Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Search results for “steven heller”

A Brief Visual History of Vintage Typographic Scripts

From Victorian letters to modernist lettering, or what Venice has to do with children’s penmanship.

Iconic design writer Steven Heller has previously delighted us with a peek inside the sketchbooks of famous graphic designers and a fascinating look at the design and branding of dictatorships. Now, he and his partner of 28 years, acclaimed designer Louise Fili, are back with Scripts: Elegant Lettering from Design’s Golden Age — a treasure chest of typographic gems culled from advertising, street signage, type-specimen books, wedding invitations, restaurant menus and personal letters from the 19th to the mid-20th century. Ranging from the classic to the quirky, the 350 stunning images are unified by a common thread: All the typefaces featured are derived from handwriting or symbolic of the handwritten form, and the letters in each touch each other. And in a day and age when pundits are lamenting the death of handwriting as a much deeper cultural death, there’s a special kind of magic about the celebration of beautiful scripts.

We started gathering materials for the book by just going through the shelves of my studio: the stunningly timeless black, white and red St. Raphael enamel sign, French button cards, type specimen books and of course my albums of sign photos. While many of the selections were obvious, some were serendipitous: For example, while teaching a summer masters workshop in Venice, two of my students gave me a composition book they had unearthed from a recycling bin on the Grand Canal. It was from 1923 with verses written in perfect Italian school children’s penmanship.” ~ Louise Fili

At once sentimental and visionary, Scripts is a living capsule of the near-forgotten beauty and allure of vintage lettering, but also of books themselves — lavish, vibrant, tactile, with lush typography winking at you from the page in come-hither seduction unlike the screen ever could.

Images courtesy of Felt & Wire

BP

Iron Fists: A Design History of Totalitarian Regimes

What Mao’s poetry and Mussolini’s pulp fiction have to do with crimes against humanity.

The role of design in political communication is something I’ve always been fascinated by. Hardly does the power of design spring to life more vividly than in iconic images that rally the masses around an ideology, from the prolific design output of the Works Progress Administration in the U.S. to the vintage Soviet propaganda of the mid-20th-century to Shepard Fairey’s now-iconic Obama posters. Today, we turn to Iron Fists: Branding the 20th-Century Totalitarian State — a fascinating account of how last century’s four most notorious and destructive totalitarian regimes used design and brand strategy to claim, retain and enforce power by Steven Heller, often considered today’s most prominent and prolific design critic. (You may recall his Graphic project, a peek inside great designers’ sketchbooks, from earlier this week.)

The book looks at Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, and China under Chairman Mao, exploring in 240 pages of stunning vintage artwork the role that visual language, typography and color palette played in hijacking the minds of millions. Heller looks closely at a wide range of logos, symbols, monuments, postage stamps and other relics of those regimes to expose the striking similarities between such political propaganda and the advertising strategies of today’s consumer culture.

The design and marketing methods used to inculcate doctrine and guarantee consumption are fundamentally similar.” ~ Steven Heller

What’s perhaps most striking is that almost all of the dictators Heller examines considered themselves artists and took active control of marketing their respective brands. Mussolini wrote pulp fiction in which he portrayed himself as a male sex symbol, Chairman Mao took pride in his poetry and calligraphy, and Hitler was a budding architect and watercolor painter before he became creative director of his own twisted “brand,” keen on controlling everything from the use of the swastika to his own likeness, mustache and all.

Some images courtesy of Project Projects

Equal parts visually stunning, intellectually illuminating and emotionally unsettling, Iron Fists sits at the intersection of political history and graphic design, offering an unprecedented look at the design of politics as we head into another election season.

BP

Meet Cipe Pineles: The Remarkable Life and Illustrated Recipes of the Forgotten Pioneer Who Blazed the Way for Women in Design and Publishing

A labor of love four years in the making, celebrating a trailblazing woman who shattered multiple glass ceilings.

