Designers Don’t Have Influences: Austin Howe

I had better start by owning up to not having read Designers Don’t Read by Howe – I had seen lots of press for it but never got round to picking up a copy. So I have come to his second book without reading the first, but Designers Don’t Have Influences (Amazon US|CA|UK|DE) is stand-alone and can be picked up without any prior knowledge of Howe or his writing.

Designers Don’t Have Influences is a collection of short essays on people that have influenced Howe throughout his successful career in advertising. Rather than write about people working directly in his field Howe writes about all sorts of people from various disciplines. He writes in the forward:

“My basic premise is that we can often learn more from people in other disciplines than we can from our own”

This really resonated with me. As a designer my own influences are often from beyond my profession and can be divorced from their context. Howe’s introduction had already got me excited about reading on.

“Disclaimer: this book is not an exhaustive compendium of every notable author or artist or inventor or entrepreneur. It’s really more of a random collection of individuals who have impacted me in some way – people I think most designers would probably appreciate knowing a little more about.”

There are no work samples in the book – Howe explains that Designers Don’t Have Influences follows in the “spirit and tradition of Norman Potter’s little gem, What is a designer: Things, Places, Messages” (a book I would also recommend, Potter is a great influence on me). Howe also explains that he wanted to dismiss the idea that designers don’t read – hence the title of his first book.

Each chapter in Designers Don’t Have Influences is a self contained essay. At the start of each chapter is the estimated time it will take to read it – I loved this element (one he uses in Designers Don’t Read), as I could pick up the book in my lunch time, waiting for a tube, sitting on Brighton beach, and flick to a chapter which I knew I would be able to read in the time I had. I felt I was carrying round a bunch of observations and ideas I could dip into rather than a book I would have to read from page one onwards. Each chapter has a little nugget of Howe thinking, seemingly designed to make you think a little, question a little and maybe re-evaluate your position and approach to your design work.

Some of the chapters are simply Howe’s observations of the experiences of working with others in and around his industry – the chapter on Bill Cahan gives a great insight into the processes of an innovative and successful design agency and those that run it. Many of Howe’s other subjects will be familiar to designers, the ubiquitous Ayn Rand gets a chapter, as do the Saatchis, Julian Schnabel, Josef Müller-Brockman and Damien Hirst, but it is the people I had never heard of that interested me the most – a great example is the chapter on François Allaire, a Canadian Hockey goalie coach. As a Yorkshireman who grew up with only a passing interest in football (my trips to Elland Road were on the whim of friends, I was never a committed football fan), there was no way I was going to have heard of a Canadian Hockey coach. Within this chapter Howe explains how Allaire re-invented goalie coaching from the ground up, and coached some of the most successful goalies in Hockey history. Howe writes about how Allaire can be an influence to someone working in the field of design:

“First of all he teaches us that it can be done, wherever and whenever it is actually attempted. That by questioning the conventions of how something has been done for years, we can find new ways of approaching it, simply by being aware, observant, ambitious.”

At the back of the book, once the essays are over, there’s a collection of doodle style portraits of the chapters subjects (along side a quote), credited to Aaron James. – my favourite is the starey scary disembodied Damien Hirst, but Maurice Saatchi’s portrait is worth a mention. I also liked the book design and typography credited to Fredrik Averin – a seemingly modernist design subverted with bold lines striking through the words, a treatment carried through from the cover to the chapters headings.

Maurice Saatchi

The best accolade I can give this book is that I already have bought his first book on the back of this one – and I will be keeping an eye on out for further publications and writing by Howe.

This review also features on The Designer’s Review of Books.

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Jun’ichirō Tanizaki: In Praise of Shadows (谷崎 潤一郎: 陰翳礼讃)

In Praise of Shadows

I came across this slim book (which is more an extended essay) while looking into texts on aesthetics. I was particularly interested in books about the differences in perception. Not specifically from a design point of view but more general ideas on cultural differences in the perception of everyday objects, the spaces we occupy and how we interact with them.

