Category Archives: craft

Hidden Heroes

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.


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


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.


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.


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 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.

Lebbeus Woods

Lebbeus Woods, Photon Kite, from the series Centricity, 1988; graphite on paper; Collection SFMOMA, purchase through a gift of the Members of the Architecture + Design Forum, SFMOMA Architecture and Design Accessions Committee, and the architecture and design community in honor of Aaron Betsky, Curator of Architecture, Design and Digital Projects, 1995-2001; © Estate of Lebbeus Woods

Holy crap. Garry Winogrand may be the marquee attraction at SFMOMA right now, but the Lebbeus Woods show gives him a run for his money. Wow. If Winogrand is a look through our past, Woods is crazy futuristic. Emphasis on the crazy. In the best way.

Woods’s conception of architecture embraces the chaos of the world rather that fighting against it. As a result, his structural concepts appear to be alive and have organic history just like any other organism. War-damaged buildings have scar tissue. San Francisco is reenvisioned with buildings which also have tectonic plates.

This is all wildly impractical and hugely evocative. A Sci-Fi world I would love to see yet also one which scares the bejeezus out of me. Despite its appeal and beauty, I would try and avoid us becoming that world at all costs.*

*Recommended reading, this review from Katya Tylevich which does a much better job at explaining things.

Woods’s drawings are also just fantastic tours de force. They inspire me to pick up a pen and draw while also telling me to not even try, it’s impossible. Whether it’s his pages full of patterns and textures or his simultaneously precise yet sketchy crosshatched renderings, I can’t even come up with the words to adequately describe them.

Seriously. If you’re in the Bay Area, go see this show. It’ll blow your mind.

Selling out and Influence

One thing I missed in my previous post on elitism and taste is the phenomenon of selling out. Art which is too popular is often overmerchandised to the point where it has become cliché. And the hatred/avoidance of clichés is a traditional component of art-appreciation.

Everybody though has a different definition of exactly what selling out means and we all end up sounding like hipsters when we complain that something has become overexposed. At the root of it all though is a worry that something which was good is cashing on on being popular just for the sake of being popular. And that the context which initially appealed to us about the artwork is going to be forever altered.*

*Something I’ve grappled with a few times as a sports fan.

Popular and cliché do go hand-in-hand. The trick is to recognize when something is popular because it is good. It’s not OK to be shitty. And it’s especially galling when something is considered good just because it is popular.

But the cliché question is a valid concern. Clichés are hated because they have undo influence and attract acolytes who only seek/emulate the popular.

I may like an artwork at first but, after seeing countless riffs and ripoffs of it, tire of it due to overexposure. The original may be good, everything else is likely crap. The complete package then becomes tired. How many technically-excellent views of Tunnel Overlook do I need to see?

Clichés are also a problem because they dilute the impact of art by reducing its impact to marketable commodities. These are often not why I like the artwork and, as such, add additional context which is not always welcome.

Can I like a photo the same way once it shows up on a coffee can or in advertising? Can I still like a painting if it’s been on a decade of Adobe splashscreens? Can I still like a song if it’s been used in beer advertisements all the time? Can I still like a play if all the lines are now idioms?

Yes. But…

New context to the artwork changes the way I see it. And that’s potentially problematic.

Obviousness, Elitism, and Taste

As an art junkie, one thing I find extremely interesting is the “is it art” question. I’m especially* interested in those artists which the art world proclaims to not be artists.

*perversely perhaps.

Roughly sketching the territory here. Anne Geddes and Thomas Kinkade are solidly in the not-art side of this camp. William Wegman appears to be the boundary line. Andy Goldsworthy is legit. Barely.

The “good vs. important vs. popular” question really is at the heart of this. Popular is the easy metric. What makes something good or important is much harder to define. I covered some of this territory in my posts on ruin porn and kitsch and on art photography. In short, the good or important metrics involve whether the works move beyond the obvious and actually take a position which adds to the our understanding of what is depicted.

This is why Richard Prince is art and the advertisements he appropriates are not.