Meet Cipe Pineles: The Remarkable Life and Illustrated Recipes of the Forgotten Pioneer Who Blazed the Way for Women in Design and Publishing

One late February afternoon in 2013, as my then-partner and I were cooking dinner at home in New York, my phone rang. It was my dear friend and frequent collaborator Wendy MacNaughton. She knew that I feel about the telephone the way Barthes did, so I in turn knew that there was some momentous reason for the call.

Wendy was calling from the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, where behind a glass case she had discovered something she intuitively recognized as a rare treasure — a set of vibrant original paintings of traditional Jewish foods, alongside recipes written in a most unusual, meticulously hand-lettered typeface. It bore the feisty title “Leave Me Alone with the Recipes” and was dated 1945.

When our mutual friend Sarah Rich joined Wendy at the fair, their inquiry about the author of this magical manuscript was met with a name that meant nothing to either of them: Cipe Pineles (June 23, 1908–January 3, 1991). Upon probing further, they were jarred to realize that the name should not only mean something to them, but should mean very much indeed — especially since Wendy is an illustrator and Sarah a writer with a background in food and design. Cipe Pineles, they found out, was a trailblazer who paved the way for women in design, illustration, and publishing — the first in many boys’ clubs, a woman who embodied Audre Lorde’s assertion that “that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” She was also a pioneer of bringing fine artists to magazines — she hired visionary artists like Ben Shahn and gave young Andy Warhol, who considered her his favorite art director, his first editorial commissions.

Cipe Pineles (Photograph: Trude Fleischmann)

Wendy and Sarah had called us to see if Debbie and I wanted to split the cost of the illustrated manuscript four ways — it was too pricey for them alone, but they felt strongly that this was a treasure worth salvaging from antiquarian obscurity. Debbie and I heartily agreed. None of us had any sense at the time of what we had acquired or how it could live, but a strange and wonderful Rube Goldberg machine of serendipity followed, culminating in Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles (public library) — a labor of love four years in the making, using the illustrated recipes as a centrifugal force for a larger celebration Cipe’s far-reaching legacy.

This part-cookbook and part-monograph was meticulously researched and edited by Sarah and Wendy, with contributions by Debbie and me, alongside a small clan of art and design titans whose work was directly or indirectly influenced by Cipe’s legacy: Artist Maira Kalman painted a one-page love letter to Cipe; design legend Paula Scher eulogized Cipe’s tireless crusade for diversity in a field composed almost entirely of white men; design historian Steven Heller chronicled how Cipe’s monumental influence as an art director and educator shaped the sensibility of generations; legendary food writer Mimi Sheraton, at ninety-one, recounted working among the editorial staff at Seventeen under Cipe’s leadership and reflected on their shared culinary and cultural heritage.

Art by Maira Kalman for Leave Me Alone with the Recipes: The Life, Art, and Cookbook of Cipe Pineles

Below is my own contribution — a biographical essay exploring how Cipe harnessed her outsider status as woman and immigrant to revolutionize a hegemony — as it appears in the book:

BECOMING CIPE: OUTSIDERDOM AND PERSEVERANCE

Cipe Pineles was the first independent female graphic designer in America, the first female member of the prestigious Art Directors Club, and the first woman inducted into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame. A quarter century would pass before another woman was inducted, months before Pineles’s death. Pineles was posthumously awarded the lifetime achievement medal from the American Institute of Graphic Arts, the Nobel Prize of design. And yet through all of her acclaim, Pineles was animated not by ego but by a tremendous generosity of spirit. She saw her success as belonging not to her alone but to all the women whom she was pulling up the ranks along with her, to the young designers whose lives and worlds she shaped as an educator and mentor, and to the American public, whose taste she subtly and systematically refined through the unfaltering vision that defined her life’s work.

When I first heard of Cipe Pineles, I thought of her counterpart Maria Mitchell — a pioneer no less trailblazing in opening up an entire world of possibility to women, yet no less lamentably forgotten.

