Saturday, March 15, 2014

Monument Without a Hero

Not many people know that there is a Soviet monument standing in the middle of Manhattan. It has been there for over fifty years, still intact, even though two decades have passed since Soviet Union’s demise. The site of this sculpture represents a unique opportunity to be re-imagined for the proposed Cold War Victory Monument.

The bronze statue stands in the gardens of the United Nations. The monument is the work of Evgeniy Victorovich Vuchetich (1908-1974), a preeminent Soviet sculptor of Socialist Realism, a recipient of Lenin and Stalin Prizes. It was a gift from the USSR to then newly built UN Headquarters in New York. Presented in 1959 as a symbol of Russia’s peace-loving policies (three years before the Cuban missile crisis would nearly put the planet on the edge of nuclear war), the sculpture carries an allegorical meaning. Its title derives from the Bible quote (Isaiah 2:4) – “We Shall Beat Swords into Plowshares” – a surprising source for a gift from an atheist State. In spite of its emphatically peaceful message, the statue has a strangely threatening appearance. A violent action is emphasized over a promise of harmony. Indeed, the muscular figure seems ready to crush the viewer with his giant hammer.  

It is hard to find a better symbol of the Cold War than this monument.  All attributes of Cold War are present: its bombastic propaganda, its sinister double-speak, its masculine impact of brute strength. The worker’s menacing hammer, while not as destructive as a Kalashnikov, still proved to be a fitting tool for building the Berlin Wall, for setting military bases around the globe, and for pounding many nations into submission.

I propose to send the old worker home to Moscow (to the Park of the Fallen Monuments, now known as Museon), together with his menacing hammer. His never finished job ­– a half-beaten sword – will remain on the original pedestal.

This new incomplete/ruined memorial, a monument without a hero, thus becomes commemoration of victory in the Cold War. The victory is seen as subtraction, as removal of a failed historical alternative, – and as opening the stage for new actions.

Recently, there was a short-lived opportunity to implement my proposal in Moscow, on the site of Museon. In the absence of real bronze figure, I proposed to install a full-size wooden crate, complete with the destination (from: UN, New York to: Museon, Moscow), the description of goods (the statue “We Shall Beat Swords into Plowshares”), and the message (Cold War is Over). Once again, a monument without a hero. Yet here, the sculpture’s suggested presence creates a tension: this monument is displayed and hidden at the same time. 

Altogether, these entries confirm the new understanding of monumentality when it addresses complex historical phenomena, such as the Cold War. We don’t have the need for a new Stonehenge (in the words of Clive Dilnot). Instead, more subtle, transitory, almost immaterial gestures should convey the message to increasingly critical and skeptical public.

This project is one of the winners of the public competition for Cold War Monument. A presentation On Monumentality will take place on March 18, 7pm at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare St, NYC

Monday, February 3, 2014

Too Cute for Comfort

I visit the New York Gift Fair under slushy freezing rain that sweeps the plaza in front of the Javitz Center, but the unexpected warmth awaits inside. This year, cuteness is in. It greets you straight from the cover of the Fair catalogue: a bathroom set in the shape of a toy submarine (by Seletti). This must be Zeitgeist: think of a hundred thousand possible images competing for this choicest spot.

The tone, set by the little submarine, is carried on by many companies it their great many products ­–cheerful, gimmicky, colorful, and toy-like. Multi-colored plastic with glossy finish appears to be a material of choice.

Unless you consider these goods as a form of design escapism, there seems to be very little in the current American economy, politics, or culture to warrant this light–hearted attitude. In a way, this reminds me of Japan and its famous culture of cuteness (kawaii).

While kawaii originated in Japan as a particular style of handwriting in the 1970s, it reached widespread popularity a decade later with products and brands like Hello Kitty. The burst of the Japanese bubble in the 1990s only solidified the power of kawaii over the country’s culture. Soon it spread around the world. Numerous books are written about the phenomenon, but still little is understood about its now multi-generational appeal.

According to one Japanese online source:
"Cute can reach across gender and generation.  Cute makes people feel needed, makes them feel like they are taking care of something helpless."

And closer to my topic:
"Americans embrace cute because they embrace youth.  They associate getting old with its negative attributes such as becoming less attractive and perhaps becoming less relevant.  American cuteness, similar to Japanese cuteness, lets its followers feel young again."

I think I am going to check out the Hello Kitty aisle at our neighborhood pharmacy.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Ultimate D.I.Y.

The 1956 film A Man Escaped by French director Robert Bresson is beloved by great many film critics. The gripping tale of Lieutenant Fontaine’s daring escape from a Nazi prison is shot with an incredible economy of means, with unprofessional actors and a basic set, mostly limited to an interior of prison cell.

The very title of the movie dispenses with any plot suspense – we know that the man does escape at the end. Rather, the story concentrates on the process of how he did it. In minute detail, and with “zero degree” detachment, the protagonist describes and demonstrates how he made ropes out of blankets, hooks out of mattress springs, a chisel out of a spoon, and so on.

