Now It's About Family

In an earlier post about the Sand Island that this blog is named after, I show my brother Ron as a kid, on a boat off of the island of Pohnpei. I didn't mention that he later returned to Pohnpei to teach at the same school that my parents worked at in the '70s, and while there began the field work that has developed into an ambitious career in biological research.
     Since his days directing an agriculture program on Pohnpei, he has traveled throughout the Pacific and written a monograph on the ants of Micronesia. He's collected specimens in New Guinea and Indonesia, and is going to the Philippines this May, on a grant from National Geographic. He has a PhD from Harvard and has been a post-doc at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and now the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

And he can't get a full-time job.

He writes papers, is a good communicator (unlike many scientists), researches, organizes conferences, and teaches well, but these skills are not enough. The ability to secure grants outweighs all else, since academic labs cannot depend on their host universities for complete financial support.
     The New York Times and others have written about a shift from public funding for scientific research to investments by the rich. While their donations are generous and impressive, why would enthusiastic billionaires support scientists doing long-term research on general questions that don't have an immediate effect on their pet causes? Cut off from federal money, scientists have to scout for sources of money and court the hell out of it so that they can then fund their own jobs.
     Broad analysis about the state of scientific research in the U.S. has gotten personal. Won't someone give my brother a job? He can teach a killer workshop and is also a lot of fun at a party; brains and social skills to match. And, he made a new website that is independent of any school — a necessity since he doesn't know where he will have to go next in order to pay the rent.

Attack of the Design Historians

I like studying old typefaces. But why bother? Below are some possible reasons:

It's What Historians Are Supposed Do
Is writing about type history a career-enhancing activity? For myself, I would answer "possibly." Once you become known for something, and get asked to do more of it, saying no seems lazy or overly cautious. Why not? However, in my case, since I am not a full-time academic, the possible advantages to my career are slight. There is still some cultural prestige attached to publishing, but I'm not building up qualifications for tenure.

Curiosity
By curiosity I mean questioning and analyzing everything, a kind of untethered, nerdy enthusiasm about life. Yes, this is a part of the desire to investigate old type. I have discovered certain questions, and enjoy finding answers. If I had studied the history of indoor plumbing instead of type, my curiosity may have found a different focus.

Do It To Make The World Better
The common reason given for the study and teaching of design history is that it enriches the field of design. This justification suggests that designers can do a better job when they know their history, and also, in the context of education, assumes that the study of history fortifies design as a profession worthy of higher education. I suspect, however, that knowledge of history often has little to do with the practice of design. Mysterious things called trends and fashion determine whether or not designers use antique typefaces "well" or not. When the topics of design history study align with a design trends, history can appear influential. But many historians work on topics that are obscure, and maintain, rather than inspire, interest in their subjects they work on. It is also futile for historians to think that their research will discipline designers into using type in historically "correct" ways.
     Designers will do what they want, as long as novelty and experimentation are valued in design.
For most designers, history is visual. They see something old and fall in love because they project longing onto objects, and think life the in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries might have been better somehow. Antique design can evoke something they want to identify with. They — or, I should say, we — forget about bad dentistry and imagine past lives full of more meaningful work, warmer communities, or adventure. Sometimes history assumes value by popping these dreamy bubbles, but haunting "what ifs" remain. What if life really was better in ways that deserve revival?
     History — including type history — is important partly because it reminds us of options that have been forgotten. Most people will assume the options were better than present ones. For instance, if you were in a design school in the 1980s, the questioning of modernism and rediscovery of nineteenth-century type was exciting because the openness to ornament seemed more receptive to beauty, and less scientific. But history can also remind us of things that weren't better. The contrast between typographic openness now and reactionary polemics at any time remind us of our imperfect but current tolerance for design diversity (in many parts of the world). History reminds us of past limitations, dogmas, and fights, of the effort that has formed the present, by generations distant enough to be beyond the reaches of oral history.
     The value of history is not simply summarized in the adage about the ignorant being condemned to repeat past mistakes. Living with an awareness of history is like living with an archive of past formulas and strategies for living, and constantly juggling them and evaluating them in response to new problems. There are such things as new problems in the world, and the more data we have to draw on, the better — though a lack of history does not eliminate the possibility of brilliant, fresh solutions.
     I am suspicious of design that deliberately spurns history. Take Futurism. It was impatient, testosterone-driven, self-destructive, and doomed. Futurism is the James Dean of design, killed young in a speeding car. As a wake-up for a complacent Europe, it had value. Perhaps cultures need impetuous, ahistorical youth to occasionally slap them around, but it is desperate and foolhardy. Historians can penetrate the glamor of design, reveal the specificity of its context, and help avoid vacuous or dangerous imitation.
     History buttresses the importance of design because it assumes that design is part of a larger context, that it matters. In rich societies, in which design is ubiquitous and might be taken for granted, history reminds us that, like a good disaster movie, our current reality could be otherwise. This warning, then, reminds us of our ongoing responsibilities. We may be bored by our work, unwilling to design another sign or website or book, but what are the repercussions of not doing so?

