Alice Twemlow: It’s such an utter thrill to intro­duce our keynote speak­er today. When I read the nov­els and essays of Nicholson Baker, I find myself (as I sus­pect many of you do, too) in a state of some­thing like aston­ished glee to find prod­uct design assum­ing such a star­ring role. You see, at D‑Crit, we are keen­ly atten­tive to the ways that design fig­ures in fic­tion. It is actu­al­ly the focus of a whole class, taught by Akiko Busch, called Reading Design. Here stu­dents read texts such as Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts, and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in order to under­stand how char­ac­ters gain dimen­sion through the rooms they inhab­it and the objects they col­lect, and how those very rooms and objects can actu­al­ly become char­ac­ters in the narrative.

So some­times read­ing fic­tion helps us to under­stand real­i­ty more clear­ly. There is always going to be this ten­sion between what is real and imag­i­nary with­in a nov­el, where the nov­el­ist toys with our abil­i­ty to both rec­og­nize real­i­ty and to embrace fan­ta­sy. There is also a ten­sion between the real­i­ty of a nov­el and the real­i­ty of real life. The larg­er ques­tion, though, is how does read­ing fic­tion affect how we expe­ri­ence the world, and of course the way we ask that ques­tion is how read­ing design in fic­tion might affect how we expe­ri­ence design in the world as users, crit­ics, and designers.

And if we were going to pick one writer to read for such an exer­cise, it would sure­ly be the nov­el­ist, crit­ic, and essay­ist Nicholson Baker. Baker has writ­ten ten nov­els, includ­ing the tour de force of prod­uct design crit­i­cism oth­er­wise known as The Mezzanine. He’s also writ­ten non-fiction books includ­ing Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, and Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper. Baker writes about tech­nol­o­gy for The New Yorker and con­tributes essays to a host of oth­er pub­li­ca­tions such as Granta, Harper’s, and The New York Review of Books. These essays have been gath­ered into two col­lec­tions, The Size of Thoughts, and The Way Things Work.

If Baker had to car­ry around one of those packs of things like the peo­ple Gulliver meets on his trav­els, we’d find a bizarre time cap­sule of con­tem­po­rary life. Receipts and shoelaces, tooth­paste tubes and bendy straws, earplugs, biros, and box­es of match­es. What’s so excit­ing to me is that these things fig­ure in his writ­ing not mere­ly as stage props, and not mere­ly as types, but as actu­al indi­vid­ual things that loom up to the same scale as the char­ac­ters who per­ceive them and evoke them. So here are just a few of the attrib­ut­es of Baker’s writ­ing that here are D‑Crit we rel­ish the most and learn from. 

The first is that he slows down time. At a point when so much prod­uct design writ­ing fol­lows the pace of prod­uct launch­es and we’re expect­ed to kind of sift and sort the sig­nif­i­cance of things at such dizzy­ing speed, it’s an impor­tant reminder to see what can be done when you stop still, to stop and lis­ten to an object for way longer than you’d think. 

The sec­ond thing he does is to real­ly zoom in and even under the sur­face of the mate­ri­als from which things are made. He notices the dust-monads and won­ders why vel­vet feels smoother than pol­ished chrome. And it’s through the accu­mu­la­tion of the obser­va­tion of details, some­times micro­scop­i­cal­ly small, that larg­er truths can be built, or as Baker puts it, Consider the infin­i­tes­i­mal hooks on the horse­hairs that draw from the cel­lo string its lav­ish tone.”

The third thing he does is not just look at things, but he feels them, too. In A Box of Matches, his nar­ra­tor lights a fire each morn­ing at 4am in the dark. Gropingly, he feels for the curve of a mug, the cool facets of salt and pep­per shak­ers, and the neg­a­tive thump of card­board fibers tear­ing when he pulled of a match from its book. And if you’re an avid Baker read­er, you’ll know his char­ac­ters do a lot of feel­ing with their feet, as well. They’re always step­ping on things or hav­ing their toes poke through their tube socks.

