January 20, 2014
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Tomes: “Domestic Animals: The Neoprimitive Style”

Published by MIT press in 1987, this short and sweet volume houses the collected creative output of Memphis/Alchimia alumnus Andrea Branzi and his wife/co-conspirator Nicoletta from 1984-86, under the loose banner “Domestic Animals”. A multi-faceted collection of interiors, furniture designs, speculative architecture, and one-off experiments, the mantra of the collection is “The Neo-Primative Style”, full of nods to both the natural world and the atavistic design impulse of early man.

In stark contrast to the overwrought luxury obsession that most of the design world was pumping out at the time, the Branzis managed to carry on the experimental, recombinant lineage of their forebears (think Archizoom, Superstudio, etc). They follow the “studio model” of the great 60s / 70s collectives by presenting finished prototypes alongside scale model interiors, plans for hypothetical living spaces, and even uniforms for neo-primitive living.

The centerpiece of the book and the collection is a series of chairs and benches, manufactured as one-offs by Italian studio Zabro. Logs and skins adorn and intersect with geometric plinths to form pseudo-functional pieces that operate more at the level of assemblage than furniture.

The interplay of the hard-edge, medium-grey bases of the chairs and benches with the unaltered branches and logs gives the pieces a kind of wabi-sabi charm, at times evoking Shinto gates or occult effigies. Though I’d seen individual pieces of this collection in print before, seeing all the variations on the theme together just reinforces what a stroke of genius the whole concept is, mostly because it couldn’t be any simpler. Whereas so many of their contemporaries had by 1985 fallen into either neoclassical ornamentation (See Michael Graves) or dramatic minimalism (Studio 80 et al), Andrea and Nicolletta maintain the weird “bricolage” energy that made them famous.

Elsewhere in the collection, curious families of chairs, tables and stands are constructed from synthetic future-bamboo, cast metal in stark white with joints spray-painted bright green or purple. With brightly lacquered surfaces and precarious stances, they’re like little mutant offspring of Hollywood Regency cliches, ratcheting up the blasé-luxe energy with new-wave abandon.

In addition to the more sculptural offerings, the book also reproduces several plans for poetically primitive living spaces. These colorful, enigmatic plans are compelling as compositions in and of themselves, whose function and color schemes seem more occult than domestic.

I’ve scanned and reproduced close to half of the entire book here because frankly the whole thing is worth seeing. A weird and compelling vision.

March 12, 2013
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Designated: Esprit Showrooms by Sottsass Associati

In the second half of the 1980s, Memphis Group kingpin/post-modern genius Ettore Sottsass designed several flagship showrooms for ultra-hip activewear brand Esprit, under the auspices of his own studio, Sottsass Associati.

Esprit Showroom Entrance by Sottsass Associati

I recently came across an overview of the 4 showrooms (3 in Germany, one in Melbourne) in a publication called “International Contract Design Volume 1″, a showcase of outlandish, super-conceptual interiors from 1988. Each is a perfectly restrained riot of intersecting surfaces, matching bizarrely luxurious textures (marble, burl, polished chrome) with extreme color pops and his signature graphic laminates.

Though the images are a bit washed-out, this is the best collection I’ve yet come across of Sottsass Associati’s commercial works, so I’m happy to share them here. What I love most is the designer’s ability to keep the forms from flying into pure whimsy with a strict adherence to geometry, creating playful dynamics through architectural juxtaposition instead of free-form expressionism (ala Gehry, et al.)

February 25, 2013
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Tomes: Cranbrook Design – The New Discourse

I recently stumbled across this 1990 gem, a survey of the legendary Cranbrook Academy of Art, one of the most storied US design schools, whose illustrious alumni list includes designers Harry Bertoia, Charles and Ray Eames, and Eero Saarinen. While some the most important design moves of the 20th century were made at Cranbrook in the 1940s and 50s, this volume deals exclusively with the school’s output from the years 1980-1989, and puts on display some truly original, reality-bending work, across graphics, interiors, products, and conceptual prototypes.


“Vernacular Message” model for Heinz by Robert Nakata

Much of the work falls under the heading of what the school’s faculty deems “interpretive design”, where the signs and symbols of culture as a whole have just as much bearing on form as function and manufacturing. This leaves space for plenty of poetics and post-modern “vernacular” touches, with an optimistic spirit.

Some of the pieces are easy to discount as time-frozen novelties, but the expressive, free-associative impulse is powerful, especially since it has all but vanished from product design today. Most of it is playful, pre-blobject futurism, with a transgressive edge.

The dissection and reinterpretation of brand “vernaculars” was an avant-garde practice that Cranbrook pioneered, simultaneously deconstructive and capitalist. Such experiments with brand identities were still de rigor during my time in Carnegie Mellon’s design department, some 20 years later. Robert Nakata’s totem to the Heinz aesthetic (pictured) is incredible in its tongue-in-cheek abstraction, executed with a hi-fi sheen. A consummately “corporate” product of absolutely no practical use.

