Archive for the 'design' Category

‘See ancient beauty revived’

1 October 2017

Creative Commons:

One of my 2017 calendars consists of vintage travel posters, and the image for October is this: a ‘Visit Palestine’ poster. Some light digital digging discovers that it probably dates from 1947; ‘Loeb’ (bottom right) was Mitchell Loeb, a New York based artist who designed posters in support of the idea (and later the fact) of a Jewish homeland over a period of more than 40 years.

Loeb did two “Visit Palestine” posters for the Tourist Office of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, and the other one is sub-titled “The Land of the Bible”. 1947 might not have been the best time to visit. 91 people had died in the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Zionist paramilitary group Irgun in 1946, and more than a hundred Palestinians were killed in the Deir Yassin massacre two years later, carried out by Irgun and Lehi (“The Stern Gang”), another paramilitary group. Without delving too far into that history, let’s say that as holidays go, it might have been tense.

The Palestine Poster Project has around 20 of Loeb’s images. The first, from 1916, in a classic recruiting style, is headed, “For the freedom of Palestine; Jews of America organize”. The last one, in 1960, is for the New York-based Jewish National Fund: “Progress despite crisis“. Ironies abound in these images, with hindsight. “Progress despite crisis” features a man driving a bulldozer.

Oranges, villages, green fields, the mountains, the sea. Of course this image has been adapted and remixed for our times. David Tartakower‘s version, from 2004, seen below, is subtle. The image is all but identical, but bleached out. The caption, in Hebrew, says “Another Country”.


The image of Eretz Acheret is taken from the collection of the Palestine Poster Project, and is used with thanks. The photograph of the “Visit Palestine” poster was taken by Andrew Curry.



Small acts of resistance

28 September 2014


One of Neil MacGregor’s 10 objects that define modern Germany, in the Guardian this weekend, is the inscription on the gates of Buchenwald concentration camp, Jedem das Seine. Of course, the Nazis liked their improving slogans, and those on the gates of the concentration camps are particularly dark. Jedem das Seine is a German translation of a Latin phrase that means, “To each what they are due.”

But the reason it is in Neil MacGregor’s collection is that the sign was made by Franz Ehrlich, a Communist imprisoned in Buchenwald. Ehrlich had trained at the Bauhaus, hated by the Nazis for its internationalism and modernism. The typeface he chose for the sign was a Bauhaus font; the camp authorities either didn’t know or didn’t care.

MacGregor reads this as a kind of quiet act of resistance – associating the words with another German history, since they are also the title of a Bach cantata composed nearby – although a more unforgiving interpretation positions Ehrlich as a collaborator who betrayed the ideals of the Bauhaus. I don’t think that this is correct: Ehrlich, who survived the war, was initially conscripted to work for the SS as a designer, but then spent two years in a Wehrmacht Penal Division (yes, the clue is in the name). After the war he moved to the GDR, where he worked on the reconstruction of Dresden.

And the slogan seems to have been a curse for the camp’s commanders. The first one, Karl-Otto Koch, was arrested by the Nazis and executed for an assortment of crimes, including incitement to murder, embezzlement, corruption, among other things. The second, Hermann Pister, was sentenced to death for war crimes, but died of a heart condition first.

The image is from Jewish Currents, and is used with thanks. Germany: Memories of a Nation opens at the British Museum on 16 October.

Designing the Battle of Britain

12 September 2013

It’s the anniversary of Battle of Britain Day this weekend, named for the decisive battle of the Battle of Britain on the 15th September, when the Luftwaffe tried to ‘sweep the RAF from the skies’ over Britain, and pretty much everything that either side could put into the air was up there.

This time last year I went to visit the Battle of Britain Bunker at Hillingdon, the operations room which managed the air defences of the South Coast. It’s now an RAF museum, and has an energetic young curator who is trying to increase public access to this important part of our military heritage.

