Category Archives: craft

Cutting my losses

I’m not a big TV watcher. I tend to pick shows carefully (usually at the recommendation of friends) and watch them on DVD (or streaming) at least a few season after the fact. Part of this is because I’ve much preferred watching movies. But the main reason is that watching a TV show is a major time commitment that I’m really hesitant to embrace. So I usually have very high bars for what I choose to watch. And I’m extremely fast on pulling the trigger when it comes to bailing from a show.

This is something that’s come up a lot on twitter when discussing TV shows. Compared to a lot of my contacts, I appear to give up on things much more quickly than a lot of people. Even when bingewatching. Just because I have access to the DVDs doesn’t mean I finish the show. Heck, sometimes I don’t even finish the season.

So at the request of a number of my twitter contacts, here’s a quick rundown of when, and why, I gave up on some shows. It’s not a complete list of everything I’ve watched, these are just the ones I’ve ended up in discussions about and had to explain why I bailed. This isn’t a critique of these shows either as I’m inherently unqualified to critique these due to bailing early.

Sopranos—Season 3

I’m one of those viewers who found the Meadow’s college trip to be the high point of the series. This episode is what got me to watch season 2 but as the show became more and more about the mob stuff and the banality of it all I started to drift away. I’m not sure I made it through season 3 actually. I can watch people do their jobs. But have a hard time with stupidity and a lot of the mob stuff started to get increasingly stupid to me.

CSI—Season 4

I stuck with CSI (only the Las Vegas edition) a lot longer than I expected. This was brain candy which I enjoyed watching for a few years. I eventually got tired of the fact that it was only ever about murders. And after watching The Wire season 1, CSI just seemed like a joke.

Lost—Season 1

Lost is a show that I made a conscious decision to drop because I didn’t trust the network format to treat it correctly. Season 1 felt like a full-season Monsters are Coming to Maple Street. I loved the mystery and open endedness of it all; I just didn’t expect or trust the show to be able to hold on to that. Either the mystery would get pushed out past the point of credibility. Or the answers would suck. Or the show would get cancelled at a lousy point. So I picked my exit point.

Heroes—Season 1

Holy crap. I should have bailed sooner. I like origin stories—even with the current rebootitis trend going around*—but I hate stupidity. Hate it. And this show got intolerably stupid in the second half. The only reason I finished the season was because I was watching this with friends and we ended up hatewatching it together instead.

*I will always find something enjoyable in watching someone discover what they are good at. I also tire at the way that no one—well, besides Brad Bird—seems to be able to write superhero movies or shows which deal with aging or growing out of the superhero thing.

Veronica Mars—Season 1

Another show like Lost which I stopped watching because I didn’t trust the way the network would handle it and found the existing ending to be just fine. In this case, the season one story arc was just too good. Even if season 2 was good, I didn’t think it was needed and instead risked straining the credibility of the world they’d created. How fucked up could that high school be?

Dexter—Season 1

I got tired mid-season but wanted to see the conclusion. The show gimmick had potential but never measured up to it. In hindsight, it’s hard to make a show about characters who are so emotionally damaged they don’t seem capable of growth. Also, I had problems with the idea of so many competing serial killers being active in the same location.

Mad Men—Mid-Season 1

I couldn’t figure out what this show wanted to be. It appeared to glorify a time period without addressing the underlying race issues. It also has similar character issues as Dexter. And it tapdanced around critiquing mass culture plus its smart moments felt more like accidents. There were also too many moments which reminded me that the show wasn’t on HBO and, quite frankly, it could have used some of that edge.

I may come back to Mad Men though. I’m still skeptical but if it really does manage to make something of a central character’s lack of growth I might be interested to see if they really pull it off.

How I Met Your Mother—Mid-season 3

I bailed when Ted became a certifiable asshole. Any show whose main character becomes that awful isn’t worth sticking with.

