Duck Duck Book

65 – home-made
05.31.2010, 7:07 pm
Filed under: technology

Home-made : contemporary Russian folk artifacts / [compiled by] Vladimir Arkhipov.
London : Fuel Publishing, 2006.
[MCL call number: 621.9 H765 2006; one copy, no holds]

Everyone makes things, even people who don’t think of themselves as practical or creative or skilled.  It’s natural for us human tool-builders to force the material of the world around us to give service in aid of whatever project we are engaged in.  Sometimes we do this in style, and then we’re likely to call it art.  But mostly, we just make do with manipulating whatever is lying around to do the job we need done now, whether or not the resulting tool or shortcut is sharp or elegant or lovely.  And when objects themselves are scarce, why then we really get busy making do.

Home-Made is a catalog of objects making do, created by everyday Russians during the twilight of the Soviet Union.  I can’t begin to characterize the entire collection, but I’ll mention a few items that charmed me:

  • a flowered china teapot, its broken handle replaced with a utilitarian stainless steel affair held on with a bolt (page 82)
  • a doormat/boot scraper made from discarded beer caps (page 24)
  • a corner basin made from a galvanized wash tub (page 272)
  • a basket with a handle, fashioned from a punctured rubber ball (page 219)

Each object’s photograph is accompanied by the story of how it came to be made, and a picture of the artisan, or of the person who explained the artifact’s provenance.  All of the items are part of Russian artist Vladimir Arkhipov’s collection of home-made things.

[thanks, Matthew]


65 – surfing san onofre
05.31.2010, 7:05 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Surfing San Onofre to Point Dume, 1936-1942 / photographs by Don James.
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 1998.
[MCL call number: 797.32 J27s 1998 ; three copies, no holds]

If you were to visit Los Angeles before the Second World War, you probably wouldn’t recognize the place.  It was teensy, for one thing, compared to the vast sprawl of asphalt and low-rises you’d see if you went there now.  And if you went to the beach, that would be different too.

First you’d have to get to the beach — not always easy, since the freeways hadn’t been built yet and the city was so small that everything surely seemed further away.  Once you were wherever the road took you, you’d still have to get to the beach, maybe down a couple of miles of sketchy trail.  If you were there to surf, you’d have to hump your board on your back, your homemade 10′ or 12′ long redwood board weighing about 90 pounds.  If there was a lifeguard, he was probably a volunteer.  Almost no one had a radio, unless it was in their car.  Everyone smoked.  Sunscreen hadn’t been invented and people thought a sunburn was a sign of health.

Don James’s pictures are a little window into this world, a series of glow-y 4″ x 5″ snapshots of surfers, sunbathers, and hangers-about amid the sunshine, sparkling water, and ramshackle coastline architecture.   The collection is romantic, for sure, but it shows enough hunger and grit to come off as reasonably honest; and it’s definitely revealing of a place, time, and way of life you might like to visit, but which no longer exists.

64 – tools of the imagination
12.11.2009, 11:47 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Tools of the imagination : drawing tools and technologies from the eighteenth century to the present / Susan C. Piedmont-Palladino, editor.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2007.
[MCL call number: 720.28 T671 2007; two copies, no holds]

It can be said that tools are simply mundane — they are a means to an end and nothing more.  But it’s also true that a dedicated practitioner of a particular craft is likely to develop a preference for particular types of tools, and eventually to come to rely on a beloved individual ruler or chisel or level or brush or what have you.  Why do artists become so passionate about their preferences for one sort of tool over another, so devoted to their own beloved instruments?  Habit, tradition, the preferences of one’s teachers, and other factors all surely have a role.  But another reason is that people who create know their work.  They are specialists in the fabrication of their own craft, and therefore they understand why one pencil is good for line sketching, while another is best reserved for lettering, and a third for shading. 

