The paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love, what maturity really means, how our emotions affect our immune system, the transformative power of solitude, and a year’s worth more.
By Maria Popova
After the annual reading list of the 15 finest books of the year, it’s time for the annual look back upon the best of Brain Pickings this year — “best” being a hybrid measure of the articles you read and shared most ardently, and those I took the greatest pleasure in writing. Please (re)enjoy, and here’s to a vitalizing new year.
“Love is bitter and all there is… the rest is for the emotional beggars of the earth.”
By Maria Popova
During WWI, F. Scott Fitzgerald was assigned as a lieutenant in an infantry near Montgomery, Alabama. In a country club there, he met and instantly fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the wealthy daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court justice and the woman whom Fitzgerald would later anoint “the first American flapper.” The courtship continued through the war and once it ended, Fitzgerald — an aspiring writer working for an advertising agency and living in a single-room occupancy in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights — finally convinced Zelda to marry him. On April 3, 1920 — exactly a week after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published — the two exchanged wedding vows at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One of literary history’s most turbulent and dramatic relationships ensued — Scott was a ladies’ man since boyhood and Zelda developed an intoxicating obsession with ballet, which swept her into a downward spiral of physical and mental illness, which culminated with a breakdown in the spring of 1930. Perhaps ironically, despite spending the latter half of her life in and out of hospitals and psychiatric wards, Zelda outlived Scott, who died from a heart attack after years of heavy drinking, only to perish herself in a fire at Highland Hospital. Theirs was a love that burned with so destructive a flame that it charred both of them to the ground.
You say that you have been thinking of the past. The weeks since I haven’t slept more than three or four hours, swathed in bandages sick and unable to read so have I. There was: The strangeness and excitement of New York, of reporters and furry smothered hotel lobbies, the brightness of the sun on the window panes and the prickly dust of late spring: the impressiveness of the Fowlers and much tea-dancing and my eccentric behavior at Princeton. There were Townsend’s blue eyes and Ludlow’s rubbers and a trunk that exhuded sachet and the marshmallow odor of the Biltmore. There were always Ludow and Townsend and Alex and Bill Mackey and you and me. We did not like women and we were happy. There was Georges appartment and his absinth cock-tails and Ruth Findleys gold hair in his comb, and visits to the “Smart Set” and “Vanity Fair” — a collegiate literary world puffed into wide proportions by the New York papers. There were flowers and night clubs and Ludlow’s advice that moved us to the country. At West Port, we quarrelled over morals once, walking beside a colonial wall under the freshness of lilacs. We sat up all night over “Brass Knuckles and Guitar.” There was the road house where we bought gin, and Kate Hicks and the Maurices and the bright harness of the Rye Beach Club. We swam in the depth of the night with George before we quarrelled with him and went to John Williams parties where there were actresses who spoke French when they were drunk. George played “Cuddle up a Little Closer” on the piano. There were my white knickers that startled the Connecticut hills, and the swim in the sandaled lady’s bird-pool. The beach, and dozens of men, mad rides along the Post Road and trips to New York. We never could have a room at a hotel at night we looked so young, so once we filled an empty suit case with the telephone directory and spoons and a pin-cushion at The Manhattan—I was romanticly attached to Townsend and he went away to Tahatii—and there were your episodes of Gene Bankhead and Miriam. We bought the Marmon with Harvey Firestone and went south through the haunted swamps of Virginiia, the red clay hills of Georgia, the sweet rutted creek-bottoms of Alabama. We drank corn on the wings of an aeroplane in the moon-light and danced at the country-club and came back. I had a pink dress that floated and a very theatrical silver one that I bought with Don Stewart.
