Posts Tagged ‘design’
From parlor game to psychological staple, the strange story of the Proust Questionnaire…
In 1886, Antoinette Faure, the daughter of the future French President Félix Faure, asked her childhood friend Marcel Proust to fill out a questionnaire in a book titled “Confessions. An Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, & c.” A fashionable parlor game originating among the Victorian literate classes, the “confession album,” as it was known, presented a formulaic set of queries on each page—“What is your distinguishing characteristic,” for instance, or “What virtue do you most esteem?” The album’s owner would pass the volume around among her friends, collecting their comments as a kind of souvenir, not unlike the notes that high-school students leave in one another’s yearbooks. Though Proust was only fourteen years old when he filled out Faure’s album, he responded to the questionnaire in precociously Proustian style. Beside the prompt “Your favorite virtue?,” he wrote, “All those that are not specific to any one sect; the universal ones.” To the rather pedestrian question “Where would you like to live?,” he answered, “In the realm of the ideal, or rather my ideal.” His “idea of misery,” true to form, was “to be separated from Maman.” And when asked, “For what fault have you most toleration?,” he replied, “For the private lives of geniuses.”
The young Proust wrote his answers in French, though Faure’s album, a British import, was printed in English. In his early twenties, Proust would fill out a second questionnaire, in a French album titled “Les Confidences de Salon.” He was far from the only significant cultural figure to participate in this ritual. In 1865, Karl Marx confessed that he considered his chief characteristic “singleness of purpose,” and that his favorite occupation was “bookworming.” Five years later, Oscar Wilde wrote in an album called “Mental Photographs, an Album for Confessions of Tastes, Habits, and Convictions” that his distinguishing feature was “inordinate self-esteem.” Arthur Conan Doyle, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Cézanne all filled out similar forms. But while these other confessions are curios of their era, remembered only by historians, Proust’s questionnaires have had a far-reaching influence that their young author could scarcely have foreseen, becoming, over time, the template for one of the most widely administered personality quizzes in history.
This peculiar afterlife began in 1924, two years after Proust’s death, when Antoinette Faure’s son, the psychoanalyst André Berge, discovered his mother’s confession album in a pile of old volumes among her effects…
* Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
As we answer authentically, we might spare a thought for Raymond Loewy; he died on this date in 1986. A pioneering industrial designer, he shaped landscape of manufactured goods in the U.S., from the Coca-Cola bottle and vending machine, through the automobile (e.g., the Studebaker 1947 Starlight Coupe, the 1953 Starliner Coupe, the 1961 Avanti, and the Greyhound Scenicruiser bus) and appliances (the 1947 line of Hallicrafter radio receivers that conveyed a crisp precision far ahead of their time; the 1929 Gestetner duplicating machine, the 1934 Sears Coldspot Refrigerator), to the heavy industrial (the Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 and S-1 locomotives); and he created logos for companies including Shell, Exxon, TWA, and the former BP. (A more complete list of his work, here.) For all of this, he earned the epithets The Man Who Shaped America, The Father of Streamlining, and The Father of Industrial Design.
Once upon a time, spotted prints went by a host of other names. Slate’s Jude Stewart provides an overview: in the 19th century, “Dotted-Swiss referred to raised dots on transparent tulle,” and in France, “quinconce described the diagonal arrangement of dots seen on the 5-side of dice.” Meanwhile, “[t]he large coin-sized dots on fabric, called Thalertupfen in German, got their name from Thaler, the currency of German-speaking Europe until the late 1800s.”
But then came the polka, the dance so popular that mid-19th century Europe came up with the word “polkamania” to describe its own excitement. As the polka craze swept west across the continent, enthusiasts claimed the polka jacket, then the polka hat (neither of them spotted), and finally, the polka dot. There is only a tenuous connection between dot and dance, yet surely the two are linked—it’s possible that polka dots reflect the same regulated, short bursts of energy that inflect the polka itself. Regardless, we know that the American women’s magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book was the first to print the term, in an 1857 description of a “scarf of muslin, for light summer wear, surrounded by a scalloped edge, embroidered in rows of round polka dots”…
More fashionable fun at “A Brief History of Polka Dots.”
