March 12, 2013

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.)

January 7, 2013

Designated: Vessels for Sentiment (A Brutalist Memoir)

(The following passage was written for submission to the architectural publication Clog, for which it was subsequently declined. C’est la vie)

For me, it all started with A Clockwork Orange. As an aspiring suburban outsider, I rented the VHS in early high school, and reveled in its barrage of satirical aesthetics. The garish, ultra-modern interiors, the post-Soviet “Nadsat” slang, and most importantly, the looming, grey architecture of future London, which intrigued me to no end.

The film repeatedly showcased London’s Thamesmead Estates and Brunel University Lecture Centre, both erected in the mid-1960s as landmarks of high Brutalism. These populist landmarks are repurposed less than a decade later as icons of Kubrick’s failed nanny state, in one of the late modern era’s most cynical future visions.

Soon after, a family visit to the Yale University Art Gallery (Louis Kahn, 1951-53), and my curiosity was once again piqued. The poured concrete ceilings and massive glass walls captured that same looming modernity, but with dignity and light. Bit by bit, brutalism became my first signifier of “Design”, as an abstract concept.

Growing up in small-town Connecticut, my built environment was one of wainscoting, shutters, and cupolas, where “quaint” embellishments were all-too-common stand-ins for living culture. To my spongey brain, these massive buildings were powerful symbols of an alluring “other”. Urbanity. Art. Socialism. Academia. The Future. All I had to do was reach out and grab it.

After landing in design school at CMU, I formed a deep, and to my classmates, confusing bond with Wean hall, a partially subterranean concrete behemoth housing the school’s mathematics departments. Of course, the drab, imposing exteriors look best in the rain, which Pittsburgh delivered on an all-too-frequent basis.

These buildings were designed & constructed in a time of great anticipation, and great apprehension. The glut of innovation and prosperity that defined post-WWII America cross-bred with communist paranoia, birthing populist institutions for higher learning with paramilitary undertones.

It is this bunker / temple identity crisis which makes all Brutalist buildings so fascinating, and so divisive. In the 60s, they were bridges on Spaceship Earth; beacons of a state’s commitment to an educated, well-managed populace. By the recession of the 1970s, many were approaching ruin, re-cast as symbols of urban inhumanity.

When I wasn’t toiling in the Italianate wings of the Design School, I often found myself roaming Wean’s halls in solitude, the dampened acoustics and droning ventilation hum evoking deep space. Despite the concrete’s uniform ubiquity, every square foot bore the mark of humanity. The staircases peppered with graffiti (of a uniquely modest scale), the casting holes of every panel filled with plastic bottle caps.

Like all the best design artifacts, a brutalist structure is modest, hardworking, and devoid of embellishments, a stoic embodiment of timelessness. They stand in for our most base insecurities and our most egalitarian aspirations. Even today, they are enriched in semantic meaning by every inhabitant, from the vandal to the department head, and their livelihood is inextricable from our own.

November 28, 2012

The Cynic/Romantic Genius of Enzo Mari

Enzo Mari is one of my all-time favorite design theorists and practitioners, and basically the definition of a “cult” designer. 

While he has a few well-known designs (perhaps the 16 Animals toy being his most famous), many of his 100s of creations were produced in limited runs by Italian manufacturers from the 50s through the 90s. He has very little in the way of a signature style, believing almost religiously in the existence of an “ideal” form for every useful object, rooted more in a sense of cosmic pragmatism than his own ego. Most importantly, though, Mari has always been a fiery, outspoken dissident in the usually self-satisfied world of design theory. Though much of his rhetoric is based to some degree on a romantic, utopian impulse, no other designer has embodied such a pure anti-corporate attitude while maintaining such a high level of intellectual rigor.

Perhaps his defining bad-ass moment came in 1972 with the launch of the MoMA’s legendary exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape”. The exhibit was an onslaught of new idealism and riotous forms in plastic and chrome. Mari, himself a true master of perfectly crafted plastic objects, chose instead to submit a critical essay, on the uncertain ethics of ALL design practice.

Best of all, Enzo Mari has uttered some of the 20th century’s heaviest quotes on the subjects of design and industry. I’ve compiled a few of his heaviest hitters below:

Despite a looming intellect, Mari is a staunch critic of formal schooling, and has always embraced the visceral. In one of my favorite quotes from 2010, he slams not only the blatant monetizing of higher education, but also the watered-down appropriation of the late modernists by a new generation (I’m looking at you, Tumblr…)

“…schools are a business. They exist to shape people to support industrial needs: making things that please the mass and last as little as possible, so they can be replaced. Supporting this means supporting a family thinking not a societal thinking. So everyone is all up in arms calling Zanuso, Castiglioni or Sottsass their heroes and tapping into the surface of their work. Rather than understanding its essentially ethical nature and trying to bring it to the next level, they copy the form. I say let’s teach our kids to be craftsmen, to master again the art of drawing (a slow skill that requires thinking), to understand what was done in the past, and why and how… “

On smashing the state (and hard work):

“We need to get rid of the idea of global profit, finance, industries and brands. We need to get rid of advertising, and of all forms of sponsored communications, of the world of forms with no essence that has replaced our kids’ school and education. Of all that exists to convince us that we need what we do not need, and that knowledge, wisdom and success can be easy and require no effort. We need to get rid of all the family-driven morals that could be all fine and well by themselves but that are all nonetheless blind. And we need to open our eyes towards a new collective ethic. And then, we may also have new designs. Because the first condition to create good design is passion for transformation.”

