Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

26 AUGUST, 2013

Culinary Advice from James Beard, Illustrated by the Provensens

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“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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22 AUGUST, 2013

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

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“The way people use a place mirrors expectations.”

“Just bring your own contents, and you create a sparkle of the highest power,” Anaïs Nin wrote about the poetics of New York in 1939. But what, exactly, are those contents, and how does a city keep its sparkle?

In 1970, legendary urbanist and professional people-watcher William “Holly” Whyte formed a small, revolutionary research group called The Street Life project and began investigating the curious dynamics of urban spaces. At the time, such anthropological observation had been applied to the study of indigenous cultures in far-off exotic locales, but not to our most immediate, most immersive environment: the city, which hides extraordinary miracles of ordinary life, if only we know how to look for them. So Whyte and his team began by looking at New York City’s parks, plazas, and various informal recreational areas like city blocks — a total of 16 plazas, 3 small parks, and “a number of odds and ends” — trying to figure out why some city spaces work for people while others don’t, and what the practical implications might be about living better, more joyful lives in our urban environment. Their findings were eventually collected in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces (public library) in 1980 and synthesized in a 55-minute companion film, which you can watch below for some remarkably counterintuitive insights on the living fabric of the city.

Far more intriguing than the static characteristics of the architectural landscape, however, are the dynamic human interactions that inhabit them, and the often surprising ways in which they unfold. Whyte writes in the preface:

What has fascinated us most is the behavior of ordinary people on city streets — their rituals in street encounters, for example, the regularity of chance meetings, the tendency to reciprocal gestures in street conferences, the rhythms of the three-phase goodbye.

Whyte’s team went on to investigate everything from the ideal percentage of sitting space on a plaza (between 6% and 10% of the total open space, or one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza) to the intricate interplay of sun, wind, trees, and water (it’s advantageous to “hoard” the sun and amplify its light in some cases, and to obscure it in others). These factors and many more go into what makes a perfect plaza:

A good plaza starts at the street corner. If it’s a busy corner, it has a brisk social life of its own. People will not just be waiting there for the light to change. Some will be fixed in conversation; others in some phase of a prolonged goodbye. If there’s a vendor at the corner, people will cluster around him, and there will be considerable two-way traffic back and forth between plaza and corner.

[…]

The area where the street and plaza or open space meet is key to success or failure. Ideally, the transition should be such that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. New York’s Paley Park is one of the best examples. The sidewalk in front is an integral part of the park. An arborlike foliage of trees extends over the sidewalk. There are urns of flowers and the curb and, on either side of the steps, curved sitting ledges. In this foyer you can usually find somebody waiting for someone else — it is a convenient rendezvous point — people sitting on the ledges, and, in the middle of the entrance, several people in conversation.

Urban parks, Whyte discovered, were an integral mechanism for stimulating our interaction with the city — perhaps one reason they are so enduringly beloved:

The park stimulates impulse use. Many people will do a double take as they pass by, pause, move a few steps, then, with a slight acceleration, go on up the steps. Children do it more vigorously, the very young ones usually pointing at the park and tugging at their mothers to go in, many of the older ones breaking into a run just as they approach the steps, then skipping a step or two.

And so we get to the surprisingly intricate science of yet another seemingly mundane element of the urban experience: steps.

Watch these flows and you will appreciate how very important steps can be. The steps at Paley are so low and easy that one is almost pulled to them. They add a nice ambiguity to your movement. You can stand and watch, move up a foot, another, and, then, without having made a conscious decision, find yourself in the park.

Other factors that spur a lively and robust social interaction include public art and performance:

Sculpture can have strong social effects. Before and after studies of the Chase Manhattan plaza showed that the installation of Dubuffet’s “Four Trees” has had a beneficent impact on pedestrian activity. People are drawn to the sculpture, and drawn through it: they stand under it, beside it; they touch it; they talk about it. At the Federal Plaza in Chicago, Alexander Calder’s huge stabile has had similar effects.

Then there’s music, known to enchant the brain and influence our emotions in profound ways:

Musicians and entertainers draw people together [but] it is not the excellence of the act that is important. It is the fact that it is there that bonds people, and sometimes a really bad act will work even better than a good one.