The last fea­ture of Baker’s writ­ing that I think we can all learn from as design writ­ers is his desire and abil­i­ty to actu­al­ly report from the pro­duc­tion line. He goes to see how things are made. Take this pas­sage from Baker’s 1994 essay about nail clip­pers for The New Yorker. He goes to vis­it the Bassett nail clip­per fac­to­ry in Connecticut, and I rec­om­mend read­ing the whole text for a mas­ter class in how to weave lit­er­ary crit­i­cism with tech­nol­o­gy and design crit­i­cism. But I espe­cial­ly want to draw to your atten­tion here, his evo­ca­tion of the noise and fury, but also the grace of the man­u­fac­tur­ing process:

Once cut (from rolls of Midwestern steel, at an impact force of rough­ly fif­teen tons), the clip­per blanks” must be cleaned of oil, spot-welded, racked, hard­ened for two hours in a mas­sive fur­nace, then oil-quenched, cleaned again, tem­pered in a sec­ond fur­nace to lim­ber them up a lit­tle, and final­ly revolved in huge bar­rels with six­ty thou­sand of their fel­lows for sev­er­al days in a slur­ry of met­al slugs, abra­sives, and lime, to smooth away unhandy burrs

Vibrating bowls dither the com­po­nents into sequen­tial posi­tion, prepar­ing them for a defin­i­tive riv­et­ing, which is accom­pa­nied by a Fred Astaire-like vol­ley of air-cylinder traps and flour­ish­es. Each clip­per gets a sharp­ened cut­ting edge; a dig­i­tal sys­tem checks the fin­ished edges for truth. Eyelets, shot in at the cau­dral end, affix the nail files; then the entire splayed clip­per, racked on hooks, pro­ceeds through the plant­i­ng sequence—ten min­utes in a warm nick­el bath, a minute or two of chrome. A nim­ble piece of pneu­mat­ics straight­ens the akim­bo file and clos­es the lever.
Nicholson Baker, Clip Art,” The New Yorker, November 7, 1994, 165 [PDF at D‑Crit]

That’s design writing.

So watch­ing how things are made, slow­ing down time, zoom­ing into the fibers of things, and feel­ing your way around objects are just some of the ways in which design is made strange again. Here to tell us more about this, or indeed some­thing else [al]together, please wel­come to the stage crit­i­cis­m’s muse from Maine, the peer­less Nicholson Baker.

Nicholson Baker: Thank you Alice for that extra­or­di­nar­i­ly kind intro­duc­tion. I’m delight­ed to be here at this fes­tive occa­sion. I think there are par­ents in the audi­ence, and I look for­ward to learn­ing things about design and research that I did­n’t know. I do love doing research. I under­stand exact­ly what those peo­ple were talk­ing a bout. I spent weeks at the Library of Congress with a cam­era (they let you just bring in a cam­era now) and you can go through the very fine car­bon papers of the 40s and 50s, third or fourth car­bon papers, these very filmy things, and just take pic­tures all day long, take thou­sands of pic­tures. And then of course you have to read this stuff at some point. But you feel the tak­ing of the pic­ture, and when you look at the pic­ture, the lit­tle sight of the paper clip in the cor­ner, the rust­ed­ness of the sta­ple is part of the whole experience.

So what are we doing? I bought a glass at Crate and Barrel the oth­er day, a drink­ing glass, because I admire the design and because I broke one like it at home recent­ly. I brought it to the cashier and I watched her wrap up a pur­chase. She worked very fast, but she was kind enough to let me pho­to­graph her movements. 


She set the glass on its side at one cor­ner, brought it up, there it is on the pile—you know…everyone here’s been to Crate and Barrel, right? It’s a big, beau­ti­ful stack of paper that they have at the check­out counter. She start­ed at the cor­ner and she start­ed to kind of roll the paper around the glass, and then she fold­ed it in, then she fold­ed it in again, and again, and start­ed rolling, crum­pling… This is stuff that’s sort of like newsprint but sort of like tis­sue paper; it’s got a crin­kli­ness to it. Rolling for­ward, and then she was done.

And now my glass was set off from every­thing else in my shop­ping bag. I unwrapped it at home, and I set it on the shelf where it’s become part of a new design, the design of our kitchen in Maine. 

So that’s what we’re try­ing to do, I think, we devo­tees who write about the designed and pen-outlined world. We’re just wrapper-uppers at Crate and Barrel. We’re pack­agers, tem­po­rary pack­agers. And our cho­sen pack­ing medium—sentences, paragraphs—sometimes obscures as much as much as it helps us see. 

