Monday, 31 January 2011

Spatial problem-solving

Recently I took a book out from my library, 'Twentieth Century Furniture' (which happened to be previously owned by my art teacher), so you've no doubt it's inspired me a great deal. Thus, I've decided to dedicate a post to early international modernism, a variant of the modernist style from before 1940.

Pre-war modernism began with two main schools of thought: De Stijl, a loose-knit group of Dutch designers and artists (including Mondrian and Rietveld), and Bauhaus, a school in Germany occupied by some of the greats of modernism, including Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. Together, these two styles of design brought about the early modernist revolution, turning their Dutch and German middle fingers up to the commoner styles of art deco and early modernism such as Wright and Mackintosh.

Everyone knows Bauhaus as the function-before-form lot, but in fact their counterparts at De Stijl had a very different way of doing things. Rietveld, one of the key designers of the group, wanted to focus on 'solving spatial problems' - in other worlds, creating 3D objects that satisfy the eye to the greatest degree, finding perfect formations and perfect shapes in perfect places. For De Stijl, this was all about manipulating lines and geometric shapes (nearly always rectangles) to create common forms, and compositions that were both stable and aesthetically pleasing.

From the book, Rietveld gave this quote: "A practical realisation [of the De Stijl design ethic] was not always feasible. Function for me was a thing by itself which I never overlooked, it is true, but it did not come into play until the construction and spatial exercises in De Stijl had been completed". This, for me, is incredibly interesting - here we have one of the founding fathers of modernism actively ignoring functionalism until the last moment in the design process! What for? To follow a set of rules that De Stijl was based on. I'm by no means criticising this process - I like it, but I feel that function has to come into play a little earlier than it did with, say, the 'Zig-Zag' chair by Rietveld:

If we take the De Stijl standards to simply apply to art and sculpture, then we can let Rietveld off for this one - he was not purposefully creating a functional element, merely satisfy spatial problems with a seat and a backrest. Fair enough; but the more purist designers would argue that all design must include some sort of functionality and ergonomics. Mondrian was more than welcome to go nuts with the right angles in his artwork, but if Rietveld's creating De Stijl furniture and actively including it in interiors (such as the Schröder House in Utrecht), he should have considered function a bit more, in my opinion. It may be just about acceptable for his Red and Blue chair:

In the Red and Blue chair, it is important to note that, until Mondrian set the primary colour palette of De Stijl with his abstract paintings, Rietveld had designed the chair to be unpainted, so it would probably blend in more with an interor. It is only with its bold colour scheme that the Red and Blue chair individualised itself as something other than a functional piece of furniture, much as all Rietveld's designs' bold forms and colours set them apart from objects that would otherwise be used a lot. Perhaps it is important that the objects show themselves as being artistic and sculptural, to prevent any misunderstanding of them being ergonomic objects. Even still, the only Rietveld-accurate Red and Blue chairs (Cassina sell a replica version) exist in MoMA, the Vitra Archives and the now-museum Schröder House, so we can no longer interact with the chair. That way we don't have to worry about the functionality, but at some point in the past, someone had to, and that's one of Rietveld's flaws.

This lack of care for functionality may be a result of De Stijl's historical setting - it's still in the earlier 20th Century, so perhaps the form-before-function motif is related to the styles of Victorian and pre-Victorian era design, which had been so dominant in previous centuries. Back then, everything was form before function: people treated furniture as a chance to express grandeur and elegance in their houses, which were similarly styled - that's why function always took a back seat. The theory I'm presenting is that De Stijl, only in the 1920s don't forget, still held this ethic of elaborate form before considering function - function simply didn't figure into the designer's mind until they'd made the aesthetics look as good as possible so they show the owner's wealth and grandiose style.