* Coco Chanel
As we avoid pairing with plaids, we might send elegant but perky birthday greetings to Sonja de Lennart; she was born on this date in 1920. A fashion designer who began her career at the close of World War II, she created a wide-swinging skirt with a wide belt (which, as readers can see below, she modeled herself), a blouse, and hat–a collection that became known as the Capri Collection. A couple of years later, in a move away from the wide and rather masculine trouser profile being worn by women of the day, she added a tighter, three-quarter length pant to the collection, the Capri pant. Audrey Hepburn made the slacks famous, wearing them first in Roman Holiday, then Sabrina. As a result, Edith Head embraced the entire Capri line’s look, and so they adorned Doris Day, Jane Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Gina Lollobrigida, Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor, Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg, and Mary Tyler Moore… along with black turtleneck-wearing Existentialists in Paris.
Each night Dion McGregor would fall asleep; then he would narrate his dreams in astonishing detail. Happily, his roommate recorded them– and the resulting tapes reveal the truly strange places our minds go to at night.
“Do you know Edwina didn’t even cry when that crocodile popped off her leg? She didn’t even cry, Edwina. She was fascinated, just fascinated. Her mother fainted dead away, and her father fainted dead away. Half the attendants fainted dead away. And Edwina just stood there and watched him chew up her leg… You know what? She said she always wanted to be Long John Silver!”
Welcome to the strange dream-world of the late Dion McGregor. By day, McGregor was an aspiring songwriter, whose Where Is The Wonder was eventually recorded by Barbra Streisand; by night, the world’s most dramatic sleep-talker…
* Edgar Allan Poe
As we nod off, we might stage a dramatic memorial for dramatist and scenic innovator James Morrison Steele (“Steele”) MacKaye; he died on this date in 1894. A well-known theatrical actor and producer in his time, he is best remembered for his revolutionary contributions to theatrical design. MacKaye opened the Madison Square Theatre in 1879, where he created a huge elevator with two stages stacked one on top of the other so that elaborate furnishings could be changed quickly between scenes. MacKaye was the first to light a New York theatre– the Lyceum, which he founded in 1884– entirely by electricity. And he invented and installed overhead and indirect stage lighting, movable stage wagons, artificial ventilation, the disappearing orchestra pit, and folding seats. In all, MacKaye patented over a hundred inventions, mostly for the improvement of theatrical production and its experience.
The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification turns ten in 2016. Created by artist Julian Montague [bio here], the book attempts to bring clarity to a world littered with shopping carts far away from their birth stores. Written in the voice of a character who takes the project as seriously as a birder would take a birding guide, the book is as complex as it is wry…
A winner of the 2006 award for Oddest Book Title of the Year [c.f. this earlier visit to that list], Montague’s guide received a decent amount of media attention when it came out. But, published in the rudimentary years of social media, it missed out on a chance for the level of virality it may have achieved today. So far, there are few, if any, efforts to add to Montague’s research. Perhaps it’s too good. Perhaps it’s too insane…
See for yourself at “A Look Back at the Greatest (and Only) Stray Shopping Cart Identification Guide Ever Made.”
* Benjamin Franklin
As we return our baskets to the queue, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that “CQD” (Morse code – · – · – – · – – · ·) became the official distress signal to be used by Marconi wireless radio operators. A few years later, judging that “CQD” was too easily mistaken for the general call “CQ” in conditions of poor reception, the signal was changed to the now-ubiquitous “SOS” (· · · – – – · · · ).
In 1912, RMS Titanic radio operator Jack Phillips initially sent “CQD”, which was still commonly used by British ships. Harold Bride, the junior radio operator, jokingly suggested using the new code, “SOS”. Thinking it might be the only time he would get to use it, Phillips began to alternate between the two.