Sentences are nev­er enough. Anyone who has ever tried to describe any­thing inar­tic­u­late, any­thing curved, trans­par­ent, felt, ele­gant, bul­bous, knows what I mean. We’re talk­ing about an object that lives in the realm of the eye and yet here we are pre­sump­tu­ous­ly sub­sti­tut­ing lit­tle bits of let­tered code for what we know to be flow­ing and ardent and fun­da­men­tal­ly speech­less. Something that sings its shape with­out any need of words at all.

We’re cheer­lead­ers. We want to say, Wow, this thing is good. This thing is real­ly beau­ti­ful. And it costs 95 cents.” But the word beau­ti­ful on the page is not nec­es­sar­i­ly our friend. It can seem tired and worn out. If we said it aloud, we could say it a hun­dred dif­fer­ent ways. Beautiful. Beautiful. But on the page it’s just a row of nine let­ters, and it flow­ers in the mind in that lim­it­ed way, as a mere adjec­tive that every­one has read and writ­ten too many times in emails with sev­er­al excla­ma­tion points after it.

A juice glass, with ridges up its sides

Crate and Barrel Rings Glasses

But the glass is beau­ti­ful. It has just the right inward slant. And it has rib­bing, it lit­er­al­ly costs 95 cents. How can any­thing so per­fect cost that lit­tle? It’s a tumbler—I think that’s the tech­ni­cal term for it—and it tum­bles hap­pi­ly in our minds, but on the page we real­ly have to work to make it tum­ble for oth­er peo­ple. We have to recre­ate the sense of delight­ed sur­prise that its design­ers may have had when he or she first designed it, and that’s where the pecu­liar resources of lan­guage can come in. 

With lan­guage we can focus in and enlarge and point and push all dis­trac­tions aside, and pull in metaphors if we’re in the mood, and we can talk of the objec­t’s, its pre­de­ces­sors, of its means of dis­tri­b­u­tions, of how its dis­played in the store, of its visu­al allu­sions. In this case its allu­sion to some­thing seg­ment­ed, like a tele­scope. Glass is just melt­ed grains of sand, but when we look at this tum­bler, we might think per­haps of Ptolemy and Copernicus look­ing up at the moon. Or per­haps not. Maybe we think of those lit­tle camp­ing glass­es made of nest­ing rings. We’re try­ing to use words to reassem­ble this objec­t’s pri­mor­dial sense of strangeness.

We’re writ­ers about objects and places, gar­dens, rooms, cloth­ing, hotel lob­bies, posters. We pack them in rap­ture in the paper or mold­ed card­board or sty­ro­foam pop­corn of our enthu­si­asm. We are the excel­sior that they come bun­dled in when we write about them. We are fun­da­men­tal­ly irrel­e­vant to the util­i­ty of the objects we describe, and yet we pro­ceed under the illu­sion that we’re nec­es­sary, that our encir­cling lit­er­al­ly lit­er­ary Harlem Shuffle of excite­ment is what makes the object see­able and graspable.

I’ve been think­ing about design my whole life, on and off with some dis­trac­tions, and the rea­son I start­ed so young is because I was lucky enough to be the child of two design­ers and design enthu­si­asts. My moth­er, Ann Whitall Nicholson came from a Quaker fam­i­ly in Moorestown, New Jersey, out­side of Philadelphia. 

They owned a glass­mak­ing com­pa­ny, the Whitall Tatum Glassworks, which had a fac­to­ry in New Jersey. They made glass bot­tles and paper­weights, and they made these nice green-tinted objects called insu­la­tors. The insu­la­tors went on top of tele­phone poles to shield points of junc­ture in pow­er lines. There were a lot of tele­phone poles that need­ed glass, so they sold a lot of them. Sometimes there were pur­ple insu­la­tors. I must’ve inher­it­ed some of the Whitall Tatum joy in glass, because I loved jars when I was lit­tle. My moth­er would take me to the A&P super­mar­ket and she would by Medaglia D’oro olive oil, and Hellmann’s may­on­naise, and Skippy peanut but­ter from the shelf with all the Skippy jars. These are plas­tic, of course. This is the new era.

But the Medaglia D’oro is still glass and I thought that the shapes of each of these jars was per­fect for what it had to do. The Hellmann’s had that kind of turn in that said use a big knife and slather it on the bread. There’s more when you reach around in it and angle your knife in. The peanut but­ter was just the right safe. And espe­cial­ly, there was this beau­ti­ful thing in the glass Skippy peanut but­ter jars. They had mold­ed this handy set of 14, 12, 34 mea­sur­ing lines so that you could reuse the glass. I loved those lines and I loved them so much I tried to put them in an nov­el lat­er, unsuc­cess­ful­ly. If I’d been a pho­to­re­al­ist painter, I would’ve tried to paint the num­bers as they focused the light and the shad­ow on the inner sur­face of the peanut but­ter. But I was­n’t a pho­to­re­al­ist painter.

