Monday, February 11, 2013

Jacobsen-French Chef-Armory Show (11-17 February)

on this date in Design…

Arne Jacobsen, Danish architect & designer, birthday 11 February 1902
The French Chef, American cooking show, premiere 11 February 1963
The Armory Show, 1st avant-garde art show in the US, opening 17 February 1863

Luckily for us, Arne Jacobsen listened to his father and opted for a more stable career of architecture than painting.  The wonderful aspect about Arne’s design was he was able to take Functionalism and translate it into products & spaces that were anything but sterile and unwelcoming putting him at the forefront of the Scandinavian design movement.  Inspired by Charles & Ray Eames, he worked with carpenter Fritz Hansen to develop the Ant Chair: a simple bent plywood piece with three legs.  This made it light weight, compact and stackable, very similar to the concept of Alvar Aalto’s three-legged Stool 60. 
Arne was commissioned for what could be considered the world’s first “designer” hotel, the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen, designing everything from the furniture to the ashtrays.  It was for this project that the Swan and Egg Chairs were developed.  The gentle curves of the Swan Chair welcome the curves of the body and the envelope of the Egg Chair creates a cozier wingchair for the new age.  Both of these designs in addition to numerous others are perfectly adapt to contemporary spaces.
It may seem out of place to have the premier of a televised cooking show on the list.  However, Julia Child had a broad impact not just on the psyche of the American housewife.  This and subsequent cooking shows have had an enormous impact on the design of the American home.  With Julia’s easy-going and effervescent attitude she made expert gastronomy look easy by showing us at home it was OK to make a few mistakes in the pursuit of perfection. 
With “The French Chef”, PBS allowed Julia to take intimidating recipes such as the meticulous 20 page recipe for French bread and demonstrated how accessible delicious food could be.  This lead to more and more equipment and gadgets to be collected by the at-home-cook until the kitchen became the enormous gourmet extravagance and center of the home it is today.  No longer was the suburban kitchen a lonely closed off room tucked away from formal spaces. 
Now guest are encouraged to share the kitchen, indulge in a world of flavors as their waistlines expanded as well.  Home design has come full circle to meet the needs of the modern family lifestyle.  Formal spaces have been abandoned in favor of open floor plans which, good and bad, invite guests into the bosom of the home.
100 years ago, America was introduced to modern art at the Armory Show of 1913 in New York City.  It may seem counter intuitive to call something “modern” that is over a century old but it was the new way of thinking that truly defines where we as a society are headed.  In terms of social consciousness, identity, global connectivity, we are still on the cusp of understanding of how we, as humans, fit into a drastically different world than centuries past and thusly how we communicate and express ourselves.
The debate “What is art?” still rages today as Marcel Duchamp begged the question with his signed urinals hanging on the wall.  Abstraction and Expressionism attempted to communicate the artist’s thoughts in non-traditional medium.  No longer was Realism in the traditional sense necessary, there was the photograph for that.  However, how the photograph and realistic painted imagery were used to communicate social and political ideas and thrust forward to the viewer that same nagging question.  Americans were for the first time exposed to European masters such as Manet, Munch, Rodin, Picasso and many, many more.  At the same time, they discovered their own home-grown modern artists such as Stella and Whistler that would pick up the baton and make New York City a new hub of the artist community. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Arts & Letters-Owings-Fire Extinguisher (4-10 February)

on this date in Design…

National Institute of Arts & Letters, honor society, Act of Congress passed 4 February 1913
Nathaniel Owings, American architect, birthday 5 February 1903
Fire Extinguisher, invented by Alanson Crane, patented 9 February 1863

The National Institute of Arts & Letters has a confusing and unnecessarily complicated history of inception.  Without going into much detail as to how, the organization is now known as the American Academy of Arts & Letters.  The original “Institute” was founded in 1902 but was recognized by an act of Congress in 1913.  This does not mean it is a government funded or controlled organization, simply that it is recognized and is essentially an honorary title.  Other organizations with this honor include the Girl/Boy Scouts and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Essentially, the purpose of the AAA&L is “to foster and sustain excellence in Literature, Music and the Fine Arts by identifying and encouraging individual artists.”  It does this by awarding prizes (money), exhibiting work and funding performances & literature of up-and-coming artist & authors.  To be elected to the 250 council is not only an honor by being recognized by your peers but is also a life-long membership.  The Academy has also identified and fostered some of the country’s most influential and important artists.  Despite a black period when modernism was shunned, today the AAA&L is more akin to the original progressive intention.  Members include Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, Maya Lin, Richard Meier, I. M. Pei and Robert Venturi to name just a few.    

As one of the founding members of the Chicago-based architectural firm Skidmore Owings & Merril (SOM), Nathaniel Owings’ business & organizational acumen lead the firm to become known worldwide for reliability for large-scale developments.  Despite a cantankerous relationship with Louis Skimore, SOM became and still is the quintessential “go-to” firm for record making skyscrapers.  The two were so independently strong willed that a satellite office had to be opened in New York so they didn’t have to be in the same city together.  But, with the even-tempered engineer John O. Merril in the middle, the business partnership was an enormous success.  SOM has the most buildings on the “World’s Tallest Buildings” list with 10. 
That’s 6 more than any other firm on the list and they are about to add 11th with One World Trade Center holding fast to spots 1 and 2.  Owings retired from the firm in 1975 but remained an active advocate for open public spaces in American cities including acting as President Johnson’s design advisor for the National Mall in Washington, D.C.  Additionally, the California Architectural Council of the AIA continues his legacy by awarding an architectural prize in his honor each year to projects that reconcile the potential adverse needs between nature and the built environment.  The 2012 winner, the California Academy of Sciences is truly inspiring as it serves two purposes as a building and a science experiment simultaneously.  Think of it as one giant terrarium.     

In the wake of yet another deadly night club fire last week (this time in Brazil) it is appropriate that we look at a fire prevention device.  Before there were fire extinguishers, there were fire grenades.  It seems counter-intuitive to throw a grenade at a fire.  However, these small orb-shaped glass bottles filled with fire suppression liquid would be hurled at an ensuing fire with moderate success.  With the advent of the fire extinguisher, a person would have a bit more control over where the liquid landed and thereby a better chance of actually containing the fire.  The basic principle is to contain the liquid within a pressurized canister when opened the liquid will shoot out; much like a “Super-Soaker” water gun works.  Thankfully, there have been many devices created over the past few centuries but Alanson Crane’s was the first in the US. 
With each new technology, buildings and the public at large are safer provided municipal codes are in place, followed and enforced.  The US today has some of the strictest Life Safety codes in existence.  These are not hurdles that hinder the design process.  These are essential the functionality of a building and legitimize our job as design professionals.  The next time you enter a public building, take a moment to locate some of the devices put there by the designer for your safety: lighted exit signs, overhead sprinklers, fire alarms, emergency back-up lighting (thank you Super Dome) and attached to the wall--a fire extinguisher.     


American Academy of Arts & Letters 

Biography of Nathaniel A. Owings on the SOM website 
Willis Tower, Chicago, IL
John Hancock Center, Chicago, IL
Nathaniel A. Owings Award
California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, CA

National Fire Protection Association
NFPA artidle on Brazilian nightclub fire, 27 January 2013
NFPA article on fire extinguishers
ESPN article on the Super Dome Super Bowl power outage, 3 February 2013