Brain Pickings

American Look: A Technicolor Homage to Mid-Century Design

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Can you identify these 49 classic pieces of mid-century design?

In February, we took a look at American Maker — a fascinating Technicolor film produced by the Handy (Jam) Organization and commissioned by the Chevrolet division of General Motors in 1960 to celebrate craftsmanship and creativity. Two years earlier, the same team produced another film, American Look, celebrating mid-century lifestyle design ranging from dinnerware to public art murals to lawnmowers. It’s Mad Men meets Eames meets Objectified meets Look at Life, an early predecessor of BBC’s fantastic The Genius of Design five-part documentary.

Now, the fine folks at The Atlantic are on a mission to identify the 49 mid-century design classics that appear in the film, which Alexis Madrigal has painstakingly screen-shot and catalogued in order of appearance. So head on over to the gallery and lend Alexis your design geekery — how cool would it be to play human Google Goggles for product design?

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Drawn In: A Peek Inside Favorite Artists’ Private Sketchbooks

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What the myth of the muse has to do with the discipline of refinement, visual poetry and Shel Silverstein.

I’m a longtime fan of artist Julia Rothman, who pens the wonderful Book By Its Cover blog and who in 2009 co-masterminded the excellent Exquisite Book, in which 100 of today’s most exciting visual artists engaged in a collaborative game inpsired by the surrealist movement of the 1920s. This month, Julia is back with another superb book project: Drawn In: A Peek into the Inspiring Sketchbooks of 44 Fine Artists, Illustrators, Graphic Designers, and Cartoonists — a voyeuristic visual journey into how artists doodle, brainstorm and flesh ideas out, doing for art what Field Notes did for science, Street Sketchbook did for street art and Pure Process did for advertising.

The lavish volume offers a rare glimpse inside the minds and hearts of favorite artists like visual poet Sophie Blackall, happiness-designer Tad Carpenter, nature illustrator Jill Bliss and many more, showcasing stunning full-color images alongside profiles of the artists, who discuss their sketchbooks and how they use them.

Today, I sit down with Julia to chat about the theories of creative genius, common patterns of creation, and insights from the project.

q1

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the origin of genius and the driving force behind the creative process, whether it’s the product of this age-old notion of “the muse” or closer to something like Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory, which frames “genius” as the product of merciless practice and discipline. Do artists’ sketchbooks bespeak a particular truth to tip the scale in either direction, or do they embody some combination of the two models of genius?

JR: I think it’s definitely a mix of both. While you can learn a technique like drawing and try to perfect it by practicing and practicing, you still need that bit of natural talent to bring it to the level of these artists. In these sketchbooks, there’s evidence of artists spending a lot of time getting their drawings to look a certain way. Sam Bosma’s sketches of the same character over and over are a great example. His pages show a refinement in each rendering of the same subject. But there is definitely a spontaneity in much of the work in these sketchbooks. One of my favorite examples is Christian DeFilippo’s balloon page. It seems like he just threw a handful of balloons on the paper and taped them down flat. The result is an amazing colorful and sculptural page, an experiment which couldn’t have been created from practice.

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Did any specific patterns emerge from the bird’s-eye view of the 44 sketchbooks, anything that was common to many artist and perhaps a useful insight on how the rest of us can best tame our inspiration and creative process?

JR: Each of these artists have such different styles and ways of working, but one of the things that they all seemed to do was observational drawing from life. While much of Anders Nilsen’s sketchbook was filled with comics and imagery from his own head, you’d turn a page and see a realistic sketch of a person who was sitting in front of him. It seems like being able to capture the world around you is an important skill to each of these artists whether or not their non-sketchbook work reflects that. Being able to recreate the world around them, must help artists to be able to create their own worlds.

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What dead artists’ sketchbooks do you most wish you could peek inside?

JR: Keiko Minami, Vera Neuman, Ben Shahn, John Singer Sargent, Shel Silverstein, Ezra Jack Keats, Olle Eksell, Alexander Calder, Charles Schulz… I could go on and on.

Drawn In is out this month and an absolute, rare kind of treat.

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The Ascent of Money: A PBS Financial History of the World

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Renaissance royalty, Oriental math, and why financial history is the essential backstory behind all history.

Among yesterday’s selection of 5 must-read books by this year’s newly announced TED Global speakers was The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson. But the book was actually meant to accompany a 2008 six-part documentary commissioned by Channel 4 — the same folks who gave us What Is Reality?, The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion, How Music Works, What Is Time? — and distributed in the US by PBS.

The program is now available online in a clip of questionable legality that may or may not get pulled down by the copyright watchdogs at any point. But, while it lasts, it’s very much worth a watch — eloquent and digestible, it distills one of the most powerful driving forces of our civilization and its multiplicitous impact on just about every aspect of our lives.

Banks financed the Renaissance, while the bond market decided wars. Stock markets built empires and monetary meltdowns made revolutions. From ancient Mesopotamia right down to present-day London, the ascent of money has been an indispensable part of the ascent of man. But money’s rise has never been a smooth upward ride. As we’ll see, financial history has repeatedly been interrupted by gut-wrenching crises, of which today’s is just the latest.” ~ Niall Ferguson

(The sixth and final episode was uploaded as a separate video due to YouTube’s length restrictions.)

For an excellent companion to and enhancement of the documentary, you won’t go wrong with the book.

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