Travels With Gloria

Finding beauty mile by mile.

Tag: modern

Midcentury Modern: Pleasing All Of The People All Of The Time

Are these people experiencing an objectively higher-quality life? Vintage image from X-Ray Delta One, via Flickr.

Why do we love Midcentury design?

Is it because there’s some kind of absolute standard of Quality, which MCM furniture objectively meets? Is it because it’s trendy?

The Wirecutter’s Allison Gibson asks these questions and decides that midcentury furniture is inherently good design.

I’m not sure I agree with Allison.

Anyone trying to convince you that Midcentury design is objectively better is selling you something. It’s worth remembering that.

Don’t get me wrong. I love almost anything that evokes the early 60’s. I’m wearing a pair of Laura Petrie style cigarette pants right now. My resume is laid out in Futura. And, yes, I have a total hard on for Danish teak credenzas and Eames chairs. They’re gorgeous. Duh.

But that’s the thing. I like them in an individual way, because of my personal taste. I like Midcentury design the same way I love Bob Dylan and think tattoos are rad as fuck. These things are matters of opinion. Sure, MCM is a little more timeless than, say, Gangnam Style, but that doesn’t mean it’s objectively good.

I know for a fact that there are people who don’t like Midcentury Modern furniture. This blog’s namesake, my grandmother, is one of them. I’m sure she has no problem with it (we’ve never discussed it in detail), but when she and my grandfather built their house in the 60’s, the furniture they bought was NOT modern at all. They passed their traditional taste down to my parents. Our dining room table was lacquered cherry with curved legs that hinted at a vaguely Hepplewhite-ish Chippendaley influence. Our kitchen chairs were a copy of a style commonly seen in Living History museums. Dressers had brass pulls dripping with rococo detail. There wasn’t a stitch of bent plywood in any house I spent time in as a child.

Growing up, the taste I inherited from family told me that modernist furniture was ugly. When I saw Eames designs in antique shops when I first moved to New York, my first thought was, “People pay money for that?” I’d always liked it a little, in a rebellious way. But it didn’t seem to be of Objective Quality, to me.

In 1987, every bank in my hometown looked like this. It was hideous and dated. Image via X-Ray Delta One, via Flickr.

Which brings me to my theory on why people like MCM furniture so much. For a lot of people of my generation, it’s what they grew up with. Midcentury to them says home, family, and oddly enough, tradition. For people of a slightly older generation, it still looks toward an optimistic future, like a little piece of Tomorrowland you can sit on to watch TV. Midcentury furniture is both nostalgic and forward-looking. It has something for everyone. It’s iconic and unique, timeless and contemporary.

Then again, maybe The Wirecutter is right. Maybe good design means something that can be all things to all people. Maybe form follows function not just physically but emotionally.

Either way, you bet your ass I’m getting a bunch of fabulous modern furniture for my new apartment. Family tradition be damned. Stay tuned for the epic flea market posts!

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My space plans will surely be carried out.

The Afronauts. All photographs by Cristina De Middel.

It was 1964, and Zambian schoolteacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso had a dream.

Mr. Nkoloso dreamed that his newly independent country would make its mark on the rest of the world in a way that could never be forgotten.

Three years before, the Soviets had put a man in space. A week after that, the American President Kennedy promised that the USA would be the first to set foot on the moon.

Zambia would do the world powers one better. The Zambians were going to Mars.

Nkoloso took the first step without consulting his government — which was busy planning Independence festivities — and created the National Academy of Science, Space Research, and Philosophy (NASSRP?). He recruited astronauts and began weightlessness training by hurling them down hillsides in an empty oil drum.

This may seem primitive, but if you look at footage of NASA and the Apollo program from the same era, things aren’t a whole lot more advanced. There’s an element of the Cargo Cult in Nkoloso’s editorials from the period, but if you think about it, there’s an element of the Cargo Cult in the early Space Age as a whole. The US could never have won the space race without German scientists who brought rocket technology to the table in exchange for having their Nazi connections erased from history. Seen with 21st century eyes, we got to the moon on firecrackers and tin foil.

