Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

31 OCTOBER, 2012

A Visual History of New York City’s Destruction in 200 Years of Fiction


What visions of the magnificent city’s destruction reveal about American ideology and the dominant social issues of each era.

This week, Hurricane Sandy struck New York to become one of the city’s most devastating natural disasters on record. Officials from both energy monolith Con Edison and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have called it “the worst” in their respective 189- and 108-year histories. I feel incredibly lucky to have survived with virtually no damage and no power loss, but thousands of people across the river in Manhattan, including many friends, haven’t been so fortunate. How jarring it is to see this magnificent city, always so proudly imbued with its own myth, brought uncomfortably close to the scenes and landscapes we’re so used to seeing in apocalyptic fictions.

A ghostly Manhattan, hauntingly devoid of people and cars, prepares for Sandy. October 29, 2012.

Gotham braces itself for the superstorm. October 29, 2012.

Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Around my neighborhood after Sandy. October 30, 2012.

Indeed, the destruction of New York City has a prolific history in fiction, revisiting which feels strangely cathartic in the face of this all-too-real disaster.

In 2001, Amherst architecture and history professor Max Page began working on an exhibition proposal in partnership with the New York Historical Society, exploring all the gory, fantastical, fanciful ways in which New York City had been destroyed in fiction over the years. He wrapped up the proposal on September 10, 2001. What happened the following day, an event so terrifyingly real many eyewitness accounts described it as “surreal,” was to remain forever etched into modern history in chilling detail — but it left Page all the more convinced that his study of apocalyptic fictions was an important piece of the city’s narrative. In The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears, and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction (public library), Page collects two centuries’ worth of chronologically arranged fictional devastation — floods, fires, monsters, aliens, nuclear explosions — lavishly illustrated with images from vintage posters and pamphlets, graphic novels, book and album cover art, video game packaging, and more.

Page writes:

America’s writers and imagemakers have pictured New York’s annihilation in a stunning range of ways. Earthquake, fire, flood. Meteor, comet, Martian. Glacier, ghosts, atom bomb. Class war, terrorism, invasion. Laser beams for space ships, torpedoes from Zeppelins, missiles from battleships. Apes, wolves, dinosaurs. Environmental degradation, nuclear fallout, ‘green death.’ American culture has been obsessed with fantasizing about the destruction of New York. It is fascinating to explore the most common methods American culture makers have intended for the city’s end — floods and fires, bombs and ice. Why has the watery death had such staying power, along with the image of the city left physically intact but stripped of its people by a mysterious disaster? The recurrence of similar modes of death across time stands out.


Visions of New York’s destruction resonated with some of the most longstanding themes in American history: the ambivalence toward cities, the troubled reaction to immigrants and racial diversity, the fear of technology’s impact, and the apocalyptic strain in American religious life. Furthermore, these visions of the city’s end have paralleled the city’s economic, political, racial, and physical transformations. Projections of the city’s end reflected and refracted the dominant social issues. Each era in New York’s modern history has produced its own apocalyptic imagery that explores, exploits, and seeks to resolve contemporary cultural tensions and fears.

Thomas Nast, 'Something That Did Blow Over,' Harper's Weekly, 1871.

That Liberty Shall Not Perish From the Earth,Buy Liberty Bonds, ca. 1918

The cleansing action of the apocalypse, as pictured in 'Amazing Stories' from 1920

Page argues there are two main reasons New York City holds such high destruction appeal — one conceptual, because it has become a symbol-city that stands for urbanity itself, and the other conceptual, because New York, with its glorious skyscrapers and perfect grid, simply looks better than any other city while being destroyed.

Louis Guglielmi, Mental Geography, 1938.

Danny Shanahan, cartoon representation of Godzilla and King Kong in Manhattan © The New Yorker Collection 1997

Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1907, reproduced in In The Shadow of No Towers, 2004

The trope of New York’s destruction, Page observes, is the proto-narrative of American ideology:

New York’s death is a story line that plays through every type of fiction American culture has produced. As varied as the media are, the narratives play in two consistent if harmonically different keys. One is the dark, minor key of alarm and warning, lessons and political arguments, fear and premonition of real disaster. The other is the key of celebration and entertainment, homage and love for the city. These two registers mark the two ends of the American ideological composition: a persistent embrace of progress and modernism, utopia and ascent, but also a suspicion of failure, and the harsh truth of the jeremiad. American identity has been built on ‘a culture of calamity.’ That culture has been built on imagining our greatest city’s end.

