May 14, 2013
It’s one of the most recognizable book covers in the history of American literature: two sad female eyes and bright red lips adrift in the deep blue of a night sky, hovering ominously above a skyline that glows like a carnival. Evocative of sorrow and excess, this haunting image has become so inextricably linked to The Great Gatsby that it still adorns the cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece 88 years after its debut. This iconic work of art was created by Spanish artist Francis Cugat.
Little is known about Cugat –also known as Francisco Coradal-Cougat– and the Gatsby cover, for which he was paid the princely sum of $100, was the only one he ever designed. In a 1991 essay discussing the connections between the book and its cover, publishing scion Charles Scribner III, who revived the cover after a 40 year absence for his classic edition of the book in 1979, charted the development of the work from its original conception to the final gouache painting of the detached gaze. Scribner notes that its origin is somewhat unusual in that the cover art was designed before the manuscript was finished, resulting in a sort of collaboration between the artist and writer that may have yielded one of the more prominent literary symbols in American literature.
In a letter to editor Max Perkins, Fitzgerald, whose manuscript was late, requested that the art be held for him. “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me,” Fitzgerald wrote, “I’ve written it into the book.” It’s not clear exactly what Fitzgerald meant by this, but it is generally believed that that Cugat’s haunting image was realized in the form of the recurring billboard for oculist Dr. T.J. Eckleburg that watches over one of the climactic moments of Fitzgerald’s work:
“The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic — their irises are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”
Of course, there are several obvious differences between the final cover art and the bespectacled billboard, but if this is the connection, then the floating, faceless eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg serve as testament to the talent of each artist, as well as to the value of such collaborations. But the familiar cover art may not, in fact, have been what captured Fitzgerald’s imagination. Rather, it’s possible that he saw a much different, early cover sketch by Cugat, several of which were only discovered in 1990:
Because the manuscript was not complete, it’s likely that Cugat based his design on a conversation with Perkins about Fitzgerald’s working text, then titled Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires, and a description of one of the books settings – a “valley of ashes” where “About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land.” In one of these early design proposals, the valley of ashes is presided over by several small faceless eyes and lips floating like clouds. It seems likely that this early draft inspired Fitzgerald to create his own eyes above the desolate landscape in the form of the Eckleburg billboard. As Cugat’s design developed, he focused more on those floating eyes that seem to have enthralled Fitzgerald. The landscape became more abstract and the country road way was abandoned in favor of a cityscape that recalls the glowing lights of Times Square and Coney Island.
Although it seems likely that the billboard really is the manifestation of Cugat’s eyes, without any definitive proof it remains something of an open question. Scribner cites another theory for “those who still find the derivation troublesome” – that the cover image was actually integrated into the text as Nick Carraway’s vision of Daisy as the “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs….”
With a big Hollywood movie now in theaters, some recent printings of the book have abandoned the classic cover in favor of one that ties in more closely with the film. So high school students working their way through the summer reading list this year will be hard pressed to find a copy without Leondardo DiCaprio standing front and center among the movie’s beautiful cast and art deco ornamentation. While the new cover is controversial among readers and retailers, Scribner himself enjoys it. In a recent letter to The New York Times, he wrote, ”I confess to liking the Leonardo DiCaprio cover, too (the new movie tie-in). I would not be ashamed to be seen reading it on the subway, but then I’m a Gemini.”
Although there have been many covers since its first publication in 1925, today, none are more suited to The Great Gatsby than the celestial eyes of Francis Cugat, so perfectly do the image and text seem align. Perhaps its appropriate that the true meaning of the celestial eyes remain somewhat mysterious. After all, if I remember my own summer reading of The Great Gatsby, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg ultimately serve as a reminder that signs are devoid of any meaning save that which we give them.