One sweltering July afternoon, I found myself stunned before one particular object at the birthplace of Maria Mitchell — America’s first woman astronomer — on the small island of Nantucket. In the nineteenth century, Mitchell paved the way for women in science and became the first woman employed by the United States Federal Government for a nonspecialized domestic skill — she was hired as “computer of Venus” for the United States Nautical Almanac, performing complex mathematical computations to guide sailors around the world. She was also the first woman elected into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It would be another ninety years until the second woman — legendary anthropologist Margaret Mead — was admitted. The item that stopped my stride, hanging humbly in the hallway of Mitchell’s small Quaker home, was her certificate of admission into the Academy. On it, the salutation “Sir” was crossed out in pencil and “honorary member” was handwritten over the printed “Fellow.” This yellowing piece of paper was the fossil of a quiet, monumental revolution — the record of an opening hand-etched into a glass ceiling centuries thick.

Like Mitchell’s, Pineles’s path to success was neither straight nor free of obstacles.

Born to Orthodox Jewish parents in Vienna at the end of Europe’s last untroubled decade before the horrors of the World Wars forever scarred the face of the Old World, young Ciporah — who soon became Cipe and never looked back — grew up as the second youngest child in a family of five, with two sisters and two older brothers. In search of relief for her father’s diabetes more than a decade before the first insulin injection saved a human life, Cipe and her family migrated across Europe’s most venerated spas and sanatoria before settling in Poland, right outside Warsaw. (How tempting to imagine young Cipe crossing paths, without ever knowing it, with some of Europe’s intellectual titans who frequented the continent’s spas around the same time, seeking cure for their own bodily bedevilments — Rainer Maria Rilke, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka.)

From a young age, flavor and color were married for Cipe. One of her earliest memories was of walking in the woods with her siblings, gathering strawberries — “red caps through the green grass” — and sitting down by the river to savor them. In childhood, as in her professional life decades later, she was also unafraid of a difficult and even dangerous climb to the top. She recounted one particularly memorable hike in the mountains on the border between Poland and the area then known as Bohemia, on which she and her siblings had chosen one of the highest and most formidable peaks to climb. “With great difficulties after falling a few times we reached at last the top,” she wrote — a sentence of inadvertent prescience as an existential allegory for her later life in the creative world.

But the adventurous idyll was violently interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after Russia’s Red Army invaded Poland in 1920, twelve-year-old Cipe and her family returned to Vienna. Years later, as a high school senior in America, she won a national essay contest by the Atlantic for her vivid eyewitness account of the Bolshevik-inflicted tumult in Europe, which she described as a time of “suspense, excitement, and uncertainty.”

Back in Vienna, the Pineles sisters had set about learning English by memorizing Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol — a strategy with a serendipitous payoff when they finally arrived in America in mid-October of 1923 (“a very beautiful day,” Cipe recalled of the morning she first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty) and entered school just before the holidays, impressing classmates with their season-appropriate vocabulary. “From the beginning we have hard work,” she wrote shortly after arriving, “but I think that in a few months, when we will speak and understand more English it will be much easier.”

So began Pineles’s life in America as a prototypical immigrant, marked by the peculiar, if lonely-making, privilege of being in a culture but not of it. “There accrue to the outsider great benefits,” wrote the trailblazing biochemist Erwin Chargaff — a compatriot and contemporary of Pineles’s, who immigrated to America around the same time and for similar reasons. The European sensibility she had unconsciously absorbed in her formative years would later bring to her design work a level of originality and sophistication that rose above her American peers.

At the end of her senior year of high school, classmates wrote alongside her yearbook portrait: “She knows she draws well. A little Polish girl who won our hearts.” She was voted “best natured member” of her graduating class — a title that reflected the core values of kindness and generosity that never left her, even as she ascended the rungs of the corporate world in the golden age of unfeeling self-actualization.

During her final year of high school, Cipe received a fifty-dollar art scholarship — a non-negligible sum that covered more than a third of the annual art school tuition at Pratt, where she enrolled in the fall of 1926. Her graduation portfolio at Pratt was strewn with food paintings, from a loaf of bread to a chocolate cake. It was also an ode to her first big love, watercolor. Once again, a sort of character summary by her classmates appeared next to her senior portrait:

The most remarkable water colorist in our class. Boys, it’s too late: Cipe is wedded to her art — and they’re both happy.

