Category Archives: Design

Artistic Nationalism

I started this blog to indulge in the discovery (and rediscovery) of Salem’s history, but also American history, which I haven’t really studied in any depth since high school. And I’ve completely forgotten what I learned then, or before, because it was the same old narrative, year after year, Plymouth to Ford’s Theater again and again and again. Past politics. So boring–I hated history by the time I went away to college and was determined to avoid it by majoring in something that was almost completely contrary to my interests and talents: economics. But my time abroad, along with the few history courses I allowed myself to take, convinced me that it was only American history that was boring, so I went on to get my Ph.D. in European history and become a history professor, which is quite simply the best job ever. Of course now I know that American history is not boring (though it is short), because I’ve uncovered more of its layers, including that which is most interesting to me: its culture. My American history curriculum starts with creativity and ends with events, and so I tend to fall down a rabbit hole when I encounter an amazing database like the Index of American Design, a project that commissioned Depression-era artists to produce nearly 18,000 watercolor renderings of traditional American arts and crafts made before 1900 under the auspices of the Federal Arts Project (FAP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The project encompassed 34 states, regional exhibitions of the renderings, and the creation of a permanent inventory of reference materials with which one can rediscover American material culture again and again and again–as accessed today through the portal of the National Gallery of Art.

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Robert Pohle, “Sheaf of Wheat” Shop Sign, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paper, Index of American Design

Index renderings are photographic in their simplicity and detail: the artists are documenting and creating at the same time. Like all WPA initiatives, the Index was first and foremost a way to put unemployed people, in this case artists, to work, but like several FAP projects, the goal of archiving all forms of American culture seems to be just as important. The artists of the Index of American Design, just like the architects of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), used their own artistry to capture and preserve American artistry, as a form and expression of artistic nationalism. Their meticulous drawings of shop signs, andirons, cabinets, dolls and dresses, showcased in a series of national exhibitions, enabled an anxious American audience to discover (or rediscover) its own cultural identity, through very familiar forms.

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Margaret Knapp, Silver Teapot, American, active c. 1935, 1934, graphite on paper, Index of American Design

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Lillian Causey, Quilt, applique, American, active c. 1935, Index of American Design

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Bessie Forman, Dress, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paper, Index of American Design

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Bessie Forman, Man’s Hat, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor and graphite on paperboard, Index of American Design

There are several Salem items in the Index (of course), including some very primitive wooden dolls, a cartouche, and a very characteristic chair. I’m biased, I know, but I think more Salem items should have been included–and wondering if the democratization goals of the Index worked against seats of “high” culture?

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Beverly Chichester, Salem Dolls, American, active c. 1935, 1935/1942, watercolor, graphite, and gouache on paperboard, Index of American Design

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Alfred H. Smith, Cartouche from Salem Gate, American, active c. 1935, c. 1939, watercolor, graphite, and pen and ink on paperboard, Index of American Design

William Kieckhofel, Salem Chair, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, Index of American Design

William Kieckhofel, Salem Chair, American, active c. 1935, c. 1937, watercolor and colored pencil on paper, Index of American Design

 

A few posters of WPA/FAP/IAD exhibitions held in 1937-38:

IAD Collage


Little British Books

I have a particular predilection for small decorative books published in collectible series, which British publishers are particularly good at producing. I have posted about two of my favorite series before, Britain in Pictures and King Penguins, and on this recent trip I encountered some more! The very traditional and well-stocked Daunt Books, which in addition to selling books has its own imprint, had several series on display in their main store on Marylebone High Street in London, and Waterstones (now managed by James Daunt) had a beautiful display of the new Penguin Monarchs series AND two big bookcases full of classic Penguins. The British love their Penguins, and who can blame them?

Daunt Books London

Daunt Books

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Candlewick Press Collage

Daunt Books Display

All sorts of books at Daunt including pamphlets: the Candlewick Press “Poetry Pamphlets” are marketed with the pitch phrase “instead of a card”; the “Little Black Classics” were issued in a series of 80 volumes last year to commemorate Penguin’s 80th anniversary.

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Penguins Blue

Penguin Monarchs

Penguin Monarch Charles II.

Over at Waterstones on Gower Street, there were vintage paperback Penguins in orange and blue, and the new Penguins monarchs series, “ short, fresh, expert accounts of England’s rulers in a collectible format” with commissioned covers. I want all 45 of them (44 kings and queens + Oliver Cromwell, of course).

 


Ghostly Courtiers

I’ve just got a few more English posts before I get back to the actual streets of Salem: I just took so many great pictures over there if I do say so myself! I’m going back to Hampton Court today–the other side of Hampton Court, which if of course a bilateral palace, with a Tudor side and a Baroque/Georgian one, the cumulative work of Sir Christopher Wren and Sir John Vanbrugh who were commissioned by the last Stuarts and the first Georgians to remodel the entire castle in a more modern (and presumably comfortable) style. If completed, this modernization plan would have resulted in the complete demolition of the Tudor palace but lack of funds and the shifting preferences of monarchs determined that it was (fortunately) not. I far prefer the Tudor palace, inside and out, but I really enjoyed the furnishings, paintings, and overall interpretation of the “Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber” exhibit in the royal apartments on the other side, populated by courtiers all draped in white Tyvek.  Like any old place touched by tragedy, there are rumors of ghosts at Hampton Court Palace, and it as if you are walking among them in these rooms.

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Baroque facades–with the Tudor roofline peaking out behind, dining rooms and courtiers; Below, the “Grey Lady” ghost, Sybil Penn, wandering through the palace.