However, at the A&P super­mar­ket, every week there was a pho­to­re­al­ist mas­ter­work for sale, and my moth­er bought it vol­ume by vol­ume for me. It was the Golden Book Encyclopedia. On the cov­er of each vol­ume was a still life with trompe l’oeil objects arranged seem­ing­ly at ran­dom. Here’s A: aard­vark, Aristotle, amphib­ian, apple. They were very on the nose when they start­ed, but then they got more subtle.

Here’s anoth­er vol­ume I real­ly loved. I loved it because of the burlap. A painter decid­ed that it was worth his time to paint all of that burlap. Hudson to Korea” so he’s got insects in there, he’s got Japan, he’s got ice­bergs. But he’s got burlap behind the whole thing. I loved that.

Shadows of the olives on Book 11, and the paint, and they start­ed doing things that would hang down, con­nect­ed by string to things. Here’s some­thing hanging. 

And just recent­ly when I was think­ing about the Golden Book Encyclopedia because it was so impor­tant to me, I looked and I found that there are the cov­er artists, cred­it­ed. So often, the things that are real­ly impor­tant to us, we don’t know who actu­al­ly did them. I mean, who is the author of this stuff? Ned Seidler, Ken Davies, Don Moss, illustrators. 


And I think this, I can safe­ly say as a would-be art crit­ic, is a cov­er paint­ed by Donald Moss. And I know this because if you look at this guy with his scientific…see the sort of glass­ware there? This is one of his oth­er illus­tra­tions for a sci­ence mag­a­zine. Same glassware.

He then got a job at Sports Illustrated paint­ing golfers, and he just died a few years ago. I nev­er got a chance to talk to him.


Here’s anoth­er guy, Ken Davies. Ken is still alive, and I talked to him day before yes­ter­day, and he has paint­ed he loves Punch and Judy. I’m not crazy about Punch and Judy myself, but he also paint­ed this great pota­to, hang­ing. And the per­pet­u­al motion machine. I think that’s by him. Here’s some of his lat­er trompe l’oeil work.

And here’s my favorite Golden Book Encyclopedia cov­er. That is a clay man right there, paint­ed by a painter, and I think it’s paint­ed by Ned Seidler, who lat­er paint­ed stamps for the US Postal Service.

This is what [inaudi­ble] me out. This sand, this desire to catch the dif­fi­cul­ties that the clay artist had with clay, he’s catch­ing in paint. 

My moth­er gave me draw­ing lessons with my sis­ter, and she taught at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, and she taught us to look at seed pods and the under­side of mush­rooms and at peo­ples’ eyes and mouths and at wrin­kled fab­ric and at trees. One of her art lessons that real­ly helped me was she said to draw a pil­low. And then she said, Now draw the inside of the pil­low.” I remem­ber try­ing to force my pen­cil to ren­der the mys­tic feath­ered dark­ness of the pil­low’s inte­ri­or, which I failed to do but I loved it. 

This talk I’m giv­ing you is about my par­ents because with­out them you can’t do any­thing. My par­ents had grown up in a sort of arty fam­i­ly. Her grand­fa­ther was an ama­teur pho­tog­ra­ph­er. This is his self-portrait using a glass plate neg­a­tive. And here’s a pic­ture he took of the Whitall Tatum glass fac­to­ry in New Jersey. Here’s a shot he took of some Quaker rel­a­tives. There’s this guy star­ing for­ward, pre­tend­ing to read the pub­lic ledger, and the woman on the left has a Quaker bon­net on. That’s what Quaker bon­nets looked like. 

And my moth­er’s father was sort of in revolt against this Quaker-iness that he felt in Moorestown. He was on the same street as all these stiff Quaker rel­a­tives, and so he became an art crit­ic and he wrote schol­ar­ly stud­ies of [?] and Donatello when he lived in Florence being kind of an expa­tri­ate. He stud­ied with Bernard Berenson and they hung out at I Tatti for a while, and here they were when they were sort of typ­i­cal American expa­tri­ates. My grand­fa­ther, grand­moth­er, my moth­er, and her broth­er, out­side of Florence, kind of soak­ing it all up and reject­ing America.