April 15, 2013
Last week we published a history of the Staunton chess set, which was developed, in part, out of a need to standardize pieces for international competition. In a response on his blog, Jason Kottke published some terrific images of beautiful pre-Staunton sets –the St. George, the Selenus, and the Regence– and explained some of the confusion that prompted the creation of the Staunton. While following up on some of these early chess sets, I learned that there is a trove of artist-designed chess sets in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art. The largely minimalist chess pieces, created by artists including Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Josef Hartwig, represent an attempt to strip down each piece to its most essential components: what is the absolute least a knight can be to still be read as a knight? The results are striking, although often just as confusing as the idiosyncratic pre-Staunton sets that proliferated throughout Europe during the 18th century.
Sculptor Josef Hartwig designed his chess set (above two images) while teaching at the Bauhaus in 1924. It embodied the school’s tenets that an object must be practical, durable, inexpensive and beautiful. Hartwig’s design reduced the pieces to the most basic components of artistic construction: line, square and circle. Though they are incredibly abstract, each well-crafted piece, originally sculpted from pear wood, has been designed to describe its movement on the board. The bishop, for example, is a simple X, denoting its diagonal movement. Every aspect of the Bauhaus set was given consideration, even the packaging designed by Hartwig’s colleague Joost Schmidt. It truly is, in the Bauhaus tradition, a union of art and craft. The pieces are stripped of any symbolic meaning and reduced to pure form. Their designations –bishop, knight, king– become irrelevant. All that matters was movement, which is made tangible as the identifying characteristic of each piece.
Even more reductive is this 1966 best designed by Lanier Graham. Perhaps most noteworthy on this set are the king and queen, whose tops are inverse versions of one another – a sort of phallic point on the king and, conversely, a yonic ‘v’ for the queen. Like Hartwig’s, Graham’s pieces fit perfectly, tanagram-like into its box.
Man Ray designed a set using mostly conic and curvilinear abstract forms. While his pieces are beautiful, they seem to be abstract for abstraction’s sake, rather than carry any built-in meaning. In fact, the pieces are a rather personal reflection of the artist himself, or rather, the artists space. Each piece was inspired by an object in his studio used for inspiration or still-life arrangement. The knight, for example, is the finial of a violin.
Man Ray played many chess matches against his friend and fellow artist Marcel Duchamp, for whom chess was, perhaps more than any artist past or present, a profound muse. More that that. Chess consumed Duchamp. In the 1920s, it was said that he abandoned art for the world of competitive chess. While he never truly stopped producing art, Duchamp did indeed compete in professional tournaments, even entering the several championships and earning the status of chess master. He not only drew and painted chess players, but encoded messages in his work that could only be read by chess players. Duchamp published a book on endgame theory the title of which sounded like one of his paintings or sculptures: Opposition and Sister Squares are Reconciled. He designed chessmen and even created his own pocketbook chess sets, ensuring that he would never be without a board. In an obituary published in The New York Times, it was said that Duchamp’s life-long enthusiasm for the game inspired his fellow artists to create their own sets. For Duchamp, art and chess were one and the same. “From my close contact with artists and chess players,” he has famously said, “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
These artistic chess are not strictly the purview of the middle of the century. Last year, London’s Saatchi Gallery commissioned sixteen artists, including Maurizio Cattelan, Damien Hirst, Barbara Kruger, and Rachel Whiteread, to create their own vision of the game of kings. The results are incredibly diverse. Hirst’s set (above image) is made entirely from medicine bottles.
But even more cutting edge than high-art chess pieces are home-made ones. Relatively cheap 3D printing, combined with free design software, means that almost anyone can create their own chess sets. Last year, 3D printing pioneers Makerbot issued a chess set design challenge. Nearly one hundred diverse entries were posted online, including everything from variations of the traditional Staunton to a particularly innovative set of pieces that join together Voltron-like to form a chess robot.
With its nearly infinite combination of moves, its symbolic pieces, and its romantic terminology, it’s no wonder that chess has captured the imagination of artists throughout history. And there’s absolutely no doubt that the game will continue to challenge and inspire.
