October 18, 2013
Last night, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, celebrated innovators of design both large and small with an awards gala, held in New York City. The gala kicks off National Design Week, an educational initiative that recognizes achievement and innovation in American design and honors the impact of design in everyday life. The honorees—winners of the National Design Awards and the People’s Design Award—were presented with a trophy as unique as the celebration itself, handcrafted by the Corning Museum of Glass.
The honorees represent multiple aspects of the industry from architecture to commercial media ventures:
- The lifetime achievement award was presented to James Wine, founder and president of SITE, a New York-based architecture firm founded in the 1970s.
- Michael Sorkin, architect and urbanist, was awarded the Design Mind award. The award for architecture design was presented to Studio Gang Architects, a collective of architects based in Chicago.
- Graphic designer Paula Scher was awarded the National Design Award for Communication Design. Behnaz Sarafpour took home the award for fashion design.
- And Local Projects, a media design firm specializing in museums and public spaces, won the award for interaction design.
- In the realm of interior design, Aidlin Darling Design, a firm based out of San Francisco, was honored, while Margie Ruddick took home the award for landscape architecture.
- NewDealDesign was honored for product design, while the non-profit organization TED (of TED Talks fame) won the Corporate & Institutional Achievement award.
Winners of the National Design award were chosen through a submission process which began this fall, and included suggestions from leading designers, educators, journalists and design enthusiasts. The winners were selected from this pool via a jury, which chose the top nominees over a two-day period.
Here on Smithsonian.com, we invited the public to vote for a design of their choice—chosen from 20 nominees—to receive the People’s Design Award. Past winners of the People’s Design Award have included Marianne Cusato, designer of the Katrina Cottage, Toms Shoes, the Zōn Hearing Aid, the Trek Lime Bicycle, the Braille Alphabet Bracelet and Design Matters, a show about design and culture.
This year, the People’s Design Award was given to the PackH2O Water Backpack, a backpack that allows water to be easily transported from a source to wherever it may be needed. The backpack, easier to carry than jerry cans or buckets is often used in places with little access to clean water, and includes a removable liner that can be sanitized with sunlight.
“Cooper-Hewitt has long been a champion of socially responsible design, most notably for our ‘Design with the Other 90%’ exhibition series,” said Caroline Baumann, director of the museum. “I am truly delighted that the American public has chosen to recognize this design solution for the developing world. Millions of people around the world lack access to a reliable source of clean water, and the PackH2O demonstrates the power of design to address this critical problem.”
September 30, 2013
The story of Djenné, Mali, is typically told through its architecture—monumental mud-brick structures that seem to rise out of the earth like a desert mirage. Every building in Djenné’s historic sector, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988, has been molded and reinforced by generations of mud masons, following an indigenous tradition as old as the city itself. When Natural History Museum curator Mary Jo Arnoldi traveled to Djenné in 2010, she wanted to meet the masons behind the city of mud, to give them a chance to “tell this story in their own words.”
The new exhibition, “Mud Masons of Mali,” now on view in the Natural History Museum’s African Voices Focus Gallery, profiles three generations of masons: master mason Konbaba, 77; masons Boubacar, 52, Lassina, 49, and Salif, 33; and apprentice Almamy, 20. They belong to the Boso ethnic group, which founded present-day Djenné (pronounced JEN-NAY) in the 13th century A.D. (An older city, Djenné-Jeno, was founded southeast of the current town but was later abandoned.)
Djenné flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries as a hub for trade and Islamic scholarship, and to this day the city’s population is predominantly Muslim. The world-renowned Great Mosque of Djenné is the city’s spiritual and geographic center, and some of Djenné’s most impressive mud buildings—two-story houses with grand entrances and buttresses—reflect the influence of Moroccan architecture and the 19th-century reign of the Islamic Tukolor Empire.