I call this book an essay – I could easily call it a mild rant. A personal plea against homogeneity. In Praise of Shadows (Amazon UK US) concerns itself with the difference in attitudes regarding light, and how western influence has diluted the Japanese love of shadows.

Originally published in 1933 in Japanese, the English translation was published in 1977 and as the title hints at Jun’ichirō Tanizaki makes the claim that traditional Japanese objects such as lacquerware and the Japanese home itself have been made specifically for low light, or to be specific, the light produced as the day closes – for example the central living space in a traditional Japanese dwelling would always have a sand or neutral finish, all the best to subtly highlight an evenings fading light.

Why should this propensity to seek beauty in darkness be so strong only in Orientals? The West too has known a time when there was no electricity, gas, or petroleum, yest so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally no feet; Western ghosts have feet, but are transparent. As even this trifle suggests, pitch darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even ghosts are clear as glass. This is true too of our household implements: we prefer colours compounded of darkness, they prefer the colours of sunlight. And of silverware and copperware: we love them for the burnish and patina, which they consider unclean, insanitary, and polish to a glittering brilliance. They paint their ceilings and walls in pale colours to drive out as many of the shadows as they can. We fill our gardens with dense plantings, they spread out a flat expanse of grass.

Tanizaki argues that the West is quite opposite to the Japanese: the West emphasize brightness and uniformity. Tanizaki believes that western culture associate brightness with cleanliness and hygiene. In modern western architecture light is a premium. Buildings are designed to be as bright as possible, no matter what the time of day. Shadows, dim corners, nooks and crannies are reduced. By contrast Japanese architecture regards light in a much more subtle fashion; light is seen as liquid and as having different properties depending on the time of day and season. Tanizaki believes that in Japanese culture shadows and low light are intrinsic to how their homes have evolved. Japanese homes filter and diffuse light through paper walls, letting it absorb onto neutral surfaces, reflecting the change in light throughout the day. This concept of varying light is not alien to western architects but Tanizaki’s bugbear is of western hegemony and to address this he needs to generalize.

An example of a Japanese interior he uses early in the book, and one that made me smile, is of the water closet. Tanizaki bemoans the loss of the traditional Japanese toilet – the western equivalent is made up of shiny metal faucets, highly reflective tiles or surfaces invariably white. The Japanese closet according to Tanizaki is a place of spiritual reflection:

“Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet truly is a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Soseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, ‘a physiological delight’ he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.”

In Praise of Shadows jumps around from subject to subject with no apparent rhyme or reason – for such a slim book there is a fair amount of repetition, but this only adds to the character of the text, and the slightly chaotic feel seems to reflect the personal and singular attitude that Tanizaki takes with his subject matter.

The passage regarding skin colour was also quite revealing, discussing as it does the Japanese tradition of teeth blackening combined with green lipstick. Of course teeth blackening is not just a Japanese tradition and why this was seen as attractive or desirable in Japanese culture is never explained by Tanizaki. His explanation of why Japanese culture has such respect of the days changing light seems to be one of not surrendering to progress and the respect of tradition – I came away from this book thinking that Tanizaki had created a swansong to a disappearing culture – whether that is what he intended I can only presume, but the Japan he wistfully talks about probably does not now exist apart from in a few rural areas. I have never visited Japan, but I wonder what would Tanizaki think about my perception of the modern Japan, a perception gleaned from people I have met, movies, books, magazines, the internet and the TV: modern, technologically advanced, clean, bright – and neon.

So why would this book interest the designer? Maybe this book can serve as a reminder of how differently we view and use spaces and ‘things’ depending on our cultural background; that design decisions will always be fundamentally subjective no matter what the logic or rational that underpins them. Maybe it is a reminder to keep one eye on the passage of time and that ‘good’ design can be timeless.

This review also appears on The Designer’s Review of Books.

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Neil Young’s Greendale: Joshua Dysart & Cliff Chiang

Greendale hardback cover

I have to start this review by admitting that I am not a massive Neil Young fan. I quite like his soundtrack for Dead Man which I occasionally stick on the stereo, but that is were my relationship with Neil Young starts and ends. I was vaguely aware of his 2003 eco-political concept album, Greendale, which he released in 2003. What I didn’t know is that the album also spawned a film, a book and the obligatory ‘interactive tour’… and now there is the Greendale graphic novel (Amazon UK), written by Joshua Dysart with art by Cliff Chiang.

