The Amazing Artistry & Ingenuity of the Furniture Enjoyed by 18th Century Aristocrats

Whatever did people do with themselves all day before social media and streaming video? Before TV, film, and radio? If you were most people in Europe, before various revolutions, you worked from dawn to dusk and collapsed in bed, with rare holidays to break up the monotony.

But if you were an aristocrat, you not only had the pleasures of juicy gossip, lively correspondence, and bawdy novels to look forward to, but you might also—just as millions do now—encounter such pleasures while gaming.

The gaming technology of the time was all handcrafted, and said aristocrats might find themselves trading wicked barbs while seated around the height of tech above, a table that unfolds a series of leaves to reveal a felt surface for card games, a board for chess or checkers, and a leather writing surface that offers the option of a bookrest, for propping up a scandalous book of verse.

If you think that’s impressive, the table hasn’t finished yet. It further opens into a backgammon board, with sliding lids revealing compartments for game pieces. Then, the whole thing folds back to its size as a small side table, with detachable legs that can be stored inside it for easy portage.

The animated video of the ultimate 18th century gaming system at the top comes to us from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, demonstrating a piece in their collection designed by German cabinetmaker David Roentgen that “once graced the intimate interior of an aristocratic European home.” Not to be outdone, the Getty Museum brings us the 3D animation above of an 18th-century French mechanical table, with intricate workings designed by Jean-François Oeben.

“An affluent lady might spend hours at a fashionable table, engaged in leisure or work,” notes a companion video above. It illustrates the point with a pair of ghostly animated hands composing a letter on the table’s silk writing surface.

One can imagine these hands spilling the ink while opening juniper-scented drawers, and propping up the book stand; losing their place in a book while searching through compartments, early forms of scrolling or opening multiple tabs.

We may now carry mechanical tables in our pockets and rightly think of gaming systems as portals to other worlds, but there’s no denying that these bespoke ancestors of our devices offered plenty of opportunity for pleasant distraction.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

How a Philip Glass Opera Gets Made: An Inside Look

Most fever dreams require very little pre-planning and coordination. All it takes is the flu and a pillow, and perhaps a shot of Ny-Quil.

A fever dream on the order of composer Philip Glass’ 1984 opera, Akhnaten, is a horse of an entirely different color, as "How An Opera Gets Made," above, makes clear.

For those in the performing arts, the revelations of this eyepopping Vox video will come as no surprise, though the formidable resources of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, where the piece was recently restaged by director Phelim McDermott, may be cause for envy.

The costumes!

The wigs!

The set!

The orchestra!

The jugglers!

… wait, jugglers?

Yes, a dozen, whose carefully coordinated efforts provide a counterpoint to the stylized slow motion pace the rest of the cast maintains for the duration of the three and half hour long show.

This maximalist approach to minimalist modern opera has proved a hit, though the New York Timescritic Anthony Tommasini opined that he could have done with less juggling…

We presume everyone gets that bringing an opera to the stage involves many more departments, steps, and heavy labor than can be squeezed into a 10-minute video.

Perhaps the biggest surprise awaiting the uninitiated is the playful offstage manner of Anthony Roth Costanzo, the supremely gifted countertenor in the title role. As the pharaoh who reduced ancient Egypt’s pantheon to a single god, Atenaka the sun, he makes his first entrance completely nude, head shaved, flecked in gold, facing the audience for the entirety of his four-minute descent down a 12-step staircase.

(One step the video doesn't touch on is the workout regimen he embarked on in preparation for his nude debut, a 6-day-a-week commitment that inspired him to found one of the first American businesses to offer fitness buffs training sessions using Electrical Muscle Stimulation.)

His dedication to his craft is obviously extraordinary. It has to be for him to handle the score’s demanding arpeggios and intricate repetitions, notably the six-minute segment whose only lyric is “ah.” His breath control on that section earns high praise from his longtime vocal coach Joan Patenaude-Yarnell.

But—and this will come as a shock to those of us whose concept of male opera stars is informed nearly exclusively by Bugs Bunny cartoons and the late Luciano Pavarotti—his outsized talent does not seem to be reflected in outsized self-regard.

