Saturday, July 14, 2007

Coney Island Snapshots

The Masticator has been taking a break after a long and difficult job search led to a great new job. To celebrate, he went to Coney Island. Here are some snapshots.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Cars That Were Cars That Are Now Pick-ups And Probably Should Have Stayed Cars

The Chevy El Camino and its less-known Ford counterpart (and predecessor), the Ranchero, are not well regarded in the minds of the American public. They are seen by many as the auto equivalent of the mullet hairstyle, a sort of ‘business up front, party in the back,’ and not in a good way.

After all, if you really wanted to haul stuff, you’d by a real pick-up truck, right? The idea of seeing an El Camino loaded with lumber and equipment is laughable, and so is the notion of a guy taking a woman out for a night on town in one of them. Maybe the car-truck combo is best left for the permanent bachelor, the sleazy man about town whose work doesn’t require cargo space.

I’m being so hard on these pick-up bed cars because I can’t justify my love for them. Nearly every automaker has had one in production at one time or another. The Subaru Brat, the Dodge Rampage -- Volkswagen even made a pick-up bed Rabbit. For those desirous of a pick-up bed in a car that didn’t come that way off the showroom floor, it was custom time.

Here, in the first part of what I hope will become on ongoing series, is a brief survey of one marque and its pick-up bed possibilities. In this installment, the French automaker, Citroën.

1. Don't think that the pick-up bed car concept is over. It ain't even done with in France. This glorious 2007 six-wheel-drive prototype Cruise Crosser is made on the C-Crosser SUV platform. The last axle is powered by an electric motor in back, not the turbo diesel under the hood.

2.The Citroën Xantia pick-up conversion, alas, may only be available as a scale model.

3. Here, a DS 23 Safari, previously a station wagon, was turned into a pick-up by the owner after some roof damage.

4. The DS makes a good pick-up. Here are some jubilant Parisians in a DS sedan conversion.

5. Even the diminutive 2CV makes a good pick-up.

6. This handsome 2CV Truckette has a custom-built wood cargo bed. It's also a covertible.

7. Finally, the best of all: the Citroën SM, famously modified into a pick-up by SM restoration specialist Jerry Hathaway.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Crumbling Facade of Postmodernism

John Pugh on his trompe l’oeil murals, from a short video online:
I can communicate with a very wide audience. People like being tricked by something, they bond with it. They go, ‘did you see that? I thought that was real.’ There is a chaos out there whether we like it or not, and it’s ... to befriend it, and to utilize it, and to explore it -- without trying to harness or control it -- is a spiritual quest within itself and a beautiful place to tap into fresh ideas.
Above is Pugh's Taylor Hall mural at Chico State University in California.

This reminded me of an actual building, or rather a series of buildings designed by the architecture firm SITE between 1970 and 1984 for the Best Products Company chain. These stores were early representations of "big box" retail, but the boxes designed by SITE were like nothing American shoppers had ever seen before. And sadly, like nothing we've ever seen since.

The one above, called "Indeterminate Facade Building" by the architects, was built in 1974 in Houston, Texas. The building looks like it's crumbling, but it was designed that way. As of early 2003, it was still standing, but empty. Writing in 2002, Diebold Essen recalled the building during its hey day:
Observation: nobody, not one single customer, looked UP. Nobody paid attention to the building. People drove in, parked, got out, went in, bought, came out, left, with never a glance at the extremely indeterminate facade. Even after all these years, I’m still not sure what to make of that universal indifference to one of the few truly--and intentionally--funny buildings in the world.
Essen noted that in July 2003, the building's owner had destroyed everything that made it unique, leaving only a modest box. Essen took a panoramic shot of the area in early 2002; see it here.

Sacramento, California's "Notch Showroom" from 1977 looks as if a corner of the boxy building has been pulled away by some huge force.

According to a Metropolis Magazine article from 2003, Best's first SITE building, Richmond, Virginia's "Peeling Project" from 1971, is no longer peeling.

The "Tilt Showroom" in Towson, Maryland from 1978, which Metropolis' James McCown described as "an engineering marvel whose 450-ton masonry-block facade seemed to balance precariously on one corner," was bulldozed for something else.

The woodsy "Forest Showroom," 1980, Richmond, Virginia, was built around many of the trees on the site. As of 2003, it was a church -- West End Presbyterian Church.

SITE was founded in New York City in 1970 by James Wines and Alison Sky. Their mission, says the firm's website, "is to unite building design with visual art, landscape, and green technology as part of an integrative vision." For a slide show of the nine SITE designs, go here.