Beneath the tongue-in-cheek remark lay a deeper truth about Cipe’s attitude toward art and marriage — one nurtured by her older brother Sam, who was instrumental in encouraging her vocational autonomy. Before Pratt, she had voiced to him her reservation that attending college would keep her from finding a husband to support her. Sam reportedly replied: “Marriage is not a full-time occupation. Did you ever hear of a doctor or a lawyer giving up his profession because he was getting married?” (That her youngest sister became a doctor in an era when the field was almost entirely male is probably not coincidental.) In another conversation, Sam reiterated the sentiment: “Marriage is not a substitute for having something to do in life.” Pineles did eventually get married — twice — but although she was a classic Jewish mother in some ways, including in the kitchen, she never let her family life contract her expansive devotion to her art.

Pineles’s name worked both for and against her. To the American ear, Cipe Pineles bears a peculiar ambiguity. An ambiguous foreign name functions like the screen behind which orchestra auditions are performed — the applicant’s gender, ethnicity, age, and other potential points of bias are obscured to let the music speak for itself. But unlike orchestras, which employ this strategy deliberately to avoid bias, the magazine world of mid-century America had no such noble commitment to impartiality. The screen of Cipe Pineles’s name was accidental and as soon as her gendered identity was revealed, the opportunities dwindled or disappeared altogether. She would later recount: “I would drop my portfolio off at various advertising agencies. But the people who liked my work and were interested enough to ask me in for an interview had assumed by my name that I was a man! When they finally met me, they were disappointed, and I left the interview without a chance for the job.” Some prospective employers explained that if she were hired, she’d have to work in the bullpen — an enormous corporate hangar of men — where a woman’s presence would be ill-advised and downright unwelcome.

Still, she pressed on. Reluctantly, she took a job as a watercolor teacher at New Jersey’s Newark Public School of Fine and Industrial Art in the fall of 1929, at a salary of ten dollars a week, but she continued to search for work in the commercial world. Compounding the persistent gender obstacle was the inopportune timing of cultural catastrophe: Pineles had graduated from Pratt just before the devastating stock market crash of 1929 and was attempting to enter the workforce at the dawn of the Great Depression.

Determined to succeed, she scoured the New York Public Library for a list of advertising agencies working with food accounts, purposefully pursuing her passion for the intersection of food and graphic art.

She was eventually hired by Contempora — the experimental consortium of designers, artists, and architects including Lucian Bernhard, Paul Poiret, Rockwell Kent and others — where she designed fabric designs and dimensional displays. But her real breakthrough came obliquely to her direct efforts. The magazine magnate Condé Nast saw her pattern design and window fabric displays for Contempora. They were unlike anything Nast had seen. He immediately hired Pineles as an editorial designer for Vogue and Vanity Fair, both of which she imprinted with her singular vision. She continued to move up in the magazine world. By the mid-1940s, she was shaping the visual voice of Glamour and earning the magazine every prestigious accolade of design.

It was in this period that she began illustrating Leave Me Alone with the Recipes, perhaps because she was contending for the first time with negotiating the competing roles of traditional womanhood and a thriving corporate career, which she followed to the very top over the next half-century, eventually pouring the confluence of her accomplished expertise and her generosity of spirit into teaching as well. She became a passionate and beloved educator at Parsons, where she taught editorial design for nearly two decades.

Exactly thirty years after she wrote and illustrated her family cookbook, Pineles had a chance to resurrect her love of the intersection of the culinary and graphic arts. In 1975 — a tumultuous year for her, marked by her induction into the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the sudden death of her lover — she spearheaded the Parsons yearbook project, themed “cheap eats”: a collection of illustrated recipes for delicious but affordable meals by students, faculty, and celebrated artists such as Maurice Sendak, Larry Rivers, and Elaine de Kooning. Alongside an original painting, Pineles herself contributed a recipe for kasha served with meatballs, a version of which appears in Leave Me Alone with the Recipes.