He treats viewers to a self-deprecating peek inside the Met’s wig room while clad in a decidedly anti-primo uomo sweatshirt, gamely dons his styrofoam khepresh for close range inspection, and cracks himself up by high-fiving his own pharaonic image in the lobby.

There’s incredible lightness to this being.

As such, he may be more effective at attracting a new generation of admirers to the art form than any discounts or pre-show mixer for patrons 35-and-under.

For further insights into how this musical sausage got made, have a gander at the Metropolitan Opera’s pre-production videos and read star Anthony Roth Costanzo’s essay in the Guardian.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, January 6 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates New York: The Nation’s Metropolis (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

You Can Sleep in an Edward Hopper Painting at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: Is This the Next New Museum Trend?

Let's pretend our Fairy Art Mother is granting one wish—to spend the night inside the painting of your choice.

What painting will we each choose, and why?

Will you sleep out in the open, undisturbed by lions, a la Rousseau’s The Sleeping Gypsy?

Or experience the voluptuous dreams of Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June?

Paul Gaugin’s portrait of his son, Clovis presents a tantalizing prospect for those of us who haven’t slept like a baby in decades…

The Nightmare by Herny Fuseli should chime with Gothic sensibilities…

And it’s a fairly safe bet that some of us will select Edward Hopper's Western Motel, at the top of this post, if only because we heard the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was accepting double occupancy bookings for an extremely faithful facsimile, as part of its Edward Hopper and the American Hotel exhibition.

Alas, if unsurprisingly, the Hopper Hotel Experience, with mini golf and a curated tour, sold out quickly, with prices ranging from $150 to $500 for an off-hours stay.

Ticket-holding visitors can still peer in at the room any time the exhibit is open to the public, but it’s after hours when the Instagramming kicks into high gear.

What guest could resist the temptation to strike a pose amid the vintage luggage and (bluetooth-enabled) wood paneled radio, filling in for the 1957 painting’s lone figure, an iconic Hopper woman in a burgundy dress?

The Art Institute of Chicago notes that she is singular among Hopper’s subjects, in that she appears to be gazing directly at the viewer.

But as per the Yale University Art Gallery, from which Western Motel is on loan:

The woman staring across the room does not seem to see us; the pensiveness of her stare and her tense posture accentuate the sense of some impending event. She appears to be waiting: the luggage is packed, the room is devoid of personal objects, the bed is made, and a car is parked outside the window.

Hopefully, those lucky enough to have secured a booking will have perfected the pose in the mirror at home prior to arrival. This “motel” is a bit of a stage set, in that guests must leave the painting to access the public bathroom that constitutes the facilities.

(No word on whether the theme extends to a paper “sanitized for your protection” band across the toilet, but there’s no shower and a security officer is stationed outside the room for the duration of each stay.)

The popularity of this once-in-a-lifetime exhibit tie-in may spark other museums to follow suit.

The Art Institute of Chicago started the trend in 2016 with a painstaking recreation of Vincent Van Gogh’s room at Arles, which it listed on Air BnB for $10/night.

Think of all the fun we could have if the bedrooms of art history opened to us...

Dog lovers could get cozy in Andrew Wyeth’s Master Bedroom.

Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus (1827) would require something more than double occupancy for proper Instagramming.

Piero della Francesca’s The Dream of Constantine might elicit impressive messages from the sub-conscience...

Tuberculosis nothwithstanding, Aubrey Beardsley’s Self Portrait in Bed is rife with possibilities.

