph of Shulman in the corner. He was wearing a smart sport coat and an ascot, and there was a comely redhead sitting on his lap. I told Julius that this woman appeared to be smitten with him. He laughed and told me to turn over the photo. (It was three feet tall, more of a poster, but in Julius’ office anything could get lost in a corner.) On the back were Polaroids of this lovely young lady emerging from a large champagne glass. The photos were taken at Shulman’s 98th birthday party. When I told him she seemed to be a lovely gift, he advised me that he did not get to keep her and he laughed. At 98 he was still a young man, enjoying every minute. So when I heard of his passing I poured a glass of bourbon, toasted him one last time, and thanked the fates for allowing me the privilege of calling him friend.” –R.B.

- Gwendolyn Horton

July 02, 2009

Two Franks and one city.

I flew to NYC to sit on a bench. Actually, that’s an exaggeration. I flew to NYC to ogle a bench. Not just any bench, but a polished aluminum wing-like creation by Frank Gehry. The architect created this one-of-a-kind item with Emeco, the folks who make indestructible aluminum chairs like the 1006 Navy® Chair.

Included in the Sotheby’s Important 20th Century Design auction on June 12, the bench was available for preview in the days before. I went to see Tuyomyo (the name of the bench, which means “yours and mine”) and arrived in a bubble of ladies-who-lunch, walking en masse through the gallery. With the exception of one woman who used the mirror-like bench to check her lipstick, none of them tested the bench for its ability to position two sitters facing each other so they can converse. And conversing was not something these women were afraid to do. Instead, they gave “the tush test” (their words) to the nearby Maria Pergay “Target” Chairs (final hammer price: $32,500 for the pair).

Perhaps you have to be a hard ass to understand the auction world.

As for the Gehry bench, Sotheby’s estimated selling price was $250,000 to $350,000, and when the final bid did not meet the reserve (it was very close), Emeco donated the bench to the Hereditary Disease Foundation. In 1968, Berta and Frank Gehry helped establish this Foundation for research in genetic and brain disorders. All proceeds from the sale of the bench will go to the Foundation’s Leslie Gehry Brenner Award for Innovation in Science, a research fund established in honor of the Gehry’s late daughter. “Interested buyers should contact the Foundation,” says Emeco’s Dan Fogelson, who’s already got his hands full selling $400 aluminum Navy chairs.

From a sinuous bench to a swirling museum, the next Frank on my list was Mr. Wright who’s having a banner year. There’s a novel out about his form-follows-function love life, and the Guggenheim, which he designed, is featuring an exhibit of his work. The NYC landmark was completed 50 years ago, and this is the first FLLW exhibit within his circling walls. Perhaps it’s true that “the mother art is architecture,” as FLLW would say.

I’m a wall-hugger at the Guggenheim. I fear that a suctioning force will come from the void in the center and pull me down, like a giant toilet flushing, dragging with it tourists, tchotchkes and works of art. The white porcelain-like walls don’t help alleviate this sensation, and as if Wright recognized this, the toilet in this restroom appears to have been installed with a wink and a smile. 

Embracing my vertigo, I took the elevator to the top floor and worked my way down through the museum’s spiraling ramp. This is the Wright way, and how he intended the space to be experienced, but the museum – in some sort of Guggenheim guffaw – arranged the FLLW exhibit to start at the bottom. Write to me if you know why. Security grumbled when I asked.

The Guggenheim followed me to lunch at Elmo, where there’s a painting by Robert Loughlin, an artist with a story that’s as interesting as his work. Actually, make that two stories. Story one, as told by the maitre d’, is that Loughlin is a homeless man who has been painting the same face of his late boyfriend since the 1970s. Story two, as I discovered in my research, is that Loughlin works in antiques and the face is actually his boyfriend Gary, who he has been with since the 1980s. Either way, this macho face with cigarette is compelling, and I imagine that what he’s saying about the Guggenheim is: “Start from the top. Work your way down.” 

And if being followed by the work of one Frank wasn’t enough, I was also followed by Gehry, as I could see his IAC Building from my hotel room. (You can also get a great look at it from the High Line, which I’ll discuss in the next Design Notes.)

Gwendolyn Horton

May 27, 2009

Iridescent California.

In San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood there is a giant rainbow flag, and flying above it today is a banner in black, the color of mourning and judges’ robes. The mood in California is prickly, and as I work in my office, surrounded by swatches of fabric and leather in a spectrum of colors, I find that I’m thinking about rainbows. Not in a unicorn or pot of gold kind of way, but in a humanity kind of way, and in terms of the symbols chosen to express our beliefs.