“I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after ‘semicolons,’ and another one after ‘now'”*…
What’s a novel without its words? Just punctuation. But when you take those lines of commas, periods, exclamation points, and quotes, then arrange them in a big spiral, you can still tell something of the character of the original work: the endlessly curious and expository quality of Ishmael’s narrative in Moby Dick, for example, or the titular wonder of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Between the Words by Chicago-based designer Nicholas Rougeux is a series of posters that takes the text of classic novels like Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, The Christmas Carol, Peter Pan, The Time Machine, and more, then strips them of all their words until they are mere swirling vortices of punctuation. The project was inspired by Stefanie Posavec’s Writing without Words data visualizations, which colorfully chart the structure—but not the actual prose—of many classic novels…
* Ursula K. Le Guin
As we eat shoots and leaves, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Barbara Wertheim Tuchman; she was born on this date in 1912. A historian, Tuchman wrote two books (The Guns of August and Stilwell and the American Experience in China) that won Pulitzer Prizes, and several others that could/probably should have: e.g., The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890–1914, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century, and The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam.)
“The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding”*…
On the heels of last Sunday’s look at the NYPL Labs’ extraordinary interactive version of the Green Books, another visit to the Library, which has taken advantage of it’s enormous public domain collection to enable one to compare the photos from the 1911 Fifth Avenue from Start to Finish collection with 2015’s Google Street View. The work of Bert Spaan, it illuminates one of the Big Apple’s most storied thoroughfares:
Fifth Avenue, the street that became the social and cultural spine of New York’s elite, first appeared on the Commissioners’ Map of 1811. At that time, it was merely a country road to Yorkville (then just a tiny self-contained village), but in the proposed grid plan it would be a grand boulevard. As the City grew and prospered Fifth Avenue became synonymous with fashionable life, the site of mansions, cultural and social institutions, and restaurants and shops catering to the elite. In 1907, alarmed at the approach of factories, the leading merchants and residents formed the Fifth Avenue Association. The Save New York Committee became a bulwark against the wrong kind of development. Perhaps inspired by this contemporary movement, photographer Burton Welles used a wide-angled view camera in 1911 to document this most important street from Washington Square, north to East 93rd Street.
Take a stroll at “Street View, Then & Now: New York City’s Fifth Avenue.”
* John Updike
As we spread the news, we might recall that it was on this date in 1988 that three armed men entered the Bank of America’s World Trade Center location, disarmed two Brink’s guards delivering money to a currency exchange center there, then fled with with $1.6 million. The heist was the brainchild of former mob boss Ralph Guarino. Given the heightened security on the heels of the 1993 WTC bombings, he needed help from a long-time employee of the facility, who handed over his ID badge and informed Guarino of the next expected delivery of cash to the bank; three hired goons were dispatched to carry out the robbery on that day. The three entered the bank via passenger elevator early in the morning, tying up employees and stuffing cash into duffel bags as planned. Luckily for law enforcement, the theives were not very discreet; only one of the the trio bothered to cover his head, so the other two were readily identifiable on security cam footage. They were apprehended quickly following the robbery, leading to the capture of Guarino, who chose becoming an FBI informant over jail time.
The heist is unpacked in detail in the 2003 book Made Men.
Fans of Quentin Tarantino might have noticed that items branded “Red Apple” have appeared in every one of his films since Pulp Fiction. For The Hateful Eight, he turned to designer Ross MacDonald…
Much of the action in Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie The Hateful Eight takes place in an 1870 Wyoming trading post called Minnie’s Haberdashery. While you’re viewing it – either in glorious 70mm or regular format – look past the cracking dialog, flying bullets and spraying blood. There – in the background, on the shelves, and occasionally in the character’s hands – you may glimpse a few cans and packages and other general store stuff. For a few months last winter, I was lucky enough to help create a few of those things…
The story– and beautiful examples of the work– at “Hateful Eight & Red Apple.”
[TotH to J.J. Sedelmaier]
* John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth (Kurt Russell), The Hateful Eight
As we roll our own, we might recall that it was on this date in 1940 that MGM released The Shop Around the Corner, the romantic comedy by Ernst Lubitsch. While it did reasonably good business in it run, it has become classic, landing on most “100 Best” lists, scoring a rare 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, and earning a berth in the National Film Registry. But perhaps its highest accolade came from Lubitsch himself: the creator of Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, and To Be Or Not To Be called The Shop Around the Corner “the best picture I ever made in my life.”