It did occur to me that to properly review Greendale I should track down the album, listen to it on headphones while completing the interactive tour on my laptop with the live action film on mute on the telly in the background. All that seemed quite a task simply for preparation for reading a comic book so I decided not to give the album even a cursory listen. Instead I dived right into the comic book without any in-depth knowledge of Young’s project apart from an inkling that it would contain tree hugging and maybe a mild rant against George Bush. I expect the creators of this graphic novel wanted it to be consumed without the need for backstory and that it should work as a stand alone piece. So that is how I approached it.

The story concerns a teenage girl called Sun who lives in the small southern US town of Greendale. Sun is part of a linage of women who all have special powers over nature – the narrative tracks the awakening of these powers in Sun and also how her political beliefs mature over time – she defeats a kind of demon with her newly realized powers and ends up hitching to Alaska to protest about oil drilling and the war in Iraq. Along the way she finds out about her magical heritage and her ancestry. The demon Sun defeats bears a strong resemblance to Neil Young and after noticing this I ended up thinking that most of the male characters looked a bit like Neil Young, but that could be my mind playing tricks. The demon also reminded me a little of the preacher in Poltergeist 2, in the way he is initially seen by Sun from a distance walking through walls, and how the demon is only visible to certain people. In Suns dreams the demon becomes a giant goat-like creature and these dream passages are the most enjoyable as it seems like Chiang lets his imagination loose and the panels seem more free and full of energy.

The overall book design is well executed, my copy is a hardback with a rough matt finish without a dust jacket, which makes a nice change. The family tree pages have a retro ‘vintage’ feel to the layout and typography. I presume that these design decisions were to give the book an ageless quality and this concept seems to extend to the art – the colour is quite desaturated in that 1050’s style but Chiang’s art is very fresh and clean and for me didn’t quite carry over the vintage concept.

I always like to see the artists ‘hand’ in comic books, which might seem paradoxical, but there is a current style for comic art to look quite perfect – lines are beautifully rendered, colours have smooth gradients and there is the feel and influence of the computer to the work. I have always preferred to see the sketches behind the drawing, or a much more loose style of drawing in the style of Eddie Campbell, Ted McKeever or Vincent Paronnaud for example – but this is only my personal preference and there are some lovingly rendered panels in Greendale, particularly the dream sequences – you can see the artists hand at work in these panels which for me are the most successful.

Greendale

Greendale

While I was looking at the various incarnations of the Greendale project I was particularly taken with the album cover art for Greendale, a beautiful illustration in a very ‘folk’ style by American artist James Mazzeo. I have not gone completely off topic, the illustration appears in the inside cover of the comic book. Anyone interested in contemporary American folk art should check him out.

Greendale album artwork by James Mazzeo

Greendale the graphic novel seems to be intended for a teenage audience, and the ‘coming of age’ sub plot combined with the ecological pro-active message fits that audience perfectly. Buy this comic book if you are young enough to have never heard of Neil Young.

Thanks to http://titanbooks.com for supplying a copy for review.

This review first appeared on bookgeeks.co.uk

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Winshluss: Pinocchio

Winshluss (Vincent Paronnaud) has taken the Pinocchio stories of Carlo Collodi and dragged it through the hundred or so years of popular culture that has passed since it was first written and given it a surreal dark twist. The results are quite an amazing comic book: Pinocchio by Winshluss (Amazon UK), an award winner, picking up book of the year at the French Angouleme festival.

Winshluss: Pinocchio

The book is published in French but mostly without text, the story told in descriptive panels in that classic Bandes Dessinées style intermixed with with full page and half page panels that also form part of the narrative. The only parts of the book with words are a few sections in black and white drawn in a loose sketchy style that nicely juxtaposes with the colour artwork that makes up the main body of the book. These black and white passages involve Jimmy the Cricket who has taken up home in Pinocchio’s head, and with my bad french I managed to just about understand what was going on, although you could easily understand the story with little or no french (like me).

