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.
December 6, 2012
In preparation for the holiday season, we’ve put together a selection of gift ideas related to some of our favorite Design Decoded posts. The following items are all some combination of useful, beautiful, clever and iconic. We’ll let you decide which is which. Have a very designy holiday!
Home 3D Printer: After writing about 3D-printed footwear, you might be inspired to try fabricating your own products at home. Currently, domestic-scale 3D printers are not cheap, but the number of models available is increasing, and the price may drop as this becomes a more common practice.
Music for Airports: Brian Eno coined the term “ambient” to describe this seminal soundscape. The ebbs and flows of the minimalist composition are slow and deliberate; at once haunting and comforting. “I had in my mind this ideal airport where it’s late at night; you’re sitting there and there are not many people around you,” Eno says of the album’s origin. “You’re just seeing planes take off through the smoked windows.” What could be better for the frequent traveler in your life?
Winter Citrus Boxes: Growing up in Colorado, it was tradition that each winter, a big box of grapefruits and oranges would arrive on our snowbound porch, sent by grandmother from Florida. Perhaps that is the origin of my interest in fruit. This year’s design-related explorations into mandarins (or clementines) focused on California, but I’ve always had fond thoughts for Florida citrus-by-mail (reinforced through John McPhee’s wonderful writing on the Indian River in his book, Oranges). For die-hard locavores, you can skip the long-distance produce and just buy McPhee’s book.
Sherlock Series 1 & 2: Since its debut in 2010, Steven Moffat’s brilliant re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes has introduced the detective to an entirely new generation. Each episode is an incredibly clever spin on a classic tale from Arthur Conan Doyle, with enough unique twists to keep even the most ardent Sherlockian guessing.
Building Stories: Chris Ware’s masterful tale of life and architecture is so much more than a comic. Unwrapping this box of refined comics will be like opening 14 smaller, incredibly well-crafted gifts. Be warned, if you’re inclined to holiday depression, this collection of true-to-life tales, while beautiful, does not exactly inspire hope.
Dracula Medallion: The Medal that Made Dracula Famous. The limited edition replica is identical to that worn by Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Universal feature Dracula. Despite only appearing in two scenes, the medallion is Lugosi’s signature piece and has become an integral part of the visual identity of Dracula.
Travel Tiffin: Airlines may be designing more efficient meal trays, but few are on the upswing when it comes to the quality and tastiness of their in-flight offerings. A carry-on snack is a good way to steer clear of terrible food or worse hunger, and these melamine tiffins are a nice way to pack it. Stainless steel versions are available (and more traditional), but the non-metal option seems like a more security-friendly way to go.
October 18, 2012
I learned to read so I could figure out why Batman was throwing his costume into a fireplace on the cover of one of my dad’s old comic books. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on comics. And so I was incredibly excited to once again attend New York Comic Con this past weekend where, among the standard superhero fare and the novelty 25 cent comics, I picked up a breathtaking new, very un-Batman-like comic by one of my favorite creators, Chris Ware. Ostensibly, Building Stories is a comic book chronicling the lives of the occupants of a three-story apartment building. But it’s so much more than that. At once expansive and intimate, it is a masterpiece of storytelling, a fragmentary collection of sad and beautiful vignettes that began more than a decade ago as a series of comics serialized across several popular publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, and McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern.
The first thing you’ll notice about the collected Building Stories is that it’s not a book. It’s a box. It looks more like a board game than anything else. However, inside this box, there isn’t a game board and there aren’t any pieces. Instead, there are the 14 distinct books that compose Building Stories – ranging in style from standard comics to flip books to newspapers to something that looks like a Little Golden Book. Importantly, there are no instructions on how to read them or where to begin. While these books do indeed trace the lives of a small group of people (and a honeybee), the linear narrative is irrelevant –we’re just catching glimpses of their lives– and reading through the encapsulated stories is reminiscent of flipping through a stranger’s old photo albums.
This format is critical to the experience of reading Building Stories. Everything has been carefully considered and painstakingly designed. Ware’s drawings are often diagrammatic and vaguely architectural; his page layouts read like complex maps of human experience. It’s worth noting here that Ware writes and draws everything by hand, giving the book, with its exacting precision, a sense of craftsmanship. And though it’s not always clear what path to follow, every single composition, whether clean or cluttered, has a profound effect on how the text is understood and how it resonates emotionally. Ironically, given the amount of detail in each drawing, Ware might best be described as an impressionist. A Monet painting doesn’t show us exactly what the water lilies looked like, but how it felt to see them.
