Monday, April 27, 2009

Small Wonder

Not only is this the busiest time of the year for me in a when it rains, it pours sort of way--and I'm definitely not complaining with the economy the way it is--but I also have a zillion things to post about here. There's no way I'll get it all covered by the time the BKLYN DESIGNS show rolls around and adds more to the pile. That's coming up May 8th through the 10th. In any case, I'll try to keep updating here as regularly as possible.

In addition to the Architectural Digest show, from which I still have more to tell you about, I also went to the New York International Auto Show, as I do every year. I'd like to introduce those posts now, and perhaps keep switching around. It will keep the blog as fresh and exciting as it always has been.

Let me first say that I really love the big trucks and always look closely at them. The styling of trucks is a whole branch of industrial design unto itself. The mid-size sedans are sort of the anti-truck, and while the sports cars do need to speak of muscle, they also have to be impeccably streamlined and connote speed. The design of trucks is all about raw, unadulterated power and pure toughness. When their design captures this, it can be truly breathtaking, even pleasantly intimidating.

Having said that, I've grown to feel the same about the big trucks and SUVs as I do about fur coats. People who own fur coats who don't live someplace that could reasonably be expected to get down to fifteen below zero now and then make me sick, and wearing one in NYC in early spring just so you can feel fancy (I've seen it) makes me want to puke all over you. In this day and age, the way we've come to understand our planet, economy, and political climate, unless you work on a farm, own a landscaping company, or live at the end of a dirt road that gets four feet of snow every winter, you have absolutely no business driving around in a monster truck. It's completely irresponsible, unnecessary, and to risk being crass, having a smaller than average you-know-what is not a valid excuse for destroying the planet for the rest of us. I'm very sorry about your feelings of inadequacy, but...get a pump.

The funny side to this, though, and kind of embarrassingly ironic, as well, is that this is one of my dream cars:

It's the 1973 Cadillac Fleetwood. I want mine in that very '70s kind of copper penny color...maybe white leather interior. The 1975 Fleetwood was the longest regular production car ever produced--it was like twenty-five feet long or something outrageous. There's just something so disturbingly over-the-top about it, that 1970s American arrogance that also built the Twin Towers; I just love it. The '73 was a little bit shorter, very likely still bigger than anything else on the road at the time, but I like its lines much better than the '75. I realized I was actually going to have to measure the depth of my mom's garage to see if I could even store it there. The attraction is that I love me a good road trip, and this thing is more than just a Road Trip Mobile, it's fully like a living room on wheels. Awesome. Anyway, maybe if I ever get one I can have it converted to burn hydrogen fuel so I don't have to feel so guilty...or spend $150 every trip to the gas station.

The point of all this is that this time at the auto show, my eyes were much more focused on the smaller and more energy efficient offerings. Each year there seems to be one or two more than the year before, tiny steps toward the goal of releasing us from the bonds of gasoline. We have to do it. And I think we have to really get with it, because as it is, the US manufacturers are already coughing on some of the early dust kicked up in the wake of the foreign companies.

The one that has probably already come to most people's minds is Smart:
I love this glamour shot, too, because the Statue of Liberty makes a very European-sized vehicle look oh, so American, and the statue, like the Smart, was a gift from France. I have been seeing more and more of these around on the streets, too. I think NYC, unlike some other cities, is well-poised to embrace something that can be parked in a space normally available only to motorcycles. You could probably park two of these in the space taken up by my Cadillac, and I'm betting that you'd also fit nicely in a lot of those just a little too close to the hydrant spots we're always passing up for fear of a trip to the impound lot (I've been with a friend, it's no picnic).
It gets 41mpg on the highway, making it "the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid gasoline powered vehicle in the United States," according to their brochure. It also emits 50% less pollutants than an ordinary vehicle, which is nice to hear.

The concern, unfortunately, is safety. I was talking to a friend of mine about this, and we debated whether it might actually be safer because of its size. The idea we discussed was that you're sort of encased inside a pod, which should be structurally far more sound than a much bigger box, with so many more sides and beams and panels and joints and weaknesses. Structurally it would seem, the best thing you could be inside of is a steel sphere.

The problem, though, is that the Smart is so lightweight. A recent New York Times article discussed this at length, after tests showed damage from three of these minicars being hit by larger, mid-sized models by the same three manufacturers. With both vehicles traveling at 40mph in a head-on collision, the tiny ones basically bounce backwards, like a baseball being hit by a bat. Not very comforting.

