“The creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present. With food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch.”
By Maria Popova
“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his gorgeous Nobel Prize acceptance speech a lifetime after the boyhood revelation that to be an artist, to be a vessel of the creative impulse conveying one human essence to another, is to be the hand through the fence.
Richards — who relinquished a tenure-track position at a major university to join the faculty at the experimental Black Mountain College, becoming the school’s most beloved teacher — writes:
The creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present. With food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch. We are not craftsmen only during studio hours. Any more than a man is wise only in his library. Or devout only in church. The material is not the sign of the creative feeling for life: of the warmth and sympathy and reverence which foster being; techniques are not the sign; “art” is not the sign. The sign is the light that dwells within the act, whatever its nature or its medium.
As our personal universes expand, if we keep drawing ourselves into center again and again, everything seems to enhance everything else… The activity seems to spring out of the same source: poem or pot, loaf of bread, letter to a friend, a morning’s meditation, a walk in the woods, turning the compost pile, knitting a pair of shoes, weeping with pain, fainting with discouragement, burning with shame, trembling with indecision.
Two and a half millennia after Pythagoras weighed the meaning of wisdom, and in consonance with philosopher-of-forms Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of creative work as “acts that amplify,” Richard places this creative integration at the heart of human wisdom:
Wisdom is a state of the total being, in which capacities for knowledge and for love, for survival and for death, for imagination, inspiration, intuition, for all the fabulous functioning of this human being who we are, come into a center with their forces, come into an experience of meaning that can voice itself as wise action.
“Centering is a verb… an ongoing process… a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination… an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness.”
By Maria Popova
Looking back on the first thirteen years of Brain Pickings, I termed my thirteen most important life-learnings “fluid reflections on keeping a solid center.” But how exactly do we locate our center and master its osmotic balance between fluidity and solidity?
That is what poet, potter, and manual philosopher M.C. Richards (July 13, 1916–September 10, 1999) explores in her 1964 counterculture classic Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (public library) — an inspired inquiry into “how we may seek to bring universe into a personal wholeness,” “to feel the whole in every part,” which popularized the now-commonplace notion of “both… and” as the non-dualistic, parallelistic alternative to the dualistic, perpendicularist “either… or” mindset.
After graduating from U.C. Berkeley, Richards was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Chicago, but was soon disillusioned with the hyperfocus on standardized achievement, competitive and vacant. Just after World War II, just before her thirtieth birthday, she made a radical leap of faith and joined the English faculty of the experimental Black Mountain College.
One of the school’s most beloved teachers, she founded Black Mountain Press with her students, teaching them the fundamentals of typesetting and publishing, and soon rose to head of faculty. She forged close friendships with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and the famed Black Mountain Poets. Many decades before neurologist Oliver Sacks extolled the healing power of gardening, she lived with mentally handicapped adults in a working community based on biodynamic agriculture — the precursor to organic gardening and farming.
In the 1950s, she returned to Black Mountain College not as a teacher but as a student — of pottery. The beautiful consonance she found between her two arts inspired a larger inquiry into the creative process, in a work of art and in the work of personhood.
Governed by her conviction that “poets are not the only poets” and that artists don’t leave their art at the studio, Richards explores the poetry of personhood through the metaphor of centering, drawn from the craftsmanship of pottery — a potter brings the clay to the center of the wheel, then begins the process of giving the amorphous spinning mass the desired shape. She writes:
Centering is a verb. It is an ongoing process… Centering is not a model, but a way of balancing, a spiritual resource in times of conflict, an imagination. It seems in certain lights to be an alchemical vessel, a retort, which bears an integration of purposes, an integration of levels of consciousness. It can be called to, like a divine ear.
Centering… is the discipline of bringing in (i.e., of sympathy or empathy) rather than of leaving out. Of saying “Yes, Yes” to what we behold. To what is holy and to what is unbearable. But my experience tells me now that there is an important crucial stage of saying Yes to a No. For resistance also must be embraced. Not only accepting resistance but practicing it.
This non-dualistic assent to other universe in all of its expressions is at the center of centering; it is also the lever by which we turn the negative into a generative place, in our individual experience and our collective aspirations. Richards writes:
The hardest and most rewarding lesson has been to learn to experience antipathy objectively, with warmth. For antipathy follows a gesture of separating, and the goal, which is to be both separate and connected, requires that one move inwardly in opposite directions. Toward self-definition and toward community. Toward ethical individualism and toward social justice. It is this fusing of the opposites that Centering enables.
In centering the clay on the potter’s wheel, one centers down, yes, and then one immediately centers up! Down and up, wide and narrow, letting focus bear within it an expanded consciousness and letting a widened awareness (empathetic) have the commitment to detail of a focused attention. Not “either… or,” but “both… and.” You can perhaps feel the inner movement of a Centering consciousness that plays dynamically in the tides of inner and outer, self and other, in an instinctive hope toward wholeness.
In its active practice of non-dualism, centering is thus a deepening of our understanding of reality, consonant with Nobel-winning physicist Frank Wilczek’s observation that “you can recognize a deep truth by the feature that its opposite is also a deep truth.” And yet, Richards cautions, centering must not become an item on the checklist of existential achievement — the moment it ceases to be a practice and becomes an object of striving, it becomes subject to corruption and distortion:
“Center” and “centered” have come to be fairly widely used. They tend to imply a connection with the navel, with one-pointedness, on the way to bliss, realization, and inner peace. But these are not the goals of the Centering process. For it is a continual engagement with experience, not a withdrawal from it. It begins with pain and ends with paradox. It wrestles with evil and the daimonic as it does with angels and repentance. It is an activity of consciousness, not a stage of spiritual achievement.
