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Design, The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Design School: Underground Artists

July 1, 2015

Like many New Yorkers, if I need to get somewhere, I take the subway.

Whether I need to hop the train to travel from my apartment adjacent to Prospect Park down to UncommonGoods’ headquarters at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, or I’m bumbling through the Big Apple’s other boroughs on the weekends, cramming into crowded subway cars is as New York City as pizza pie. And like the more than 5.5 million passengers the system carries on an average weekday, the moment I step on the train I succumb to modern “tunnel-vision:” I bury my head in my iPad until I reach my destination. But when I step out of the train, I’m consistently surprised with the rich history laid bare in front of me in the form of the station’s diverse signs, vestiges of past design trends, fashions, and the mores of bygone generations.

From its opening on October 27th, 1904, New York City had already envisioned the subway as more than a simple method of getting around the metropolis. While urban, the experience of riding the subway was intended to be urbane; from the beginning, the city hired artists to embellish the underground walls with fanciful, yet legible, decorations.

From 1901 to 1908, John L. Heins and Christopher G. LaFarge designed the earliest subway motifs in the popular Beaux-Arts style, evoking classical architecture using ceramics, metal, and wood. The Philadelphia-born architects – who are also known for their work in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the original Astor Court buildings of the Bronx Zoo – were heavily steeped in the Arts and Crafts movement, an international artistic trend that advocated traditional craftsmanship and striving to create environments in which beauty and technical skill were of paramount importance.

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Twenty-eighth Street subway sign by Heins and LaFarge

Accented with swoops and curlicues, cornucopias and floral medallions, the duo’s elaborate terra cotta signs endure as some of the system’s most recognizable emblems.

Tile inspired by the original  Times Sq-42 St station, designed by Heins and LaFarge | Personalized House Sign – Times Square Subway

While quiet compared to the glitz and hubbub of Times Square above, Heins and LaFarge’s sumptuous mosaic sign is an unmistakable symbol of New York’s vibrant urban fabric. The original sign that inspired this tile is located at at Times Sq-42 Street, one of the system’s oldest stations at 111 years old.

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Bleeker Street subway sign by Heins and LaFarge

The elaborate tile-workings were not just decorative: each sign’s unique palette and patterns were used didactically to help non-English speakers identify stops.

The team’s successor and owner of arguably the coolest name in New York City history, Squire J. Vickers took over as chief architect of the New York City Subway system in 1906. Known as an “underground Renaissance man,” Vickers was responsible for more than 300 stations—the most of any architect—and was the system’s lead designer for almost 30 years.

Squire J. Vickers and the “Vickers Eagle” at the 33rd Street Station

Vickers took the subway on a much more pared-down, modern path than that of his Beaux-Arts predecessors for both aesthetic and economic reasons. As the floriated embellishments that defined the Arts and Crafts style gave way to the slick lines and austerity of the Machine Age, Vicker’s signs reflected the era’s dominant graphic trends with their quilt-like geometric abstractions and bold colors.

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Mosaic panel by Squire J. Vickers

“How grateful to the eye is the wall surface unbroken by paneling, noxious ornament, or the misplaced string course, decorated, if you like, inlaid with color, but unbroken,” he wrote.

Vickers was also imminently practical and, especially during the Great Depression, many of his aesthetic decisions were driven by the bottom line. Mosaic elements were flattened, for example, so they would be cheaper to clean (“to avoid dust ledges,” he wrote). The intricate signs could also be set by hand in a factory instead of on the wall tessera by tessera, making them less expensive to install.

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Wall Street Station sign by Squire J. Vickers

Despite budgetary constraints, Vickers, who was also a competent painter, was still able to create mosaics revered as much for their utility as their beauty.

Inspired by Vickers’ oringal designs | Personalized House Sign – 59th and Lex Subway

Vicker’s decorative details underground, at the Lexington Av/59 St station, complement the sophistication of the Upper East Side above.

To this day, the MTA commissions artists to continue the creative vision that was an integral part of the subway from the very beginning. New works are installed every day, from traditional mosaics, to sculpture, stained glass, and more, giving passengers plenty to see—as long as we’re willing to look.