But even within the “popular only” group it’s worth taking a look every once in a while to see if what we’ve dismissed as kitsch may have other merits. It’s worth looking at Kinkade*—or similarly, the appeal of Celine Dion—since his popularity itself can be seen as an artistic statement about what people find appealing. Anything which can stir extremely loyal reactions or extremely negative reactions shouldn’t be dismissed offhand as crap. It may still not be good or important, but it needs to be looked at with some seriousness.

*Note. That link made me rethink why I like Todd Hido. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around what that rethink means though.

An the flip side of this coin, I’m also interested in good or important artists or artworks which have become kitsch as a result of being too popular. The art world has a deep suspicion of things which are too popular and the backlash against popular things is its own weird phenomenon.

When I’m feeling generous, I chalk it up to a backlash against the obvious. Anyone who bothers to become an expert in something does so out of the intellectual curiosity to know more than just the obvious. So it becomes easy to think of people who don’t move past the obvious as being intellectually lazy—forgetting that there was once a point when all we knew was the obvious and that someone who only knows that may just be getting interested in the subject.

Also, it’s sad to give up on those things which initially attracted us just because they’re obvious and we want to distinguish ourselves as being experts. It’s perfectly fine to like Ansel Adams, Romeo and Juliet, Gustav Klimt, or La Boheme. They’re all fantastic and it’s important and expected to know them.

At the same time, there is a huge trap whenever an artist becomes too popular—namely, that a super-popular artist’s work often loses any deeper meaning and instead becomes a product of the artist brand.

When a museum mounts a huge blockbuster show? Look out. These shows are often specimen-based and have given up on truly editing the work in favor of being completionist. Now, this can be done correctly by using the extra material to illuminate the good stuff. But all too often the artist brand is used lazily to suggest that because the artist is good, the artwork must also be good.

This is not the case. It can’t be the case. And this laziness is what contributes to great artists being called overrated. Just because a great artist made something does not mean that piece is inherently great. Yes, it may be valuable, but that is a value phenomenon, not an art-quality issue.

Art Photographer

Here’s what I think: I think an art photographer is a photographer with an opinion.

An opinion about which of their photographs can truly stand as one of theirs, and about how the photograph ought to look.

—The Online Photographer:
The Difference Between
a Photographer and an Artist

This was a great post. I don’t agree with all of it. But it’s all worth thinking about and my response is way more than what would fit into a comment dialog.

First, the point about having an opinion. 100% agree. What are you photographing? Why is it interesting to you? How can you make the image be about what you’re interested in? And that’s all in the pre-exposure phase. Too many people take photos of things just because they think they’re supposed to photograph them. Many of them even learned all the other rules of composition and exposure and take perfectly nice photos. But there’s often something missing.

This is how people get sucked into the equipment acquisition spiral. They conclude that they “need” a better/wider/faster lens/camera/etc. instead of thinking about why they’re not satisfied with their images. Even if the goal is technically competent pictures of pretty things* many many people sense that their images are missing something. And that something is quite often the point of view of what is actually interesting.

*That group is a bit of an in-joke which references a much-older discussion. As easy as it is to knock this type of photography, we all do it. A lot.

Having an opinion is what distinguishes between artists and artisans. Artisans can’t choose between multiple technically-good images. Artists are looking to make a point.

Mike’s second point about editing is one I don’t agree with fully. In terms of presenting yourself? Absolutely agree. In terms of presenting other artists? It depends.

But even in presenting myself, I don’t fully agree. I should edit more. A lot more. But I also know that I’m a crap editor of my own work and I really enjoy the raw feedback from contacts on flickr, etc. I also know that only after I’ve had stuff posted for years do I see the patterns emerge. If I photograph in a zen state of mind, the results appear to approximate pu.

You’re damn right that pun was intentional.

With presenting other photographers? It really does depend. I hate the idea of displaying art objects as collect-them-all specimens. This does a disservice to both the object and the artist. But at the same time, if the not-good work is presented as context to help illuminate the way the artist worked or to show experiments which didn’t work out right? I’m fine with that. I love seeing contact sheets and process. If anything, seeing how the great artists edit, or are edited,* should help me become a better editor as well.

*Since, to me, it doesn’t matter who does the editing.