Book: Machine Art (Museum of Modern Art Catalog from 1934)

What a great cover! What a great band wrapped around it! Great design overall.

Machine Art (Sixtieth Anniversary Edition)
by The Museum of Modern Art
published by The Museum of Modern Art (and Abrams)
1934, reprinted in 1994

I don’t think I’ve written up a review of the de Young Museum of San Francisco’s show & book on Precisionism called Cult of the Machine (which I should do!), but suffice to say for now that I’m interested in how “the machine age” changed how we think about the design of utilitarian (useful) objects. While the de Young show was a retrospective, Machine Art is a catalog of a show DURING the era of fascination with what machines can do.

It’s a pretty funny catalog.

The new preface by Philip Johnson is a light-hearted acknowledgement that the catalog essays he’d written were a bit naive, and that he was very zealous with his ‘machine made = good, handmade = bad’ arguments. The essays are unbalanced in favor of mass production, though there is some acknowledgment that early machine production made inferior products to those of artisans. There is also a decoration-is-evil thread to the writing, because of course there is – this is how we know we are modern! 🙂

A phone photo from my couch of sample illustrations from the catalog

While the Precisionist show I’m comparing this to was a celebration of the best-of-the-best in retrospect, this catalog is far more… happy with chrome toasters of no special renown.

These functional design ideas have stood the test of time – these toasters were for sale in 1934, and models of the same appearance are available now – but aren’t something you’d necessarily buy a postcard of. (I buy some pretty weird postcards, just so you know.) They are plain enough to be shown as examples of a kind of functional purity (aside from the chrome, which is seen as functional rather than garish – I’m more pure than you, and I say this should be sheathed in plain concrete, bwa ha ha ha ha) , but are not glamorous. They definitely do avoid unnecessary decoration (again, I think the high polish IS decoration, but that’s me). The catch is that objects that look like this have become generic and somewhat invisible – which is either a great victory of function over the sentimentally decorative past, or… just the passage of time wearing the shine off these objects.

Oh look, the fancy drip coffee stacked labware setup has always existed! Who knew?

Summary: interesting catalog with essays of a zealous pro-machine/anti-handicraft bent, with objects which succeeded to such excess that the novelty and surprise of them sails past me. (Another thing ruined for me by architecture school and Bauhaus books & shows!)

Design: Pandemic-themed Design By Distance at SFMCD

Speaking of the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design (, they have a virtual exhibit on the theme of designs to create distance or separation to prevent the spread of the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Yes, creative people are already trying to work out how to make the world work during a time of highly contagious ailments, and they are raising interesting questions and proposing some pretty (and wild, and uncomfortable, and practical, and edgy) solutions. Some of these are intended as humor or commentary more than as design, but they round out the range of speculative thinking nicely.

Design by Distance

June 2-December 31, 2020 Design by Distance showcases how designers from around the world are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic through the development of objects, garments, accessories, and space planning. Curated by Ginger Gregg Duggan and Judith Hoos Fox of c2-curatorsquared, Design by Distance highlights

There is a lot to think about here.

I like these cone-of-silence-like barriers for dining in groups:

Gernigon – Curatorsquared Virtual Views

Christophe Gernigon plex’eat, 2020 Stating that all the solutions he’d seen to date to insure safe dining had looked to him like prisons, French designer Christophe Gernigon created what he thinks of as a kind of a bell, an elegant form made from bent plexi, sized and configured to prevent claustrophobia, and to avoid interfering with pendant lamps, ubiquitous in dining spaces.

As an introvert, I also like these beach cubicles. While my enjoyment of them conceptually feels anti-social (which is supposed to be a bad thing in ordinary times), these DO appeal. I want to be outside! I want other people to keep their distance! These cubicles could help achieve this in crowded / popular locations, to a point.

Menasci – Curatorsquared Virtual Views

Umberto Menasci SafeBeach, 2020 Lexan Perhaps his early legal training instigated Umberto Menasci’s current project, SafeBeach, enabling sun worshipers to enjoy beaches while respecting the new practices regarding social distancing. A grid of outdoor rooms, open to the sky, made of Lexan, allows for two lounge chairs, and one large umbrella, and a small table in each unit.