I have found that Centering, like clay, … bears the future within it. For it contains a space for ongoing development and differentiation. In other words, it proves to be an open image, a vessel, holding a content that is life itself.
Writing in the early 1960s — an era marked by the scar tissue of WWII and the new-growth optimism of civil rights and women’s emancipation, of space exploration and the decoding of life’s helix — Richards sees in the notion of centering an emblem of cultural evolution, as relevant to her own time as it is, after a half-century turn of the cultural wheel, to ours:
We find on so many fronts now, political and artistic as well as religious and economic, an imaginative thrust that goes not toward competitive violence and adversary motifs, but toward new social forms. Imagination is more and more recognized as a form of cognition.
Richards defines the creative mind as the “mind that makes connections between things ordinarily thought to be different” — an embodiment of “the highest human capacity”: the capacity for metaphor. Echoing the stunning speech on poetry, power, and freedom that John F. Kennedy delivered in 1963, just as she was finishing her book, she writes:
This is what fires our hearts, is it not? To feel ourselves free to love and to live. Unbullied and unbullying. Unhaunted by a conscience made guilty by social pressures and expectations. To act from source freely.
The moment we begin to act freely, we come into contact with the unknown — contact that can be a shattering shock if we are hardened, or a shape-shifting revelation if we are fluid enough to embody new forms of understanding, of meaning, of being. Centering thus becomes the locus of fluidity:
Centering… brings us what we don’t already know… We may find, yes, that yesterday is over, and we do not perpetuate old confusions. We do not cling to the savagery of nationalisms, or the shame we feel for being as we are. We stand on the shore of an ocean and the pure wind blows us fresh and we wake out of an anguish of inner conflict into a deep breath that lets us rise to our feet and in a new levity we dance. It could be said that fidelity to the processes of Centering is a path to full breathing, to a balance willingly at risk.
The deeper we go into these realms, the more contact we make with another’s reality. The sharper the sense of pain and bliss as they interweave through the heartbreak and luck of life, the more the line between self and other may dissolve.
In a sentiment evocative of Wendell Berry’s short and lovely poem about how to be a poet and a complete human being, Richards considers what drew her to the metaphor of centering and what it reveals about the poet in each of us:
I am an odd bird in both academic and craft worlds, perhaps because I am a poet, and thus, by calling, busy with seeing the similarities between things ordinarily thought to be different, busy with feeling the sense of relatedness grow through my limbs like a smoke-tree wafting and fusing its images, busy with the innerness of outerness, eating life in its layers like a magic cake made of silica sounds shapes and temperatures and all the things that appear to be separated stacked together in transparencies of color, and it is perhaps my vocation to swallow it whole. The expanding universe. The resilient appetite. The continuous play. The changing, changeful person, mobile and intact, finding his way on.
For life — I am sure of this — is not transforming energy, but transforming person. Energy is the means. Being is not what but whom. It is Presence in whom and before whom we show ourselves. Let us ride our lives like natural beasts, like tempests, like the bounce of a ball or the slightest ambiguous hovering of ash, the drift of scent: let us stick to those currents that can carry us, membering them with our souls. Our world personifies us, we know ourselves by it. Let us then speak to each other in our most intimate concern.
“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” the young Leo Tolstoy wrote in his journal of selfhood. The quest for an answer begins as soon as we develop theory of mind as children — usually around the age of four or five — and continues until we dissolve back into stardust. We inherit part of our individual answers from our parents and our culture, in traits passed down via DNA and beliefs synthesized from societal norms, but must contend with the remaining parts on our own. In his magnificent meditation on identity, Andrew Solomon offers a useful distinction between these two answer-sources, calling the inheritable part “vertical identity” and the self-invented part “horizontal identity.” The process of answering this existential question is challenging enough for any human being, increasingly so the further one’s sense of identity falls from a cultural norm. It is especially arduous for the young, the different, and most of all the very young who feel very different.
Gathered here is a selection of intelligent, imaginative, and deeply assuring children’s books for little humans anxious or anguished by their particular point of difference — loving or identifying with a gender other than the one society has prescribed for them to love or be. Vintage and modern, these books dance across the spectra of the playful and the poignant, the sincere and the subversive, the personal and the political.
WE ARE ALL IN THE DUMPS WITH JACK AND GUY
The 1993 masterwork We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy (public library), which I’ve covered extensively here, is the darkest yet most hopeful book Maurice Sendak ever created, as well as one of his most personal. It’s an unusual fusion of two traditional Mother Goose nursery rhymes — “In the Dumps” and “Jack and Gye” — reimagined and interpreted by Sendak’s singular sensibility, and permeated by many layers of cultural and personal subtext.
