Table of Contents: Design


Here.

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Well, yes – it is in fact a series of photographs memorializing the unwrapping of a particularly sharply designed and wrapped packet of sugar. Clearly captivated me in the moment. Somewhat captivates me now. Lucky I found a spare corner of the blog where I can put this.

Some Things I Recently Saw In France

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The pulpit beneath a carved depiction of the daily ecstasy and rapture of Mary Magdalene, The Basilica of St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence  the pulls of a small organ in the same Basilica  a standard roadside boulangerie, the A52 at Roquevaire, Aix-en-Provence  Some opulence in the Palace of Versailles  some unruly triffids spilling out in the 7th arrondissement  a mannequin on the Rue de la Fontaine au Roi  I spy you up there, above the frieze, amidst yet more opulence in the Palace of Versailles  Welcome to the opulence of the Palace of Versailles!  a folio at Les Puces  Dior Barbie  A horn of plenty amidst the opulence of the Palace of Versailles  An antique pair amongst antiques, St Maximin, Aix-en-Provence  Caryatids by Pierre Lescot in the Louvre  Marianne above the Place de la République

Duo-Art Reproducing Piano

Duo_Art_1 Duo_Art_6 Duo_Art_3 Duo_Art_10 Duo_Art_4 Duo_Art_8 Duo_Art_9 Duo_Art_2 Duo_Art_5Duo_Art_7Recently I was staying in a country house in Arkville, New York, nestled in the western Catskill mountains. The house was furnished in fine, spare retail-modernist Design-Within-Reach style and, as a seemingly grand accent, featured a stately grand piano. Lovely. Easy enough to take for granted. However, my brother-in-law, a gifted musician and programmer, sensitive to things like instruments, systems and the built environment, was naturally drawn to inspect this rather grand grand piano a bit more closely. What he discovered was nothing less than an astonishment – grafted throughout the body of this Steinway piano was a massive electrical, analog, mechanical self-playing (or “reproducing”) mechanism. Just exploring the machine, with no understanding or appreciation for its functions, was incredible in itself. Exquisite construction, the combination of engineering, instrumentation and carpentry. It was also profoundly otherworldly, like actually discovering some marooned technology from an alternate steampunk version of our reality. For real.

Reading about it later only deepened my fascination. The excerpts below, taken from two restoration companies, give a sense of the breathtaking ingenuity of these devices. Consider they debuted in 1914, only a few years after commercial electricity itself…

For anyone with even a glimmer of interest I highly recommend fully going down the rabbit hole on this technology – following the technological details of how these functioned, and how the rolls were recorded – all of it. Gobsmacking.

A full history of the system can be found here. Full restoration notes can be found here and here.

The Reproducing Player Grand Piano was the most technologically advanced form of home entertainment during the early 20th Century. Designed to reproduce a live performance, these instruments could mimic every nuance of a real pianist, giving the illusion of a true live performance in real time. These instruments would have cost as much as $3,500+ new in the 1920s, the cost of a small house. The ultimate home entertainment system of the Gatsby age, these rare pianos were built in small numbers and are quite rare today.

Antique Piano Shop

The Steinway & Sons Duo-Art player consists of over 8,200 moving parts… as in all standard reproducing pianos, an electric suction pump powers the playing mechanism and supplies a sufficient level of suction for the maximum loudness needed by the piano. Proprietary dynamic control devices reduce this suction level in various sophisticated ways so that a wide variety of dynamic effects is possible.

A perforated music roll passes over a tracker bar, which has holes in it connected via many small tubes to the individual note mechanisms of the instrument. At the left-hand edge of the music roll (and also at the right-hand, which is not shown), there are four special perforation positions which do not operate notes…the four dynamic coding perforations on the roll can be combined, allowing for sixteen degrees of dynamic control.

Duo-Art used a real-time perforator to produce an original roll as the artist played. Dynamics were not recorded automatically but were created on the roll as the artist played, by two dials and their associated mechanisms, controlled by the recording producer, who sat to the left and slightly behind the pianist.

Under the keys of the recording piano was a series of electrical contacts which ran through a cable to a separate room, where the rather noisy perforating machine was housed.

Once an Aeolian Duo-Art information original roll had been perforated, the roll was then copied to a much longer stencil roll, on thicker paper, which was then used to produce several copies for editing purposes, known as trials… Lastly, the final trial was approved and signed by the pianist, and became a pattern, to be used as a proofing copy in the manufacture of the roll for commercial sale.

Piano Artisans

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Mowbray’s Muses

Muse_Electricity Muse_Painting Muse_agriculture Muse_Music Muse_Lyric_Poetry Muse_Tragedy Muse_Comedy Muse_AstronomyOn a recent trip to the Yale University Art Gallery I was struck by these lunettes installed in a series high above the moulding of a gallery of 19th century American paintings.

Painted by by Harry Siddons Mowbray they were commissioned as part of a large decorative scheme for the New York mansion of railroad tycoon Collis Potter Huntington. Six of the muses are traditional, while Mowbray invented three new ones — Painting, Agriculture and Science and Electricity.

At first thier cumulative effect was somewhat disorienting – they’re mounted so high that they sit nearly past the terminal angle of the neck. I had to bend backwards to take them in fully. Once I could focus though, I was mesmerized. What a presence each possessed, enhanced by their slightly exaggerated perspectives. And what vivid style — watery and fluid coloring held taught by graphic contours — a gorgeous hybrid evoking  academic painting, vintage advertising illustration, social realist propaganda and heroic comics. Make my muses Mowbray’s!

More information here. From the top: Muse of Electricity, Muse of Painting, Muse of Agriculture, Muse of Music, Muse of Lyric Poetry, Muse of Tragedy, Muse of Comedy, Muse of Astronomy.

Sam the Record Man!

Sam_Record_Man Sam_Record_Man_2 Sam_Record_Man_3Sam_Record_man_4On a recent unexpected layover in Toronto I happened to see, hoisted high, high above a gloomy black glass office building in Dundas Square, this wonderful sign. Double barreled neon flashing records proclaiming, twice, that YES, THIS IS SAM, THE RECORD MAN! YES, THIS IS SAM, THE RECORD MAN! Wonderful! Wonderful! A little research revealed the legacy of a one proud Canadian record store chain – a blaring hybrid of Crazy Eddie and Tower Records. Sigh.

Behold! The cosmic hand
of Jack Kirby

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Behold! The hand of Jack Kirby! Behold! The hand of him who is like unto a god! Behold! The clutch of harnessed power — about to be released! Somewhere in the endless cosmos, the hand is opened! Somewhere in the swirling mists of space the power is unleashed! In the awesome vastness of infinity, in the panoply of a billion billion universes, where giant galaxies are ever born and ever dying, who will note the passing of a small and nameless planet? Behold! The hand of Jack Kirby!

(Selected panels from The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience, a 1978 prestige format one-off by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Absentmindedly pulled this off the shelf the other day and promptly lost my socks. Track this masterwork down, arguably Marvel’s first “graphic novel” and prepare to lose your socks, bub! — knocked clean off by the cosmic hand of Jack Kirby! Behold!)

Four Chord Wonders

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Just virtually hanging this classic swatch of snotty amazingness on the virtual wall of my virtual blog. Virtually. Poster by Barney Bubbles the endlessly delightful design imp behind classic Hawkwind and Stiff Records. Check his monograph Reasons to Be Cheerful if you can score it.

Leon Bakst’s Schéhérazade

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While reading Charles Spencer’s lavishly illustrated biography of Leon Bakst and his design work for the Ballets Russes I came across his arresting manifesto for the vivid power of color. Looking at these intoxicating renderings and drawings the mind boggles at the lushness of the spectacle this must have been. Lush and lost. More on Bakst in an earlier post, here.

I have often noticed that in each colour of the prism there exists a gradation which sometimes expresses frankness and chastity, sometimes sensuality and even bestiality, sometimes pride, sometimes despair. This can be felt and given over to the public by the effect one makes of the various shadings.

That is what I tried to do in Schéhérazade. Against a lugubrious green I put a blue full of despair, paradoxical as it may seem. There are reds which are triumphal and there are reds which assassinate.There is a blue which can be the colour of a St. Madeleine, and there is a blue of a Messalina.

The painter who knows how to make use of this, the director of the orchestra who can with one movement of his baton put all this in motion, without crossing them, who can let flow the thousand tones from the end of his stick, without making a mistake, can draw from the spectator the exact emotion which he wants them to feel.

Texture

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SwirlFrom top: Point Reyes Lighthouse; Lambertville, New Jersey; Point Reyes Lighthouse; Point Reyes Lighthouse: Lambertville, New Jersey; Allentown, Penna; Ballston Spa, New York

Marshall McLuhan Book Covers

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The nuances of the cover to “From Cliche to Archetype” practically make it a little poem as much as bravura instance of typographic design. The font choices are perfection — Cooper’s proud plumpness giving way to the stylish severity of Univers. The rest of the covers, better known, are equally stunning and seemingly predict entire swaths of graphic design trend. Prescient cat, this one.

Love Hulten

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When I look at these absolutely breathtaking handmade made-to-order objects by Swedish fabircator Love Hulten, I covet.

In fact I covet three ways. At first I covet crassly, wishing I could afford these hand turned masterpieces. Then a little more thoughtfully, I covet the skills & craft to build these kinds of things myself. Then, finally, I covet philosophically, wishing that this was a genuine commercial aesthetic — that as we chase the geewhiz we’d take the texture and soul of what worked before and roll it in as we roll foward. We’ve left so many beautiful things behind.

Nicola

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Was poking around the internet looking for a hi-res cover for this Bert Jansch double album I was digitizing. On the original twofer CD it was the size of a postage stamp. Gorgeous piece of work when you can really take it all in, no?

Specimen

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A fine specimen of Trashius Romanticus Novelus, circa 1977, excavated at the Goodwill on Rt. 73 in Maple Shade, New Jersey.