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Recovered

I enjoyed clicking around a crowdsourced graphic design project called Recovering the Classics the other day featuring new covers for old classics produced by anyone and everyone who had the inclination. Bibliographic art is always interesting to me, and I think it is a dynamic genre as interest in things that appear to be fading naturally and conversely escalates. Even though some of the cover designs are a bit simplistic (or confusing, or not particularly representative of what’s inside), it’s interesting to compare them: just click on a big image and you will see all the other submissions for the same title. I am naturally drawn to the starker, more symbolic designs as well as those which are slightly retro or antiqued in some way, and I am a sucker for nearly every new cover of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter that I encounter: they are always an easy A in my book.

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RTC Kafka Collage

RTC Jekyll Hyde Covers

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RTC Frankenstein Collage

Book covers by MrFurious (The Scarlet Letter), Huy Ho (Jane Eyre); Ji Sug Kang (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz); J.R.J. Sweeney and Roberto Lanznaster (Metamorphosis); Ioannis Fetanis and MrFurious (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde);  Michelle Kondrich (The Jungle); Nick fairbank..f9 design (The Jungle Book); Steve St. Pierre (Dracula); and Luis Prado, Alexis Tapia, and Ed Gaither–Modern Electrographic (Frankenstein). I don’t know why no one has caught the prominent typo yet!

More covers on view at Recovering the Classics.


Skiing through the Depression

Certain eras have a visual signature that is much more assertive than others, and when it comes to the last century, I’ve always thought that the 1930s was a very strong decade in terms of graphic design, in sharp contrast to the weakness of the economy. Is there an inverse relationship between art and anxiety? I think so. The bold WPA posters with their fat fonts seem like compensation for the bleakness and leanness of the times, and so too do commercial posters from that era. You see just one, and immediately you know when and why it was made: Cheer Up! An upcoming auction of vintage posters at Swann’s Auction Galleries is dominated by skiing posters from the 1930s, several of them designed by American artist Sascha Maurer (1897-1961) who seems to have specialized in this very specific genre. Whether they were sponsored by the railroad, or the ski manufacturer, or the resort, they all show shiny happy people on the slopes, and a bright world not too far from home for some, but still probably quite inaccessible. Go Skiing!

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Skiing Poster Collage

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Vintage Ski Posters by Sascha Maurer , c. 1935-37, Swann Auction Galleries auctions past and upcoming.


Chimneys, Mantles & Mice

I just finished sweeping up the last bits of mortar and plaster dust in the house, the consequences of some oddly-timed house projects: a major rebuilding of two of our towering chimneys and some minor plastering and painting in our central hallway. So after I clean myself up, I’ll be ready for the Christmas festivities! I hope that wherever you are, things are a bit more peaceful, and less dusty–and if it is your preference (it certainly is mine), colder: we are expected to hit 7o degrees on this Christmas Eve, 2015. What an odd year, weather-wise, with Snowmaggedon in February and Christmas in July in December–such extremes are portents of the future, I fear. Before everything gets messed up again, I took some pictures of both inside and outside, decorations and scaffolding. We have a great tree this year, if I do say so myself, but as I find it impossible to photograph Christmas trees I’m not sure you will be able to appreciate its glory. You’ll have to trust me. My mantle decorations are the usual excessive winter wonderland installations. I was inspired this year by two particular creatures: an Asiatic dormouse in the form of an Asian export soup tureen dated 1760 I spotted at the Peabody Essex Museum and a Christmas card featuring a drypoint etching of a rabbit by the artist Bruce North from 1996. Nice mice are hard to find though, and the combination of mice and rabbits made my double parlor look a bit nursery-ish, so I mixed it up a bit with foxes and of course, deer.

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Christmas Inspiration

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What I Want Now: King Penguins

Today I have an entry in my very occasional series of What I Want Now: things I am craving at this very minute. Generally these things fall into two categories: items that I have just discovered and want instantly and items that I have known about for a while but suddenly must have. Today I am thinking about collectible “King Penguin” books, an illustrated hardcover series that Penguin published between 1939 and 1959, including 76 titles. I have four and now want more. These are slim volumes with striking covers: like another series which I admire and collect, Britain in Pictures, it was the aesthetic quality of these books that first captured my attention rather than their content. They look great on a shelf, and in multiples, so I really need more, now. I bought my four volumes in a brick-and-mortar store that is no more, so I think I’ll have to expand my collection from online sources but I’m a bit hesitant as condition is everything with these books: not only do they have beautiful covers, they have lovely spines, and this is the part of the book that gets the most wear and tear. Yet despite my trepidation, I will press on, and if anyone out there reading this wants to help, I have Crown Jewels, Elizabethan Miniatures, Some British Moths, and Flowers of Marsh and Stream in my possession and really want Animals in Staffordshire Pottery, the two (edible and poisonous) mushroom books, both of which have amazing covers, A Book of Toys (with toy penguins on the cover), Spiders, The Bayeux Tapestry, The English Tradition in Design, A Book of Scripts, Tulipomania, and just for the season, Compliments of the Season.

King Penguin Elizabeth Miniatures

King Penguin Flowers Marsh and Stream

King Penguin Mushrooms Covers

King Penguin Toys Cover

King Penguin Spiders Cover

King Penguin Scripts Cover

King Penguin Ballet Illustration

King Penguin Military Uniforms Illustration

King Penguin Tulipomania Cover

King Penguin Compliments Cover

King Penguin titles I have and want, and illustrations from Janet Leeper’s English Ballet and James Laver’s British Military Uniforms. The best source for learning all about collectible Penguin titles is here. Oh, and this one too, please: for $92, I assume its spine its perfect.

King Penguin Life Cover


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