Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

26 AUGUST, 2013

Culinary Advice from James Beard, Illustrated by the Provensens


“Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.”

As an aficionado of both unusual cookbooks and the whimsical vintage illustrations of Alice and Martin Provensen, I’m infinitely grateful to Mimi Sheraton, who authored the wonderful Seducer’s Cookbook, for tipping me off to the existence of The Fireside Cook Book: A Complete Guide to Fine Cooking for Beginner and Expert (public library) — a 1949 gem penned by none other than culinary legend James Beard. Intended “for people who are not content to regard food just as something one transfers periodically from plate to mouth,” it offers 1,217 recipes accompanied by more than 400 endlessly delightful illustrations by The Provensens.

But perhaps most timeless of all is a small section prefacing the delicious recipes and drawings, humbly titled “A Word of Advice,” in which Beard captures the spirit of good cooking and, more than half a century before Michael Pollan’s seminal Food Rules, presages much of today’s wisdom on simplicity and integrity of ingredients.

There is absolutely no substitute for good food. Good food cannot be made of inferior ingredients masked with high flavor. It is true thrift to use the best ingredients available and to waste nothing. If you use the best butter, eggs, cream, meat, and other ingredients, and use them carefully and wisely, you will have less waste than if you search for bargains and end up with a full garbage pail.

Plan ahead. Plan carefully and shop in advance for what you need. Planning saves money, as well as time and steps.

Stagger your preparations so that they fit in with your other duties. If you prepare vegetables and other ingredients in advance, the last-minute rush is greatly eased and you will have a few minutes to relax and enjoy the paper or a chat before dinner. Plan so that you do not have three or four things that need attention at the same time.

Avoid having too many courses. If the food is good, that is all the more reason to limit the number of dishes, so that each may be fully savored.

Divide your meal into separate entities. As we shall try to show in the vegetable chapter, many vegetables are important enough to have single billing on your menu and should be served as a separate course.

Give as much care to simple dishes and the humbler foods as you do to elaborate dishes and ambitious menus. At the same time, do not neglect to take advantage of new developments in the growing, shipping, preserving, and cooking of food. Take time to cherish the old and to investigate the new.

Here are some of the loveliest illustrations:

The Fireside Cook Book is absolutely fantastic in its entirety. Complement it with more of the Provensens’ vintage treats, including their adaptation of the Odyssey and the Iliad for young readers, their homage to William Blake, and their splendid take on twelve classic fairy tales. Their 1944 treasure The Animal Fair was also featured in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library as one of 10 favorite books about animals.

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20 AUGUST, 2013

Carving Culture: Sculptural Masterpieces Made from Old Books


“The infinite ways a book can be explored with our minds and our tools has just begun.”

As a fervent lover of papercraft, book sculpture, and creative repurposing of physical books, I was instantly taken with Art Made from Books: Altered, Sculpted, Carved, Transformed (public library) — a compendium of extraordinary artworks from the around the world, using the physical book as raw material for creative contemplation and cultural commentary. Sensual, rugged, breathtakingly intricate, ranging from “literary jewelry” to paperback chess sets to giant area rugs woven of discarded book spines, these cut and carved tomes remind us that art is not a thing but a way — a way of being in the world that transmutes its dead cells into living materials, its cultural legacy into ever-evolving art forms and creative sensibilities.

Guerrilla book sculpture made for the 2011 Edinburgh International Book Festival by an anonymous artist.

In the preface, the inimitable Brian Dettmer, himself a celebrated master of book sculpture, recounts growing up in the 1980s with his brother next to a school for the developmentally disabled and building a massive library in their attic from the school’s discarded books. A decade later, he started carving books as a celebration of the enormous mesmerism and stimulation with which they filled his childhood. But, he laments, our collective relationship with the book has changed:

The book is no longer the king of the information ecosystem. We can now access almost anything instantly online, and bound encyclopedias have become large land mammals that can’t compete with the newer species. They have collapsed and they can’t go on. Do we feed from the carcass? Ideas, like protein, are valuable and shouldn’t go to waste. They should be consumed by someone. Or, do we treat them through taxidermy to preserve them in an inanimate state for future generations to view in museums?


