History, Today I Learned

A design consideration

The renowned American designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray Eames were once asked by the premier politician of a friendly country to evaluate the effect of Western technology, specifically design, on their culture. There was also the question of how the fledgling state could benefit from the Eames’s input.

The Eameses, true to their mode of working, went all in. In their report, submitted one year later, they went to great lengths to explain how true design is intuitive and yet evolutionary. As an example, Charles talked about the thinking that might go into designing a simple vessel that one might use to carry water.

  •  The optimum amount of liquid to be fetched, carried, poured and stored in a prescribed set of circumstances.
  • The size and strength and gender of the hands (if hands) that would manipulate it.
  • The way it is to be transported—head, hip, hand, basket or cart.
  • The balance, the center of gravity, when empty, when full; its balance when rotated for pouring.
  • The fluid dynamics of the problem, not only when pouring but when filling and cleaning, and under the complicated motions of  head carrying—slow and fast.
  • Its sculpture as it fits the palm of the hand, the curve of the hip.
  • Its sculpture as complement to the rhythmic motion of walking or a static post at the well.
  • The relation of opening to volume in terms of storage uses—and objects other than liquid.
  • The size of the opening and inner contour in terms of cleaning.
  • The texture inside and out in terms of cleaning and feeling.
  • Heat transfer—can it be grasped if the liquid is hot?
  • How pleasant does it feel, eyes closed, eyes open?
  • How pleasant does it sound, when it strikes another vessel, is set down on ground or stone, empty or full—or being poured  into?
  • What is the possible material?
  • What is its cost in terms of working?
  • What is its cost in terms of ultimate service?
  • What kind of an investment does the material provide as product, as salvage?
  • How will the material affect the contents, etc., etc.?
  • How will it look as the sun reflects off its surface?
  • How does it feel to possess it, to sell it, to give it?

The country in question is India, of course, and this object under consideration is a lota, that traditional metal water vessel used across the subcontinent. In their report, they wrote:

Of all the objects we have seen and admired during our visit to India, the Lota, that simple vessel of everyday use, stands out as perhaps the greatest, the most beautiful.

The Eames Report was submitted to Pt Nehru and his cabinet in 1958, and in 1961, the National Institute of Design was founded in Ahmedabad, as an autonomous institute devoted to research, service and training in industrial design and visual communication. It now has five campuses across India, and is still going strong.

An interest in mid-century design had me reading about the Eames’ lives, specifically via the book The Eames Primer, written by Eames Demetrios, one of Ray and Charles’ grandchildren. The India episode came up as I flipped through the pages at a bookstore, and made me realize I had no idea that the couple were that closely entwined with the history of modern Indian design, specifically with NID, even though I have known and even worked with friends who were graduates from the institute.

While I did think of getting a classic Eames recliner when it showed up in Costco, of all places, the Herman Miller price-tag is a little too daunting for me at the moment. Seriously, if it is a toss-up between a chair and an entry-level Sandman page, you know I would pick the page.

But I could not resist picking up a knock-off Eames recliner from a local vintage furniture shop earlier this year. Turns out there were a lot of customers gnashing their teeth between the time I paid and the chair got delivered home.

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History, Today I Learned

From writing to printing

Picture of the Ellesmere Chaucer, a vellum manuscript written between 1400-1405, from the Huntington Library, LA.

Every time someone comes to you and says that New Technology X is evil and will bring the end of worlds, consider this:

The monk Johannes Trithemius, who lived around the late 1400s, wrote this in his essay In Praise of  Scribes:

Scriptures on parchment can persist a thousand years, but…the printed book is a thing of paper and in a short time will decay entirely; printed texts will be deficient in spelling and appearance. Posterity will judge the manuscript book superior to the printed book. Handwriting is a spiritual act, a form of religious devotion that putting blocks into a press will never be.

Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer, said this about the fledgling printing industry:

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure or limit to this form of writing.”

Ironically, this was the same printing industry that led to his work being disseminated beyond his wildest dreams.

Erasmus:

“In former times pupils at school had to take down so much long-hand that boys wrote rapidly but with difficulty, constantly on the lookout for symbols and abbreviations to save time…nowadays the art of printing has led to the situation that some scholars do not write down anything at all.”

Luther, Erasmus, and Trithemius, and Socrates, and countless pundits throughout the ages have focused on the same points: new technology disrespects tradition and generational history; those who disrespect tradition are coarser, have lesser levels of education and therefore, a decreased standard of existence.

Photograph: The Gutenberg Bible, taken at the Huntington Library, Los Angeles.

