Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Destruction and Construction

I was actually going to make a big long post about the Guillermo Habacuc Vargas Scandal, but searching around, it really appears to be not a "hoax" exactly, but at least not as truly horrific as internet drama might suggest.

I'd rather believe it's not true, and there doesn't appear to be any solid evidence for any case, so I'm going to let it go.  There are very few things that I think should be off limits to Art, actually.

This did sort of remind me of the conflict I grew to feel over Mapplethorpe, Andre Serrano, Karen Finley, et al, in the late-1980s.  On the one hand, I do respect them implicitly for their work (and I think Serrano's "Piss Christ" was pretty badly misinterpreted).  It did just what good art should do, it pushed boundaries, broke down conventions, asked difficult questions.  

On the other hand, I've grown to believe their work was considerably irresponsible to the Art World in America, in general.  They and the other shock artists might somewhat fairly be blamed for the lack of government funding of the arts in this country.  They knew exactly who their work would offend; that was the whole point of it.  For the very reason that the U.S. is based on Capitalism run amok, it's desperately important that artists be supported in some way other than by the popular market.  The art market has a far different criteria on which to base "value," and it isn't always artistic, creative integrity or innovative ways of thinking.  In fact, I think it could be argued that it seldom is.  It isn't any better for Art than Communism or Fascism was.

I find it interesting when it's pointed out to me where I believe the limits of Art to be.  Regardless of what Vargas intended or what he in fact did do, it still is Art (way too many people have way too many cockamamie ideas of what is or isn't Art), but there are nonetheless some places where art just should not go.  Ironically, I have said--and have no qualms about saying--that some structures are and some aren't Architecture.  But I believe that to be a completely different story, since it's an applied art form.

Since I'm not going to get into animal abuse for the sake of Art, I thought I'd show you some of these amazing photos I found of Philip Johnson's New York State Theater under construction (click them):

One of Wallace Harrison's early drawings for the new Metropolitan Opera House:

You may be interested to know that some of his even earlier drawings were extremely sculptural, and looked suspiciously similar to Jorn Utzon's opera house for Sydney.  

Here's the Met under construction looking from the east:

And of the auditorium from the location of the stage:

Here's the lighting control room, which the lighting team said looked like Cape Canaveral:

Kind of does, too.

New York State Theater, Philip Johnson (1964)
Metropolitan Opera House, Wallace Harrison (1966)

(text) ©2008, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Meeting the Challenge

My last vote from the Auto Show goes to Dodge.

Keep in mind that, as a New Yorker, I don't drive (often), and rumor is that Dodge has been a bit trouble-prone in recent years, specifically where it comes to their brakes being unreliable.  Cars more than a lot of other products have a strong element of utility influencing their design or should, anyway.  While I'm no auto mechanic, I'd like to think I have an above-average knowledge of the workings of the engine, ergonomics, and aerodynamics.  Nonetheless, my interest in general and on this blog is in Industrial Design, foremost.

In that regard, I was very impressed by what they're doing.  Chrysler was really the manufacturer to pioneer that big, beefy front end a few years ago with their new 300.  But Dodge sort of already had it, mostly in their trucks, so it was only a matter of accentuating it more.

First, their Zeo was really one of the more impressive of the concept cars (click the images):

It has an all-electric powerplant fueled by a lithium-ion battery, but can do 0-60 in under six seconds, which is pretty darn good.  
I think the look of it is beautiful.  I'd totally drive this.

The only problem I have with all electric--and I wonder why this isn't discussed more--is that if you have to plug your car into the wall when you get home, and your power supplier generates electricity burning natural gas, then what exactly is the difference?  I can't imagine the pollution potential would be all that much less.

Their other offering was just so fun, and I want one.  This is the new Challenger (click):


Taking design cues from the history of automobile design, itself, is nothing new really.  Aside from the Excaliber, which is more just goofy than anything else, I started seeing both Chrysler and Lincoln doing it about five years ago or so?  Still amazing that it took that long for automotive design to get to the point of celebrating itself.  

Here's the '68 Charger:
Sex in Steel.  A truly pinnacle moment in design history, and a real tour de force from Dodge. (Put up your Dukes.)

It's Postmodernism again, but about 40 years behind most other design fields.  My feeling is that automobile design, less so than the design of small electronics and motorcycles, but more than most others, values so very highly the appearance of newness.

So now that they've opened the door to historical forms, and it's no longer novel, it becomes a question of which historical forms they choose, from what time period, from what model, and in what combination they use them.  It's an exciting moment, in fact, because we're witnessing the birth of automobile design coming into its own as a formal language.

I do sort of wish they'd taken some '60s/ '70s cues for the interiors, as well, but I'm not complaining:

©2008, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Starck Raving Mad

I'm sorry, but seriously?  The Die Zeit interview really makes Philippe Starck sound like a complete idiot.

First of all, what exactly have you been doing these past 40 years???

Secondly, maybe your work was purely formalistic, lacking any kind of substance.  Don't try to tell me there aren't designers out there whose work does have substance.

Thirdly, maybe it's not that Design is dead, but rather that you've played out your inspiration and have nothing new to offer.  Don't go blaming Design for that, there are still plenty of people out there doing incredibly innovative work.

In general, I no longer buy all this "there is nothing new" nonsense.  If you really look at history that way, then there's been nothing truly new in Art or Design for about the past 2500 years.  It's a completely meaningless argument that adds nothing worthwhile whatsoever to discourse on the visual arts.  Furthermore, every time there are technological advancements, they advance the visual arts and the subjects and issues they express.

Obviously, I have a lot personally invested in Art & Design.  If I didn't, this blog wouldn't even exist.  Therefore, if I cared what he thinks, I might be inclined to find his comments personally insulting.  What have I been doing for the past 20 years, if it's all "unnecessary?"  Well, I have my own motives that I won't bore you by explaining, deeply rooted in my own personality and drive.

I have profound respect for the builders of the animal kingdom--the bees, beavers, and birds.  The simplicity, efficiency, and economy of their work has an elegance unmatched by human artisans, who get far too bogged down in their own self-consciousness and egotism.  But any halfway complex computer modeling program, with the right parameters entered, can come to the most efficient solution.  Efficiency is not why I'm in this field, nor is efficiency Art.

What sets human creations apart is our ability to anthropomorphize inanimate objects--our tools, accoutrements, environments--and imbue them with a sense of beauty.  That's our gift.  We have the ability to make our world a more beautiful, intriguing, and delightful place to be, and contemplate and debate what we've done or can do to make it so and why.

I can think of few things less "unnecessary," from my perspective, anyway.  In fact, there are enough reasons to consider how humans suck; I'd like to think there are some positive things about our species, too.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Friday, April 18, 2008

In the Pink

Okay, this is truly one of the weirdest things I've seen built in a long time, Julian Schnabel's Palazzo Chupi:

I guess it's not all that weird in and of itself, what's really bizarre is that it was built in New York; it's in the far West Village:

I suppose there's a certain appeal in its Exoticism, and I can't say I'd easily turn down one of those huge balconies/terraces, but I'll also always be a huge proponent of contextual appropriateness, of which this building has absolutely none.

Now, obviously, my own interest is in all the Arts, across the board.  Having said that, I'm still tempted to wonder if someone more focused on Architecture, alone--not just dabbling in every discipline he can get his grubby fingers into like Schnabel--would've been able to apply an Indian aesthetic in a way that was more cohesive with the surrounding city.  In other words, interpret it in a way that it makes more visual sense in the West Village, rather than looking an organized mess.

The interiors (images courtesy of have even more problems.

Don't get me wrong, I love the clean, sparse detailing in sort of ancient, rustic materials.  I'm also very into the ginormous fireplace (another thing I'd love to have, in addition to the terrace).  I've always loved the fireplace in the Great Hall of Charles Foster Kane's house; you could literally walk into it.  But it struck me when I included the sensation produced by the bathroom:

Now, summer's coming, and let me tell you, I've always imagined how glorious it would be to take a nice long bath on a warm, breezy summer Sunday afternoon with the French doors wide open to a balcony (minus a huge apartment building directly across the street, obviously).  Even more wonderful if that were a giant hot tub.

