Friday, June 26, 2009

Circle of Firsts

To finish off my discussion of this year's BKLYN DESIGNS show is a designer I've posted about before, Takeshi Miyakawa. He was showing a number of new pieces that were all very cool. The one I wanted to talk about, though, is a sort of shelving installation piece called "Rite of Spring":
Click for larger.

The more I continue to study the History of Music over the past 500 years, the more I grow to see just how very few true revolutions there have been. Igor Stravinsky's 1913 ballet was, I believe, one of them. To this day, I can't listen to this masterpiece without chills running from my head to my toes and having a difficult time breathing. Not that what he did to music came out of nowhere, quite the contrary, but I consider this piece to the the birth of Punk. Certainly many more things would have to have happened before 1976 would be possible. But the power that music has to not only rile its audience to emotional heights, but to also scandalize the listener into a profound, riotous fury was suddenly proven by The Rite of Spring. After this point, it would happen over and over. This reconstruction of the original ballet also shows the unbridled genius of Sergei Diaghilev:
One can only hope and pray that for the hundredth anniversary of The Rite of Spring four years from now, New York City Ballet, arguably the step-grandchild of Diaghilev's Ballet Russes, will gather together all the greatest artists at its disposal and unveil a startling new production of it.

I think what I love most about Miyakawa's work is that, whether or not it does explore complex mathematical principles precisely, it often looks like it does.
And with a mystical kind of reverence for mathematics: there's the spot in the middle of the upper and lower sections where the box resulting from the steadily diminishing size has just...disappeared. It's as if the formula dictating the size of the boxes eventually divides down to zero, leaving an empty space where the box should be in the center. It's the same reverence one might have for how a circle, in some ways the most perfectly self-contained of all geometric shapes, gives rise to Pi, which is presumably unsolvable and infinite.

Although this new piece is stunning, I think I'd like to see Miyakawa push this a step further and start exploring more complex geometries. For instance, I'd be interested to look at the ways that nature uses geometric rules with the flexibility to produce similar but only ever utterly unique individual objects and organisms, or explore geometries that appear chaotic from one vantage point and very strictly ordered from another. Nevertheless, this is a designer whose work I believe is going in a very exciting direction, and I intend to keep my eye on what he's up to.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Amped Up


Another thing to be excited about was at the booth for Chevrolet, and no, I don't mean that Bumblebee made an appearance to introduce the Camaro.
Although that was very exciting.

It was really their introduction of an ostensibly viable electric car, which they claim is officially going into production for 2011, the Volt. Here it is as a concept vehicle:

This is a seriously hot car. Why they felt the need to bash it with an ugly stick before putting it into production, I have no idea. Here's what they had at the auto show:

Don't get me wrong, it's not that bad. But it just doesn't have the boldness or confidence of the concept version.

Here's the thing: car design generally wallows in this luke-warm stylistic middle ground. In the one direction, you have the design of, say, Japanese motorcycles, which have consistently had some of the most mind-boggling design of any kind of object. The distinction I'm making with the Japanese offerings is from the Harley-Davidson sort of American cruising bikes, which, though gorgeous, are a completely different animal. But the motifs of motorcycle design not only have to connote high technology, power, and speed, but their design has something even on the sports cars, in that it also speaks much more of adrenaline-soaked rebelliousness. So all the elements of their design are pushed to the most radical extreme. Cars, however, are typically more expensive, more of an investment, more of a risk, and are purchased for quite a few reasons other than weekend jaunts out on the highway. Their design, therefore, has to be safer and appeal to a much lower common denominator.

In the other direction, there's an art form like architecture. Architecture has to be ridiculously safe because, unlike cars which would seem to have a stylistic shelf-life of around five years, buildings need to stand and remain more or less relevant for as long as thirty years, in most cases much longer. But buildings, first of all, are just iconic inherently, due to their sheer size. Secondly, because they do typically have such a long lifespan, there's a responsibility for them to be beautiful, even if boringly so. This is why the ugliest architecture arises from situations where there's neither the need for personal or institutional identity (like suburban tract housing that has to appeal universally to the broadest section of potential buyers, or the offices of companies for which corporate branding is largely unimportant), nor the likelihood of required longevity (mid-size companies enjoying steady growth that expect to move to a more profitable or respectable location or physically outgrow their current building before it becomes obsolete).

Mass-produced, moderately-priced automobiles seem to be able to fully enjoy none of the phenomena that facilitate design innovation in other products. It's unfortunately much more restricted.