At what point do corporations decide that minimum expenditures in both money and ideas are not enough? What made the Best Company decide to make its catalog showrooms into such bizarre and delightful postmodern sculptures? And why hasn't anyone -- like Target, for instance -- taken more of an interest in making landmarks instead of identical boxes?

I mis-spoke when I wrote anyone referring to Target, a company, and I think that slip provides part of the answer. Pardon this sort of un-liberal speculation, but groups do not typically come up with the most interesting, innovative, and outlandish ideas; individuals do. (Think I'm wrong? Comment!) The collective that runs Target will not make daring decisions on design because there are too many people to veto such dangerous ideas. Richmond, Virginia-based Best Products was run by Sydney and Frances Lewis, a husband and wife.

When NASA needed new ideas for things like astronaut gloves, they held a contest outside of the bureaucracy. Peter K. Homer, a sail maker, won with a design better than the one NASA had previously. The New York Times is a better paper than, say, the Los Angeles Times because it's owned by a family, one that can afford to make decisions not wholly based on money.

It's a very American, very Ayn Randish notion, but in some cases it may be true: individuals can get more done than the group. It's often controversial -- look at New York City's monomaniacal urban planner Robert Moses. And of course, it can all turn horribly, horribly wrong.

The trick is to balance the collective's flattening tendencies with the individual's charisma and single-mindedness.

Labels: ,

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Norway's National Chair

The “most quintessentially Norwegian product ever,” at least according to the novel The Conqueror, the second in the Jonas Wergeland Trilogy by Jan Kjærstad, was not “Bjelland’s fish balls or possibly one of Frionor’s frozen seafood dishes” -- it was a lounge chair:
"It turned out to be a product made by Ekornes, the successful furniture manufacturers from Sunnmøre on the west coast. In this [television] programme Jonas Wergeland stated, not without a trace of irony, that Norway’s greatest contribution to the world in recent times was not the cheese-slice, nor the plastic keycard, but the Stressless chair, first launched onto the market in 1971 -- an invention worthy of a land of spectators and indeed one for which the national spectator mentality was an absolute prerequisite. Because the Stressless patent was -- and still is, I might say -- brilliant in all its simplicity. The innovative feature, no less than a revolution in the relaxation industry, was that you could assume different sitting positions merely by shifting your body. A lazy nudge of the hip was enough, a little wriggle. You no longer needed to stretch your hand down to a lever. The position was adjusted by the weight of the body itself."
Now, for all of that description, I pictured the Stressless chair as the famous Norwegian kneeling chair, called Balans Variable, designed by Peter Opsvik in 1979. It’s arguably a much more pleasing design, both ergonomically and aesthetically. No, the Stressless chair is much more mundane, and maybe that’s why the stoic Norwegians might think of it as the ultimate Norwegian product.

The Ekornes Stressless chair is a bent wood and leather lounge and ottoman set that has a recognizable circular base connected to two curving legs. The first time I can recall noticing one of these chairs was in the office of my favorite English professor in college. Compared to your typical La-Z-Boy, it looked light, modern, and expensive.

I looked for it in my trusty Design Directory: Scandinavia, but the chair and its manufacturer do not appear -- unlike Peter Opsvik and Balans Variable. My suspicion is that the Ekornes firm and its most famous creation are considered much too pedestrian for such a high-minded design guide. It has listings for Volvo, Nokia, Electrolux, and Ikea -- even Absolut vodka, but no Ekornes.

This might not surprise the company. The president of Ekornes’ American subsidiary, Kevin McGuinness, surveyed his customers in 1994 and found that they were not the wealthy design-conscious creative types he thought they’d be. An article from, the country’s official U.S. website, described the findings:
Instead of being the very elite, the majority of Ekornes customers fell in what McGuinness calls the upper middle class. They were teachers, bankers, accountants, lawyers and some physicians. Instead of driving BMWs and Lexuses, they were predominantly driving Honda Accords, Dodge Caravans and Jeeps.
And maybe boxy old Volvos.

These chairs don’t conjure up the tradition of sleek Scandinavian design the way other products do -- just look at the Stressless’ bulky leather cushions. But they do epitomize another very Scandinavian ideal: modest practicality.

How do you define a national character? I wouldn’t try to do it with a chair, or even with housewares in general -- that may be more appropriate for a country like Denmark, which is better known for such things (Bang & Olufsen stereo equipment, furniture by Verner Panton and Arne Jacobsen, lighting by Poul Henningsen). We could talk about Denmark’s waning empire after the Viking age and its losing battle with Germany over the Schleswig-Holstein region in 1864, which all contributed to the little country of more than 400 islands becoming inward-looking, focused on coziness and comfort, focused on the home.