True Blood—Season 2

This show is technically on probation. I was fully prepared to bail mid-season with Godric’s death. Only the Sam storyline is keeping any interest right now. Still, I haven’t watched any of this for a few years now. Nor do I really feel like watching again. Unlike the better HBO shows, there’s a bit of “fuck yeah we’re on HBO” in this show. When it’s good, the writing is crisp and smart. But it tends toward pulp and losing a handle on the writing a little too much for me.

Lingerie, Dance, Silhouette, and Movement

My sister works in costuming and is big into fashion. After visiting MoMA, we wandered over to FIT since it’s the museum in New York which is most in-line with her interests. As a design/use junkie, I also enjoy fashion and clothing exhibitions since clothing is one of those universal things. Even if it’s fashion, it’s meant to be worn and reveals a lot about how society views the human body. The two exhibitions on display when we visited—Lingerie and Dance—both explicitly discussed issues about how much of clothing’s intent is to either emphasize or alter the body’s shape and movement.

FIT_Exposed

The lingerie exhibition was more interesting to me—especially as a social history. The main takeaway for me was confirming that demonization of underwear in the late 1960s was indeed misplaced. Underwear gives structure to the silhouette—something which changes with the fashions of the time. Looking at this structure allows us to extrapolate a lot of other things about the fashions of the time, but it also reminds us that the way people look in clothes often has very little to do with how they look out of clothes.

For most of history, structured undergarments allow for clothes to fit “correctly.” And it was understood that the undergarments were doing most of the heavy lifting*—In other words, it wasn’t “cheating” to wear a corset or bustle or crinoline. Comparing this to today where wearing a padded bra or Spanx seems to feel dishonest** because women are supposed to be able to exercise or diet to be able to achieve the desired silhouette in a “natural” fashion and I can’t help but conclude that focusing on the undergarments as “instruments of female torture” may have misdiagnosed the target that should have been protested.

*Or squeezing or padding or tucking.

**Shit, getting surgery to minimize or maximize certain body parts feels dishonest.

It’s not the underwear which is the problem. The problem is the desire to have a specific silhouette—and the fact that what is desirable changes every decade. At least you can change your underwear easier than you can change your body.

That said, looking at the history of lingerie also makes it clear that even before those protests started, underwear—and the clothing being worn over it—was getting less and less complicated and revealing more and more skin anyway. I found it somewhat ironic that the late 1960s through the 1970s in fact had the least restrictive and softest-structured undergarments in the entire show. We’ve swung since then to more structured bras and increased padding and even corsets again. Though a lot of that has become outerwear as well.

The other interesting thing in looking at lingerie was seeing how the technology and materials changed and the number of different ways we’ve tried to accomplish the same sorts of goals. The exhibition goes from whalebone corsets to padded underwire bras and touches on many other kinds of ways to shape the body. It’s amazing to see how much lighter and more efficient everything has become. This is extremely intimate technology intended to be worn for long periods of time up against the skin. It’s kind of a shame that it’s relegated to fashion museums since not only does it concern half of humanity, it’s also just a fascinating design challenge.

FIT_Dance

The dance show felt a bit forced to me. It’s a great concept but there were too many pieces which felt shoehorned in as possibly dance related. Which is too bad since I was liking the comparison between the dance costumes and the lingerie exhibit—in particular how these costumes were explicit about how they were intended to impact the body’s movement in the same way that lingerie impacts the body’s silhouette. These are two sides of the same coin and both need to be kept in mind when thinking about clothing and how it works.

Dance appears to have two distinct ideas about how fashion and costume should be. One is that nothing should get in the way of the human form and how it moves. The other is that by altering the form and restricting its movement through costume, other interesting things can be revealed. Both views are valid though the second view results in the costumes I find more interesting.

The costumes that stay out of the way end up being more decorative—some fabulously so—but mostly things that we can get a sense of when seeing them on mannequins. The costumes that rely on restricting or hiding movement though need videos so we can see them in action.* I could kind of picture some of them with basic movement. But dance isn’t basic and that intellectual leap was more than I could muster.

*Although, really, more video in general would be nice since this is, after all, a dance exhibition.