Manuscripts persisted after Gutenberg’s invention. People did not suddenly throw away pens and start pressing type against paper. The two technologies continued side by side for decades, and in fact, the first printed books used laborious, inefficient processes to mimic the look of familiar books. Illustrations were added by hand to a printed book, in different colors, as were rubrications, margins, and standard guidelines that were included in scribal manuscripts. The first print font was also an imitation of a manuscript, being developed by craftsmen hired by Gutenberg. Each of the upper and lowercase letters, symbols and punctuation marks – 290 in all – were painstakingly carved so that they would resemble the ink-drawn versions of the letters scribes were producing with pens.

The true effect of the printed book was felt in its economics. Slowly but relentlessly, the centuries-old profession of traditional bookmaking was rendered obsolete, with monks and guildsmen losing a centuries-long monopoly.

But the printing press also created new professional possibilities for those who had good handwriting. Instead of writing a few commissioned books a year, scribes began to teach penmanship to others through tutoring classes, which gained popularity throughout Europe. The profession of secretary also arose, as the age of exploration and new lands brought about more business and bureaucracy — and consequently, more documentation. Ironically, these writing masters published printed books to disseminate their lessons; this led to further fortunes.

In conclusion, isn’t this generational hubris, to think that the new supplanting the old is an attack on our culture and moral fiber and everything good that we know and cherish? I am not saying that everything that is new is better. But I believe that we as a species have figured out how to filter the short-sighted wins and favor the long-term. Not all of us may know or respect history, but history don’t need your respect, bitch.

On that note: goodbye, 2017.

Ideas and quotes taken from an excellent book called The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting by Anne Trubek.

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Comics, Manga, Today I Learned

The Gaiman Awards

Today I learned that there is an award for comics called the Gaiman award. And contrary to what one might expect, it is not related to our favorite Wordsmith in Black.

The word ‘Gaiman’ here is an abbreviation of “Gaikoku no manga’, literally, ‘foreign comics’. This refers to comics translated from foreign work and published in Japan. For those of you who fret over what is comics and what is manga and bug-eyed-styles and all that, here you go: ‘Civil War’ translated into Japanese and published in Japan becomes manga, and can even get nominated for a manga award. You can keep your Western biases to yourself, thank you.

The list of comics nominated since the award was instituted in 2011 shows a curious mash-up of titles, including the aforementioned Marvel title; Superman: Red Son rubs shoulders with the likes of Nicholas de Crecy’s Celestial Bibendum (French), Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités Obscures (Belgium), Lat’s Town Boy and Kampung Boy (Malaysia), Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants. All of which make for great, solid reading — though the jury’s still out on The New 52: Shazam, which managed to make an appearance on the 2015 nomination list. (The previous sentence is vague hyperbole, the prize went to Sweden’s Sayonara September, by Åsa Ekström)

One thing to note: the titles nominated are based on translation date, and not on publication date. This causes similar confusion as the ‘Best US Edition of International Material (Asia)’ Eisner award, where classic material ends up being nominated alongside newer ones, just because they were translated the last year. In 2016, a work by Shigeru Mizuki from the 80s (Showa: A History of Japan) beat the contemporary Master Keaton and Assassination Classroom in the Eisners.Doesn’t that make it overly confusing to judge something that is fresh along with another that has been coated with the patina of time and generational acceptance?

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Music

India + Romania Redux

Apropos of my earlier post on the popularity of ‘Selfie Pulla’ in Romania, here is one more example of cross-cultural pollination. A Romanian song called ‘Condimente’, by Nosfe and featuring Ruby wears its Indian influences on its sleeve. The song lyrics have the singers using funky spice metaphors to talk about their relationship. (‘You’re spicy, like chili or paprika/I just eat more light, be my soy sauce/me basil, you mint/This ain’t perfect but it has a tint’) The video features India-influenced background dancers, and the setting is totes obvs Bollywood. If we lived in the 90s, this song would already have made an appearance in an Anu Malik album — or four — by now.

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Myself

The Second Marie Kondo post

This is a followup to my first Marie Kondo post, and is meant to serve as a thought-dump of what I took from the book, and how it has affected my life. I am well aware of the risks of sounding vaguely faddish — like people that can’t stop talking about their cross-fit classes or that new vegan diet that has changed everything and why you should take them up too, because life is meaningless otherwise, darling.

Uh-huh. The context here is that I have, for a while, been wondering about specific things regarding my lifestyle. The only thing that moved with me to LA from India, were my collection of books. These are books that have (mostly) been bought from 2002 onwards, ever since I graduated from college, and have moved with me from apartment to apartment, city to city. The ones bought before 2002? Most were transferred to my parents’ place in Assam. A lot of those have ended up in the library in my mother’s school, or have gone to her students who seemed interested in reading.

