Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

27 MARCH, 2013

Iconic Designer Henry Dreyfuss on Beauty, Serenity, and Shaping Public Taste


“Man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty.”

The role of the singer, argued Lilli Lehmann in 1902, is to educate people about good music. The role of the writer, argued E. B. White in 1969, is to educate people about good writing. In his 1955 classic Designing for People (public library), legendary industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss (March 2, 1904–October 5, 1972), mastermind of such cultural staples as the very first answering machine and the once-ubiquitous Hoover vacuum cleaner, considers the role of the designer as a tastemaker, educating the public about what constitutes good design.

Dreyfuss writes:

It is my contention that well-designed, mass-produced goods constitute a new American art form and are responsible for the creation of a new American culture. These products of the applied arts are a part of everyday American living and working, not merely museum pieces to be seen on a Sunday afternoon.

I find no basic conflict between those who appreciate the fine arts and those who respond to classic examples of the applied arts. They are stirred by the same impulse, a desire for beauty.


Public taste, as used here, embraces a heterogeneous mass of people, not any particular income group or educational level. Some will be moved by a Van Gogh, others will feel elation at the sight of a sleek jet plane. Exposure to a fine piece of sculpture is likely to create in a person an awareness of the excellent lines of a thermos jug or a lamp, and vice versa. Thus, when a good design is mass-produced, its influence is tremendous. This impact will be translated into an improvement in people’s taste when they go shopping. Unconsciously, a person’s contact with beauty quickens and heightens his perception and taste for all forms of art.

Guided by a certain belief in human aspiration and the conviction that “the American people will listen to good music, if given the chance,” Dreyfuss observes the capacity for betterment that technology affords us — a prescient vision for what the internet, too, could empower if used wisely:

It may be recalled that, at the inception of radio, fear was expressed that people would stop going to concerts if they could hear the same symphonies in their homes without cost. Yet concert-hall box-office receipts are proof that radio has educated a huge audience to good music. There is reason to believe that television, particularly color television, will do the same for art, literature, education, history, and the crafts. Already, able critics and teachers are guiding the uninitiated into these provocative realms. A half-hour’s tour through a museum with a TV camera can bring to life a wealth of art and knowledge that could otherwise not be seen in months.

Furthering his faith in the common capacity for good taste, Dreyfuss champions the life-enriching power of beauty:

Most people have inherent good taste, but they can’t be expected to use it if they can’t find good things, Many persons are intimidated by what the stores and advertisements tell them is the proper thing. Many want what their neighbors have. But given an opportunity to have fine things, people generally choose them.


It would be fatuous to assume that every man is constantly aware of the details of his surroundings. I do not believe this to be true. But I am convinced that a well-set dinner table will aid the flow of gastric juices; that a well-lighted and planned classroom is conducive to study; that carefully selected colors chosen with an eye to psychological influence will develop better and more lucrative work habits for the man at the machine; that a quietly designed conference room at the United Nations headquarters might well help influence the representatives to make a calm and just decision. I believe that man achieves his tallest measure of serenity when surrounded by beauty. We find our most serene moments in great cathedrals, in the presence of fine pictures and sculpture, on a university campus, or listening to magnificent music. Industry, technology, and mass production have made it possible for the average man to surround himself with this serenity in his home and in his place of work. Perhaps it is this serenity which we need most in the world, today.

Pair Designing for People, which is indispensable in its entirety, with this spectacular 1957 meditation on scientific taste.

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21 MARCH, 2013

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Vintage Illustrated Verses for Innocent and Experienced Travelers


“William, William, writing late by the chill and sooty grate, what immortal story can make your tiger roar again?”

As an admirer of literary personification, a lover of vintage children’s books — especially ones with a literary slant and especially illustrated children’s verses by famous poets — and a longtime fan of Alice and Martin Provensen, I was instantly taken with A Visit to William Blake’s Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers (public library) — a 1981 collection of playful poems by Nancy Willard that take us on a tour of Blake’s imaginary inn, inspired by Blake’s beloved Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience and tenderly illustrated by the Provensens in their signature mid-century sensibility of vibrant vignettes and expressive creatures.

