Store for Packaging | at least -$40,000 idea

A friend of mine sparked this idea, so thank you Rudolph.

For some reason I spend a lot of time thinking about businesses I’d like to go to but don’t exist:  a Weimar-themed hotel and casino, or a sex neutral/gender specific haberdashery that caters to dandies and drag kings (tentatively named “Manish Boy”) or an urban petting zoo (one of my first ideas, and coincidentally one that someone else made come true!). I suppose this stems from the amount of architectural theater in play in New York already, from Williamsburg eatertainment, to the Hollister store on Broadway, to my personal favorite, Duncan Quinn.

So on to the idea at hand. This is a store, as yet unnamed (feel free to make suggestions) that sells items based on the theme, connotation, and quality of their branding and packaging. The contents of the package would be secondary to the package itself. The shop would be organized not according to price or the intended use of the things, but according to packaging themes. I imagine there would be a great many useless things or items of poor quality, but nothing would be allowed in if its packaging wasn’t up to snuff, no matter how good the thing is. Below is a selection of proposed items for sale:

There is but a single response to this item.

Facebook Din | an idea that’s doubtfully worth anything at all.

Since my last “Idea, by monetary value” was so successful (at least a half dozen of you showed interest in paying some small amount of money for it) I decided to propose a truly worthless invention.

I would like to have a version of facebook that is auditory-based rather than textual.

When the user logs in, instead of seeing a list of quotes and “what’s on your minds” they would hear the ambient roar of every one of their associates posts, recorded in their own voices. Each post would still be represented by the speaker’s avatar but they’d appear in an illusory three dimensional space, more recent posts in front and older posts receding into the darkness (or brightness). As you navigate through this “space” and click on a particular post it would become loud enough to become discernible.

In this way, facebook would become like an endless virtual cafe or salon. Unlike the real world, as each moment passed it would be recorded and preserved, still available to us. We could wander from table to table joining conversations that happened days ago while we were doing something else. The passage of time would be irrelevant. Effectively the experience swaps space in for time, so the same person would appear to be in many places at once but in fact was was/is in many times at once.

To complete the metaphor, non-verbal posts (such as links or quizzes) would have auditory queues that compliment a theme of each user’s choice. For instance, one user could decide that all quizzes would sound like chamber music from a society drawing room, another might have facebook sound like a noisy bar, and another might choose the explosions of a battlefield. I personally would like to think of facebook as a busy cafeteria: quizzes would sound like the tinkling from spoons stirring coffee cups and links would be the spray of the dishwasher on ubiquitous plastic trays. There would be no background music, just the murmur of a server asking “you want gravy on that?” or “Sweet or unsweet?” (as they do in Southern cafeterias when you order tea). The entire effect would be filtered through some reverb to simulate the echo of ceramic tile and glass.

I doubt anyone will take me up on this idea. I don’t see how it can make a penny. But at least I’ve dreamed.

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If you live or spend any time on the lower east side you’ve probably seen my favorite new piece of street art. This is among the most brilliant pieces of camp I’ve ever seen. There’s so much to unravel in this work. As you can see, its a re-imagining of Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyn portrait print but with an image of an older Leonard Nimoy as Spock swapped in for Monroe’s face. The mashup of dichotomies is impressive: semitic/blonde, age/youth, masculine/feminine, geeky/sexy, “logical”/emotional. Warhol’s co-opting of commercial art being co-opted for street art, all wrapped up in 1960’s and some serious drag. Perfect.


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Kerning game : at least $20 idea

One of the things that exciting about new distribution channels for small applications is that tiny markets have emerged through extremely specialized applications. A few weeks ago Dan Dickinson showed me a game for the iphone called Kern. He correctly assumed that I’d be excited about a type nerd game, and while the game is fun, its not as fun as I thought it would be because it really has next to nothing to do with kerning (its more like tetris)

So I started to think about what a good kerning game would be like and came up with the following concept.

The game is simple: first the player is shown well kerned word or phrase, set in a nice typeface. Then the letters scramble themselves all over the screen. The object of the game is to neatly kern the letters so as to reproduce the original. Once the player feels the letters are in place they press a “Check my work” button and the original floats down from above, pausing just above and then overlaying the players version. Then the player is awarded points based on the quality of the kerning. Each level would get harder and harder, eventually you’d just be kerning a bunch of A’s and k’s.

Additionally, “celebrity” typographers and type designers would be hired to provide the original samples. Each sample would be set in that designer or foundry’s own face and at the end of a level there would be a link to the foundry’s homepage or something to encourage the purchasing of the font the player’s been staring at for the last 10 minutes. Ideally, the type designers would recognize this as free advertising and provide samples for little or no cost. Updates to the software could come once a week or so, so one week you’d get an Ed Benguiat level and the next week you’d do Process Type Foundry or Spiekermann.