Later on, Rietveld commented of the Red and Blue chair that it "was made to the end of showing that a thing of beauty, a spatial object, could be made of nothing but straight, machined materials". Putting his continued use of the ever-artistic term 'spatial object' (as if he's sculpting in a 3D plane, much as we do nowadays in CAD and CGI) aside, this shows you that his chair was, perhaps, just a chance to create a Victorian-era chair (complete with elaborations and form-before-function) with the modern straight lines and forms. It's a transitional design state, an important style to be studied, but it's still pre-Bauhaus and we must acknowledge that.

But, otherwise, function must take a bigger role. Elsewhere, Rietveld openly compared himself and his style to Bauhaus: "The Bauhaus approach was very different in that it attempted to develop form on the basis of a clear definition of function." - though Bauhaus designs' starting points were the bare functions; backrest, seats, tabletops, etc - Rietveld's designs were more fluid in their function, and must have depended on what shape the final solution to the 'spatial problem' happened to be. As evidenced by the aforementioned Zig-Zag chair, which has been used primarily as a dining chair but could really be any sort of chair. "Having a strong sense of relativity," Rietveld continues, "I did not think that function as a point of departure was a sound approach. Function was an accidental, casual need that would change with the time and indeed always changes in the course of time." This is a drastically different way of thinking from the down-to-Earth Germans at Bauhaus, a little further east. In fact, most of the Bauhaus designers would have scorned Rietveld for such a non-functionalist view, it's crazy to think he sits alongside them in 'Bauhaus designers' websites - if this post proves anything, it's that Rietveld and De Stijl and clearly not part of Bauhaus, merely a precursor to the Germans.

Suffice to say, I think we should classify De Stijl as pre-modernism, or early transitional modernism. 'Transitional' is an important word to use in relation to those Dutch designers and artists, because not only did they blend traditional and modernist ways of designing, but they blended art and design, creating boxy sculptures we can live in or sit on. Not only were chairs to be adorned with artistic details, but they were now stripped of details and treated as 'spatial objects', sculptures solving 'spatial problems' and finding perfect forms, then throwing in function as a 'casual need'. Though I don't necessarily see this process as creating the best design, I still love the Red and Blue chair and Rietveld's designs are certainly not to be forgotten. Not all modernism was functionalist.


Thursday, 27 January 2011

Yet another reason why my cats hate me

Recently, I've been up to no good doing meagre psychology experiments on my family. Nothing important, nothing recordable, just a little bit of fun that I found weirdly interesting. Oh - and to your inevitable questions - no, it's not something I do often, yes, it's not the usual thing to do, and perhaps, only if you ask me first.

Experiment 1: Which way?

It's no formal experiment, I warn in advance. It consists of this: there's a doorframe between my kitchen and little utility room thing in my house, and my cats often run through it to escape the claws of my cat-hugging, -kissing, -dressing up and generally -tormenting sisters. Remember those moments when you're unnecessarily picked up, swooshed around like a centrifuge, then have a Tesco bag wrapped ungainly around your waist? No? Well, my cats do. All too well.

So, with humans there are those moments when you're walking past someone, then they get out of the way, then you get out of the way to the same side, and then you do the same on the other side, then there's that awkward feeling (which Luke informs me must be accompanied by some sort of tortoise) that usual results in romance in films but in normal life leads you to become embarrassed. Embarrassed because you're being a dick in the street or wherever, and because the person faffing around with you in such follies is not Cameron Diaz and the faffing around will not end in a light-hearted relationship, with true love and Ashton Kutcher somewhere in between.

My plan was to do this on my cats, in that doorway I was telling you about a few paragraphs back. And it's fun to see how they interact and react with that: my thick cat took ten side-switches before he realised this wasn't getting anywhere and that he'd probably be better off somewhere else. Ten switches! Ten! I told you he was thick, didn't I? Funny little bugger, though.