The rainbow flag made its debut at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Day Parade in 1978. Gilbert Baker designed and hand-sewed the first flag for his friend Harvey Milk, who was assassinated later that year. “I will always remember Harvey riding through the streets under the giant rainbow flag waving to the crowds,” said Baker. “It was an incredible moment of joy and we all felt that we were going to change the world.”

Originally made with eight stripes – pink for sexuality; red for life; orange for healing; yellow for sun; green for nature; blue for art; indigo for harmony; and violet for spirit – the combination proved impossible to mass produce because hot pink (always the drama queen) was not commercially available in nylon. The flag was reduced to seven stripes, and then to six after Harvey Milk was murdered. Following that tragedy, Baker’s flag was the symbol needed to demonstrate the unity of the community, but because the Pride Parade Committee of 1979 wanted to hang the flag from light posts with the stripes divided evenly, the indigo stripe (sorry harmony) was removed so there would be three colors on each side.

Today, these six stripes are recognized by the International Congress of Flag Makers (a colorful group, I’m sure), and used worldwide as a symbol of gay rights and LGBT pride. When researching this story, I came across a Leather Pride Flag which at first I thought would be a great idea to support our upholstery collections, until I realized that the pride that flag symbolizes has more to do with bedroom furniture.

No matter what your beliefs, or your feelings about this week’s decision by the California supreme court justices (I’m lowercasing them because I can), I encourage you to keep an eye out for rainbows. Even if you’re like a guy I saw waiting for the commuter ferry recently who, as a rainbow draped itself over our foggy city, called his wife and told her to look out the window. His right to marriage will never be challenged, but he recognized the beauty of a rainbow, and that gives me hope that people’s hearts and eyes are still open.

Gwendolyn Horton

April 22, 2009

Otis, my man.

Some of the most heated discussions I’ve been involved in at DWR have been over naming products. People take this very seriously, and yet, we all know that the name is forgotten as soon as the customer gets the product home. I seriously doubt that anyone says “Andrew, how many times do I have to ask you to get your elbows off the Spanna Extension Table and put your Fog Linen Napkin on your lap? Shape up or I’ll send you to your Matera Bed with Storage without dinner.”

Dare to dream, DWR.

At least I don’t have to name cars. This morning I idled behind a Toyota Rogue (are they kidding?) and pitied the poor bastard who came up with that one. Actually, make that two poor bastards. Toyota used the name in the 1980s and Nissan recently slapped it on the back tailgate of their compact SUV.

Nail polish colors would be fun to name, and I’d suggest the name “Less is more,” in case anyone from Revlon is reading. Naming lingerie would also be enjoyable (again, I suggest “Less is more” as the name).

At DWR, the name “Otis” was recently suggested for a new table we’ll be introducing. My mind immediately went to elevators and “Otis, my man!” in Animal House. Generally, we try to avoid using personal names because: 1. It’s too much like other retailers, and 2. If a customer has a bad association with a name – an ex-boyfriend or a mean boss, for example – then that product is not going to elicit feelings of serenity and relaxation.

Of course, we make exceptions, so you can stay seated in your Ray Club Chair and keep reading rather than emailing me to point out this fact. (That goes for you lounging on the Albert Sofa as well.) So, I gave some thought to Otis. Mostly I wondered how Otis Elevators got their name. It turns out that Otis was the last name of the man who founded the company in 1853. Elisha Graves Otis did not invent the elevator, but rather, he invented a safety mechanism that prevented these “lifting platforms” from plummeting to the ground. (Kudos to them for not choosing to use his middle name.)

The company made its first elevator sale to a furniture factory at 275 Hudson Street in New York City. The price was $300, and it was partially paid for with a cannon. Otis elevators were originally powered by steam, in the 1870s they switched to hydraulic elevators that relied on water pressure, and in 1889 the first electric elevator was installed. This innovative company also solved the problem of how to install an elevator into the curved lower legs of the Eiffel Tower. The solution was a hybrid of sorts – part elevator, part inclined railroad similar to funicular lifts used on steep hillsides. The Otis machines went into service in 1889 in the north and south pillars, only to be dismounted in 1910. The relationship between the Otis Company and Gustave Eiffel had its ups and downs (forgive the pun), causing dramatic statements like, “we have borne and suffered and achieved on your behalf,” to be written to one another. Read more about it on the Otis website.