The best part, to me, is that you could include information about different typefaces, the designers who drew them, their history, and their usage. For instance, I would love to read a bit about how Robert Slimbach imagines people would use any of his drawings of classic text faces and then practice setting those faces the way he does. Instead of a simple diversion, I imagine this game could be both educational and a great exercise for improving typographic fundamentals.

Anyone want to make this game?

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From the Other Side of the Planet

Last week I was playing tour guide in NYC Chinatown when this package jumped out at me from amidst tourist trinkets, Buddhist icons, and lychee vendors. Chinatown has more sensory stimulation in one block than most of the rest of the US has in a square mile, even for New York its a feast. What struck me about this bar of soap was its graphic simplicity. Three color printing, flat graphic image, just the trademark (Fan) and what the product is (medicated soap, or so it says in English on the other side). Unlike the piles of ubiquitous sandalwood soap ornately wrapped to impart a sense of exotic luxury to sucker tourists, this soap is just a basic bar of soap. I don’t really know what the medicine is for, and I’m unlikely to find out because frankly it smells like medicine tastes.

Fan Medicated Soap. Actually smells like medicine.

Fan Medicated Soap. Actually smells like medicine.

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Last year my wife went to Berlin on a research trip and I was stuck at home. To make me feel better she brought back a suitcase of weapons grade licorice. I’ve savored it over the months and my supply is almost out but there’s one item I can’t bring myself to eat. Its a package of 3 sweet cream licorice bars (like chocolate bars, but licorice flavored instead of chocolate flavored). I can think of few treats I’d rather eat. Cruelly, the package of this is so perfect that I can’t imagine destroying it for the temporary pure joy of eating. I’m happy to share the packaging with you, fortunately you can’t upload the taste of licorice to my webhost.

The printing is a classic early 20th century advertising vernacular reminscent of the Beggarstaffs or Lucien Bernard. The gold ink complements the simple flat red and black that make up an image that connotes exoticism and luxury through the most modern of conveyances, the steam ship. Once opened we are presented with a handsome if somewhat disconcerting trademark of an enormous licorice plant taking root on the earth. On the reverse side is a wonderfully confident description of the licorice that starts by comparing the product to mother’s milk and finishes with a reminder to breath. Beneath that lies the second image of the steamer, perfectly aligned to sail across the horizontal seam of simple, delicate wax paper that envelops the object of our desire. The proportions of the three thin bars are a beautiful, balanced golden rectangle. Each is molded with the image of the steam ship. You can see that my excitement got the best of me and I was unable to adequately frame this last picture. Immediately after I took this final photograph I quickly slipped the licorice back into its beautiful case lest I be overwhelmed with the urge to sample these precious bars of pure joy and forever mar the effect of their perfect beauty.

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Unauthorized Design (part 1)/

Its arguable that in western cultures design is the most prolific generator of cultural artifacts. The breadth of what is affected by the domain of design is substantial, everything from alphabets to signs to clothes to furniture, interiors, buildings, parks, and cities is designed. Everything is packaged in design, and design does more than communicate what a thing is, it is instrumental in creating the meaning/value of the thing. Juliet said, “…that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet;” but I think most people would agree, a coke in a green can would taste funny. For better or for worse, a substantial part of what we call culture today is made by designers.

The problem is that design (or disciplines that design) is a specifically white, affluent, straight, European phenomenon. In fact, for the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to white, affluent, non-queer, male, protestant professionals working in disciplines of design as the Design Authority. The process of design, the designer client relationship, and the means of production were all created and controlled in service of this single dominant cultural power. Designer’s and their clients recognize other cultures as markets for design, but rarely ask them to participate. Conversely, when non-authorized designers create they are expected to be designers first, to subscribe to an existing culture of design, and to deny their own marginalized voices.

Try a little exercise: think about what makes traditional (ie, pre-colonial) Arabic architecture distinctly Arabic. Now think about what makes contemporary Arabic architecture Arabic (I’m sure I’ll be talking about Zaha Hadid later). What does feminine graphic design look like (hint: if you’re a man, you better not say “pink” or “spiritual”.) How is a Latino car different from a white car?

The problem lies not just in the typical socio/politico/economic mechanisms of subjugation (which are always at play) but in design itself. The markets and audiences for design are the same as for any cultural production. Yet while there is (limited and/or ghettoized) participation from marginalized voices in literature, theater, dance, music, film, art, cuisine, etc. those same voices are distinctly absent in design. There are only two reasons why this could be: Either design is culturally neutral and thus is well suited to all cultures or disciplines of design have explicitly implemented mechanisms of social and cultural exclusion.

Over the next weeks and months I plan on examining these issues in greater depth. As always, suggestions, criticisms, interpretations, and rebuttals will be more than welcome.

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The Value of Architecture in Civic Greatness (part 2)

In part one I argued in support of a more decorous and inspiring civic architecture, or at the very least to maintain those qualities in existing public structures.