In any case, I'm still very happy the Volt is becoming a reality, whatever it looks like. I mean, for how many years have vehicles in Science Fiction movies been making that electric humming noise? Thirty? It's true GM had come out with the first electric car, the EV1, years ago and it got dumped, but luckily I think the timing is a great deal better now for this to finally take off.

It was Chevy's booth rep on the Volt turntable, in fact, who I asked what difference it makes that your car is electric if your home's power supplier burns fossil fuels, and she didn't seem to have a very good answer for me. If you drive only forty miles at a time, though, you'll never need a single drop of gasoline. The Volt does have a combustion motor, but it's not a hybrid engine. Instead, the gas powered motor is a back up, running a generator to recharge the battery if you exceed the forty-mile limit. It seems to me that it would be strangely inefficient to burn gas to run a generator to recharge the battery to power the electric motor to move the car, rather than just having a hybrid engine, but I suppose the difference is that for the first leg of a journey, you're not burning any gas, at all. And the fact remains that before recharging stations become commonplace, fears of being stranded with a dead battery will be a major hindrance to the success of electric cars.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, June 22, 2009

Wooden Chew?

As every year, Vancouver's Straight Line Designs had even more ridiculously fun pieces to show. I honestly don't know how or where designer Judson Beaumont gets his ideas, but they just never seem to stop coming.

Right out in front was his "Beaver" cabinet:
Clearly, it's been gnawed on by a beaver or two.
You know, the bees are pretty impressive, but beavers don't get nearly enough credit. They really are the civil engineers of the animal kingdom. I mean, that's seriously cool that a rodent evolved to build dams, canals, and lodges.

They were also showing this dresser, which I thought was terribly clever already as a place to store clothes:
But then the booth rep told me what it was called and the light bulb lit up over my head: "Little Black Dresser." Get it? I think it's hilarious.

Not at the show, but on the website I noticed this piece which I'd not seen before, which is also very cool, the "Marionette" dresser:
The name of it is fairly obvious, but I also think there's something wonderfully, playfully surreal about a piece of furniture floating in mid-air without touching the floor. I love it. And this is another piece that I think could add whimsy to anyone's bedroom; that is to say, I don't think this absolutely has to be in a kid's room. But maybe that's my own inner-child typing.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Pei It Forward

This past Tuesday, I went to hear a great tour sponsored by Docomomo about University Plaza, also known as Silver Towers, in honor of their being designated a city landmark. It was led by historian Matt Postal, who helped write up the designation report.
Click to enlarge.
--All Silver Towers photos ©2009, Ryan Witte.
It was freezing cold out for June, but luckily it happened to be this thirty-seven second window of time where the sun decided to peek out before the monsoon rains started back up again. On my way over to the starting point in front of Philip Johnson's Bobst Library, I realize that I had been inside Silver Towers before. Back when I was going to Parson's I became friends for a brief time with a fellow student whose father I think was a professor at NYU. It was at their apartment that I first saw a few scenes of Barbarella: Queen of the Galaxy, beginning my life-long love affair with that film.
Don't ask me why on earth I remember that. But I'm extremely glad the plan was scrapped to do a remake of it. There's absolutely no way anyone could ever hope to improve on the original masterpiece. Coincidentally, Silver Towers were completed one year before Barbarella, in 1967. The office of I. M. Pei got the job, but it was James Ingo Freed who designed them. Postal first discussed how the whole thing came to be, and as with anything of this size during that time period, it was of course Robert Moses who cleared the land in an effort to "clean up" the neighborhood. The first buildings to go up were Washington Square Village by Paul Lester Weiner in 1958.

Weiner worked with Le Corbusier for some time, and I suppose in 1958 they might have looked kind of cool. Honestly I don't think they've aged very well. They look a little bit too much like a tacky airport Holiday Inn for my taste. Somewhere along the way for mysterious reasons the developer abandoned this project--there was supposed to be a third building--and the land where Silver Towers ended up was transferred to NYU. They really are stunning and fully deserve their landmark status.

Postal said they all went up together, because the construction teams would do one floor on one tower one day, then do the same floor on the next tower the next day, around and around until they were finished. This also allowed the concrete time to dry. The structure is made up of T-shaped slabs of concrete, which you can see if you click one of those images.