This inn belongs to William Blake
and many are the beasts he’s tamed
and many are the stars he’s named
and many those who stop and take
their joyful rest with William Blake.

Two mighty dragons brew and bake
and many are the loaves they’ve burned
and many are the spits they’ve turned
and many those who stop and break
their joyful bread with William Blake.

Two patient angels wash and shake
his featherbeds, and far away
snow falls like feathers. That’s the day
good children run outside and make
snowmen to honor William Blake.


Keep your whiskers crisp and clean.
Do not let the mice grow lean.
Do not let yourself grow fat
Like a common kitchen cat.

Have you set the kittens free?
Do they sometimes ask for me?
Is our catnip growing tall?
Did you patch the garden wall?

Clouds are gentle walls that hide
Gardens on the other side.
Tell the tabby cats I take
All my meals with William Blake,

Lunch at noon tea at four,
Served in splendor on the shore
At the tinkling of a bell.
Tell them I am sleeping well.

Tell them I have come so far,
Brought by Blake’s celestial cat,
Buffeted by wind and rain,
I may not get home again.

Take this message to my friends.
Say the King of Catnip sends
To the cat who winds his clocks
A thousand sunsets in a box,

To the cat who brings the ice
The shadows of a dozen mice
(serve them with assorted dips
and eat them like potato chips),

And to the cat who guards his door
A net for catching stars, and more
(if patience he abide):
Catnip from the other side.


Roast me a wren to start with.
Then, Brisket of Basilisk Treat.
My breakfast is “on the house”?
What a curious place to eat!
There’s no accounting for customs.
My tastes are simple and few,
a fat mole smothering in starlight
and a heavenly nine-mouse stew.

I shall roll away from the table
looking twice my usual size.
“Behold the moon!” you will whisper.
“How marvelous his disguise.
How like the King of Cats he looks,
how similar his paws
and his prodigious appetite–
why, in the middle of the night
he ate, with evident delight,
a dozen lobster claws.”


“Ah, William, we’re weary of weather,”
said the sunflowers, shining with dew.
“Our traveling habits have tired us.
Can you give us a room with a view?”

They arranged themselves at the window
and counted the steps of the sun,
and they both took root in the carpet
where the topaz tortoises run.


Tiger, Sunflowers, King of Cats,
Cow and Rabbit, mend your ways.
I the needle, you the thread –
follow me through mist and maze.

Fox and hound, go paw in paw.
Cat and rat, be best of friends.
Lamb and tiger, walk together.
Dancing starts where fighting ends.


William, William, writing late
by the chill and sooty grate,
what immortal story can
make your tiger roar again?

When I sent to fetch your meat
I confess that I did eat
half the roast and all the bread.
He will never know, I said.

When I was sent to fetch your drink,
I confess that I did think
you would never miss the three
lumps of sugar by your tea.

Soon I saw my health decline
and I knew the fault was mine.
Only William Blake can tell
tales to make a tiger well.

Now I lay me down to sleep
with bear and rabbit, bird and sheep.
If I should dream before I wake,
may I dream of William Blake.


My adventures now are ended.
I and all whom I befriended
from this holy hill must go
home to lives we left below.

Farewell cow and farewell cat,
rabbit, tiger, sullen rat.
To our children we shall say
how we walked the Milky Way.

You whose journeys now begin,
if you reach a lovely inn,
if a rabbit makes your bed,
if two dragons bake your bread,
rest a little for my sake,
and give my love to William Blake.

Gracing the very last page is a piece of heart-warming, aphoristic advice:

A Visit to William Blake’s Inn received the Caldecott Honor Medal, the highest recognition in children’s literature, in 1982. Five years later, Martin passed away. Alice, currently in her nineties, continues to draw.

Thanks, Wendy

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20 MARCH, 2013

Sign Painters: What a Disappearing Art Teaches Us About Creative Purpose and Process


“It is at the moment o f a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see.”

