Friday, June 29, 2012

News: Breuer and Morphosis

I've become a bit wrapped up in an architectural project recently that's been taking time away from the blog. That project will eventually be described at length here. In the meantime, I wanted to report something very exciting. Syracuse University has recently digitized their entire collection of Marcel Breuer's papers, including all the architectural drawings. Of course I had visited their online archives when I was working on the Litchfield story, but this wasn't available at the time. It would have made my life immeasurably easier.

In any case, this is an unbelievably valuable resource, and I must heartily thank SU for undertaking what surely was a colossal project to make it all available.

The other fantastic news is sort of an addendum to my profile of Roosevelt Island. Cornell has chosen Thom Mayne of Morphosis to design their new graduate school building there. I couldn't possibly be any more pleased that we're getting another building by this genius architect in New York, and I cannot wait to see what it will look like.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Kinda Work U Wait 4


When I came upon the booth for Al-Hamad Design, it was immediately obvious to me that there was something very interesting going on there. As I paused to take mental pictures before moving on, I noticed a nice-looking boxy wooden chair with soft, creamy leather upholstery. The person at the booth, who I later learned was the designer himself, Nanu Al-Hamad, lowered the back of the chair. It became a small table. Then he flipped a switch to turn on a light inside the box. It was also a light fixture.

I was sold. I told him it was fantastic and grabbed a card. I later discovered there's a storage compartment under the seat, as well. This thing is four objects in one, and I love that. The piece is called Little Oyster, and a custom-made grouping of them made for a specific client takes it yet still further. The custom pieces have built-in audio speakers and a built-in iPad. The lights in all the units can be dimmed by remote control and the speaker volume is wirelessly controlled from the iPad.

This kind of exploration with different functionality and technology has the potential for Al-Hamad and designers like him to stumble onto just the right and unprecedented combination of elements that could literally give birth to an entirely new kind of design object altogether. I find this incredibly exciting. It's tilling the garden of revolution.

The other equally fascinating pieces in this collection made it clear to me that I really ought to talk to Al-Hamad and find out more about his history and process. He was born in Kuwait, and would visit Southern California with his family once a year or so. When he was four, Iraq invaded Kuwait and his family moved to California permanently. He said he visited Kuwait somewhat frequently while growing up, but after finishing college in Chicago, he went to live there again for around a year. He said he loved living there and especially appreciated getting to experience it as an adult. He discovered a vibrant contemporary art scene and folks keeping alive and kicking a lot of creative underground culture. Ultimately, there were things he missed. One thing I was unaware of is that alcohol is prohibited there, which means that even if you don't drink, there are no bars or clubs or places to congregate socially aside from people's private homes. He has returned to the United States and now works out of New York City, but travels back and forth often and collaborates frequently with artists in Kuwait.

The image there is Q8, a mirror occupying roughly a three-foot square (a square meter) with the islands off Kuwait's east coast attached to the wall separately. Al-Hamad said he's always loved the the shape of the country where he was born and uses this as his bathroom mirror.

At some point during our conversation, I told Al-Hamad that from what I could tell, most of his work has a combination of three things. 1) A number of different functions in a single design object, 2) an unexpected sort of interactivity, and 3) something transcendent that begs the user to activate his or her imagination. He seemed to think that was a nice way of summarizing. Here I'll also add that they all use interesting or luxurious materials and often consciously call attention to their materiality.

Little Oyster sufficiently covers the first element. I think the piece that most simply and literally demonstrates the second and third is his Bright Idea arm chair.

It is a chair and at the same time, like much of Al-Hamad's work, a piece of Conceptual Art, as well. It's designed to encourage inspiration. You sit comfortably on its buttery Moore & Gilles leather upholstery to contemplate, and when the inspiration comes, a leather-upholstered button in the arm rest turns on a light bulb above your head. Eureka! Not content with a one-trick pony, Al-Hamad gives the piece an added bit of aesthetic distinction by providing the beautiful but relatively conventional walnut armchair with interestingly sculpted legs. The chair appears to be growing out of the floor. Furthermore, the legs pull the piece down into the floor surface far more than balls and claws might have, creating a wonderful tension with the light bulb and the abstract ideas it represents, which want to ascend up into the stratosphere.