Matisse Cutouts

MoMA_Matisse

The big exhibition at MoMA was the Matisse show. Unlike Gober, Matisse was packed full of people who like his artwork—and who were visiting the museum to indulge in how much they liked it. It is indeed superficially easy to like: Bright colors. Fun shapes. A famous name. Some iconic pieces.

I liked it too, but the main appeal to me was that it was, in many ways, an exhibition of process documents instead of final products. Many of the pieces on display were actually about designing for a different medium. Maquettes for murals,* printed books,** ceramics,*** and stained glass. Cutouts eventually realized as silkscreens. Even the pieces which remained as cutouts went through multiple iterations before ending up in their final arrangements.

*The Barnes Mural

**Jazz

***La Gerbe

The exhibition does a great job at showing how the cutouts evolved and interacted with each other as Matisse worked on them. There are photos showing different arrangements and the displays go out of their way to emphasize the pinholes and other ways that the pieces were held together and rearranged. This is distinct from other process documents where multiple iterations are created and can be preserved. The fluidity of composition in the cutouts is fascinating to see and think about and there’s something wonderfully tactile and evocative with cut shapes stuck on a surface where we can see the possibilities of playing with everything.

Which made it especially interesting to see how despite the ephemeral nature of the cut outs, they were all also presented as being finished and final. The maquettes might be final proofs but they’re not the final piece. Some of the cutouts were indeed intended to be final pieces but many of them were living on Matisse’s walls and there’s a huge difference between being in the state Matisse’s death left them in and having it be finished complete works of art.* I can appreciate them as being finished enough, but declaring them as complete—and seeing people view them as complete—got me thinking some more about how we conceive of art and the role that presentation plays in how we react.

*It’s worth mentioning an exhibition on sketches I saw at Princeton here for some additional thoughts about process documents and unfinished pieces in the museum.

It’s an exhibition of Matisse Cutouts, not an exhibition of maquettes for Matisse Prints or Matisse Ceramics. So cutout as final form is the expectation going in.

And that’s fine too. Many of the pieces are a joy to look at and the form itself is fun. Squiggles where you can see both parts and try and match up the original paper pieces across multiple compositions. Vaguely botanical shapes that remind me of Hawaiian quilts. Some remarkably effortless and graceful forms such as the parakeet which show how much a single confident line can convey.*

*And other equally effortful forms, especially his human figures, which show that this medium is a lot harder than it looks.

There is so much here which I want to show my sons as basic art education. How to explore colors and positive and negative spaces. Being able to move compositions around before committing to their placement. The willingness to just try a line or shape and see what happens with it. The fact that this is just cut pieces of colored paper means it’s simple and cheap to try.

Italian Drawings

Vittore Carpaccio. Two Standing Women, One in Mamluk Dress

A brief review of Princeton’s 500 Years of Italian Master Drawings exhibition which I saw last February.  I didn’t initially plan on writing about this but I’ve ended up thinking about it more than I expected to.

This was an exhibition about craft and process rather than the final productions. Most of the items on display are either plans for sculptures and paintings or sketches and studies of things being observed. In both cases, these drawings are the first step which takes us from observing and thinking to making and understanding. These drawings are what make all the other arts possible.

They’re wonderful. Besides the linework and technical skill, there is so much gesture and life in these since they are sketches rather than renderings. I’m also a total sucker for drawings using both dark and white pigments on medium-tone paper. Looking at these makes me want to start drawing again.

I ended up thinking about this exhibition more than I expected because I started wondering when these drawings became considered art in their own right. I’ve seen other exhibitions about process but none with pieces as old as these. My understanding from the wall text is that these were collected by specific people even at the time—suggesting that most people would have seen these as process documents only.

This is something I’ve wondered off and on about for a while whenever I see “unfinished” work in museums—especially now since we’ve thoroughly absorbed both the concepts of ruin value and wabi-sabi into a lot of modern art. Things don’t have to be finished perfectly to be complete. Nor do they have to be preserved intact in order to stay complete. And while neither of these is a modern idea, the concepts do seem to have made it into museums relatively recently compared to the age of some of these pieces.