As a lover of exquisite hand-lettering, elegant vintage-inspired typography, and vibrant storefront signage, I was instantly smitten with Sign Painters (public library) — a stunning companion to Faythe Levine and Sam Macon’s documentary of the same title, exploring the disappearing art through interviews with some of its most prominent masters amidst a lavish gallery of extraordinary hand-painted signage, with a foreword by Ed Ruscha. But this is no mere eye candy — brimming with candid insights, personal stories, and wisdom on the creative life, the book envelops the “what” with rich and ample layers of the “how” and the “why.” Macon affirms this in the introduction:

This book, like the job of the sign painter, isn’t always about eye-popping, flashy designs. It’s about process. It’s about communication. It’s about the experiences, years of practice, tricks of the trade, and design fundamentals learned over time that transform a person who just wants to paint signs into a great sign painter.

Cautioning against the glamorized nostalgia that the trope of documentaries about near-obsolete occupations tends to deliberately play on, Glenn Adamson, head of research at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, writes:

In setting on this topic, Levine and Macon are just in time. Many sign painters are now retired, or about to hang up their brushes; others have made the transition to easier, cheaper, but depressingly homogenous vinyl lettering or large-scale digital printing. As is often the case, it is at the moment o f a craft’s disappearance that its cultural value suddenly becomes plain to see.

In many ways, the individual journeys of the featured painters embody Daniel Pink’s concept of autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the trifecta of success. We see them enter into the craft via astoundingly different paths — from generations-old family sign-painting traditions to serendipitous discoveries, from fine art to street art, from graphic design to gardening — yet what unites them is a shared celebration of having found creative purpose, loving the work in and of itself rather than seeing is as a means to some material end.

Doc Guthrie (Los Angeles, California) echoes Alan Watts and articulates it beautifully:

This was a real creative way to make a living — and notice I said ‘make a living,’ not ‘get rich.’ If your’e under the illusion that you’re going to do something like this and get rich, it’s not going to happen. If you want to make a good living, and you want to wake up every morning and look forward to the day, look forward to painting a truck, getting up on a wall, painting a movie background, that’s a good life. Many people in this country dread getting up and going to work. You have fifty years of work ahead of you, and it should be something that you really love. I never got rich, but I provided a living for my family and owned a home — that’s a working-class American success story.

Over and over, we see this recurring theme of creative romanticism scoffing at mercantile motives. Bob Behounek (Chicago, Illinois) laments:

Bigger and better machines became available. People were getting into the sign business just to make money. … There are more people out there now who don’t understand or don’t have the passion to create a well-designed sign. Vinyl machines can cut, they can give you a circle and a square, but they can’t give you the passion of a sign painter.

If you’re in a creative field and have ever been asked about how you’re going to “scale” what you do, you might share in shuddering. Sean Starr (Denton, Texas) gets to the heart of it:

When you get the sign-painting bug, it’s not about the money. If it was, you could expand in the right market and have twenty people working for you, but you wouldn’t have the enjoyable aspect of taking time on projects. If you’re in a high-production shop, which I worked in on the digital and vinyl side years ago, it’s just miserable. It’s like a sweatshop. You don’t have the latitude for creativity because you’re being told, ‘Okay, we need three hundred of these, two hundred of this, by this deadline.’ Who cares about the money?

Coupled with that is a courageous championing of pursuing creative rewards despite uncertainty and the fear of failure. Norma Jeanne Maloney (Austin, Texas) echoes Thoreau and captures it beautifully:

There’s some fear involved in doing what you love. I get up every morning and I look at that fear and say to myself, ‘I’m doing what I love today,’ and that gets me through the day.

Some are journeys of overcoming unlikely odds, like the story of Rose Otis (Las Vegas, Nevada):

I worked with the master [Jerry Albright] for five years. After the apprenticeship, he tagged on six months for students who wanted to learn gold-leaf techniques. There were probably three or four women in my class, and it was very hard to get a job. The guys at the sign shops said that i was too small an d short (I was), that I couldn’t carry my ladders, I couldn’t do this, I couldn’t do that. They basically said that they’d hire me to sweep the floors and make coffee, but as a woman I wasn’t going to be working in the world as a sign painter.