Taking advantage of more advanced materials are two pieces of outdoor furniture, Cradle and Gibbous. Both pieces are made from a durable, waterproof, glow-in-the-dark fabric which charges in the sunlight during the day and then gives off light throughout the night. That the pieces are also light sources is not a shocker, of course. Al-Hamad loves incorporating the element of light into his work. With Cradle, it's the fact that the sort of hammock lounge is carried on rockers at the top and bottom that begs you to use your imagination. The piece encourages you to tap into some early, infantile memories of being in a cradle and to be soothed by the comfort of the rocking motion that accompanies it.

Unlike your typical cradle, this is a hammock for two. Pillow-like cushions at both ends rather than just one is another fantastic detail. Not only can you enjoy lounging with a friend or loved-one, but you can face each other to more easily converse, as well. This is not just a piece for resting, but also for socializing.

Gibbous is an ornamental object, an arm chair, an ottoman, and a back-rest all at once, and was regarded highly enough to earn an A'Design Award in 2012.

Looking closely at that image, you may notice the hand-cut brass plaque that marks every Al-Hamad Design piece, a small but very classy detail, in my opinion. The smaller section is clearly an ottoman, but can also be used as a back-rest to sit on the grass. As is no doubt obvious in the image of it opened up, when not in use, Gibbous fits back together to become as perfect a sphere as was possible given the challenge of properly upholstering something in this shape. Closed up after dark, it becomes a mysterious glowing orb haunting the landscape. "Transcendent" may be the wrong word for the image this produces, but "otherworldly" could very easily be applied to it. One measure of proof of this is that the press materials for this and Cradle make a point to identify the images in darkness as indeed being actual photographs. The visual effect is so unusual that it seems entirely justified to do so (especially with the former, because it looks almost like a computer rendering). Still, I think the effect in a landscaped backyard would be delightful and unique.

Somewhat similar in execution, though completely different in form is a custom bar Al-Hamad designed called Vertex. In spirit, it's an object of art, a large, dark, monolithic oak box with a glowing, jagged-edged acrylic cloud floating above it--simple, refined, and distinctive.

All its functions as a bar seamlessly fit into it like a jigsaw puzzle. Drawers and cabinetry all but disappear from sight. The best detail, in my opinion, is a drink cart that fits into one of the ends of the wooden base. With a handle carved carefully out of its visible wooden surface, it's easily accessed, but requires no attached hardware to mar the purity of the forms. The cart even includes integrated but removable serving trays to accommodate a multitude of hosting circumstances.

Al-Hamad has also delved fully into the world of fine art. While visiting his birth country, he visited a small island in the Persian Gulf called Failaka. Failaka Island retains some fame from Alexander the Great, who encountered it in his campaign from Greece to northern India and left some markers of Greek culture behind. It was one of the longest continuously occupied regions of Kuwait and supposedly has glorious seasonal patterns and local flora. In 1990, Iraq invaded the island, exhiling almost all its residents to mainland Kuwait. The Iraqi military used it as a base and for target practice. Sadly, this and the resulting violent expulsion of the Iraqi army by allied forces pretty much obliterated the island.

The result is a lot of ruins of what had been relatively beautiful houses, some fairly palatial. It was strange, he told me, to find houses that were essentially a bombed-out empty shell but with an oddly intact bathroom, for instance. He also said the island has become something of a tourist destination, no doubt due to its scenic beauty, but that the main resort hotel is mildly tacky. Most interesting, he found, was the graffiti. Teenagers have for some odd reason chosen this unique island as a backdrop for messages of love and the search for it. Most of it, he indicated, is of the "Carmen ♥ Faisal" variety, but the kids will also write their email addresses or similar, and quite amusingly, things from popular culture, like "Justin Bieber." Very wisely, he photographed a good number of the more interesting tags.