Pablo Picasso's Portrait of Sylvette (original maquette 1954) stands outside, in the middle of the three towers, which are arranged in a pinwheel formation around the central square.
Evidently it's Picasso's only public sculpture in New York City.
Lydia Sylvette David was his muse for a while, she was gorgeous and only nineteen, and I'm sure he tortured her.
--Photo courtesy Academy of Neuroscience.
Oh, and get this. She was allegedly the inspiration for Brigitte Bardot's character in ...And God Created Woman by Roger Vadim, who directed Barbarella. How weird is that?

Anyhow, one of the things that really sold me on going on the tour--before I realized I'd already been inside one of the buildings all those years ago--was access granted to two of the apartments, one of which has a mostly intact kitchen. I didn't bother to take pictures because the interiors are more or less just plain white boxes with practically no ornamentation at all. The great thing about the kitchen, though, was that the aluminum detailing on the kitchen cabinets had the exact same profile as the columns on the front of the building. Nonetheless, it did offer a chance to get some wonderful views out the extremely dirty windows.
Those of us on the tour had a few kind of funny discussions about how dirty the windows were and why, and how one might ever be able to clean them. It wouldn't be terribly easy, we determined, but for sure someone needs to get a squeegee up there and do something about it.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Friday, June 19, 2009

Uncommonly Sustainable

I actually saw the nice folks from UM at both BKLYN DESIGNS and the ICFF. Designer Fran├žois Chambard spotted me at the ICFF before I even noticed their booth and came over, quite graciously, to say hello. I'm fairly certain it was UM's other designer, Colgate Searle, who introduced me to their new piece at BD, however. It's the "C-Beam" table:
It's UM's serious answer to our ecological crisis; it uses all green and recycled materials. But they wanted to get away from the very earthy-crunchy appearance most new green products seen to have, and instead do something more sleek, colorful, and finished. The top is linoleum, which is, in fact, a green product. It was invented in 1860, long before there was any such thing as petrochemistry. When Searle told me what it was, I said "the original recipe?" Nowadays most of what we think of as being linoleum is PVC, which is entirely toxic as many people know. True linoleum, what UM has used, is solidified linseed oil and perfectly sustainable. The structure of their table is mostly MDF, and the legs are cut from a single aluminum beam. Here it is with the aluminum exposed and a red top surface:

As always with UM's work, the detailing is impeccable. With this table, it's the way the legs emerge up through the table top.
Bear in mind that each layer of the "sandwich" has to be cut precisely to accept this protrusion. It draws attention to the design and manufacturing process beautifully and subtly. It makes what might at first glance appear to be a typical kitchen table into a far more interesting piece.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Little Things Mean a Lot

To wrap up my discussion of the Architectural Digest show, I'm going to kind of go full-circle. I had talked about Brad Ascalon when I started, and it seems he's also collaborating with designer, Angel Naula for Brooklyn's Naula Workshop. They had a large and beautiful booth at the show, and I spoke with Ascalon about this project. The two only met less than a year ago, but they started talking and realized they had much the same vision in mind for what they could do. Naula's custom furniture shop was already going strong, mostly taking commissions from local interior designers. Ascalon was working with high-end furniture companies on an international scale, but without much hands-on contact with the overseas manufacturing of his pieces. They decided to pool their talents and rebrand as Naula Workshop.

Unveiled at the show was a sophisticated custom line of furnishings. The work is extremely classy and interesting. Each piece has a distinct character, but there is a stylistic thread that ties them together. There's nothing terribly ostentatious about the work, but it is quite refined, and the impeccable craftsmanship is obvious almost immediately.

I think it was first clear to me looking at the "Station" sectional sofa:
It's a really wonderful, vaguely mid-century profile, upholstered in a perfect grayish-chocolate-brown fabric, but the wonderful detailing is in its black leather buttons and piping:
So these pieces show the stylistic direction Naula Workshop is going, giving one a starting point, but all the pieces are custom made to order. Their turn around time is remarkably quick; it's only about six weeks. Here's a similar loveseat in gray:

Possibly the most impressive thing on display at the show was their "Plaza" bed, which is really stunning:
So simple but so dramatic, it could instantly become the focal point of any bedroom.

I think my favorite pieces, though, were the "Plus" dining set:
Now the profiles are exquisite. There's a certain casual, eat-in-kitchen sensibility to the lines, but the materials are rich, warm, and classy. And again, it's in the details. The wood is walnut with black stained oak inlays. So look at how the inlay matches up perfectly to be continued in the stitching of the upholstery:
For my money, it's subtle little moments like these that prove without doubt these people know exactly what they're doing.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, June 15, 2009

Out on the Streets


I definitely think that, hands down, the coolest booth at the show this year was for Scion. They also happened to have the only snottiest booth representative:

RW: Do you have any literature or anything about the IQ?