March 1, 2013
3D printers and digital mapping services are making it drastically easier to produce infinite identical copies of anything, for better or worse, for humanitarian or for destructive purposes. A digital map can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone or computer and a replica of Michelangelo’s David can be made at home just as easily as an assault rifle. While the relatively new technology of 3D printing is proving popular with designers, fabricators and the general public, it hasn’t yet reached the ubiquity of the home printer. But it only seems to be a matter of time until desktop fabrication is as common as desktop publishing. The technology is getting cheaper and more efficient every year, and even though 3D printing has barely been established, engineers are already hard at work on 4D printing (the fourth dimension is time!). One ambitious company has recently caused a sensation on Kickstarter with its prototype for a 3D printing pen.
These latest drawing and modeling technologies are fascinating, but when did the idea of 3D printing originate? What are some of the earliest drawing and fabrication “machines”? To find the answer we go back to the days before copiers or even carbon paper, back to the Renaissance, to a man who invented digital reproduction in the original sense of the word.
Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian philosopher, scientist, architect and all around polymath who lived during the 15th century. Basically, he was your prototypical Renaissance man. Alberti is perhaps one of the most important and influential creative figures to come out of the Renaissance, although he is one of the less widely known. He believed that art and science were united by basic principles of mathematics, and among his many accomplishments Alberti defined the principles of geometric construction known today as central perspective and invented techniques for producing identical copies of paintings, sculptures, and even buildings without the aid of mechanical devices such as the printing press. This desire for a method of creating identical copies came out of Alberti’s frustration with the inadequacies and inevitable mistakes that result from manual reproduction techniques. In his excellent book, The Alphabet and the Algorithm (which I’m currently enjoying and have previously mentioned on Design Decoded), architectural theorist and historian Mario Carpo describes these techniques as “digital” reproductions.
“Alberti tried to counter the failings of analog images by digitizing them, in the etymological sense: replacing pictures with a list of numbers and a set of computation instructions, or algorithms, designed to convert a visual image into a digital file and then recreate a copy of the original picture when needed.”
By reducing images to carefully calculated coordinates and documenting the method by which the original was created, Alberti ensured that anyone could produce copies that were exactly identical to his original work. The numeric manuscripts, which were easy to copy without error, represented a type of Renaissance file transfer.
Alberti’s most famous invention dealing with reproduction is the perspective machine, which is still used by artists today. The setup he designed for transcribing images from reality looks something like a modern Battleship game board. A gridded wooden screen separates the artist, whose eye is held at a fixed point at the center of the screen, from his subject. From the artists’s perspective, the object to be represented is mapped onto the framed grid; this way, the artist can accurately recreate the image on a paper that has been divided into a matching grid. The distance between these grid lines determines the “resolution” of the image, to borrow a term from the parlance of digital technology, and to a limited extent, the accuracy of the reproduction. If we wanted to extrapolate a little more to further make the comparisons with contemporary digital technology, we could even call these grid divisions pixels. Alberti’s perspective machine represented an important step in his quest to eliminate variability from reproduction, but, because it still relied on the hand of the artist, it did not completely remove human error. Alberti continued to develop math-based techniques of reproduction.
One of the most compelling works of true “digitization” is Alberti’s book containing a map of Rome, the Descriptio Urbis Romae, created around the 1440s. The book, however, does not contain an actual printed copy of a map. After painstakingly measuring and drawing the streets, temples and landscape of Rome, Alberti wanted to distribute his map, but he didn’t believe hand-made copies could accurately reproduce his original. While the technology for mechanical reproduction was in its nascent stages, its use was not widespread and its potential remained unrealized. Alberti’s solution? He transcribed his carefully crafted map into a series of polar coordinates measured from the peak of the Capitoline Hill. These coordinates are collected in the Descriptio in lieu of a hand-drawn map. His idea was that readers could transcribe an identical version of his map themselves, using Alberti’s notes and an astrolabe-like device that consisted of a rotating ruler attached to the center of a disc divided into degrees. Alberti’s coordinates and instructions are, as Carpo noted, a primitive type of algorithm—the same process that drives today’s computer-designed architecture and the software controlling digital fabrication machines.