Before Rodin, how were fragments and unfinished pieces like Michelangelo’s Slaves presented? Were they just examples of the artist’s working practice and a way for us to learn how things were made? Or have they always been viewable as complete pieces, finished in their own way.

I’m not enough of an academic to be able to answer this. But whenever I see exhibitions like this where process documents are being displayed as art in their own right, I’ll keep looking and reading and trying to get a better understanding of how it works and when we started seeing them as something more than just a step in the design of something else.

Hidden Heros

Hidden Heroes

The Hidden Heroes show at San José is a difficult one for me to review. At one level it’s an extremely exciting concept to select a number of mundane everyday objects and highlight them as design classics in a museum. The choices of what to include and what to exclude make for fascinating discussion and thought. At another level, the actual displays here are just not that interesting. There’s a ton of potential hinted at in each display but the follow-through leaves me frustrated.

First, the good part. Since the complete list is the most interesting part of the show, it’s a good thing that there’s a comprehensive online verison of the show. I don’t disagree with the items which are selected. They’re all things we’re familiar with but have never really considered. It’s great to be forced to confront them as designed objects.

Too many museums ignore design completely. The ones which do cover design tend to focus on design brands* while making the assumption that we’ll connect the dots in comparing the designer things to the generics. I don’t think most people make that leap as I still remember viewing Mood River at the Wexner,** mentioning that I’d love to see the exact same show only using generic components instead, and receiving some odd looks.

*Named designers or firms making conscious decisions to distinguish their objects from the generic pieces.

**Yeah, that’s an awful exhibition page. The Amazon listing of the catalog is a little better.

Mood River’s actually a good comparison to this show since it was about the collective effect that all these designed products could produce but never established what the baseline mood should be. Hidden Heroes meanwhile calls out the generics and suggests that we should appreciate them more for what they are.

Where Hidden Heroes fails is that it doesn’t enough beyond the identification of the objects. There’s a little history presented but generally not enough to satisfy. It’s important to know where these items came from and what problems they were attempting to solve. Especially when we take them for granted now than we can’t image them not existing.

If you’re lucky you get old advertising or a manufacturing video. But this isn’t consistent and a lot of what makes these design classics isn’t the actual common product but instead the manufacturing process which allowed this version to become standard.

pencils

It’s not a coincidence that some of the most-fondly remembered Mr. Rogers episodes are the factory visits.* Seeing how things are mass-produced, and the specialized tools used to do this is fascinating stuff. And the simpler and more ubiquitous the object the better. Pencils, crayons, paperclips, tetrapaks, etc. are so simple yet the machines which make them are design marvels in their own right.

Seeing how these common, everyday objects are made efficiently and cheaply is as much a part of the genius of their everydayness as their actual design

*The crayon factory in particular.

The other part which I’d like to see more of is an acknowledgment that a large part of what makes these things so common and genius is that they’re cheap and disposable. If we’re going to anoint things as hidden heroes, we also need to recognize their hidden costs too. It’s a glaring weakness that that the exhibition doesn’t address the ubiquity of these designs and how we may have selected them based on a certain set of values which we may no longer fully agree with.

Are they justifiable design classics? Absolutely. At the same time, a large part of modern design are attempts to improve on these classics in order to address the disposability side of things. Design is no longer just about creation. Cradle to Cradle is over a decade old now and it’s important to call out the blindspots of past classics.

Perchance to dream

SSC93

Last week was not a good week for me in the department of things I look forward to enjoying during my California summers. The same day that Tuolumne burned down, Shakespeare Santa Cruz announced that it was dimming its lights forever.

I’ve been attending plays at SSC with my family every summer since 1993.* The plays I’ve seen make up a significant portion of my cultural education and I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to consistently attend quality productions of important theatre.

*I’ve only missed four summers out of the 21 in that time.

While the festival doesn’t have the deep bench which Ashland has,* it holds its own with other top-notch companies I’ve seen. What it has that others don’t is the setting. The Festival Glen is a great place to see plays. Especially if you’re a Northern California native who loves redwood trees, picnics, and cold summer nights. And especially with things like Shakespeare where so many plays are actually set in forests and woods.