As I was finishing the post I realized I hadn’t discussed an important point: the unique problems of civic architecture. I cited several buildings that I admire, Grand Central Station being among my all time favorites. Its enormous space is truly awe-inspiring and its fixtures are well maintained examples of a craftsmanship and attention to decorative detail that we don’t often see these days. I consider this to be a fine example of a truly inspiring civic architecture.

The problem is that Grand Central utilizes the same gestures as so many palaces, cathedrals, and fortresses. As these architectural motifs were developed in the service of sovereign powers as a means of subjugating a population rather than ennobling or empowering them, they’re not particularly well suited to the allegedly democratic ambitions of our civil society.

Historically, cathedrals have been built to inspire admiration and fear in a congregation by embodying the sublime. From Notre Dame to today’s mega-churches, a major theme in the architecture of worship is to dwarf the individual, subsuming and connecting him to the spiritual body of community and faith. Anyone who’s seen the Cologne Cathedral would be hard pressed to argue that that isn’t true at least some of the time.

The palace is also constructed to capitalize on the drama of scale. As the architectural expression of the sovereign’s power its important that subjects recognize in it the physical manifestation of the wealth, glory, and divine right to rule.

Similarly, one of the fortress’s chief functions is to intimidate any would be attackers. After all, the safest castle is one that doesn’t get attacked in the first place.

All of these architectures have one thing in common: the intent to subjugate and bring the will of the population or individual into docility.

These architectural symbols of power have been hybridized and articulated in contemporary architecture as well. A skyscraper is the palace of corporate power, built to inspire awe in its employees [subjects] and demonstrate might in the marketplace, private gated communities are fortresses, designed to intimidate would be invaders, and so on.

Now, I’m not changing my mind about the whole “civic architecture should inspire pride” issue, but none of this subjugation/intimidation stuff sounds like its in keeping with the principles of civic responsibility and participation. A well-considered civic architecture should reflect the values of the civil society it is constructed for. For us, that might mean that it needs to be democratic and scaled for human purposes, not the purposes of would-be gods and sovereigns. Our current architecture knocks the king off the throne and God out of heaven but replaces them with the State.

Some groundbreaking early 20th century architects sought to break with Neo-Classical motifs but utilized the same gestures of scale, mass, and volume to dwarf people. The ultimate end of a particular strain of subjugating architecture came when Futurist Antonio Sant’Elia imagined buildings so outside the scale of human use that they were unbuildable.

This is a logical end of one architectural vernacular of power (Futurist Fascism), but one that seems patently inappropriate for the democratic ambitions of the United States. In fact, public buildings in the last hundred years have been so quick to eschew humanness for dramatic effect that we can hardly imagine what a human shaped building would be like anymore.

My proposal is that a sensitive, inclusive, and participatory architecture should be developed for civic buildings. I could expand on any of these ideas but my thinking while typing would quickly turn itself into a book so here’s a basic list:

  • Civic architecture should be scaled appropriately for human use.
  • It should make citizens feel empowered, not small.
  • It should be ecologically responsible.
  • It should be local.
  • It should be sensitive to its context without pandering or mimicking pre-existing structures.
  • It should be historically relevant but also distinctly contemporary.
  • It should be designed chiefly to include and inspire all citizens, not to coerce, or intimidate, but to be open to participation and dialogue among citizens.
  • It should overtly reference the hand of the people who built it, ideally the work of craftsmen and laborers and not just the mechanized processes that render materials.
  • It should be inspiring yet modest.
  • It shouldn’t be cheap or common. Conversely it shouldn’t be ostentatiously luxurious.

I’m trying to think of buildings that embody these attribute, but I can’t. This fact alone sends up a red flag. Is this sort of building rare because its wrong-headed and impractical or because it disrupts that power of the bodies that enforce social regulation through architecture? What I’m looking for is obviously something that is at odds with Modernism, but also seemingly at odds with everything that’s come after.

I’m going to try to find some examples and come back to this. If anyone else comes up with any, please post them.

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The Value of Architecture in Civic Greatness (part 1)

I have jury duty this week. Most people seem to live in mortal fear of being chosen for a jury, but I’m actually happy to exercise this civil right/responsibility.

Beyond the many legal surprises, what interests me is the architecture and design of the spaces I’ve seen. It’s clear that the Brooklyn supreme court was once a fine modernist embodiment of the principles of law, order, and justice, built solidly of marble, glass, steel, and wood as a symbol and manifestation of state power.