Over the last few years, I have been curating the books that stay on my shelves, which is to say that the ones on display in the living room are the ones that I *love* to own. Now a bulk of these books are comics and manga, and while I have quirks related to those (case in point: at one point, Watchmen was present in my shelves as the original 12 issues, a trade paperback, a 10th anniversary trade paperback, and an Absolute Edition. Right now, I just have the Absolute Edition and the original 12 issues), the comics get read and reread frequently. I cleared out a couple of shelves before moving to LA, and last year, a chunk of comics that I never read went to the local comic-book store. But despite my occasional cleanup, I still had way too many books. And the sad thing is — it’s not like I reread any of them. They were all just there, as a function of my taste and what was available in bookstores in the last decade. You have to remember, that was a time when e-readers did not exist, and neither did Flipkart or Amazon. If I saw a book at a used bookstore and did not pounce on it, I had no idea if I would ever see it again. So yeah, I bought everything, because I was earning enough and I could. My buying habits changed over the years, and it’s no longer about going nuts during a discount sale or bidding on random deals on eBay,

The best thing of Marie Kondo, in my opinion, is that she does not talk of minimalism — which right now is an -ism that encourages a competitive zeal in lowering the number of possessions you own. Ms Kondo’s techniques help enable a certain kind of mental freedom in evaluating your possessions. You do not need to disown everything, she says. All you have to do is to find the things that bring you joy. Which meant that the question she asked was not “what do you want to throw away?”, it was “what do you want to keep?”

One fine day last week, I did what the KonMari method prescribed. Which is to tackle one kind of item at a time — in this case, books — and piling them all in one place; and without being distracted, to sort them one by one into two categories: the ones that spark joy and the ones that don’t. At first, I was too lenient. Of course, I loved my Terry Pratchett paperbacks, and the Tom Sharpes, and the Robert Heinleins and the Andrew Vachsses. They were not getting out of my sight. Why on earth would I want to get rid of my Harry Potter first edition hardcovers? Or the Kamala Subramanium Mahabharata and Bhagavata Purana that I bought so many years ago? Those books were memories for me, and it seemed criminal to get rid of them.

Except, if I took away my projected feelings for them, they were just semi-yellowed, well-thumbed blocks of paper, most of which hadn’t been opened in years. My Stephen King Dark Tower books were still waiting to be read since 2005 or thereabouts. The Richard Burton Arabian Nights volume, pretty as it was, had never been opened in the United States. I reread some Vachss and some Pratchetts every now and then. But not the books I owned; I would just download them on my Kindle when I wanted. The more I thought about it, the more I realized the books weren’t really bringing much of value to my life, they were more fetish objects than the ideas they represented. Once that switch flipped in my head, it became easier and easier to understand what I should keep, and what should go.

I ended up with 9 boxes of books that I no longer wanted, after 2 nights of sorting. I took them all to the local charity shop. The books that still remain fit one shelf; there is another shelf that I will refer to as a ‘probation area’; I have left the books that I may put up on eBay, or give away as gifts, or are novel enough to merit their presence. I could not get rid of the first edition of Gods, Demons and Others, as much as I thought I would; nor could I let the Diana Wynne-Joneses go. But I have given myself 3 months – if the books on the probation area still remain untouched and unread, they all go.

One might think that there is an addendum where I reminiscence about the emptiness the missing books have left in my life, but on the contrary, I feel happy. And free, in a way. Is that a two-thumbs-up vote for the KonMari method? I guess. I still feel like I cheated because I did not do anything about my comics, but you know, I am okay with that. My comics have always sparked joy in my life.

In addition to what I did above (and I did that with my clothes a few weeks ago, which was easier), I have been doing specific things that Ms Kondo recommends in her book.

  • The most important thing is that of mentally assigning things in their right place, at home. She advocates figuring out where every item you own belongs, so that the amount of clutter is minimized, and also you think more about where something new should go, when you think of buying it.
  • Clearing the space around the kitchen sink, the bathroom shower and wash basin. It helps a lot, both in terms of aesthetics and mental calm.
  • Folding my clothes the right way and stacking them horizontally, not vertically; that’s one of the smartest moves ever. I did that with everything, including socks, underwear, hand towels, pocket squares and t-shirts, and it really serves its purpose well.
  • In general, using the ‘spark joy’ method is a great way to figure out if you want to do something, anything at all. An invite to a dinner party? A choice between reading this book or that book or not reading either of them? If it’s not making me happy, why should I be doing it all?
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