We moved to 59th Street. We quarrelled and you broke the bathroom door and hurt my eye. We went so much to the theatre that you took it off the income tax. We trailed through Central Park in the snow after a ball at the Plaza, I quarrelled with Zoë about Bottecelli at the Brevoort and went with her to buy a coat for David Belasco. We had Bourbon and Deviled Ham and Christmas at the Overmans and ate lots at the Lafayette. There was Tom Smith and his wall-paper and Mencken and our Valentine party and the time I danced all night with Alex and meals at Mollats with John and I skated, and was pregnant and you wrote the “Beautiful and Damned.” We came to Europe and I was sick and complained always. There was London, and Wopping with Shane Leslie and strawberries as big as tomatoes at Lady Randolph Churchills. There was St. Johns Ervines wooden leg and Bob Handley in the gloom of the Cecil — There was Paris and the heat and the ice-cream that did not melt and buying clothes — and Rome and your friends from the British Embassy and your drinking, drinking. We came home. There was “Dog” and lunch at the St. Regis with Townsend and Alex and John: Alabama and the unbearable heat and our almost buying a house. Then we went to St. Paul and hundreds of people came to call. There were the Indian forests and the moon on the sleeping porch and I was heavy and afraid of the storms. Then Scottie was born and we went to all the Christmas parties and a man asked Sandy “who is your fat friend?” Snow covered everything. We had the Flu and went lots to the Kalmans and Scottie grew strong. Joseph Hergesheimer came and Saturdays we went to the university Club. We went to the Yacht Club and we both had minor flirtatons. Joe began to dislike me, and I played so much golf that I had Tetena. Kollie almost died. We both adored him. We came to New York and rented a house when we were tight. There was Val Engelicheff and Ted Paramour and dinner with Bunny in Washington Square and pills and Doctor Lackin And we had a violent quarrell on the train going back, I don’t remember why. Then I brought Scottie to New York. She was round and funny in a pink coat and bonnet and you met us at the station. In Great Neck there was always disorder and quarrels: about the Golf Club, about the Foxes, about Peggy Weber, about Helen Buck, about everything. We went to the Rumseys, and that awful night at the Mackeys when Ring sat in the cloak-room. We saw Esther and Glen Hunter and Gilbert Seldes. We gave lots of parties: the biggest one for Rebecca West. We drank Bass Pale Ale and went always to the Bucks or the Lardners or the Swopes when they weren’t at our house. We saw lots of Sydney Howard and fought the week-end that Bill Motter was with us. We drank always and finally came to France because there were always too many people in the house. On the boat there was almost a scandal about Bunny Burgess. We found Nanny and went to Hyeres — Scottie and I were both sick there in the dusty garden full of Spanish Bayonet and Bourgainvilla. We went to St. Raphael. You wrote, and we went sometimes to Nice or Monte Carlo. We were alone, and gave big parties for the French aviators. Then there was Josen [Edouard Jozan, a French naval aviator with whom Zelda Fitzgerald was romantically involved in the summer of 1924] and you were justifiably angry. We went to Rome. We ate at the Castelli dei Cesari.
The sheets were always damp. There was Christmas in the echoes, and eternal walks. We cried when we saw the Pope. There were the luminous shadows of the Pinco and the officer’s shining boots. We went to Frascati and Tivoli. There was the jail, and Hal Rhodes at the Hotel de Russie and my not wanting to go to the moving-picture ball at the Excelsior and asking Hungary Cox to take me home. Then I was horribly sick, from trying to have a baby and you didn’t care much and when I was well we came back to Paris. We sat to-gether in Marseilles and thought how good France was. We lived in the rue Tilsitt, in red plush and Teddy came for tea and we went to the markets with the Murphies. There were the Wimans and Mary Hay and Eva La Galliene and rides in the Bois at dawn and the night we all played puss-in-the-corner at the Ritz. There was Tunti and nights in Mont Matre. We went to Antibes, and I was sick always and took too much Dial. The Murphy’s were at the Hotel du Cap and we saw them constantly. Back in Paris I began dancing lessons because I had nothing to do. I was sick again at Christmas when the Mac Leishes came and Doctor Gros said there was no use trying to save my ovaries. I was always sick and having picqures and things and you were naturally more and more away. You found Ernest and the Cafe des Lilas and you were unhappy when Dr. Gros sent me to Salies-de Beam. At the Villa Paquita I was always sick. Sara brought me things and we gave a lunch for Geralds father. We went to Cannes and and listned to Raquel Miller and dined