What America had that Zambia didn’t was aesthetics: Tang, aerosol cans, go-go boots, and the bee-hive hairdo. I’m not even sure the Soviets had that much. If it looks like you can do something, then people will believe you can do it. The funding comes rolling in. Next thing you know, Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock are on prime time TV, in color. You’ve sold your mission to the stars like a sweat-shop designer handbag. One small step. One giant leap.

But Zambia didn’t have silver lamé miniskirts or a Space Western in the network TV lineup. Nobody was going to be fooled. And so, when the world reported on Edward Nkolosa’s astronaut training regimen, it did so in the form of a colonialist joke.

More than fifty years later, Spanish artist Cristina De Middel isn’t laughing. After discovering the Zambian space program through old British news footage (what can’t you find in old BBC documentaries?), she has created a series of photographs that explore ideas of the future, the past, stereotype, and image, all surrounding the aesthetic of the Zambian Astronaut.

The Afronaut series, which De Middel hopes to publish as a book, seems on the surface to participate in the joke of the Zambian on Mars. Black men wear space suits accessorized with raffia, pose with elephants, and stride through tall grasses bathed in bright sunlight. Afro hairstyles poke out of the front of their helmets.

But looking deeper, it’s obvious that De Middel is in on it. The poses are too reminiscent of Keith Haring’s cartoon space men not to be a reference to the astronaut as visual code for Infinity And Beyond. The elephant photos are juxtaposed with shots of an alien autopsy. The astronauts’ gloved hands probe; what is this strange creature? What is this bizarre sun-baked moonscape?

After all, what’s more primitive than a man being shot into the sky on the back of a giant bomb?

Note: I absolutely could not have written this piece without the inspiration of Wired Magazine and Laughing Squid.

Fridays On Etsy

I sort of hate Etsy. Ninety percent of it is garbage, and the other ten percent is usually riddled with typos, poorly photographed, or over-optimistically described (“Upcycled?” Seriously?). And so I’ve decided to dedicate my Fridays to highlighting the few diamonds in the rough I manage to find. Everything is related to travel, place, and the arts, of course.

Vintage photo album, via Etsy seller ScottishArt.

I love this little photo album, and $19 is probably what you’d spend on a brand new equivalent. You could use it to showcase your Instagram and Hipstamatic photos in vintage style. It’s also the perfect size for the “Polaroids” made by those new Instax cameras that have started popping up here and there.  For what it’s worth, I don’t think this is really from the 50’s, unless the seller retrofitted it with those plastic photo sleeves.

Travel Backgammon set, via Etsy seller MidMod.

Backgammon has always seemed so cool, probably because it’s wicked confusing. This little travel set is adorable, perfect for getting your game up to snuff on the plane before you challenge the locals in a country where Backgammon is crazy popular, such as Turkey or Greece. A great inspiration to learn Backgammon? This little minx only costs $12.

Bulova travel alarm clock, via Etsy seller Pascalene.

There are lots of travel alarm clocks on Etsy, but I picked this one because it’s gorgeous, it apparently works (which I believe because it comes in its original box), and it has a calendar feature. Frankly, I’m a sucker for the slim black line detail that bisects the clock face and traces the date of the calendar. Also, I just noticed that the hours are marked by the palest seafoam green dots. The red/gold/black/seafoam color combo makes this worth every penny of that $38 price tag. It’s the little things, I guess.

The past is a Yakov Smirnov joke.

1961 USSR postage stamp celebrating Yuri Gagarin's space flight. via Flickr.

I have a fascination with Soviet Russia, especially the aesthetics of the USSR from the 60’s through the fall of the Iron Curtain. Call it ostalgia if you want. I’ve always wanted to visit Russia, even nowadays when obviously most reminders of the Soviet days are long gone.

I think it comes from the mystique of the Soviet Union as “other” when I was little. I remember taking a theater workshop when I was like seven years old (yes I was always a dork) where we were given the improv prompt “what if a Russian kid moved to your town?”

The teacher was really mad when I said I would ask him what it was like in Russia and try to become his friend.

Via Coolhunting.

Of course, now ostalgia is trendy. A museum of Soviet arcade games recently opened in Moscow.