 Of course, the big map table which tracked the progress of the battle has been made famous by films such as The Battle of Britain (1969). But I was actually more interested in the monitoring system on the wall, a system of lights that enabled commanders to see at a glance the status of every section of every squadron at every airbase in Group Eleven, which covered the south-east.

Spitfires and Hurricanes could only stay in the air for about 30 minutes before they ran short of fuel, so on 15th September they were in a constant cycle of being ready on the ground, in the air, returning to base, and refuelling and re-arming. 


What the lights represented was a live real-time information system, kept up to date largely through phone messages and slips of paper. In an age when the first valve driven computer was still being designed (at Bletchley Park) it’s an impressive piece of information design.

The Battle of Britain Bunker is open by appointment for guided tours. There’s also a virtual tour online.

The photographs are by Andrew Curry, and are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved. 

This is London

24 June 2012


I was at a meeting in a building in central London with a view which seemed to capture what London is these days. The building in the foreground is, of course, Centre Point, the emblem of the 1970s property boom, while the brightly coloured building behind it is Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles building, a distinctive improvement on the rundown Ministry of Defence building that used to be on the site.

And down below: the hole in the ground is one of the many places in London where Crossrail is being built (and hence the cranes). It’s said that for the same amount that’s being spent to tunnel a new rail line across the middle of London, the entire country could have been rewired to provide highspeed broadband. Everywhere. I don’t know whether that says more about the lobbying power of the City, or the speed at which politicians catch up with technological change.

I took the picture at the top of the post. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Exciting the imagination

24 December 2011

I don’t like the Royal Academy – it’s snooty, uptight, over-sponsored yet still expensive – but despite this I went this week to see their exhibition, Building the Revolution, about the art and buildings of the Russian revolutionary era, and in particular to see the scaled-down version of Tatlin’s Tower in the (sponsored) courtyard. The Tower, famously, was only an idea, and never built, but it was intended to be both a monument to the revolution and also a working building, the home of the Third International, the organisation to promote communism internationally. As a blog at RIBA notes, it would have

had four rotating elements inside (all rotating at different speeds) to house an information centre, meeting rooms, offices and a radio transmitter which all would have served as the headquarters of the Third International.

The scale version built for the Royal Academy is 10 metres high, a 1:40 scale model of a Tower that Tatlin imagined would be 400 metres high, taller than the Eiffel Tower, spanning the river Neva in St. Petersburg, as a picture at the RA conveyed. (The image here is from a 1999 CGI reconstruction by the Japanese artist Takehiko Nagakura.) In a Russia wracked by war and then civil war the chances of securing enough steel to build it were less than zero. The mechanics were complex too; the engineers who made a reconstruction for the Hayward in 1971 had to work them out from first principles, since there are few records of the original design. Indeed, had it been built, it’s likely that the mechanics of the building would have failed – the Russian constructivists quite often found that their ideas outstripped the limits of what was then technically possible.

In Tatlin’s lifetime, his Tower was realised only as a 15 foot high scale model, which was shown in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The picture of this model, and the one above, come from John Coulthart’s { feuilleton } blog. Even so, it fired the enthusiasm of his contemporaries: Viktor Shklovsky, the critic, reported on seeing Tatlin’s model, ‘The monument is made of iron, glass and revolution.’

Indeed, the design was inherently political. As Catherine Merridale writes:

The marvels of technology were one theme, but movement was another … as well as reflecting the dynamism of the dawning age, the building could double as a slow-moving calendar and clock, perhaps even as a means of measuring stars and space. In its restlessness and transparency, the building embodied the democratic challenge to authoritarian power that Tatlin so welcomed.

