Wednesday, December 31, 2008

What I'm Up To

Research wall from Camp Boomer, a three-term research project on Baby Boomers entering retirement, by Laura Dye and Heather Emerson, back when they were my students.

I'm two-thirds through with my MSID in design research at Art Center, and I feel the need to take stock of where I am. I've been teaching design research to product design students at Art Center since 1991, but since my journey down the path of getting this additional degree I have been traveling over some interesting ground. Here's an update.

My goal is to be able to teach product design students how to do credible and effective qualitative design research. Most product designers are at first focused on the methods, like we would be on any set of tools. Give me the tools, and I'll use 'em. I think this comes from how we learn the design process. It is a standard sequence—investigation, problem definition, ideation, concept generation, concept refinement, final design specification. We learn it by doing it, over and over. We expect that any problem can be solved by the application of this process, and for the most part this is true.

The investigation stage, however, has its own set of tools (methods), borrowed from science, psychology, anthropology, etc., and there is no standard set that applies to all situations. It is important to know not only the methods that are out there, but also the rationale behind their application. And nobody has a complete list. For example, Brenda Laurel’s Design Research cites 36; the Design and Emotion Society’s Methods and Tools web site describes 57 (not all research—some of those are analysis); and IDEO outlines 36 research and 15 analysis tools in their Method Cards. After reviewing these and other sources and allowing for duplication, I have found 52 distinct techniques for research and 18 for analysis (and I've only begun to compile a list of those).

Many design firms' initial experience with research is via the hiring of a specialist. They observe the process that that person uses for a particular investigation and assume that that is "the process," (it's as if they think that, like design itself, design research has a universal process applicable to all situations). Some offices then polish up that process, giving it a catchy name and graphic veneer, and add it to the list of their firm's capabilities as a branded form of research, much like they began to offer engineering capability in the 80s. It's a way of making their firms more marketable. In the competitive environment of today's consulting offices, this is understandable and necessary.

The problem is that the research approach should differ depending on the issues under investigation. Good research takes into consideration the entire palette of methods available and chooses the right set to uncover the necessary knowledge in each situation. It's vitally important, then, to understand the rationale behind each choice.

And above all it is important that designers understand that qualitative research is not merely a kit of tools, it is an approach. At its heart is an immutable demand: to understand and have empathy with the point of view of all customers and stakeholders in a situation. In order to gain this understanding one must make smart decisions about which methodologies to employ. [I use the term methodology to mean the tool, or method, plus the rationale behind using it.]

So my goal is twofold: first, to acquaint my students with at least a basic set of methods, and second, to enable them to understand why, and in which situations, a particular one would be effective.

I continue to teach my course the way I've done it since 1991: using the time-honored project-based learning we're accustomed to—learning by doing. The students engage in fourteen weeks of field research and analysis (in some cases, more than one term's worth, as in Laura Dye and Heather Emerson's Camp Boomer project, above), culminating in a research presentation. They choose the topic and I advise them on approaches that would be effective. The problem with this is that the students, like the consulting firms I describe earlier, often come away from the experience thinking that there is one way to do research.

To remedy this I have added a theoretical component that teaches the wider range of methods and their accompanying rationales. A survey of the methods is followed by learning the principles behind their application via the case study method. The cases are written specifically to teach design research, and each case centers on important axioms. Much like the case study method pioneered by the Harvard Business School, the cases provide opportunities for students to engage in discussions centered on the decision process involved. Instead of discussions about management theory, the cases I am writing focus on the decisions necessary for planning research activities. A range of cases allow students to act out the planning process—and choose approaches—for research that would apply to a variety of design problems.

So far, I've got that long list of methods and am working on descriptions of each of them (broken down into: a brief description, an example, the objective, the procedure, the rationale, advantages and limitations, and citations of references where one could go for more examples, papers by those who have used the approach, etc).

I've got a few simple cases that I have used to teach basic axioms, and am working on some larger ones with research specialists from a couple of well-known firms. Both are excited about my doing this work, and although it's a tall order to flesh these out, it will be worth it.

While I started out like many product designers, focusing on finding "the right kit of tools," I have come to realize that the so-called tools are only a means to an end. What really matters is how smart you are at analyzing what you get from using them, and figuring out what it means.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

This Is Brilliant

You can accuse me of living under a rock because I haven't seen one of these before, but this is absolutely brilliant. I just bought a new contact grill and take a look at the plug on the cord set. For all of you designers out there who bemoan the "stupidity" of consumers, how they won't follow directions, bla bla bla, take note of this simple design solution. 