Eric Drooker, 'Turtle Island' in FLOOD! A Novel in Pictures, 1992

The Twin Towers are attacked in Challenge of the Superfriends, 1978

Page goes on to argue that there’s an evolutionary basis for the appeal of fear imaging: it produces a rush of adrenaline, coming down from which triggers a feeling somewhere between relief and joy — the same mechanism that drives us to seek out haunted houses, horror movies, and bungee-jumping. And yet, he says, it’s bigger than that — and who better than Susan Sontag to articulate it through?

But there is something more, beyond the desire of advanced society to recapture what was once a regular experience of heightened fear and response. Susan Sontag wrote in her 1966 essay ‘The Imagination of Disaster’ that ‘we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror.’ Sontag was writing in the 1960s, under the fear of worldwide nuclear holocaust and William Whyte’s nightmare of the deadened ‘organization man.’ The fears today are somewhat different. Rightly or wrongly, we don’t fear nuclear world war the way we once did. But we have our fears of dramatic catastrophe — terrorism, West Nile virus, avian flu, global warming and the angry natural phenomena it is producing. And through we don’t worry about the banality of everyday life, we do fear the insecurity of work, and the powerful, invisible forces of globalization. The workings of the global economy — moving capital and jobs dramatically around the globe according to decisions made on the Internet and in corporate headquarters — feel as inevitable and unstoppable as bad weather.

Ralph E. Lapp, 'before; and 'after' illustrations from Must We Hide?, 1949.

Alexis Rockman, Washington Square, 2004

Stuart Leeds, New Yorker cartoonist parodying meteor hysteria, 1992 © The New Yorker Collection

In 1949, E. B. White wrote a now-legendary passage uncomfortably prescient of 9/11:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.

Harry Belafonte, as Ralph Burton, in a deserted Times Square in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, 1959

Paul Sahre graphic for the Week in Review section of The New York Times, July 10, 2005

But, ultimately, what makes the scenes in The City’s End appealing is precisely their fictionality, their unreality, their permission to fantasize as catharsis rather than grapple with the devastating results of real disaster — and the implicit affirmation of a contrast reminding us that, in real life, this phoenix of a city always manages to shake off the dust, stamp out the fires, swallow the waters, and rise with its inextinguishable brilliance once more.

Page images courtesy of Yale University Press; Instagram photos by Maria Popova

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29 OCTOBER, 2012

Stunning Black & White Engravings by Ian Hugo from Anaïs Nin’s Hand-Printed Under a Glass Bell, 1944


Stunning artwork from a hand-made book that presages modern self-publishing entrepreneurship.

Anaïs Nin may have become best-known and celebrated for her remarkable diaries and letters spanning more than six decades, but she also published a number of short stories and novels. It wasn’t until the publication of the short-story collection Under a Glass Bell (public library) in 1944 that Nin’s work began to garner attention from the literary pantheon, propelled by a favorable review in The New Yorker by Edmund Wilson, whom Nin qualified in her diary as “the highest authority among the critics.”

But the book’s story itself is a fascinating piece of cultural history and a heartening, timely exemplar of everything from self-publishing to woman-led entrepreneurship to the maker movement.

In 1942, when Nin couldn’t find a publisher for the book in an industry bent under the weight of wartime financial pressures, she started her own publishing house, Gremor Press, in a small loft on Macdougal Street in New York. She taught herself typesetting and fell in love with the letterpress. Her husband, banker-turned-artist Hugh Parker Gulier, who went by the artistic pseudonym Ian Hugo, created all the line-on-copper engravings for the book, and Nin herself set the type by hand. She eventually printed 300 copies in the first edition, sold via an innovative subscription model, which sold out in three weeks, and another 100 a second edition.

