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An endless loop

Just finished the article “Ontological Design Has Become Influential In Design Academia – But What Is It?” by JP Hartnett for AIGA Eye on Design, via the Feminist Open Source Investigations Group chat.

This is somewhat related to the previous post, the “we are our experiences” concept. But much more formal than my ramblings, better philosophical underpinnings for sure!

I’d heard of ontological design but hadn’t really dug in to it. This article is a useful dive in.

In very few words (specifically professor of design theory Anne-Marie Willis’s words, not mine): “Design designs us”. In more words, from Hartnett’s article:

A human being cannot exist independently of its surrounding environment — it is not possible to be without being-in-the-world. Being, then, is always relational: with everything that surrounds us, including the full complexity of the completely designed worlds that we inhabit. This point is crucial for ontological design theorists: design doesn’t just perform certain functions — a car transports you from A to B, a poster displays information, etc. — the interrelated totality of designs construct the world through which humans are brought into being and come to be defined through. Human beings, in turn, design the world, which, in turn, designs them… and so on. The process is circular, like an endless loop.

And on the consequences of embracing ontological design in practice instead of relegating it to theory and academia:

One welcome outcome of an embrace of ontological design theory would be the death of the individualism that has plagued the design profession — “iconic” designs, individual designers, celebrated in isolation as they usually are in design publications — don’t make any sense in this context.

That would be welcome indeed.

I don’t quite see how it can happen unless there is a true revolution in the way we talk and think about design—more holistic and less about singular problems, more collective and less individual—but maybe circumstances are ripening for such a change.

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A little more on Rietveld’s crate furniture, discovering Louise Brigham’s earlier box furniture, and thoughts about the purpose of a blog

More on Rietveld’s crate furniture

Off the back of writing up the Rietveld-esque crate stool how-to, I started looking in to more about the origins of Gerrit Rietveld’s crate furniture. The best write up I’ve found is “A restorer’s blog: Pre-war crate desk by Rietveld”. It sounds like Metz & Co, the company selling much of Rietveld’s furniture, was skeptical.

“We cannot sell wood chips,” director Joseph de Leeuw had written to Rietveld.

It’s worth reading the post in full for a ton of anecdotes and context, as well as some useful comments from a master furniture restorer.

Louise Brigham’s earlier box furniture

While researching, I also came across this post which introduced me to Louise Brigham, an American designer and teacher best known for her box furniture.

Her background is one of privilege, but she seemed to wield her privilege reasonably well. She came from a comfortably wealthy Bostonian family, and her parents died in her teens. Their death, combined with family wealth, likely allowed her to buck the normal pressures on a woman living in her time. She instead pursued her creative and social ambitions.

After studying both the Pratt Institute and the Chase School of Art (now Parsons), she became involved in the settlement house movement in Cleveland, OH where she experimented with furniture made from boxes and crates. She then travelled around Europe studying craft traditions. Supposedly she visited Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh in Glasgow, which I feel you can see in some of her designs. Perhaps her most impactful time was spent in Spitzbergen, a treeless island that is part of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic where she really honed her design rational, ethos, and aesthetics.

She was prolific in the early 1900s. In 1909—over two decades before Rietveld’s crate furniture—she published Box Furniture, a book charmingly illustrated by Edward Aschermann on how to make furniture from crates. The book was reprinted multiple times and translated in to many languages.

To all who care for simplicity and thrift, utility and beauty, I send my message.

Louise Brigham, Box Furniture, p25

In the early 1910s, she set up a woodworking “laboratory” for children called the Home Thrift Association. During WWI she started one of the earliest ready-to-assemble furniture companies, Home Art Masters.

Why haven’t we heard more about her work?

For further reading on Louise Brigham, there are a few articles and books out there that look worthwhile. The interiordesign.net article “Thinking Outside the Box: Louise Brigham’s Furniture of 1909” by Larry Weinberg published in 2009 provides a lovely introduction to Brigham and her book. See also Kevin Adkisson’s paper “Box Furniture: Thinking Outside the Box” from 2014 for much more detail on her, including her later life.

The most extensive writing on Brigham currently appears to be Antoinette LaFarge’s book Louise Brigham and the Early History of Sustainable Furniture Design. I haven’t read it, but it looks promising.

And of course, check out Brigham’s Box Furniture available to view or download for free on archive.org. Love it, this book being part of the Internet Archive feels very in keeping with her vibe.

