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Posts Tagged ‘history’

25 JANUARY, 2012

“Sincerity, Honesty, Conviction, Affection, Imagination, and Humor”: A Profile of Charles Eames, 1946

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“You will not grasp how this furniture came into being or what it really means unless you understand this also about Charles Eames.”

Charles and Ray Eames have pioneered modernist furniture, carved out a new way to think about design, and even changed our understanding of the scales of the universe. Appearing in the September 1946 issue of arts & architecture magazine is a fantastic profile of Charles Eames (PDF) by industrial designer and architect Eliot Noyes, most famous for the IBM Selectric typewriter. Noyes captures Eames’ sprit and vision with equal parts creative admiration, entrepreneurial appreciation, and astute observation of the deeper cultural resonance — with a special emphasis on the designer’s personal values of integrity and intuition (more on that) as the building blocks of his professional legacy.

There is no need to qualify the statement. Charles Eames has designed and produced the most important group of furniture ever developed in this country. His achievement is a compound of aesthetic brilliance and technical inventiveness. He has not only produced the finest chairs of modern design, but through borrowing, improvising, and inventing techniques, he has for the first time exploited the possibilities of mass production methods for the manufacture of furniture. With one stroke he has underlined the design decadence and technical obsolescence of Grand Rapids.

When you stop and try to analyze how he approached the problem, it sounds very easy and obvious. Whatever good modern furniture we have had in this country has always been expensive. Eames wanted to produce a good set of designs and ‘take them out of the carriage trade’ by designing them so that they could be economically in quantity and sold cheaply. This meant that he must be able to use the best ways of doing things that the 20th Century could offer. Naturally he wanted his furniture to be as comfortable and useful as possible, because he never forgot that he was making his designs for use. This very direct approach made it comparatively simple. He never worried much (as many designers do) about ‘what the public wants,’ or ‘what the public will accept,’ because he had a profound belief in the public, and the conviction that if they didn’t want or wouldn’t accept the furniture which he was designing for their use, the fault lay in his designs, not in the public. He knew very well the absurdity of trying to design to an assumed public taste. It is important to realize that the furniture is an expression of this direct approach; each piece is composed as much of the personal ingredients of Charles Eames as of wood and metal. If you examine this furniture, you will find sincerity, honesty, conviction, affection, imagination, and humor. You will not grasp how this furniture came into being or what it really means unless you understand this also about Charles Eames.”

For more on the Eames’ work and legacy, don’t miss the fantastic recent film Eames: The Architect and the Painter.

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25 JANUARY, 2012

The Ice Balloon: The Story of the Disastrous 1897 Expedition to the North Pole by Air

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A summertime jaunt to the Arctic Circle, spoiled.

The most famous missing person of the late nineteenth century was surely Sir John Franklin, who disappeared in 1847 with over a hundred crewmen while navigating a section of the Northwest Passage. Over the next thirty years, forty-one expeditions set off to find him, or some relic of his trip, and at the insistence of Lady Franklin, more men had died searching for Lord Franklin than on the original expedition. Eventually, word trickled back that the ships had been caught in the shifting Arctic ice and the men had starved and some had been cannibalized.

It’s been speculated that of the nearly one thousand explorers and crew who have traveled to the Arctic, only a quarter have returned. In an 1895 address to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences, S.A. Andrée proposed an expedition to the North Pole that would risk only three lives, avoiding the crushing ice floes by using a mode of transportation that promised to be safe, quick, and relatively comfortable.

He would travel by balloon.

The Ice Balloon by New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson is a chronicle of that trip, and of the last generation of romantic explorers who would make the pole their life’s work.

Andrée's balloon after three days of travel north. It crashed largely intact.(Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Arctic is a sea of ice, unlike its southern counterpart, the solid, windswept land of Antarctica, and the North Pole has many changing faces: the Geographic North Pole (Andrée’s destination), the Magnetic North Pole, and the Geomagnetic North Pole.

The pole travels like a ghost over the Arctic plain, having more in common with a balloon than an ice breaker. It could be on the tip of Greenland, or surrounded by islands, or in open water. It’s slippery to get a hold of, and just as slippery to prove that you’ve held it. Many close calls and many claims plagued explorers for the first part of the twentieth century, when a bad calculation by frost-bitten fingers could mean the difference between glory and obscurity. (The first scientifically-proven expedition to the pole wasn’t achieved until 1926, more than 15 years after the first expeditions to Antarctica.)

The balloon house on Dane's Island in Svalbard, where Andrée constructed his launch.

In 1896, during Andrée’s first attempt at the trip, there was a festive atmosphere at the launch site in Svalbard, an archipelago in the Scandinavian north. Tourists would come to visit him as he constructed the balloon, and he in turn would give lectures. While preparing the launch, Andrée had two problems. One was that the balloon’s fabric was not sufficiently holding in the hydrogen. The other was Fridtjof Nansen.