The problem is as old as electric products themselves. People grab the cord rather than the plug to unplug an appliance, eventually ruining the cord. 

The conventional solution: warn people not to do this. Put it in the instruction manual. Get irritated at them and call them stupid for ignoring this warning.

The brilliant solution: Breville's designers designed the plug with a convenient hole to hook a finger into. Yes, I know there are plugs with flanges that provide good affordances for pulling. My Dyson has one of these:

Sure, either of these affordances could be ignored, but the shape of the Breville plug, top, invites us to use it in the way the designers intend. It's a message from the designer: "Here's something helpful. I'm thinking of you."

Moral of the story. Design things to accommodate what your customer actually does, rather than what you think they should do. Give, in a spirit of generosity. Remember Eva Zeisel and her message to us: Design is a gift across time from the one who made it to the one who receives it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Stroller Theory, Revisited

Well, so much for my Unified Stroller Theory (previous post). Like I tell my students, Strauss and Howe's pronouncements about generational types don't account for individual variations.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Stroller Theory

I was talking to my colleague Steve Montgomery today about my Unified Stroller Theory (it's not really unified, but I think theories sound better if called that, don't you?). The theory goes like this: I think the generational demographics outlined in Strauss and Howe's Generations: A History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069 and expanded on in The Fourth Turning—that is, that societal attitudes about children and the degree of nurturance they receive have swung from casual to protective—are reflected in baby stroller design from the 60s to today.

In the late 60s-early 70s, you saw minimal strollers like the first Maclaren, above—no protection for the kid, all about convenience for the parent--because that generation of parents had a casual attitude toward parenting. Entitled beneficiaries of the post-WWII economic boom, this generation of parents carried childhood self-centeredness into adulthood. They seemed to view their lives and goals as central, with kids added. The kids were pretty much part of whatever the parents were doing. I can remember one of my young college professors who had a small child. Like many young adults at the time who were busy "finding themselves," she continued her work as a painter and teacher, and didn't skip a beat—the kid went wherever she did. I remember seeing her one day, forging her way across a busy city street, thrusting that baby carriage out in front of her as she raced across, mid-block. I can still picture that red Maclaren B-01 in my mind's eye.

Even the jogging stroller (especially the jogging stroller) fits the theory. The inventor, journalist and jogger Phil Baechler, wanted to spend more time with his son, but instead of dropping everything to do that, he built a stroller that allowed him to bring the boy along with what he would be doing anyway. No judgement here on the quality of parenting—just observing that in these examples, the kid is included in the parent's life, rather than the parent's life being solely centered on the child. What I see today is a less easy-going and casual, and more intensely focused, style.

The 60s and 70s saw the rise in dual-income couples, the resulting phenomenon of latchkey kids, and the generation we have come to call Gen X—one that has gotten a very bad rap from the rest of us (much of the time undeserved, I might add). As these children grew up into risk-taking young people with a live-fast, die-young worldview, the indictment of them by society was severe. Portrayals of children in movies like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen reveal uneasiness, or at best, ambivalence. The worsening trend of lack of nurture continued until we became fed up with what we perceived as the "slacker" generation that resulted. 

These days, we see a complete turnaround. Movies like Home Alone portray the kinds of kids we want to raise today—smart, resourceful, and assertive. 

In the 90s, many of our kids began to go to school in uniforms. Education became a top political priority (in the 70s it was something that we lost focus on). Strollers began to be bulky, protective, and padded—the SUVs of the sidewalk—telegraphing the message that kids are precious cargo.

Most recently, kids are the focus of increasingly intense nurturing attention, and strollers have risen to cult objects that now telegraph this amped-up emotion. Considering our growing uncertainty in the face of perilous times, it's not surprising that our protectiveness is on steroids. The same obsession that goes toward Vuitton bags is now spent on outfitting our child with the latest. With a product like the Orbit, you are not buying a stroller, you are buying a system. We're even seeing a reprise of the old-fashioned pram (nostalgia is the last refuge of those enduring turbulent times). 

