Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

03 JUNE, 2011

Bibliographic: The 100 Best Design Books of the Past 100 Years

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What James Bond title sequences have to do with the secret of happiness and the evolution of public signage.

Design is an incredibly self-referential for of expression, and that’s quite alright, as I deeply believe creativity is combinatorial — everything borrows from what came before, everything is a remix, all creative work is essentially derivative work. So knowledge of what came before greatly enriches and empowers our creativity. And, over the past century alone, countless books have been published to make sense of the landscape, language and legacy of graphic design, each exploring a specific facet of this complex ecosystem of visual communication. But how does it all fit together? That’s exactly what Jason Godfrey set out to investigate in 2009 in Bibliographic: 100 Classic Graphic Design Books — yes, it’s a graphic design book about graphic design books, and it doesn’t get any more meta than this, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Godfrey culls the 100 most influential design books of the past 100 years, contextualizing each with succinct background text on what makes it exceptional and important. The collection spans an incredible range of style, genre, subject matter, geography, and cultural concern, from the stories of the pioneering type foundries to vintage Polish film posters to classic graphic design manuals by László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Müller-Brockmann to contemporary design visionaries like Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher.

A foreword by none other than Steven Heller adds an irresistibly delicious cherry on top.

These vintage books are untapped repositories of design knowledge, as relevant today as they were when first published.” ~ Steven Heller

What makes Bibliographic all the more valuable is that the majority of the books featured have entered collector’s-item status and are quite hard — not to mention expensive — to get on their own.

A few of my favorite titles in the anthology:

  • Long before there was The Visual Miscellaneum or Data Flow, there was Graphis diagrams: The graphic visualization of abstract data — a seminal vision for the convergence of aesthetics and information value, originally published in 1974. Features work by icons like Saul Bass, Leo and Diane Dillon, Milton Glaser, Richard Saul Wurman and many more.
  • Paula Scher is one of my big creative heroes and her Make It Bigger, titled after the most resented yet prevalent client frustration of all, looks at design’s role in corporate culture, exploring what it is that makes design a powerful and effective business tool.
  • As a big fan of found typography and architectural lettering, I can’t stress the delightfulness of Words and buildings: The art and practice of public lettering enough — a fascinating convergence of architecture and graphic design that preceded recent treats like Store Front and Helvetica and the New York City Subway System: The True (Maybe) Story by four decades, exploring the evolution of public signage and typographic wayfinding.
  • He may be known as the granddaddy of grump, a professional curmudgeon, but iconic designer Paul Rand is one of the most remarkable figures in the history of design both as a creative discipline and a business philosophy — his Thoughts on Design, originally published in 1947, is a philosophical treatise on the role of design and the importance of “function-aesthetic perfection” in modern art.
  • Stefan Sagmeister is easily one of my top three favorite designers alive today, and his Things I have learned in my life so far is quite possibly my favorite design book of all time — a poetic reflection on life, the meaning of happiness, and the human condition by way of Sagmeister’s unique, playful, irreverent visual language.

As much an incredible primer for those just dipping their toes in design as a rich and lavish treasure chest of beloved allusions for the polished design nerd, Bibliographic is an absolute gem from cover to glorious cover.

Thanks, @kirstinbutler

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02 JUNE, 2011

The Modernist: Graphic Design’s Mid-Century Muse

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Celebrating the hot-and-heavy love affair between classical modern and contemporary graphics.

Designers and illustrators have been mining the motherlode of mid-20th-century graphics for years, and now there’s a beautiful record of their inspired explorations. The Modernist, the latest exquisite anthology by Gestalten, draws the genealogical lines of graphic design from the bold images of the 1960s and ’70s to their post-millennial progeny — what we see on album and book covers, posters, and websites today.

It’s easy to see why work by masters such as Gerd Arntz and Otto Neurath provide inspiration to contemporary artists, designers, and illustrators. Especially as web design has matured, younger generations turned to the striking work of classical modernism, transforming its deliberately minimalist colors and geometry with new vector graphics tools. (And, lest we forget, the basic language of this now iconic composition itself drew on previous artistic movements like Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus school.)

