An online design museum made by and for designers? The concept seems obvious, but has taken decades in internet years for the reality to fully emerge in the Letterform Archive. Now that it has, we can see why. Good design may look simple, but no one should be fooled into thinking it’s easy. “After years of development and months of feedback,” write the creators of the Letterform Archive online design museum, “we’re opening up the Online Archive to everyone. This project is a labor of love from everyone on our staff, and many generous volunteers, and we hope it provides a source of beautiful distraction and inspiration to all who love letters.”
That’s letters as in fonts, not epistles, and there are thousands of them in the archive. But there are also thousands of photographs, lithographs, silkscreens, etc. representing the height of modern simplicity. This and other unifying threads run through the collection of the Letterform Archive, which offers “unprecedented access… with nearly 1,500 objects and 9,000 hi-fi images.”
You’ll find in the Archive the sleek elegance of 1960s Olivetti catalogs, the iconic militancy of Emory Douglas’ designs for The Black Panther newspaper, and the eerily stark militancy of the “SILENCE=DEATH” t-shirt from the 1980s AIDS crisis.
The site was built around the ideal of “radical accessibility,” with the aim of capturing “a sense of what it’s like to visit the Archive” (which lives permanently in San Francisco). But the focus is not on the casual onlooker — Letterform Archive online caters specifically to graphic designers, which makes its interface even simpler, more elegant, and easier to use for everyone, coincidentally (or not).
From the radical typography of Dada to the radical 60s zine scene to the sleek designs (and Neins) found in a 1987 Apple Logo Standards pamphlet, the museum has something for everyone interested in recent graphic design history and typology. But it’s not all sleek simplicity. There are also rare artifacts of elaborately intricate design, like the Persian Yusef and Zulaikha manuscript, below, dating from between 1880 and 1910. You’ll find dozens more such treasures in the Letterform Archive here.
Schütte-Lihotzky analyzed designs for kitchens in train dining cars and made detailed time-motion studies of housewives’ dinner preparations in her quest to come up with something that would be space saving, efficient, inexpensively pre-fabricated, and easily installed in the new housing springing up in post-WWI Germany.
Schütte-Lihotzky hoped that her design would have a liberating effect, by reducing the time women spent in the kitchen. Nothing is left to chance in these 1.9 by 3.44 meters, with the main emphasis placed on the well-traveled “golden triangle” between worktop, stove, and sink.
…as with any progress, there is friction and pressure. As women gain more rights (then and now), are they really just adding more to their to-do list of responsibilities? Adding to the number of plates they need to spin? They haven’t been excused from domestic duties in order to pursue careers or employment, the new responsibilities are additive.
(Note: enter your information to view the film.)
Choreographer Zoé Henrot, who also appears in the film, emphasizes the Frankfurt Kitchen’s design efficiencies and many of its famous features — the drawers for flour and other bulk goods, the adjustable stool, the cutting board with a receptacle for parings and peels.
At the same time, she manages to telegraph some possible Catch-22s.
Its diminutive size dictates that this workplace will be a solitary one — no helpers, guests, or small children.
The built-in expectations regarding uniformity of use leaves little room for culinary experimentation or a loosey goosey approach.
When crushingly repetitive tasks begin to chafe, options for escape are limited (if very well-suited to the expressive possibilities of modern dance).
Interestingly, many assume that a female architect working in 1926 would have brought some personal insights to the task that her male colleagues might have been lacking. Not so, as Schütte-Lihotzky readily admitted:
The truth of the matter was, I’d never run a household before designing the Frankfurt Kitchen, I’d never cooked, and had no idea about cooking.
Singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer is another artist who was moved to pay homage to Schütte-Lihotzky and the Frankfurt Kitchen, a “calculated move” that he describes as something closer to designing a kitchen than “divine inspiration”:
I sat on the train traveling from Canterbury up to London… I was about to record a new album, and I needed one more uptempo song, something driving and rhythmical. While the noisy combination of rickety train and worn-out tracks suggested a beat, I began to think about syncopations and subjects.
I thought about the mundane things nobody usually writes songs about, functional things that defy metaphor—tools, devices, household goods. As I listed some items in my head, I soon realized that kitchen utensils were the way to go. I thought about the mechanics of a kitchen, and that’s when the name of the creator of the famous Frankfurt Kitchen flashed up in my head.