Snotty Booth Rep: Well, no, but you can find info on the website,

RW: Oh, that's cool. Is there something here with the web address on it? ~looks~

SBR: It's, you can't remember

No, snotrag. With six trade shows in two months and 5000 things to remember from each of them, I need something to remind me of web addresses. Kindly lose the attitude.

Nonetheless, the music was as hot as the vehicles and nice and loud and fun. Their website is really well designed--rolling over buttons sounds like parts of a techno song. And their catalogue is really cool, too; all the custom accessories are stickers that you can pick and choose and stick onto a centerfold spread of the different cockpits.

So here's the new IQ:
The video of the unveiling is pretty funny in a tragically-hip sort of way, but they're really stressing customization, and I'm totally on board with this. I think they have succeeded in making a cost-effective, fuel-efficient minicar compatible with Urban Cool. Now I have no idea if this is taking off with the gangstas, because I don't really travel in those circles (I'm very, very white), but I would not be all that surprised if their marketing worked and all the more impressively in the current bigger-is-better climate of Navigators, Escalades, and Hummers. The lines of the IQ are also far more imposing and aggressive than the cutesy-poo little Smart--and one has to wonder if the similarity of the name isn't completely intentional.

Scion's Hako Coupe Concept is equally awesome:

Even in the concept, you can see how it already looks like somebody took a 2012 Saab into a Compton chopshop and told them to give it some rabid muscle. The interior is also sick:
Even the ceiling has great style, the moonroof is cut into strips:

Drawing further attention to customization at the show was this incredible rebuild, the Ruthless Cartel XD by Drag Cartel:
Click images for larger views.

This thing is freaking pimped out. And I've offended even myself by using a term like "pimped" on this blog, but there really is no better way to describe it. Just look at the interior: These subwoofers could probably shatter your neighbors' windows:
If that weren't enough, it has six...SIX amps--in the most gorgeous tiered stack in case you didn't immediately notice how many of them there are:
Of course, I'd despise this sound system if it belonged to my neighbor but absolutely love it if I were the one driving and choosing the music. I'd also get a huge kick out of driving around playing, like, Kraftwerk at deafening decibels instead of hip-hop. The irony would be delicious. For Scion's presentation, especially considering that they had such great music playing fairly loudly, they definitely should have arranged it with the owner of the XD to use the sound system in his/her car for the whole booth (I'm 99.99% certain the owner is a guy and probably 5'2" with a debilitating Napoleon complex, but--you know--political correctness and all). It would've made this monster all the more impressive.

What's more, I don't know how many mainstream industrial designers really watch what goes on in the world of customized cars, but there is no question in my mind that car design could as much trickle up from the streets as it does trickle down from deep inside the insular bellies of the big manufacturers.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


It's sort of unusual for me to walk into and explore a booth like the one for Inflate, but I'm glad I did. The ambience they'd created was immediately palpable. This isn't their ICFF booth, that was a cube, but you can get an idea. It had a loungey sort of feel to it like this:
They're basically inflatable temporary structures and can be used for any number of different applications, although I immediately saw it on the beach, for some reason. I soon realized that since the walls are quilted--for structural reasons, no doubt--that it feels like you're inside upholstery. It just gave me a very warm, comforting feeling being inside their booth.

It was also a darker color inside, which I think helped it feel more moody and calm. In white, though, it's obvious there are some very cool lighting effects one could achieve from inside or out. 

The one at their booth also didn't have a ceiling/roof, which they said they prefer in indoor settings where the elements aren't a concern, so it feels less boxed-in. Although a bit heavy, it can be folded down extremely small for storage or transport, and to set it up, basically all you need is a blower. No tent pegs or mallets or tie cords or complicated assembly instructions. You just turn on the blower and it pretty much erects itself.

One application they mention for "Luna" is a temporary bar, easy to envision, this is the set up for a fashion show:
But they also have models for much larger events, like outdoor wedding receptions and so on. Any situation where you might need a tent, you can much more easily use one of their inflatable structures. There are a lot of wonderful creative, performance, exhibition, and special event possibilities here. They can also be custom branded.

I was especially intrigued by their "Turtle" line, which is a series of modules of various shapes and sizes, shelters and hubs that can be fitted together to create a suite of spaces in any configuration you need:
The darker sections are flexible but more durable tubing for better structural integrity and to avoid wear and tear.

©2009, Ryan Witte