Andrée's Arctic rival was Fridtjof Nansen, a swashbuckling Norwegian to Andrée's introspective Swede.

For the past three years, Nansen had lived with his crew above the Arctic Circle, and was known as one of the few people who could weather an arctic winter in a tent. Just a few months before he had attempted to reach the pole by skis and set a new record latitude for northern travel. When Andrée returned to Stockholm, he was besieged by Nansen’s glory. But Andrée was a different breed of explorer, his trip was not survivalist, but as Wilkinson describes it, “futurist.” His wasn’t just a plan for a successful exploration, but the beginnings of a new kind of exploration, one by air.

Andrée's balloon 'The Eagle'” sets off on its journey, leaving Svalbard on July 11, 1897. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

The next year, in 1897, Andrée and his crew returned to Svalbard and quietly launched the balloon, which drifted out over the horizon. An eyewitness reported:

There is profound silence at this moment. We hear only the whistling of the wind through the woodwork of the shed, and the flapping of the canvas… ooThe way to the Pole is clear, no more obstacles to encounter—the sea, the ice-field, the Unknown!

The public gave Andrée a year to reach his destination, then they considered looking for his bones. Andrée had homing pigeons aboard, and false reports of the birds showing up all over the world, including, improbably, Chicago, fueled interest in Andrée’s whereabouts.

The crew successfully hunted for food. Here, Andrée stands over a dead polar bear. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

The bodies were found more than 30 years later, on a remote island in Svalbard. According to the recovered accounts what happened was this: The balloon sailed north on a bumpy trip for three days before crashing, making it only about half as far as Nansen did the year before. With their supplies intact, the crew of three headed back south.

The crew and their small boat, struggling across a pitch of ice. There was a timer on the camera, allowing for all three men to appear in the picture. (Courtesy of the Grenna Museum, Sweden/The Swedish Society of Anthropology and Geography)

For three months, the crew pulled three-hundred pound sledges across the broken ice, they shot polar bears and ate them, they celebrated the Swedish Jubilee on September 18th with flags and a special menu, and they took pictures, lots of them, which illustrated a journey of hardship but also good spirits until the end. The pictures also revealed to the world a dreamlike sight: an inflated balloon on its side in the Arctic.

The Ice Balloon is a remarkable account by Wilkinson, not just of S.A. Andrée and his crew, but of all Arctic explorers, some looking for a route, others for the glory of the pole. These were people of a different will, a different mind, and as Wilkinson writes, a different age, now at an end:

It is no observation of my own that the nineteenth century was the last to have been receptive to the enactment of myths… the last to pursue their models and outlines and to feel the rightness of embodying them… The walls of the known, the boundaries were close at hand. It was as if the restraints that men felt in sociable life made them feel compelled out rush into the wild.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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23 JANUARY, 2012

Architecture Without Architects: What Ancient Structures Reveal About Collaborative Design

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From Rome’s theater districts to China’s underground cities, or what pleasure has to do with utility.

The mythology of the sole genius underpins most contemporary creative disciplines, but it is particularly pronounced in architecture, where the image of the visionary diva-architect endures as the gold standard of the discipline’s success. In 1964, Moravian-born American writer, architect, designer, collector, educator, designer, and social historian Bernard Rudofsky examined a whole other side of architecture in Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture — a fascinating lens on “primitive” and communal architecture, exploring both its functional value and its artistic richness, with a focus on indigenous tribal structures and ancient dwellings. Rudofsky peels the pretense of architecture from the creative and utilitarian acts of building to reveal a kind of vernacular, communal architecture embodying a timeless art form that springs from the intersection of human intelligence, necessity, and collective creativity.

I believe that sensory pleasure should take precedence over intellectual pleasure in art and architecture.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Underground city near Tungkwan (China)

Anticoli on the Sabine Mountains (near Rome)

Rudofsky was concerned with the cultural bias of architectural history, so he took a special interest in the vernacular architecture of non-Western communities.

Architectural history, as written and taught in the Western world, has never been concerned with more than a few select cultures. In terms of space it comprises but a small part of the globe -Europe, stretches of Egypt and Anatolia- or little more than was known in the second century AD. Moreover, the evolution of architecture is usually dealt with only in its late phases.” ~ Bernard Rudofsky

Cliff dwellings of the Dogon tribe (Sudan)

(Curiously, Rudofsky’s black-and-white photographs of clustered housing units bear a visceral resemblance to the illustrations of Soviet mathematician-turned-artist Anatolii Fomenko, conveying a strange sense of organic order.)

Marrakech (Morocco)

The structures in Architecture Without Architects reveal a kind of purposeful, iterative, social design process that, while dating back centuries and originating in primitive cultures, offers a powerful parallel to contemporary shifts towards collaborative creation.

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