But perhaps the most impressive of Alberti’s inventions is his technique for reproducing sculpture. In his treatise on figural sculpture, De statua, Alberti described a method of reproducing identical copies of sculptures using traditional tools and basic computation. First, the artist/copier takes precise measures of the sculpture’s height, width and its various diameters using the proper tools—t-squares, angles, etc. The main components of the sculpture are measured and documented numerically —“scanned,” essentially—in relation to one another and to the entire length of the statue. To get more precise measurements of the statue’s details, a device of Alberti’s invention known as the definitor or finitorium is installed atop the statue. Similar to the device used to create the map of Rome, the finitorium is a flat disc inscribed with degrees joined to a movable arm, also inscribed with measurements; from the end hangs a weighted line. By rotating the arm and raising or lowering the plumb line, it is technically possible, although surely infuriatingly slow, to map every point on the statue in three-dimensional space relative to its central axis. That data could then be sent to a craftsman who would use it to create an identical copy of the original statue.
This brings us back to 3D printing. There are many different kinds of 3D printers that create models from various types of plastic, but they all essentially work the same. The printer processes digital blueprints—coordinates located in virtual space—of an object created by modeling software and digitally “slices” the model into pieces small enough to be created by the machine. These components are layered on top of one another and bound together almost seamlessly, creating an identical physical reproduction of the original digital model. 3D scanning and printing is obviously much, much faster than Alberti’s method, but it functions in much the same way—except, of course, for the automated documentation of an object’s shape and the robotic construction using synthetic materials. Alberti even boasted that his methods could be used to recreate different parts of a sculpture at different times or in different locations and that his method was so exact, these individual components could be seamlessly assembled to create an exact replica of the original—a process that sounds a lot like modern manufacturing.
With both the old and new technologies, any statue—any thing, really—can be theoretically recreated at any size anywhere. Take, for instance, Michelangelo’s David. In 2000, Stanford labs created a nearly perfect digital 3D replica of the David that users can rotate and manipulate to examine the sculpture in much closer detail than would be possible if they were to visit the original in Florence. From six tons to thirty-two gigabytes, the digitized replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece can now be reconstituted in the studio of anyone with a high-speed internet connection, enough hard drive space and some automatic fabrication equipment. The flexibility afforded by the digital model creates entirely new ways for people to experience the statue. For example, an enormous golden reproduction known formally as David (inspired by Michelangelo) was created in 2005 by conceptual artist Serkan Ozkaya and is currently installed in the 21c Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.
3D printers and other forms of digital fabrication will possibly change the way we live in the future. But the ideas behind these paradigm-shifting machines have been around for a long time, and the dream of sharing and creating identical copies dates all the way back to the 15th century. Scientists, artists and philosophers like Alberti lacked the technological sophistication to make their ideas practical, and, in some cases, they lacked the imagination to even realize the possibilities of what they proposed. But that’s no longer a problem. We have the technology. The designers of tomorrow will realize the dreams of the Renaissance.
January 17, 2013
One hundred years after the French Revolution began, the Eiffel Tower rose above Paris as a testament to the new century’s innovations in engineering and construction. It could be seen from everywhere in the city; an inescapable sign of a different type of revolution. But the Eiffel Tower wasn’t the only technological innovation to dominate the streets of Paris in 1889. That same year, the first modern perfume was created: Jicky.
What makes Jicky modern? As mentioned in our previous post on “The Art of the Scent,” it is widely regarded as the first fragrance to incorporate synthetic ingredients as well as natural extracts, making it one of the most significant perfumes in the history of scent design. Jicky was created by Aimé Guerlain, the son of perfumer Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, who founded the family perfume house in 1828 when he opened a small shop in Paris. At the time, natural floral perfumes were all the rage and the senior Guerlain was a master of the craft whose clients included Queens and Tsars. When Aimé took over as master perfumer upon his father’s death in 1864, he continued to develop new floral fragrances but he also brought his own unique innovations, adding exotic spices from the far East to the traditional Guerlain bouquet. In 1889, with the Eiffel looming above Paris, everything changed with the creation of Jicky, a new scent Aimé named after a lost love.
