Public Works design: then and now
Charles Coiner for the National Recovery Act of 1933.
Chris Glass and Aaron Draplin for the ARRA 2009.
American painter, sculptor, photographer, designer, film maker, theorist and teacher, of Hungarian birth. Moholy-Nagy’s importance in the 20th century is based as much on his theories as on his practical work. His ideologies related to the relationship between space, time and light and the interaction of man with these forces. His great achievement was that he applied his mystical outlook to highly practical enterprises and always recognized the purpose behind his creativity. — From MOMA
Artists like Moholy-Nagy who experiment on the fringes of their medium; who take photos that so many people might consider tossable — they entrance me. For instance, this 1924 print, called a photogram (sounds awfully modern) is made by placing an object on light sensitive paper, which is then exposed to light, creating a negative image of the object. It’s one way of painting with light, and exploring form and presence with the actual object, and not just a representation of the object.
In an age of digital photography and film, it always impresses me the lengths to which early photographers and filmmakers would go to manipulate film. It was reasonably brand-new, and they could have happily set about photographing parties and flowers and mountains (as some did, and with incredible effects, too). But there were a few who weren’t content to have a snapshot: they dug their hands in to the filmmaking process, and like the filmmakers in the 20’s who experimented with match cuts, coloring, and painting on their slides [see: “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” on Netflix], found that they could bend this medium to their will, that there was the potential to be a chemist and a magician and create something that had only existed in dreams before.
Records for Life is what excites me about being a designer. These are the finalists that designed a child vaccine chart that helps parents understand their children’s health care better, keep more accurate records, and help health care workers protect children from preventable diseases: ultimately, these designs will help save lives.
One thing I’ve been needing to do for a long time is write a tribute to my grandmother. My dad’s mother’s name was Helen Cook before she married Alec Iles. The people I’m going to describe in our lineage are incredible. They are so very much the embodiment of the American dream, and while most of this I’ve only learned recently, as I learn, I think yes, of course this is my heritage.
I never met my grandfather, Alec. He died while my dad was in college. I am told he had bright red hair that had turned bright-white, and that he had a sharp sense of humor. He worked at a radio station while my dad was growing up.
He was an anchor baby, the first Iles to be a natural U.S. citizen. He shows up as a young child on his father Harold’s petition for naturalization. Harold, and his Father, Sydney James both immigrated to the U.S. from Yorkshire, England on a ship called the Merion, sailing our of Liverpool in 1907.
Alec’s middle name was Felton, after his great-grandmother, Maria Felton, married to his grandfather Sydney James Iles. Sydney and Maria grew up together after Sydney’s father Robert remarried, and Maria Felton became a part of their family.
So, Sydeny James Iles (1864-1932) has a son, Harold (b. 1889), and they come to the U.S. in 1907. I don’ know what brought them here. In Harold’s petition, his occupation is a loom fixer, and he’s described as having brown hair, brown eyes, and a scar over his right eye. He marries Phoebe Emma Hollingsworth, and I imagine she must have been a redhead. In 1918, my grandfather Alec was born, with red hair that later turned white.
Meanwhile, Edward Paul Cook (adapted from Koch) marries Florence Avis Dean.
They get mentioned in “A genealogical dictionary of the first settlers of New England” because Florence is a descendant of Rowland Stebbins, a surveyor who settled Deerfield Massachusetts after arriving in 1634 on the ship ‘Francis’ from Ipswich.
Here’s what they say about Edward and Florence:
"Edward’s father, Wilhelm Koch, was born in Germany and came to New York wth his parents when he was about 12. He married his cousin Anna Koch and died very young of the flu, leaving her with four small children (Edward, the oldest, was about six). Anna supported herself and her children by doing housework. At some point, probably during WWI when there was some anti-German feeling in the country, the family name was changed from Koch to Cook.