The other cat of mine was not so easy to trick. He's clever. Or rather, clever in relation to the thick one. Which isn't saying much - just that he possesses more than three independent brain cells. As a result of being so vastly clever and being some kind of feline genius, he sees fit to treat us all like shit and act like a total jerk. If he were a human, he'd be one of those guys who's grumpy, but not funnily so like Jack Dee or (occasionally) yours truly, grumpy like that old guy on the bus who kept shooting you condemnatory stares and who no one likes. The person who constantly revisits the thought "I hate my life because all the people in it are idiots" for that much-needed ego boost every lonely Friday night. That's my cat. He shoots you this cat-stare (different from human stares, might I add) that is the epitome of hatred and disgust. Like us humans are below him. Anywho, he took three side-switches before he backtracked a bit and sat down to wait for me to move.

See the big difference between thick and clever cats? It's amazing how even cats have the brains for such problem-solving. They think in much the same way as us, working out where they need to go, how they're going to get there, and moving to a different place to solve the problem of me being in the way. And it's not just that; their brains don't just allow them to keep changing sides forever - they have the intelligence to see that a problem will keep persisting, so find another way round. It's amazing how similar yet more simplified the minds of cats are. Incredibly simplified in the case of the thick one.

Experiment 2: Got milk?

Taking the whole 'experimenting with my family' schpiel to a whole new level, here's my second experiment. Not with my cats, but with my family - that's right, people. Can I just get two things clear here, before I explain:

1. This experiment has no meaning or psycho-analysis explanation
2. This experiment was basically just an effort to see if I could get my family confused over something.

So it's not amazing. Here's what I did: in my family we use semi-skimmed and non-skimmed milk cartons from the God of retail that is Tesco. Or, as we call it, 'the green milk' and 'the blue milk' - judging by the caps, for we don't read/look at the labels. Simple, huh? Yeah, but what if I swap round those instantly recognisable coloured milk bottletops? Well, firstly, I've changed a vital part of breakfast routine! But did anyone notice? Not consciously, it seemed. My sister did once remark that 'the blue milk tastes different', so I guess I've succeeded in some way. Also, I tricked myself directly after swapping the caps for a second time, haha. Try it sometime, it's a quick but interesting experiment, even if it doesn't give many results, let alone analysable ones. Because there's nothing like a good psychological experiment when you're among family. Or, in other words,



Monday, 24 January 2011

It's all Dutch to me.

I built. Hahahahahahahaha, I can't believe I can actually say that. For two reasons: a) I haven't built in ages, been feeling really shit about it, and b) I built this post-apoc diorama a few weeks ago, so maybe I didn't build. Maybe I just photographed. Either way, I feel like I'm getting back into my swing, into my building mood. Plus I have a kickass post coming atcha sometime soon about Janteloven, complete with moody Lego scene to compliment/exaggerate the words. Or maybe just to make skim-reading it a lot more enjoyable.

OK, before we get started, here's a couple of links so you can quit asking me the Flickr page or whatevs:
Flickr set link
Brickshelf Gallery

This particular MOC is a big mixture of a bunch of smaller project, which is why it can seem a bit messy, and there's the issue of whether it should be post-apoc at all, or whether I should just put away my little plastic guns and be peaceful for once. The first thing I built was the car:

The original intentions were to make a true-to-life representation of the Soccer-Mom-mobile, the AMC Eagle (see below). It's full of curves, bulky bits, sitting high on its tyres, and features whopping great fenders. So I decided to start from the most recognisable part of the car: the radiator grille. I made that fine - sure, the grille tiles fall out, but they look great, right - and it was all downhill from there. Steeply downhill. I made what I thought was a decent version of the AMC Eagle, then realised it didn't have any wheels (that's what all that bother at the end of my 365 project was about), so I cut into the back and chucked some wheels on a small axle there, then tore out the sides and put some front wheels in. The result? This heap o' junk. Not recognisable as an AMC Eagle any more. Which is why I didn't title it so in the Flickr pic - I felt it was an insult to AMC and to the LUGnuts challenge to pass this off as something it looks nothing like. I still like it. Not as an AMC Eagle, but I like it. It's chunky, it's rickety, and it's a tasteful shade of brown, some sort of family car. For 80s, small-family soccer moms. That kind of thing.