under the rain of fireworks. You couldn’t work because your room was damp and you quarrelled with the Murphys. We moved to a bigger villa and I went to Paris and had my appendix out. You drank all the time and some man called up the hospital about a row you had had. We went home, and I wanted you to swim with me at Juan-les-Pins but you liked it better where it was gayer: at the Garoupe with Marice Hamilton and the Murphys and the Mac Leishes. Then you found Grace Moore and Ruth and Charlie and the summer passed, one party after another. We quarrelled about Dwight Wi-man and you left me lots alone. There were too many people and too many things to do: every-day there was something and our house was always full. There was Gerald and Ernest and you often did not come home. There were the English sleepers that I found downstairs one morning and Bob and Muriel and Walker and Anita Loos, always somebody — Alice Delamar and Ted Rousseau and our trips to St. Paul and the note from Isadora Duncan and the countryside slipping by through the haze of Chamberry-fraises and Graves — That was your summer. I swam with Scottie except when I followed you, mostly unwillingly. Then I had asthma and almost died in Genoa. And we were back in America — further apart than ever before. In California, though you would not allow me to go anywhere without you, you yourself engaged in flagrantly sentimental relations with a child. You said you wanted nothing more from me in all your life, though you made a scene when Carl suggested that I go to dinner with him and Betty Compson. We came east: I worked over Ellerslie incessantly and made it function. There was our first house-party and you and Lois — and when there was nothing more to do on the house I began dancing lessons. You did not like it when you saw it made me happy. You were angry about rehearsals and insistent about trains. You went to New York to see Lois and I met Dick Knight the night of that party for Paul Morand. Again, though you were by then thoroughly entangled sentimentally, you forbade my seeing Dick and were furious about a letter he wrote me. On the boat coming over you paid absolutely no attention of any kind to me except to refuse me the permission to stay to a concert with whatever-his-name-was. I think the most humiliating and bestial thing that ever happenned to me in my life is a scene that you probably don’t remember even in Genoa. We lived in the rue Vaugirard. You were constantly drunk. You didn’t work and were dragged home at night by taxi-drivers when you came home at all. You said it was my fault for dancing all day. What was I to do? You got up for lunch. You made no advances toward me and complained that I was un-responsive. You were literally eternally drunk the whole summer. I got so I couldn’t sleep and I had asthma again. You were angry when I wouldn’t go with you to Mont Matre. You brought drunken undergraduates in to meals when you came home for them, and it made you angry that I didn’t care any more. I began to like Egorowa — On the boat going back I told you I was afraid that there was something abnormal in the relationship and you laughed. There was more or less of a scandal about Philipson, but you did not even try to help me. You brought Philippe back and I couldn’t manage the house any more; he was insubordinate and disrespectful to me and you wouldn’t let him go. I began to work harder at dancing — I thought of nothing else but that. You were far away by then and I was alone. We came back to rue Palantine and you, in a drunken stupor told me a lot of things that I only half understood: but I understood the dinner we had at Ernests’. Only I didn’t understand that it matterred. You left me more and more alone, and though you complained that it was the appartment or the servants or me, you know the real reason you couldn’t work was because you were always out half the night and you were sick and you drank constantly. We went to Cannes. I kept up my lessons and we quarrelled. You wouldn’t let me fire the nurse that both Scottie and I hated. You disgraced yourself at the Barry’s party, on the yacht at Monte Carlo, at the casino with Gerald and Dotty. Many nights you didn’t come home. You came into my room once the whole summer, but I didn’t care because I went to the beach in the morning, I had my lesson in the afternoon and I walked at night. I was nervous and half-sick but I didn’t know what was the matter. I only knew that I had difficulty standing lots of people, like the party at Wm J. Locke’s and that I wanted to get back to Paris. We had lunch at the Murphy’s and Gerald said to me very pointedly several times that Nemchinova was at Antibes. Still I didn’t understand. We came back to Paris. You were miserable about your lung, and because you had wasted the summer , but you didn’t stop drinking I worked all the time and I became dependent on Egorowa. I couldn’t walk in the street unless