As I watched the movie, I kept thinking how the subject of this film would provide a great assignment for a design studio class. In such ultimate D.I.Y. exercise, not only all materials but also all work tools would have to be conceived and recovered from a setting as limited as the inside of a prison.

In best traditions of Slow Design, time and efficiency is not a factor here. It took Fontaine weeks just to loosen door boards, or to produce proper tools for doing his work.

(Incidentally, Fontaine is not the only prisoner plotting to escape. Another inmate tries it earlier; he is captured and condemned to death. Before execution, he manages to pass on some important design advice – proper length of ropes, the need for wall hooks, etc. Like in science, the man’s failure enables the next one to succeed. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.)

Presently we have entered the age of new 3-D printing technologies, which promise an instant creation of any given necessity, “magically” produced by uploading computer files into a printer. The lesson of Fontaine offers an opposite design alternative – slow working with immediate resources, responding to material and technological shortages with creativity and determination. It is important to continue teaching and practicing this alternative. 3-D printers will not be available in jail.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Evil Fish

by Laurene Leon Boym

You can't miss the vernacular signage if you tried – a primitive wood oval roughly cut in the shape of a fish. The crooked placard is painted taxicab yellow to be visible from the Wittenberg Road in Bearsville, New York, ten minutes from the center of Woodstock. Constantin and I had visited the cottage behind the big fish sign the previous summer, having taken the wrong turn on a back road to nearby Cooper Lake. Inside the front porch, there was the cutest old lady selling sumptuous smoked trout and salmon, plus jars of locally made honey from hives in her own backyard. Or, so she claimed.

We were immediately hooked on the subtle and smoky flavor of the fish. It was manna from heaven. Trout and salmon were harvested onsite by her son, Mo Boy, after raising them in huge tanks in the greenhouse out back, then the cute old lady was in charge of hot smoking the whole bodies with the skin and bones intact. There was nothing tastier at any fish purveyor in New York City. That summer, we returned several times to greedily get our fix. As the old lady told us, that Wednesday was her smoking morning, and the same fish was available for sale in the afternoon. Wednesdays for the rest of Summer 2013 was spent impatiently waiting for a reservation at our very own Momofuku Ko of artisanal fish smokers.

This year, we looked forward to seeing the old lady and buying the fish again from her. From our log cabin, it was a longer drive to her house than I remembered, but the crooked sign was still out front. We parked in the back. I noticed a half smoked joint in an ashtray on the balustrade of the patio and wondered if the old lady was hitting the medical marijuana while catching up on her daily tv soap operas?

Inside her front room, nothing had changed, except there were huge bowls of leftover Halloween candy from the previous October. To paraphrase a boilerplate Russian saying, snack sized Hershey's Dark and Mr. Goodbars don't go bad.  I made a beeline for the Mr. Goodbars in the glass bowl, my favorite combo of peanut and chocolate (!) and ordered up 3 whole trout with my mouth full of melting chocolate.

After weighing the fish on an old fashioned scale, the old lady offered up the brown-paper wrapped smoked trout. She theatrically outstretched her hand, like we had never met. "My name is Grazina, or Graziella in Italian. In Spanish, Gratiella. But Americans call me Grace. I'm pleased to meet you.” She had forgot meeting us the previous summer and I had no intention of correcting her. With her thin fingers shaking with arthritis, the elderly woman's head swerved toward a faded framed cover of Sports Illustrated on the wall over her right shoulder. A wry smile illuminated her sun-damaged lips.

Continuing, she gestured toward the familiar face with her wobbly index finger, " Do you know about my Nephew, Vitas Gerulaitis?" As a child of the seventies, I did indeed remember the sun-kissed playboy tennis player, the quarrelsome tabloid fixture playing the mirror image to Bjork Borg's asphalt Viking god. Tennis in the 1970's was hot, but I remained underwhelmed. I vaguely remembered meeting Gerulaitis in the early 1980's, as an over made-up fourteen year old art student at a party hosted at Studio 54. He was, bland, unremarkable. The tennis star appeared to be wasted on some substance. He was giggling and wiping his nose on the sleeve of a bespoke Brioni shirt.

Everybody was in the club for either drugs or sex, or both. The former tennis star and I were introduced by a Scandinavian airline pilot acquaintance who lost his left arm as a teenage daredevil in an air show. The pilot had a mild crush on me. I'm sure because it was my habit at the time, I tried to be charming and make polite conversation with the tennis star about a game I knew nothing about, had no interest in.

The elderly woman's voice broke into my memories, "When my nephew died, it killed my sister. She never recovered. We had to put her in a Lithuanian resort for the mentally fragile, thinking she'd be there only for a few weeks, but she died there eventually. She died with my nephew." Then and there I kept my mouth shut about almost having been pimped out to her nephew as an under-aged Lolita in an upper middle class coke den.