Most of this book work has emerged as a result of, or a response to, the rise of the Internet and the fact that the role of books has dramatically changed in our current information ecology. Many nonfiction books, specifically reference books, have lost their original function.


We have an excess of old material we no longer use and an emergence of new ideas about the book. By altering the book, we can explore the meanings of the material and the idea of the book as a symbol for knowledge. We can explore questions about the history and the future of books and the impact of new technology. We can contemplate and illustrate ideas about literature and information technology.

It is not about nostalgia. It is about the richness of its history and the beauty of its form, though more often it goes far beyond this. The infinite ways a book can be explored with our minds and our tools has just begun. We are at an exciting and pivotal moment in the way we record and receive our information. The form of the book, a symbol for ideas, information, and literature, may be the most relevant signifier and richest material we can work with today. We need to take advantage of this moment and respect the history of the book while contemplating its future in the face of shifts to digital technology.

'Skulduggery,' James Allen, 2012. (75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking)

'Stuart Little,' Thomas Allen, 2011. A weathered and discarded copy of the E. B. White's classic was gently manipulated to make big pictures of a little mouse.

Another sculpture by the same anonymous artist was left at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse in 2011 to celebrate an iconic venue, invaluable to those who also enjoy their books on the big screen.

'Alice: A Mad Tea Party,' Su Blackwell, 2007. Deconstructed book in a box.

'Paper Typewriter,' Jennifer Collier, 2011. Vintage typewriter manual pages, gray board, machine stitching.

'El orden y el caos,' Arián Dylan, 2010 (detail). Trimmed book (laser and hand), binding material.

'Prove It,' Jennifer Khoshbin, 2009. Cut book.

'Thesaurus,' Pablo Lehmann, 2011. Paper cut out with text from 'The Unconscious' by Sigmund Freud.

'Flights of mind,' Vita Wells, 2007. Book, hair, lights, fan, key, screws, hinges, glue.

Find more such whimsy inside the pages of Art Made from Books — pages that maybe, just maybe, would lend themselves to transformation one day.

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16 AUGUST, 2013

The Magic and Logic of Color: How Josef Albers Revolutionized Visual Culture and the Art of Seeing


“A thing is never seen as it really is.”

“Hundreds of people can talk, for one who can think,” John Ruskin wrote, “but thousands of people can think, for one who can see.” “We see, but we do not see: we use our eyes, but our gaze is glancing, frivolously considering its object,” Alexandra Horowitz lamented in her sublime meditation on looking. Hardly anyone has accomplished more in revolutionizing the art of seeing than German-born American artist, poet, printmaker, and educator Josef Albers, as celebrated for his iconic abstract paintings as he was for his vibrant wit and spellbinding presence as a classroom performer. In 1963, he launched into the world what would become the most influential exploration of the art, science, psychology, practical application, and magic of color — an experiment, radical and brave at the time, seeking to cultivate a new way of studying and understanding color through experience and trial-and-error rather than through didactic, theoretical dogma. Half a century later, Interaction of Color (public library), with its illuminating visual exercises and mind-bending optical illusions, remains an indispensable blueprint to the art of seeing.

Albers, who headed the legendary Black Mountain College that shaped such luminaries as Zen composer John Cage and reconstructionist Ruth Asawa, lays out the book’s beautifully fulfilled and timeless promise in the original introduction:

In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is — as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.

In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems.

First, it should be learned that one and the same color evokes innumerable readings. Instead of mechanically applying or merely implying laws and rules of color harmony, distinct color effects are produced-through recognition of the interaction of color-by making, for instance, two very different colors look alike, or nearly alike.