Or skip the cultural foreplay and head straight for the NSFW pleasures of The French Bed, a la Rembrandt’s etching.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel will be traveling to the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields in June 2020.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, December 9 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Dennison’s Christmas Book (1921). Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Download Hellvetica, a Font that Makes the Elegant Spacing of Helvetica Look as Ugly as Possible

Among typography enthusiasts, all non-contrarians love Helvetica. Some, like filmmaker Gary Hustwit and New York subway map creator Massimo Vignelli, even made a documentary about it. Created by Swiss graphic designer Max Miedinger with Haas Type Foundry president Eduard Hoffmann and first introduced in 1957, Helvetica still stands as a visual definition of not just modernism but modernity itself. That owes in part to its clean, unambiguous lines, and also to its use of space: as all the aforementioned typography enthusiasts will have noticed, Helvetica leaves little room between its letters, which imbues text written in the font with a certain solidity. No wonder it so often appears, more than half a century after its debut, on the signage of public institutions as well as on the promotion of products that live or die by the ostensible timelessness of their designs.

But as times change, so must even near-perfect fonts: hence Helvetica Now. "Four years ago, our German office [was] kicking around the idea of creating a new version of Helvetica," Charles Nix, type director at Helvetica-rights-holder Monotype tells The Verge. "They had identified a short laundry list of things that would be better." What shortcomings they found arose from the fact that the font had been designed for an analog age of optical printing, and "when we went digital, a lot of that nuance of optical sizing sort of washed away." Ultimately, the project was less about updating Helvetica than restoring characters lost in its adaptation to digital, including "the straight-legged capital 'R,' single-story lowercase 'a,' lowercase 'u' without a trailing serif, a lowercase 't' without a tailing stroke on the bottom right, a beardless 'g,' some rounded punctuation."

The development of Helvetica Now also necessitated a close look at all the versions of Helvetica so far developed (the most notable major revision being Neue Helvetica, released in 1983) and adapting their best characteristics for an age of screens. Few of those characteristics demanded more attention than the spacing — or to use the typographical term, the kerning. But however astonishing a showcase it may be, Helvetica Now doesn't drive home the importance of the art of kerning in as visceral a manner as another new typeface: Hellvetica, designed by New York creative directors Zack Roif and Matthew Woodward. Much painstaking labor has also gone into Hellvetica's kerning, but not to make it as beautiful as possible: on the contrary, Roif and Woodard have taken Helvetica and kerned it for maximum ugliness.

The Verge's Jon Porter describes Hellvetica as "a self-aware Comic Sans with kerning that’s somehow much much worse." If that most hated Windows font hasn't been enough to inflict psychological disturbance on the designers in your life, you can head to Hellvetica's official site and "experience it in all its uneven, gappy glory." Roif and Woodard have made Hellvetica free to use, something that certainly can't be said of any genuine version of Helvetica. In fact, the sheer cost of licensing that most modern of all fonts has, in recent years, pushed even the formerly Helvetica-using likes of Apple, Google, and IBM to come up with their own typefaces instead — all of which, tellingly, resemble Helvetica. We can consider them all weapons in the life of a designer, which, as Vignelli put it, "is a life of fight. Fight against the ugliness." Happy downloading...

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Comic Sans Turns 25: Graphic Designer Vincent Connare Explains Why He Created the Most Hated Font in the World

What we write reveals who we are, but so, and often more clearly, does how we write. And in an age when handwriting has given way to typing, how we write has much to do with which font we use. Many of us play it safe, rarely straying from the realm of twelve-point Times New Roman hypernormality, but even there "type is a voice; its very qualities and characteristics communicate to readers a meaning beyond mere syntax." That observation comes from the Ban Comic Sans Manifesto, drawn up two decades ago by graphic designers Holly and David Combs as a strike against the font that, 25 years after its creation, remains a hate object of choice for the visually literate everywhere.

"You don’t like that your coworker used me on that note about stealing her yogurt from the break room fridge?" asks Comic Sans itself, ventriloquized in McSweeney's by Mike Lacher. "You don’t like that I’m all over your sister-in-law’s blog? You don’t like that I’m on the sign for that new Thai place? You think I’m pedestrian and tacky?" Well, tough: "People love me. Why? Because I’m fun. I’m the life of the party. I bring levity to any situation. Need to soften the blow of a harsh message about restroom etiquette? SLAM. There I am. Need to spice up the directions to your graduation party? WHAM. There again. Need to convey your fun-loving, approachable nature on your business’ website? SMACK."