There, in the natural rhythm of her name, was the syncopation I had been looking for: “I sing this out to Grete Schütte-Lihotzky.” Writing the rest of the lyrics was easy. The repetitive element would illustrate the way you keep returning to the same tasks and positions when you are working in a kitchen. In the middle-eight I would also find space for some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen over the decades, such as the way her design isolated the kitchen worker, i.e. traditionally the woman, from the rest of the family.
Rotifer, who also created the paintings used in the animated music video, gives the architect her due by including accomplishments beyond the Frankfurt Kitchen: her micro-apartment with “a disguised roll-out bed,” her terraced houses at the Werkbundsiedlung, a housing project’s kindergarten, a printing shop, and the Viennese Communist party headquarters.
It’s a lovely tribute to a design pioneer who, reflecting on her long career around the time of her 100th birthday, remarked:
If I had known that everyone would keep talking about nothing else, I would never have built that damned kitchen!
Sitting or standing before an esteemed writer’s desk can make us feel closer to their process. Virginia Woolf’s desks — plywood boards she held on her lap and sloped standing desks — show a kind of austere rigor in her posture. “Throughout her life as a writer,” James Barrett points out, Woolf “paid attention to the physical act of writing,” just as she paid attention to the creative act of walking. The bareness of her implements tells us a lot about her as an artist, but it tells us nothing about the state of writing desk technology available in her time.
20th century modernist Woolf preferred the 16th-century rustic simplicity of Monk’s house. Had she been an 18th century aristocrat and a follower of fashion, she might have availed herself of a desk designed by the Roentgens, the “principal cabinetmakers of the ancien régime,” notes the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“From about 1742 to its closing in the early 1800s, the Roentgens’ innovative designs were combined with intriguing mechanical devices to revolutionize traditional French and English furniture types.”
The German workshop was founded by Abraham Roentgen and continued by his son David, whose creations Goethe called “palaces in fairyland” and who took first place in a furniture making contest with his entry: “a desk with cabinet, decorated with chinoiserie figures in superb marquetry and featuring a clock with a carillon (musical mechanism) and a hidden clavichord.”
Roentgen writing desks were as functional as they were beautiful. But they were not made for just anyone. The Roentgens made the Berlin Secretary Cabinet, for example — which you can see demonstrated in the Met video at the top — for King Frederick William II of Prussia.
Other Roentgen desks may have been somewhat less outwardly ostentatious, but their inner workings were just as ingenious, as you can see in the rolltop desk further up and the mechanical desk above. Each of these magnificent creations features hidden drawers and compartments, a mainstay of luxury desk design throughout the 1700s, as the Rijksmuseum video below demonstrates. Called “Neuwied furniture,” this style was all the rage and anyone who was anyone, including, of course, Marie Antoinette, had the Roentgens or their competitors make elaborate cabinets, desks, and bureaus that concealed complex inner workings like wooden clocks.
“Roentgen’s perfectly executed inventions became a status symbol for princely interiors all over Germany and Central Europe,” writes the Met. Whether their meticulously engineered writing desks really solved the problem of office clutter or physically improved the experience of writing in any way, however, seems debatable at best.
I always think tattoos should communicate. If you see tattoos that don’t communicate, they’re worthless. —Henk Schiffmacher, tattoo artist
Tattooing is an ancient art whose grip on the American mainstream, and that of other Western cultures, is a comparatively recent development.
Long before he took up—or went under—a tattoo needle, legendary tattoo artist and self-described “very odd duck type of guy,” Henk Schiffmacher was a fledgling photographer and accidental collector of tattoo lore.
Inspired by the immersive approaches of Diane Arbus and journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Schiffmacher, aka Hanky Panky, attended tattoo conventions, seeking out any subculture where inked skin might reveal itself in the early 70s.
As he shared with fellow tattooer Eric Perfect in a characteristically rollicking, profane interview, his instincts became honed to the point where he “could smell” a tattoo concealed beneath clothing:
The kind of tattoos you used to see in those days, you do not see anymore, that stuff made in jail, in the German jails, like, you’d like see a guy who’d tattooed himself as far as his right hand could reach and the whole right (side) would be empty…I always loved that stuff which was never meant to be art which is straight from the heart.