Those photos would become a series shown at the Sultan Gallery in Kuwait City, one of the oldest art galleries in Kuwait, founded by the late Ghazi and Najat Sultan in 1969.  It closed in 1990 and their surviving sister, Farida Sultan, reopened it in 2006 at a new, multipurpose warehouse location. Al-Hamad confessed that he finds most photography exhibits to be rather dull, though, so he decided to present his photos in a more sculptural format. Appropriate to the subject matter, which occasionally referenced social networking, he created an enormous, fully-functioning Blackberry Bold 9000 with a television monitor mounted inside it. The pictures appear in a slide show, as if seen on a giant Pop hand-held device.

He had only ever intended this to be a one-of-a-kind work of art. However, a certain businessman saw the piece and wanted one for his office. The compromise Al-Hamad made was to instead create for this client a giant Blackberry Curve 9300. This way, he didn't feel as if he were repeating himself verbatim. Moral of the story, you're unlikely to be able to talk him into making one of these for your office unless it's an entirely different device or you a$k him very, very ni$ely. Evidently, and not surprisingly, everyone who enters that client's office and sees the giant Blackberry falls in love with it.

Chandelier is also more a work of Conceptual Art than it is a piece of furniture, although Al-Hamad clearly loves to flirt with those distinctions. I say that not because it isn't a perfectly functional chair or a perfectly functional light fixture. Rather, its installation would require relatively remarkable preparations, and to experience it as its design was intended would require a bit more space than one would expect to find in a typical building interior. The legend goes that he saw a cartoon of a person swinging from a chandelier and wanted to create a more practical way to do that. So he created a low-hanging chandelier with an enormous throne sitting on top of it. The chair rises about six feet (2m), and is upholstered, impressively, in a single piece of leather with no seams.

He had considered the possibility of using camel hide to give this piece an added bit of Kuwaiti flavor, but this proved to be impossible. In talking to a dealer, he discovered that the skinning process involves first cutting off the camel's hump. So the resulting pieces of leather will decidedly have a hole in the middle, making camel hide unsuitable for applications requiring larger sheets of it.

I loved the whole mad party concept, the royal and elegant look of it, and the play of shadows from the small bulbs underneath. But it was only after contemplating this piece for a little while that its magic dawned on me. It hangs perfectly straight, in complete defiance of gravity. "How on earth did you ever balance that thing?" I had to ask him. It seemed to me that even counterweights would not be sufficient to offset the cantilevered seat and arms and the weight of the chandelier, itself. Al-Hamad explained that they went through numerous trials to get this right. In the end, a solution was found by providing a metal shop with the dimensions of a volume inside the back that would be available for counterweight. The shop then created a sheet of extremely dense metal alloy heavy enough to balance the piece. It now weighs in at around 400lbs (182kg) but hangs exactly right.

The piece I'd like to end with is the Embarakiya floor lamp. I end here not because it's my favorite. In fact, the thought of arriving home late at night to a dark apartment and having a human figure looming in the corner of my living room makes me shudder a little (I'll happily recommend it for non-residential applications). Nonetheless, I think it incorporates everything that makes Al-Hamad's work so interesting, and at the same time ends up being somewhat provocative.

Initially, the designer had conceived of this as being adorned in less culturally-specific garments, like perhaps a simple business suit. But in walking around the Embarakiya, which is the large market in Kuwait City where garments, cloth, and other items are sold and traded, he decided he really liked the idea of clothing the lamp in a traditional men's dishdasha. The clincher was when he realized that the headdress, the qitra and egal, would work perfectly as a lampshade. The male figures have speakers in their torso. I was curious if they said something, which they don't; they plug into a normal stereo system.

The female figures don't have speakers--I'll leave it for my Feminist readers to psychoanalyze that--but their garments, the abaya and hijab (or nikab) are more ornamental with, in this case, truly exquisite embroidered gold trim. The headdress fabric was thin enough to warrant a second layer, and as a result, the weave of the two layers of textile overlaps to create interesting patterns in the filtered light.

The interactivity and the transcendent are locked together here. In order to turn on the light in the figure's head, you shake its hand, which has a touch-sensor in it. It seemed to me the narrative being played out here for an American audience was quite striking; to call forth light from the head of a figure in traditional Arabian dress, you must perform a friendly, welcoming gesture with it. I first asked Al-Hamad if it were a political statement he was making. He laughed and said, "no, no, not at all." In fact, in talking to him, I quickly realized he's mostly just having fun creating the pieces that he does. My reading was all wrong, but I think that's partially the point here.