As far as naming conventions, the elevator had its awkward moments, from “ascending rooms” (apparently they did not descend) to “hoisting apparatus” which was the name Otis used in his 1861 patent. For our table at DWR, we named it the Metric Table – look for it in June. The name Otis will remain in my tickler file, in the event that we introduce a table or chair that’s height adjustable. For insights about our own name – Design Within Reach – read a recent blog post by our CEO.

Gwendolyn Horton

March 26, 2009

Digging up dirt on John Deere.

My aunt and uncle recently sent me pictures taken on Maine Maple Sunday, an event that includes maple syrup tasting. My guess is that this process is a bit like wine tasting in Napa, but with more sugar and no hangover. It was fun to see photos of my syrup-tipsy family, but what really caught my eye was the John Deere tractor with the vat of maple sap in back.

According to my aunt, this “modern hauling vehicle” replaced the horse and sled that were traditionally used for transporting the sap. It takes 40 gallons of maple sap to make one gallon of pure maple syrup, but I have no doubt that John Deere is up to the task.

Indulging my passion for these green-and-yellow machines (what is it about them that reminds me of basketball uniforms?), I researched John Deere and discovered that the future-founder of the farm-machinery conglomerate began his career as a blacksmith in Illinois. In 1836, he was approached by a group of farmers who asked, “How can we stop the #&*$%! soil from jamming up our #&*$%! plows?”

Deere quickly recognized that cast iron wasn’t the right material for cultivating the sticky soil in the Midwest, so in 1837 he introduced his “self-polishing” plow made of steel that the soil would not adhere to. Combining innovative thinking with an expertise in materials, Deere solved the farmers’ problem. Today his steel plow is archived at the Smithsonian.

Fast forward 100 years and countless happy farmers later, the John Deere Company decided to design a new building for its Moline, Illinois, headquarters. With a goal to create something that was unique but also reflected the character of the company, their choice of architects was none other than Eero Saarinen.

Staying true to Deere’s legacy, Saarinen designed the building in steel. Not polished steel like the plow, but rather Cor-ten® steel, a material that had never before been used in architecture. When this material is left unpainted, “a rust coating forms which becomes a protective skin over the steel itself,” explained Saarinen. This corrosion-resistant coating gives the steel an earthy color that the folks at John Deere describe as being “much like newly plowed soil.”

If you know anything about Saarinen, you know that one of his greatest strengths was the ability to express a client’s identity through architecture. That talent is made even more notable here by the fact that the architect died in 1961, two years before the John Deere building was completed. If you’d like to see the structure, it’s open to visitors 365 days a year. In addition to marveling at Saarinen’s work, be sure to check out the 180-foot-long mural by Alexander Girard. This three-dimensional timeline depicts the company’s first 75 years of operation, from 1837 to 1918, and contains 2,200 pieces of memorabilia (it would take a genius like Girard to make that look interesting). And of course, be sure to check out the displays of John Deere products.

Gwendolyn Horton

February 26, 2009

Anniversaries and such.

It seems hard for me to believe, but we are in our tenth year. It certainly has been an interesting journey. When we launched our little company in 1999, it was a catalog with a website, and while we believed it should work, who really knows until you push the small tyke out of the nest. In fact, we had a bit of a scare after we mailed our first book and the phone hadn’t started to ring. Perhaps junior wasn’t the budding genius we thought he would be. But then our CEO at the time noticed that no one had turned off the phone night service, so all the calls were going to voicemail. As soon as we switched it over, the calls started pouring in and we began to feel better about our little venture.

Over the next 10 years we lived through the dotcom bubble (which helped get us going – thank you Steve and Bill) and the bursting of said bubble, which was far less pleasant. But as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The next few years were relatively uneventful and we enjoyed rather nice growth (thank you DWR customers and design enthusiasts). Then we were all shocked by the events of September 11, 2001. We were rocked to our very core and the job of selling chairs suddenly seemed far less significant. But before long we did what all people do. We mourned, we contemplated the meaning of it all and we got back to living.

Today we are working our way through an economic situation that is unprecedented in the recent history of our nation. Many people have lost their jobs and many more are concerned about the future. Our little company has certainly not gone untouched by these events. We have reduced our workforce by 30%, and our overall expenses by even more. For the last six months, our products have been on sale constantly in order to generate revenue and reduce inventories. All of this has been trying, but it has positioned us well to have a very good chance of celebrating our 20th anniversary too.

