Archive for January 2009

Imagination – President Obama Opens the Door

Posted by Robert Weitz on January 23, 2009 12:35 PM


“There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.” – Barack Obama

President Obama’s inaugural address moved me in many ways, but the word that jumped out and grabbed my “designer’s mind” was…”imagination.” It’s something that has been misused and suppressed in the last eight years. In fact, it seems that so much energy was given to subverting the rule of law and hiding inadequacies that there was no imagination left for building and planning for our future.

Design is about nuance and planning. Designers are asked to “imagine” that which does not exist. We are asked to explain and organize chaos, excite the senses while abiding by the laws of physics and nature.

As we emerge from the first decade of the 21st century we will need to understand the role that the human imagination plays in bettering our lives and inspiring great deeds.

The last years have been dumbed down by our fear of expansive ideas, nuance and imagination. Those who boldly looked to the future in the sciences and the arts and social sciences were loudly ridiculed, stifled and sidelined. People who called for nuanced information gathering, analysis and planning were poo-pooed and the “just slam it” school took center stage, often leaving a wake of destruction and debt in their path.

“Imagination is joined to common purpose” well defines so many human endeavors. I would add that it is the balance between imagination and purpose that defines our values. Cultures and political movements that suppress imagination, choice and individuality are cruel, inefficient and hopeless. In all fairness, too much imagination coupled with a lack of purpose can result in chaos and disillusion.

It is the mix of imagination and purpose that will determine what our next century will look like and how good our lives will be. As a designer/communicator, I can see that we need to develop better ways of accessing information, improving human connectivity and conflict resolution, all towards an end “purpose” of world peace and a decent life for all of our inhabitants.

It’s a lofty goal but worth imagining.

Obama’s Cloud of Hope

Posted by Dylan Tran on January 20, 2009 3:30 PM

Listening to Obama’s inauguration speech today, I couldn’t help but visualize the change and optimism in his words. Thanks to Wordle, I’ve created a “cloud of hope” from the text to mark this historic occasion.

Obama's Speech

Also, I just went out to and was immeasurably moved by the new “Change Has Come to America” banner with Obama’s face. What an amazing sight!

FashionProp – One Revolutionary Style That Fits All

Posted by Robert Weitz on January 14, 2009 3:12 PM

There’s a great article by Eric Wilson in NYT Fashion & Style: Consumers of the World Unite. Saks Fifth Avenue apparently hired the brilliant Shepard Fairey (of Obama poster fame) to design their spring marketing campaign. Read the NYT article for an in-depth background, but what interests me is the complicated story this campaign really tells.

In the 21st century, we have tremendous direct access to information and media that covers territory both deep and wide. For instance, when I was an architecture student, the term Russian Constructivism was barely popping its head up in journals like Oppositions or Skyline, and you could sometimes find a book on the subject in the back of a used bookstore.

We share Shepard Fairey’s love of the Constructivist design language, and are awed by his deft handling of this easy-to-blow compositional style. But let’s take a step back from its compositional excellence and graphic power and talk about its cultural significance.


The visual language Fairey is paying homage to was that of Russian artist Aleksander Mikhailovich Rodchenko. The group of artists that Rodchenko was associated with, the Suprematists and later the Constructivists, sought to create a radically new art for the Russian Revolution.

OK, this was not about raising your fist up high for better stitching on Prada bags. Russia was in the midst of tremendous social upheaval, war and starvation. The mechanisms of state and culture had to be re-invented to help save everyone from chaos and disillusion. The Constructivists set out to educate miserably poor, war-torn, illiterate peasants about socialism and the Russian Revolution…so they would feel more comfortable about sacrificing all their worldly possessions and moving to a Siberian hog farm.

As an interesting aside, the visual language of the Constructivists is a great example of a “media” look and feel growing out of the technology and funds available. With an audience that could not read, the Constructivists’ media of choice was graphic posters. Also, certain inexpensive inks and papers were chosen for their costs. Rest assured that the Soviet department stores of Rodchenko’s post-revolutionary Russia looked nothing like Saks Fifth Avenue. The “I Want” of Rodchenko’s time would’ve been something like: I want a half a bowl of half-frozen Kasha and two left-footed army boots so I can make it through the winter without starving or getting frostbite.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the work – but when I saw it, I had severe “irony pains.” The narrative is somehow askew…there’s this lady shaking her fist demanding the goods Saks Fifth Avenue offers…and she looks proletarian (if you will) and pissed off… or may just be cold-hearted. There is a sign that says “Arm Yourself,” which is softened by a cutesy: “With a Slouchy Bag.”


So, what’s the message here? Something in the narrative is amiss. By the way, I also wonder about the socio-political sensitivity since a large number of luxury shoppers last year came from abroad looking for bargains. Does your brand benefit from a narrative calling for a vigilant armed response to the lack of cashmere in our lives?

I mean there are great parallels between our time period and the early part of the 20th century and I’m fine with co-opting the language and drastically altering the meaning, but the end result is dripping with irony in the face of a deepening recession and decline in luxury retail sales.

Renzo Piano’s Green Museum – A Modern Idea Reborn

Posted by Robert Weitz on January 12, 2009 10:18 AM

There are countless examples of brilliant ideas that are way before their time. I’m always fascinated when the idea is finally doable. Human flight, space travel and wireless communications were all fanciful ideas way before they could be actualized.