However, the aesthetic he's drawing from has developed over many centuries specifically for a ridiculously hot, humid climate.  Just imagine those interiors on a dark, wintry night in New York with freezing rain beating against the windows.  Of course your apartment wouldn't be physically cold, and the fire could be blazing away.  The point is, the rooms just seem cold. 

And what the hell is going on with this kitchen?

UGH.  As I already said, I get the idea of clean, modern forms executed in sort of rustic materials, but this is awful.  It looks like the kitchen in somebody's run down 1970s-era summer cabin by a lake somewhere...and not in a good way.  There were so many different ways to make this opulent without being flashy about it, clean but on the same par with the rest of the apartment and justify the multimillion-dollar price tag.  Schnabel missed them all.

Along similar lines, I'm really disturbed by the half-assed detailing on the windows:

You can see this in the living room image, too.  That window molding is nothing more than a ridiculous gimmick.  As much as you're no doubt going to pay for this behemoth, there is absolutely no excuse for awkwardly stuffing a paned window up under that scalloped arch like that.  These windows should be custom-made to follow the contours of the arch, or they shouldn't be there at all.  

The only other solution I'd be satisfied with is one solid pane of glass with no frames, to give the illusion of an open arch onto the terrace.  The whole pane of glass could very easily be a sliding door, hiding over inside the wall, so it actually could be an open arch in the summer.  I suspect like much of the architecture in those ancient and hotter parts of the world, traditionally they wouldn't have had glass windows anyway, except on the finer palaces of the last few centuries.

Listen, if you want to buy me one of these apartments as a gift, I encourage you whole-heartedly to do so, but there's no way I'd pay my own money for one, even if I had it.  Nonetheless, I do find the whole project extremely intriguing.

Palazzo Chupi, Julian Schnabel (2008)
West 11th Street

©2008, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

True Grit


Another one of my votes this year goes to Jeep, and I shall explain why.

For some time now, Hummer has held the title of the ultimate urban status symbol, sort of like an SUV on crack, and much more macho than an Escalade.

But Hummers are expensive, guzzle gas like a fiend, and are totally uncomfortable and unwieldy on normal streets.  That is, unless you get one of the super fancy models with the DVD players and all that.  Personally, I think that's just ridiculous, like putting make-up and a lacy dress on a body-builder.  What's the point?  You just canceled out everything that's cool about a Hummer in the first place.

Jeep, on the other hand, has all the military cache of a Hummer, but it's infinitely more realistic and drivable as an everyday vehicle.  Their current models have a little bit of love-handles and secretary spread, unfortunately, but if they play their cards right, they could have a seriously cool-ass line of sport vehicles in a few years.  

Here's the Hurricane from 2005:
This has everything a Hummer does, it's utterly tough, rugged, and musclebound, but at the same time, it's compact and smart.  "Agile" doesn't even scratch the surface of its maneuverability, either:

It can turn around in one spot.  Come on, now.  That's freaking COOL.  This thing could maneuver around a Hummer like a Jack Russell around an overweight St. Bernard.

But for 2008, they showed the Renegade:

This is sweet.  It manages to look clean and slick and streamlined, but still has sinew and guts to it, and the pared-down no-nonsense grille is just classic.  It's all you need.  It looks like it could roll over a couple times and not even stop to catch its breath.  The interior is real sharp and smooth, too:

I really do hope they decide to continue in this direction.

©2007, Ryan Witte

Monday, April 14, 2008

Luscious Lacquer

Here's some really great work from a company called
Alexander Tjarko, based in New York and San Francisco.  The name comes from the two guys who operate it, Alexander and Tjarko.

Each of the pieces can have up to 30 layers of lacquer, and each layer can take up to five days to dry, so it's an extremely time-intensive process.  The execution of them is carried out by artisans and craftspeople in Southeast Asia, so they're supporting a generations-old economy there, which I think is quite noble.