Visitors to the exhibition can explore the city of Djenné through more than 50 photographs, films and objects. On display are some of the tools of the masons’ ancient trade, including a basket for carrying mud, a rectangular frame for shaping bricks and a rod of the same local palm wood used in the long beams that jut out of the Great Mosque’s exterior. Masons use these beams as a built-in scaffolding, clambering up the sides of the structure to replaster the mud.
Djenné building mud is a calcite-rich alluvial mixture, extraordinarily durable but requiring regular reapplication. Most of the masons’ contracts are maintenance jobs on mud homes. Traditionally every family had its own mason who remudded the house year after year. “You were connected to a building,” Arnoldi says. When the mason died, his contracts would pass to an apprentice, thereby keeping clients in the family.
But as the masons explain in a series of short films in the exhibition, the old ways are disappearing. These days, Djenné residents seeking repairs often turn to younger masons rather than masters, bypassing the ancestral system. “If you have a friend with money, they may ask you to build a house,” says Lassina. “That’s how it’s done now.”
The craft itself is also changing. Boubacar is part of a new cohort of masons contracting with international groups on restoration projects, and the young apprentice Almamy goes to engineering school in Bamako, the capital of Mali, hoping to apply his technical education to time-honored masonry practices. “People aren’t against change,” says Arnoldi. “They just are against disrespect for people who hold knowledge. In Malian culture, knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.”
In recent years, the city’s architectural fabric has become a battleground in this conflict between tradition and modernity. Many Djenné residents want to expand their homes and put in modern amenities and decorative accents. Photographs in the exhibition reveal satellite dishes, tiles, turquoise frames and steel doors peeking out of the earthen cityscape—but Djenné’s UNESCO World Heritage status forbids any alteration to building exteriors in the historic sector. “There’s a problem of freezing this architecture in time,” says Arnoldi. “People live here. This is their home. You can’t make them a museum.”
Tensions came to a head in 2009 when the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began restoration of Djenné’s Great Mosque, which was built in 1907. Every year the structure is replastered with mud in a celebration that brings out all of the city’s residents. After a century of accumulation, however, these layers of mud had undermined the structure. The Aga Khan project stripped away much of the mud on the surface and suspended the annual remudding.
Many masons objected to this action, citing the spiritual and aesthetic significance of the remudding. The mosque is thinner now, with straight lines and sharper edges erasing the handmade, sculptural quality of the original. Master mason Boubacar says, “If you ask us, we would say that they did it in a European way. It’s no longer the African way.”
Judging by the jubilant crowds that still surround the mosque every year, the “African way” will endure—though it will undoubtedly change. New generations will graft their own skills and experience to the architectural legacy of their ancestors. The young apprentice Almamy, who represents the future of the craft, puts it best: “We’ll work with our own ideas and make our own mark, but we’ll leave the elders to their old ways of working. We want those to remain a reminder of what our parents have done.”
September 17, 2013
The Natural History Museum’s Sant Ocean Hall is getting another makeover today, unveiling three new exhibitions to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the hall’s renovation. The 23,000-square-foot space, recognizable for its giant suspended whale replica, now features two temporary exhibitions combining art and science, as well as a revamped permanent gallery exhibition highlighting the intimate connection between humans and the ocean.
According to Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Natural History Museum, the hall was designed to present a “wide-ranging vision of the ocean,” encompassing biology, history and conservation. “One of the primary goals was to strengthen the messages that all humans are connected to the ocean, that everything we do affects the ocean and that the ocean essentially needs our help,” she says.
“Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry,” one of the hall’s two temporary exhibitions, features 20 poignant images of life under the sea. Brian Skerry, an award-winning National Geographic photographer, has spent the last 30 years documenting the world’s most beautiful—and most imperiled—marine environments. Five of the photos in the exhibition (including the harp seal image below) were crowd-curated by visitors to Ocean Portal, Smithsonian’s online hub for ocean information.