Many people who regularly use tools also find themselves building tools, devising new variations on old tools, and sharing their tool-making skills with other craftspeople.  In a sense, these artists have two media: the medium in which they engage their artistic energy (painting, sculpture, music, carpentry, or whatever), and the medium of tool-making.  An appreciation of this latter art is the inspiration for Tools of the Imagination — essentially it is an historical and thematic exhibition of architects’ and draftsmen’s tools.  Tools for inscribing circles, arcs, and spirals make up the first chapter, tools for creating straight lines the next, and so on. Many of the tools included are outdated, but ingenious — like the graceful volutor (on pages 16-17), which draws spirals, or the pantograph (pages 82-83), a mechanical device that looks like a large, frightening insect, which assists the artist with hand-drawn enlargements and reductions.  All in all, the tool portraits are lovely and fascinating.

Unfortunately, though the book presents an elegant array of antique tools and does a decent job showcasing contemporary tools, there seems to be a bit of a gap between tools used before about 1900, and those used after the beginning of the computer revolution in the early 1960s.  While reading I often found myself wondering what lay in that gap.   Would a compass manufactured in 1930 or 1970 or 2000 look significantly different than the compasses from 1850 (on page 8) and 1890 (page 10)?  I might find out elsewhere, but there is very little in Tools of the Imagination to enlighten me.

Tools of the Imagination also suffers a bit from its own high design.  The text is printed in silver ink, which is beautiful but can be hard to read when the light conditions aren’t entirely perfect.  This isn’t really a severe handicap, but it does highlight how endless the pursuit of good design can be — a book is a physical object, part of its strength is its portability; yet this book has been made so that it is hard to read under low light or in bright sun, thus decreasing the strength of portability in this particular book.  I found this rather ironic, considering the topic at hand. 

64 – simple shelters
12.11.2009, 11:42 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Simple shelters : tents, tipis, yurts, domes and other ancient homes / written and illustrated by Jonathan Horning ; with additional material by Brock Horning.
New York : Walker & Co., 2009.
[MCL call number: 728 H8163s 2009; six copies, no holds]

Sound housing is one of humanity’s most basic needs, and yet city people here in the developed world often have very little notion of how even the most traditional and well-tested simple structures are actually constructed.  If you find this troublesome, begin your own self-education with Simple Shelters.  Jonathan Horning describes twenty or so traditional structures, geodesic and other domes, straw bale houses, provides a brief explanation of a variety of cladding types, and a short discussion of house orientation.  The text is useful, but Horning’s drawings of each structure are the real lure of the book.  His illustrations are lucid; particularly the detailed diagrams of the joints, ties, braces, and other component parts of each different shelter.  Simple Shelters is itself quite simple — short, quick, and earnest — but it is well worth your attention.

54 – cities from the sky
12.11.2009, 11:33 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

Cities from the sky : an aerial portrait of America / by Thomas J. Campanella ; foreword by Witold Rybczynski.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2001.
[MCL call number: 779.36 C186c 2001; one copy, no holds]

There is something magical about the way the earth appears as you look out from an airplane.  If you’ve flown before, you know what I mean, even if your only experiences have been in commercial jets with teensy little windows. Flying home to Portland, I nearly always find myself taken aback at the familiar but fairly awesome vista when the plane comes through the last layer of clouds and I can see the Willamette River stretched out along the valley, and the clutch of downtown skyscrapers snug between the river and the West Hills; or, approaching from the east, the incredible view of mountains all around as the plane descends over the Columbia.  Flying over your hometown in a small plane is often even better — little planes are able to dart about a bit, and they fly low, so you might be able to pick out the apple tree in your front yard, a familiar church steeple, or the playground in a local park.

Aerial photographs can give you a taste of this feeling of flying without ever leaving the ground.  Before Mapquest, before Google Earth and Multimap and all the other amazing mapping services on the world wide web, aerial surveys were special, restricted resources that most folks had very little chance to enjoy.  You might have gone to a library to look up a United States Geological Survey orthophotoquad, or you might have seen the occasional aerial survey photograph illustrating a news article or in a historical museum; but comprehensive aerial surveys used to be the provenance of specialists.  Engineers, city planners, military officials, land developers; people with a clear practical need for the information aerial photographs could provide, and with the money to fund them.