If there’s a central theme to Building Stories, it is the passing of time – and our futile struggle against it. The comic book is the perfect medium to explore this idea. After all, what is a comic but sequential, narrative art? Unlike a photograph, a comic panel does not typically show a single moment in time but is, rather, a visual representation of duration. That duration might be the time it takes Superman to punch out a giant robot, the seconds that pass while a failed artist chops a carrot, or the years it takes for a single seed to travel around the world. In every comic book, time passes within the panel. More noticeably though, time passes between the panels. This is where the art of storytelling comes in. There are no rules in comics that standardize the duration of a panel or a sequence of panels. In Building Stories, sometimes milliseconds pass between panels, sometimes entire seasons, and sometimes even centuries can expire with the turn of the page. The arrangement and size of images on each page affect the mood of the story and the pace at which it’s read. This manipulation of time and space and emotion is Ware’s greatest strength. He controls every aspect of the page, how the story is told, and how the story is read. Sometimes an entire page may be dedicated to a single glorious image of a suburban street; another page may be filled with dozens of tiny boxes in an attempt to capture every second of an event and make the reader feel the passing of time. The effect is sometimes reminiscent of an Eadweard Muybridge photo sequence – except instead of a running horse, the sequence depicts a young couple struggling through an awkward conversation at the end of a first date.
In another particularly striking page, an old women who has spent her entire life in the building ages decades as she descends its stairwell. In just that single page we learn so much about her life: her frustrations, her disappointments, her disposition, and above all, her connection to the house. It is this house which is truly at the center of the book. It is the one constant that remains relatively unscathed as time ravages its occupants. As the tenants pause from their own personal stories to wonder about a sound from the floor below, or ponder the mysterious architectural remnants left by their predecessors, the building ties their lives together for a fragile, fleeting moment. As characters grow and change and move on to other cities and other buildings, they wonder if they were happier in their old lives. Throughout it all, it becomes clear that our lives are impacted –and sometimes even changed– by the spaces we occupy.
With each panel, each page, and each book, Ware builds his stories. Stories of life, death, fear, love, loss, cheating. As the author himself writes, in his typical sardonic, slightly antiquated prose, “Whether you’re feeling alone by yourself or alone with someone else, this book is sure to sympathize with the rushing sense of life wasted, opportunities missed and creative dreams dashed which afflict the middle and upper-class literary public.” If it wasn’t clear by now, this is not a fun comic. But it is undeniably emotional. We’ve been telling stories through pictures as long as there have been stories to tell. Yet even with the relative success of graphic novels such as Persepolis and the explosion of comic book films over the last ten years, comics are still treated largely as a kid’s medium, as something less than literature or the fine arts. The combination of writing and art is its own challenging and complex art form. When executed well, a comic can be as powerful as Monet’s water lilies or as poignant as Catcher in the Rye. Building Stories should be held up as a shining example of what’s possible with the medium.
Oh, and if you’re curious about that Batman story, an insane psychiatrist hypnotized him to fear bats, forcing Batman temporarily to take on another identity. Pretty typical stuff, really.
August 14, 2012
When Sherlock Holmes walks into a crime scene, he displays the uncanny ability to deduce how the crime unfolded: where the criminal entered, how the victim was murdered, what weapons were used, and so on. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard must follow procedure, cordoning off and documenting the crime scene in order to reconstruct the criminal narrative. A crime scene sketch is an important part of this process. Typically, a floor plan is drawn before a building is constructed, but the crime scene sketch is a particularly noteworthy exception, as it not only verifies information in crime scene photographs, but includes dimensions and measurement that establish precise locations of evidence and objects relative to the space of the room. This information, properly obtained, can be used to assist both the investigation and the court case. But what if this investigative method is used on the flat of the world’s most famous detective?
221B Baker Street is rarely the scene of the crime (there are exceptions, such as “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”), but is instead the scene of the deduction, where Sherlock smokes his pipe or plays his violin while unraveling the latest mystery brought to his doorstep. Whether made by pencil or computer, these architectural drawings represent a reversal of the building-plan relationship. We’ve previously described the extent to which some Sherlock Holmes devotees have constructed their own version of 221B in tribute to the great detective. However, those with a curious mind who lack the resources to collect enough Victorian antiques to recreate the famous London flat are not excluded from the game. In fact, their pen-and-paper speculative reconstructions are not limited by cost and space. With such freedom, is it possible to determine what 221B Baker street truly looked like? As with the full reconstructions, there are many different speculative floor plans on 221B, ranging from the crude to the highly detailed. Most of these scholarly drawings are found exclusively in the pages of Sherlockian journals and club publications, but two of the most widely circulated plans will suffice to illustrate the complexities of rendering a literary space.