Enjoy some of the more colorful bits from collection below:


Quadrio Seating by Michael McCoy


For Artifort, 1985


Office by Michael McCoy

Michael and Katherine McCoy balance quite nicely a Bauhaus sensibility with decade-appropriate blazing color pops, and “neo-classical” flourishes.


Hyper-Natural Scenery by Peter Stathis


Dehumidifier Prototype by Paul Montgomery


“Colorado” Seating by Michael McCoy

One of the more enigmatic projects on display is Peter Stathis’ “Hyper-natural Scenery Series”. The two pieces are improbable “future objects” that create counterfeit mood effects. One is a lamp-like neck that emits fog, wrapped in a glowing sheet of foam, the other a sleek black rock that mimics the glow of a fire.

Similarly, a largely unexplained model of a “computer” by William Wurz (it’s basically a black touchscreen “pool” of information, complete with synthetic grass), is simultaneously prescient and innane. Genius or goof?


Hyper-Natural Scenery by Peter Stathis


Computer Prototype by William Wurz


Stereo Receiver by Robert Nakata


Interior by Thomas Lehn and Kathleen Kelly


Interior by Thomas Lehn and Kathleen Kelly

As far as over-arching aesthetics go, Robert Venturi is an obvious influence (in his appreciation of cross-brow, “vernacular” tropes) alongside post-Memphis structuralists like Peter Shire and Michael Graves.

The charm of this collection really lies in its ability to show a group of likeminded individuals working under the unified auspicies of a “new way” (as bizarrely poetic as it might have been), informed equally by deconstructive post-modernism and the burgeoning influence of Human Centered Design. It’s a document of a very specific, hard-to-classify design impulse that flourished for just a few years before the multi-disciplinary “ergonomics mania” of the 90s took hold of design schools world-wide, and started dismantling such high-minded efforts.

February 12, 2013
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Tomes: Miscellanea #3

Back with a few more nuggets from the “golden age” and beyond.

Art in America Cover, Winter 1965/1966
The cover story for this holiday edition is “Children’s Toys by Artists”. The specimen pictured was hand-crafted by none other than the late, great Milton Glaser, in a pre-post-modern display of his playful pop-art chops.

Advertisement for Larry Bell Solo Show, 1966
One of my favorite Finish Fetishists gets his name in lights alongside some big league players (Nevelson & Vaserely, dang) at the tender age of 25! Great use of negative space and you’ve got to love that “futurist funk” typeface. Ahead of the game.

French Language Guide to the Moscow Olympics 1980
Ok, so the design’s a little cluttered, but those two typefaces are straight-up UNTOUCHABLE. That heavily shadowed sans is bursting with questionable cold-war enthusiasm, while the thin-lined bold on the bottom is a beautifully bizarre attempt to transport Mexico 66 to the Eastern Bloc. We all know Olympic graphics are a never-ending font of mid-century design inspiration, but the unpolished optimism on display here is truly refreshing.

Truck Drivers Dictionary
Though there’s no date to be found inside, the playful line drawings and pseudo-Swiss-grid layout probably peg this to the mid-60s. The bold, oh-so-midcentury palette is achieved through 2-color printing on marigold stock. If there’s a better 3-color combo than green, orange, and yellow, I can’t think of one.

Death Under A Sail
Ah, Penguin. Where would I have been as a young, design illterate scamp, without the playful severity of your paperback covers? High modernism at its best. Now that the web has gone “flat”, it might be time to start paying attention again. #Relevant.

Better Type
Ok, two things. First of all, this is a great cover. Nothing here but a big ‘ol paragraph that’s the title, layout and pull-quote all rolled into one. Secondly, this is a seriously fascinating book. Over 100 pages of minute variations on a theme, namely the setting of type into paragraphs for legibility and style. Characters per pica, ragging technique, and “text color” (the general texture of a text block based on character contrast and negative space) are all covered in detail. A rigorous lesson-book and invaluable encyclopedia of obsessive typesetting technique. Copies on Amazon regularly sell for under $5. Step your game up.

January 26, 2013
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Tomes: Miscellanea #2

Back with a few new bits of printed detritus. The accidental theme this week seems to be “Modern Anxiety”.

Art and Industry
A simple white-on-blue photogram, with a cut-up type treatment in the Futurist tradition. The narrow slab serif is a nice touch. Just serious enough.

The Wired Nation
Some bold, post-modern vibes. Despite being a straight-up informative affair, I can’t help but read some They Live “Stay Asleep” commentary into the gaudy, patriot-bating graphics.

Suicide and Mass Suicide
Beautifully stark type treatment, rendered in a curious but attractive high-contrast serif. Nothing but the text, and a great use of negative space as a stand in for oblivion. Bleak!