October 8, 2013
Founded in 1897, Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is the country’s only museum dedicated solely to historic and contemporary design. As part of their mission to educate the public on all things design-related and spread awareness of the many ways design can enhance our lives, each year the museum organizes the National Design Awards. As the name suggests, the awards are given to U.S.-based designers “in recognition of excellence, innovation, and enhancement of the quality of life,” with categories in architecture, fashion, interaction design, product design and more. Awards are determined by a diverse jury of prestigious design professionals that this year includes, among others, Jury Chair and Curator of Architecture and Design at The Art Institute of Chicago Zoë Ryan, architect Tom Mayne, of Morphosis, Kickstarter design director Charles Adler, and you. Yes, you.
Cooper-Hewitt wants to know what you think makes for good design and one prize, The People’s Design Award, is determined by a public vote. For once, we’re not talking about designing the vote, but voting for design. Until this Friday, October 11, you can choose your favorite life-changing design innovation from among twenty potential candidates representing all the above mentioned categories.
Nominees include a hand crank to charge your gadgets, portable medical equipment, an artful video game designed to be played but not won, a mobilized telepresence device that reminds me of an episode of the Big Bang Theory, a device that transforms your hands and fingers into the ultimate computer peripheral, an emergency cell phone that runs on a single AA battery, a snap-together circuit boards that offers to do for engineering what Legos did for architecture, slick-looking technological handlebars with built-in with lights, navigation, and speedometer, a bike helmet vending machine for the urban bike-sharer, and of course, a few apps.
I only have experience with a couple of these, so I’ll keep my opinions brief:
The iOS app Mailbox has completely changed the way I handle email and has helped keep achieve –and maintain!– the once-mythical state of “inbox zero”. Mailbox’s major innovation is a method of archiving email that seems so obvious it’s surprising that it wasn’t widely adopted by other services long ago. Instead of letting messages pile up in your inbox or filing them into folders to be forgotten, Mailbox lets you reschedule an email to respond at a more convenient time. It’s like a snooze button for email that keeps unnecessary messages out of your inbox. A super-clean user-interface and shallow learning curve only make the app better.
Medium is a blogging platform and publishing network founded by two of the minds that brought you twitter. They call it a place to “share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends.” There are a few things that make the platform standout from similar services: its clean design, it’s promise to help writers find an audience “through a combination of algorithmic and editorial curation,” and a unique comment system that doesn’t relegate reader input to the bottom of an article, but alongside it, like annotations. Thus, commenters become collaborators rather than a collection of people yelling in vain from a soapbox at the end of an alley. Right now the service is still in beta, so only a few invited writers can use Medium (but you can request an invite on the site).
All these products and services that have been nominated offer something new. But which design matters the most to you? Which design has the potential to change lives around the world? Which one offers an elegant solution to a problem? Which one will improve your everyday routine? However you decide whats important, cast your vote before this Friday, October 11, to help decided the winner of the People’s Design Award. The winner be be announced at the National Design Awards gala and online on October 17.
August 16, 2013
Housed in the same building as Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” and Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” is a simple paper coffee cup sleeve. It can be found not in the café at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), but rather in the museum’s collections alongside renowned works of art worth millions. But it would be wrong to consider it out of place; the genius of the coffee cup sleeves makes it a million-dollar object as well.
For many, the morning ritual wouldn’t be complete without standing in line at a nearby coffee shop, placing an order with a frazzled cashier managing the A.M. rush and watching the barista pour the coffee, slap a slid on top of the cup and slip a cardboard sleeve over it. It’s a simple and logical ritual, but without that sleeve, what would have happened to our to-go coffee culture? In 2005, MoMA paid tribute to this ingenious design defining the modern American coffee tradition when it acquired a standard coffee cup sleeve for the exhibit “SAFE: Design Takes on Risk,” which featured products that were created to protect. The sleeve takes pride of place at MoMA, alongside Post-It notes, Bic pens and Band-Aids in a collection called “Humble Masterpieces.”
“The reasons for inclusion were very straightforward: a good, sensible, necessary, sustainable (by the standards at that time) solution for a common problem,” says MoMA’s curator Paola Antonelli of the cup sleeve. “While modest in size and price, these objects are indispensable masterpieces of design, deserving of our admiration.”
Like the inventors behind the other “humble masterpieces,” the man behind the sleeve is no artist, but an innovator. Jay Sorensen invented the Java Jacket in 1991 as a solution to a common problem—hot coffee burns fingers. The idea emerged in 1989 when he was pulling out of a coffee shop drive-through on the way to his daughter’s school and a coffee spill burned his fingers, forcing him to release a scalding cup of coffee onto his lap. At the time, he was struggling as a realtor in the years since closing his family-owned service station in Portland, Oregon. While the coffee accident was unfortunate, it gave him the germ of an innovative idea: there had to be a better way to drink coffee on the go.