On a most basic level, the story follows a famished black baby, part of a clan of homeless children dressed in newspaper and living in boxes, kidnapped by a gang of giant rats. Jack and Guy, who are strolling nearby and first brush the homeless kids off, witness the kidnapping and set out to rescue the boy. But the rats challenge them to a rigged game of bridge, with the child as the prize. After a series of challenges that play out across a number of scary scenes, Jack and Guy emerge victorious and save the boy with the help of the omniscient Moon and a mighty white cat that chases the rats away.
Created at the piercing pinnacle of the AIDS plague and amid an epidemic of homelessness, it is a highly symbolic, sensitive tale that reads almost like a cry for mercy, for light, for resurrection of the human spirit at a time of incomprehensible heartbreak and grimness. It is, above all, a living monument to hope — one built not on the denial of hopelessness but on its delicate demolition.
But the book’s true magic lies in its integration of Sendak’s many identities — the son of Holocaust survivors, a gay man witnessing the devastation of AIDS, a deft juggler of darkness and light.
Jack and Guy appear like a gay couple, and their triumph in rescuing the child resembles an adoption, two decades before that was an acceptable subject for a children’s book. “And we’ll bring him up / As other folk do,” the final pages read — and, once again, a double meaning reveals itself as two characters are depicted with wings on their backs, lifting off into the sky, lending the phrase “we’ll bring him up” an aura of salvation. In the end, the three curl up as a makeshift family amidst a world that is still vastly imperfect but full of love.
We are all in the dumps
For diamonds are thumps
The kittens are gone to St. Paul’s!
The baby is bit
The moon’s in a fit
And the houses are built
Jack and Guy
Went out in the Rye
And they found a little boy
With one black eye
Come says Jack let’s knock
Him on the head
No says Guy
Let’s buy him some bread
You buy one loaf
And I’ll buy two
And we’ll bring him up
As other folk do
In many ways, this is Sendak’s most important and most personal book. In fact, Sendak would resurrect the characters of Jack and Guy two decades later in his breathtaking final book, a posthumously published love letter to the world and to his partner of fifty years, Eugene Glynn. Jack and Guy, according to playwright Tony Kushner, a dear friend of Sendak’s, represented the two most important people in the beloved illustrator’s life — Jack was his real-life brother Jack, whose death devastated Sendak, and Guy was Eugene, the love of Sendak’s life, who survived him after half a century of what would have been given the legal dignity of a marriage had Sendak lived to see the dawn of marriage equality. (Sendak died thirteen months before the defeat of DOMA.)
Children are our greatest antidote to the narrowing of personality and their pure, earnest curiosity about the unfamiliar only turns into negative judgment or aversion when these responses are modeled by fearful, bigoted, and narrow-minded adults. But, conversely, when children are aided in understanding the unfamiliar rather than judging or fearing it, the seed of benevolence and compassion is planted. That’s the heartening premise behind the 1996 gem Amy Asks a Question: Grandma, What’s a Lesbian? (public library), written by Jeanne Arnold and illustrated by Barbara Lindquist — two grandmothers themselves, who explain in the afterword that twenty years earlier they had fallen in love and stepped out of their “heterosexual privilege.” The book is loosely based on their own lives and dedicated to their six children and eleven grandchildren — doubly delightful today, as we face the disappearance of grandparents from literature.
It tells the story of little Amy, who comes home one day and tells her parents that some boys at school had teased her and the other little girls for hugging each other, calling them “lesbians.” Amy isn’t sure what that means or why it’s an insult. Her parents decide that the question is best addressed by Amy’s grandmother, Bonnie, who has been living with her partner Grandma Jo for more than twenty years.
One Mother’s Day, Amy goes to visit her two grandmas. As she sits in their big armchair pretending to be reading one of their countless books, she overhears them talking about “gay pride” and wonders what that means. She knows what “gay” means — her favorite uncle, who taught her to sign for the deaf, was gay and died of AIDS — but she doesn’t get the pride thing.
Pride? I feel proud of myself when I get my good reports at my school, when I learned to play the flute, and when I help my mom and dad watch out for my brother and sister.
Grandma Bonnie is an artist. Her paintings fill the walls of their home. She is an author, a musician, a computer expert and a woman who owns her own business. And she’s proud of all that. She’s proud of all her four children and eight grandchildren. Why does she want to go to a gay pride parade to feel proud?
Amy knows fragments of her two grandmas’ life-stories — how they met at the hospital where they both worked and where Grandma Jo still works part-time; how Bonnie got fired when management found out that she had gotten divorced and was now living with Jo; how they opened a women’s bookstore to make ends meet while contributing to the community; how they had a “handfasting ceremony,” which is “kind of like a wedding ceremony,” after twenty years of living together.
So on her next visit to her two grandmas’ house, with her mother’s encouragement, Amy poses the big question: “Grandma, what’s a lesbian?”
“Well,” said Grandma Bonnie. “We’ve been waiting for a long time for that question to come from one of our grandchildren.”
Then she took a deep breath and said, “Amy, we are lesbians, Jo and I, and we’re called “lesbians” because we love each other. Lesbians are women who prefer to be with women as friends or who choose women as their lovers and/or partners. Lesbians love women rather than or more than they could love men as lovers or as husbands.
But Grandma Jo interrupts to offer an essential disclaimer that speaks to Amy’s experience with the teasing boys at schools:
But each woman needs to think of herself as a lesbian before anyone else can pin that label on her. You are a lesbian only if you consider yourself one!