Friday, September 19, 2008

I. Can't. WAIT!

I don't know why it's taken us so long to begin to talk about getting high speed rail into California, but it's well past time. It's a no-brainer, especially now with the post-9/11 airport security measures making door-to-door between Los Angeles and San Francisco a tossup between taking a plane and driving there.... The route between Sacramento and San Diego has been approved, the environmental studies have been given the go-ahead, and it's now up to to voters to vote on a bond measure on the November ballot. Let's hope that the voters have the sense to say yes. Check out the web site. There are some wonderful quicktime animations. If you download them, they come up as full-screen movies. The station view, above, is particularly nice at that size.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Cranbrook / IIT Smackdown, II

A pair of slides from yesterday's presentation by Cranbrook's Scott Klinker and IIT's Jeremy Alexis. Above, IIT aims to root out inefficiencies in process, while Cranbrook asks, "But what will it look and feel like?

Above, radical craft: genetic code-generated silverware. At this point in the presentation, the discussion turned toward what we might call digital baroque.

I found the presentation compelling, with both sides—IIT's down-to-earth approach and Cranbrook's "things with attitude"—represented well. The result confirmed what I've believed all along: it's not either / or, and we can stop the name-calling. There is a valid place for both.

Cranbrook / IIT Smackdown

This morning, Cranbrook's Scott Klinker (above, wrapped in Eames' Design Q & A diagram) and IIT's Jeremy Alexis revisited a debate between the institutions' dueling ideologies that had occurred between Michael McCoy and Chuck Owen some years ago in ID Magazine. Very thought provoking. Fuel for many upcoming discussions, to be sure, with my students. A few aspects of the debate:

things with attitude : strategies that transform organizations
exploring personal voice : improving organizational performance
cultural innovation : business innovation
patrons : clients
social value : value to the organization

I know this is cryptic, but it's late. More later.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Mobility Vision Integration Process Workshop

Today at Polar Opposites Geoff Wardle presented the Mobility Vision Integration Process, a method developed by Lloyd Walker, Geoff, Andy Ogden, Heidrun Mumper-Drum and David Muyers at Art Center. It's a way to run futures scenarios brainstorming workshops using a set of cards that they have developed. This video was shot at Art Center's Sustainability Summit this past Spring, where the mVIP cards were rolled out for the first time. In it, Lloyd Walker describes the mVIP process and you can see how we used the cards.

In today's workshop, a team looks over the "hand" of cards they've been dealt that describes the future world. The team gets an understanding of this world for a few minutes and considers the implications of the scenario. 

Left to right: Ron Pierce in the black shirt, Peter Treadway, standing, and Mark Dziersk, at far right. My apologies to the other two designers! I've forgotten who you are!

Next, four cards are dealt that describe the enterprise the team works for, the enterprise's axiom, the customer, and a constraint. The team considers all cards and brainstorms design solutions that address the circumstances set out in the cards.

Finally, one member of the team (in this case, Los Angeles designer Max Beach) presents the design solution to the rest of the teams.

We always have a good time running this workshop. It's a break from the tedium of PowerPoint, and provides a great networking opportunity. When we ran it this Spring, we broke the entire conference out into groups. It was great.

I talked to a number of educators who wanted to check out the cards as a brainstorming and team-building tool for their students.

Be sure to check out the Flash demo we have on line. You can deal yourself (or your students) a "hand," print it out on a letter-sized sheet (using the button at the top right), and have a hard-copy for reference during the exercise. You can deal yourself a random hand or you can select the cards.

Check it out—try it with your team, your firm, or your students, and let us know what you think!

Top o the Morning

Toasting the morning sun with the only liquid that makes sense in the desert—water—in my new Kor hydration vessel, courtesy of the folks at Eastman. They had presented the Kor story at Art Center a few months ago and told an abridged version here at Polar Opposites Thursday morning. We run materials-based explorations in our Color, Materials, and Trends Exploration Lab (CMTEL), and are scheming up a plan to do one with Eastman soon. More later... I've got to meet Geoff Wardle (whom you saw flying a screaming monkey in the previous post) to help him run a workshop later today with a tool we've developed in Grad ID that enables anyone to run a futures scenario workshop, the deck of mVIP cards. More about that later, too.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Screaming Flying Monkeys at Polar Opposites

You had to be there. I'll get serious later, but for now, enjoy the screaming flying monkeys, brought to you by the folks at P&G Design.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Something to Consider

Two slides from Erica Eden's slide show this morning give us something to consider. Erica is a senior designer at Smart Design and one of their FemmeDen, an in-house group of women designers dedicated, as they say "to drawing connections between social, cultural, and economic changes in design to satisfy the unmet needs of women consumers."