Sorensen initially set out to design an insulated cup that could replace paper cups and Styrofoam cups, which were slowly being phased out as cities across the United States began to ban polystyrene food containers. But he couldn’t figure out an efficient way to package the cups for clients, neither nesting nor folding would work. He also reasoned, correctly, that not all coffee drinks needed that much insulation; his research indicated that only 30 to 40 percent of drinks sold at coffee shops required protection beyond the paper cup. Iced coffee drinks and lattes aren’t hot enough. The cup idea wouldn’t be economical for stores, it would have to go.
Sorensen can’t say how he hit upon the idea for the cup sleeve. “It was kind of an evolution,” he says. He used embossed chipboard or linerboard after nixing corrugated paper because of the price point. (Starbucks, who obtained their own patent after Sorensen got his, used the more expensive corrugated paper on the inside of their cup sleeves and smooth paper on the outside.)
He gave his invention a catchy name, the Java Jacket. Sorensen made his first sale out of the trunk of his car to the Oregon chain Coffee People. A few weeks later, he went to a coffee trade show in Seattle and sold 100 cases in just 30 minutes. “I was like a rock star or something there,” Sorensen says.
Success accelerated from there. In the first year alone, he enlisted more than 500 clients who were eager to protect the hands of their coffee-driven customers. Today, approximately 1 billion Java Jackets are sold each year to more than 1,500 clients.
Sorensen’s solution was simple and the problem so common that he was not surprised by the demand. “Everybody around me . . . was shocked,” he says. “I wasn’t.”
Although he is now among the most successful, Sorensen is not the first to patent a cup sleeve. Designs date back to the 1920s for similar devices. James A. Pipkin’s 1925 design was a sleeve for beverages in cold glass bottles and Edward R. Egger patented a “portable coaster” in 1947 that fit around a cup. Both were inspired by embarrassing and awkward situations relating to unwanted condensation from cold glass bottles.
It’s possible that the standard paper coffee sleeve will be eclipsed by even more environmentally friendly reusable coffee sleeves, or even an end to the paper cup. Sorensen is facing a patent renewal process. And has the sleeve inventor got any new inventions up his sleeve?
“I think we’re just on this train until the tracks come to an end,” Sorensen says.
May 17, 2013
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
So says Orson Welles as Harry Lime in the 1949 film The Third Man. Welles added those lines himself to a script based on Graham Greene’s original story. And though he may have been a genius, Welles was wrong about the history of the Cuckoo clock. “When the film came out,” he told Peter Bogdanovich, “the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they’ve never made any cuckoo clocks!” Indeed, although often associated with Switzerland, the cuckoo clock was more likely invented in Germany sometime in the 17th century. I use the word “likely” because the origins of the cuckoo clock are unclear and its invention is still a topic of debate among horologists.
For a long time, the cuckoo clock was attributed to Franz Anton Ketterer, a clockmaker of some repute from the Black Forest village of Schönwald. It was believed that Ketterer created the cuckoo in the 1730s, inspired by the bellows of church organs to adapt the technology in lieu of the chimes then typically used in clocks. This oft-cited theory first emerged in a relatively popular 1979 self-published book The Black Forest Cuckoo Clock. For such an iconic timepiece, there is surprisingly little written about the cuckoo clock, but, as recently noted by the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors, modern scholarship does not support the Ketterer theory. While the full origins of the cuckoo clock remain unknown, evidence dates similar, though more primitive, objects to at least the mid 17th century – around 100 years before Ketterer’s supposed invention. In any case, the familiar cuckoo clock that we know and love today, the clock that hangs in our grandparents’ houses, was certainly developed and refined by the talented craftsman and clockmakers of the Black Forest.
In traditional cuckoo clocks, the “coo coo” sound is derived from a system of bellows pushing air through two wooden whistles to recreate the distinctive two-note call of the common cuckoo. The gears of these traditional cuckoo clocks are regulated by a pendulum and system of two or three weights, traditionally shaped like pinecones, that steadily drop over a period of one day or eight days, depending on the model of the clock. One weight, along with the pendulum, is dedicated to keeping the clock gears running while the other weight controls the avian automoton. Clocks that play music in addition to chirping will have a third weight. After a century of development that saw wood replaced with brass and metal, two distinct styles of cuckoo clock emerged from the Black Forest to dominate the market: The ornamented, house-like “Bahnhäusleuhr” or “railroad house” and the Jagdstück” or “Hunt piece” or “traditional style” clock, which features elaborate, decorative hand carved nature scenes adorning a simple encasement.