He said that the response from audiences in Kuwait was anything but disturbed. In fact, most people who saw it there simply found it amusing and clever. Responses at the ICFF were quite different. Some people actually voiced concerns about the piece, questioning if those who came across this might have a problem with it. That seemed sadly xenophobic to me at best, and at worst, kind of downright racist. This was why I asked not that question, but the one I did, which was about the differences between the responses from Kuwaiti audiences and the white, European-American ones at the show.

Whether intentional or not, it's incredibly rare to find a work of mere furniture design that can elicit such wildly different emotions from different people. I think the lesson to be learned from this work is that it's those very differences that we must set aside--along with the kind of unnecessarily political readings to which I admittedly fell victim--so we can just have fun and enjoy being a part of a truly global design community.

Much thanks to Nanu Al-Hamad. I'll be eager to see what brilliant directions he takes us next.

All images courtesy Al-Hamad Design. All text ©2012, Ryan Witte.

Monday, June 4, 2012

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #12b


And don't call it a "metro."

If it's during the daytime, and you're traveling more than about ten or fifteen blocks, the subway really is the fastest, cheapest, most efficient way to get around. Generally speaking, on a weekday, you can get from any part of Manhattan to any other in about twenty to forty minutes on the train, depending on your luck.

For an outsider, the system can look a bit intimidating because it was built in innumerable different phases and by a number of different companies. But much like the city streets above ground, they almost all travel north/south or east/west, with the yellow line following the diagonal of Broadway from southeast to northwest.

My use of the term "yellow" is easier here but misleading. No one in New York refers to the lines by their color. It's not specific enough, because outside Manhattan the trains that share a color will often go off in different directions. Instead we identify them by the avenue they follow when necessary, and far more frequently by the train's number or letter. So in referring to the blue trains, you might hear someone call them "the Eighth Avenue trains," but more likely than that we'd say "the A, C, and E." I can't remember the last time I heard someone call them "the blue line."

Subway maps are free at every station simply by asking the booth attendant for one. The free ones are large and cumbersome, however, unfolding to about the size of a poster. If you do use one of these, unfold and refold it so that Manhattan from Battery Park to 125th Street is most easily accessible to view.  Much better than these, in my opinion, many gift stores, delis, and tourist information places sell (or give away for free) a subway map that, when folded, is about the size of a stack of three credit cards. Pull it apart and it opens up a map of convenient size, and it closes back up just as easily like an accordion.

If for whatever reason you don't have access to one, there's almost always a subway map on the wall next to the attendant's booth in every station. Many will have a bus map, as well. Practically every subway car has a map in it, also, but you're better off checking the map in the station and memorizing your route. You usually have to be breathing on someone's forehead to check the map on the train car, and it's just awkward for everyone. Some stations will have a map on the train platform, but this is unreliable and they can be difficult to find.

Be aware that a train's route can be significantly different from the weekdays to the weekends. Weekend trains run less frequently and can skip certain stops. The weekends are also when the majority of maintenance and repairs are undertaken, so the trains can take detours.

The biggest risk with subways, I would think, is getting on an express when you want the local one. Express trains are extremely convenient for traveling longer distances (should you want to go to Coney Island, for instance, or use it for the airport). Not only can they easily skip the station you want on shorter journeys, but also can take you unexpectedly into the outer boroughs or a long way from your destination. Some of the trains are coded with a circle (local) or a diamond (express) around the train's number designation, but only the newer trains have this. If you're in a smaller station that clearly only has one track going each direction, very likely all the trains stopping there will be locals.

In larger stations with four or more tracks, the outer tracks will typically be the local and the inner tracks express. On the north/south lines, the east tracks go downtown and the west tracks uptown, like cars on the road. Be aware that none of this is set in stone. Don't get on a train just because it happens to be traveling on the track you want. Go by the train's letter or number designation. If the train isn't following its normal route, the conductors are usually pretty good about making announcements at every stop as to what changes are in effect.