I’m planning to dig in a bit to Alice Rawsthorn’s writing. Her short article on Brigham for Maharam prompted me to look at her other articles. The list is extensive. Looking at that list, she seems to have covered so many of the women I have had some major or minor curiosity about over the past few years. See her writing on Louise Brigham, Ruth Asawa and the Alvarado School Arts Workshop in San Francisco, architect and designer Charlotte Perriand, architect Sophie Hicks and her home, Lucie Rie and her buttons, furniture and interior designer Clara Porset, Bauhaus photographer Gertrud Arndt, architect Jane Drew, interior designers Agnes and Rhoda Garrett, architect and activist Grete Lihotzky. I think I need to pick up a copy of Rawsthorn’s Design as an Attitude or Hello World: Where Design Meets Life at this point.

On a more personal note, I identified strongly with Rawsthorn’s short article on her most treasured possession for Elle Decoration. My most treasured possessions from my maternal grandmother are cookbooks and kitchen tools. Her battered plastic cake stand, a perfectly shaped spatula, a muffin tin. From her mother, it’s her quilt patterns cut from scrap cardboard and cereal boxes, and her flower drawings for embroidery. This is not to say that I don’t also cherish more traditionally precious heirlooms, it’s just that the objects with utility feel like they maybe have more of the life of the person in them.

Some thoughts after reading Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”

I finally read Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”. I was reminded of it yet again while surfing around the web looking at all of the above and found a copy online.

Keepers of private notebooks are a differ­ent breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Harsh. But probably fair.

See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there […]

Exactly.

We are not talk­ing here about the kind of notebook that is patently for public consump­tion, a structural conceit for binding together a series of graceful pensées; we are talking about something private, about bits of the mind’s string too short to use, an indiscriminate and erratic assemblage with meaning only for its maker.

Now this is interesting, and it sort of hits on the difference between a personal blog and a blog that feels more business-driven.

The best personal blogs I’ve come across feel like a glimpse in to someone’s personal notebook, something filled mostly with notes written with the author in mind first and foremost vs notes that have been written with a wider audience in mind. A good personal blog can (and maybe should) contain a mixture of both, since they both can be absolutely great and useful. But when it is only ever writing for an audience… well that doesn’t feel like a personal blog, to me.

It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.

“It all” being moments, memories, the good and the bad.

I hope to have this site when I’m 80. I may not like some of the things I wrote 50 years prior, but at least I will be able to reacquaint myself with former me-s. I hope I don’t lose sight of this purpose.

And we are all on our own when it comes to keeping those lines open to ourselves: your notebook will never help me, nor mine you.

A difference between Didion’s era and now: some of my notes could help you, and yours me. Another reason that I love personal blogs. It just seems so hard to find them sometimes.

A notebook, that’s all any of this is, really.


Edited 10 May, changed “like a personal brand exercise” to “more business-driven”. The phrase “personal brand” has a lot of negative connotations, so “personal brand exercise” felt way too snarky on a re-read. Business-driven blogs by individuals are super important, and useful! They’re just different, and there’s space for all of that (and a mixture of all the above) online.

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How to make a Rietveld-esque crate stool / table

A woman in an orange beanie sitting on a pine stool made in Rietveld’s crate style

In late February, we made a stool based on Gerrit Rietveld’s kratkrukje or “crate stool” designed in the mid 1930s. Skip to the instructions, or skip to the cut list and plans.

We’d been looking for something that could act as stool-cum-sidetable for a little while. Haven’t had any luck with secondhand or antique shops, everything we found was too ornate, large, cushion-y, or expensive. And while we’re fine with the idea of buying something from Ikea or a similar store, nothing we found felt quite right. Also, the thought of wandering through Ikea at the moment made us a bit anxious.

So having had success with Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione in the past and buoyed by Hannah’s Rietveld crate chair success last summer, we decided to go down the DIY route. Rietveld’s crate stools have been on Sam’s mind since he saw them in the Radical Nature exhibition designed by Sara De Bondt at the Barbican back in 2009. Those stools were created by Simon Jones of Jones Neville by reusing and cutting down old exhibition panels.

There are a bunch of Rietveld crate furniture photos and designs knocking around the world wide web, but very little relating to this specific stool as far as I can tell. I have a feeling that it wasn’t included in the bilingual book How To Construct Rietveld Furniture, but can’t be sure since I don’t own it.