When tattoo artists would write to him, requesting prints of his photos, he would save the letters, telling Hero’s Eric Goodfellow:
I would get stuff from all over the world. The whole envelope would be decorated, and the letter as well. I have letters from the Leu Family and they’re complete pieces of art, they’re hand painted with all kinds of illustrations. Also people from jail would write letters, and they would take time to write in between the lines in a different colour. So very, very unique letters.
Schiffmacher (now the author of the new Taschen book, TATTOO. 1730s-1970s) realized that tattoos must be documented and preserved by someone with an open mind and vested interest, before they accompanied their recipients to the grave. Many families were ashamed of their loved ones’ interest in skin art, and apt to destroy any evidence of it.
On the other end of the spectrum is a portion of a 19th-century whaler’s arm, permanently emblazoned with Jesus and sweetheart, preserved in formaldehyde-filled jar. Schiffmacher acquired that, too, along with vintage tools, business cards, pages and pages of flash art, and some truly hair raising DIY ink recipes for those jailhouse stick and pokes. (He discusses the whaler’s tattoos in a 2014 TED Talk, below).
His collection also expanded to his own skin, his first canvas as a tattoo artist and proof of his dedication to a community that sees its share of tourists.
Schiffmacher’s command of global tattoo significance and history informs his preference for communicative tattoos, as opposed to obscure ice breakers requiring explanation.
When he first started conceiving of himself as an illustrated man, he imagined the delight any potential grandchildren would take in this graphic representation of his life’s adventures—“like Pippi Longstocking’s father.”
“One of the biggest considerations when traveling to Japan is its inscrutable language,” writes Designboom’s Juliana Neira. But then, one might also consider making that language more scrutable — and making one’s experience in Japan much richer — by learning some of it. Kanji, the Chinese characters used in the written Japanese language, may at first look like small, often bewilderingly complex pictures, and many assume they visually evoke the meanings they express. In fact, to use the linguistic terms, they’re not pictograms, representations of thoughts or ideas, but logograms, representations of words or parts of words.
Resemble miniature works of art though they often do, kanji aren’t entirely unsystematic. This helps beginning learners get a handle on the first and most essential characters of the thousands they’ll eventually need to know.
So does the fact that some of them, in origin, really are pictographic — that is, they look like the meaning of the word they represent — or at least pictographic enough to make them teachable through images. The Japanese word for “mountain,” to cite an elementary example, is 山; “river” is 川; “tree” is 木. Alas, most of us who enjoy the 山, 川, and 木 of Japan — to say nothing of the 書店 and 喫茶店 in its cities — haven’t been able to visit them at all in this past pandemic year.
The Experience Japan Pictograms hardly fail to include the glories of Japanese cuisine — sushi, tempura, soba, and even the Japanified hanbāgā — which piques so many foreigners’ interest in Japan to begin with. Click on any of them and you’ll see a brief cultural and historical explanation of the item, activity, place, or concept in question, along with the relevant Japanese term (in kanji where applicable) and its pronunciation. You can also download them in the color scheme of your choice and use them for any purposes you like, including commercial ones. The more widely adopted they are, the more convenient Japanese tourism will become for those who don’t read Japanese. Those who do can hardly deny the pleasure of having another Japanese language to learn — and a truly pictographic one at that.
Victorians prevented their most closely kept secrets—illicit love letters, perhaps? Last wills and testaments?—from falling into the wrong hands by wearing the keys to the boxes containing these items concealed in signet rings and other statement-type pieces.
A tiny concealed blade could be lethal on the finger of a skilled (and no doubt, beautiful) assassin. These days, they might be used to collect a bit of one’s attacker’s DNA.
Armillary sphere rings like the ones in the British Museum’s collection and the Swedish Historical Museum (top) serve a more benign purpose. Folded together, the two-part outer hoop and three interior hoops give the illusion of a simple gold band. Slipped off the wearer’s finger, they can fan out into a physical model of celestial longitude and latitude.