 

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Design

Technically Speaking: Toys, Technology, and the Joys of Tinkering

May 6, 2015

A decade ago, Steven Johnson countered conventional wisdom with the audacious proposal that electronic media consumption is a beneficial societal force in Everything Bad is Good For You. Johnson makes a thoroughly convincing argument that an all-you-can-eat diet of TV and video games is actually good for people’s problem solving skills and overall IQ. Still, some will always be wary of too much technology, and more recent initiatives like Gever Tulley’s Tinkering School seem to encourage a return to hands-on experience and inventive play. Today, some trends try to reconcile these directions—tinkering with the inner workings of the diode and microchip world all around us. Ironically, other trends use invisible technology to encourage communication through playful interactions.

Modular Synth Kit | UncommonGoods

Modular Synth Kit
Developed by MIT Media Lab alumna and TED Fellow Ayah Bdeir, our Modular Synth, Space Science, and Smart Home kits offer an addictive introduction to the world of electronic components. By connecting the color-coded, magnetized modules like a brick building toy, you can create some awesome mad scientist devices and learn about the principles of technology in the process. The array of modules includes power, input, output, and wire (splitter or mixer) units, incorporating light, sound, sensors, and mechanical functions. Technical as this inventory may sound, the modular dimension provides a system that can be learned in minutes, and facilitates multi-media mixing of light, sound, and motion for limitless invention. Avowed “disinformationist” Reggie Watts shows just how much fun you can have through his improvisation with the Synth kit.

Modular Smart Home Kit | UncommonGoods

Modular Smart Home Kit

For those who may not even know they’re interested in electronics, Ayah’s invitation to play is enticing: “we’re trying to make [these modules] as accessible as possible and as instantaneous as possible, so you can see the results.” In her commitment to democratizing technology, she echoes cyberspace-defining writer William Gibson observation that “the future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.” For that matter, the culture behind these kits features an open source component, encouraging the sort of tool and material innovation fostered by Tulley’s tinkerers. Ayah comments on this aspect of her system:

We started to lose this ability to play with technology as technology started to become more finished and closed…[our goal] is to demystify technology…the magic of electricity is everywhere around us—it’s beautiful, and we have to contribute to it and be creative with it.

Still not convinced that a focus on the inner workings of electronics is a good idea? Allow us to introduce Milksop the Bear, a toy-meets-digital-communication critter that’s designed to divert kids from the inevitable pull of grown-up social media. He’s the invention of Guari Nanda, also a graduate of the MIT Media Lab, who comments “there are so many apps today that isolate kids from family…we wanted to create one that does the opposite.” Through his Wi-Fi connection and custom app, Milksop allows adults (mom, dad, grandma, grampa) to send messages to his kid companion. When Milksop grunts to say “you’ve got mail,” the messages are delivered in a whimsically modulated voice. Then, kids can respond by recording a voice message that’s sent back to their adult admirers through the app. No screen, no typing, no direct contact with the pitfalls of too much technology. Milksop utilizes kids’ natural tendency to have conversations with their toys, applying electronic components, code, and the cloud to connect generations, rather than giving kids too much screen time too soon. At the same time, parents can choose to use Milksop’s gentle take on cloud-based communication as their child’s first introduction to the digital world.

Milksop Bear | UncommonGoods

Milksop Walkie Talkie Mailman
UncommonGoods’ family of techie toys also includes Richard Upchurch’s curiously cute Zoots, Lil’ MIB, and Loopy Lou. Each handmade gadget is part instrument and part pet robot, combining analog electronic components like those of Ayah’s kits within handmade, wood housing detailed with familiar, interactive buttons and switches. In keeping with their old school controls, Richard’s designs are kept deliberately simple, in that their recording functions are limited and ephemeral. Richard explains the reasoning behind this decision:

While we live in a culture of saving everything (voicemail, emails, social media feeds), I feel it’s important to celebrate the impermanence of things, to cherish the moment you’re living in. Take that moment, create within it, laugh, play, build a memory; then move forward into the next moment. It’s here that I find myself encouraged by the creative timing without being inhibited by comparing the past to present. This creates a space that allows us all—kids and adults—to play and create without inhibition.