In 1948, Ernest H. Short drafted what would be one of the more widely circulated and thorough renderings of 221B when it was published in the pages of The Strand Magazine in 1950. Short’s drawing includes the rooms and furniture of Holmes’s flat, as well as sundry artifacts from his adventures and annotations noting the origin of each item. Traces of Holmes’s exploits and evidence of his proclivities line the walls and adorn the shelves. The Baker Street flat is a reflection of its occupant: his violin, his pipe, his costume closet. Chris Redmond, of the expansive Holmesian resource Sherlockian.net has called it “probably the most elegant re-creation of the sitting-room and adjacent rooms in Holmes and Watson’s lodgings.” His claim was likely true until 1995, when illustrator Russell Stutler drew 221B for an article in the Financial Times.
Stutler created his rendering after reading through every Sherlock Holmes story twice and taking extensive notes of every single detail mentioned about the flat. The details of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories are full of contradictions that Sherlockians revel in rationalizing, and the various descriptions of Holmes’s flat are no exception. Most famously, “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” presents some difficulties for those reconstructing 221B, as evidenced by some of the clumsy resolutions in Short’s drawing. Stutler notes:
“The Adventure of the Beryl Cornet” implies that Holmes’ room (called his “chamber”) is on the floor above the sitting room while “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” clearly puts Holmes’ bedroom just off the sitting room where it communicates with the alcove of the bow window. If you need to reconcile these two descriptions you can assume that at some point in time, Holmes moved his bed down to the room next to the sitting room. This could be the same room just off the sitting room which had been used as a temporary waiting room in “The Adventure of Black Peter.” The room upstairs could then be used as a lumber room dedicated to Holmes’ stacks of newspapers and “bundles of manuscript…which were on no account to be burned, and which could not be put away save by their owner” as mentioned in the “The Musgrave Ritual.” “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons” does mention a lumber room upstairs packed with daily papers.
As we’ve seen previously, these ostensible inconsistencies in Conan Doyle’s stories can be quite rationally explained by a well-informed Sherlockian. After all, as Holmes reminded Watson in “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” I highly recommend reading Stutler’s full post, which includes a list of every reference used to create the image as well as a fully-annotated version of the above drawing.
More recently, the BBC television series Sherlock has introduced an entirely new generation of potential Sherlockians to the world’s only consulting detective. Some of these men and women have already dedicated themselves to analyzing the series, which presents an entirely new canon—clever interpretations of the original stories—for mystery enthusiasts to dissect and discuss. Instead of thumbing through a text page after page in search of clues describing 221B, these new digital drafstmen are more likely to pause a digital video frame by frame to dutifully reconstruct, in digital form, the new version of the famous flat now occupied by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s Watson. These contemporary Sherlockians turn to free drafting software or video games instead of pen and paper. The following renderings, for example, come from the free drafting program Sketchup and the video game Minecraft.
If documentation, speculation, and informed reconstruction of a crime scenes make the criminal narrative clear, then perhaps applying the process to a “deduction scene” can do the same for the detective’s literary narrative. Like the crime scene sketch, the above deduction scene sketches of 221B Baker St are architectural drawings created ex post facto with the intent to clearly illustrate a narrative in pursuit of understanding. In “The Five Deadly Pips” Sherlock Holmes himself states that “The observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents, should be able accurately to state all the other ones, both before and after.” By drawing 221B , the reader or viewer gains a more thorough understanding of one link in Holmes’s life, his flat, and can perhaps then, by Holmes’s logic, gain more insight into the life and actions of the famous detective that continues to capture the world’s imagination.
This is the sixth and final post in our series on Design and Sherlock Holmes. Our previous investigations looked into Mind Palaces, The tech tool of a modern Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes’s original tools of deduction, Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat, and the mysteriously replicating flat at 221b Baker Street.