The majority of the book is colour and wordless. Winshluss draws and paints in several mediums and there are several full page panels that I was amazed by. The coloring has that desaturated nostalgic feel that perfectly matches his drawing style.

Winshluss: Pinocchio

Winshluss: Pinocchio

The lame fox and blind cat from the original Carlo Collodi Pinocchio adventures become a smack-head and blind beggar, Monstro the great whale becomes a polluted toxic mutant fish destroying a Titanic style liner complete with white bearded captain and string ensemble who not only carry on playing when the ship goes down, but as they are being dissolved by the acidic bile in the stomach of the toxic fish.

Winshluss also makes several nods to Disney; Snow White and the seven dwarfs make an appearance, the dwarfs are a gruesome set of perverts and their involvement in Geppetto’s comeuppance is particularly twisted. There is even a film noir element, a hard boiled cop with a head like an Easter island statue who tracks down Geppetto and the seven perverted dwarfs. The book is certainly dark, but full of humor.

Pinocchio himself is a mute robot-boy, created by Geppetto to be a war machine who he initially tries to sell to the military. Pinocchio goes wandering after short circuiting while Jimmy the Cricket enters his robot brain. Pinocchio tumbles through this story, staying resolutely mute while the tale unfolds around him.

Winshluss: Pinocchio

Winshluss: Pinocchio

Vincent Paronnaud is also credited as co-writer and co-director with Marjane Satrapi on the film adaptation of her comic series Persépolis. What a talented chap.

You can see more artwork at a larger size here at http://www.bdgest.com.

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Blast Theory – Ulrike and Eamon Compliant

Blast Theory’s work is interesting stuff – I especially relate to the level of immersive interaction and the integration of technology. I came across Blast Theory as my good friend Dan is their administrator, and I participated in the piece Day Of The Figurines when it came to Brighton.

From the Blast Theory website:

Blast Theory is renowned internationally as one of the most adventurous artists’ groups using interactive media, creating groundbreaking new forms of performance and interactive art that mixes audiences across the internet, live performance and digital broadcasting.

Anyhow, I was invited along to the ‘premier’ of the documentation of their latest work Ulrike and Eamon Compliant at Blast Theory’s quite swanky studios just outside Brighton. Having not experienced Ulrike and Eamon Compliant firsthand I can’t comment on it, but the short film and supporting book documenting the work was enough to make me want to experience it for myself. The wine was nice too.

The book is beautifully designed by John Hunter, simple two column grid with a swiss flavour. I particularly like the cover, no messing about:

Blast Theory

Blast Theory

To read all about Ulrike and Eamon Compliant go here:

The DVD and book I am told should be on sale from the blast theory website soon – also check their website for information on upcoming projects.

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Museum of Everything

Took a trip to Chalk Farm on Saturday to have a look at the Museum of Everything, a wide collection of outsider art from the last 60 years, and I can honestly say it is the best collection of anything I have ever seen and urge you to visit.

Yes you, prednisone medications we’ve not met but I’m sure we’d be friends, right?

Lobanov

The collection is housed in what used to be a recording studio and the location sits very well with the objects and images, small rooms linked by smaller corridors opening into a larger room, filled floor to ceiling with the most obsessive imagery I’ve ever seen. The collection is selected by artists, musicians and writers but don’t let that spoli it, you might like David Byrne.

Each curator has written a small text explaining their choices. Some of these are very annoying, some are better.

Nick Cave managed to get to the nub of it for me with the text ‘Louis Wain is my favourite painter ever’.

Fair enough eh?

There are some truly startling paintings, illustrations and installations on view here, the product of a persons obsessions and compulsions. This is not art made for the consideration by others, this is true art, made because the artist has no other choice but to get it out of their head. Highlights for me were the Aleksander P Lobanov collection and the Henry Darger panels, a twisted Norman Rockwell of adolescence and fear.

Get up there and see it, don’t think it’s going to be on for much longer.

dl