From their handmade wood bodies to their whimsical, silkscreened “faces,” Zoots, Lil’ MIB, and Loopy Lou share the mission of Ayah’s modular bits—to make electronics accessible and endearing. For more on Richard’s easygoing but innovative approach to designing and building technological toys, follow along with our recent tour of his studio.

Lil Mib | UncommonGoods

A look inside Loopy Lou
Whether the future (or the unevenly distributed present, according to William Gibson) is shaped by products that encourage or discourage a direct interface with technology remains to be seen. Maybe a measure of both approaches is best. Going forward, 3D printing technology promises to continue the reconciliation of media and material, circuitry and stuff, bringing replicator-like integration between the physical and digital worlds. If it’s going to be this much fun, we say “make it so!”

Check out more tech toys! | UncommonGoods

Design

Maker Mentors: Advice on How to Make It

May 1, 2015

Maker Mentors | Sponsored by UncommonGoods

 

Taking the leap from making for fun to making professionally is a big step. A few pieces of good advice, positive vibes, and knowledgeable role models can go along way. Even better is a lot of great advice, an atmosphere alive with positivity and encouragement, and an active community of mentors–but it can be tricky to step away from the workbench to seek out educational opportunities, especially when starting a new business. That’s why we’re so proud to sponsor an innovative new conference that takes place entirely online!

Maker Mentors is online and everywhere May 14-16, 2015, so you can attend without buying a plane ticket, dealing with hotel reservations, or even getting out of your PJs. You can even get a $50 of discount off registration by entering the code UNCOMMONGOODS at checkout when you sign up! And, at the risk of sounding a bit like an infomercial, we’ll go ahead and say, “but that’s not all!” Because we’re really, really excited about this next part…

As part of our work with Maker Mentors we’re presenting a series of free webinars featuring our artists throughout May and June! First up is the ever entertaining and informative jewelry designer Emilie Shapiro on May 4th at 5 p.m. PST. (8 EST.)

Sign up for Emilie’s free webinar here and register for the Maker Mentors newsletter  to stay in the know as we add additional artists to this series.

 

 

 

Design

Uncommon Design School: The Origins of Earth Day & the Green Design Movement

April 9, 2015

As Earth Day celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, it’s hard to believe that the concept of “going green” is still relatively new. While we’ve come a long way as individuals to evaluate our environmental impact, the countless designs that we interact with on a daily basis have, too.

Planting Flowers

The UncommonGoods team planting flowers for Earth Day.

In the decades prior to the establishment of Earth Day, the manufacturing industry was more interested in making green than going green: factories belched out clouds of black smoke; toxic chemicals were dumped carelessly, polluting the soil and groundwater; and bottles, cans, and paper were all destined for the landfill after just one use. At the time, most people remained blissfully unaware of the consequences of overconsumption and how negligent manufacturing practices were wreaking havoc on the planet.

After witnessing the ravages of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson had the idea of bringing environmental issues to the public eye by creating an event infused with the same energy as the anti-war protests occurring at the time. On April 22nd, 1970, his simple idea for a teach-in exploded into a national event uniting 20 million people under one common goal: raise awareness about environmental impact. The little holiday that could led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

During the same era of change, Vienna-born designer Victor Papanek quietly penned his cri de coeur, Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, an impassioned plea for reform that laid the foundation for the emerging sustainable and humanitarian design movements.

Design For the Real World

 Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change, Paperback, Second Edition, Published August 30th 2005 by Chicago Review Press (first published 1972), image via Goodreads

“There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few,” he writes at the start of his 1971 manifesto. In addition to pillorying his peers for producing shoddy, stylized work that wasted natural resources and aggravated the environmental crisis, he also introduced the idea of socially responsible design. Calling designers “the handmaidens of capitalism,” Papanek advocated for a triple bottom line policy, in which people, planet, and profit are interconnected and should be considered together.

Dave Bolotsky meeting with Artisans in India

UncommonGoods Founder & CEO Dave Bolotsky meeting with artisans in India.