At any rate, there are a few photos online including this photo from Bibliotheek Rotterdam, this blog post, and a photo of the stools in situ at the Radical Nature exhibition.

According to Bibliotheek Rotterdam:

This stool is known to exist in several sizes. Metz & Co. also sold a table similar to this design. According to Gerrit Rietveld’s son, Jan Rietveld, both the Rietveld and Schröder families were involved at one time or another in producing and selling Crate Furniture.

Since we couldn’t find plans for the stool, we made our own based on the photos mentioned above. We didn’t have scraps to reuse as Jones so elegantly did, so we ended up buying three 1″ × 6″ × 6′ whitewood boards and basing our plans on the most economical use of that lumber.

It’s definitely a bit more expensive than a KYRRE stool from Ikea, the materials were a little over $30 in total and of course there’s the labor. We did this in a few hours over the course of a few days, but it probably took us longer than it would normally because we were working out the process and tweaking our initial plans as we went. All-in-all it was worth it. It’s a satisfying little lump of furniture.

Here are the steps to make one for yourself.

Read more

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Decentering Whiteness in Design History, an annotated bibliography in progress

Check out Decentering Whiteness in Design History, an annotated bibliography in progress.

One of the great FemOS ladies shared the above resource recently. She came across it via the Simply Secure Slack chat. It seems like a strong doc, I hope that the researchers and others continue to add to it.

If you’re looking for resources on a particular topic like typography or graphic design, it’s best to refer to their hashtag list currently on page 8 (search the doc for “Hashtag Authority List” if it moves). Then find a tag you’re interested in and search the doc for that tag.

Below is a list of a few resources that caught my eye and I’d like to follow up on. These are all freely available online in one form or another or could likely be loaned from a library.

  • “The Font that Never Was: Linotype and the “Phonetic Chinese Alphabet” of 1921”, an article by Thomas S. Mullaney. The article is behind a paywall, but he also presented it at ATypI 2016 (see video).
  • Saki Mafundikwa’s TED talk Ingenuity and elegance in ancient African alphabets
  • Chromophobia by David Batchelor published in 2001. The editorial description: “The central argument of Chromophobia is that a chromophobic impulse—a fear of corruption or contamination through colour—lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought. This is apparent in the many and varied attempts to purge colour, either by making it the property of some ‘foreign body’—the oriental, the feminine, the infantile, the vulgar, or the pathological—or by relegating it to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential, or the cosmetic.” Purchase from the publisher, buy it secondhand, or look for it at local library.
  • “New Blackface: Neuland and Lithos as Stereotypography”, an essay by Rob Giampietro that was originally published in the journal of the Type Directors Club (an org that has been been in hot water over the past few months, incidentally…). It’s available to read on his website.
  • Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985, the catalogue for the exhibition “Found in Translation: Design in California and Mexico 1915–1985” at LACMA in 2018. Purchase from the LACMA online store, buy it secondhand. Feel like this is unlikely to be in a local library unfortunately.
  • “Violence and Economic Growth: Evidence from African American Patents, 1870–1940” by Lisa Cook, published in the Journal of Economic Growth in June 2014. Cook analyzed over two million patents, cross-referencing with Census records to track Black patent activity over time. From the bibliography: “Her data suggested something huge happened after 1921 that caused the rate of Black patenting to tank after that date; it turned out to be the destruction of “Black Wall Street” during the Tulsa massacre.” Available in full as a PDF via Cook’s website.

Time to reintroduce a whole lot of color on this site, I think!

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Commonplace WordPress theme

I’ve been gradually updating the WordPress theme that powers this site with the help of a very talented designer and thinker, my friend Bec Worth.

It began with conversations about overhauling her own site. She had a few disparate Tumblrs with a ton (and I really do mean a ton) of great references, photos, and more that had accumulated over the years. All of them had fallen in to disuse for one reason or another, but she still felt like some sort of outlet for collecting these sorts of snippets and longer-format writing would be really useful. She brought up the Commonplace book as a particular inspiration. I’d never come across it before but it really resonated.