The students’ introduction to the yearbook encapsulated Pineles’s influence as an educator, artists, and cross-pollinator of food and design, and it captured the spirit and sensibility of her unpublished 1945 family cookbook with uncanny precision. They wrote:

The style is in the color, the scale, the original and unusual use of common items and of art materials. The recipes and ideas in this cookbook are made with the same ingredients any student on a budget would buy; but it is the resourcefulness and inventiveness as well as the artists’ love for cooking which make for good design and especially creative meals. Eating is more than food… it is visual impact, contrast, style, scale, mood, fragrance, color.

Visual impact, indeed, was the raw material of Pineles’s work. But from it radiated a larger legacy of cultural impact. A century earlier, to her first class of female astronomers at Vassar, Maria Mitchell had remarked, “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” Pineles’s life and legacy were one quiet but continuous incarnation of this incantation, the reverberations of which live on as the palpable pulse animating the corpus of possibility for every contemporary woman in publishing and graphic design.

BP

A Decadent Decade of Design Matters: 10 Years of Intelligent and Inspiring Interviews with Creative Icons

Stimulating, ennobling, deeply human conversations with Maira Kalman, Seth Godin, Dani Shapiro, Malcolm Gladwell, Chris Ware, Shepard Fairey, and more.

A decade before the so-called golden age of podcasting and exactly a year after the word “podcast” itself was timidly coined by The Guardian’s Ben Hammersley, Debbie Millman launched the world’s first podcast about design, armed with nothing more than an idea, a telephone line, and ample doggedness. Design Matters premiered on February 4, 2005. Over the years that followed, it evolved beyond design into the broader world of creative culture, featuring wide-ranging and deep conversations with celebrated designers, artists, writers, musicians, and other luminaries, including Chris Ware, Seth Godin, Maira Kalman, Dave Eggers, Kurt Andersen, Paola Antonelli, Malcolm Gladwell, John Maeda, Milton Glaser, Massimo Vignelli, Jonathan Harris, Chip Kidd, Dani Shapiro, Terry Teachout, Wendy MacNaughton, Jason Kottke, Ze Frank, Steven Heller, Grace Bonney, Marian Bantjes, Christoph Niemann, Dominique Browning, John Hockenberry, Barbara Kruger, and hundreds more. In 2011, the show received the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. One of the most downloaded podcasts in the world today, it has shaped the public discourse on design and has inspired such newer projects as 99% Invisible and The Great Discontent.

Propelled at once by Moore’s Law and the pioneer spirit of exploring any new territory, the show’s early days were marked by that distinct blend of endearing technical embarrassments and visionary creative bravery. There is the bad audio quality, the atrocious commercial breaks, and the fact that Millman had to pay the network to put her show on the air — a pause-giving reminder of how low the barriers of entry have fallen, and how much we’ve come to take for granted.

But there are also boundlessly emboldening moments reminding us that the best kind of genius is one backed by goodwill, generosity, and pure human goodness. In an admirable antidote to our cancellation culture, graphic artist Shepard Fairey keeps his interview date despite having just had emergency eye surgery; he actually takes the call from his hospital bed to discuss, among other things, how having a baby daughter opened his eyes to the patriarchy’s oppressive impact and profoundly changed the kind of art he wanted to put into the world. In an uncommonly heartening conversation marking the fourth season premiere, mother-son writer duo Malcolm and Joyce Gladwell share the airwaves; when asked whether she was surprised by her son’s success in looking at what everyone looks at but seeing what no one sees, Joyce’s answer emanates the deep and disarming warmth of motherly love:

I was not [occupied with] fame and fortune… I wasn’t looking ahead very far — I was just enjoying the delightful child that had come into our life. He provoked mirth just by being who he was — by the way he moved, by the way he was made, by his eyes and his hair… Am I surprised? Yes and no. I can see the strands that contribute to Malcolm’s success, and to the way he thinks, the way he expresses himself. But I also am surprised at what it is he says and how he says it, and at how he got there — because there is no precedent for that.