To Papanek, ecological and social responsibility are the twin pillars of the design practice and his advice has gone on to influence a generation of designers as well as businesses like ours. As a founding B Corp, we meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. We’re also proud to support designers with a similar agenda, who make it their business to come up with better design solutions for people and the planet.

Bike Chain Designs by Graham Bergh | UncommonGoods

 Reclaimed Bike Chain designs by Graham Bergh

In 1991, after getting a flat tire while riding his bike, Graham Bergh was inspired to salvage the materials to make something new and totally unexpected. Every year, his team of bicycle craftsmen collects thousands of pounds of used parts, drawing from bike shops nationwide, and revives them into creative home accents.

Graffiti Jewelry | UncommonGoods

Graffiti Jewelry Collection by Amy Peterson and Diana Russell

After encountering the crumbling walls of graffiti throughout Detroit, Amy Peterson and Diana Russell found the inspiration to turn these bits of urban detritus from around the Motor City into one-of-a-kind remnants of its vibrant street-art scene. Together, they work with women from local shelters to create beautiful works of art that also have a beautiful mission to improve the lives of the people in the community.

Puppet Pals | UncommonGoods

 

Edgar and Ollie the Puppet Pals by Jen List and Stacey Waddington

When Jen List and Stacy Waddington stumbled upon a heap of unwanted sweaters and shirts, the duo decided to transform the old fabrics into a line of snuggly and imaginative children’s toys and accessories that encourage early learning and individual expression through creative design, wonder, and storytelling.

How do you plan on celebrating Earth Day, and what “green” practices do you incorporate into your life?

Design

Uncommon Design School: Less is More

February 13, 2015

Love it or loathe it, we all know minimalism when we see it. A neutral palette comes to mind. Forms tend to be aggressively geometric. International Style buildings…Scandinavian furniture…deconstructed timepieces like our On the Other Hand Clock. Some find minimalist designs thrilling in their integrity. Others find them stark—even threatening. Whatever your reaction, one handy phrase comes to mind: less is more.

On The Other Hand Clock | UncommonGoods

On the Other Hand Clock

A conceptual cousin to ‘form follows function,’ this cool but cheekily contradictory aphorism is a close contender for the top modernist mantra—a quotable bit of wisdom that may still be echoing through the lecture halls of many a school of architecture and design. But, like Louis Sullivan’s alliterative catch phrase, less is more deserves an investigation of its history.

The phrase is most closely associated with the designer who embraced the association: architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. For Mies, it was an apt slogan for his pursuit of design purity. The intentional contradiction helps make it memorable, but essentially it means “the less complicated the design, the better.” The less of less is more is apparent in the work of Mies and other midcentury modern designers, but the more means ‘better,’ with a note of pseudo-spiritual zeal.

Barcelona Pavilion | Wikipedia

The Barcelona Pavilion designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Wikipedia

Much as Mies’ cigar-puffing visage comes to mind when you hear the phrase, he had to admit that he didn’t coin it. He credits his modernist mentor, Peter Behrens. The young Mies, working in Behrens’ studio, recalls that he showed his boss some design options for a factory façade, to which the elder architect replied “less is more.” This set the tone for Behrens’ elegantly minimal approach to industrial design, and Mies took up the banner for other types of buildings as well.

But wait—there’s more (or is it less?) to this story. The phrase crops up before Behrens was born, in a poetic context: Robert Browning’s poem Andrea Del Sarto (called “The Faultless Painter”) of 1855.

Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
 (I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
 Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

Browning employs the phrase in an imagined diatribe by a B-list Renaissance painter who works in the shadow of the likes of “Michel Agnolo” (Michelangelo). Hardly the heroic, modern origins you might expect.

Bike Print | UncommonGoodsThe Bicycle Encyclopedic Print

Whether or not Behrens and Mies were aware of Browning’s poem, the phrase got a modern makeover that puts a positive spin on minimalist aspirations. Not to be outdone, maverick architect Frank Lloyd Wright quipped “less is more, only when more is no good.” Apparently, Wright wanted to indicate that he was hip to mid-century trends, yet wanted to keep his options open.