Grandma Bonnie adds that they’ve loved each other for twenty years and wistfulness creeps into her words as we’re reminded once again, from the privilege of history’s hindsight, just how much we owe to Edith Windsor:
We would get legally married, if we could.
They go on to recount how in the early years of their love, an era when LGBT couples were truly invisible, they didn’t know any other lesbians at all and felt completely cut off from a sense of community. They tell Amy about the various semi-secret identity signals used to dispel that illusion of hegemony-enforced invisibility:
Lesbians are everywhere — in big cities, small towns and in the country, but they have been almost invisible unless they wear a pink triable pin or a rainbow flag patch on their clothes or have a lavender bumper sticker on the cars saying, “Meet you in Michigan in August.”
The book was published by Mother Courage Press, an imprint Arnold and Lindquist founded to give voice to women’s words. Arnold’s afterword is a heartening testament to how far we’ve come in the two decades since as well as a poignant reminder of how little some things have changed and how much further we have yet to go:
I want to celebrate lesbian values, courage and respectability, our uniqueness and our struggles in the pursuit of happiness.
Many lesbians’ lives go uncelebrated, even unacknowledged. A profound silence casts a shadow over them and their families, friends and co-workers. Many of us have been or are so invisible, it’s as if we are in a secret sorority; it seems like a miracle when we find each other. This silence denies our worth. This silence weakens our lives and our families already vulnerable to society’s pressures.
Those women-loving women who reveal who they are risk themselves each day. The challenge they have accepted is sustained by the courage that it takes to be themselves.
Energy is wasted by those living in secrecy and silence. It is also wasted by those divided in conflict… The conflict consumes the power that could be better spent strengthening the individual, the family and society in a world without oppression and heterosexism — with people living in freedom and thriving in love.
KING AND KING
From Dutch writer and illustrator duo Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland comes the irreverent, imaginative, absolutely wonderful 2002 treasure King and King (public library) — a fairy tale with a refreshing twist.
This magnificent book — which has been consistently challenged and even brought to court by small-minded bigots and yet remains widely beloved the world over and has been adapted for the theater stage in Vienna and Mexico City — tells the story of a young prince whose grouchy queen-mother, ready for retirement after many long years of ruling the kingdom, keeps pressuring him to get married.
In a rather common defense strategy against maternal nagging, the prince reluctantly agrees to the queen’s unrelenting demand, but not without noting that he “never much cared for princesses.”
The queen brings all of her royal determination to the task and calls the princesses of “every castle, alcazar, and palazzo near and far.” One by one the eligible bachelorettes present themselves to the prince, but none is right — not the “funny little princess from Greenland,” who ends up besotting the prince’s page, nor the pageant queen from Texas who fails to impress the royal family with her juggle act, not even the tall, dark, and elegant beauty from Mumbai, who storms out after the prince remarks that her long arms would be well suited for waving to the people.
Just as the prince and the queen begin to sink into defeat and disappointment, the page announces that there is one more princess, escorted by her brother, Prince Lee.
And as the fairy-tale trope goes, the last resort is the one where the key to happily-ever-after is hidden — except not in the precise way the queen had intended.
As soon as the two princes lay eyes on each other, they fall madly in love as the queen grumbles silently and the princess yawns.
But their wedding is so magical that even the queen can’t help shedding a tear or two. For a delightful touch, Nijland places a groom-and-groom duo atop the wedding cake as the two princes stare lovingly into each other’s eyes under a “CONGRATS” banner.
At last, the queen is free to retire and the two princes take charge of the kingdom, known from that day on as King and King. “And everyone lives happily ever after,” of course.
King and King was followed by King and King and Family, the equally delightful story of the duo’s honeymoon, on which they go to the jungle and see all kinds of animals having babies, so they decide to adopt a child and venture into parenthood themselves.
AND TANGO MAKES THREE
And Tango Makes Three (public library) by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, with charming illustrations by Henry Cole, tells the heartening true story of Roy and Silo — two male chinstrap penguins at the Central Park Zoo. Roy and Silo fell in love in 1998 and started a family, raising little Tango — the zoo’s first and only baby-girl with two daddies.
Published in 2005, nearly a decade before marriage equality, the book is a sweet celebration of modern families through the most indisputable and inclusive assurance — nature itself.
But nothing happened. Then, Mr. Gramzay got an idea:
But the true story has a bittersweet ending — in 2005, just after And Tango Makes Three was published, Roy and Silo parted ways and Silo coupled with a female penguin. Meanwhile, Tango formed a same-sex relationship with another female penguin named Tanuzi. Tango and Tanuzi have remained together for every mating cycle since.
Daddy’s Roommate (public library) is the inaugural title by Alyson Wonderland, a children’s-book imprint aimed at offering comfort and camaraderie to the children of LGBT parents.
Written and illustrated by Michael Willhoite in 1990, it tells the story of a little boy whose dad begins living with a man named Frank shortly after he and the boy’s mom divorce. It’s a simple, quietly assuring tale of how the child arrives at loving acceptance of his newly reformulated family as he bears witness to the ordinary day-to-day lives of Daddy and Frank.