But my grand­moth­er was not a Quaker. She was from the South and she wrote essays for Vogue mag­a­zine. She loved Chanel suits and Chippendale fur­ni­ture, and she loved arrang­ing couch­es and couch pil­lows in rooms. Once when she came to vis­it us, she hid the couch pil­lows that my moth­er had made because they were too mod­ern. My moth­er dis­cov­ered them stuffed into a cup­board when my grand­moth­er had left. Often, the first thing she would do when she arrived was say, Now, Ann, if you’ll just help me lift this couch we can just pull it over here,” and she would arrange the room the way she thought was bet­ter. She hired a pho­tog­ra­ph­er to take this offi­cial pic­ture of her din­ing room in Moorestown, New Jersey when she’d got­ten it the way she want­ed it.

Later in Bermuda, after her hus­band died, she set about con­struct­ing a gar­den fit for an Italian vil­la out of a dis­used clay ten­nis court that was near the gar­den­er’s cot­tage that she rent­ed from the rich woman near­by who owned the big depart­ment store in Bermuda, Trimingham’s. Here is her for­ay into Italian vil­la gar­den design on a clay ten­nis court:

I loved it because there were these huge spi­ders that would hang on enor­mous webs between the flower pots, and there were lit­tle crabs that would creep out from holes along the side and scur­ry around in the garden.

My moth­er’s broth­er, Alfred Jr. (we called him Uncle Nick) became an artist. He did some por­trai­ture. This is his por­trait of my grand­fa­ther. But most­ly he paint­ed trees. He loved the land­scapes of Claude and Pouissin and Turner. And going through a muse­um with Uncle Nick was an odd expe­ri­ence. He had these sort of gut­tur­al reac­tions, sort of an Ohhhhh, my God,” when he would see some­thing he loved. Sort of a laugh, a moan, I don’t know what it was. But oth­er paint­ings he would look at them and just wince and turn away imme­di­ate­ly, he hat­ed them so much. But most­ly he just paint­ed trees. Big, upreach­ing boughs lost in a myopic mist. He could­n’t get enough of them.

My moth­er loved trees too, and she still does. I remem­ber her look­ing out the win­dow and say­ing how beau­ti­ful the wet black tree trunks were in the rain. I frankly did­n’t see it then, because I was a kid and I liked sun­ny days. But now I under­stand. Trees are very old and yet they’re always doing some­thing dif­fer­ent. They always have a new design. They always have some­thing new to say.

My moth­er spent a year at the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, and then she stud­ied art his­to­ry at Bryn Mawr College for a year or two, and then she trans­ferred to Parsons School of Design here in New York City, and she took a class in fash­ion illus­tra­tion. There was a fash­ion illus­tra­tor who was very big then, a man named Marcel Vertès, who was a Hungarian. His loose, effort­less, sketchy line was used and imi­tat­ed in ads for dress­es for Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s that appeared every day in the New York Times and every week in The New Yorker. He was one of my moth­er’s heroes, and here’s one of her fash­ion illus­tra­tions for fash­ion class, try­ing to get that same sketchy, loose line.

Another class she took at Parsons was called Flat Design, where you learned how to design fab­ric and wall­pa­per. It was taught by a woman who was her­self a fab­ric design­er, whose designs were print­ed by a New York com­pa­ny called Greeff Fabrics. And my moth­er got a job for Greeff design­ing these things called col­or­ways for fab­rics, which meant as I under­stand it the var­i­ous col­or com­bi­na­tions that might go with a cer­tain black and white piece of art that she was assigned to colorize. 

So for instance, here she was assigned this design, these golfers, and she was assigned to pick the col­ors. The design was called For Men Only” and it was, I guess, meant to hang in some golf club­house or some­thing. Here’s a kid’s design that she made the col­or­way for, and here’s anoth­er design. You got­ta have lutes in life. Here’s a col­or­way that she designed, and you can see anoth­er col­or­way right at the top, anoth­er alter­na­tive thing in the swatch.

But before she got a job at Greeff, which she quit in 1956 when she was preg­nant with me, she’d met my father, Douglas Baker. He was one of three sons, and here let me play for you one of the most influ­en­tial expe­ri­ences of my ear­ly youth.