So, when our team was trying to decide how to best celebrate this milestone, it was suggested (and widely agreed upon) that we provide the people who helped us get here (that would be you folks) an opportunity to enhance their surroundings. Starting tomorrow, we will be offering you a never-seen-before (and perhaps not repeated for another decade) offer. We’ve never offered this kind of discount on our entire assortment, and you get free shipping to boot.

Over the next few weeks, you will be hearing more about what we have been up to during the last few months and what you can continue to expect in the future. For certain, it includes honesty in all we do and it does not include continuing with deep discounts. Because deep discounts indicate one of two things: Either the company that is doing the discounting is liquidating – as in “bye bye” – or their prices are artificially inflated to allow this deep discounting, which we consider less than honest.

So, we would like to get a dialogue going with all of you about pricing, quality, what you need and what we can do to bring it all together, within a framework that is DWR. What does that mean? Well, simply put, it is about the value of smart design. Staying true to the fundamental tenets of modernism, we will expand upon our ability to satisfy your need for lasting value, with products that satisfy our standards of quality and design.

So stay tuned – and let us know what you think. In the meantime, preshop our Anniversary Sale (it starts at midnight).


Ray Brunner

January 21, 2009

Giving a hand to the tools we use.

When it comes to utilitarian objects, which do you prefer: beauty or brains? I agree, both would be ideal, and having both is possible, but for this example, you have to choose. When it comes to the tools you use every day, do you reach for them because they’re attractive or because you like how they work?

I was in an Apple store recently, watching how customers react to products on the shelves. In that sleek white environment, everything begs to be touched, picked up and held. Thumbs spin iPod wheels, index fingers stroll across iPhone screens, palms roll track balls to and fro. It’s a den of fondling. And it occurred to me that what Apple has so brilliantly done, is reconnected us to the joy of play. There is great appeal in fooling around with something that is accessible and easy to use. 


Which made me wonder about objects that aren’t technology-based. Can something as mundane as a saltshaker, for example, elicit the same sense of playful fascination? More importantly, can it do so without sacrificing functionality? I know you’ve heard of Steve Jobs. Now let me introduce you to Beat Wietlisbach.

Wietlisbach’s story (you knew there had to be a story) begins in 1997, when he was traveling around New Zealand. Among his backpacking gear was a stash of salt, which he kept in a 35mm film canister. As you’ve already guessed, one day the top of the canister popped off, and salt was scattered throughout his gear and unmentionables. After a few choice words and a bit of foot stomping, Wietlisbach finished his trip salt-free, and began work on a new kind of saltshaker. 

His goal was to create a spill-proof container that keeps contents dry, clean and hygienic, in any environment. The first prototype was made of aluminum, which was very strong, but too heavy to be practical for travel. Wietlisbach pursued various types of plastics, and returned home to Switzerland to work with experts in natural and synthetic compound technologies. When a solution was found in food-grade polymer, a prototype was sent off with the Swiss Alpine members, who spent two years in the field (budget control anyone?) testing Wietlisbach’s saltshaker.

Using feedback from the field, Wietlisbach made his design even smarter. For starters, he made the two caps differently shaped to help differentiate salt and pepper, even in the dark. Like the Apple products mentioned earlier, as soon as this saltshaker is in your hand, everything about it is intuitive. And for me, there’s something in its spring-loaded caps and sleek clear body that elicits a feeling of play. Wietlisbach also made it possible to unscrew the shaker heads to transform the container into an airtight and watertight case for pills. (For others, this might be how it elicits a feeling of play.)

Ever since it proved it could stand up to the rigors of the Matterhorn, the Swiss Salt and Pepper Shaker has been used in expeditions worldwide, including treks across the frozen Arctic with Marc Cornelissen and up Mt. Everest with Wilco de Rooij. Its most recent voyage brought it to Design Within Reach.

One more thing, should you have drawers full of old film canisters, the following “recipe” might be a fun way to put them to use. It could also serve as a way to signal for help, should you get lost in the woods, carrying all your old film canisters.

Film Canister Rocket
You’ll need:
-An empty 35mm plastic film canister and lid (it’s rumored that the semitransparent canisters work best)
-One Alka-Seltzer tablet
-Safety goggles

How to create your rocket:
1. Put on your goggles
2. Put one half of the antacid tablet in the canister
3. Add a teaspoon of water to the canister
4. Quickly put on the cap and snap it tightly
5. Quickly put it cap-side-down and step back
In a few seconds, the film canister will launch into the air. In the event of a misfire, wait at least 30 seconds before approaching the canister. Launching the rocket outdoors is recommended.