In the afterword to the tenth anniversary edition, Willhoite looks back on the “wrath of the religious right,” which descended upon the book when it was first published and how it accomplished exactly the opposite of what those bigoted censors desired — it catapulted the book into national prominence as libraries all over the country “fought like tigers on the book’s behalf.” Willhoite writes:
Daddy’s Roommate has been the target of censorship, burning, theft, defacement, and a well-orchestrated campaign to remove it from libraries. The book is still, triumphantly, what I first intended: a mirror in which children of gay parents can see themselves. Yet it has also been used as a tool to educate children in more traditional families about gay families in their midst.
I am very proud.
HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES
In the 1980s, writer Lesléa Newman began noticing that same-sex couples were having kids like everybody else, but had no children’s books to read to them portraying nontraditional family units. At that point, women had been “marrying” one another for ages, but true marriage equality in the eyes of the law and the general public was still two decades away, as were children’s books offering alternate narratives on what makes a family. So Newman enacted the idea that the best way to complain is to make things and penned Heather Has Two Mommies (public library) — a sweet, straightforward picture-book illustrated by Diana Souza, telling the story of a warm and accepting playground discussion of little Heather’s life with Mama Kate, a doctor, and Mama Jane, a carpenter. Today, it is notable primarily for its pioneering status as the world’s first children’s book about a two-mom family.
Heather’s favorite number is two. She has two arms, two legs, two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet. She also has two pets: a ginger-colored cat named Gingersnap and a big black dog named Midnight.
Heather also has two mommies: Mama Jane and Mama Kate.
Imaginative and wildly creative, little Morris likes to paint and sing and do puzzles while humming to himself. He loves the tangerine dress because its color “reminds him of tigers, the sun and his mother’s hair”; he loves the sound it makes, too: “swish, swish, swish when he walks and crinkle, crinkle, crinkle when he sits down.”
When the boys make fun of him and the girls jeer at the pink nail polish on his fingers, he pretends not to notice them, but his heart aches with anguish.
His classmates even shun him from the spaceship they are building — “Astronauts don’t wear dresses,” they scoff.
One day, Morris is so crestfallen over the ceaseless bullying that he begins to feel physically ill. (Indeed, psychologists are now finding that “social pain” has biological repercussions.) He is sent home, where he dreams up a grand space adventure with his cat Moo.
The next day, Morris takes out his brushes and paints a wild, vibrant picture of his dream, complete with a shiny space helmet for Moo. In the drawing, Morris is wearing his beloved tangerine dress riding atop a big blue elephant.
On Monday, Morris went to school with his painting rolled up in his backpack.
When he had the chance, he put on the dress that reminded him of tigers and the sun and his mother’s hair.
Morris swish, swish, swished.
The tangerine dress crinkle, crinkle, crinkled.
His shoes click, click, clicked.
Morris felt wonderful.
The boys in his class are so enchanted by the space-world Morris dreamt up — a world into which he welcomes them — that they decide “it didn’t matter if astronauts wore dresses or not” because “the best astronauts were the ones who knew where all the good adventures were hiding.” With a quiet smile, Morris accepts their acceptance.
When snack time was over, Becky demanded the dress.
Morris told her she could have it when he was done with it.
“Boys don’t wear dresses,” Becky snipped.
Morris smiled as he swished, crinkled and clicked back to his spaceship.
“This boy does.”
Every once in a while, along comes a book-as-artifact that becomes an instant, inextricable necessity in the life of any graphic design aficionado. This season, it’s The Phaidon Archive of Graphic Design — an impressive, exhaustive, rigorously researched, and beautifully produced compendium of 500 seminal designs spanning newspapers, magazines, posters, advertisements, typefaces, logos, corporate design, record covers, and moving graphics, examined through 3000 color and 300 black-and-white illustrations in their proper historical and sociocultural context.
Though the concept is hardly novel, wedged somewhere between 100 Ideas that Changed Graphic Design and Bibliographic, the book-in-a-box execution holds a rare kind of mesmerism, its dividers inviting you to organize and explore the wealth of design legacy by designer, subject, chronology, or alphabetical order.
Featuring such beloved design icons as Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Saul Bass, and Paul Rand, the selections explore how graphic design coalesced out of the traditions of printing and fine art thanks to two key developments — the invention of the printing press in 15th-century Europe and the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries — emerging as one of the most powerful, ever-evolving tools of modern human communication.
“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser famously remarked. Hardly anyone can back this bombastic proclamation with more empirical conviction than Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. In 2009, the duo embarked upon a curious experiment: They would purchase cheap trinkets, ask some of today’s most exciting creative writers to invent stories about them, then post the stories and the objects on eBay to see whether the invented story enhanced the value of the object. Which it did: The tchotchkes, originally purchased for a total of $128.74, sold for a whopping total of $3,612.51 — a 2,700% markup. (The most highly valued pairing in the entire project, bought for $1.49 and sold for $197.50, was a globe paperweight with a moving handwritten story by the magnificent Debbie Millman, with proceeds benefiting 826 National.)
And what better way to open than with some timeless wisdom from the inimitable Edward Gorey?
A reflection from the introduction:
Writers love a challenge like the one we posed them — i.e., making up a story inspired by an object they’ve never seen before. Our contributors met the challenge with wildly imaginative, deeply moving, and darkly ironic stories. They wrote letters, email solicitations, memoirs, operating instructions, public notices, diary entries, wine-tasting notes, and public ordinances. Some crafted rich character studies, others told tales through whipsaw dialogue or internal monologue. Some took bold experimental risks, while others opted for evocative minimalism or genre fiction.