My inspiration pic for the car.
I didn't get the Eagle done by the end of the month, so I decided I'd include it in a dio and just say 'screw you' to the LUGnuts challenge, I diverged from that aeons ago. Next up for my big and [inevitably] ambitious project was a tug boat.

Back when I was on a school trip in Portsmouth, before the summer holidays last year, we came across a little quay, and in it were a bunch of blue-hulled tug boats, with tyres round the edge. I loved them, for some reason. I really did - they were so dirty, so functional, so perfect for post-apoc. For a few months I held the romantic notion I'd eventually make one (I snapped a few source shots when I was there), put it next to a stained wood warehouse and make it a little travelling drug dealer's hideout, featuring sausage guy. But then, when I came up with the idea for a post-apoc canal lock, I told those ideas to go do something nasty to themselves and decided to make the tug for that instead.

My main source pic for the tug
So, after some finickety angled plates, I created the hull, chucked some wooden panelling on top to form a petite deck, and set about fucking up the white cockpit frame. Yeah, it's a total mess. And not even totally white, which sucks harder. "put them vertically," said my subconscious at several key times during the tug's build, "it'll be much easier and not so sucky looking." But did I listen? Nuh-uh, I made an angled thing to look more realistic. And it sucks. But anywho, enough about that. Here's the final thing:

The hull is, admittedly, very bulky. But it's OK, because I never intended to show the entire boat until the photo-taking session itself, when I couldn't resist my shutter-happy finger. It's 'submerged' below the water. Fair enough.

So I had my boat, bulky and rough. And I had my car, looking nothing like an AMC Eagle. But who cares, it's Post-Apoc - it's meant to be messy, and since it's fictional, I could've included a flying Velociraptor and it would've fitted in some strange, surrealist way. On that thought, I realise I really should have done that. Dang. Ah well, next time.

Just like the boat and the car, the canal lock itself needed a source picture. I have no idea when and where and how the idea for a canal lock came from, all I can show you is the source photo I used for most of the mechanisms and layout involved. The lockhouse building itself was something I spied once on an unsurprisingly boring episode of Location location location, with Phil and Katie getting on swell. Also, she seems to be constantly pregnant throughout most series of the show - anyone else noticed this? Probably not, because the kind of interesting, cynical and world-weary people who notice details like that don't watch boring-ass shows like Location location location. But, one day, I did. And I saw this white wooden-panelled lockhouse somewhere in Essex or Sussex or Worcester. One of those counties that isn't Kent or anything I vaguely recognise as being urban.

So here's my source photo, thanks to Wikipedia:

This photo shows a canal lock somewhere in the Netherlands, a place called Noordoostpolder - a name I later worked out to be a combo of 'noord', 'oost' and 'polder' - in other words, north-east polder. So that's the reason for the lengthy title of the creation. Sorted. Obviously I didn't include two lockhouses as in the photo, because I'm not a maniac, and - as much as I'd've liked to - I didn't include that dark green pipe construction on the grounds of sanity. I think I created a good enough reproduction of the canal lock:

Maybe it's a little blocky, a little chibi, but I'm proud of it. And my biggest MOC to date, too. Building it took place over two whole days, during which I listened to Kate Nash's album 'My best friend is you' almost exclusively. As a result I now know all the words to the foul-mouthed 'Mansion Song', and can sing along to a decent percentage of all the other songs. A great album, a great singer. That ginger fellow by the car is included, I believe, as some sort of subconscious nod of thanks to Kate Nash for the awesome music.

Well, there you have it folks. Winging its way down the blog tunnel to you soon will be a couple of posts, but you may have to hang around for the Janteloven one, that'll take some time. See y'all!


Monday, 17 January 2011

The Finnish Line

Well howdy hey guys, it's my first post after my 365 project. I finally got around to finding something to blog about, but you'll have to let me off for the wait because I've been super busy with school. Exams are a bitch, seriously. However, to brighten your monday evening and hopefully make good use of mine, I present to you, a post on Finnish design.