I was recently fortunate enough to hunt down one of the few surviving original hand-printed copies and have scanned Hugo’s stunning engravings for your viewing pleasure:

The book comes complete with an endearing typo in the endnote, a souvenir of the humanness that brought this handmade book to life:

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19 OCTOBER, 2012

Vintage Indian Matchbook Labels


A vibrant tale of cultural history and brand power.

Matchbook (public library), from the wonderful Tara Books, collects more than 500 striking Indian matchbox labels gathered by Shahid Datawala over the course of several decades, at once reminiscent of vintage Soviet propaganda in their visual language and of mid-century American travel posters in their vibrant colors, and yet entirely singular and culturally distinctive in overall sensibility. The designs, which advertise everything from guns to violins and inhabit the curious space between culture and commerce, do more than brand the product — with their animated, loud identity, they demand attention as standalone objects of fixation, almost fetishistic in their seductive boldness. At the same time, the avalanche of imitation that the most popular designs sparked — often comic in its complete disregard for and oblivion to modern intellectual property norms — bespeaks a key characteristic of any powerful brand: the hunger for imitation.

The history of the Indian match industry has a fascinating history itself — from its roots in Swedish capital, to the boom of local production in the 1920s that propelled self-made Indian entrepreneurs from the lower castes into newfound independence, to its Golden Age following the Indian liberation from British rule. At once a tool of state economic planning, actively incentivizing local jobs, and a mecca of child labor employing kids as young as six, the story of the matchbox industry parallels the evolution of Indian society in the twentieth century. V. Geetha writes in a short essay contextualizing the images:

More generally, in the Indian context, labels came to circulate as tokens of shared culture and connoted commercial goodwill. … Ultimately, the charm of match labels, even for those that commission them, must be linked to visual pleasure, renewed on an everyday basis. And through these images, the humble matchstick resonates — in a convoluted, barely recognized fashion — with mythic and historical memory, valorized icons and images, an fantasies of consumption.

Matchbook is itself shaped like a matchbox and comes in a beautiful matt-laminated slipcase.

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18 OCTOBER, 2012

Displays of Affection: Iconic French Cartoonist Sempé Explores Relationship Clichés


Charming illustrated voyeurism into the lives of people falling in and out of love.

“I prefer drawing to talking,” Le Corbusier famously proclaimed. “Drawing is faster and leaves less room for lies.” The best of drawing can reveal deep and tender truths with just a few simple, expressive lines. That’s what Jean-Jacques Sempé, France’s most celebrated cartoonist, does in Displays of Affection (public library) — a wonderful “book of people falling in (and out) of love,” originally published in 1981. Among other delights of the heart, the charming narrative explores two of my favorite things: bikes and love.

Edward Koren writes in the introduction:

The success of a social satirist can be measured by how much enthusiasm for his work the subjects (and objects) of his satire are willing to show. The great popularity in France enjoyed by Sempé attests to the fond way the French have come to view themselves through his eyes and ears, and to rely on his extraordinary sensibility to get a view of themselves. … The people in Sempé’s world are more the denizens of a global petite bourgeoisie, equally identifiable on both hemispheres and on all the inhabited continents. They live in the humdrum shadow of greatness that for them is chronically out of reach. Inspiration, passion, joy, immortality are some of the ideals never achieved by Sempé’s people, who must content themselves with mundane issues of sustenance, security, uncertainty, anxiety, anger, timidity, and self-importance, to name but a few. All this (and many more subtle and sensitive ingredients) is made laughable and sad by Sempé, who mixes his people into situations that are clichés of modern life.

The enchantment of it, of course, is that even in the most centered and confident of us lives a Sempé character who, if let loose, can steer the wheel — or pedal the bicycle, as it were — in disheartening directions. Koren continues:

Displays of Affection has Sempé fixing his voyeuristic eye and eavesdropping ear on that most clichéd of all subjects — relationships. The great ideal of the grand and lasting passion smiles down on the bumbling solitude of his lovers and mates, who fight, scold, daydream, protect themselves with envelopes of self-importance, always ending up in the same routinized lives they started with. And what is amazing to those of us enmeshed in the deadly seriousness of these matters is how Sempé, with Olympian dispassion, makes it all familiar, personal, real, and truly funny.

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