Elegance and Practical Convenience

I drink several cups of coffee every day. Like most things in my life I’m very picky about the coffee and I insist on making it myself. However, on weekdays I am in the habit of getting a small cup of coffee to-go on my way to work. I rather like the form of most 10 oz paper cups. The ubiquitous “greek” coffee cups in New York are always fun to have. My coffee shop opts for unprinted white cups, and I’m happy to recommend them (Lodge General Store) by word of mouth without having to walk around with an advertisement in hand. I hate the sippy cup lids that most people prefer to the old-style tear-back flat lids of my childhood. I know that they’re ergonomic and easier to use and cut down and spills and whatnot, but I always feel somewhat infantilized by the experience of drinking from the same form as a two year old.

I thought about bringing a thermos and having it filled to avoid the sippy lid, but quickly discovered that this wouldn’t help my situation one bit. Every portable bottle I’ve ever seen suffers from the same problem as the sippy lid; that is, the entire focus of the design has been given to producing the most convenient, spill safe form possible at the expense of any hint of elegance, and sophistication. There’s a good reason for this too: people don’t like to mess up their clothes when they’re drinking.

The range of designs in beverage bottles is surprisingly narrow. Formally similar, they tend to have some decorative affect falling somewhere on a continuum between granola and warp drive. Most designers I know opt for astronaut style bottles, they’re vaguely late modern and strive toward minimalism by obfuscating the functional components of the form (These ubiquitous bullet shaped bottles for instance could be mistaken as large caliber shells if they were found in a place where large caliber shells were commonplace.)

There are a lot of people that fall on the flower child to astronaut style line. Neo-modernists have a lot of options, gym rats are well catered to, soccer moms, yoga practitioners, etc. will all find something. But there are a lot of us who don’t fit on that line: Edwardian pornographers, Saville Row clients, early industrial era Austrian one armed prodigal heirs, and Fred Astaire. Essentially, people who strive to maintain a state of elegance and grace in their lives and don’t accept the often implied cultural assertion that modern=designed (or is the assertion the other way around?).

For years I’ve lived with this dissatisfaction, constantly searching for the right mobile beverage receptacle. I toyed with carrying a wineskin, in protest. Practical, and a rather daring fashion statement. But not elegant exactly. I wondered why the water bottle industry had fallen down when so many other practical items in our lives have been designed to be useful while still being attractive. Umbrella’s for instance come in a wide assortment of sizes, colors, patterns, and styles, from classic to modern to futuristic. Watches, an entirely practical device until a few years ago, have always doubled as jewelry. Tea cups and saucers for goodness sake! So what’s wrong with water bottles?

I started to try and design a truly elegant portable bottle. It should be decorative, but like all great decorative elements, the decoration should restate and reinforce the form, not simply be applied to it. The form should have an explicit reference to drinking and the fluid it contains. An insulated coffee or tea cup would naturally have a different design than a water bottle, the same way a champagne flute keeps the wine cold and directs the bubbles to the drinker’s lips while a brandy snifter allows you to warm the brandy while letting it aerate properly. It should look natural with a french cuff. It should be wrought in a material that is tactilely pleasing and humanizing, ceramic or glass but never plastic. For practical reasons it should be somewhat spill resistant, but need not be spill proof (like the sippy cups) because honestly, anyone who wants one of these (Fred Astaire’s ghost and me) isn’t strapping it on to a utility belt and running a marathon.

And then it occurred to me: no one has ever designed an elegant water bottle because drinking while on the move is inherently inelegant. I couldn’t imagine Fred Astaire drinking out of any sort of water bottle because Mr. Astaire would naturally take the time to sit down and enjoy his beverage. Drinking on the go is like eating with your fingers: unless you’re eating asparagus, there’s no polite way to do it. Unlike the umbrella or watch, which are practical and necessary, the water bottle is an entirely unnecessary item of convenience.

And this got me thinking about the nature of elegance and its relationship to convenience: A thing or an act is only elegant when its used or performed as if it was the most natural thing in the world despite the fact that its elegance isn’t in service of convenience. I don’t mean that elegance must be inconvenient, but that convenience shouldn’t even factor into it, only the flair and ease with which its used or performed. True elegance defies the impulse to define our lives by practical necessity. It suggests that there is something more than just function, that designed objects are not just “machines for X” (to paraphrase Le Corbusier). Even in my naïve days of modernist fandom I always found the axiom “form follows function” to be a little suspicious, and now I’ve managed to articulate why.

I am not giving up on this portable bottle design but I’m not sure if its actually possible. The hint of impossibility typically gets me excited about a design experiment, either because I am hubristic enough to believe I can achieve the impossible or because I like to frustrate myself. In the meantime, I’m going to practice walking with a cup and saucer.

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BMW Isetta

I first saw an Isetta about eight years ago in Minneapolis. They’re incredible cars, the design is very pleasing, they’re practical (for city dwellers), economical, and I have no idea why no one is capitalizing on this sort of vehicle today (I don’t want to hear about smart cars or minis. They can’t hold a candle to the Isetta.)

Cars are obviously a great topic of design. They’re certainly the most expensive designed object most people will ever own. What baffles me is how narrow the scope of contemporary car culture has gotten. I admit, I’m a proud pedestrian, and I love “old stuff”, but I can’t think of a single automobile in production today appeals to me. If I was forced to choose a car made today the design wouldn’t factor into it. I can’t help but think that small factories making more diverse models appealing to a greater number of lifestyles and tastes could only help sell more cars. Until then, I’ll just have to dream of owning an antique (which by the way gets about 60mpg. Take that, hybrids!)

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Anacleto | Reflections in a Golden Eye

I’m a fan of Carson McCullers and John Huston’s 1967 film interpretation of Reflections in a Golden Eye is excellent. The performances by Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando add new dimension to the novella, but for me the real star is Zorro David in his sole screen role as Anacleto. The first time I saw this scene I was enchanted. I only wish he’d acted in more movies.

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Disturbing Strokes

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For those who haven’t seen it: Wolverine Chopped and Screwed

This is the Wolverine movie I actually want to see. This edit is incredible.

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Throbbing Gristle

Throbbing Gristle are performing in New York tonight. I’m too excited to think about anything else.

Its hard to explain my love of this group.

I don’t think there are many casual Throbbing Gristle fans, I’ve never heard someone say “oh yeah, my friend put one of their songs on a mix. I kind of liked it.” I can’t recall ever hearing a Throbbing Gristle track played in public.

They are role models for me, examples of how people can live (not just perform, but actually live) creatively and uncompromisingly in the face of mainstream/mass culture. Most musicians fall into one of two categories: Performers who are just pretending on stage, and performers who have made enough money to pretend wherever they are. This isn’t the case with TG. They’re just people, but they have made it ok to not be “ordinary” people.

I find it telling that their music hasn’t been successfully co-opted like virtually every one of their contemporaries. I can’t imagine “Hamburger Lady” being used in a commercial or as the stirring soundtrack to a movie. Even though its thirty years old, their music isn’t nostalgic for me, its the music that I want to hear today. Its intellectual, its visceral, its primitive and complex, its smart, vulgar, brutal, and caressing all at once. And I’ll bear witness tonight.

Hot on the Heels of Love


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Lounge Music and Subversion

I used to be fixated on an idea of making a kind of music that would explore ultraviolence, at a social level rather than an individual level (which is another topic). I thought of it as a conceptual exploration that could obviate any sort of “angry young man” music, my rationale being that a teenager flipping the bird or even a serial killer was absurd in the face of German tanks rolling into Poland. Now I’ve returned to an interest in subversion, but more in the subversion of personal identity specifically as we create spaces for ourselves within some sort of social/cultural/historical context. I don’t care about subverting “the Man”, I’m interested in art that subverts the self, (because, after all, aren’t we our own “the Man”?) Martin Denny encapsulates this very nicely for me.

I was first introduced to Martin Denny and “Exotic” music not in the context of the late nineties lounge kitsch revival (blech), but through Industrial culture. I remember seeing a book about his music in the local occult shop, sitting amid a shelf full of photocopied zines about radical body modification and BDSM. It couldn’t have been a starker contrast, and I guess that’s why I remember it specifically and the other publications on the shelf have been generalized into a slurried memory of pale emaciated people in leather exposing themselves.

Martin Denny’s music is of course the prototype for most of what we call lounge music. Judged by that context alone, it might strike you as comically banal. In fact, I’m not sure if his music is legitimately creepy or if its creepy because of my own introduction to it, which is the thing that interests me. The placid calmness of it is in such diametric opposition to the most brutally aggressive music that demands submission (see: Whitehouse, for example). Denny’s music is hypnotic, familiar and peculiar at the same time. Where aggression fails to intimidate me into submission, Denny coerces me, which is just as much about surrender of will.

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I really hope today is the last day cold enough to wear a Harris tweed jacket (for a few months at least). It looks like Scotland from my window, but the peat bogs and rocks have been replaced with broken glass and shoddy scaffolding. Here’s a video about how they make my favorite cloth. I stole it from UKtv.

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Is this the reason I am the way I am?

As a kid I loved the muppet show. I watched them as re-runs with my family. The Liberace episode first aired the year I was born, and for some reason it really resonated with me as a toddler. I think it might be my first memory of abjection. I remember being transfixed by the elegant Rococo bird dancers, but also horrified by their too-close-to-humanness—like muppets, but also like people. They are perfectly grotesque.

As if that wasn’t enough, the whole affair was conducted by a gay icon who effortlessly moved between high and low culture, but without the sort of sneering condescension of so much camp. I find it ironic that this phenomenally talented lover of all music has become a camp icon for people who have a very crude notion of what camp is. Regardless, Liberace is a hero of mine.

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lessons learned from korean gangster movies #57: You never know who’s in the other car.

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