Or take Bob Dewhurst (San Francisco, California):

I first got interested in sign painting because I was locked up in a mental institution. THere was this guy who escaped, and when they finally caught him everyone wanted to know what he’d been doing. ‘I went to San Francisco and made all this money as a sign painter,’ he told us. I thought, ‘Yeah, maybe if I escape I can go to San Francisco and paint signs, too.’

For some, this is the dawn of a brave new world that only expands our collective creative acumen. Gary Martin (Austin, Texas) marvels:

I’m extremely happy. I feel like I’ve been living on a desert island by myself for years and then all of a sudden a bunch of other people started showing up to join me. I weathered it,and sine the new wave of these younger sign painters started getting involved it makes me work and try harder. It has energized me so much. Now I can post my stuff online and get reactions from other sign painters. When I’m designing a sign I’m thinking, ‘Okay, this will be seen by a lot of people who have discriminating eyes. I have to make this good.’

For others, the virtual world is the villain to beware. Ira Coyne (Olympia, Washington) shares in Anaïs Nin’s celebration of handcraft and considers the cultural value of this disappearing art:

Sign painting creates jobs — more importantly, jobs for artists. Art and music are the first things to go in schools. The role of art is disappearing. When we were kids, we learned about bakers and candlestick makers. We learned about cobblers and all these old-school, awesome things that people did their entire lives. They specialized in making one thing. … In archeology, the things that matter most are handmade: ceramics, glass, sarcophagi, paintings. The most valued objects of lost cultures are the things that were made by hand. We need to start making things with our hands again.

In fact, Coyne believes that learning to avoid work and pursue passion will profoundly change our cultural landscape:

When corporate America started taking over and steamrolling everything, we became more and more disconnected. People are starting to rebuild those neighborhoods. If the guy who’s been working at some job that he hates moves on and opens that coffee shop or store he has always wanted to own, that will change the landscape of America.

Keith Knecht (Toledo, Ohio), who passed away in 2011 and to whom the book is lovingly dedicated, frames the historical context of sign painting as an intersection of art and commerce:

Sign painting, as we know it here in America, is a good 150 years old. It all started when growers and manufacturers began to brand their products. Before that, if you needed flour, you went to the general store and the shop owner would have a barrel of flour and would fill up a canvas bag for you. Manufacturers realized that they had to market their products to show that their goods were better than the competition. That’s when Gold Medal flour, Morton Salt, and other brands were introduced. In 1840 there weren’t big advertising agencies on Madison Avenue designing logos and creating campaigns for these companies. Sign painters designed these logos.

This osmosis of the creative and the practical appears again and again. Forrest Wozniak (Minneapolis, Minnesota) observes:

What I feel separates sign painting from art is that art is an exploration of one’s self. Whether they are exploring their egos, emotions, or their pasts, artists are exploring themselves. There’s no real failure in pursuing art. you have to do signs correctly; there’s a correct format. It’s similar to carpentry. If you need to cut something seventeen inches long, you have to cut it the right size. Sign painting appealed to my logical nature. It’s a way to pursue art with a right and a wrong.

From Wozniak also comes what’s possibly the most poignant observation on the craft’s singular allure:

As a sign painter you are a deacon to society because you don’t work for someone who is successful, you work for someone who hopes to be successful.

But underpinning the entire cross-section of sign artists is a quiet yet unflinching testament to the ethos that the best kind of success is the one you define yourself, based not on prestige or money but on process and happiness. And what makes Sign Painters particularly alluring is its focus on something so tangible and lasting, on permanent atoms in the age of ephemeral bits, reminding us that these artists are not remnants of a bygone era in the evolution of creative culture but a vital signpost pointing in the unchanging director of what’s truly and everlastingly human.

Thanks, Lisa; images courtesy Princeton University Press

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