If women have 80% of the buying power in this country, yet 85% of industrial designers are men, well, that might explain a few things about the world we find ourselves in.

Eden shared a session this morning with Marti Barletta of TrendSight Group, who specializes in marketing to women. A dynamic, wickedly funny speaker. No surprises in much of her talk for the women designers in the audience, but were the men I saw "multitasking" with their phones at least to some extent tuned in? Hope so. 

Some take-aways:

Men (and she's working with averages here, recognizing that there is a continuum) organize by prioritizing, while women organize with an aim toward maximizing. Men focus on a few top-priority criteria in deciding, for example, what jeans to buy, while for women the buying decision is a process of discovery, finding multiple options that fit the initial criteria, adding new criteria, weighing options and working toward a perfect answer. Men buy the first pair of jeans that fit the top criteria; women will look at all factors, coming eventually to the deciding factor that clinches the deal.

Designing for women is like universal design—if you design for women, you amplify the benefits for male customers as well. Key factors to keep in mind:

The Basics
  • designs must be easy to handle
  • easy to use single-handedly (consider the McLaren stroller's single-handed 5-second fold and you'll know what we're talking about)
  • easy to store; efficient use of space
  • easy to clean (machine-washable stroller liners, for example)
  • easy to understand (not because they're dumb, but maybe because women don't have the time to mess around? I'm just sayin'... Barletta said that women aren't busy, they are time starved. Indeed.)
  • pay attention to aesthetics. They spend time and money designing their living room in Craftsman Style, or Country French, or whatever, and you tell them that they've got to put a big black box of electronics in the middle of it?
  • appeal to the senses. For four of the five senses, women have more acuity, and for the fifth, sight, it's not that men have better sight, they have better depth and distance vision, while women have better peripheral vision.
  • offer "two-fers" two-for-one. Sunscreen and foundation. That kind of thing.
  • make it green. All other factors being equal, 57% of women will choose the environmentally-responsible product.
  • connect with people. Products that help people connect (Wii, for example, which allows people to play together) are big successes with women consumers.
Well there you have it. Go out there and get busy, people!

IDSA Polar Opposites Conference, Phoenix

I will be posting from the IDSA National Conference, Polar Opposites, in Phoenix for the next few days. More to come. In the meantime, enjoy the view from my hotel balcony at the Arizona Biltmore, the location of the conference. Oh pool boy.... peel me a grape, would you?

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Have Laser Cutter, Will Build House, Part 2

At Art Center, we've been discussing building student housing for years now. Here's an interesting proposition. It's a wild thought, and one which goes against my (and Art Center's) view that the acres of wild hills that we own around our Ellwood Building should remain untouched, but imagine these little houses perched on that landscape! 

That last link, by the way, is to a photograph on, a site by German petrochemical engineer Martin Schall, who, to date, has shot 2,360 photographs of Los Angeles over who knows how many vacation visits over the years. An amazing body of work showing a somewhat scary level of devotion to our fair city. There's a story there, I'm sure. Maybe one day I'll find it out.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Have Laser Cutter, Will Build House

Massachusetts Institute of Technology School of Architecture and Planning / Associate Professor Lawrence Sass and his students designed snap-together laser-cut parts to build a New Orleans shotgun house. Part of the Home Delivery show at the Museum of Modern Art: small houses created with computer-aided design and fabrication. Makes you wonder what they've been doing (how they're spending our money and their time) at FEMA.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Slow Thinking and the Pursuit of Empty-Headedness

In this GoogleTalk, UW Information School Professor David Levy speaks about how our culture is accelerating so fast that there is no time for creative, contemplative thought. Levy describes this as "slow thought"--the type of thinking that requires quieting down the mind to allow inspiration to arise out of the subconscious. I was reminded of my student days when my department chair, Noel Mayo, had an expert (one of the faculty, Winnie Winston*) teach us how to meditate. I wound up using it then (especially when working against a deadline) and I use it still, though not as consistently as I should, I have to confess.

Along with Vannevar Bush, whom he credits with the invention of the idea of hypertext and the web (in 1945, no less), Levy references Josef Pieper, author of Leisure: The Basis of Culture, who wrote about the need for contemplative thought in 1963. I think designers have no problem understanding the need for this sort of thinking, as we experience it (when we're lucky) in our creative process.

We might ask ourselves, however, if creative thought is as important as we say it is, are we allowing the place, space, quietude, and sanctuary to allow true creative reflection and engagement? Are we doing enough to move beyond having it happen "when we're lucky," to having it happen when we want it to?