The other temporary exhibition, “Fragile Beauty: The Art & Science of Sea Butterflies,” represents the collaboration of artist Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh (left) and biological oceanographer Gareth Lawson. “Fragile Beauty” features ethereal, larger-than-life sculptures of ocean pteropods, or “sea butterflies,” which are threatened by ocean acidification. These organisms have extremely delicate shells, which dissolve as the ocean becomes more acidic.
The Sant Ocean Hall’s permanent gallery was overhauled to emphasize humans’ ties to the ocean. The new exhibition, “Living on an Ocean Planet,” focuses on the six major threats to marine ecosystems—climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and invasive species—and what societies and individuals can do to address those threats. One section illustrates the concept of “shifting baselines” in ocean conservation: studies show that humans have lost sight of what is “natural” over time, as each successive generation lowers its standards for measuring the health of the world’s oceans. The centerpiece of “Living on an Ocean Planet” is a large-scale sculpture composed of trash collected on a remote Pacific atoll in a matter of hours.
But the narrative is not all negative. For each threat to marine life, the exhibition enumerates specific actions that ordinary people can take to protect and conserve the world’s oceans. ”We’ve learned that doom and gloom doesn’t work very well to motivate people,” says Knowlton. “It’s not hopeless. The whole idea is that we have time to address these problems.”
September 13, 2013
On September 15, 1963, two and a half weeks after the March on Washington, four little girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were the youngest casualties in a year that had already seen the murder of Medgar Evers and police brutality in Birmingham and Danville. For many Americans, it was this single act of terrorism, targeted at children, that made plain the need for action on civil rights.
Joan Mulholland was among the mourners at a funeral service for three of the girls on September 18, 1963. (A separate service was held for the fourth victim.) Thousands gathered around nearby 6th Avenue Baptist Church to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who observed that “life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel.”
Mulholland, a former Freedom Rider who turns 72 this weekend, was then one of the few white students at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. She and a VW busload of her classmates came to Birmingham to bear witness, to “try to understand.” She says of the victims, “They were so innocent—why them?”
Mulholland stopped at the ruined 16th Street church first, picking up shards of stained glass and spent shotgun shell casings that remained on the grounds three days after the bombing. Ten of those shards of glass will join one other shard, recently donated by the family of Rev. Norman Jimerson, in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For now, Mulholland’s shards can be viewed in “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” at the American History Museum.
Mulholland joined us for an exclusive interview in the gallery. She is a short, sturdy woman with a quiet demeanor, her long white hair tied back in a bandana. A smile flickers perpetually across her lips, even as her still, steel blue eyes suggest that she has seen it all before.
As a SNCC activist in the early 1960s, Mulholland participated in sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina, and Arlington, Virginia, her home. She joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and served a two-month sentence at Parchman State Prison Farm.
Looking back, Mulholland recognizes that she was a part of history in the making. But at the time, she and other civil rights activists were just “in the moment,” she says, “doing what we needed to do to make America true to itself—for me particularly, to make my home in the South true to its best self.”
Mulholland spent the summer of 1963 volunteering in the March on Washington’s D.C. office. On the morning of the March, she watched as the buses rolled in and the crowds formed without incident. That day, she says, was “like heaven”—utterly peaceful, despite fear-mongering predictions to the contrary.
Eighteen days later, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church changed all that. “Things had been so beautiful,” Mulholland remembers, “and now it was worse than normal.” The explosion, which claimed the lives of four children and injured 22 others, set off a wave of violence in Birmingham. There were riots, fires and rock-throwing. Two black boys were shot to death, and Gov. George Wallace readied the Alabama National Guard.
The funeral on September 18 brought a respite from the chaos. Mourners clustered in the streets singing freedom songs and listened to the service from loudspeakers outside the 6th Avenue church. “We were there just in tears and trying to keep strong,” Mulholland recalls.