Sweden might be a sort of industrial Switzerland, cynically playing both sides for its own financial gain during World War II. Sure they saved some Jews, but they also helped the Nazis. “The story of Swedish foreign policy is summed up in the career of Alfred Nobel,” wrote Donald S. Connery in his 1966 tome The Scandinavians. “He began by inventing dynamite and ended by establishing a peace prize.”

This is a country that wanted it both ways. To avoid the fate of Denmark and Norway during the Second World War, they became “neutral.” They had been supplying, by some accounts, half of the Nazis’ iron ore. Did they have a choice? Not exactly. But it is this history of uninterrupted industry that gives us Saab and Volvo today.

Sweden is not what you think it is. Suicide is not a national problem, women are not easy or immodest. Sweden is uptight. The country’s greatest filmmaker, Ingmar Bergman was terrified by death and plagued by such irritable bowels that he built a private bathroom in the theater he ran. If you are given the choice to spend an evening with a Dane or a Swede, choose the Dane; the Swede will be more like a Minnesotan (not in a good way), the Dane more like a New Yorker.

The Norwegians are known, perhaps, more for their cultural contributions. They bring us the composer Edvard Grieg, the greatest modern playwright, Henrik Ibsen, the greatest Expressionist painter, Edvard Munch, and one of the earliest practitioners of stream-of-consciousness writing, the under-appreciated scoundrel genius Knut Hamsun. And all at about the same time in the late nineteenth century.

But maybe this isn’t fair. That was more than 100 years ago, and Norway hasn’t produced a truly great artist or writer since. And even if Sweden’s August Strindberg is half the playwright Norway’s Ibsen was, Norway had no Ingmar Bergman. Nor even an Ingrid Bergman. Or a Bjorn Borg. And Denmark had Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard.

My personal vision of the Norwegian character is trapped between the time my great grandparents came to America around 1900 and the times I’ve visited Norway 100 years later.

On the antiquated side, I have lutefisk, that awful lye-preserved cod that no one has eaten in Norway for at least 50 years. My family eats it every Christmas. Norway to us was ornate sweaters, Christmas decorations, lefse, pickled herring, and smoked salmon. It was a prayer we recited over Christmas dinner that no one actually understood.

When I was growing up my mother used to make Spanish rice. I loved it. She once told me, joking, that it was actually a Norwegian dish, and although I wasn’t a particularly slow child, I believed her. Maybe I wanted to believe it. That such an exotic, spicy, and well-known dish could be from the place my ancestors came from. That Norwegian food wasn't all bland and white like lutefisk and mashed potatoes. I internalized it, making sense of the idea that something called Spanish could actually be Norwegian. It began to make sense and I didn’t discover the truth until years later.

Years later still, I discovered the real, current Norway. This discovery was as sad as the realization that Spanish rice is Spanish. The real Norway is incredibly expensive, disappointingly provincial, and quite small. Fishing waters closed to foreign fleets and a windfall in North Sea oil money hasn’t affected the spare Norwegian lifestyle. A ten-ounce bottle of beer in a café will cost $10 and a meal for two at Pizza Hut will set you back at least $50. You can’t afford Norwegian food.

Edvard Munch’s paintings, like The Scream, have been easy marks for thieves in Norwegian museums like the National Gallery and the Munch Museum because they are run like backwater college collections and VFW halls, respectively.

But then again, Norwegian contemporary music from the likes of Erlend Øye and Röyksopp is innovative, danceable, and internationally known. And books like The Conqueror and its predecessor, The Seducer, are some of the best I've read in years.

Still, Norway, like much of its architecture, art, and literature, was best a long time ago. What does it have to offer now? What is the Norwegian national character? “All of Norway had become what it could indeed appear to be when seen from space -- a 1200-mile long granite grandstand packed with armchairs,” writes Jan Kjærstad in The Conqueror.
"Television was, quite simply, an invention eminently suited to a country which lay thus on the periphery, which was used to witnessing events at a safe distance. ‘The screen tricks us into believing that we don’t live a sheltered life,’ as Jonas Wergeland once remarked in a debate. The Norwegian word for television is fjernsyn -- meaning ‘distant vision’. And because the fjernsyn gave such a blessed illusion of beholding some distant vision, one could hold onto the blissful sense that one was merely a spectator and never an active participant."
Hence the middlebrow lounge chair as the product that exemplifies Norwegian-ness best.

Labels: ,

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Scenes from Park Slope, Brooklyn

Site Meter