As educators we might ask, Do we respect this, or just give lip service to the need for it, in the typical student project timeline?

* Winnie Winston deserves a post to himself. Stay tuned. An industrial designer (Royal Typewriters, Creative Playthings) and ID educator, but also an expert banjo and pedal steel guitar player featured on a number of top bluegrass albums (he was one of Bill Monroe's many "bluegrass boys" and is known by any pedal steel player who started playing from the mid-70s on as "the guy who wrote The Book"). He was also an internationally-known expert on homeopathy. 

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Objects of Affection, Part 6

This is the last part of "Objects of Affection," a short piece I wrote about my first meeting with Eva Zeisel. I hope you have enjoyed it.

Jeannie came up the stairs. “Mr. Swan is lonely.” She reminded us that the driver is still waiting in the kitchen. We had reached the limit of his patience.  When we came down to leave, he knew that something of great importance had happened. He asked us for our names, so that he could tell his wife where he’d been and who he’d met. We each wrote down who we were, each protesting that the other was more of a luminary. I put an end to the gentle contest. When Eva wrote down her name, I said to Mr. Swan, “Do you see this tableware?” taking in the overloaded shelves of the kitchen with a sweep of my hand, “This woman designed all of these things.” He looked more closely at Eva, and looked at the stacks of dishes. That settled it, in his eyes. He put the paper with our names on it in his pocket.

Sara was my tour guide to Twentieth Century culture on the ride back to the conference. She interpreted the significance of everything we had seen. Turning to me in the darkness of Mr. Swan’s immaculate car, she said, “I suppose you know that this means we are meant to become friends, you and I. This sort of experience does not just happen.” God’s finger.

Coming back to the conference where just hours ago, things of utmost importance were being discussed, nothing seemed as crucial as before. In the treehouse, Eva Zeisel had leaned forward and said, “We are makers of things, not thinkers of thoughts.” Making things, talking with wise people, using the tools my father used, surrounding myself with affectionate objects - these are of life-shaping importance. 

The designed object is a vessel of communication, from the one making it to the one holding it. The message can be thoughtless, or it can be infused with meaning that speaks across time. This is my first lesson from a master of the wordless, magic language of design.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Objects of Affection, Part 5

I walked over to the shelf and picked up the Halls refrigerator pitcher ...

When you see a painting in an art book and then see it on the gallery wall, it is transformed. It comes alive. Time falls away, and you see the canvas fresh from the hand of the painter. The image bypasses the intellect and shoots straight to the instinct, speaking from the painter’s heart to the viewer’s, a one-on-one conversation in the wordless language of the soul. 

A great work has the power to stop me in my tracks. But nothing prepared me for the electricity of holding that form in my hands. You can’t tell in the photograph that it starts out a rounded square at the base and tapers into a trapezoid, squeezed not by geometry but by the shape of the hands which hold it. The fluid curves are made to be held. The sides give inward to form a place to grip and pour. The spout pulls slightly downward in a petulant lip. The lid sits softly on top, following the undulating line of the pitcher’s upper edge like a well-rehearsed tango partner. You don’t see these things in a photograph.

We sit, encircled by a life’s work. Sara against a backdrop of iridescent glazes, Eva with a vase beyond, glowing dull and luminous in the darkness. The quiet voices of the master-women...and the quiet voices of the objects shaped by the gesture of dancing hands. Created as gifts to the world. I sit, absorbing a steady radiation of love.

I had described in a letter to Eva my idea of "objects of affection." She talks about these now, referring to them as "affectionate objects." I try to correct her until I realize the meaning revealed by the transposition of those words. My objects of affection are things that I take pleasure in. Passive things. Eva’s affectionate objects speak actively. As I sit in that room listening to Eva and Sara talk, I am struck with an overwhelming, palpable affection from every thing surrounding us. That forms can be created which speak so eloquently – I never knew. The experience of it sinks home to me the active power that an object can project, if it is from the hand of a master of expression. We sit, surrounded by the quiet, lively chatter.

to be continued ...

Objects of Affection, Part 4

... continuing where we left off—Sara Little Turnbull and I are sitting down to tea with Eva Zeisel:

Eva will not let us help. She carries in a table to hold a tray of food. Tomatoes, a couple of cheeses, boats of French endive, mayonnaise. A late-night feast. The light from the lamp shines through the translucent yellow-green of the lettuce. Everything put in place. When she is ready to sit down, Eva stops at my side and says with a quick sigh of accomplishment, “Now. Let me look at you.” She holds my eyes for a long moment. I let her. I am in safe company. I have never seen eyes like hers – completely brown, but with a narrow border of blue at the outside of the iris. Her daughter Jeannie joins us. She has the same eyes. 