In the Great Big Story video above, Comic Sans creator Vincent Connare tells his side of the story. While employed at Microsoft in the early 1990s, he saw a prototype version of Microsoft Bob, a kind of add-on to the Windows interface designed for maximum user friendliness. It featured onscreen animal characters that spoke in speech bubbles, but the words in those speech bubbles appeared in what was everyone's default font. When it hit him that "dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman," Connare, a graphic-novel fan, got to work on a typeface for the speech bubbles modeled on the lettering by John Costanza in The Dark Knight Returns and by Dave Gibbons in Watchmen.

Comic Sans didn't make it into Microsoft Bob, it did make it into a somewhat more successful Microsoft product: Windows 95, which David Kadavy at Design for Hackers calls "the first operating system to really hit it big. Just as computers were starting to pop up in nearly every home in America, Windows 95 was finding itself installed on all of those computers, and with it, the font Comic Sans. So now, nearly every man, woman, child, and bake sale organizer find themselves armed with publishing power unlike civilization had ever seen; and few of them really had any design sense." Then came the internet boom, which meant that "instead of flyers posted in break rooms, Comic Sans was showing up on websites, and even as the default font for many people’s emails. Now, any one person could write a message that could potentially be read by millions, in Comic Sans."

What makes Comic Sans so reviled? Kadavy points to several reasons having to do with typographical aesthetics, including awkward weight distribution ("weight" being the thickness of its lines) and poor letterfit (meaning that its letters don't, or can't, sit well next to each other). But the problem most of us notice is that "Comic Sans isn’t used as intended": A typeface meant only for speech bubbles in Microsoft Bob has somehow become one of the most popular in the world, appearing unsuitably in everything from Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's open letter on the departure of LeBron James to CERN's announcement of evidence of the Higgs boson particle to, just last month, a letter from Donald Trump's lawyer's to the House Intelligence Committee.

Through it all, Connare himself — who has designed such relatively respectable typefaces as Trebuchet, and has famously only used Comic Sans once, in a complaint letter to his cable company — has kept his sense of humor, as evidenced by his talk entitled "Comic Sans Is the Best Font in the World." Even the Combs' movement has changed its name, if not without irony, into "Use Comic Sans." Pieces marking the font's 25th anniversary include "Hating Comic Sans Is Not a Personality" by The New York Times' Emma Goldberg and "In Bad Taste or Not, I’ll Keep My Comic Sans" by The Washington Post's Joseph Epstein (published, entirely and courageously, in Comic Sans). If you love the font, Connare often says, you don't know much about typography, but if you hate it, "you should get another hobby." Besides, the story of Comic Sans also contains an important life lesson: "You have to do things that aren't beautiful sometimes."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A Collection of Vintage Fruit Crate Labels Offers a Voluptuous Vision of the Sunshine State

Ah, Florida… The Sunshine State.

Tourists began flocking to it in earnest once the railroads expanded in the late 19th century, drawn by visions of sunset beaches, graceful palms, and plump citrus fruit in a warm weather setting.

The fantasy gathered steam in the 1920s when citrus growers began affixing colorful labels to the fruit crates that shipped out over those same railroad lines, seeking to distinguish themselves from the competition with memorable visuals.

These labels offered lovers of grapefruit and oranges who were stuck in colder climes tantalizing glimpses of a dreamy land filled with Spanish Moss and graceful long-legged birds. Words like “golden” and “sunshine” sealed the deal.

(The reality of citrus picking, then and now, is one of hard labor, usually performed by underpaid, unskilled migrants.)

The State Library of Florida’s Florida Crate Label Collection has amassed more than 600 examples from the 1920s through the 1950s, many of which have been digitized and added to a searchable database.

While the majority of the labels peddle the sunshine state mythos, others pay homage to growers’ family members and pets.

Others like Killarney Luck, UmpireSherlock’s Delight, and Watson’s Dream built brand identity by playing on the grove’s name or location, though one does wonder about the models for the deliciously dour Kiss-Me label. Siblings, perhaps? Maybe the Kissimmee Citrus Growers Association disapproved of the PDA their name seems so ripe for.