Art historian Jessica Stewart writes that in the 17th century, rings such as the above specimen were “used by astronomers to study and make calculations. These pieces of jewelry were considered tokens of knowledge. Inscriptions or zodiac symbols were often used as decorative elements on the bands.”
The armillary sphere rings in the British Museum’s collection are made of a soft high alloy gold.
Jewelry-loving modern astronomers seeking an old school finger-based calculation tool that really works can order armillary sphere rings from Brooklyn-based designer Black Adept.
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
Origami artist Juho Könkkölä spent 50 hours folding an origami samurai from a single square sheet of paper, with no cutting or ripping used in the process. He describes his process on Reddit:
Folded from a single square sheet of 95cm x 95cm Wenzhou rice paper without any cutting. The finished size of the work is 28cm x 16cm x 19cm. Only dry and wet folding techniques were used to fold the model. It took 2 months to design and 1 month to fold, although I was working on few other projects during that time too.
It took some effort and experimentation to fold the texture for the armor, while trying to simplify it to be somewhat manageable to fold. I folded 4 rough test attempts in total, and all of them took 3 days to fold each. There are several hundreds of steps to fold it from the square and there are probably thousands of individual folds. The asymmetry in the design allowed me to include sword on only one arm, while being able to make the character look symmetric.
Find the finished product below. Watch the creative process, from start to finish, above.
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All magazines are their editors, but Flair was more its editor than any magazine had been before — or, for that matter, than any magazine has been since. Though she came to the end of her long life in England, a country to which she had expatriated with her fourth husband, a Briton, Fleur Cowles was as American a cultural figure as they come. Born Florence Freidman in 1908, she had performed on herself an unknowable number of Gatsbyesque acts of reinvention by 1950, when she found herself in a position to launch Flair. Her taste in husbands helped, married as she then was to Gardner “Mike” Cowles Jr., publisher of Look, a popular photo journal that Fleur had helped to lift from its lowbrow origins and make respectable among that all-powerful consumer demographic, postwar American women.
The success of the reinvented Look “allowed Cowles to ask her husband for what she really wanted: the capital to start her own publication, which she called ‘a class magazine,'” writes Eye on Design’s Rachel Syme. “She was tired of spreads about the best linoleum; she wanted to do an entire issue on Paris, or hire Ernest Hemingway to write a travel essay, or commission Colette to gossip about her love affairs.”
During Flair‘s run she did all that and more, with a roster of contributors also including Salvador Dalí, Simone de Beauvoir, W. H. Auden, Gloria Swanson, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jean Cocteau. In Flair‘s debut issue, published in February 1950, “an article on the 28-year-old Lucian Freud came liberally accompanied with reproductions of his art—the first ever to appear in America.”
So writes Vanity Fair‘s Amy Fine Collins in a profile of Clowes. “Angus Wilson and Tennessee Williams contributed short stories, Wilson’s printed on paper textured to resemble slubbed silk.” What’s more, “The Duke and Duchess of Windsor opened their home to Flair’s readers, treating them to their recondite and entertaining tips. A more futuristic approach to living was set forth in a two-page spread on Richard Kelly’s lighting design for Philip Johnson’s glass house in Connecticut.” Feature though it may have the work of an astonishingly varied group of luminaries — pulled in by Cowles’ vast and deliberately woven social net — Flair is even more respected today for each issue’s lavish, elaborate, and distinctive design.
“If a feature would be better in dimension than on flat pages, why not fold half-pages inside double-page spreads?” asks Cowles in her memoirs, quoted in Print magazine. “Why not bind it as ‘a little book’ … giving it a special focus? If a feature was better ‘translated’ on textured paper, why use shiny paper?” And “if a painting was good enough to frame, why not print it on properly heavy stock? Why not bind little accordion folders into each issue to give the feeling of something more personal to the content?” One reason is the $2.5 million (1950 dollars) that Mike Cowles estimated Flair to have cost in the year it ran before he pulled its plug.
But then, by the early 1970s even the highly profitable Look had to fold — and of the two magazines, only one has become ever more sought-after, has books published in its tribute, and still inspires designers today. To take a closer look at the magazine, see The Best of Flair, a compilation of the magazine’s best content as chosen by Fleur Cowles herself. (See a video preview of the book above.)
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