That was just such a great show. Actually, the only good thing about it was the title design. But these [diquest­ing?] designs con­nect­ed in my head with all sorts of sketch­es in my favorite book of art, which was The Best Cartoons from Punch, which con­tained the art of a great illus­tra­tor, Rowland Emmett.

Here’s one of Rowland Emmett’s draw­ings, a guy on a walk in the coun­try, and as he walks he paints the inter­mit­tent white line of the road. Love those shoes; same shoes as in My Three Sons. And then there’s this har­vest­ing machine. He lat­er did, I think, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and oth­er things for Disney, but this was the real Rowland Emmett. Harvesting the straw and mak­ing straw hats out of it, and the guys are say­ing, There’s some­thing def­i­nite­ly wrong with that machine.”

There was anoth­er draw­ing towards the end of Best Cartoons from Punch by Lawrence Siggs. (These are all British guys.) An artist in his gar­ret paint­ing No Admittance,” No Sweets,” No Cigarettes,” and he says, I paint what I see, child.” I did­n’t know that it was a ref­er­ence to Manet, or to EB White’s poem about Diego Rivera I Paint What I See.” I just thought it was a very rea­son­able way to pro­ceed. If you see signs, paint them.

And that’s sort of what my father’s approach was. He grew up in the South with his two broth­ers and the son of a doc­tor who taught at med­ical school, who want­ed all three of them to become doc­tors and dis­sect dead peo­ple, and they did­n’t want to do that. One became a lawyer, one became a physi­cist, and my father became a graph­ic design­er. When he was 15, he got excit­ed about the art of the Ashcan School and George Luks. His fam­i­ly hap­pened to own a real­ly nicely-dented trash can, which he paint­ed, and it won Best In Show at the Alabama State Fair. And on the strength of his port­fo­lio, he got into Parsons. He sup­port­ed him­self by work­ing at a Pokerino par­lor on 42nd Street at night called Playland, where he dis­pensed change to Pokerino addicts from a lit­tle thing at his waist, and he would have to say, Poker with balls instead of cards, folks. You can’t win if you don’t play.” And the next day in art his­to­ry class at Parsons, when all the stu­dents would file out after see­ing slides of Italian Rennaissance mas­ters, my father would be sit­ting in his chair fast asleep, catch­ing up after a late night at the Pokerino parlor. 

My father was also a hand­stander, and he could bal­ance three stacked alu­minum chairs on his chin. He lat­er col­lect­ed chairs. Hunzinger chairs, Thonets, Stickley fur­ni­ture, chairs he found on the side of the road that he would glue togeth­er. I watched the Elmer’s glue squish out from the seams and dry to trans­paren­cy, and he’d rub them with steel wool and stuff them with horse­hair when they need­ed it. One day at Parsons he told some of his friends that he could walk on his hands all the way down the hall­way, and that’s when my moth­er real­ly took note of him. This young man who fell asleep in art his­to­ry class and knew how to iden­ti­fy type­faces at a glance was walk­ing on his hands down the hall­way, with the change pour­ing from his pockets.

So that’s how my father and moth­er met. And while she was work­ing at Greeff Design and Fabric, my father got a job at the Erik Nitsche design stu­dio on 57th Street, work­ing on the imagery for General Dynamics, the com­pa­ny that made war planes and sub­marines and atom­ic pow­er. This is the 1956 General Dynamics annu­al report that Erik Nitsche designed. My father was one of two or three peo­ple who did paste-up and stuff like that.

He was a Swiss design­er who cre­at­ed a kind of cor­po­rate mod­ernism, and my father was there with his t‑square and his tri­an­gle in the Nitsche ate­lier. Here’s anoth­er thing he worked on for Nitsche, the Triga method of peace­ful atom­ic pow­er. There’s the fuel rods and he super­im­posed the cir­cles over it. He was part of that whole New York excite­ment in the 50s of ball-bearings in muse­ums, as in MoMA, and clean­ness and cor­po­rate logos and com­mer­cial art seen as art and Saul Bass Title designs.

Then in 1960 when I was two and a half, my father was offered a job in Rochester, and he began his career as a New York-style graph­ic design­er trans­plant­ed upstate. One of his ear­ly designs was a Genesee Beer point of pur­chase dis­play. I don’t have a pic­ture of it. I with I did. But it had a lit­tle elec­tric motor in the back and it would make the man’s arms move, and the man was just sort of danc­ing ecsta­t­i­cal­ly because he was on top of a whole stack of Genesee beer.