We continued talking about her site, and I started to restructure my old color-heavy Notebook theme (view in Wayback Machine) to strip out the less necessary functionality, improve the accessibility, etc. I wanted to make it something that could be more widely useful to not just me and Bec, but others as well. The early version of this new theme used variable Work Sans (view in Wayback Machine)

She liked where it was going, so we got her set up on a WordPress instance and used the Tumblr importer to pull in all of that old content. Since then, we’ve been using her log and my site to test out ideas and continue pushing the idea of what a Commonplace Book could be on the web. For more along these lines, I recommend reading her post “What would a Commonplace Book feel like on the web?

What’s next

It’s far from finished. The type is nowhere near as tight as Bec’s designs, I need to spend a bit more time on that! Amongst other things, I need to clean up the table of posts, add a thumbnail view, and improve the gallery block styles. We’re also going to figure out a way of highlighting work and other projects, something that draws a bit more attention than normal posts.

And color! We’d like to make it possible for people to select preferred text colors, maybe on a post-by-post basis or per category. Color is tricky though, I’d like to preserve some baseline of legibility and I’m not sure how much I could do as the developer to enforce that. Also, how do we handle this if we introduce dark mode support? The HSL or LCH color spaces might be helpful.

I’m not planning to submit this to the WordPress theme directory. Right now, this means that installation and updates are pretty manual, the theme has to be uploaded via FTP before it can be installed. Because of that, I’ll eventually set up an update server so that anyone using the theme can perform one-click updates from the WordPress admin area. Note to self: see this article for more on how to do this.

Realistically, people using the theme might want to change up certain aspects of the theme to be more “them”. Instead of adding a ton of theme options like font pickers and that sort of thing, I’d like to encourage people to tinker with it themselves. This is going to require a bit of documentation to point people in the right direction. I’ll probably start with how someone with little-to-no CSS experience could go about changing the font (i.e. upload font files in the Media library then add the necessary CSS lines in the Customizer, or setting up a child theme).

Clearly, it’s a work in progress!

But anyone is welcome to give it a try for themselves. I recommend it if you’ve been looking for a place to keep important references or get thoughts out of your head. Head to the commonplace-wp-theme GitHub repository to download it and read a bit more.

If you do end up using it, we’d love to know.

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Hannah’s Rietveld crate chair and other DIY furniture

HB gave herself a scrapheap challenge and made a Rietveld crate chair. I’m green with envy, it looks so great. She said it’s super comfy, which makes sense given the Adirondack-y angles and nice big armrests wide enough to rest a drink. Photos below are from the lady herself.

Plans for a Rietveld crate chair drawn by Hannah Blows

Hannah’s plans

Woman sitting in Rietveld crate chair in garden with a cat behind her

Hannah relaxing in the finished product with a friend in the bg

Definitely would like to make this, we need some furniture. Note to self: minute differences in the angles, measurements, screw placement, materials, etc. make a big difference in the final result. Tread with care and joy.

In relation to the crate chair, see also Rietveld’s original plans, Self-assembly’s instructions, and Susan Young’s Instructables post.


Other beginner-friendly DIY furniture

For other beginner-friendly DIY furniture that is geared towards simplicity (fewer cuts, mostly right angles, straightforward lumber sizes, not much fuss in finishing, etc.), check out: RietveldBuilder, this Rietveld couch plan on Etsy, Van Bo Le-Mentzel’s Berliner Hocker, Ian Anderson’s Two-by-two chair on Self-assembly, the Wave Hill Garden Chair (inspired by Rietveld’s Red Blue chair), Rietveld’s Beugel chair (I can imagine tweaking this design slightly to be more easily made with few tools), Jesse Kamm and her husband’s Donald Judd-inspired furniture, Judd’s original wood furniture that one could attempt…

I’m sure there’s a lot more along these lines out there by more female and less Euro-centric designers, would love to see other inspo and plans.

Materials and tools

If you’re not salvaging, then you have to select materials at some point. Popular Woodworking has some good writing on this topic, particularly their Choose the Right Plywood, How to Prepare Construction Lumber for Furniture, and What’s the Difference Between Screws? articles. Some DIY furniture plans like Enzo Mari’s Autoprogetazzione call for nails, but most of the time you’re better off with screws and glue for longevity.

The bare minimum of tools I like to have around for a DIY furniture project along these lines includes: a sliding t-bevel + protractor or a combination square; a sharp hand saw (read about Japanese pull saws vs Western push saws); multiple grades of sandpaper; a drill with a bit for pilot holes; a screw driver that matches up with your screw heads; a long metal ruler; a pencil; and a good vacuum. Additional items that are great to have include: a chop saw or table saw; a countersink bit attachment; and clamps.