Eggtype

Sometime around 1987 or 1988, when I was a student at the North Carolina State University School of Design, I took Polaroids of type and lettering on my family's hatching egg farm in North Carolina. The "2" and "3" were stencils I cut years before to number the chicken houses, and they remind me of the typeface Balance. Good hatching eggs went into the sturdy waxed cardboard boxes with numbers stenciled on them.


Finnish Christmas cards

How many ways can you photograph candles? Christmas card designers in Finland in the late 60s and early 70s showed how it's done.

I bought these a few years ago in an antique store in Helsinki. My favorite has a die cut that reveals Santa's saucy helper... and a cup of coffee. Very Scandinavian. 

Hyvää Joulua! 





I Was Like So Scared

This summer I visited the Bronx zoo with my niece. One of our goals was to find the snakes because she is scared of them. The snakes, safely behind glass, arouse just enough primal repulsion to be titillating. Other kids seemed to be doing the same, playfully looking for the "scariest" animals so they could shriek and shudder and bond over emotions that can be laughed about later.

The trip inspired a set of prints about how we think about animals. I printed these at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum last August, with wood type on old educational images.

After making the prints I read John Berger's Why Look at Animals and was surprised to find that he used one of the words I did, the word SPECTACLE. For instance, he wrote: "The animals of the mind, instead of being dispersed, have been co-opted into other categories so that the category animal has lost its central importance. Mostly they have been co-opted into the family and into the spectacle." When I combined the word with a picture of a hippo, I was thinking of the tendency to anthropomorphize hippos as silly, entertaining fatties.

Berger nails the tragedy of zoos: "However you look at these animals, even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you, looking outwards in the public direction, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal..."








photos by Bill Deere




Cemetery Signs in Kansas

Many nineteenth-century rural cemeteries in Kansas are marked with arched metal gateways and various forms of lettering. The spindly arch to Prairie Lawn Cemetery in Wellington covers an impressive span, while tiny, hard-to-find Mt. Hope Cemetery, near Arkansas City, resorts to wooden letters attached to the fence. The Argonia Cemetery sign shows delicate Aesthetic Movement ornament and the Conway Springs Cemetery sign uses the now rarely-used typeface DeVinne.








A Revelation in Westchester

Last weekend Bill and I explored the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, which is a short drive from Manhattan into Westchester County. The Jewish parts of the ethnically diverse cemetery held some pleasant surprises; we found sleek designs that make granite look surprisingly good, as well as traditional symbols, forms, and placement that are new to me. Finally, some well-designed, modern gravestones! The crisp afternoon light and fall foliage enhanced the scene. Following are some of our best photographs.

I'll bet an architect designed this one.
Shellee probably dressed all in black and wore chunky jewelry.
The cemetery service sticker becomes obtrusive on such a minimal stone. 

A poignant stone for a four-year-old.

Nice scripts, which feel oddly commercial. They appeared on stones with Jewish and Italian names.
Unusually rusticated letters that look unfinished.

A hybrid Art Deco / Arts & Crafts stone. 
The lettering style looks older than the dates. 
The density of stones on some crowded Jewish sections reminds me of Roman Vishniac photos. 

The mausoleums are posh.
Stained glass windows glow behind mausoleum doors.