Tatlin’s unbuilt Monument has fascinated artists, critics, and maybe utopians ever since he designed it: I’m writing about it here more than 90 years after he conceived it, which I wouldn’t be had it actually been built. I was at an exhibition in Estonia earlier this year at which the artist Petko Dourmana had constructed an augmented reality piece in which the Tower was projected onto the cityscape of Tallinn. In some ways, such a virtual representation seems a fittingly democratic way to see Tatlin’s Monument. The purpose of the unbuilt building, after all, is to excite the imagination.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Yellow jackets

8 October 2011

Publishers mostly believe – probably rightly – that their brands make little difference to book buying habits, because readers are more interested in authors. But this isn’t always true. There are moments when publishers break these surly bonds: one thinks of Penguin, especially in the days of their colour-coded jackets, of Picador in the ’70s, of Calder and Boyars. Design always has something to do with it.

I was thinking of this because I noticed some science fiction and fantasy reissues – in the distinctive Gollancz yellow – to mark the 50th anniversary of Gollancz. (They seem to have been out for a few months but I noticed them only because of the ‘serendipity search function’ of a bookshop window.)

I read more science fiction when I was young than I now care to remember, much of it from the library, and the Gollancz yellow jackets did for a title exactly what good branding is supposed to do; they acted as assurance in a market where quality was variable. A yellow Gollancz science fiction title was invariably worth reading.

The list of the Gollancz 50 reissues can be found here. I’ve written here about Pavane by Keith Roberts, one of the 50.

The pictures in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.


Measuring porridge

25 September 2011

I like porridge, especially as the days get colder. But I get put off by the instructions.  Take these, from a packet of Quaker Oats, for example:

Mix 45g of Quaker Oats with 340ml of milk or cold water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes.

45g? 340ml? You need to get the scales out, and a measuring jug, unless you happen to have a brain that’s finely tuned to metric measurements. In a rush, on a cold morning, that doesn’t happen. You guess, and you hope.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I bought a bag of Pimhill’s porridge oats, and found these instructions:

For creamy porridge use 1 level cup of Pimhill Porridge Oats and 2 cups pf cold water or milk.

Cups? Cups! Everyone has cups, and they’re usually close at hand in a kitchen. You don’t have to be on Masterchef to realise that you can use small cups or large cups depending on how much porridge you’re planning to make, as long as you use the same cup for both oats and liquid. And it’s so simple that once you’ve read it you’ll remember it – even when faced with instructions that expect people to think like computers. A wonderfully simple piece of user-based information.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Eisenstein and Eisenstein

2 August 2011

Chunks of Riga’s new town were built quickly at the height of the gilded age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the result is a dense concentration of art nouveau architecture. Many of the most flamboyant buildings were built by Mikhail Eisenstein, the Russian architect who graduated from St. Petersburg. At the time Riga was part of Tsarist Russia. The detail is the devil, and the façades of his buildings are full of details, each floor of each house decorated differently.

More unusually, there are more than half a dozen of his buildings in the space of about 500 metres, most of them in one street, Alberta Iela, where he designed five buildings in a row.

He was also the father of the great Soviet film director Sergei, who, it’s said, hated his father’s work. “My father must have had nightmares putting all that detail into his buidings”, he is reputed to have said.

One hardly has to be a Freudian analyst to see signs of the son’s rebellion: instead of deeply decorated buildings for a rich clientele, the son preached the simplicity of the cut and threw himself into the Soviet revolution.

The photographs on this post were taken by Andrew Curry. They are published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

All about the bike

3 July 2011

The first weekend of the Tour de France is a good moment to review It’s All About The Bike, and from what I’d heard about it before I read it I’d expected it to be more about components. This isn’t a complaint. Robert Penn’s book is about his journey to build his perfect bike – frame, wheels, groupset, handlebars, even to the saddle – and along the way he meets a lot of people who are among the best at making such things.

But as he goes he tells us a lot about the history of the bicycle, its explosion as a social phenomenon in the late 19th century, and the way it has developed since. And it’s also – intriguingly – a history of innovation, as Penn traces the way in which the problems of the early designs are overcome to produce the modern bicycle, which remains the most efficient way we have discovered to turn energy into movement.