When specialists needed aerial photographs in decades past, often as not they hired Fairchild Aerial Surveys to provide them.  Cities From the Sky begins with an introductory essay explaining Fairchild’s history — and it was a pretty interesting company.  Its founder, Sherman Fairchild, spent his youth tinkering, building things, and inventing small devices of one sort or another.  After developing a new and greatly improved aerial camera for the U.S. Army Air Service, he founded the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation in 1920, which made cameras, accepted commissions for aerial images, and took aerial photographs on speculation for use in newspaper stories.  The spec photos were preserved in the company’s picture library whether or not they sold, and this vast collection of images (more than 200,000 by 1935) are the pool from which most of the content of Cities From the Sky is drawn.

The book includes about 100 giant pages of reproductions of aerial photographs, most of them angled views showing a panorama rather than the map-like earth-from-space kind.  They capture cities and towns across the United States, though about 40% are of communities in the Northeast.  The photographs would be interesting to look at just for their vantage points, but in fact they are fascinating for their historic value as well.  The great majority were taken between 1930 and 1955 or so, and so they often include geographical, urban, and societal elements that are no longer present, or that have been irrevocably changed by later developments: the San Francisco Bay has no bridges; Monterey, California’s harbor is full of fishing boats resting from their labors in the still-active sardine industry (page 108); a U.S. Navy dirigible floats above the Hudson River in New York (page 35); downtown St. Louis is missing its Gateway Arch (page 84); Los Angeles’s Harbor Freeway is actively under construction (page 115); and the trains leaving Boston’s North Station are sending out enormous, picturesque plumes of steam (page 21).

* * *

Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. left a considerable record of its activities, and several libraries and archives have digitized part or all of their collections of Fairchild photographs, including the New York Public Library, the Digital Collections of the New York State Archives, Museum, and Library, Whittier College, and the Santa Monica Public Library.

* * *

Those of you who’d like to see more pictures of cities from high up in the sky should be sure to take a look at Bird’s Eye Views, by John W. Reps, (New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1998, reviewed in number 53), which reproduces 19th and early 20th century lithographs showing American cities and towns.

63 – meet mr. product
09.15.2009, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

Meet Mr. Product : the art of the advertising character / Warren Dotz, Masud Husain.
San Francisco : Chronicle Books, c2003.
[MCL call number: 659.1 D725m 2003: one copy, no holds]

Those readers who know me personally do not need to be reminded of how appalled I am to see the food advertising itself.  Probably the most dramatic horrors are the signs for barbecue restaurants that feature a cute, cartoonish pig salivating, wearing a bib, and waving a knife and fork — but there are countless other examples: anthropomorphized donuts, dancing fruits and vegetables, and hot dogs that walk and talk, just to name a few.  Ironically, at the same time as these characters disgust me, I also find them fascinating and compelling, which is, I guess, part of why they make good advertisements.  They’re adorable.  They’re disturbing.  They’re improbable.  They’re funny!

I think some of my discomfort with the food advertising itself is that the adorable little pig at the barbecue stand and its colleagues are actually encouraging consumers to eat them, which seems unnatural and perverse.  Products-brought-to-life which encourage consumption of other types are not so aberrant — for example, it used to be relatively common for muffler repair shops to have a gaily painted life-sized robot-like statue made of mufflers and other auto parts out front to advertise their services.  Certainly the muffler man, who is made out of mufflers, is encouraging people to consume mufflers.  But since real mufflers are inanimate, technological products, and since we’re not actually eating them, it seems less grotesque for the muffler man to invite us in to have our cars serviced.  His plea is that we patronize his establishment, because his purpose is to quiet the exhaust of an automobile.  The pig, on the other hand, has many interests of its own, and does not grace this earth solely to provide barbecue.

But, philosophical discussion aside, it is clear that the cute cartoon pig with a bib, the muffler man, the animated hot dog are all charming and unusual and make us notice the products they promote.  Some are clever and engaging.  Others are horrifically stereotyped.  Still others are so uninspired as to be instantly forgettable, unless perhaps they survive as cautionary examples for future marketers.  Meet Mr. Product attempts to give readers a tour of a wide swathe of the world peopled by these unlikely creatures.  After a brief history of the use of imaginary characters in advertising, the book displays hundreds of examples of “spokescharacters” who have been used to hawk everything from breakfast cereal to light bulbs to natural gas utilities.  Many are personifications of the products they sell, much like the little pig at the barbecue restaurant, but others are more akin to live product spokespeople — Betty Crocker, Little Miss Coppertone, Mr. Goodwrench, Aunt Jemima.