It turns out that once you start increasing the emotional energy of inanimate objects, an unpredictable chain reaction is set off.
Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautiful and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn’t like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It’s the act of conferring that makes things valuable.”
Anaïs Nin put it even more dramatically when she wrote in her diary in 1943:
Stories are the only enchantment possible, for when we begin to see our suffering as a story, we are saved.
[Big ideas] are notions, conceptions, inventions, and inspirations — formal, pragmatic, and conceptual — that have been employed by graphic designers to enhance all genres of visual communication. These ideas have become, through synthesis and continual application, the ambient language(s) of graphic design. They constitute the technological, philosophical, forma, and aesthetic constructs of graphic design.
From how rub-on lettering democratized design by fueling the DIY movement and engaging people who knew nothing about typography to how the concept of the “teenager” was invented after World War II as a new market for advertisers, many of the ideas are mother-of-invention parables. Together, they converge into a cohesive meditation on the fundamental mechanism of graphic design — to draw a narrative with a point of view, and then construct that narrative through the design process and experience.
History, as we all know, is written by the survivors. And there are certain historical facts that never get covered. And, in graphic design, it’s fascinating how many things don’t get covered until somebody uncovers them.
Originally featured, with more examples and images, in May.
TALK TO ME
Talk to Me, the most recent exhibition by MoMA Senior Curator of Architecture and Design Paola Antonelli — design oracle, crusader for humanized technology, curious octopus — explored with an unparalleled blend of excitement and insight the evolving communication between people and objects, a relationship all the more palpable, quite literally so, in our age of ubiquitous sensors and data feeds and interfaces, yet still rooted in our inextricable and increasingly complex relationship with the physicality of the analog world.
Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects (public library) is itself a meta-object in the exhibition — exquisitely produced and thoughtfully constructed to contextualize and illuminate the nearly 200 projects in the show, this analog artifact flows beautifully and seamlessly into the digital and mechanical world it encapsulates. An embossed faux-pixelated cover invites you to touch the “interface” of the book. On many of the pages, QR codes let you leap into a specific project’s digital presence. The Cubitt Fax computerizes the printed page, exuding a kind of binary intimacy.
Antonelli writes in the introductory essay:
The bond between people and things has always been filled with powerful and unspoken sentiments going well beyond functional expectations and including attachment, love, possessiveness, jealousy, pride, curiosity, anger, even friendship and partnership.
Talk to Me is also very much about locating the present:
In contrast to the twentieth-century triumph of semiotics, which looked down on communication as nothing but a mechanical transmission of coded meaning, the twenty-first century has begun as one of pancommunication — everything and everybody conveying content and meaning in all possible combinations, from one-on-one to everything-to-everybody. We now expect objects to communicate, a cultural shift made evident when we see children searching for buttons or sensors on a new object, even when the object has no batteries or plug.
Paola’s talent for bridging the esoteric with the universal shines throughout:
In our relationship with objects, as in any relationship, indifference is the worst offense and laziness the worst sin.
In the introductory essay, Antonelli also exercises her remarkable gift for explaining technical terminology and complex systems in layman language that takes none of the substance away, breaking down the four main design disciplines covered in the show:
Communication design focuses on delivering messages, and it encompasses most graphic design, signage, and communicative objects of all kinds, from printed materials to three-dimensional and digital projects. Interface and interaction design, which is sometimes brought under the more generic and functionalist rubric of user-experience design, delineates the behavior of products and systems, as well as the experience that people will have with them. Information or visualization design includes the maps, diagrams, and visualization tools that filter and make sense of the enormous amount of information that is more widely available than ever before. Critical design is one of the most promising and far-reaching new areas of study, using conceptual scenarios built around hypothetical objects to comment on the social, political, and cultural consequences of new technologies and behaviors. Its disciples are experts in ‘What if?’
More than anything, Talk to Me is about both challenging and owning design as a centripetal force of culture:
Talk to Me is an opportunity to anchor design’s new dimension and highlight innovative interfaces that can inform designers in the future. Whether they use the skin and shell of objects as an interface or animate them from within, designers are using the whole world to communicate and are set on a path that is transforming it into an information parkour and enriching our lives with emotion, motion, direction, depth, and freedom.
It might seem that design has abandoned its tested, grounded, functionalist territory to venture into an ambiguous universe where its essence is confused and a crisis of identity arises — is the 5th Dimensional Camera art or scientific modeling? Is Humeau’s work creative paleontology? Are Sputniko!’s devices contributing to interpretive anthropology? Is Pachube mere coding and infrastructure engineering? Not at all. I claim them, with their powerful vision and their focus on knowledge and awareness, as design, and I praise their radical functionalism. Ambiguity and ambivalence — the ability to inhabit different environments and frames of mind at the same time — have become central to our cultural development. They are qualities that embody the openness and flexibility necessary for embracing diversity, and they are critical to the questioning and imagining that are the preferred methods of inquiry. Communication is at the nexus of all these necessary human features: the most critical function of design today.