A color has many faces, and one color can be made to appear as two different colors. Here it is almost unbelievable that the left small and the right small squares are part of the same paper strip and therefore are the same color. And no normal human eye is able to see both squares -- alike.

Albers defied the standard academic approach of “theory and practice,” focusing instead on “development of observation and articulation,” with an emphasis not only on seeing color, but also feeling the relationships between colors. He writes:

[Interaction of Color] reverses this order and places practice before theory, which after all, is the conclusion of practice. … Just as the knowledge of acoustics does not make one musical — neither on the productive nor on the appreciative side — so no color system by itself can develop one’s sensitivity for color. This is parallel to the recognition that no theory of composition by itself leads to the production of music, or of art.

Practical exercises demonstrate through color deception (illusion) the relativity and instability of color. And experience teaches that in visual perception there is a discrepancy between physical fact and psychic effect. What counts here — first and last — is not so-called knowledge of so-called facts, but vision — seeing. Seeing here implies Schauen (as in Weltanschauung) and is coupled with fantasy, with imagination.


The 'afterimage effect' demonstrates the interaction of color caused by interdependence of color: On the left are yellow circles of equal diameter which touch each other and fill out a white square. There is a black dot in its center. On the right is an empty white square, also with a centered black dot. Each is on a black background. After staring for half a minute at the left square, shift the focus suddenly to the right square. Instead of the usual color-based afterimage that would complement the yellow circles with blue, their opposite, a shape-based afterimage is manifest as diamond shapes -- the 'leftover' of the circles -- are seen in yellow. This illusion double, reversed afterimage is sometimes called contrast reversal.

To mark the book’s fiftieth anniversary, Debbie Millman, who is herself a master of color, sits down to discuss Albers’s far-reaching legacy and his fundamental contributions to our everyday understanding of color with Brenda Danilowitz, Chief Curator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and Philip Tiongson, who designed the magnificent iPad app accompanying the new edition of the book (an app so exceptional, in fact, that Millman rightly calls it “the example the world has been waiting for in order to begin to understand how it’s possible that books will never, ever go away”). Here are some of the highlights from an altogether fascinating conversation.

On how the brain’s conditioning to notice only what it expects cheats us of the richness of seeing:

Albers believed that in normal seeing, we use our eyes so much because the world is controlled by our vision, but we become so accustomed to it that we take things for granted. And when he talked about visual perception, he meant something much more profound than just the way we look at the world — he would stop and look at the world, look at the smallest object, smallest event, and see through it in a deep kind of way. … He would see magic, he would see something deeper. And he believed that the majority of people just missed the true reality — it was available for everyone to see, but nobody was looking. And that was where his notion of “to open eyes” really comes from.

On Albers’s unconventional approach as an art educator and the mesmerism he had over his students:

The one word that to Josef Albers was absolute anathema was “self-expression.” He said you do not express yourself — you have to learn, you have to have these skills, and then you create something.

Fittingly, one of Albers’s most memorable quotes:

Easy to know that diamonds are precious. Good to learn that rubies have depth. But more to see that pebbles are miraculous.

On how Albers embodied the aphorism that “the art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery” and challenged his Black Mountain College students to experiment with materials in a way that counters the assumptions of perceptual reality:

He believed in experiential teaching — not in putting out a rule and teaching students how to execute that rule. He believed in discovery in the classroom, and that is why his classes were always new and different.

On Albers’s intention with building not a theoretical treatise but a practical toolkit for understanding color:

Albers was not interested in creating a treatise on color. He was not giving you rules about color — he was giving you tools to unlock what he considered the magic of color.

Hear the full interview below, and subscribe to the indispensable Design Matters on iTunes or SoundCloud:

Interaction of Color (public library) is an essential piece of visual literacy, exploring such fascinating subjects and phenomena as color recollection and visual memory, the relativity of color, transparence and space-illusion, temperature and humidity in color, and the afterimage effect. Complement it with Goethe on the psychology of color and emotion and The Black Book of Colors.

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