The tragedy sent shockwaves through the nation, galvanizing the public in the final push toward passage of the Civil Rights Act. “The bombing brought the civil rights movement home to a lot more people,” says Mulholland. “It made people much more aware of how bad things were, how bad we could be.” As Rev. King said in his eulogy, the four little girls “did not die in vain.”
Mulholland hopes that her collection of shards will keep their memory alive. “I just wish this display had their pictures and names up there,” she says. “That’s the one shortcoming.”
After graduating from Tougaloo College in 1964, Mulholland went back home to the Washington, D.C. area—but she never really left the civil rights movement. She took a job in the Smithsonian’s Community Relations Service and helped create the first Smithsonian collection to document the African American experience. She donated many artifacts from her time in the movement—newspaper clippings, buttons and posters, a burned cross and a deck of cards made out of envelopes during her prison stint, in addition to the shards from Birmingham.
She kept some of the shards and sometimes wears one around her neck as a memento. “Necklace is too nice a word,” she says.
Others she used as a teaching tool. From 1980 to 2007, Mulholland worked as a teaching assistant in Arlington and created lessons that reflected her experience in the civil rights movement. She brought the shards to her second grade class, juxtaposing the church bombing in Birmingham with the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.
“I saw second graders rubbing this glass and in tears as it was passing around,” she says. “You might say they were too young. . . but they were old enough to understand it at some level. And their understanding would only grow with age.”
Fifty years after the bombing, Mulholland says that “we aren’t the country we were.” She sees the ripple effects of the sit-ins culminating, but by no means ending, with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. And while the struggle for civil rights isn’t over, she says, when it comes to voting rights, immigration reform, gender discrimination and criminal justice, Mulholland remains optimistic about America’s ability to change for the better.
It’s “not as fast as I’d want,” she says. “I think I’m still one of those impatient students on that. But the changes I’ve seen give me hope that it’ll happen.”
September 4, 2013
There’s a lot to love about AMC’s “Mad Men,” not least of which is the fashion. Since 2007, the critically acclaimed television series has dazzled viewers with its attention to period detail, bringing the 1960s back to life with an extensive wardrobe of nipped-waist dresses and longline bras, fedoras and skinny ties. The show has become a modern style guide, launching fashion trends and even a popular tie-in clothing line from Banana Republic. “Mad Men”‘s fashion takes us, as Don Draper would put it, “to a place where we ache to go again.”
The person behind this style revival is Janie Bryant, the show’s costume designer. Bryant researches, designs and curates all the looks on “Mad Men,” from Joan Harris’ curve-hugging sheaths to Bob Benson’s beach-ready shorts. Bryant has won numerous accolades (including six Emmy nominations and one win) for her period work on “Mad Men” and the 2004-2006 HBO series “Deadwood,” and frequently collaborates with brands and retailers to create contemporary fashions. She will be interviewed by historian Amy Henderson at a Smithsonian Associates seminar next week.
We caught up with the designer to talk about her work on “Mad Men,” her personal style, her upcoming reality show and, of course, the shorts that launched a thousand rumors and a parody Twitter account:
How much of the fashion on “Mad Men” is vintage, and how much is your original design?
It’s always a combination. I design garments for the principal cast, and that always depends on the episode and the characters that are in the script and how much time and money I have. I buy vintage and I do a lot of rentals from the amazing costume houses here in Los Angeles. I will also buy vintage and redesign it, depending on what needs I have for each particular character.
How do you get inspired?
It really starts with the script. It’s inspirational to read what the characters are saying to each other, what actions they’re taking, where each scene is being set, so the script is really the beginning place for the costume design. From there, I start my research process by going through catalogs, old photographs, all different kinds of magazines—anything from a Sears catalog to a Vogue fashion magazine from the period and everything in between. That’s why I particularly love old photographs, because you truly get a sense of what people were wearing and how they wore it and where each wrinkle was. I will research newspapers. I’ll watch old movies. I do a lot of research because it’s always that visual inspiration of, “Oh! This reminds me so much of the character Betty,” or “This photograph reminds me so much of Don.”