She swerved her tiny body around to face another photo on her gallery wall of a sepia-tinged 1940's looking brunette with sweet Eastern European fat padding her jaw. Unlike Grace, the woman in the picture is not smiling. "This is me, after the Second World War. I had this photo taken at a camp. It was not a concentration camp, it was a good camp. I made my own clothes for the picture" She paused and smiled. "We were special people. My father was very handsome and smart, he was the Chief of Police in Lithuania during the war.”

Was I hearing this correctly? She rattled on, and her lips moved, but I didn't hear anything. I was fucking disturbed. Was she bragging about her father being a Nazi collaborator? The dates matched up. Constantin paid for the fish and we left in a daze. For good measure, on our way out I grabbed the half smoked joint on the back porch and stuffed it in the pocket of my Levi cutoffs.

What was I supposed to do anyway - call the Simon Wiesenthal Center when I got back to my cabin? I actually did the next best thing, Googled the old lady’s nephew. Within 4 links and 15 minutes I had a Jewish Daily article from May 29th 1980. The head of Lithuanian police, now deceased, the man called “one of the five most important Nazi war criminals in the United States” was evidently living his life happily amongst the liberal hippie residents of Bearsville, NY. Camouflage was easy, all he needed to fit in was a peace sign bumper sticker on his pickup and a small herb garden.

Turns out, I was going to need the entire smoke.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Artist

In the Oscar-winning film The Artist, the main character, a silent movie star George Valentin, is caught in a particular predicament. His entire industry is changing from silent to sound pictures, and he is not ready nor willing to catch up.  The story follows his gradual fall from stardom, loss of all riches, and the end of his relevance as an artist.

On the eve of my 58th birthday, I sometimes catch myself identifying with George Valentin.  Our industry is changing too. From making objects design has moved into proposing scenarios, experiences, and social modes of communication. From individual project the focus shifts to communal effort, from proprietary ideas – to open sourcing, from industrial manufacturing – to self-production. There is no clear direction: the key notions, according to Paola Antonelli, are “ambiguity”, “vulnerability”, “open-endedness”.

There are now new players in the field. For example, I look at a list of jurors at a prestigious design competition. If only a few years ago such list would be composed of design directors of manufacturing corporations and principals of independent design consultancies (like myself), today the picture is different. These jurors come from Twitter, Airbnb, Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, and they have titles like ‘director of global concepts’ or ‘senior director of experience design innovation’.

These people represent the forefront of design today. Schools of design are busy updating and reorganizing their curricula to be sure the young graduates are competitive and familiar with the changing field. But what about us, seasoned design professionals? There are, of course, plenty of furniture and product companies who are still drudging ahead as if nothing new has happened under the sun. Should we continue working for those, oblivious to the spirit of change? Or should we try to reinvent ourselves, adapt to the times, jump on the bandwagon, so to speak?

Incidentally, The Artist has a happy ending. Our hero discovered tap-dancing as a new language for making a different kind of movies. The lesson is to look for personal and unpredictable ways. A successful design career will continue neither as perseverance, nor as compromise, but in finding a new relevance for the changing times.

Thursday, January 31, 2013


 At the New York International Gift Fair, the spirit is far from celebratory. The last few years have seen slow economy, less spending, and a certain feeling of creative standstill in an entirely saturated market.

When new concepts and new forms are unattainable, people go out of their way trying to offer solutions to invented problems. One company’s product, Vino 2Go, is a wine glass with a sipping plastic lid, normally associated with a paper coffee cup.

– Why would I need a sipping lid on my wine glass?
– It protects your wine, so that a fruit fly can’t get in.
– A what?
– You know, when you go out on the porch in summer, fruit flies always attack your wine. No need to worry about them with our product.

An invention from a different company is called CapaBunga, a special silicone cap to close an unfinished wine bottle.

– Why not simply reuse the cork?  Isn’t this what people do all the time?
– Yes, but with our product, we can put your logo or a funny slogan on the cap.

Phenomenal success of iPhone and iPad has generated a mini-avalanche of pseudo-functional byproducts:  on offer are numerous stands, supports, cord-wraps, cases and half-cases. Another new product category plays with people’s recent environmental anxieties, promoting an array of air purifiers, fresheners, infusers, often with mysterious properties and questionable methods of working.

One thing all these objects have in common is their reliance on an invented, or pseudo- function as a way of assuring products’ legitimacy and desirability.  I am reminded of chindogu, a Japanese concept of absurdist gadgets, which appear to solve a particular problem yet on closer inspection prove to be completely useless. There is no crime in promoting products like this, even though chindogu is not supposed to be marketed.  Yet wouldn’t it be better to forgo the conventional notion of function altogether, thus opening the field to wide new possibilities?

In Boym Studio’s work of the last decade I advocated objects for collecting, for memories, for emotional fulfillment. When customers asked me, occasionally, what did Buildings of Disaster or Babel Blocks do, I was proud to answer: “Nothing”.  In those objects, function was understood in different terms; they were created as containers for desire and memory, giving people a possibility to use them in their own, infinitely personal ways.