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A Design Ethnography of South African Barbershops & Salons

What the history of Apartheid has to do with signage design and communal storytelling.

In his fantastic 2009 TED Talk, Steven Johnson explores how the English coffeehouse of the Enlightenment was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years. This tendency for physical places to transcend their mere utilitarian function and serve as hubs of (sub)cultural development is evident throughout history, from the cave fire pit that sparked the dawn of communal storytelling to today’s coworking spaces that offer fertile ground for innovation through collaboration.

In South African Township Barbershops & Salons, photographer Simon Weller explores the peculiar cultural and social hubs of South African townships, salons and barbershop, which too transcend their mere function as places to get your hair cut and serve as pivotal places for the local community to gather, gossip and exchange ideas. Weller contextualizes the rich and vibrant photographs of the shops and portraits of their patrons with fascinating essays that expound on the aesthetics of these hubs and their signage though interviews with the owners, customers and sign designers.

In many was, South African Township Barbershops & Salons is both a parallel and opposite of last month’s Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York, the vernacular design of the barbershops’ signage standing in stark contrast to the overdesigned vintage type of New York’s storefronts and yet just as evocative of its community’s spirit, the social norms and function of its physical place, and the cultural traditions of its location.

Out of — of courseMark Batty, my favorite indie publisher.

BP

Cultural Connectives: Understanding Arab Culture Through Typography

What typography has to do with cross-cultural understanding and linguistic minimalism.

I’m obsessed with language, such a crucial key to both how we understand the world and how the world understands us. In today’s political and media climate, we frequently encounter the Middle East in the course of our daily media diets, but these portrayals tend to be limited, one-note and reductionist. We know precious little about Arab culture, with all its rich and layered multiplicity, and even less about its language. On the heels of last month’s excellent Arabic Graffiti comes Cultural Connectives — a cross-cultural bridge by way of a typeface family designed by author Rana Abou Rjeily that brings the Arabic and Latin alphabets together and, in the process, fosters a new understanding of Arab culture.

Both minimalist and illuminating, the book’s stunning pages map the rules of Arabic writing, grammar and pronunciation to English, using this typographic harmony as the vehicle for better understanding this ancient culture from a Western standpoint.

The book jacket unfolds into a beautiful poster of a timeless quote by Gibran Khalil Gibran, rendered in Arabic:

We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words.” ~ Gibran Khalil Gibran

Beautifully designed and conceptually thoughtful, Cultural Connectives is another gem from my friends at Mark Batty Publisher, firmly planting them as one of the most ambitious, creative and culturally relevant independent publishers of our time.

BP

Notations 21: Musicians Visualize Sheet Music in Imaginative Ways Inspired by John Cage

What the color wheel has to do with Beethoven and supporting arts education.

There’s something especially mesmerizing about the cross-pollination of the senses, particularly in visualizing music. That’s exactly what Notations 21 (public library) explores. Inspired by John Cage’s iconic 1968 Notations and originally released for its 50th anniversary, the ambitious 320-page volume by Theresa Sauer and Mark Batty Publishers reveals how 165 composers and musicians around the world are experiencing, communicating and reconceiving music visually by reinventing notation.

From acclaimed musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Halim El-Dabh, Joan La Barbara, and Yuji Takahashi to emerging global talent, this magnificent tome examines how both the technology and the expectations of this unique synesthetic language have changed over the past half-century.

I sincerely hope that this book motivates the reader to further research contemporary music and the artists that compose it, to seek out their recordings, attend performances, and support the arts in education. We live in an incredible time in music history — here is only a small sampling of the evidence.” ~ Theresa Sauer

With its visual eloquence and remarkable diversity of perspectives, Notations 21 isn’t merely an anthology but also an ambitious thesaurus of sensemaking for the art and science of neo-notation.

BP

Urban Iran: A Rare Look at Iran’s Street Art Scene

Presaging the Twitter revolution by way of graffiti.

Last week’s Arabic Graffiti is already one of the most-liked books we’ve featured this year. And though an important non-Western voice in the global conversation on street art, it isn’t the only one. In 2008, indie powerhouse Mark Batty Publisher released the excellent Urban Iran — a gripping, visually stunning anthology by photographers Karan Rashid and Sina Araghi exploring the rich spectrum of street art across Iran’s cities and countryside. Alongside the lavish visual spreads are illuminating essays that examine the artwork in a sociopolitical context, bridging this faceted visual landscape with the cultural undercurrents that power it.

What makes the project particularly intriguing is that it came mere months before the 2009 Iranian uprisings, but the content and context of the street art themes featured in the book — censorship, rebellion, political disillusionment, a yearning for justice and democracy — presage what was to come.

Reshad embodies urban Iran, celebrating it and criticizing it simultaneously, and that seems to be the essence of the country today. Of course, there is nothing new about such a relationship, but that’s the ultimate point. Iranians are not just some aggregate, its purpose to serve as nothing more than media headlines and statistics for government reports. They are individuals, struggling and enjoying life the best they can, the same as the rest of us.”

Lavish and thoughtful, Urban Iran is the kind of gem that restores your faith in the art of books and the role of editors as curators of the meaningful, as amplifiers of voices that matter, as bastions of cultural aspiration.

BP

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