Beautiful in their simplicity are these teak bowls and vases:

They also offer them in black and a dark chocolate brown, but for some reason I thought the vermillion and emerald were the most stunning, I think because the colors are more organic, contrast with the raw wood in a more striking way, and yet are still so very rich.

What really grabbed me at the show, though, were these manuscript boxes, "Rip in Time":

I really love how it's a pattern that hints at something so ancient and traditional, but they've updated it, abstracted it, and sort of modernized it.  It also makes the pieces a bit more appealing if your home isn't decorated in a Souteast Asian motif.

Many layers of the base color are applied.  The pattern is etched into this, and then the second color is applied.  The lacquer fills in the etches, and before it dries, it's wiped off the top surface, leaving behind the second color in the valleys.

Here's "Rajput":

I'd love to see them start working with really complex, computer-generated patterns, to take the modern reinterpretation of an ancient craft even further, but they're really beautiful.  Examining them in person, it's fairly obvious the craftsmanship is absolutely top-notch.

They keep plenty of items in stock, but most of the pieces include a note that custom sizes, colors, and so on are readily available.  Although because the work is so intensive, turn-around times on custom pieces can be up to five months.  Worth it, perhaps, for an heirloom object.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Friday, April 11, 2008

You've Got Mail

I didn't really post anything about the Whitney Biennial, because overall, I wasn't all that terribly impressed. Most of it was extremely low-tech, about everyday building materials and our use and waste of them in pieces that weren't particularly striking, and occasionally downright ugly--purposely so, and with poignant affect, but nonetheless unpleasant to look at.

This work by Walead Beshty, however was some of the most interesting this year, and this also gives me an opportunity to point out that Whitney is now broadcasting on YouTube. I think it's an interesting idea, and it looks like the videos are pretty fun.

Mostly it was the shatterproof glass boxes that I loved. Just now, I was struck by the idea of insuring these packages. You'd have the reverse problem here, because if the contents get damaged, they actually accrue higher value. Technically speaking, the artist would owe FedEx money for damaging the boxes. I don't think anyone would really expect FedEx to be careful enough with any package to send unprotected glass through the mail, but it certainly is a good record of to what our packages are normally subjected.

It also kind of put a smile on my face that the address labels on the boxes are to the Whitney Biennial. In other words, it's the very fact of them arriving in that gallery, in and of itself, that gives them their form. In a way, it's kind of like an installation piece, because its existence depends upon the location of its display (there were actually a couple of works that referenced their own appearance at the Biennial, which I thought was wonderfully, self-consciously reflective). But as he points out, they could be sent anywhere and acquire more patterns in the shattered glass.

There's also something very interesting in what he mentions about how FedEx owns this particular enclosure of space in the box size and shape. And one might think that the space inside that box belongs to the sender/receiver of the package. But it doesn't entirely. In fact, FedEx, it would seem, has rights to about a half-inch inside the box, as well. They're forgiven for intruding inside the box, into the content of the box; if they weren't, the glass couldn't have been broken, and further, the artist relies upon them doing it in order to create the piece.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Different Road


One of my votes this year is for Lincoln.  Often enough Cadillac's less-attractive twin brother, they have at times held their own over the years.  I personally love some of the high, sharp, boxy things they did in the 1970s when Cadillac was getting progressively less regal.  

I definitely can't say this was one of the most beautiful of the concept cars.  But all the major manufacturers seem to more or less go in the same stylistic directions.  This year: imposing, muscular front-ends that look angry and mean.

Lincoln's offering really stood apart from them, though, with a look that I found to be quite distinctive, and that's what I liked about it.  This is the MKT Concept:

There's something about the back-end profile that looks peculiarly Lincoln to me, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

It can run on either gasoline or ethanol, and can switch back and forth, but gets 415hp, fairly impressive.

The interior is quite suave, as well, with beautiful swooping lines and extremely interesting detailing.  It has an almost entirely glass roof back to about midway of the back seat (which seems disturbingly dangerous to me, but what do I know):

If you click and look very closely at that second image, you may see this really interesting Baroque detail etched into the door-handles.  That screen behind the front passenger seat at the press of a button swivels up around and hides in the ceiling.  There are cameras aimed at all the passengers for video conferencing.