Another dis­play was of a man’s spi­ral eye­balls, and they were going behind a pair or Ray-Ban sun­glass­es, and he was see­ing new things because he was motor­ized and wear­ing Ray-Ban sunglasses. 

Then he start­ed mak­ing posters. One of his ear­li­est was the bring it for the Bryn Mawr Books sale, and he pulled some books off of our shelves, and he rearranged them slight­ly so that Lady Chatterley’s Lover was on top of Lionel Trilling’s Liberal Imagination, tied a string around them, took a pho­to­graph of the stack, devel­oped the film, enlarged it on his enlarg­er which was a big machine like a dad­dy lon­glegs that stared down on an image, and then he retouched the enlarge­ment, and sud­den­ly our very hum­drum books were out there. They were print­ed on legit­imiz­ing card­board, and every­body could see them, and they were not just the books from our shelves but books for every­body to look at. The poster won an award, so he made more. Here’s one for Handel’s Solomon.

He paint­ed the like­ness of Handel out of the staves of music. He loved lis­ten­ing to music while he worked; still does. Here’s anoth­er musi­cal treat­ment of a stave. But there’s one poster that I real­ly remem­ber well, because I was with him when he made it. I was 7 years old and we went into his office on a Sunday, and he set set out a big piece of white paper and inked his hand, and he squashed it down on the paper. I could­n’t under­stand what he was doing, but then he said, Would you like to try?” and I said sure, so he inked my hand and I squashed it on the paper, too. The result was this poster for Britten’s War Requiem.

He made a neg­a­tive of it and kind of fid­dled with it and paint­ed in this sort of stigmata/bleeding heart thing in the mid­dle. It’s a piece of music about the hor­ror and suf­fer­ing of war. Then he paint­ed in this regen­er­a­tive plant growth from the tips, and it was a remark­able thing to see happen. 

He also did some more nor­mal con­sumer adver­tis­ing. This is a pic­ture of me and my sis­ter pre­tend­ing to be astound­ed by some pop­corn from a brand new pop­corn pop­per. It was not a suc­cess­ful ad, I don’t think.

And he did logos. This was the great age of the cor­po­rate logo, so he did logos. Allied Circuit Techniques, a com­pa­ny that does­n’t exist any­more. E. E. Fairchild, a Rochester com­pa­ny that made board games. A con­struc­tion com­pa­ny that made con­crete blocks, Domine Builders. He made the logo for Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. And when we got mar­ried, my wife and I, he made the logo for our wedding.

It was inter­est­ing to watch him make these logos. He usu­al­ly did it overnight. He stayed up all night and he had a big pad of tis­sue paper, and he would draw the logo flu­id­ly first and then refine it and kind of get it sharp­er and sharp­er until he got it to a cer­tain point. Then he would send that image to a stat house to make the very faith­ful repro­duc­tion and then out would come say, Planned Parenthood of Rochester, or the Rochester Museum & Science Center. Schumann Gallery was anoth­er one of his logos. He came home from the Schumann Gallery one day in the ear­ly 60s, and he said (he always whis­tled when he got home), Annie, you won’t believe what I’ve got, and you won’t believe how much it cost.” 

He had bought this thing, this music stand. It’s a music stand by Wendell Castle, who was a Rochester fur­ni­ture mak­er. It was made of white oak but it had some sort of fan­cy wood like mahogany or zebra­wood on the spines. He set it down and he said, Doug, you to take it back.” Apparently it either cost $150 or $300; accounts dif­fer. But it was way more mon­ey than we had, and my father did­n’t take it back. It’s in my sis­ter’s liv­ing room now. It’s worth $10,000. Amazing. But we were real­ly thrilled to have this music stand in the end, although we could­n’t afford it. 

Photo: Dwell

Photo: Dwell

My par­ents decid­ed that they would com­mis­sion some­thing big­ger. My father had seen sketch­es of a table that hung from the ceil­ing, a table with­out legs, at the Schumann Gallery, and he decid­ed that we should have this table in our din­ing room. So Wendell Castle made this table. A sort of crazy torus that came angling down on these curved things and it would fan out like some sort of jun­gle plant. There it was with no legs, but there were these chairs around it. Where the chair had one leg, the table no legs. It was real­ly an amaz­ing thing. 