The traditional aesthetic of state power in the US is rooted in a bizarre sort of neo-classicism that was preferred by the founding fathers (I’m looking at you Jefferson!) and emulated through the next two centuries in state capitols, post offices, and public university buildings. This architectural vernacular is a manufactured symbol of the stability and longevity of a great nation, a not so subtle attempt to tie our history to those of much older and much admired societies. It utilizes the same semiotic mechanisms that most national chain stores use to signify authenticity. Applebee’s signifies the authenticity of time honored Americana and folk culture by putting a bunch of goofy crap up on the wall, the government signifies authentic authority by making believe that the United States was founded in some fantasy version of antiquity. In the context of Doric columns and Prussian eagles the imperious judge with his timeless robes seem natural. Despite the fact that judges robes, Doric columns, and Prussian eagles are actually completely anachronistic to one another.

The Brooklyn Supreme Court was designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon and completed in 1958. The architectural design is a well-considered adaptation of a mid-century American modernist style used to express the ideas of a strong juridical power, one based on centuries of tradition descendant from English sovereign rule. (There’s even an educational video shown to jurors to explain the origins of our legal system). It appropriates the language of post-war international corporations as a means of describing power. Since then a few elements have been added (escalators for instance) that update the aesthetic somewhat to a later International style.

The true success of this modernist expression of government power lies in how well the judge is able to convey the authority of the state, which in this case I can imagine was quite well when the building was originally erected in 1958. The large common areas are suitably over-sized to intimidate citizens. Important people sit up high and do their best to address the subjects of the law with respect and dignity. The judge wears a judge’s costume, the lawyers wear lawyer costumes (some better than others) and those things seem to fit their environments. My court room is a nearly perfect cube of paneled wood. The dramatic height of the ceilings accommodates an over-sized inscription that interestingly seems to have been chiseled out of the wood paneling in Futura, as if the wood were stone.

This last bit seems symbolically potent to me. The “chiseled” lettering is an oblique reference to the chiseled capitals traditionally found on the friezes of neo-classical buildings but the use of the ur modernist letterforms in a softer material is a sly wink. The effect is dramatically scaled and smartly contemporary to mid century American sensibilities. All in all, it’s easy to see why people approved of this building in 1958.

However, today there are some problems.

Since its construction there seem to have been quite a few additions, primarily to the diminshment of the experience of state power. As we jurors were moved from one holding area to the next in a series of warren like antechambers and waiting rooms I couldn’t help but notice that the once noble building has begun to show signs of wear. As needed, it has been repaired primarily with frugality and efficiency in mind. Where you would naturally expect an extension of the original materials you find that marble, terrazzo, wood, glass, and steel have been replaced by laminates, acoustic tile, cheap paint, and mundane office furniture designed for heavy use. The most jarring juxtaposition is the proliferated composite wood furniture found throughout the building. This includes the lectern from which the attorneys question their witnesses and the desks provided for court clerks and recorders. The counselor’s lectern is particularly vexing because the laminate clashes with the benches directly behind it.

Economically it makes a lot of sense to repair the building in this way. Undoubtedly taxpayers don’t want to imagine that millions of dollars are being sunk into these old buildings for no other demonstrable benefit than keeping them pretty. The cost of materials has outpaced inflation as has the cost of fine detail labor. The wear and tear on the building is substantial as thousands of people use it ever day. Its responsible to a frugal constituency that demands fiscal accountability for the use of its tax dollars.

I would argue that the loss of esteem and civic pride isn’t worth the savings. The paradox is that as the building begins to look shabbier citizens are bound to lose respect for the government and pride in their own civic participation. Once we’re disenfranchised we don’t feel the responsibility to support a fading institution and things get worse. The less we admire the court, the less we want to participate in the law. This attitude is clearly expressed by people’s aversion to jury duty and their unwillingness to dignify the proceedings with comportment and attire that they once demanded. It was sad to hear a court employee tell hundreds of jurors that food, beverages, and cell phones are not allowed in the court rooms. I can’t help but believe that in a different environment this would be self evident. I could be wrong, but I don’t imagine that at the beginning of mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral a priest comes over a loud speaker and tells people they need to smoke outside.

In capitalist enterprises this is implicitly understood. While fiscal responsibility to shareholders would naturally lead corporations to build modest offices, most do precisely the opposite: they build luxuriously appointed testaments to their power and wealth. They want to inspire confidence in their partners and intimidation in their competitors, not assurance of conservatively sound reason (one of the rare exceptions to this strategy is Wal Mart, who’s modest corporate offices have been well documented).

The case for this strategy being implemented in civic projects has been made in the restoration or Grand Central Terminal. Every day I travel through this secular cathedral I marvel at the power and beauty of my city. I feel pride and a connection to the greatness of New York. I feel similarly about the 42nd street library, Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Brooklyn Bridge. These projects are just a few of a long history of civic projects intended to work practically as well as inspire and awe. From pyramids to aqueducts to places of worship, every great civilization has not coincidentally built for greatness. I hate to think that we have decided to leave construction of our legacy as a civilization to private industry because we are too practical to strive for greatness.

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