August 2, 2012
In our previous post on the tools that assist Sherlock Holmes in making his astounding deductions, we looked at the optical technologies of the 19th century. Holmes was at the cutting edge of science with his surprising and sometimes disconcerting use of these devices. In Victorian England, he was indeed the most modern of modern men. But what tools would such a man use today? According to Steven Moffat, creator of “Sherlock”, the incredibly successful BBC series that re-imagines Sherlock Holmes in present-day London, the most important tool used by the world’s only consulting detective is his mobile phone.
Yes, the simple mobile phone. Perhaps not as elegant as a well-crafted magnifying glass, but nonetheless suited for solving mysteries in modern London. While the high-tech investigators of “CSI” and similar shows have a bevy of machines available at their disposal, Sherlock Holmes has no need for such resources. Nor is it likely that Sherlock, an independent sort with a collection of social quirks and personal idiosyncrasies (to put it kindly), would have the desire to work within such an organization. Of course, he still has his personal lab and conducts his own experiments in his 221B Baker Street flat, but in this contemporary portrayal, the mobile phone has replaced the iconic magnifying glass as the tool most closely associated with Holmes.
In fact, in the premiere episode of the BBC series, ”A Study in Pink,” Sherlock’s first onscreen “appearance” is in the form of a visualized text message that interrupts a Scotland Yard press conference. One could understand the appeal of the text message to Holmes, as it is purely objective mode of communication; a means to reach a single person or a group of people without having to confront ignorance or recognize any social mores. But of course the phone does much more than send texts.
Many of today’s mobile phones are equipped with GPS devices and digital maps. Sherlock, however, has no use for such features for he has memorized the streets of London. He quickly accesses this mental map while pursuing a taxi through the city’s labyrinthian streets and rooftops. The entire chase is visualized using contemporary digital map iconography. The implication is clear: Sherlock’s encyclopedic knowledge of London is as thorough as that of any computer – and easier to access. Though the specific mode of representation is updated for today’s audience, this characterization keeps true to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. In “The Red-Headed League” Holmes tells Watson, “It is a hobby of mine to have an exact knowledge of London.” As we see in Sherlock, an intimate knowledge of streets and houses is as useful in the era of Google maps as it is the time of gas lamps.
In Sherlock viewers are able to watch the eponymous detective conduct web searches via the same unobtrusive, minimal graphics used to represent his text messages. Overlaid onto the scene as a sort of heads-up-display, these graphics let the viewer follow Sherlock’s investigation and learn how his mind works. Although the relevance of his web searches may not always be immediately obvious, such is the fun of watching a detective story unfold. And such is the the wonder of Sherlock Holmes. Today, we all have access to unimaginable amounts of data, but Sherlock’s genius is in how he uses that information.
As with the magnifying glass, the mobile phone merely augments Sherlock’s natural abilities. And, as with the magnifying glass, the mobile phone is so closely associated with Holmes that it becomes, in a way, indistinguishable from the detective. This is made evident when the same onscreen graphic language used to show text messages and web searches is also used to show Sherlock’s own deductive reasoning. In “A Study in Pink,” as Holmes makes his rapid deductions about a dead body, we see his thought process appear onscreen in real-time: the woman is left handed, her jacket is wet but her umbrella is dry, her wedding ring is clean on the inside but scuffed on the outside, the metal has aged. It’s elementary that victim is a serial adulterer in her late 40s. As we follow along with the help of this Holmes-Up-Display, we’re invited to reach the conclusion along with Sherlock but we also get a glimpse of how quickly his mind works.
In the recent Guy Ritiche Sherlock Holmes films, slow motion effects are used to illustrate the speed at which Holmes can think. But in Moffat’s version, the same point is made using the language of digital search technologies. Sherlock thinks as fast as we can google. Probably faster. But there are some things that even Sherlock can’t know. Where, for example, did it recently rain in the UK? For these facts Holmes turns back to the mobile phone –as trusty an ally as Watson– and we see his deductive process continue as he types in his search queries. Graphically, the transition from human thought to web search is seamless. As it did in the 19th century, Sherlock’s use of technology blurs the line between machine and man. Even in a time when Watson has become a “Jeopardy!”-playing supercomputer, Moffat’s Sherlock, like Conan Doyle’s original figure, is still “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen.” With the right tools and the right knowledge Sherlock Holmes, in any era, is a frightfully modern man.
This is the fourth post in our series on Design and Sherlock Holmes. Our previous investigations looked into Sherlock Holmes’s original tools of deduction, Holmes’s iconic deerstalker hat, and the mysteriously replicating flat at 221b Baker Street.