The Modernist puts all of these pictorial relationships in perspective, with gorgeous spreads of top-notch design from both eras.

Fifty years in the making, The Modernist‘s gorgeous artwork will delight your senses, and its smart connect-the-dots visual storytelling will satisfy even your most voracious inner design geek.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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27 MAY, 2011

Frank Sinatra: A Rare Documentary from 1965

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What the evolution of popular music has to do with turbulent love and fostering the art of patience.

I am a big lover of jazz, and have always had a soft spot for Frank Sinatra. (My first iBook, the first computer on which I had iTunes, was promptly named Francis by my college housemates because all I played on it was Sinatra.) Though some may say he diluted “true jazz” and turned it into musical pop candy, there’s something to be said for his incredible talent and charisma, which broadened the audience for music in a way few artists have single-handedly managed in the history of contemporary music. Known by many names — Frankie, Francis, Ol’ Blue Eyes, The Chairman of the Board, The Voice — and often revered as the most popular and enduring singer of the 20th century, he borrowed from jazz, swing, pop, big band and more to weave together a style that was distinctly his own.

In 1965, CBS News spent six months with Sinatra, exploring what it is exactly that made him so special, getting unprecedented access to both his recording career and his private life. The resulting documentary was broadcast on November 16, 1965, and now, thanks to YouTube, we have access to this rare footage, in which Sinatra talks about everything from his childhood in Hoboken to his legendary love affairs to the cultural role of the entertainer across time.

I would like to be remembered as a man who brought an innovation to popular singing. I would like to be remembered as a man who had a wonderful time living his life, and who had good friends, fine family, and I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that, actually.” ~ Frank Sinatra

I’ve always admired people who are gentle and who have great patience and, apparently, what I’ve done without knowing is I’ve aped these people and begun to follow that kind of line.” ~ Frank Sinatra

For another intimate look at Sinatra’s relentlessly fascinating life and career, you won’t go wrong with The Sinatra Treasures: Intimate Photos, Mementos, and Music from the Sinatra Family Collection — a stunning and loving homage to the iconic singer by Sinatra family archivist Charles Pignone, full of over 200 black-and-white and color photographs alongside reproductions of rare memorabilia like radio scripts, telegrams and letters, piano scores and more, as well as a bounty of thoughtful, witty and true to character quotes from The Voice himself.

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26 MAY, 2011

Cold War Wonderland: Photographing the East/West Divide

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What Soviet babushkas have to do with the fall of the Roman Empire and the Egyptian Revolution.

Jason Eskenazi grew up in Queens during the peak of the Cold War, bombarded by the era’s typical propaganda about “The Evil Empire” on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Convinced that reality must be less black-and-white than what the Reagan administration was making it up to be, Eskenazi took off from his day job as security guard at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and spent a decade documenting life in the former Soviet Union in stunning black-and-white photographs, collected in Wonderland: A Fairy Tale of the Soviet Monolith. The result is an almost surreal, anachronistic, poetic portrait of a culture seemingly frozen in time, exuding an odd yet alluring symmetry between beauty and tragedy.

There were all these things from 50 years ago, and everything looked like the photography that I was brought up on.” ~ Jason Eskenazi

Army Base, Karagandar, Kazakhstan, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Holiday, Shutilova, Russia, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Caspian Sea Baku, Azerbaijan, 1997

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Young Sailors Club, Kostrama, Russia, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Farm Milkmaid, Northern Kazakhstan, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Space Museum, Moscow, 1998

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Waltz Competition, Moscow, 1996

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Hill of Crosses, Lithuania, 2000

Image courtesy of Jason Eskenazi via NPR

Images via NPR

This month, Eskenazi, now a Fulbright Scholar, is setting out to create an ambitious companion narrative to WonderlandThe Black Garden, a fascinating look at the East-West divide that seeped into culture long past the end of the Cold War explored through the lens of mythology, from the Trojan War, to the fall of the Roman Empire, to the Ottoman conquest of Europe, to today’s post-9/11 conflicts in the Middle East and the revolutions in Egypt and Libya. And he’s funding it on Kickstarter.

It’s a truly inspired project, equal parts ambitious and needed, so please join me in supporting it.

Donating = Loving

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Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.