Afterward: We are in the adaptive phase of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, now that we have realized there is no immediate solution and we will need to change how we live. I’ll be remarking on other things like this, but at some point, once we HAVE adaptated, these environments will seem normal, and future people will look back on this and wonder why I made a fuss over THESE, rather than all of the shared/high-contact/crowded places of the past…

Design: Face Mask Design Competition

Why just wear a paper mask or bandana to protect your community from the spread of COVID-19 when you can get creative? The San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design sponsored a protective face mask competition: the winners are at the top, but the gallery with all of the entries is FUN, so I recommend that.

Let’s Face It: Community Gallery | MCD

On May 11, the Museum of Craft and Design launched Let’s Face It, an international mask design competition. We received 363 entries from 17 countries, with participants ranging from 4 years old and up. Thank you to everyone who participated.

Fonts: Tangly by Emigre Fonts

You likely know that I think  Zuzana Licko is BRILLIANT, and that Emigre Fonts is remarkably cool. But this new set of patterns called Tangly is blowing my mind.

I like to make patterns by hand, and am studying repeats, and… THIS IS SO AMAZING. The lines. The splines. The everything.

It’s really clever: go look.

Book: Anni Albers edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck

Anni Albers
edited by Ann Coxon, Briony Fer, and Maria Müller-Schareck
published by Yale University Press

Anni Albers, a gorgeously printed exhibition catalog and book of essays, shows off the work of phenomenal modernist Anni Albers, and her work in design, weaving, painting, and printmaking.

Those of us who have been fans of the pre-war Bauhaus school in Germany may know her work from compilations of the school’s many famous graduates and teachers; we may also know that women were sent off into the weaving department regardless of their design interests to an extent that raises questions about the motivations of the male staff. Albers really took to it, produced some fantastic, ultra-modernist work, and raised the profile of textile design at a time when it was profoundly under-appreciated.

The hair on the back of your neck may rise up a bit when you read about the punch cards that were used to set the patterns for jacquard looms… The Bauhaus operated in a time where mass production seemed like an opportunity to democratize access to basic goods, like shoes and housewares, and that good design could directly improve day-to-day life. (Yes, of course the Nazis shut them down.)

The details of Alber’s work are beautifully reproduced in remarkably color plates, often showing both the entire work (ranging widely in scale) plus details that allow you to appreciate the craft.

And there is more to her work! As an aspiring pattern designer, I love seeing how she worked out some of her designs on grid paper. As a textile lover, the reproductions thrill me. And as a print-maker – HEY, she does those really well, too!

Details of the remarkably high quality reproductions of Alber’s sketches, textiles, typewriter art, and the lovely binding, which does my book-binder’s heart glad.

She even has some typewriter art, which makes me think of Mira Schendel (different continent, later time), and of how my fellow geeks should really appreciate where the roots of ASCII art came from. (Geek joy!)

So much of her work is understated in that she uses muted colors, or relatively few colors – it never shouts. Which means it might have a hard time getting attention in our current, loud, shiny, sequined art world – but the design is BOLD. And the quality! The detail! The attention to everything! The essays follow her career from Germany to the US; from teaching at colleges and universities; from the loom to the press. It shows evidence of her processes (which were key to the experience for her, as an artist and as a teacher), of the interests in Central/South American textiles and collecting, and of her design approaches. (There is a white-on-white printed plate that I just ADORE…) This woman had RANGE.

This is one of those, HOW COULD SHE NOT BE BETTER KNOWN, TAUGHT IN SCHOOLS, AND SHOUTED ABOUT IN CAFÉS kind of revelatory books. Albers herself was a bit frustrated that she could earn so many paid commissions, design textiles for Knoll (ooooooh!), and yet people would only get excited when she worked on paper – when she created art that could not possibly have any utilitarian application. Fabric had been seen as TOO USEFUL, even though it is a brilliant technology – its association with women goes back to ancient times (see another favorite book of mine: Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Barber), and that seems to have held textile art back. Wrongly. SO WRONGLY.

The book – essays, production, binding, range of work included – is of the highest quality. The exhibition must have been phenomenal!

Design: A Fun, Geometric Font from Emigre

Since I just mentioned the wonderful, inspiring SF Bay Area font foundry, Emigre Fonts, I should share a link to their geometric wonderland known as Crackly. Not only is it very visually satisfying, but there is “coloring book” PDF you can download, to appreciate it FULLY.

The dedicated Crackly page on the Emigre site is here, and you should have a look at it. Go! Do it! It pleases me on multiple levels, as a fan of geometry, fonts, design, my beloved Bay Area, Zuzana Licko’s work, and the playfulness of coloring books.