Several essays by prominent cross-disciplinary thinkers contextualize the various thematic sections. In one titled “Conversations with the Network,” Khoi Vinh observes:
The designer as author, as craftsperson bringing together beginning, middle, and end, becomes redundant in a space in which every participant forges his or her own beginning, middle, and end. And that is exactly what happens in networked media. The narrative recedes, and the behavior of the design solution becomes prominent. What becomes important are questions that concern not the author but the users. How does the system respond to the input of its users? When a user says something to the system, how does the system respond?
For more than three decades, graphic designer Louise Fili has been producing some of the most consistently exquisite typography, frequently hand-drawn and building upon thoughtfully curated vintage sources. In her decade as art director for Pantheon Books, she created nearly two thousand book jackets, each with remarkable attention to detail. Since 1989, she has expanded and extended her singular lens to restaurant menus and food packaging through her namesake design studio. The new monograph Elegantissima: The Design and Typography of Louise Fili (public library) offers, for the first time, a sweeping look at Fili’s work and the philosophy behind it.
But Fili’s greatest gift is perhaps the extraordinary ability to seek out vintage gems — and to do so with great taste — which she then reimagines and combines into entirely new designs that aren’t mere homage to the past but, rather, an entirely original visual language with an entirely original point of view.
What Louise does instead is build upon things passé to enliven her contemporary graphic statements — even when the result has vintage resonance.
Almost every example in this book can be unpacked to discover its influences and inspirations (and herein are detailed case studies). However, the manner in which these component parts are reassembled is uniquely Louise’s. It is all too easy to add pre-cooked ingredients from archival sources, but to then transform them into designs that are at once familiar and entirely novel — well, that takes extreme discipline.
For a charming aside, here’s a heart-warming anecdote about Heller and Fili’s relationship:
I just wanted to tell you that I think your book and book jacket designs for Pantheon are excellent Consistently so.
Every time I am struck by a book in our bookroom or on the in-coming table it is something you’ve been responsible for.
[signed] Steve Heller
On March 9, 1982, when I was art director of the New York Times Book Review, I sent the grammatically challenged note above to Louise Fili, whom I had never met and, in fact, had never laid eyes on before. A little more than a year later we were married.
This intimate disclosure is essential, lest anyone reading this foreword to Louise’s monograph presume I lack critical objectivity. Strictly speaking, at the time I wrote the note I was a genuinely objective fan of Louise’s typographic elegance, visual flair, and conceptual ingenuity, as well as her keen expertise with illustration — an area I knew something about.
Frank Lloyd Wright is considered by many the most influential architect in modern history, but despite his enormous cultural recognition, the full extent of his contribution to design — posters, brochures, typography, murals, book and magazine covers — remains relatively obscure. In Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist (public library), Penny Fowler examines Wright’s ingenious and bold graphic work — his covers for Liberty (some of which were so radical the magazine rejected them), his mural designs for Midway Gardens, his photographic experiments, his hand-drawn typographical studies, the jacket designs for his own publications, including The House Beautiful and An Autobiography, and a wealth more.
From his childhood encounter with Friedrich Froebel’s educational building blocks at the 1876 Centennial Exposition to his experiments with geometric designs long before the Mondrian age to his obsession with the woodblock art of Old Japan, Fowler traces Wright’s inspirations, influences, and singular style as his work dances across aesthetic movements like Bauhaus, Japanisme, Arts and Crafts, and De Stijl.
As Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation director Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer writes in the introduction, what Wright wrote in 1908 of architecture could well apply to his graphic design work as well:
As for the future — the work shall grow more truly simple, more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labor; more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent; more organic. It shall grow not only to fit more perfectly the methods and processes that are called upon to produce it, but shall further find whatever is lovely or of good repute in method or process, and idealize it with the cleanest, most virile stroke I can imagine.
Fowler writes of Wright’s formative years:
Reading, sketching, and music each played a role in shaping Wright’s character. So did hard work. Beginning when he was eleven, he worked through the late spring and summer on his uncle’s farm. Wright described the long hours and hard work as ‘adding tired to tired.’ Nevertheless, this farm labor as an ‘amateur hired hand’ fostered an everlasting appreciation of nature.
Shedding new light on the beloved creator’s legacy through his kaleidoscope of creative contributions, Frank Lloyd Wright: Graphic Artist is an essential bible of design and cultural history.
It takes a special kind of creative alchemy to transmute image into icon and catalyze a cultural cult driven by a commanding brand identity. Logo Life: Life Histories of 100 Famous Logos (public library) from Dutch publisher BIS and creative director Ron van der Vlugt offers exactly what it says on the tin, covering brands as diverse yet uniformly enduring as Apple, LEGO, adidas, Google, Xerox, and VISA. Each short chapter traces the visual evolution the respective brand logo, zooms in on noteworthy milestones in the company’s trajectory, and highlights first-hand accounts and curious anecdotes by the logo designers.
Van der Vlugt tells the story of one of today’s most ubiquitous and recognizable brand identities:
Apple’s first logo was complex picture, a tribute to Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree, with a phrase from Wordsworth: ‘Newton… a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought…alone’, along with the name Apple Computer Co.
Hard to reproduce, it was soon replaced by Rob Janoff’s ‘Rainbow Apple’ logo, with the introduction of the Apple II in 1997. In a later interview, Janoff said that there was no real brief. Steve Jobs only told him not to make it ‘too cute’. Ironically, the logo was designed by hand, using pencils and strips of paper.
The colors represented the monitor’s ability to reproduce colors, a unique selling point at the time. Its bright colors were intended to be appealing to young people.