Breaking with traditions and trends, Guerlain challenged conventions by introducing synthetic molecules into his perfumes. At its most basic, Jicky was primarily composed of lavender and vanilla scents, along with secondary citrus notes and a hint of the traditional Guerlain bouquet. While the lavender was steam-distilled through a standard process, the vanilla scent presented a unique problem—it was an expensive and rather weak extract. So Guerlain sought out an alternative: synthetics. According to The Little Book of Perfumes, when the perfume was being conceived, only a single firm in Paris, De Laire, had the rights to patent synthetic vanillin, which was cheaper, sweeter and creamier than the natural alternative. Not only would these designed components—terpene alcohol β-linalool, coumarin and ethyl vanillin—add to the multi-faceted complexity of the scent, they also made it last longer. Although the process wasn’t perfect, the impurities of the synthetic extract added to the complexity of the scent. It was brave. It was bold. It was the first perfume designed to stir emotions, rather than just recall flowers. And it was worn almost exclusively by men. At first, anyway. Women soon came around and Jicky was actually marketed as a unisex fragrance. The ambiguity became a part of the identity of Jicky and is still referenced in the official description of the perfume:
“Oriental chypre Fresh, dynamic, surprising Filled with contrasts and dualities, freshness and oriental notes, Jicky is a magical perfume that plays on the olfactory ambiguity between masculine and feminine. The subtle spicy notes that blossom with the usual warmth of the oriental facet also play skillfully with the fresh and aromatic notes of lemon and lavender at its heart. Underneath this audacious structure, one detects woody and vanilla notes for greater vibration and character.”
Jicky is still made by Guerlain. And though it enjoys the distinction of being the oldest perfume in continuous production, the modern Jicky is different than the original. According to the authors of The Little Book, the scent was once “raunchier, more curvaceous, less stately.” The disparity can be partly explained by the purity of the vanillin, which improved as the process of creating synthetics was refined. Though measures were taken to recreate that certain je ne sais quoi with the addition of birch tar, the contemporary scent remains slightly different from the original. We may not think about it often, but all scents are the result of rigorous experimentation, trial-and-error and, sometimes, revolutionary invention. By breaking with tradition, Aimé Guerlain introduced perfumers to an entirely new, nearly limitless palette and changed perfume forever. The story of Jicky is the story of modern perfume. It’s a union of science, art, and perhaps even a little romance. And it proves, beyond a doubt, that scent is not only a design discipline but an art. Although it may evolve over time, it seems safe to say that as long as the Eiffel Tower stands, there will always be Jicky.
Previously on Design Decoded: Designing Scent: An Olfactory Exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design
January 16, 2013
While walking through the Museum of Art and Design’s exhibition “The Art of the Scent (1889-2012)” my mind was flooded with memories of a nearly forgotten childhood friend, an ex-girlfriend and my deceased grandmother. It was a surprisingly powerful and complex experience, particularly because it was evoked in a nearly empty gallery by an invisible art form—scent. It’s often cited that smell is the sense most associated with memory (both are processed by the brain’s limbic system), and the iconic fragrances exhibited in “The Art of the Scent” are likely to take visitors on their own private jaunts down memory lane. But it might not lead where they expect.
Like any art form or design discipline, the creation of a scent is the result of experimentation and innovation. Yet, perfume and cologne are rarely appreciated as the artfully crafted designs they are. “The Art of the Scent” is the first major museum exhibition to recognize and celebrate scent as a true artistic medium rather than just a consumer product. The 12 exhibited fragrances, chosen by curator Chandler Burr to represent the major aesthetic schools of scent design, include Ernest Beaux’s Modernist Chanel No.5 (1921); the Postmodern Drakkar Noir (1982) by Pierre Wargnye ; and Daniela Andrier’s deconstructed fragrance Untitled (2010). Perhaps most significantly, the exhibition begins with the first fragrance to incorporate synthetic raw materials instead of an exclusively natural palette, thereby truly transforming scent into an art: Jicky (1889), created by Aimé Guerlain. Unfortunately, this fragrant historiography will initially be lost on the average visitor because while scent may indeed be the best sense for provoking memory, it is the worst sense for conveying intellectual content. When we smell something—good or bad—our reaction is typically an automatic or emotional response. Such a reaction doesn’t lend itself particularly well to critical analysis. One of the greatest challenges facing Burr, who wrote the “Scent Notes” column for the New York Times and the book The Emperor of Scent, was to get visitors to move beyond their initial emotional responses and memories and to think critically about scent design.