So why a cuckoo? The common cuckoo, native to Europe, had long served as a natural marker of time, a welcome harbinger of Spring whose familiar calls denoted the coming of the new season and warmer weather. Writing eloquently on the cuckoo in his 1849 book Natural History: Birds, English naturalist Philip Henry Gosse described the joy felt upon hearing the first coos of the season:
There are few who do not feel a thrill of pleasure when it falls upon their ear. But more especially when, for the first time in the season, it is heard in a lovely Spring morning, mellowed by distance, borne softly from some thick tree, whose tender, and yellow-green leaves, but half-opened, are as yet barely sufficient to afford the welcome stranger the concealment he loves. At such a time it is peculiarly grateful; for it seems to assure us that indeed, winter is past.
Over the centuries since it first emerged from the Black Forest, the cuckoo clock has remained largely unchanged. Traditional clocks can still be bought and are a popular souvenir. But of course, there are now a much wider variety of styles to choose from, including striking modern clocks that look more like abstract sculptures than timepieces. However, my favorite contemporary cuckoos are those that pay homage to traditional hand-carved “hunt piece.” Although all details have been stripped away and the elaborate carvings flattened onto a single surface, these modern cuckoos are instantly recognizable solely by their familiar silhouette.
From “cuckoo” to “tweet tweet,” this next modern cuckoo clock is truly cutting edge. It was created by the London-based BERG design consultancy, who have a knack for integrating physical objects with digital network technology.
Designed especially for Twitter, #Flock is a series of four cuckoo clock objects that each literally “tweet” in response to a unique notification from the social media service. Berg’s method involves stripping an object down to its basic essence while maintaining a user-friendly, humanist design. Ornamentation was dropped in favor of a clean, minimalist design, an almost Bauhaus-like Bahnhäusleuhr. #Flock is a distillation of the cuckoo clock to three characteristics: craft, time, and alerts. #Flock is currently a limited edition exclusive to Twitter, but it alludes to a possible future where our digital lives are made manifest in the form of finely crafted objects and we interact with our invisible networks through real, physical things. But will it catch on? Will the cuckoo transform from the herald of Spring to the herald of retweets, emails, and likes? Only time (and tweets) will tell.
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.
April 3, 2013
Prior to 1849, there was no such thing as a “normal chess set.” At least not like we think of it today. Over the centuries that chess had been played, innumerable varieties of sets of pieces were created, with regional differences in designation and appearance. As the game proliferated throughout southern Europe in the early 11th century, the rules began to evolve, the movement of the pieces were formalized, and the pieces themselves were drastically transformed from their origins in 6th century India. Originally conceived of as a field of battle, the symbolic meaning of the game changed as it gained popularity in Europe, and the pieces became stand-ins for a royal court instead of an army. Thus, the original chessmen, known as counselor, infantry, cavalry, elephants, and chariots, became the queen, pawn, knight, bishop, and rook, respectively. By the 19th century, chess clubs and competitions began to appear all around the world, it became necessary to use a standardized set that would enable players from different cultures to compete without getting confused.
In 1849, that challenge would be met by the “Staunton” Chess Set.
The Staunton chess pieces are the ones we know and love today, the ones we simply think of as chess pieces. Prior to its invention, there were a wide variety of popular styles in England, such as The St George, The English Barleycorn, and the Northern Upright. To say nothing of the regional and cultural variations. But the Staunton quickly would surpass them all. Howard Staunton was a chess authority who organized many tournaments and clubs in London, and was widely considered to be one of the best players in the world. Despite its name, the iconic set was not designed by Howard Staunton.
According to the most widely told origin story, the Staunton set was designed by architect Nathan Cook, who looked at a variety of popular chess sets and distilled their common traits while also, more importantly, looking at the city around him. Victorian London’s Neoclassical architecture had been influenced by a renewed interest in the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome, which captured the popular imagination after the rediscovery of Pompeii in the 18th century. The work of architects like Christopher Wren, William Chambers, John Soane, and many others inspired the column-like, tripartite division of king, queen, and bishop. A row of Staunton pawns evokes Italianate balustrades enclosing of stairways and balconies.