Sara and Eva talked about people they have known over the years. Their friends were, to me, the protagonists of art history. I had moments of desperation that I wasn’t grasping what was being said. That things of utter monumental importance were sliding by without sticking, and then I remembered. Relax. I absorbed the conversation through my pores. My soul has heard and has remembered. The message is in my bones, and will speak when I sit down at my work table to create my next humble offering to the universe.

I drink in the things on the tea table. I had poured over the pictures, but the pieces themselves are alive. I had no idea that a shape could be so vocal. Teapot, pitchers, cups, bowls, saucers - nothing out of tune, no line that is not absolutely of the master’s hand. 

“There is no way to hold this that is not graceful,” Sara remarks, holding the bowl of cherry tomatoes towards us with a smile. There is a moment that I can not pass without picking up the pitcher of milk, holding it at eye level, burning the image into my retina, and putting it back. Eva watches me do this. We are designers. She understands.

We climb to Eva’s “treehouse,” her studio at the top of the stairs. We pass through the workshop, trade opinions on power saws. She shows us photos of current projects. Climb another flight to the top. To the room of affectionate objects. 

The treehouse is a sanctuary that displays all the pieces that Eva has designed on lighted shelves. I spot the refrigerator pitcher she did for Hall kitchenware in 1954. My good sense leaves me and I blurt out, “I would kill for one of those!” She smiles at me like an indulgent grandmother and says with kindness, “You may touch it.” 

to be continued...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Objects of Affection, Part 3

Part three of my story of meeting Eva Zeisel...

Albert Swan, owner and sole driver of Albert Swan’s Limousine Service, owns a spotlessly kept, gold-colored car. He was the carriage driver on our magical journey through the wooded drives of Rockland County. Off we rode into the dark countryside, as Sara talked about Eva Zeisel’s impact on the design world.

We found the address in the darkness of a winding road, turned into a short drive and pulled up behind a stable of Volvo station wagons. Eva came out of the house to meet us, standing on the flagstones paving the tree-shadowed entry. Gurus eventually become human, this one a woman with white hair and kindness in her eyes,  waiting to greet us. We asked Mr. Swan to wait, and we went to meet her. 

She has the grace and manner of an earlier time, another continent. Old world. I remind myself that the Europeans defined Western hospitality. The house is one of those old, northeastern country houses. Originally very small, and added to over the years, an assembly of rooms following rooms. Settling with great age, the furniture settling with it, standing in place longer than several lifetimes. We pass through the hallway into a sitting room. There are two very small upholstered chairs, armless with heart-shaped backs and flowered covers. Little Miss Muffet chairs. There are two larger wingbacked chairs. I choose one of those; Sara puts her tiny form on one of the tuffets. Each has a chair that fits perfectly. 

There are low bookcases along one wall. A lamp stands on one and reminds me that Eva is a designer who is not afraid of ornament. The lamp base swells into a curving volume, white porcelain covered with a repeating design of small gold medallions. In front of us is a low round table filled with teapot, cups, saucers, plates and bowls. All her designs. I can not pull my eyes away from it.

To be continued...

photo: Hallcraft Century in a sublime yellow pattern, photographed at the Mingei Museum, San Diego. For designers like me, raised in the Modernist tradition, the thought of applied decoration gives us pause. Not in this case. The total effect of this display was breathtaking.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Objects of Affection, Part 2

photo courtesy of  Eva Zeisel

Continued from yesterday's story, picking up where I left off: looking at Eva Zeisel's work in the book in the library.

I came away changed to the core. Would it be possible to have this designer come and talk to my students? How do you get in touch with a guru? I dialed Manhattan directory assistance. 

The voice on the answering machine was right - the right age, the right accent. The tone was genteel, encouraging. I offered a message to the electronic ear: would Eva Zeisel like to come to Los Angeles to talk to some design students? Two weeks later she called me back. The genteel voice with the European accent said yes, she would come.

Eva Zeisel spoke to me across the timelines of the Twentieth Century, across the boundaries of inhibition, across the limitations of the ego. Designer to designer, speaking the same language. Teacher to student. I wanted my students to have the experience I was having, to learn at the knee of the master. There were many months of preparation. Schedules to be coodinated. Everything must be perfect. A date was set; travel arrangements were made. 