For safety after hours, stay where the booth attendant can see you, close to the exit, or where the majority of other riders are waiting for the train. Typically people will cluster together for this very reason. Many of the more complex stations now have security cameras and emergency call buttons. Nearest to these is obviously best. The cars at the center of the train are always the most crowded late at night and therefore are the safest. The end cars are desolate and also give you only a single escape route. During rush hours, it's best to reverse this and avoid the center cars, if you can even board them at all.

Unless you're traveling a very long distance or are on an extremely tight budget (I'm talking "New York for $20 a day" tight), taking the subway after around midnight or 1AM is a waste of time. If you have bad luck with your timing, you can literally be sitting around in the station for over forty-five minutes before the right train comes. You could probably walk to your hotel faster. Since very few stations have restrooms, and practically none of them have restrooms you'd ever want to use, if you've been out drinking, this could be a serious bladder problem. And then there's the 3AM Garbage Train. If you have the misfortune of encountering one of those, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. On the flip-side, there are practically no cars on the street above ground. A taxi ride after hours will be about half the price and three times faster than during the daytime. If you're only one person, it's worth it for your safety and comfort. If you're more than two people, it's entirely worth the shared price.

The trip most notorious for inappropriate conduct is on the 4, 5, and 6 trains (if you must know, they're green) between 14th Street and Grand Central Station during rush hour. Even if you're not being violated by mysterious wandering hands, it's still unbearably crowded. Most likely you'll have a smelly armpit in your face. If you can avoid it, avoid it.

This seems as good a place as any to discuss something interesting that recently came to my attention while chatting with a friend who was visiting from Los Angeles. I have endorsed striking up conversation with locals here, but there are circumstances where it's appropriate and others where it is not. A very crowded subway car is in the second category and, oddly enough, the reason has to do with the subject of this section: Transportation.

My friend was saying how New York City comes off as unfriendly because no one talks to anyone else. He said that in L.A., you find people saying hello to strangers passing each other on the sidewalk all the time, which almost never happens here. I realized in analyzing this difference between them is that it concerns what, in each city, constitutes a "destination."

Southern California runs on the automobile. While my friend and I didn't discuss it, I'm fairly certain no one there rolls down their windows at stoplights to say hello and trade small talk while sitting in their cars. That's "transportation mode." Since everywhere one goes requires driving, getting out of one's car signals arrival at a destination. If you find yourself on a sidewalk in Hollywood, it's still on some level a destination reached by automobile. As discussed previously, that same sidewalk in New York is most often a mode of transportation, our primary one, in fact.

The other factors to take into account are personal space and the possibility of escape. Los Angeles is considerably more spread-out and sparsely populated in most parts. The more crowded a New York subway car is, the more uncomfortable it is for passengers, and the more it feels like an unfortunately necessary mode of transportation. Talking to a stranger who's sandwiched in a crowd of passengers may seem like an affront to them because they have no easy way to escape an unwanted conversation should they choose to do so.

The less crowded the subway car, the more people can sit at a comfortable (safe) distance and more easily get away from someone if they feel harassed by them. People don't tend to converse much even on emptier trains, though it does happen. The type and length of conversation you might have with a person in the automobile next to you at a stoplight--say, asking for directions--turns out to be a good analogy. One might notice a similar phenomenon in elevators, where a superficial conversation when on a longer elevator ride with only one other person feels more natural than if it's stuffed full of twenty random strangers.

To sum up, the rule of thumb I've devised for conversing with strangers is as follows. It's most appropriate when both parties are at a destination where they've arrived for more or less the same general purpose, and are reasonably free to end the conversation whenever they wish. For one more example, using this as a guide, it doesn't seem unusual to make conversation with the people sitting at the table next to you in a restaurant, but it's less potentially awkward when standing at the bar of a casual neighborhood pub.

One helpful tip for exiting the train is to make a mental note of which direction the train was traveling. As you twist and turn up the various staircases to the street, do your best to remember the train's direction. Many stations have signage telling you what corner of the intersection you'll be on when you get up the stairs. But it's still much less disorienting to arrive at 14th Street and know which direction is 13th and which direction is 15th. You'll save yourself having to double back after a wrong turn and will have the confidence of having your bearings.

©2012, Ryan Witte

12c. Buses