There are also two recent books on design behind the Iron Curtain. Iron Curtain Graphics is a book of Romanian communist poster and propaganda design, while Made In Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design is an exploration Russian product design.

A Krugozor cover from 1964. Via krugozor-kolobok.ru

My favorite Soviet product, though is Krugozor, a music magazine published from 1964 through 1991. It came with a flexible record, though I’m having trouble finding out exactly what was on the records. A 99% Invisible podcast episode dedicated to Krugozor claims that the records included sound effects and music, and that somehow the editors were allowed to include rock music. Which sounds weird to me because rock was apparently censored or at least stifled in the Soviet Union at the time. Then again, I’m not up on my Soviet policies on Rock n Roll through the ages — maybe it was only later issues of Krugozor that included that sort of thing, during Perestroika.

It’s really difficult to find out exactly what Krugozor was or what it included, because virtually everything I can find written about it is in Russian. This definitely adds to my fascination with it. If I could read Russian, I would probably discover that Krugozor was the Soviet equivalent of Readers’ Digest, and it would cease to be interesting.

Another Krugozor cover, this time from 1971. Same source.

Sidenote/pointless quasi-proustian reminiscence: For years, there was a Taaka Vodka billboard featuring Yakov Smirnov on Veterans’ Memorial Boulevard (AKA “Vets”, to the extent that I just had to look up the actual name of the street) in New Orleans on the way to the airport. My mother’s parents spent most of the 80’s living in Cameroon, so Driving To The Airport was always a momentous occasion. I will always ever so vaguely associate world travel, the Cold War, AIDS, terrorism, apartheid, Ronald Reagan, and Duty Free, with Taaka Vodka. For no reason other than that this billboard happened to exist and perfectly symbolize everything my five year old brain didn’t understand about the world. (I still totally don’t understand Duty Free.)

Wednesday Round Up.

Screenshot diptych from Pollock. Via Design*Sponge.

Design*Sponge did a Living In post on Pollock. I remember disliking this movie when I first saw it, but damn, it really gets the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic right. I think the main reason I wish I were an artist is the idea of having a ramshackle old studio-slash-house out somewhere nobody else wants to live. In the 50’s that was eastern Long Island. Which is funny because now the Hamptons is the land of spray-tan and appletinis, a place the least imaginative people in the world want to be. I think now you’d have to be in Detroit or a ghost town in the rust belt. Will those places be the hot vacation spots of 2062?

Image courtesy Huffington Post.

The Film On The Rocks Yao Noi Festival — curated by Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton —  created a floating island cinema for screenings.

La Guardia Airport, 1961. Via Retronaut.

Just in time for the new season of Mad Men, Retronaut has a photo series on flying into La Guardia airport in 1961.

This picture of Clarissa Darling wearing a Keith Haring t-shirt brought to you by the fact that I can't get any good MTV Art Break video clips to embed properly. Image blatantly stolen from Flavorwire.

Remember how yesterday I mentioned that Keith Haring did stuff for MTV in the 80’s? Well it turns out MTV is bringing back the Art Break. Too bad nobody cool watches MTV anymore. Also, too bad I suck at embedding video. Click the link, I guess.

Other People’s Travel Snaps

Woman at a bus stop. Photo courtesy House Of Mirth.

It started when I worked in the art department.

We did a lot of photoshopping on the TV series I worked for, and as an art department PA, photo research was a large part of my job.

New Zealand. Photo by trailofants, via Instagram.

It was the early days of Flickr. People would upload just about anything, unwatermarked and in huge resolutions. And thus I discovered that other people’s vacation photos (the less interesting, the better) made great backdrops for times when the script called for our actors to be photoshopped into Beijing, Washington, or Key West.  This is terrible karma, I know.

Woman on bridge. Photo courtesy House Of Mirth.

Even though I don’t get paid to peruse travel snaps on Flickr all day anymore, I still love them. Sometimes when I’m bored and feel like I’ve come to the end of the internet, I’ll run a Flickr search on places that top my bucket list. Instagram and Pinterest are making this odd form of armchair wanderlust even easier.