Or perhaps scent “composition” is a better word. Like a musical chord resonating in the air until it fades away, scent evolves over time until it too fades. And like a chord, scents are composed of three harmonic “notes.” The “top note” is the first impression of the scent and is the most aggressive, the “middle note” is the body of the scent, and the “base note” lingers after the other notes dissipate, giving the fragrance a depth and solidity. However, there is an enormous industry based around designing and marketing commercial fragrances that includes everything from the shape of the bottle to the celebrity endorsement to the samples at a department store. These extraneous characteristics can also shape our perception of the scent, and sometimes even shape the scent itself. For example, the “top note” has become more important over time because of the aggressive way that perfumes are typically sold and sampled in contemporary department stores. First impressions are more important than ever. “The Art of the Scent” strips all of that away. By isolating pure scent and presenting it in a museum setting, Burr hopes to do for scent what had been done for photography over the last 80 years—raise it to a level equal with painting and other traditional fine arts. It’s an ambitious goal that required exhibition designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro to address a fascinating question: how does a museum present art that you can’t see?
Luckily DSR are familiar with both museums and the ephemeral. Although they are perhaps known as the architects behind Manhattan’s High Line, DSR built their career designing installations and exhibitions in galleries and became known for questioning the role of the museum. Their buildings destabilize architecture by cultivating ephemerality and creating atmospheric effects. These ideas are most apparent in their 2002 Blur Building, an enormous scaffolding-like structure supporting continuously spraying misters that give the building the appearance of a floating cloud. The architects called it “immaterial architecture.”
It makes sense then that DSR’s installation for “The Art of the Scent” embraces the ephemeral purity of olfactory art itself. Their minimalist exhibition is, like any good minimalist work, more complex than it first appears. The architects lined three walls of the nearly empty gallery space with a row of gently sloping, almost organic “dimples.” Each identical dimple is just large enough to accommodate a single visitor, who upon leaning his or her head into the recessed space is met with an automatic burst of fragrance released by a hidden diffusion machine. I was told the burst doesn’t represent the scents’ “top notes” as one might expect, but more closely resembles the lingering trail of each commercial fragrance—as if a woman had recently walked through the room wearing the perfume. The scent hovers in the air for a few seconds then disappears completely. And no one has to worry about leaving the exhibition smelling like a perfume sample sale because every exhibited fragrance has been specially modified to resist sticking on skin or clothes. The ephemerality of perfume is reinforced by the illuminated wall texts explaining each scent, which periodically disappear completely, leaving the gallery devoid of anything but pure olfactory art.
The exhibition also includes an interactive salon where the scents can be experienced in a more social setting. Using a custom iPad app designed by DSR, visitors select an adjective and noun to describe each scent, and as their opinions are logged, a collective impression of the scent is revealed as a projected word cloud (see above image). It’s a simple conceit but a critical one that helps fulfill one of the goals of the exhibition—to provide a vocabulary that helps non-experts understand and critique olfactory art. The primary mission of the Museum of Art and Design is to educate the public on the intersection of art, craftsmanship and design. Their exhibition programs are carefully curated to “explore and illuminate issues and ideas, highlight creativity and craftsmanship, and celebrate the limitless potential of materials and techniques when used by creative and innovative artists.” In this respect, “The Art of the Scent” is a success. It re-introduces something familiar to everyone in the unfamiliar context of aesthetic and historical movements. Though I may have entered the exhibition thinking of lost love, I left pondering the nature of harmonic fragrances and the complexity of creating an art history of smells.
“The Art of the Scent” runs until March 3, 2013.