Walk me through your design process for Joan’s purple suit (sketch below) from the first episode of “Mad Men” season six.
Season five was such an interesting character arc for Joan because she had a new position [as a partner] in the office and came into a new position economically. I felt like that was a great opportunity for Joan to have a little bit of an update. She’s been stuck in that late-fifties wiggle dress, hourglass look for many, many seasons. Joan will always wear clothing that totally accentuates her curves, but at the same time I felt like she could use a little fashion update. I wanted to incorporate a more A-line skirt. The vest and skirt combination was a very modern thing at this point in time, and the ruffled blouses were really coming into style as well, so I wanted to incorporate those elements for Joan, especially in the first episode of the season.
But Christina [Hendricks, who plays Joan] and I still laugh—we’re like, “Oh, Joan, she buys clothes and then she takes it to her seamstress and has it tailored two sizes too small!” It’s a funny little character thing that I love about Joan. Joan wears her clothes too tight—it’s fabulous.
Do you have a favorite character to design for? A favorite garment that you’ve created?
[With regard to] favorite characters, it changes so much because it really depends on what’s happening in the script. The fun thing about being the costume designer of the show is that there is such variety. Probably one of my favorite costumes of all time is Harry’s costume from last season, when the guys go to California. He’s in his long dramatic scarf, the yellow double-breasted sports coat. I love that costume so much! I love the whole aspect of the show moving along in time, and that was just one of those moments that you can really see things changing. . . . If [the show] stayed at 1960 for six years, I think that I would grow tired of that.
I also loved the blue brocade gown that I designed for Betty in season two, with the blue silk organza overdress and the inset pearls and rhinestones. I love that dress. There’s so many! I hate choosing favorites—it’s so hard. I can’t even decide because it has varied so much. Megan was one of my favorite characters last year and Jane was one of my favorite characters in season five. One of my favorite costumes of all time was Jane’s ivory silk crepe jumpsuit with the rhinestone cutout.
You mean the Princess Leia look, from when she and Roger took LSD?
That’s the one, but it’s funny that you call it Princess Leia! [laughs] She was over-the-top, dramatic Princess Leia then.
How much input does the showrunner, Matthew Weiner, have on the costume design?
I talk with him about what I’m thinking and sometimes he will have specific desires for a character, but I never feel like he’s micromanaging me. We’ve always had a great, creative working relationship. I run my department and I have my creative discussions with him, and that’s how we work together. I have always felt like it’s very balanced and there’s a lot of independence.
How much interaction do you have with hair and make-up to create a character’s complete look?
We have lots and lots of discussions. I show them what the costume is going to be for each character and hopefully we have time to talk about it. They are very creative too. They see the costume, the color, the design of it, what I’m going for, and then they can do their thing.
It’s usually the women’s fashion that gets the most attention. What are some of the subtleties of men’s fashion that we should note?
I pay huge attention to the men. They all have different shirt collars and different cuff links, or may not have cuff links—like Roger Sterling, each one of his shirts is embroidered with his initials on the cuff. They each have a different color scheme. Each of the male characters wears a different kind of suiting. The variation really is endless, and I do love to make each one of those characters different. I think it’s really important for them to be very character-specific and character-driven.
The obvious way of seeing that is Harry. He’s so different from the rest of the male cast. But Pete is too, and his costume design has changed a lot over all the different seasons, which has been really fun—from his menswear being mostly made up of different hues of blues to his palette being much more refined and somber and serious as he has gotten older. That has been very interesting—the transition for that character, to go through all the different character arcs with him.
I want to ask you about one men’s look in particular: Bob Benson’s shorts from this past season. How did you settle on those shorts?