On the distillation of culture (I feel like he’s essentially invoking the self-referential vacuum of the internet, without being explicit):

“This surrounding mess has become our school, our reference point, our inspiration. Not only in design, obviously, but in everything. It’s the by-product of superficiality, of people mistaking freedom of expression with ignorant anarchy. Are people happy with it? Possibly, because real knowledge is hard work. What a philosopher thinks can be summarized in one straightforward page. But in order to get there, he wrote 800 pages of clarifications, answers to possible opposing opinions, arguments. Diffused banality brings about empty idea repetition.”

On “the virtues of negative fascination” (to quote SRL):

“I would say all the time ‘look out the window. If everything you see outside is beautiful, and right, and you approve it, there’s nothing left to design. If there is something that makes you want to choke the designer and the commissioner with your own bare hands, something that horrifies you, that is the reason of your project.”

What’s most interesting about his huge body of work is the clear through-line that can be read across many of his projects. It is his perceived “failures” as a designer and thinker that spur him into future action. It’s this modest, restless quality that most endears me to Mari’s worldview.

As he recounts in the video below, his innovative, affordable design of the convertible “Day-Night” sofa-bed in 1968 for Driade was a total flop, as even radically-minded european students dreamt of gaudy excess in their own image.

Enzo Mari & His Creations, 1980

The “Day/Night” Convertible Sofa Bed

Instead of setting out to teach himself the ways of society, Mari decided to teach society something about itself, rebounding from the project with the “Autoprogettazione” series. Consisting of nothing more than instructions for building simple, sturdy furniture from readily available pre-cut lumber, the project was a desperately sincere an attempt at subverting the messages of the commercial design world. Sharing more aesthetically with Donald Judd’s austere conceptualism than his decadent (though equally cynical) Italian contemporaries.

November 15, 2012

Designated: Daiso Japan

I’ve always found the concept of “value” to be an especially slippery one.

The Haul ($13.50 Total)

It’s a word whose meaning is almost completely customizable, depending on the situation in which it’s applied. When it comes to consumer products, most people assume something to be of “good value” if it’s priced below the acceptable going rate. It’s a bit of a different story in the arena of “durable” goods, like cars or appliances, for which any average consumer is willing to do a little cost/benefit/lifespan analysis. The point that many overlook is that objects of high “value”, as an intuitive measure of cost, utility, aesthetics, durability, and emotional resonance, exist in equally rare distribution across the price spectrum.

As a student of Industrial Design (though not much of a practitioner), I was trained to appreciate the hard-working luxury of designer furniture, and to look upon the majority of consumer products cranked out by huge retailers like Ikea with a skeptical eye. These prejudices notwithstanding, I am, and always have been a pretty frugal dude. I buy almost everything second-hand, and can’t resist the allure of a dollar store. While by and large the Chinese-made merchandise is admittedly junk, the pleasant surprise of any object that costs so little lasting even 6 months is undeniable.

So, it was with great curiosity that I stopped into downtown Berkeley’s newest dollar store, Daiso Japan. Obviously, the “Japan” suffix implies a certain cache that “China” never will (though of course the vast majority of the products they sell are made there). I roamed the store’s isles of exuberant stationary, glazed sake cups, paper lanterns, and bath mats, and hand-selected the best $1.50 items (the store’s flat rate) I could find. Unique aesthetics, unique function, and quality of manufacturing were of highest import. Here’s what I found:

1. Stainless Steel Ashtray Super-normal in all the best ways. Shallow cylinder, 3 indents, no frills. Guaranteed to last forever. Not exactly expertly machined, but satisfyingly precise. B

2. Black Rubber Doorstop Dense, grippy, not huge. Covered with little bumps. It’s got an almost ‘high tech’ style, and actually looks kind of cool just standing on a table. B

3. Steel Bicycle Tire Levers Many people that I talk to about bikes shun the idea of a metal tire lever, worried that they might mar their rims, but after destroying probably 5-6 of the plastic ones over the years (not cheap ones, either), I was excited to find a legitimate metal alternative. 50 cents each retail. A-

4. Plastic & Steel Mini-Chisel I liked the idea of a hobby knife that was set up with a chisel head. It’s got a nicely patterned handle that feels adequately dense, but the blade is almost comically dull, and non-replaceable. Might be useful for removing stickers from thrift store objects. C-

5. “Thin” Water Glass This glass was made in Poland, which is a pretty huge sign of quality, and unusual for a dollar store. The walls of the glass are super-thin, making it incredibly light, and surprisingly satisfying to drink out of. It almost feels like a hard plastic party cup when it’s full. Seriously impressive craftsmanship going on here, with ZERO embellishment. Jasper Morrison would be proud. Unfortunately, I will probably break this. A