Measurements are such a critical part of furniture making. If interested in figuring out how to choose good measuring tools, see Popular Woodworking’s “Precision Instruments for Woodworkers” parts 1, 2, 3, and 4. You probably don’t need crazy high-quality tools for the sorts of DIY furniture I’m talking about here, but if you’re buying a new tool, you might as well buy the best you can afford.

Edited 26 June 2020 at 11:30am to add notes about materials and tools and to add Self-Assembly links since it’s back online.

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Date-based colour

Read “Dynamic, Date-Based Color with JavaScript, HSL, and CSS Variables” by Rob Weychert

This is such a useful article. His implementation on Tinnitus Tracker is definitely more involved than what I’ve done on this site, particularly what he’s done to account for inherent saturation levels and lightness vs luminance. And his colour wheel mapping is slightly offset from mine. I feel like August is the reddest month! I’ve wanted to reconsider the colour here for a while, particularly since the accessibility of some of the hues isn’t up-to-snuff. Rob’s write-up might make that adjustment a bit more straightforward which is a big relief.

I remember being really interested in where Grant Custer went with colour on his blog when I started screwing around with colour on this site. See his blog in 2013 on the Internet Archive. I wanted to see whether or not there was some way to ambiguously reflect where I was in the world, particularly since I live so far away from most of my family.

The first version of the colour experimentation on this site mapped the HSL values to the season, temperature, and time of day where I was at the time the site was visited. This is an example from Paris in late 2016. The hue value was mapped to the date/season (same as now), and the lightness was mapped to the time of day using Moment.js and Moment Timezone. The goal was to map the saturation to the weather where I was using the OpenWeatherMap API with stormy and cloudy days being less saturated, but that never came to be since the weather descriptions weren’t consistent enough. I ended up mapping the saturation to the temperature instead, but I don’t think it was quite as effective.

When I turned the site in to a blog first and foremost, I dropped the location and weather aspect. It could be fun to return to it since it might bring a bit more variation, particularly on the list page. Might be a little wild though, and it might be a massive headache to introduce location and weather on old posts… At bare minimum, I could probably incorporate the time of day as lightness. We’ll see!

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“I don’t think we know how to separate when we’re feeling pity and when we’re feeling inspiration.”

A short surfing with coffee. It’s getting quiet as clients and collaborators head off for the holidays, so I played inbox catch-up this morning

Issue 227 of Rachel Andrew’s CSS Layout News is full of excellent reading and listening related to accessible and inclusive design. The link I dug most in to was “Future Accessibility Guidelines—for People Who Can’t Wait to Read Them” by Alan Dalton. His article led me to Liz Jackson’s Interaction 2019 keynote “Empathy reifies disability stigmas”. Part way through, she recommends the book Pathological Altruism. Looks like a big read (and it’s not cheap!) but it seems very worthwhile.

From about 8min 28sec in to her talk:

Step two of the design thinking process is defining the problem — but because disabled people are rarely able to lead, it often becomes us that are defined as the problem rather than the problem being defined as the problem. It becomes about what we can or can’t do, rather than how something does or doesn’t work for us.

So you have our insights gleaned, we’re defined as the problem, and then designers enter this iterative process of ideation, prototyping, and testing which leads to the unacknowledged stick stepper design thinking or as I call it, design thanking.

Because we’re expected to be grateful for that which has been done for us.

Her talk is roughly 20 minutes long and well worth a watch.

Thanks to Sam for the CSS Layout News recommendation.

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Notes from MozFest 2019

This is super delayed! I typed up my rough notes right after MozFest finished in October but never pressed publish. Voila.

MozFest is 10 years old! This was their last year at Ravensbourne in London. Sad, but I’m excited to see where it heads next.

This is a haphazard brain-dump of everything I want to remember and follow up on, a lot of questions for future consideration and resources that I need to explore. See also Common Knowledge’s notes from MozFest written by Gemma Copeland.

Read more

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Reading via Victor Papanek

Two more books for the reading list: Future Shock by Alvin and Heidi Toffler and Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher.

These suggestions come via Victor Papanek’s preface to the first edition of his book Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. I finally started reading it at long last after many recommendations from SB.