I don't have the statistics, but I suspect that head-on collisions are far less common in NYC than, say, side-impact ones or fender-benders. I also don't think it would be as huge of a problem (in the sense that no one wants to be in a car accident, no matter what you're driving--unless you're a character in Crash who has a fetish for it), if your minicar weren't at risk of rolling and bouncing down the road like a rubber ball. My feeling is that if you want to maintain structural integrity and discourage rolling, the best shape would be a pyramid with four triangular sides. In any case, I fear this size of vehicle may never really take off in parts of the country with a lot of high-speed, highway commuting. There, perhaps bulkier but comparably lightweight cars are an acceptable solution.

I still applaud their marketing efforts. Highway-riddled American sprawl is not Smart's fault and needs to be tackled by New Urbanists and an effective, comprehensive reevaluation of our zoning laws. That also takes a lot longer to take effect. In the meantime, we can start by doing our own individual parts in the equation by purchasing more intelligently.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, April 20, 2009

Tube, Birds, With One Stone (Plinth)

I'd known of BDDW for a while, but I was kind of impressed by their booth this year. They seem to have branched out a bit and their aesthetic is becoming more complete and very interesting. Their store is in SoHo, but evidently their pieces are all made in Philadelphia. They were one of number of interesting designers from Philly, and their rep was saying that there's a community of younger furniture designers there that kind of reminded me of Brooklyn.

I'm not going to talk much about the individual pieces, because they're really extremely minimal. Many of them approach an even exaggerated sort of Shaker austerity, in fact. Please don't mistake that for disinterest. I realize that putting together a lot of the work I discuss on here, one could get the impression that if I were to design an interior for you, it would look like some kind of abandoned, haunted toy factory in outer space.

Quite the contrary, I find those kind of pieces bold and fascinating, but they require a truly keen eye to use them to great success. It's the work of a group like BDDW that could be the real backbone of an interior. Furthermore, it's not so much in the individual pieces, but when you see them all together that their aesthetic blossoms into something really fantastic. Here are some of the ensemble shots:

Really stunning: sparse, uncomplicated, and unpretentious, with a warm, natural feeling to it at the same time. All the pieces work together so beautifully.

One of the things that really fascinated me this year was their clocks:

The clocks use what are called Nixie Tubes, developed in 1954. The name comes from "NIX I" which stood for "Numeric Indicator eXperiment No. 1." It's a small spherical glass tube of mostly neon with ten individual cathodes for the numerals 0 to 9 stacked one on top of the next. So as you watch the numbers change, you can actually see them receding deeper into the tube. 
So extremely cool.

Along the same lines, but brand new, evidently, they're also making these unbelievably awesome turntables:

They're really right on the mark with that stone plinth. The heavier and more solid the plinth, the cleaner and smoother the sound will be, because you get none of the vibrations from the motor or any other feedback. I will say, though, having DJed for many years, that we far prefer direct-drive to belt-drive. Belt-drive isn't strong enough, it takes way too long to get up to speed, and rubber belts have a nasty habit of becoming brittle over time and snapping. Hopefully, they'll keep exploring this, though, because the thought of some beautifully crafted wheels, gears, and screws meandering across the top of one of these would be really magical.

This was the one they had at the show, which may very well be direct-drive. I didn't ask, and there are no specs available yet, as far as I know:
They had it playing a record of different birdsongs, which was so interesting. It's extraordinary and it really love it.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Wizard of Vase


Next we have Pablo Soto of North Carolina for Desoto Glass Design. I can't be sure of the actual dates of each of these collections, but there does seem to be a coherent progression. Some of the simpler work just shows a nice handling of line and color, as with the scarlet and saffron "Silhouettes":

And these "Colordrops":

Then there's the "Sidecar" collection, which somewhat playfully resembles laboratory equipment, but would also allow for creative arrangements of flowers, candles, whatever, and quite cleverly plays with the interactions of color:

Impressively, though, each further development really takes his work to a whole new level. He's taken the "Silhouette" pieces and carved these amazing geometric patterns into them, in fuchsia, scarlet, and amber:

Then in some of these smokier, earthier hues--bronze, sargasso, and aubergine--which I think look so very rich:
And even more startling is the collection in smoky blue and tea, which take on this very metallic quality that I think is amazing, and gives the geometric patterns a whole new character, almost microchip:

Last but not least are some decorative glass objects with a different surface treatment he equates to filigree, Moire-Blancos and Moire-Negro:

I love how--in overlapping groups--the surface treatment sort of plays tricks on the eye. It's like a person wearing a black & white herringbone suit on color television. And by the way, if I were ever asked to produce a music video, I often thought I'd use only those kind of patterns to play with the fact that color TV can't quite deal with them. Anyway, with Soto's pieces, it's a situation where 1 + 1 = 3, in that it transcends the basic physical form of the object to create a visual experience, exactly what great design should do. They initiate an active dialogue with the eye the person viewing them.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Monday, April 13, 2009

Daily Planetary


Next I'd like to talk about Baltimore's Jonathan Maxwell Studios. Maxwell has this very 1940s, Sci-Fi, Gotham City sort of aesthetic that I'm absolutely loving. I can't say for sure that it couldn't benefit from the infusion of something decidedly 2040, but in his defense, his focus is sharp and his interpretation of this look is virtually flawless.

This clock is maybe one of the best examples, it completely looks like something out of 1984, "The Original Clock":

But the larger pieces, the furniture, have the same savvy. The site is labeled a little bit inconsistently, but I believe these are part of a series, "Graham," a desk and console table:

Here's another pair that appear to be a series, "Rabbino," a buffet and china cabinet:

I appreciate these pieces, especially, because I think the wood makes a beautifully warm counterpoint to the raw, industrial metal.

Here's another couple pieces, though named differently, that seem to have the same detailing, the "McNish Entry Table":
And the "Lost City Sidetable," there's a coffee table version of this as well:
The name, "Lost City," is just perfect for the reasons above. The safety glass is reclaimed, and makes me want to dress like a private eye and start talking like Humphrey Bogart just to match my table.

Here's another clock, a mantle version, and a lamp that would complement it perfectly:

My first instinct was the clock in the center with a lamp on either end of the mantle. Now I'm thinking the clock on one side, the lamp on the other: asymmetrical. So hot.

Some of his other light fixtures are amazing, too. Here's a table lamp:

My favorite of them, though, is this one. It looks like something hanging in an alien spaceship envisioned in 1935:

Obviously, a lot of these pieces would require careful handling and the right overall interior style to work properly. I think a talented designer could pull it off, though. Above all, Maxwell's work has as much character in one bolt as most designers have in their whole cabinet.

©2009, Ryan Witte

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ornamentally Speaking

Once again this year I went to check out the Architectural Digest Home Design Show. This one is not quite as gargantuan as some of the other trade shows, a fair percentage of it is kind of pillows-and-curtainsy--which doesn't interest me as much--and so it's much more manageable. I think I may have actually seen more stuff I liked this year than last. I also bumped into quite a few people, including Zem Joaquin, who runs and whom I'd written about in the magazine. Coincidentally, the friend I was with had also been with me when Zem gave a talk at ABC Carpet about their new line of eco-friendly products. She was very nice and she's extremely knowledgeable about all things Green; I highly recommend her site. 

Anyway, I'd like to talk about some of my favorite stuff this year, in no particular order. First up is New York City's Brad Ascalon Studios. The first piece is the one I saw at the show, a coffee table called "Spindle," for Ligne Roset:
It's a really sleek design and kind of clever. There seemed to be quite a lot of these kind of pieces at the show this year, incorporating reinterpreted traditional elements into new work. Interesting here that the spindle isn't supporting anything. Personally, I think I'd find this more dynamic if the brackets on the right side were bigger and more robust, and there were no brackets at all on the left side. Then there'd just be the tiniest sliver of an opening between the two sheets of glass, so close to touching but not. Perhaps I'm missing the point, though, that the spindle doesn't actually need to be there, so it becomes purely ornamental.

He did something sort of similar with his "Period" table for Sintesi:
Here just the silhouette of a traditional table leg, represented very graphically by bent strips of metal.
It's interesting to me how this one maneuver gives an otherwise very machined looking piece an uncommon modern elegance. I'm also glad to see that there are designers out there who aren't scared of a little ornamentation. Everyone knows I love Minimalism, but it has its time and place, and anymore, I wonder if it isn't getting cold and stale.

He's also done a couple cool packaging designs for makeup, by the way, which you can find on his website.

©2009, Ryan Witte