A few months later, I was at a conference in New York. I tried to get in touch with Eva, who lived nearby. I finally got through, but it was late on the last day – and I was leaving the next morning. We agreed that I must come over right then and have tea. I told her I had met a friend of hers, Sara Little Turnbull, the Director of the Process of Change Laboratory at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Eva said, “Bring her along.” She ended the conversation with, “You know, I think that our meeting like this, it has God’s finger in it.”

Sara is another luminary. She had a line of people waiting to talk to her at all times during the conference. But an invitation like this is not an everyday thing. I interrupted her at dinner. I apologized to her companion and whispered in Sara’s ear, “Do you want to go to Eva Zeisel’s house for tea?” She looked up with wide eyes and said, “Now?” I said yes. She rose from the table, saying to her dinner partner, “I hope you understand, but something has come up which I must do.” She walked out of the restaurant, down the corridor and to the front portico of the conference center, and stood poised on the curb like a figure on the foredeck of a seagoing ship. She stood there like that until the car came to take us away.

There are people who stand, killing time. Sara stood, running through the camera of her mind: what she felt when she thought of Eva’s work. Her magnificent ability to question the rules of the world. The designer who refused to use the term “Good Design.” When questioned about the subject at a Museum of Modern Art symposium, she replied, “Love is a very personal matter.” The next day it was headline news in the New York Times: “Eva Zeisel Says Love Is a Personal Matter.” A designer who challenged convention. 

Eva at her one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art, 1946, a few months after MoMA's exhibition of the furniture of Charles and Ray Eames.

To be continued...

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Objects of Affection, Part 1

The past few days I've been emailing back and forth with my new colleague, Julka Almquist, who will be teaching a new course in design ethnography at Art Center. I find we are both Eva Zeisel fans. I was reminded of a piece I wrote back in 1996 for presentation at the IDSA National Education Conference. It describes, in a very personal way, my first meeting with Eva and the impact this meeting had on me. I met her in the early 90s, at the start of a renaissance of interest in her work. Today, of course, she's the talk of every design magazine and newspaper. It was a night to remember, as I was not alone—with me came Sara Little Turnbull, another giant figure in design. I will post the piece that I wrote about our meeting—Objects of Affection—in several episodes over the next few days. I hope you enjoy it.

Once upon a time in a library, I found a book which changed my life. It is called Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry. I like the sound of that. Inside, there’s a photo of Eva, suitcase in hand, just arrived at a small midwestern train stop, setting off across a field towards a factory in the distance. The Designer for Industry, come to do her job. 

The front cover shows a nested group of serving dishes, the shapes splashing outward in a corona of liquid white. The curving edges of the platters unfold upward, tapering and thinning as they stretch toward the gripping-places, inviting the touch of a hand. 

I paged through the book to find shapes I had known all my life: the salt and pepper shakers nestling together like mother and child; glassware remembered from a thousand neighborhood dinner tables. Table furnishings from my childhood, looked at with my designer’s eyes. I had no idea shapes could be like this.

Eva Zeisel worked and lived through the flash points of the modern movement. A journeyman-potter with a studio in her parent’s garden in 1925 Vienna, when young women from well-to-do families didn’t do such things. A studio in Berlin in the 30s, when the design world was being set afire, and Berlin was the place to be. Art Director of the china and glass industry for the Russian Republic in 1935, when Russia was an exciting but dangerous place to be. Falsely accused of plotting to kill Stalin, imprisoned and interrogated for months and then miraculously released. She escaped from Austria the day Hitler invaded. She eventually settled in New York, set up a studio and taught at Pratt for many years.

Throughout this explosion of living, Eva created many, many designs of tableware for manufacturers here, in Europe and Japan. At the height of her popularity from the 40s to the 60s, thousands of her designs were selling successfully all over the world. I studied the photographs in the catalogue. The shapes full of life, expressive. Astonishing. The curves seemed to extend beyond expectation in a multi-lingual vocabulary of expression from one pattern to the next – here friendly and informal, there sophisticated and crisp, elegant and fluid. I was looking at the work of a master.

To be continued...

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Michael Wesch Explains Everything

Michael Wesch, who is the Kansas State professor of anthropology who created the well-known video, "A Vision of Students Today," gave a talk recently at the Library of Congress. It's an anthropologist's take on the phenomenon of YouTube and Web 2.0, and what it means for rethinking, as he says, our conception of copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, aesthetics, rhetoric, governance, privacy, commerce, love, family, and ourselves.