©2008, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Cozy Consumer

Here's another amazing item from Citizen:Citizen.

Click this:

"The American Comfort Quilt" by Bradley Price & Joel Yatscoff

From their press release:

This handmade art piece, a limited series of ten, includes 58 logos of mass-market retailers, fast food chains and other corporations that participate in the creation of the contemporary North American identity and condition. Iconic North American brands such as these give us both comfort and identity, yet we feel ambivalent or even negative toward their hegemony over our cultural and economic landscape. It is the problematic balance between familiarity and alienation which this quilt seeks to examine.

With today’s increasingly fractured social fabric, it is now brands that give us a feeling of collective identity, heritage, and continuity, gradually taking over the role that family and cultural heritage once held. Our identities are no longer defined by our ancestors and our traditions so much as by multinational corporations who shape our personas through advertising and product placement. The traditional American quilt serves as a living family document, surrounding us both physically and emotionally with the events and the people who came before us. This quilt forces us to question the cultural legacy we are passing along to the next generation.

Joel Yatscoff states, “…this is a very topical product that questions the effects of consumerism in North America. We were very interested in playing with the dichotomy between the comfort and suspicions brands produce. Throughout North American history, quilts have had a tradition of stitching together family history so it seemed to us a natural medium to document these shifting cultural values.”

Ryan Witte

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Industry Booms


Ghislain Antiques is based out of Saint-Ouen (about 100 miles southwest of Paris), but also has a shop in Stamford, CT.

Overall, they seem to specialize in big, beefy antiques, like big, soft, brown leather club chairs, or this Henry II table:

But more interesting is the majority of their finds seems to be taken from old factories and warehouses, and has an extremely industrial kind of aesthetic.  Here's a low, early-20th-Century table which would make a great coffee table:

These kinds of items have obviously proven popular, and I can see why, myself--I think that's ridiculously cool (although in my NYC apartment, I'd need something a little bit more light and airy--or at least easier to move around).

The representative at the booth was explaining to me, though, that many of the trappings of a present day home can't really be found in a century-old factory.  They'd have no reason to have bookshelves in an environment like that, he pointed out to me, motioning to this piece behind him:
So that's a new piece.  They have a whole selection of pieces in steel to fill in this gap, but still look like they once lived in an old factory building.  

Here's a new coffee table in that vein:
And here's a new dining table and chairs:
The table may not be for everyone, and I'd even suggest an entire room furnished this way could get a bit oppressive.  But as I've often said elsewhere, with a few light, delicate items mixed in for contrast and relief, I think this could be gorgeously dramatic, so robust, and at the same time, wonderfully unpretentious.  With a table hinting at being a factory work-surface, one wonders if dinner guests would begin to work as a well-oiled team--more efficiently passing the mashed potatoes and green beans.

The chairs are a bit problematic, because they're extremely heavy.  Especially if you're sitting on a rug, you're not going to be able to stand up and just bump the chair out from underneath you with your legs, in fact, it probably wouldn't even budge.  They're not going to treat an antique rug all that kindly, and they'd likely scratch the you-know-what out of a fine wood floor.  I asked the designer if he'd ever thought to use aluminum, thinking he could get essentially the same look at half the weight or so.  He said no, because it's not strong enough of a metal, but I still believe a few adjustments in the design to accommodate a lighter material would make these much more practical.  Nevertheless, the chairs are very comfortable to sit on, and I adore the look of them.

As far as the shelving goes, at first glance one might be inclined to think a collection of fine glassware or heirloom pottery would be served a great injustice arranged on here:
I propose exactly the opposite.  First of all, the very delicacy and detail of such a collection would be set into such sharp contrast in a piece like this that their refinement would stand out far more than on some fussy carved wooden china cabinet.  On top of that, the aesthetic of these pieces calls attention to manufacturing, which would highlight the very craft of the pieces on display--why I chose to use hand-thrown pottery as an example.  Subconsciously, the shelving would make a visitor much more aware of how the pieces on it were created.

©2008, Ryan Witte