I had been to my lesson. I couldn’t manage the appartment because I couldn’t speak to the servants. I couldn’t go into stores to buy clothes and my emotions became blindly involved. In February, when I was so sick with bronchitis that I had ventouses every day and fever for two weeks, I had to work because I couldn’t exist in the world without it, and still I didn’t understand what I was doing. I didn’t even know what I wanted. Then we went to Africa and when we came back I began to realize because I could feel what was happenning in others. You did not want me. Twice you left my bed saying “I can’t. Don’t you understand” — I didn’t. Then there was the Harvard man who lost his direction, and when I wanted you to come home with me you told me to sleep with the coal man. At Nancy Hoyt’s dinner she offerred her services but there was nothing the matter with my head then, though I was half dead, so I turned back to the studio. Lucienne was sent away but since I knew nothing about the situation, I didn’t know why there was something wrong. I just kept on going. Lucienne came back and later went away again and then the end happenned I went to Malmaison. You wouldn’t help me — I don’t blame you by now, but if you had explained I would have understood because all I wanted was to go on working. You had other things: drink and tennis, and we did not care about each other. You hated me for asking you not to drink. A girl came to work with me but I didn’t want her to. I still believed in love and I thought suddenly of Scottie and that you supported me. So at Valmont I was in tortue, and my head closed to-gether. You gave me a flower and said it was “plus petite et moins etendue” — We were friends — Then you took it away and I grew sicker, and there was nobody to teach me, so here I am, after five months of misery and agony and desperation. I’m glad you have found that the material for a Josepine story and I’m glad that you take such an interest in sports. Now that I can’t sleep any more I have lots to think about, and since I have gone so far alone I suppose I can go the rest of the way — but if it were Scottie I would not ask that she go through the same hell and if I were God I could not justify or find a reason for imposing it — except that it was wrong, of cource, to love my teacher when I should have loved you. But I didn’t have you to love — not since long before I loved her.
I have just begun to realize that sex and sentiment have little to do with each other. When I came to you twice last winter and asked you to start over it was because I thought I was becoming seriously involved sentimentally and preparing situations for which I was morally and practicly unfitted. You had a song about Gigolos: if that had ever entered my head there was, besides the whole studio, 3 other solutions in Paris. I came to you half-sick after a difficult lunch at Armonville and you kept me waiting until it was too late in front of the Guaranty Trust. . . . You didn’t care: so I went on and on — dancing alone, and, no matter what happens, I still know in my heart that it is a Godless, dirty game; that love is bitter and all there is, and that the rest is for the emotional beggars of the earth and is about the equivalent of people who stimulate themselves with dirty post-cards —
This heartbreaking whirlwind account of romantic wretchedness is just about the antithesis of history’s most poetic meditations of love, but in some strange way it appears necessary, for love is a spectrum far too rich and far too bedeviled by complexities to be reduced to optimistic aphorisms. Perhaps there is no more poignant an articulation of those uneasy dynamics than this short verse from the poem “Advice to Lovers,” written by Robert Graves a year before Scott and Zelda’s wedding:
Love is not kindly nor yet grim
But does to you as you to him.
“Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.”
By Maria Popova
The recent anniversary of Rosa Parks’s arrest, which sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, reminded me of “On Courage and Resistance” — the timeless Oscar Romero Award keynote address Susan Sontag delivered on March 30, 2003, originally published in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library). In honoring the Israeli soldiers who defied orders and refused to serve in the occupied territories, Sontag examines the osmosis between individual acts and collective fate, the interplay between morality and courage, and the role of fear in violence:
Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.
The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.
The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are — and always will be. How things really are — and always will be — is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.
The cry of the antiprincipled: ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ The best given the circumstances, of course.