Many, many classic favorites appear in the book, including:

  • Uniroyal’s Nauga (page 176), alerting shoppers that the object to which it is attached is genuine Naugahyde,
  • the Jolly Green Giant (page 21)
  • Bibendum, the Michelin tire man (pages 14 and 207),
  • Manny, Moe, and Jack (page 213), of the Pep Boys auto parts stores, and
  • the 1940s version of the Jantzen diving girl (page 254) in her iconic red strapless bathing suit.

And there are plenty who never achieved total nationwide household-name sort of fame:

  • the little duckling with a bib (page 151) who once graced the sign for Waddle’s diner here in Portland (“Eat Now at Waddles,” it said, though the example in the book is a little less direct),
  • Mr. Zip (page 224), a very sketchy, high-on-smack-looking postal carrier used to promote the US Postal Service’s new Zone Improvement Program in the 60s,
  • Miss Curity, the first lady of first aid (page 255), promoter of Curity bandages and tape, and
  • the dapper Wool Council lamb (page 249).

Unfortunately, there is no index, though the arrangement of the book might help readers locate the particular spokescharacter they seek — eight chapters focus on characters who advertised food, drinks, products aimed at children, restaurants, technology, car parts and automobile-related products, household goods, and personal and leisure products.

63 – look of love
09.15.2009, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

The look of love : the art of the romance novel / by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002.
[MCL call number: 741.64 M159L 2002; one copy, no holds]

Lots of people enjoy romance, but few people in our culture would easily admit to being lovers of the straight-up romance novel, unless they fit a particular profile.  Women can read them, but not feminists.  Girls can read them, but not boys.  You don’t read romances if you’re interested in “real” literature, and you don’t read them if you’re really smart and intellectual.  Romances are formulaic and hackneyed, they present a narrow view of marriage, of love, of a woman’s ability to have a mind and a heart at the same time, and so on.

But still, millions of people read romances, and enjoy them.  Part of the appeal, not surprisingly, is their evocative cover design — like their brethren in the rest of the pulp novel world, romances have long been sold on the strength of their beautiful illustrated covers.  The Look of Love presents a nice exhibit of some of the best, and some of the most typical romance covers from the 1930s to the 1980s, along with a short history of the genre and some discussion of trends in cover design over the years.  The explication is interesting and useful, but the covers are really the book’s reason d’être.

Some are so much of another era that it’s hard to see them as anything but arch and ironic:  Nurse on the Run (1965, page 93) features a beautiful young woman in a whirling, startled pose, with red hair spilling out from underneath her nurse’s cap.  Behind her are superimposed three calm, suave fellows, apparently the source of her turmoil (though none of them appear to have a care in the world).   And the very first Harlequin (1949, page 11) is illustrated with a painting of a woman in evening dress at the top of a curving staircase.  At the bottom is a man in a blue suit with a cap — he looks like a postal carrier to me, but here’s the title: The Manatee: Strange Loves of a Seaman.  So he must be a sea captain, not a mailman; I trust the woman is not actually the manatee.

Irony aside, however, there is a particular beauty about these illustrations.  Some of this is due to the vintage, nostalgic quality of the art, no doubt enhanced by the plain fact that these days it’s unusual for newly published books of any sort to have pulp-style hand-painted covers*, but I think the idea of love itself  is part of the appeal.  The cover evokes the feeling that the story promises to bring out in the reader.  The cover painting shows just a glimmer, a teensy frame out of the story — a longing glance at the unrequited beloved; a bit of labor shared by colleagues who maybe want to know one another better; the second two doomed lovers who are nonetheless magnetically attracted are just about to kiss.  All of these moments are worth looking at, worth fantasizing about, worth mention in life generally; even if the particular situation being described in the cover painting is highly improbable and stereotypical, and even though novel  itself might not be so great.

* Though there are counter-examples to this point — one I think of immediately is Hard Case Crime, which publishes both reprints and new novels in the mystery/crime genre, each with a specially commissioned painted cover.  I have found their books very much worth reading, as well as worth appreciating as lovely objects.