Collected below are ten of my favorite episodes from the past ten years, along with my favorite highlights from each. You can subscribe to Design Matters here and catch up on the archive here.

DANI SHAPIRO (2014)

Dani Shapiro — whose memoir Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life is one of the very finest books on writing and the creative experience ever published — discusses our chronic flight from presence, how she wrote her way out of an existential crisis, and why vulnerability is the wellspring of all meaningful creative work. Listen on iTunes or below:

Deep inside, we are all so much the same — our details might be different, but we are all kind of walking the same internal path. And when I allow myself to be vulnerable, I am allowing myself to connect. I’m allowing people to connect to me.

[…]

How do we actually be right here, right now? Not leaning toward the future, not leaning backwards into the past… How do we find a way to inhabit the moment more often than not?

[…]

It’s the feeling of something becoming heightened in just a moment where … I know that it’s going into a place where it’s like it’s storing itself somewhere inside of me… It is unmistakable when it happens. And then sometimes … it requires a lot of patience to make sense of it. It’s not like that shimmer happens and, Eureka!, you have a story — it’s like that shimmer happens and, sometimes, it can be years before it connects to something else that then makes the story clearer, or makes clear why it shimmered.

MILTON GLASER (2010)

Legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser, creator of the iconic I♥NY logo and cofounder of the equally iconic New York Magazine, builds on his conversation with Millman from the 2007 book How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and discusses idealism, community, aging, the moral duties of the imagination, and what it takes to sustain one’s creative vitality over a long life. Listen on iTunes or below:

No one has the ability to understand our path until it is over, and if you can sustain your interest in what you are doing in your later years, you are very lucky. Many people get tired, indifferent, and defensive, and lose their capacity for astonishment…

Daily life astonishes me. I’m looking through the door here, at the little table-and-chairs that was painted a light green and yellow, and there’s a plant on the table — a little pussy willow — and the combination is totally astonishing… Shadows in the night astonish me. And when you’re working, and you’re putting forms out on paper, every once in a while you’ll be astonished by what happens… The great thing about the work, and particularly work later in your life, is that you can still maintain the sense of possibility that at the end of the day you’ll know something that you didn’t know at the beginning of the day. And I just find that an extraordinary gift.

SETH GODIN (2014)

In this Design Matters Live conversation — occasional interviews recorded not in the studio but at various public events — the wise and wonderful Seth Godin discusses creative courage, the art of dancing with the Resistance, what defines great design, and his “children’s book for grownups” about vulnerability. See more transcribed excerpts and commentary here, then hear Millman’s 2007 studio interview with Godin here.

That is what [artists] do for a living — we dance with the Resistance, we don’t make it go away. You cannot make it go away — you cannot make the voice go away, you cannot make the fear go away, because it’s built in. What you can do is when it shows up, you say “Welcome! I’m glad you’re here. Let’s dance about this.”

[…]

What we need to do is say, “What’s the smallest, tiniest thing that I can master and what’s the scariest thing I can do in front of the smallest number of people that can teach me how to dance with the fear?” Once we get good at that, we just realize that it’s not fatal. And it’s not intellectually realize — we’ve lived something that wasn’t fatal. And that idea is what’s so key — because then you can do it a little bit more.

[…]

For the [creative person], what’s going on outside is trivial compared to what is going on inside… Don’t try to change the structure of the outside world [hoping that] then you’ll be fine, then you’ll be creative and then you’ll be brave. No. First, figure out how to be creative and brave and courageous, and the outside world will change on your behalf…

It’s always the same case — it’s always the case of you’re a human, trying to connect to another human. And if you just pick one human that you can change for the better, with work that might not work — that’s what art is.