At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve.
Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of ‘moral courage’ — because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too.
She zooms in on the Israel-Palestine conflict and its reverberations around the world:
A wounded and fearful country, Israel, is going through the greatest crisis of its turbulent history, brought about by the policy of steadily increasing and reinforcing settlements on the territories won after its victory in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The decision of successive Israeli governments to retain control over the West Bank and Gaza, thereby denying their Palestinian neighbors a state of their own, is a catastrophe — moral, human, and political — for both peoples. The Palestinians need a sovereign state. Israel needs a sovereign Palestinian state. Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to courageous Israeli Jewish witnesses, journalists, architects, poets, novelists, professors — among others — who have described and documented and protested and militated against the sufferings of the Palestinians living under the increasingly cruel terms of Israeli military subjugation and settler annexation.
The Israeli soldiers who are resisting service in the Occupied Territories are not refusing a particular order. They are refusing to enter the space where illegitimate orders are bound to be given… What the refuseniks have done — there are now more than one thousand of them, more than 250 of whom have gone to prison — does not contribute to tell us how the Israelis and Palestinians can make peace beyond the irrevocable demand that the settlements be disbanded. The actions of this heroic minority cannot contribute to the much-needed reform and democratization of the Palestinian Authority. Their stand will not lessen the grip of religious bigotry and racism in Israeli society or reduce the dissemination of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in the aggrieved Arab world. It will not stop the suicide bombers.
It simply declares: enough. Or: there is a limit. Yesh gvul.
It provides a model of resistance. Of disobedience. For which there will always be penalties.
Sontag then issues a critique all the more apt today, nearly a decade of wars later:
Our ‘United We Stand’ or ‘Winner Takes All’ ethos: the United States is a country that has made patriotism equivalent to consensus.
On the flawed logic of going to — and staying at — war:
The force of arms has its own logic. If you commit an aggression and others resist, it is easy to convince the home front that the fighting must continue. Once the troops are there, they must be supported. It becomes irrelevant to question why the troops are there in the first place.
Sontag zooms back out into the bigger picture:
Let’s not underestimate the force of what we are opposing.
The world is, for almost everyone, that over which we have virtually no control. Common sense and the sense of self-protectiveness tell us to accommodate to what we cannot change.
It’s not hard to see how some of us might be persuaded of the justice, the necessity of a war. Especially of a war that is formulated as small, limited military actions that will actually contribute to peace or improve security; of an aggression that announces itself as a campaign of disarmament — admittedly, disarmament of the enemy; and, regrettably, requiring the application of overpowering force. An invasion that calls itself, officially, a liberation.
Every violence in war has been justified as a retaliation. We are threatened. We are defending ourselves. The others, they want to kill us. We must stop them.
Never mind the disparity of forces, of wealth, of firepower — or simply of population. How many Americans know that the population of Iraq is 24 million, half of whom are children? (The population of the United States, as you will remember, is 290 million.) Not to support those who are coming under fire from the enemy seems like treason.
She illustrates the case for personal responsibility — something Joan Didion pointed to as the pillar of character — with an example of how seemingly ineffectual individual acts of resistance can spark massively influential chain reactions of effects:
Thoreau’s going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment (famously, a single night in jail) has not ceased to inspire principled resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it led directly to the formation of a movement of protesters in faraway Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located.
The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.
Thus: it is not in the best interests of Israel to be an oppressor.
Thus: it is not in the best interests of the United States to be a hyperpower, capable of imposing its will on any country in the world, as it chooses.
Sontag concludes with a necessary reminder that, just like the light and heat of the distant sun are responsible for the flame in your fireplace, our local, individual actions and inextricably connected to and fractionally instrumental in our global, collective fate:
Beyond these struggles, which are worthy of our passionate adherence, it is important to remember that in programs of political resistance the relation of cause and effect is convoluted and often indirect. All struggle, all resistance is — must be — concrete. And all struggle has a global resonance.
If not here, then there. If not now, then soon. Elsewhere as well as here.
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.