*Where the star of Midsummer can be First Fairy.

It’s not that I prefer realistic sets. It’s that being in the forest with the actors is a more immersive experience and the size of the theatre is much more flexible. Entrances and exits become fuzzy. Voices and sound effects can come from far far away, echoing through the woods.

SSC08

At the same time, some of my favorite productions were the super-tightly-directed indoor productions on the mainstage. The Shaw productions in particular* were notable highlights. As was Bach at Leipzig.** Where the Glen allowed productions to be all over the place—in a good way. Something about the mainstage encouraged precision and the plays which worked best in there were the ones which were took as much advantage of crisp timing and smart acting as possible.

*Arms and the Man and Pygmalion.

**I’m sort of surprised that I never saw any Stoppard at SSC.

Looking back on all the shows I’ve seen though, I think the productions I like best are what I’ve been calling the teen-angst WB Shakespeare. SSC’s most-recent productions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet emphasized that the characters were just kids dealing with growing up and all the new feelings that come with that. Modern dress. Modern kid behavior. As much as it seems like a cop-out to pick two of the most-famous plays as my favorite productions, I really really enjoyed that approach.

In 2008 when SSC went through a financial crisis, I realized how much I’d miss them if they disappeared. I’m proud that I donated to the cause then even though they only got a handful of years out of the lifeline. I really hope that UCSC finds a way to keep summer Shakespeare alive. I’d like to keep going and, while I’ll be taking my kids to other plays, the Santa Cruz experience is a unique and memorable tradition I would love to pass on.

IOIOIOI

Matt Kahn

No one could speak as eloquently, insightfully or as inspiringly as Matt could about design and its relation to art. When listening to him lecture, I was truly in awe. He was also world class at helping students through his critique of their work. I have never seen anyone do it better. All of us remember things that Matt told us that we use and share with others in our lives all the time.

David Kelley

Matt was one of those rare teachers who was intimidating and scary as hell yet managed to be beloved by his students. Praise from him would make your month. Critique was harsh but honest. And always helpful if you were willing to listen. His classes were a rite of passage for all of us in the design program and, while the d.school has taken off in recent years, I’ve never been able to picture the program without him.

We all knew him as Matt.

As much as David Kelley embodies the well-rounded, inquisitive, open-minded ethos of the program, I always felt like Matt was its empathic, perfectionist, joyful soul. His assignments were simple prompts which forced us to think, make decisions, and take things as far as we could take them.* There were no simplistic easy answers (a surefire way to get in trouble in class) and the amount of effort and risk each assignment response required is what caused his classes to be so intimidating.

*Why I loved the Jay DeFeo show. Her work is the simplicity of Matt’s assignments approached with the brilliance of a master.

Bringing in a piece for critique involved exposing your thinking and accepting that there was always room for improvement. Despite the safeness of the classroom no one was there to take it easy on anyone else. The inherent challenge and pressure though forced me—and my classmates—to bring our A-game each class and took all of us to places we didn’t think we could reach. The rewards of ending up someplace you never believed you could be, receiving a positive critique, and seeing the joyful twinkle in Matt’s eye made it all worth it.

It’s easy to say that he was my favorite teacher. He’s definitely the one who I reference and quote* most often. His classes on design are the ones which I remember most distinctly from my course of study and the work I did for him is still some of the work which I am most proud of—not in a look what I made kind of way but in a look what I thought up kind of way.

*“Perspective is a disease of the eye” being my favorite.

The teachers you remember decades after taking their classes are the ones who changed the way you thought and who live on in the back of your mind still reminding you of their lessons.

There’s always a Matt daemon running in the back of my mind pushing me to go a bit further and do a bit better and asking me whether I’ve truly considered everything. It’s also pushing me to approach and critique things from a true use and design point of view. It’s why I mouth silverware before buying it.

Thank you so much Matt. I’m lucky to have been able to learn from you.