There were several details about those swim trunks that I loved. One, it was a fish print, which I thought was really important because he’s a character that everybody was sort of like, “Hmm, we don’t really know who this guy is.” I felt like the fish print gave that sort of slippery accent to his character. Also, his color palette was always just a little off. The shorts have an interesting color scheme going on—the fish are a little odd in color. [The shorts] just really spoke to me as far as “OK, that’s a Bob Benson swim trunk.” And it was also kind of nerdy too. I loved all those things about them.
Was it a challenge for you to dress Betty as the character gained and lost weight? How did you deal with that?
Yes, that is always challenging. It’s also an aspect of the show that I wanted to look perfectly flawless and natural to the audience. For season five, I designed 90 percent of her costumes and had them made, just because it was like designing for a totally different, new character. This [past] season, her weight loss was very challenging too—to go through all those different periods. We had a lot of fittings to figure out the proper amount of weight loss [and] how the costumes were going to fit with the weight loss. And not to mention, her hair color changed too. All of those factors went into the different costumes. I love that part of the show as well—the challenges that come up within the show.
How has Sally Draper’s style evolved as she has become a teenager?
I loved researching teen fashions for this period. It’s been really fun to go through the character changes with Sally. I always felt like when she was in the Francis home, it was very preppy, very east coast, almost like Sally dresses like Betty. But since she’s had the influence of Megan, she’s more fashionable, she’s into the go-go boots, the miniskirts, the hippie chic. All of those aspects have been really fun to play with with her character. I think it’s been fun for the audience too.
I got an email from a fan of the show who sent me a picture of herself in 1967 wearing the same exact dress that Sally Draper wore to the Thanksgiving dinner. It was amazing! I couldn’t believe it. I do a lot of research and so does my team—it is pretty extensive. But to have that visual confirmation of being so spot-on, that was a beautiful moment.
Does the fashion on “Mad Men” reflect your own personal style?
No, it doesn’t. I am all about sexy, modern glamour. I love pretty with an edge.
You’re now known as a vintage designer. Would you like to branch out into more contemporary fashions?
I am obsessed with period costume design. I love it. I guess I am known for vintage, but I really see it more as period costume design, as opposed to vintage. As far as my own brand, there are definitely aspects of vintage in my design. I am inspired by vintage, for sure.
Do you raid the closet at “Mad Men”?
I have a couple of times, but not always. If I wear vintage, I like to wear one dramatic piece and not be in a costume. I’m obsessed with brocades, I’m obsessed with laces. A lot of those fabrics were very popular during the sixties. There are a lot of things that I truly love about the period, especially in the winter time. There’s nothing like going to New York City in a full-length leather cape with a fur trim.
When do you start working on the next (and final) season of “Mad Men”?
I haven’t gotten anything official yet, but I think I’ll go back probably sometime in the fall.
“Mad Men” is ending soon. Do you have a dream project that you would love to work on?
I am working on my own TV show, and that is my dream right now. It’s a reality design competition that merges costume design with fashion design. I love this whole idea because fashion designers are truly inspired by costume designers. I wanted to bring costume designers more to the forefront, but [the show is] also about how the garments that we see in film and TV really do show up on the runway. It’s a competition show that really merges those two worlds together, and I think as time has gone on, the two career paths have become more and more closely linked to one another.
We are in the process of getting it sold, which is really exciting. I’m working with the amazing producers from “Fashion Star,” and that’s where we are right now. We are working with the title of “Janie Bryant’s Hollywood.”
How have you been influenced by other costume designers?
I’ve always been obsessed with Gone with the Wind, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Sound of Music, An American in Paris, Jezebel. I really got into watching classic movies because I loved the costume design so much. But other designers like Sandy Powell, Catherine Martin, Colleen Atwood [are] amazing and I love their work.
I loved Sandy Powell’s work on Far From Heaven.
I’m obsessed with Orlando. I could see that film a million, trillion times. Her work on that is just breathtaking!
Janie Bryant will speak at the Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Mad Men Style: Janie Bryant on Fashion and Character,” on September 9, 2013. Tickets are available at smithsonianassociates.org.