Native Americans' prominent representation likely owed as much to the public’s fascination with Westerns as to the state’s tribal heritage, evident in the names of so many locations, like Umatilla and Immokalee, where citrus crops took root.

Meanwhile, MammyAunty, and Dixieland brands relied on a stereotypical representation of African-Americans that had a proven track record with consumers of pancakes and Cream of Wheat.

The vibrantly illustrated crate labels were put on hold during World War II, when the bulk of the citrus crop was earmarked for the military.

By the mid-50s, cardboard boxes on which company names and logos could be printed directly had become the industry standard, relegating crate labels to antique stores, swap meets, and flea markets.

Begin your exploration of the Florida Crate Label Collection here, browsing by imageplacecompany, or brand name.

Via Kottke

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, November 4 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain celebrates Louise Jordan Miln’s “Wooings and Weddings in Many Climes (1900). Follow her @AyunHalliday.


The Politics & Philosophy of the Bauhaus Design Movement: A Short Introduction

This year marks the centennial of the Bauhaus, the German art-and-design school and movement whose influence now makes itself felt all over the world. The clean lines and clarity of function exhibited by Bauhaus buildings, imagery, and objects — the very definition of what we still describe as "modern" — appeal in a way that transcends not just time and space but culture and tradition, and that's just as the school's founder Walter Gropius intended. A forward-looking utopian internationalist, Gropius seized the moment in the Germany left ruined by the First World War to make his ideals clear in the Bauhaus Manifesto: "Together let us call for, devise, and create the construction of the future, comprising everything in one form," he writes: "architecture, sculpture and painting."

In about a dozen years, however, a group with very little time for the Bauhaus project would suddenly rise to prominence in Germany: the Nazi party. "Their right-wing ideology called for a return to traditional German values," says reporter Michael Tapp in the Quartz video above, "and their messaging carried a typeface: Fraktur." Put forth by the nazis as the "true" German font, Fraktur was "based on Gothic script that had been synonymous with the German national identity for 800 years." On the other end of the ideological spectrum, the Bauhaus created "a radical new kind of typography," which Museum of Modern Art curator Barry Bergdoll describes as "politically charged": "The Germans are probably the only users of the Roman alphabet who had given typescript a nationalist sense. To refuse it and redesign the alphabet completely in the opposite direction is to free it of these national associations."

The culture of the Bauhaus also provoked public discomfort: "Locals railed against the strange, androgynous students, their foreign masters, their surreal parties, and the house band that played jazz and Slavic folk music," writes Darran Anderson at Citylab. "Newspapers and right-wing political parties cynically tapped into the opposition and fueled it, intensifying its anti-Semitism and emphasizing that the school was a cosmopolitan threat to supposed national purity." Gropius, for his part, "worked tirelessly to keep the school alive," preventing students from attending protests and gathering up leaflets printed by fellow Bauhaus instructor Oskar Schlemmer calling the school a "rallying point for all those who, with faith in the future and willingness to storm the heavens, wish to build the cathedral of socialism." In their zeal to purge "degenerate art," the Nazis closed the Bauhaus' Dessau school in 1932 and its Berlin branch the following year.

Though some of his followers may have been firebrands, Gropius himself "was typically a moderating influence," writes Anderson, "preferring to achieve his socially conscious progressivism through design rather than politics; creating housing for workers and safe, clean workplaces filled with light and air (like the Fagus Factory) rather than agitating for them." He also openly declared the apolitical nature of the Bauhaus early on, but historians of the movement can still debate how apolitical it remained, during its lifetime as well as in its lasting effects. A 2009 MoMA exhibition even drew attention to the Bauhaus figures who worked with the Nazis, most notably the painter and architect Franz Ehrlich. But as Anderson puts it, "there are many Bauhaus tales," and together "they show not a simple Bauhaus-versus-the-Nazis dichotomy but rather how, to varying degrees of bravery and caprice, individuals try to survive in the face of tyranny."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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