In postulating a new set of rules to govern architectural design for the modern industrial world, Le Corbusier came up with the idea that a home is a “machine for living.” His five rules were: (1) Lift the supporting floor slabs up onto columns, this allows (2) A free facade (3) A free floor plan (4) Unencumbered views, and (5) A roof garden so that we give back to the landscape what we’ve taken away.

Oddly, the first four points have enjoyed fairly universal adoption and have been doable for many years. Also, we are well on our way to being able to make highly efficient machines for living in. The missing partner has been the “giving back” part: The roof garden.

While roof gardens have been around for quite a while, roof gardens that really work are a rarity, can leak and are usually decorative and not necessarily environmentally sensitive. Le Corbusier’s idea was to create a machine for living that is efficient, healthful and spiritually uplifting and that is what Renzo Piano has done with his design for the new California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

california academy of sciences

I think I could say that this building is a kind of Holy Grail for the modern movement in architecture. It takes the “machine for living” concept a step further – it is a living machine! It’s a beautiful building that teaches us how we can live with nature by being intelligent, efficient and sensitive.

It teaches and shelters by example, having attained a LEED-Platinum rating, making it the only public building of its scale to do so globally. This makes it the greenest large building – and most sustainable museum – in the world. Oh, and the roof garden seems to be working too.

All Your ‘Blands’ Belong To Us

Posted by Dylan Tran on January 10, 2009 11:15 AM

Bucksstar Coffee? Pizza Huh? No, your eyes are not fooling you: it’s the new Chinese shopping center in Nanjing featuring all fake brands.

Other brand imposters (or what I like to call “blands”) include McDnoald’s and Adidos. Un-brand-conscious shoppers may have a hard time knowing which to put on their feet and which to put in their mouths.

Seriously, though, the mall has predictably caused quite an outrage, not only amongst intellectual property rights owners, but also shoppers who feel they’ve been ripped off.

Read more about the controversy here.


Louise Bourgeois: Don’t Explain – You Can’t!

Posted by Robert Weitz on January 8, 2009 9:25 AM

“A work of art doesn’t have to be explained. If you do not have any feeling about this, I cannot explain it to you. If this doesn’t touch you, I have failed.”
-Louise Bourgeois

The 97-year-old American artist Louise Bourgeois is pure 21st century. I can’t explain, but having just walked through a very comprehensive show of her work from 1947 to the present, I can see that she fits the definition of a 21st century artist thinker. She is media agnostic, expressing her deeply emotional fuzzy narratives with sculpture, installations, drawings, paintings and prints – not to mention her critical writings and diaries as well.

Remember to put down your brochures and chase the docents away (nicely). Louise Bourgeois’ works evoke powerful emotions sans the subtitles.

Louise Bourgeois – Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, through January 25th.

louise bourgeois

Tools for Living – New Store Opening

Posted by Robert Weitz on January 2, 2009 1:07 PM

Much of the rhetoric of the early modern movement centered around better ways to do things through technology. California architect Richard Neutra designed the Lovell House, Le Corbusier made films showing him and his friends exercising on their roof gardens and everyone proclaimed modernism to be slicker, more healthy and more convenient than the old, dusty, dark houses of yore.

The term “Modern Living” came to mean clean, sophisticated and bourgeois – conjuring a scene from a vintage Julius Shulman photograph of a Los Angeles-cantilevered home filled with Knoll furnishings and long elegant fashion models.

FS really admires the Scandinavian designers who took the concept of modern living to the nth degree, designing an infinite variety of everyday objects using a singular modern vocabulary of high craft, utility and simple elegant geometries.

While the theorists and designers of the early 20th century fantasized that “everyman” would embrace modern, industrial design, “everyman” never could quite put a Barcelona chair in their rumpus room or festoon the dining room with a vintage Saarinen. Modern designs done in steel, glass and plastic are most cost effective when mass produced since the set up cost is quite prohibitive.

It’s no wonder that modern design appealed to the corporate, wealthy bohemians who live in John Lautner homes in Bel Air. In fact, prior to Design Within Reach’s arrival in 1999 it was hard for “everyman and everywoman” to walk out on the street and buy a fine piece of early 20th century furniture.

DWR has done an amazing job of combining au courant mass marketing and edu-evangelizing to invigorate a new market for modern furniture, and as a side effect, they have helped revive a tremendous interest in modern design and architecture.

FS jumped at the opportunity to visit the LA roll out and opening to DWR’s new line of “Tools for Living” recently. They served champagne and chocolates; a lot of serious but tipsy art/design mavens paraded around, and I got the impression that there was delight in the air. The delight got thicker when the 98-year-old architectural photographer Julius Shulman appeared to sign his new TASCHEN-published books.

schulman at tools for living

The aesthetic of the collection is all over the place. And they all seemed to fit in a MOMA store kind of merchandizing. It was kind of strange to see the drippingly elegant Cedar Sake Set that was reminiscent of both Shaker and Japanese craft genius in the same collection as the clunky, funky Louise Nevelson-esque Can Opener, but somehow both share a visual literacy and intelligence that behooves a 21st century gift store.

tools for living

Tools for Living is a really good smart move for DWR in the face of economic downturn because they will be able to spread their brand and sensibility around without have to close a sale on say, a $3000 credenza. It’s a great way for modern fetishists to pick up a little something that will hold them down until they are ready to go for a Corbusier Chaise Longue!