I always used to think Finnish design contained two key features: pale wooden planks, mostly uncut, and a sense of almost autistic simplicity in furniture design. Big bright white picnic tables and the Ball Chair by Aarnio. That was Finnish design to me. Eero Saarinen fitted in there somewhere, too, but I was never too sure about whether he was Finnish or American, and his collaborations with the Eameses seem too Eamesey to be Finnish. Then there was this other guy, Aalto. Or was there? He was just one of those Finnish designers who had a similar name to Aarnio (Ball Chair guy, keep remembering that), plus his Wikipedia page only shows a buttload of info and a very stern image of him on a stamp.

Which is why I was surprised when I saw some of his designs in a design book at school today and thought to myself "hey, that stuff's pretty nice". Then I looked at it again, and thought "hey, that stuff's wonderful. Check out the lines, the shapes, the simplicity..." and here's a post to satisfy my new love for Aalto (he's still nowhere near the badassery of Jacobsen, don't worry 'bout that).

So here he is, the cheerful fella. I can't find a picture of him when he was young, so I guess he was just permanently wrinkly throughout his life. And with a permanent look of mixed despair and disgust at everyone else's work on his face. If you're ever unnecessarily happy (not that it's natural for you to find that a bad thing), just stare at his face for a while and it'll drain you of all your joy. He's like some Finnish Dementor, or Demäääänttör as they'd call it.

Recognise these little dudes? Yup, they're the FROSTA stools that have been popping up in IKEA stores for years. I'm not sure whether IKEA have the rights to it or whether FROSTA is just a shameful copy of Aalto's stool, but whatevs. OK, it's simply. Minimalist, even. So simple you think maybe he was being frustratingly constrictive in his design. But that's the beauty of it; he's kept his design so simple that this stool becomes a universal design. It's a stool here, but I've seen it used elsewhere as a little side-table. It becomes part of the background, an unobtrusive addition to the room. It even comes in a version with a coloured top (seat or tabletop? You decide!) to give a little colour accent to what might otherwise be a bland Finnish interior design. Pale wood is the best!

Next up is one of my faves from Aalto (the stool of his is a little too simple for me, I can't help but be reminded of those characterless mass-produced IKEA stools), a teacart (Fn: teewagen) coming atcha from early modernism 1936. 1936, think about that. That's incredibly early for such a simple of minimalism. The undecorated disc wheels and simple bend wood frame, combined with a pale wood and white colour scheme, make this the epitome of Aalto's style for me. I just love the void of indulgence, of flair and of unnecessary details here. It's not my ethic of 'aesthetic flexibility', Aalto wasn't thinking about users adapting and personalising the teacart to their own style, he was thinking about creating something that worked, but that wasn't distracting. Because it didn't need to be distracting for him, it was simply a teacart. What was the point in decoration, in indulgence? Why show the axle on the wheel when you could just paint over a big wooden disc and it'd still be practical? 

Aalto once said, "we should work for simple, undecorated things, but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street". See, he's not thinking about minimalism as a purpose for his design, but he wants design to fit in, to work with its surroundings and with its users, and the best way to do this is to keep it free of bold stylistic details that could sway a user's judgement. There's no chance for judgement here, unless you have an aversion to plain, neutral white faces and bentwood. I'm not sure what he means by "the little man in the street", maybe he just means that design should be suited to anyone and everyone, further solidifying my point about universal design and aesthetics, whilst the function itself is specific. It's such a shame teacarts are out of fashion at the moment, maybe one day in the future we can again enjoy using such wonderful design without feeling like you're hosting some sort of stuffy 1940s dinner party with the Hamiltons from No. 63.

Aalto was a trendsetter. And, very importantly, I'll never get him confused with Aarnio again - Aalto is so much more than Aarnio, Aalto is minimalism, functionalism, universal design available and attractive to all, reduction of stylistic details, and - still - pale wood. He's not just that grumpy guy on the Finnish stamp.