He arrived with these guys with the table in four pieces and he screwed it to the ceil­ing beams with these eight-inch lag bolts and I was just tremen­dous­ly excit­ed. I was 9 years old and I did my home­work at this table, but I had to have lay­ers of paper under­neath so I would­n’t make lit­tle marks in the oak. But I used to walk around the table just drag­ging my fin­gers around, singing this kind of song of smooth­ness. When my sis­ter had her birth­day, she got to sit in the mid­dle of the table. And we had this excit­ing fact that the New York Times came and took the for­mal pho­to and we thought was had real­ly arrived, you know. 

So we thought we’ll com­mis­sion some­thing else. There was this guy named Albert Paley who was an iron­work­er. This was his most famous work. He did the Renwick Gallery gates. He messed with met­al as if it was some kind of plant. My moth­er com­mis­sioned him to make a planter that would hold a rab­bit’s foot fern. This is sort of what it looked like. I don’t have a pic­ture of it, but it was bolt­ed to the ceil­ing again again. We liked things bolt­ed to the ceil­ing, I guess. We put a rab­bit’s foot fern and it thrived. It was a big, bushy rab­bit’s foot fern with all sorts of ten­drils and viny. 

And I thought, the house is com­plete. Molding is done, the fur­ni­ture is all glued and repaired, the Wendell Castle table is hang­ing, and the Paley thing is in the liv­ing room, and the rab­bit’s foot fern is healthy. And it last­ed for a short time, then our house was too dry. We did­n’t water the rab­bit fern enough, and my par­ents were argu­ing about mon­ey. The rab­bit foot fern died and became this sort of shriv­eled mass of dead plant mate­r­i­al. It was horrible. 

And there was anoth­er casu­al­ty, which is that the Wendell Castle table start­ed to dry up. We put tanks of water on the radi­a­tors, we installed a humid­i­fi­er, but white oak is a very hygro­scop­ic mate­r­i­al. It soaks up water in the sum­mer and it releas­es it in the win­ter, and the stress­es were too much for it. One morn­ing I woke up and I heard this kind of pop, pop, pop. I went down­stairs, and there were these gaps, these sort of cracks in the table. And there was a quarter-inch gap in the fan-like open­ing parts. Wendell Castle came in and fixed that, put a shim in and glued it and sand­ed it and made it bet­ter. Then a year lat­er, more pop­ping, ter­ri­ble popping. 

And I real­ized (and I was­n’t the only one; Wendell real­ized) that the table was self-destructing. It could­n’t han­dle what he as an artist want­ed from it. His team sad­ly arrived and took the whole thing down. We said good­bye to it. That was it. The Wendell Castle table was no more.

Jean Tinguely Homage to New York” 1960 at YouTube

You know, it’s like those pho­tographs that my father showed me in an art book of Jean Tinguely’s Homage to New York.” He built a big crazy machine that. It self-destructed. It took half an hour, and it began saw­ing itself apart. And there was a piano in it. It set the piano itself on fire some­how, and it just self-destructed and that was its artis­tic moment. It was a moment of self-destruction, an explosion. 

The Wendell Castle table’s artis­tic moment was to be part of our small domes­tic exis­tence in Rochester for sev­er­al years with Wendell Castle’s sig­na­ture carved into an inside sur­face, and then it decide to break itself down. We said good­bye to it, it was unbolt­ed from the ceil­ing, we nev­er saw it again. My par­ents sep­a­rat­ed even­tu­al­ly, and my moth­er sold the Al Paley planter to a collector. 

Out of the ongo­ing mess of our life, out of all the change that lives inevitably bring when chil­dren grow up and fam­i­lies sep­a­rate and form new fam­i­lies and new chil­dren grow up, I’m left with a sort of remem­bered design of hap­pi­ness. Of hav­ing had the good for­tune to be alive in a world of arranged liv­ing rooms and may­on­naise jars and the insides of pil­lows and glass insu­la­tors and har­vest­ing machines that make straw hats and danc­ing men on beer cas­es and hang­ing oak tables and logos for com­pa­nies that no longer exist. 

No design is per­ma­nent, even when it’s made of wrought iron, even when it’s print­ed on thick card­board. All designs live and exist in a world of styl­is­tic evo­lu­tion and reimag­in­ing and phys­i­cal decay and sup­plant­i­ng nov­el­ty. We do our best to wrap sheets of paper around these mem­o­ries and shel­ter them, but the glass tum­blers we buy go out on a kitchen shelf and some­times the tum­blers tum­ble and break. That’s life. 

Thank you.