The best random travel photos, however, are the ones that trickle down from another era, shot on Brownies and Polaroids, printed on actual photo paper, and stuck into albums with those neat little corners. I try not to buy too many; it seems creepy to have an apartment full of photos of other people’s relatives. But I love to dig in the piles of snapshots at flea markets, and every once in a while if I find a really perfect one, I’ll take it home.

Mumbai cityscape. Photo by jimeryjem, via Instagram.

 

Mexican souvenirs. Photo courtesy House Of Mirth.

 

Tip of the sombrero to Jaunted, where I discovered the Instagram travel photos that inspired this post. Hours of vintage photo browsing (and shopping!) are on the agenda over at House Of Mirth.

The Fruited Plain

Airship Brand Oranges. All images in this post courtesy of the Smithsonian.

This is a label for a crate of oranges But it doesn’t just say FRESH ORANGES, or BEAUTIFUL ORANGES, or even CALIFORNIA ORANGES.

It says “Airship”.

This was no mere box of citrus fruit, it was a dream of a better life. In the future, the label seems to say, you’ll go wherever you want, and on the way, you can eat an orange. And in the first half of the twentieth century, in Orange County, CA, the future was now.

Airship wasn’t the only brand to use wanderlust-inducing images to sell citrus fruit. Every citrus growing concern, from Sunkist to the Ventura County Citrus Association, had its own mouthwateringly illustrated crate label extolling the promise of California, the new American paradise. Making lemonade or peeling an orange wasn’t just a way to get your daily vitamin C. It was a destination. Buy this fruit and be transported to a warmer and sunnier place, where there’s fruit on the trees year round, and everything is fresh.

All Year Lemons, Fillmore Lemon Association. Dig how, when fruit is depicted, it's usually drawn individually wrapped. Like a present. A citrus present.

 

Sunkist California Dream. Check out the proto-Disneyland in the background!

 

Passport Lemons. It's rare that a lemon makes me want to forget blogging and go play around on Kayak Explore instead.

 

Ramona Memories. Remember that time you took a bite of lemon meringue pie and were instantly transported to a hacienda, where this girl did unmentionable things to you? Yeah, that was great.

 

Then there’s this gem, which has nothing to do with wanderlust but is trippy as all hell. Seriously, this vies with the Sunmaid Raisin maiden for mind blowing illustration in marketing.

No, you have one! OMIGOD IM HAVING A BAD TRIP (studies show citrus fruits are unlikely to be hallucinogenic)

 

By the way, apparently the Smithsonian has blogs. This post was inspired by a six-part series on their new design blog all about the use of design to market citrus fruit to Americans. I mean, that’s what the series was about. There are hopefully going to be all sorts of other neat things on the blog, very soon. There are also blogs about history, archaeology, film, science, dinosaurs, and a million other cool subjects you’re probably interested in. Who knew?

What if we could take vacations in time?

I’ve been at this desk for the last eight months. I’ve been sitting here twelve or fourteen hours a day — occasional Saturdays, too — in a bullpen office with my three bosses and a gang of sassy upstart production assistants. I’m here after midnight a lot of the time. I have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. This is the reality of a career in TV production.

In two weeks my work here will be done. A few days later, I take my first vacation.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve done more than my fair share of traveling. But there’s a difference between traveling and going on vacation. Other trips have been ambitious. There were itineraries to tweak, languages to bone up on, cultural rules to learn. This trip is different: I’ll fly to Istanbul, sleep there eight times, and then fly home. I’ll learn some useful Turkish phrases and find out how to behave in a hamam. Otherwise, I’m going to play tourist.

Nowadays we’re so obsessed with authenticity that nobody will admit to being a tourist. We want to be vagabonders, temporary locals experiencing life “off the beaten path”, whatever that means.

In the middle of the last century, folks weren’t worried about all that. They went on vacation. It was what you did. There was no shame in it. They sunbathed on patios, rode horses, caught fish, and cooked said fish for dinner. The war was over. They beat the Nazis, and now what they really wanted was modernist vacation homes with free-standing fireplaces and built-in garages for their motorboats.

I’m excited to visit Istanbul, don’t get me wrong. But a part of me wishes I could take a vacation to the fantasy-land depicted in this book of designs for midcentury plywood summer homes.

Via visualnews. You can see high-res images of the whole book at archive.org.

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