It's long (55 minutes), but excellent. Bless his heart, he has provided an index, so you can cut to the chase, but the entire thing is "the chase," so I suggest you watch the entire thing. Wesch, an academic who would have, in the old days, been happy to reach 200 people with his message, has a world-wide audience. The very idea that a professor of anthropology has become a star via self-publishing on the internet is testimony to what he and his students are studying. 


Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Art of the Car Display

Los Angeles is the original car-centric culture, and we have brought the art of the car display to a highly refined level. Above is an early example, at the house of movie star Frederick March's Bel Air mansion (found on, a wonderful repository of post cards, matchbook covers, and other SoCal ephemera). Perhaps it is this convergence of auto culture and Hollywood culture that created the phenomenon. Touring the well-manicured homes of the stars, might Angelinos have longed to create a display of their own?

I still have a small treasure of a book, Charles Jenks's "Daydream Houses of Los Angeles," in which he tours LA residential neighborhoods and waxes acidic with pithy captions like, "Debbie Reynolds Egyptoid with Topiary Petrol Pumps and Car Display." Love it.
Here is a north-of-San-Vicente version. Less is more (less is a bore?).
Not to be confused with cars (in this case, trucks) parked ON the lawn. Every neighborhood has one of these households....

But you don't have to be rich to engage in the art, especially if you can get your neighbor to collaborate by paving over the yard between the houses. Muscle cars like caterpillars in their pupae, waiting (but for ample amounts of money and elbow grease) to be reborn.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Art That Makes You Think

I ran across this quote on John Massengale's blog (New Urbanist architect). He's commenting on the waterfall art installation in NYC.

He says, "Art like this is supposed to make you 'think.' I don't think it makes you think anything worth thinking. I wish art schools would go back to teaching the transcendent power of beauty."

Heads up: teaching the transcendent power of beauty, in fact, has migrated to industrial design. It did this midway through the twentieth century. Case in point: Eva Zeisel.

Eva was the first to teach an industrial design approach (design for mass production) for tableware at Pratt in the late 30s. Here she is, above left, with some of her students' work. She arranged for them to design products for the Bay Ridge pottery in New Jersey. The dish on the right is from her "Classic Century" pattern—a combination of two of her most popular designs, "Tomorrow's Classic" and "Century"—now sold by Crate and Barrel.

When she visited Art Center in the 90s, Eva took a tour of our gallery. On the wall in the fine art side was, if I remember, a large crucifix made of what looked like scrap wood. There was also a structure the size of a small hut, built of the same sort of wood. Zeisel is an opinionated woman. She stopped dead in her tracks and demanded an explanation. I told her that I didn't think I had one. I could only observe that it seemed to me that creating something that was accessible, something that an average viewer would find beautiful, was now forbidden in fine art.

Zeisel stood near a display of orange juice squeezers. They were designed by early-term industrial design students in beautiful, curvilinear shapes and vibrant colors. She wondered why it was that here [with a wave of her hand taking in the ID side of the gallery] where there are so many limitations—constraints of technology, function, user need and business realities—was where the beauty lay, and not there [in the fine art gallery] where there were no constraints.

As she has said to me more than once, "That's a very good question!"

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Origins of Kawaii

I have figured out why the Japanese are masters of "Kawaii," or cuteness. Their cats have bigger eyes than ours do. Case in point, above. This is one of Junku's cats, made famous on his hit Flickr set, "Airborne Cats." To quote the photographer, "Junku's five daughters, Rika, Hime, Fuwari, Kin, and Nana jump gracefully, feverishly, and lovably. Their dancing surely makes you feel happy." If you haven't checked this amazing set of photos out, please do. It's time. This Flickr set does indeed, as they say, "make laugh and surprise to the world." And yes, there is a book.

Friday, July 11, 2008

An Ethnographic Interview Primer

Getting People to Talk: An Ethnography & Interviewing Primer from Gabe & Kristy on Vimeo.

The Illinois Institute of Technology's Gabe Biller and Kristy Scovel have created a nice introductory video on how to conduct an ethnographic interview. It features Dori Tunstall, who teaches a course called Design Ethnography at the University of Illinois Chicago and Colleen Murray of Jump Associates, along with a host of IIT folks. It's a job well done and well worth watching.