In another chapter, Whyte considers the problem of urban “undesirables” — drunks, drug dealers, and other uncomfortable reminders of how our own lives might turn out “but for the grace of events.” Here, too, Whyte’s findings debunk conventional wisdom with an invaluable, counterintuitive insight: rather than fencing places off and flooding them with surveillance cameras (which he finds are of little use in outdoor spaces — something that would delight artist and provocateur Ai Weiwei), we should aim to make them as welcoming as possible

The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else. … The way people use a place mirrors expectations.

This, in fact, reflects the most fundamental and timeless insight of the entire project, echoing the famous Penguin Books maxim that “good design is no more expensive than bad”:

It is far easier, simpler to create spaces that work for people than those that do not — and a tremendous difference it can make to the life of a city.

Slim but fantastically insightful, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces is a foundational piece of today’s thinking on what makes a great city and a fine addition to these essential reads on urbanism.

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20 AUGUST, 2013

This Is Israel: Miroslav Sasek’s Iconic Vintage Children’s Book, as an Animated Short Film

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A bittersweet time machine of vibrant illustration.

Celebrated Czech emigre architect-turned-illustrator and author Miroslav Sasek is best known for his now-iconic This Is… series, which was enormously influential in the history of children’s picturebooks. (His This Is New York was among my 10 favorite books on NYC in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library.) Created between 1959 and 1970, the books explore some of the world’s most beloved cities in vibrant vintage illustrations, bringing the urban organism to life through charming anecdotal details.

In the 1960s, four 12-minute animated films were produced to accompany some of the books, using the signature “iconographic” method of Weston Woods Studios to create the illusion of animation from still images, including one based on This Is Israel (public library) — a bittersweet and perhaps idyllic piece of cultural memory, at once timeless and dated as we confront a half-century of conflict in the very land Sasek so beautifully depicted:

The entire This Is… series is a treasure — highly recommended.

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19 AUGUST, 2013

Salvador Dalí Illustrates the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac

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From Aries to Pisces, by way of a confused lobster.

After my recent discovery of Salvador Dalí’s little-known and lovely 1947 illustrations for the essays of Montaigne — following in the heels of his 1946 illustrations for Alice in Wonderland — I chanced upon an even more perfectly surrealist series: Dalí’s lithographs of the twelve signs of the zodiac, created in 1967 as a limited-edition of 250, which can be found in the occasional rare, pricey original folio and which Wisconsin’s revered David Barnett Gallery has recently made available online as individual signed lithographs.

Gasp and dream — I certainly did. (And for a chuckle, consider the cancer — how amusing to reckon that Dalí, despite his culinary credentials, either didn’t know or chose to artistically disregard the difference between a crab and a lobster.)

Aries

Taurus

Gemini

Cancer

Leo

Virgo

Libra

Scorpio

Sagittarius

Capricorn

Aquarius

Pisces

Complement with this omnibus of famous creators’ little-known art.

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14 AUGUST, 2013

Homer for Young Readers: The Provensens’ Vibrant Vintage Illustrations for the Iliad & Odyssey

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Ancient Greek mythology meets mid-century art.

Few artists have done more to enchant generations of children with storytelling than wife-and-husband duo Alice and Martin Provensen, whose vibrant mid-century illustrations span everything from classic fairy tales to an homage to William Blake. (Their 1944 gem The Animal Fair was featured in my recent collaboration with The New York Public Library as one of 10 favorite books about animals.) Born on August 14, 1917, Alice plowed through the era’s tragic bias against female artists; she survived Martin, who died in 1987, by more than two decades and continues to draw well into her nineties.

In 1956, New York’s Golden Press — makers of the fantastic Little Golden Books series — commissioned the Provensens to illustrate an adaptation of Homer for young readers, and The Iliad and the Odyssey: A Giant Golden Book (public library) was born — a stunning large-format volume, sadly relegated to the tragic out-of-print corner of culture, but still obtainable used. Enjoy some of the Provensens’ timelessly wonderful drawings:

The Iliad and the Odyssey is delightful in its entirety and could have easily inspired The Ancient Book of Myth and War, that lovely side project by four Pixar animators.

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