6. Enameled Steel Bookends I’ve actually been looking for a cheap, interesting bookend for a while, and these are without a doubt the best I’ve found. First of all, they look like they were designed by Michael Graves or Michele di Lucchi, but painted a nice mid-century yellow. They’re the load-bearing type, with a tongue that extends under the books, and vertical pleats for rigidity. A perfect example of when things go inexplicably right in some shadowy foreign manufacturing plant. A+

7. Stainless Steel Soap Pellet (not pictured) I half expected this little 2″ diameter nugget of stainless steel to be hollow and/or completely useless. I was pleasantly surprised at its ability to soak up weird kitchen smells from my hands. Can’t go wrong. B+

8. Plain White Poly/Cotton T-shirt (not pictured) The extreme thinness of this shirt is actually a selling point to me. The material feels substantial, but has the “burnt out” look of a cheaply made ploy-cotton shirt from the 1970s. The collar is a little puffy. If it survives a wash, I might head back for more. B (Provisional)

May 16, 2012

Eugene Tsui: Biomorphic Future Vision

Riding my bike home from work a few weeks ago, I came to the abrupt realization that I happen to live approx. 0.9 miles from one of the most alarmingly NON-STANDARD structures in existence. At first glance, the irregularity of the nautically themed “Tsui House” (2747 Matthews St, pictured), might be written off as the work of your typical Bay Area burnt eccentric, but it’s so much more than that. Every single element of this sea-punk mansion was built from scratch in sculpted concrete, with no orthogonal frame to speak of, and nearly every surface is swathed in enough art-neuveaux intricacies to make Antonio Gaudi break out in a flop sweat. This building is so next-level in its obsessive, non-linear appraoch, it became immediately obvious to me that the mind behind it must be treading the genius/madness line pretty daringly.

And thus started my investigation into the self-contained future-obsessed world of Eugene Tsui. Architect. Artist. Sculptor. Designer. Theorist. Environmentalist. Professional gymnast. All apply to the Ohio-born Chinese-American, whose personal eco-futurist vision has been rendered in every imaginable arena for the better part of 5 decades.

Eugene’s now-outdated personal site ( is a veritable goldmine of his hard sci-fi creations, from fully realized architectural projects in both California and China, to designs and prototypes for furniture and housewares. Here’s a few of my favorites, culled from the site: (all images image rights reserved, naturally)

“The Domes” at Harbin Hot Springs, Middletown, CA

Probably the most accessible of the architectural projects listed, “the domes” at the Harbin retreat in the mountains north of Santa Rosa serve as overnight lodging for guests. Massive, veiny bio-globules of beige concrete, some monolithic, some ganged together with stretches of drooping sinew. Twisting spiral stairs give a “melted Bauhaus” vibe, while asymmetrical triangular apertures and hardened ridges do their best to abolish regularity completely. Ominous tumors of pure alien style, and right in my own back yard.

Tsui Design Research Headquarters, Emeryville, CA

Once again, I was thrilled to learn that another of Tsui’s iconoclastic buildings was within walking distance of my house. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find any trace of it. I can’t imagine what would possess someone to destroy or remodel something this amazing, but the mind-blowing headquarters of Tsui Design Research, Eugene Tsui’s professional architecture and planning apparatus, simply does not exist anymore. Seems as though Silicon Valley cannibalism has trumped collective memory once again.

The interiors of the building are lightyears beyond even the most far-out “Fun Tech” office spaces(see Antitrust, Zenga, et al), approaching utopian Global Village status. Somewhere between a Rainforest Cafe and a Tatooine bunker, this infinitely diverse set of organic spaces is the perfect embodiment of Eugene Tsui’s vibe. Except for splashes of plant life and rocky outcroppings, the spaces are Kundalini white. Infinite ideas, somehow co-existing with ecstatic calm. A geodesic dome sits on an artificial rocky bluff, its function unclear. A strange tube bisects a large space, glowing orange through slits from within. Everything is either suspended from or grown out of the myriad organic surfaces, which rise up into banks, ledges, and papillae to serve their human masters.

Clothing: Sketches and Prototypes

Far and away the most intriguing thing about Eugene Tsui’s web presence, and about the man himself, is his commitment to the TOTAL DESIGN of all aspects of life. There is nothing in the manufactured or experienced world that he hasn’t attempted to re-create in his own image. Of course, like all my favorite designers, Eugene Tsui has fully embraced the world of fashion, twisted through his own “logical” design matrices.

With a hard-fantasy graphic style reminiscent of Mat Brinkmann and Moebius, Tsui has cranked out hundreds of styles and templates, for bio-memetic garments in all sorts of futuristic colorways. His architectural design vocabulary bleeds over, embellishing each piece with splines, sinews, wings, and ridges.

Obviously, the finished results of these experiments are completely amazing, like early Pierre Cardin if he’d smoked opium with Jodorowsky. Future-cult sportswear for alien utopias.

I can’t say enough about how totally impressive and truly OUT Tsui’s design concepts are and continue to be. Delve deep into his world here and here, and check out this mini-documentary, where Eugene (decked out in an incredible outfit of his own devising, natch) lets us inside his mind: