Posts tagged "Work"

AN Friday Review: Harry Weese

Inadvertent mid-century modern week on A Bit Late draws to a close with Harry Weese. Read me on Alexander Girard here, Warren Platner here, and alarm bells for Harry Bertoia's bronze screen for Manufacturers Hanover (SOM, 1954) here.

Today on The Architect’s Newspaper site, I review the new book The Architecture of Harry Weese. I was dreaming of a monograph on Weese only a few months ago. Unfortunately, this book was not what I had in mind.

The Architecture of Harry Weese begins instead with an extensive biographical essay on Weese by Bruegmann. The bulk of the text is four-page entries by art historian Kathleen Murphy Skolnik of 30-plus projects designed by Chicago-based Harry Weese & Associates from 1936 to 1984. There are approximately four pages by Bruegmann devoted to interpretation, pages that check all the appropriate boxes: Was Weese an alternative to the Mies school of Chicago modernism? Was he a traditionalist? Was his work special for its materials? Its Scandinavian influence? Its vernacular qualities? Or will his legacy be as the “conscience” of Chicago architecture? (If the last, it is perplexing that the book quotes so little from Weese’s writings and interviews. We get no sense of his voice, which in the 1980s became increasingly shrill. Bruegmann reports he once called Helmut Jahn “Genghis Jahn.” This is a letter I would like to read in full.)

Read the rest here. Up top are Weese’s fabulous River Cottages in Chicago. This was someone who knew how to design a modern townhouse.

Next week: all 2010, all the time.


In Dwell: Platner’s Opulent Modernism

Can’t get more fabulous than that, right? The CBS Ground Floor Restaurant, circa 1964.

I am a little obsessed with Warren Platner. Partly because no one else seems to be, and I find work like this very hard to ignore. In the tome-like Eero Saarinen catalog, to which I contributed, Platner was mentioned only a handful of times, despite being the hand and eye behind a number of the Saarinen office’s most successful interiors. Then he kept practicing, growing progressively wilder and wilder as the decades turned. I see him as a missing link between modernism and post-modernism, and another hero of the interior ignored by architectural history.

If you’ve ever wondered how we got from the 1950s’s glass boxes, stainless steel furniture, white walls to the 1970s with their fern bars, wood paneling, and brass everything—Warren Platner is one answer. The career of the New Haven-based architect and interior designer, who died in 2006 at age 86, spans the late 20th century’s architectural styles, from streamlining to corporate modernism, sky-high restaurants to postmodern ferries. Not all of his work was good, or even in good taste, but it shows a smart designer trying to avoid stagnation. Even when Platner went over the top (those golden handkerchiefs at the Pan Am Building come to mind) there was always a clear architectural idea undergirding the glittering decoration.

In retrospect much of Platner’s work seems perverse. And frankly, some of it from the 1980s and 1990s, like the garish lobbies in the Pan Am Building in New York, or the pastel interiors of ferries Fantasia and Fiesta, is just plain awful. Because he didn’t stick to the browns and blacks and tasteful grids of his employers and peers, this heir of Saarinen wasn’t easy to pigeonhole, and was duly accused of modernist apostasy.  But his material and aesthetic wanderlust—those brass-plated rods, those crystal chunks, even the bentwood he turned into a ceiling decoration for the American Restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri (1974)—were all part of his search for an appropriate palette for each client.

Read the rest of my argument in the November 2010 issue of Dwell. Complete PDF here. More photos from Platner’s Yale archive here, including his house in Guilford, CT, seen below.

UPDATE: Someone else who likes Warren Platner: Donald Trump! No big surprise, see his new interview about his modernist-opulent line of glassware in the Times. Would have been nice if they mentioned who actually designed the vessels.

On DO: Girard + Folk Art

As faithful readers of this blog know, I had hoped to be writing a monograph on Alexander Girard right now. A minor figure in my dissertation, and in many histories of mid-century modernism, Girard fascinates me as an architect who refused to play the skyscraper game, focusing his considerable talents on restaurants, textiles, exhibitions and murals. His work looks exuberant, and sometimes kitschy, but it always has an underlying geometric rigor.

One of his greatest works is the mural he designed for Eero Saarinen’s John Deere headquarters, which I believe originated an idea of three-dimensional display usually credited to the Eameses.

Today on Design Observer, I have published a fragment of my future book, There’s No Place Like Work, Designing with Folk Art. This essay also appears in the catalog for an exhibition of Girard’s work at the New Mexico State University Art Gallery, Modern Design/Folk Art.

An excerpt, on Girard’s New York work for MoMA and the short-lived design store Textiles & Objects.

George Nelson’s 1953 book Display reserved special praise for Girard’s 1953 Good Design exhibit at MoMA:

This show is one with no backgrounds: all walls and the ceiling  have been painted black, so that they disappear; within the black  envelope the exhibits appear, set on, against, into glowing  surfaces of light.

It is clear from Nelson’s description that there is a close affinity between the technique Girard developed for his history murals of the 1960s and his exhibition and showroom designs of the 1950s and 1960s. The idea of floating an object — on a rod, on a glass shelf, on mirror, on a wire — recurs again and again, as do grids of those rods, shelves and wires, creating showcases within showcases, rooms within rooms. At the MoMA, he painted walls and ceilings black, covered the floor in parts with blackened cork and even used dark flock paper on some of the inner walls of the cases. For the 1961 Textiles & Objects shop in Manhattan, Girard went in the opposite direction, making the walls, floors, and ceiling of a long, narrow storefront white and layering within them chromed 3D grids, backlit translucent shelving, fabric-covered single-leg stools, and panels of his own Herman Miller fabrics (most with a latent grid of their own). The lighting was designed to sparkle, tiny lights strung along the chrome uprights, so the stuffed and carved and painted objects within were both silhouetted and highlighted. Designer Marilyn Neuhart’s embroidered dolls stood, like a line of cubby schoolgirls, across a white-painted wire rack suspended from the ceiling across the front window.

Read the rest here.

FT Weekend: People in glass houses

Usually it feels churlish, biting the hand that feeds, to draw back the curtain on reporting. But in the case of my story, People in glass houses, for FT Weekend, every step of the process of spending the night in two National Trust properties was such a contrast to my assignment to experience living in a glass house and an 18th century plantation, I just can’t help it. If the lovely women who organized my tours are reading this be assured, I enjoyed my nights thoroughly. But I couldn’t turn the irony off.

Food, for example.

At Belle Grove the dining room, faux-finished with a mahogany burl, is set with pearl-handled knives and plaster food: a roast, haricots verts, spiced apples. Meanwhile I microwaved a frozen dinner in the real kitchen just adjacent, and ate it standing up. I would have gone to the porch, but I was afraid to carry sticky food across the Venetian stripe carpet.

Philip Johnson also had a cook, and used the Glass House kitchen (gray Formica counters) as a bar. I brought my own sandwich to New Canaan, and the caretaker practically sighed with relief when I said I would eat outside. It was lovely to sit on the warm stone ledge by the pool, watching the sun set. But it would have been nice to do so with a martini.

Breakfast in Connecticut was a Connecticut Muffin. In Middletown, a McDonald’s sausage biscuit with egg also eaten al fresco. It was kind of the caretaker to bring it to me, but hearing of its passage to me destroyed the 2010 pastoral illusion. He lives five minutes from Belle Grove, and the Golden Arches are on the way.

Also, bathrooms.

Belle Grove has a period bathroom (circa 1900, when it was an inn), but the dried-out green fields outside were dotted with blue port-a-potties for a weekend shepherding event. I had to erase them from my imaginary rich person’s view.

I was asked not to use the Glass House bathroom. I stood in Philip Johnson’s bathroom (leather ceiling tiles!). I lay on his bed. I peeked in his medicine cabinet. But I did not flush his toilet.

Or people.

It was spooky as hell to be at Belle Grove by myself. After it got dark I could not wait to get in to the canopy bed, which felt like a refuge, and thought better of taking a shower. It would have been different for the original owners, the Hites, who always had at least four children asleep across the hall and guests who stayed for weeks. Johnson hoped most of his visitors would take the last train back to New York; the Hites held them close, probably needing the company.

Which is all a long way of saying what I suspected all along. What I really wish is that I could have gone to one of Philip Johnson’s parties in the 1960s. The house today is lovely, but houses are more than just architecture.

Change Observer: “Small Scale” Reviewed

Today on Change Observer, my review of the Museum of Modern Art’s first foray into socially conscious design: Small Scale, Big Change.

In Uncommon Ground, I say:

This is the museum’s second foray into the world of social and sustainable design, after last winter’s successful “Rising Currents.” While it contains a number of worthy (if occasionally over-exposed) projects, the inability of “Small Scale” curator Andres Lepik to define his terms means the exhibition fails to move the conversation forward, offering no sense of where these 11 projects find common ground, and hence which small architectural interventions are likely to be effective elsewhere. It isn’t scalable, which means Lepik defaults to MoMA’s historical agenda, aesthetics. Not one of these projects, but for Rural Studio’s gable-roofed $20K House VIII, would be out of place in an exhibition on new schools, new urban infrastructures, new low-cost housing.

The “big” part of the title isn’t addressed either. In his remarks at the opening, curator Andres Lepik specifically thanked two MoMA funds for allowing him to travel to see which sites were successful. But neither his benchmarking nor his on-site observations are part of the show. What counts as a success, particularly given the diversity of program and scale contained in the gallery? What counts as failure? I would have been really interested to find out more about projects that almost made the cut, until Lepik saw the situation on the ground. Maybe that’s the critic’s role rather than the curator’s?

Read the rest here.

I should also say, for those of you who read the whole piece, I’ve taken issue with Iwan Baan’s photographs before, in this post.

Other coverage has been more than kind, including Christopher Hawthorne (no dateline, so it is a preview not a review), Dwell (curator Q&A), Architectural Record.

In T: The Zootopian

In early August I had the pleasure of traveling (by plane, train, local train and subway) to Sonneberg, Germany to interview toy designer Renate Müller. It was a wonderful experience, since I went from knowing nothing about Müller, the East German toy industry and Thuringia to being a huge fan. You can see her work, starting October 12, at R 20th Century in Tribeca.

My profile of Müller, delightfully titled The Zootopian, is in this Sunday’s T Magazine and now posted online. Be sure to check out the background in her portrait: hanging on the wall are the cardboard patterns she created for her stuffed animals in the mid-1960s. She still uses them every day.

"Every time an animal gets sent back, I feel like a child has come back to me,” said the German designer Renate Müller, referring to the jute-and-leather creatures she has been making, on and off, since the mid-1960s. Her menagerie ranges from rhinos to songbirds, from ottoman-size to hand-held. Müller’s animals were always intended to be much more than cute. She designed the first ones while still a student, as teaching tools for children with special needs, to be used at clinics, kindergartens and at home to teach balance, grip and other motor skills as well as colors, shapes and textures. They had to be appealing enough to generate spontaneous play while still incorporating the work of the German therapists that Müller had observed.

Though Müller hadn’t heard of the Eameses, or even the Finnish toy designer Kay Bojesen, who made elephants at about the same time, her background is hardly one of design naivete. Sonneberg was the toy capital of the world in the early part of the 20th century, and had one of the only high schools for toy design in the world.

Though Sonneberg feels remote today, it was once the world’s toy capital. A doll or stuffed animal purchased in 1910 was as likely to have been made in Sonneberg as a toy purchased at Toys “R” Us today is made in China. Müller’s family owned a toy factory, H. Josef Leven KG, and Müller was trained at Sonneberg’s Polytechnic for Toy Design — the only high school of its kind. Her lessons included exercises from the Bauhaus as well as the pioneering ideas on children’s education of Friedrich Fröbel, a local hero who invented kindergarten and developed a well-known set of building blocks. According to Reinhild Schneider, the director of the German Toy Museum, the German Democratic Republic “had a lack of material and technology to produce toys comparable to the West. Instead they tried to give their toys high pedagogical value.”

I spent an incredible morning at the encyclopedic German Toy Museum in October, able to compare the Legos of East and West Germany (social housing versus gable roof and white picket fence), and check out the 67 incredible papier-mache figures that populate the panorama—a close facsimile of Sonneberg’s town square—that won the Grand Prix at the 1910 World’s Fair. English guide here.

This is a thrill…

Design Research, the book and the store, in T. Hard copy this weekend, with bonus profile written by me of the amazing German toy designer Renate Muller (who is so D/R). More on that later.

Pilar Viladas writes:

In their prologue, the authors characterize Design Research as ‘‘a warm, eclectic, colorful and international version of modernism, one that mixed folk art and Mies van der Rohe, Noguchi and no-name Bolivian sweaters, offering newlyweds and Nobel Prize winners one-stop shopping for tools to eat, sleep, dress, even to party in a beautiful way.’’ By the time D/R closed (Thompson had lost control of the company eight years earlier), it had attracted a fan club that included Julia Child and Jackie Kennedy, and influenced retailers like Gordon Segal, the founder of Crate & Barrel, and Rob Forbes, who founded Design Within Reach. In his foreword to Thompson and Lange’s book, Forbes said that in 2000, when he conducted a customer survey of influential design stores, Design Research came out on top — and it had been closed for 22 years.

Read the rest of One-Stop Living here. Book also covered this week by Cool Hunting, ReadyMade and Mark Lamster (who didn’t know he had D/R to thank—in a roundabout way—for the very dishes from which he ate childhood dinners. Good taste starts young). Thanks all.

NYT Opinionator: If These Walls Could Talk

For the second time in as many weeks, this blog has made the big time (i.e. publication). A post I wrote last winter about the ABC TV show Modern Family developed into my third and likely final entry in the New York Times Opinionator series Living Rooms: If These Walls Could Talk.

The show, produced by Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd, is about three intertwined families living in the Los Angeles suburbs. We meet them in the pilot, each in a moment of stress, with no mention of how they are connected. The Dunphys, a husband and wife with three children, are at home, arguing over the length of their teenage daughter’s skirt and how to get their son’s head out of the banister (baby oil). The Pritchetts are at a soccer game, where Jay, played by Ed O’Neill, is mistaken for the father of his wife, Gloria, played by Sofia Vergara. The Pritchett-Tuckers, a homosexual couple, are on an airplane, headed back from Vietnam with their new baby, Lily. Their differences are underlined by crisis, but I could have understood their respective characters with mute on, just by looking at their living rooms.

All three were incredibly fun to write, and I wish it could just go on. But they’d have to pay me more money for that.

Commentary on the visual world by Alexandra Lange. Can include design, architecture, parks, movies, TV, books, kids.

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