And the knight, the most intricate and distinct piece of any chess set, is unique in that it’s the only piece that is not an abstracted representation of a designation; it’s a realistically carved horse head. The Staunton Knight was likely inspired by a sculpture on the east pediment of the Parthenon depicting horses drawing the chariot of Selene, the Moon Goddess. Selene’s horse is part of a collection of sculptures controversially removed from the Parthenon by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, during his tenure as ambassador to the Ottoman court. Known as the “Elgin Marbles,” these sculptures were donated to the British Museum in 1816 and were enormously popular with a British public that was growing increasingly interested in classical antiquities. According to the British Museum, Selene’s horse “is perhaps the most famous and best loved of all the sculptures of the Parthenon. It captures the very essence of the stress felt by a beast that has spent the night drawing the chariot of the Moon across the sky….the horse pins back its ears, the jaw gapes, the nostrils flare, the eyes bulge, veins stand out and the flesh seems spare and taut over the flat plate of the cheek bone.” Now you know why the knights in your chess sets always look like they’re screaming in agony.
Staunton appreciated the simplicity and legibility of Cook’s design, and allowed Cook to use of his name in marketing the new pieces, which were first offered to the public in 1849 by purveyors John Jaques of London. On the same day the new pieces hit shelves across London, an advertisement in the Illustrated London News celebrated the new set as “the Staunton Chessmen”:
“A set of Chessmen, of a pattern combining elegance and solidity to a degree hitherto unknown, has recently appeared under the auspices of the celebrated player Mr. Staunton….The pieces generally are fashioned with convenience to the hand; and it is to be remarked, that while there is so great an accession to elegance of form, it is not attained at the expense of practical utility. Mr. Staunton’s pattern adopts but elevates the conventional form; and the base of the Pieces being of a large diameter, they are more steady than ordinary sets.”
Now, there’s some confusion about the design of the first Staunton set because Nathaniel Cook also happened to be the brother-in law of John Jaques, as well as the editor of of the News– a paper that counted Staunton among its contributors. The three men were definitely in cahoots, and some speculate that Cook was not actually the designer but was merely an agent acting on behalf of Jaques, who was looking to increase his profits by creating a cheaper, more efficient design that appealed to a variety of players and had the blessing of the most famous chess player in London. Though the design is sometimes incorrectly attributed to Mr. Staunton, he provided only the initial endorsement and functioned as a sort of spokesman, passionately advocating the set in public. The design was a huge success. The simple, largely unadorned forms of the Staunton set made it relatively cheap and easy to produce, and instantly comprehensible. Since the 1920s, the Staunton set has been required by worldwide chess organizations.
From that original set advertised in the pages of the Illustrated London News, hundreds of different versions of the have emerged. While some variation is tolerated, there are several key distinguishing characteristics that define a set as a Staunton: the king is topped with a cross and, as the the tallest piece, serves as a metric for the height of the others; the queen is topped by a crown and ball; the bishop has a split top; the knight is a horse head; the rook is a squat castle turret.”
Recently, the Staunton set got a makeover. The new piece designs are part of an earlier project by noted design conultancy Pentagram, the rebranding of World Chess, an organization that aims to bring chess back to a level of popularity it enjoyed during the heyday of Bobby Fischer. Other than coming up with a new brand and identity for chess, Pentagram also designed a new tv-friendly competitive playing environment and an interactive website that lets fans follow games live online via “chesscasting”.
Daniel Weil, partner of Pentagram, reinterpreted the classic Staunton set for the 2013 World Chess Candidates Tournament in London. Weil says that to begin the project he had to “unravel the rationale behind the original set.” This meant looking back to the pieces’ origins in Neoclassical architecture. Following the lead of Cook (or Jaques), Weil also looked to the Parthenon. As part of his subtle redesign, Weil resized the set so that when the eight primary pieces are lined up at the beginning of play, their angle reflects the pitch of the Pantheon’s pediment. Weil also streamlined the pieces somewhat, returning a precision and thoughtfulness to the Staunton set that, in his view, had been lost in many of the Staunton variations created over the last 160 years. The design also reflects the relative value of each piece according to tournament rules; the more a piece is worth, the wider the base. The new Staunton pieces were also designed to accommodate different styles of play, such as the grips that Weil ostentatiously refers to as the “north hold” and the more theatrical “south hold”. The high-quality set debuted in tournament play this year and is now also available to the public. Weill told Design Week, “When chess started to become popular in the 19th century it became a social showcase, so everyone had a set on show. I wanted to make an object of quality so that people could also show it off.”
Inspired by the Neoclassical architecture of Victorian London and a very modern need for standardization and mass production, the Staunton chessmen helped popularize the game and quickly became the world standard. The new Staunton pieces by Daniel Weil reinforces this architectural history of the original pieces while respecting their timeless design.
The House of Staunton; “Daniel Weil redesigns the chess set,” Design Week; “The History of the Staunton Chessmen” and “The Staunton Legacy,” Staunton Chess Sets; “The Staunton Chess Pattern,” ChessUSA; Henry A. Davidson, A Short History of Chess (Random House Digital, 2010); Pentagram