MALCOLM GLADWELL & JOYCE GLADWELL (2007)

Prolific author Malcolm Gladwell and his mother, Jamaican-born psychotherapist and writer Joyce Gladwell, discuss success, luck, racism, why we treat enduring ideas as disposable by letting timeless books go out of print (something I encounter regularly and find particularly unsettling), and more. Listen on iTunes or below:

When I think about my family, I think of us as being “serial outsiders”… I have a mother who moved from Jamaica to England — [and] the cultural distance between those two points is greater than the physical difference between those two points — then married an Englishman and moved to Canada (and not just to Canada — to a little rural corner of Ontario filled with Mennonites), and then I went from there and moved to the United States, to New York City.

So when I say we’re “serial outsiders” I mean we’ve replicated the role of the outsider over and over again. And my writing is the writing of an outsider — it’s the writing of an observer… The outsider always has an enormous advantage in terms of seeing things in a different way… It doesn’t have to do, necessarily, with any particular gift of the outsider him- or herself — it’s the gift of the position of being on the outside. You literally see something differently when you look from outside the house than when you look from inside the house. So, in that sense, I’m the lucky recipient of that series of circumstances.

[…]

What I like to do in my writing is combat the feeling one has of bafflement, which I think is a disconcerting feeling… I don’t think I can promise in my writing the answers to problems, but I can promise something which is probably more important in … combatting the sense of unease we have in the world… I can help people to understand how to think about things. That’s what we really want. We’re not unhappy with the fact that the world presents lots of different, difficult-to-answer problems — we’re unhappy about the fact that we don’t even know how to start to think about all these things, what kind of framework to use, what questions to ask, where the beginning point is and where the end point is to any kind of process of analysis. My writing is really intended to be that kind of a roadmap — and I find those kinds of roadmaps to be enormously comforting.

RACHEL SUSSMAN (2014)

Artist Rachel Sussman discusses her decade-long project The Oldest Living Things in the World — which produced one of the best books of 2014 — and its underlying questions about permanence, impermanence, deep time, and how we orient ourselves to the universe. Listen on iTunes or below:

It’s hard to answer [whether any of these ancient organisms have consciousness]. I mean, no, I don’t literally think that they have a consciousness. But at the same time I think there is a sort of “world spirit” — which I say to you as an atheist. Nature is a system, and these organisms are part of that — and I think there is a strong will to live.

And [yet], these are all terms that we just impose upon these things.

PAOLA ANTONELLI (2006)

Curator extraordinaire Paola Antonelli offers a behind-the-scenes look at her uncommonly visionary MoMA shows exploring safety, the humble masterpieces of everyday life, and the intersection of design and technology, and discusses the glories of living in New York City, the tyranny of the corporate world on our inner lives, and what we can do to create degrees of freedom even within limiting systems. Listen on iTunes or below:

Designers’ humility will change the world… Designers just sit and think about how to make people’s lives better. And to do so, you have to strip yourself of your ego for a moment and put yourself in other people’s shoes — the first act of real humanity. And it takes humility.

SHEPARD FAIREY (2007)

Graphic artist Shepard Fairey — who has used the raw materials of capitalism and freedom to continually challenge our social, political, and personal assumptions about how the world works and to offer sometimes subtle, sometimes provocative ideas on how it can work better — discusses how he went from covering his neighborhood in stickers to being one of the world’s most prominent street artists, how the notion of “selling out” impoverishes our understanding of creative culture, and what his daughter’s birth taught him about our world. Listen on iTunes or below:

Here’s how having a child has affected my art: I think that in society, much of the time, the male, dominant, aggressive, I’m-gonna-make-my-way-and-rule-things mentality is rewarded, and the maternal side of things is definitely not valued as much… It’s a patriarchal society. But seeing how my wife is with our daughter and realizing how much work it is … and that it’s our yin and yang that allows the family unit to function in a really amazingly positive way, I really tapped into more of my feminine side, appreciating more the maternal side of things…

A lot of the work that I’ve been doing is dealing with peace and using a lot of female figures. One of the things I’ve thought about was [that] it’s usually men that perpetuate injustice, and they take up arms to do so. And when women take up arms, I think they do it to correct an injustice. (This is a generalization, of course… There are people like Margaret Thatcher out there.) … A lot of the work that I was doing [was] as agitational and provocative as possible. Now, I still try to make the work really engaging and provocative, but also allow beauty, the merit of beauty and the maternal side of things to show through in some of the elements in my work.