The bite was added so that people would still recognize it as an apple rather than a cherry. According to Janoff, it does not represent the computing term ‘byte’, nor is there any biblical reference. Also, the bite fit snugly around the first letter of the brand name in Motter Tektura, a typeface that was considered cutting-edge at the time.
In 1984, with the introduction of the Apple Macintosh, the less than mathematically precise curves of the original logo were refined. The brand name was dropped at that point, since the apple alone proved to be an iconic symbol for the company.
From 1998 on, with the roll-out of the colorful iMacs, the stylish monochromatic themes of the logo were used, which perfectly matched the innovative character of the products.
“McLuhan searches for semiotics beneath semiotics, levels of meaning beyond the messenger’s intent or the recipient’s awareness,” Philip B. Meggs once wrote. Though his most famous concept-catchphrases remain “the global village” and “the medium is the message”, Marshall McLuhan originated hundreds of other “probes” — cryptic aphorisms designed to push the reader or recipient into completing a thought process.
In The Book of Probes, Eric McLuhan, Marshall’s son, partners with media theorist William Kuhns and legendary graphic designer David Carson to bring to life McLuhan’s sharpest probes culled from his books, speeches, classes, and various writings published between 1945 and 1980. Since McLuhan was as much a master of textual provocation as he was a co-conspirer in a new visual vernacular for the Information Age, Carson’s bold, thoughtful visual metaphors — all 400 gripping pages of them — present a powerful lens on McLuhan’s legacy that is at once completely fresh and completely befitting.
McLuhan’s words are about words, and Carson responds with a map about maps.
Unlike the spines of a cactus in their tidy rows, McLuhan’s prickly probes zigzag across a vast thoughtscape. Following him, keeping up with him, we have no time to rest or recognize a new location before he beckons us to move on. David Carson comes to our rescue. As translation into the local idiom and bearings for our current whereabouts, his art work roots us for a moment, even as McLuhan pulls us ahead. But Carson does not deliver comforting postcard views; his visual mosaics can leave us just as breathless as the punches of McLuhan’s prose. Snap and shoot, but no snapshots from either artist or writer.
The McLuhan-Carson partnership works constantly to turn symbiosis into synergy.”
The probes themselves, wrapped in Carson’s equally provocative and thought-provoking visual micro-narratives, reveal not one McLuhan but many — the social psychologist (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), the linguist (“Languages are environments to which the child relates synesthetically.”), the artist (“Color is not so much a visual as a tactile medium.”), the scholar (“The content of new situations, both private and corporate, is typically the preceding situation.”), and a near-infinite number more
All media of communications are clichés serving to enlarge man’s cope of actions, his patterns of association and awareness.”
(A note is due here on Gordon’s disappointing use of “man” and “his” to connote all of humanity — while the politics and semantic landscape of McLuhan’s era may have made such gender-skewed umbrella terms culturally acceptable, one would hope half a century of progress might demand a more balanced relationship with pronouns.)
The end of the book features 100 pages of selected precepts, fragments, and probes by McLuhan, including themes of intense timeliness and urgency:
The trouble with a cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it.*
The print-made split between head and heart is the trauma that affects Europe from Machiavelli to the present.**
The media tycoons have a huge stake in old media by which they monopolize the new media.***
The amateur can afford to lose. The expert is the man who stays put.****
Symbolism consists in pulling out connections.*****
Candidates are now aware that all policies and objectives are obsolete. Perhaps there is some comfort to be derived from the fact that NASA scientists are in the same dilemma. While pursuing the Newtonian goals of outer space, they are quite aware that the inner dimensions of the atom are very much greater and more relevant to our century.”
From my studiomateFrank Chimero — one of the most talented designers, most eloquent writers, and most dimensional thinkers I know — comes The Shape of Design, an exquisite meditation on what makes great design.
From the very first line, Frank grabs you by the neurons and the heartstrings, and doesn’t let go until the very last:
What is the marker of good design? It moves. The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies by its publishing, moving the work out and around. It then continues in the feeling the work stirs in the audience when they see, use, or contribute to the work, and intensifies as the audience passes it on to others. Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.
Marshall McLuhan said that, ‘we look at the present through a rear-view mirror,’ and we ‘march backwards into the future.’ Invention becomes our lens to imagine what is possible, and design is the road we follow to reach it. But, there is a snag in McLuhan’s view, because marching is no way to go into the future. It is too methodical and restricted. The world often subverts our best laid plans, so our road calls for a way to move that is messier, bolder, more responsive. The lightness and joy afforded by creating suggests that we instead dance.
But the part that sang to me most comes from Chapter Three, entitled Improvisation and Limitations, and touches on the harmonics of influence — something I think about a great deal and have explored both playfully and seriously:
When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs. Some of those choices are informed by best practices and accrued wisdom; others are guided by the decisions of the work cited as inspiration; while a large number are shaped by the disposition and instincts of the work’s creator. These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others.
Frank goes on to illustrate this with an example from eighteenth-century Japanese haiku master Yosa Buson:
Lighting one candle
with another candle —
Buson is saying that we accept the light contained in the work of others without darkening their efforts. One candle can light another, and the light may spread without its source being diminished. We must sing in our own way, but with the contributions and influence of others, we need not sing alone.