One of the biggest early problems was the design – before gears were invented, the pedals were attached directly to the front wheel, so the only way to get more distance for each turn of the pedals was to increase the size of the wheel. Hence the ‘ordinary’ or the ‘penny-farthing’, described by Penn as “a technological cul-de-sac”. He quotes Mark Twain’s account of his cycling lesson on the ordinary (“you don’t get down as you would from a horse, you get down as you would from a house afire”). Accidents were so common on dreadful roads that it gave us a hatful of new expressions, including “to come a cropper”. One of the unsung heroes of cycling’s history, James Starley (of whom more shortly) nonetheless managed to ride the hundred miles from London to Coventry on an ordinary in a single day.

Once the ordinary gave way to the ‘safety bicycle’, with its familiar diamond shaped frame, records began to tumble. By the 1890s, a good racing bike weighed in at 10kg, even if decent gears took another thirty years to arrive. Some of the feats of the riders were breathtaking:  in 1899 Charles Murphy, paced by a train, rode a mile in under a minute on planks laid between the tracks.

As for Starley, he was a self-taught mechanic who had a gift for invention. He was the son of an agricultural labourer who left home for London at 15, then moved to Coventry where he set up a sewing machine company before turning his attention to bicycles in the late 1860s. He invented both the tensile spoked wheel and the differential gear as he wrestled with the limitations of early bicycle design.

His nephew John Kemp Starley continued the family tradition. His Rover Safety bicycle, first manufactured in 1885, is now recognised as the first modern bicycle. Starley had set out “to design the lightest, strongest, cheapest, most rigid, most compact and ergonomically most efficient shape the bicycle frame could be”. In doing so, he transformed the bicycle market. He floated the business and built the largest cycle works in Coventry, then the centre of the world’s cycle industry. It later became the Rover car company, though he didn’t live to see it. He died suddenly at the age of 46; 20,000 people attended his funeral and every cycle firm in the city closed for the day as a mark of respect.

The sections of the book about assembling the dream bicycle have some fine moments as well, whether it’s listening to the frame-builder Brian Rourke talking about setting up the frame, or being given some industrial gloves at Continental in Germany to take his set of tyres out of the oven. The passage in which Penn describes the California wheel builder ‘Gravy’ Gravenites build his wheels has a quiet poetry to it.

All of this is given credibility by Penn’s own history as a round-the-world cyclist. He knows what he’s writing about, and has had the scares, some mentioned here, to prove it. And like all good cycling books, the minute I finished it I wanted to go out on my bike. So I did.

The Doves Type

6 February 2010

There’s something pleasing about learning something new about the area you live in, and by chance I stumbled on a whole local history of typography just before Christmas. The William Morris house at Hammersmith was holding an open day – there were craft stalls, mulled wine and mince pies indoors – and one of the stalls was about the Doves Press, named for a printer/publisher that was housed next to the Dove Inn a few doors away.

The type had been designed by Emery Walker, and used for his famous edition of the Bible, as in the image above. But Emery left the Press in 1909, and sometime between 1913 and during 1917 [see Update], in the days when type was heavy, his business partner, T.J. Cobden-Sanderson, dumped the whole lot in the river from Hammersmith Bridge.

The typeface is simple – there is little in the way of variation of size or weight – but it is a pleasure to read. Robert Smail’s Printing House has rebuilt it, as shown in the slightly dingy photograph below of a card I bought from them on the day.

[Update, 1st May 2010: I visited Emery Walker’s house at 7 Hammersmith Terrace today and got a bit more information on the sad end of the Doves type. Part of the business agreement between Walker and Cobden-Sanderson said that ownership of the type would revert to Walker if Cobden-Sanderson died first (Walker was younger). By 1917 Cobden-Sanderson was well into his seventies, his health deteriorating, and he decided he didn’t want this to happen. It took repeated night-time trips to Hammersmith Bridge to dump the whole lot. It is about half a mile from the Doves Press premises to the bridge, and the full set of type weighed two tons.

If you’re interested in Walker, or William Morris, or the Arts and Crafts Movement, the house is well worth a visit – but you have to book.]