SOPHIE BLACKALL (2012)

Artist, author, and children’s book illustrator Sophie Blackall — creator of such wondrous treasures as The Mighty Lalouche and The Baby Tree — discusses the necessary balance of optimism and subversiveness in children’s books, her immeasurably charming Missed Connections project, and the challenges and rewards of illustrating Aldous Huxley’s only children’s book. See more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

SB: I think children are pretty subversive creatures.

DM: It’s interesting: It’s subversive in the way that The Wizard of Oz is subversive — there’s a subtext. And that subtext has to do with love, and longing, and loss, and pain. But I guess, for me, there seems to be an innate optimism that doesn’t feel dark — yes, there’s darkness in the work, but I always get the sense that the light overcomes that darkness. … You can create a brush stroke that somehow defines wistfulness. But in that ability to see that wistfulness, I can’t help but feel understood — which … then gives me a great sense of joy.

CHRIS WARE (2012)

Chris Ware — one of the finest cartoonists of our time and a frequent New Yorker cover artist — discusses his intricate and immensely brilliant book-in-a-box Building Stories, why it’s necessary to make room for sadness in the fabric of life, and how storytelling gives shape to the human experience. Find more highlights here and listen on iTunes or below:

When I was in school, some of my teachers told me, “Oh, you can’t write about this or that, you can’t write about women, because then you’re colonizing them with your eyes”… And that seems ridiculous to me… That’s what writing is about — it’s about trying to understand other people.

[…]

It really all comes down to empathy… If you feel empathy for a group of people or a nation, you’re less likely to attack them. And I just feel like it’s what being human is — that’s the most important thing you can learn, it’s the most important thing you can impart to a child.

MAIRA KALMAN (2007)

The ceaselessly prolific and imaginative artist and author Maira Kalman — whose spectacular recent memoir of sorts, My Favorite Things, was among last year’s best books — discusses the essential role of boredom in creativity (something eloquently expounded by Søren Kierkegaard, Bertrand Russell, and Adam Phillips) and why storytelling for children shouldn’t be approached as a special species of storytelling different from that for adults (something memorably asserted by J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, and Neil Gaiman). Listen on iTunes or below:

Boredom and impatience are real motivators. I don’t want to do one thing all the time — I’m “multi-curious.” And, really, not knowing how to do something and then not being afraid to do it is a nice combination — because you just try new things. If you’re open to whatever serendipity of inspiration is around, sometimes you find yourself sewing and sometimes you find yourself playing imaginary viola.

But I don’t like having a different mindset for children than I do for adults. I just would like to tell the story that’s around me, and just kind of chronicle what I see — and it shouldn’t matter if it’s an adult or a child… What’s the worst that can happen is you can fail — or it can be bad. (Which has happened.) And yet, somehow, the world doesn’t come to an end. So I’m ultimately very brave and terrified… It’s the human condition.

WENDY MACNAUGHTON & CAROLINE PAUL (2013)

Artist Wendy MacNaughton — a Brain Pickings regular — and writer Caroline Paul discuss their endlessly wonderful and layered book Lost Cat, how they balance their romantic relationship with their creative collaboration, our chronic compulsion for control, and what true love really means. See more highlights here and on iTunes or below:

You cannot know everything about the creature that you love, and you also can’t control that relationship. And maybe that’s okay — because we can’t control relationships. In fact, if we did control them to the degree that we want, it would probably provide us with nothing. Relationships are probably our greatest learning experiences.

To see what the next decade of stimulating and ennobling conversations brings, subscribe to Design Matters here, then explore the archive here.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I receive a small percentage of its price. Privacy policy.