Edward left school after 8th grade to help support his family. As well as being a farmer, he was a carpenter, handy at making things, and a voracious reader: his house was full of piles of books. He may have been attracted to Florence partly because of her education; they both valued education, and sent all three of their daughters to college in a time and place when that was unusual. (They would have sent their son to college too, but he wanted to be a farmer, like his father).
Herman and May Dean’s oldest daughter, Florence Dean, graduated from Holley High School in Holley, New York, in June 1920. She then attended Normal School and got a job as a teacher. At a party, she met Edward Cook, who as a young farmer living with his partner and his partner’s wife and interested in marrying and settling down on his own. He noticed her particularly because the brownies she brought to the party were so good. They were married in March, 1923, even though she had to keep the marriage a secret until the end of the school year. Otherwise, she would have had to resign, since married women were not allowed to teach in those days.”
On the Deans:
Albert and Mary’s son Herman Dean, and his wife, May Owen Dean, had a store during the Depression. “The side yard of my grandparents’ store was a hobo stop, and people would knock on the door for a handout now and then.” — Joan Cook Sanders”
Side note: some of my Stebbins family testified in witchcraft and witchcraft slander trials. It is unclear to me which side they were on; however, the suspicious death of one Stebbins man was believed to have been witchcraft, though no official charge was made. One John Stebbins (b. 1647) had a record (he was charged for calling his father, Rowland, “an olde foole”. No, seriously.) and was captured during the French and Indian War and marched to Canada with his wife and children; they later returned except for one daughter, Thankful, who converted and married in Canada. Later, one of my Stebbins grandparents, David, was a lieutenant in the Hampshire Regiment during the Revolutionary War.
Recap! My genealogy includes families that arrived as early as 1634 and as recently as 1907. My great-grandmother graduated college and was a teacher.
Now, my grandmother goes to college.
She grew up on a farm, and then she went to Keuka College to study Chemistry. She then worked as a research Chemist at Aberdeen Proving Ground, and co-authored a research paper before starting her own preschool called the Learning Ladder, which she ran until she retired. She had such an impact that several of her students and their parents returned for her funeral last year.
Somewhere along that awesome path, she met Alec, and they got married, and had my dad and his brother, Alan.
When she was young, my grandmother had scarlet fever and nearly died; then, doctors told her that the damage it caused to her heart meant she probably wouldn’t live past her teens.
But she kept learning anyhow, kept doing all of those things that no one would have looked down on her had she not done. She was a farm girl who became a chemist and a teacher and a business owner. I went to her preschool, and I remember eating watermelon and wearing smocks to paint.
She lived half of her adult life without her husband, and never remarried. I remember her mostly as someone who love wildlife and hiking, as very matter-of-fact, I remember eating beets at her table and not understanding why anyone would ever want to eat beets (though I have apparently reached that magic age where I now love beets). I recall that she soundly supported my love of drawing.
I can’t say enough about the people who preceded me. I like to think that I’m like them all (well, except for the suspicious-of-witchcraft crowd): that the place that I came from is just that, where I came from, and not where I’m going or where I’ll end up.
I hope that I’m patriotic, and innovative. I hope that I have the guts it took you to leave England in a ship, or start a business or a town, to feed the hungry, and to read, to read to read and learn constantly, though you are a farmer, to make it back home from however far away.
AIGA has existed now for 100 years (happy centennial, AIGA!), and last year was the first of their conferences I attended (HHH in Minneapolis). While I wandered in and out of exhibits and drank everything in, listened to sessions with serious/funny/amazing design gurus, I was struck by what the community of designers had done with the brand of themselves.
The common thread, whether you were printing posters, making movies and animations, designing chairs or logos or websites, was that a designer’s mission is to change the world. It’s not to “make things pretty”, but it’s to use one’s understanding of how people experience emotions to help them connect to an idea. It’s to design a game that helps the player learn a new skill. It’s to create packaging that is waste-free.
It’s to communicate a truth so that people can grasp it, digest it, and do something with it.
It’s a pretty great tradition to be a part of. Cheers, AIGA, on 100 year of ch-ch-ch-changes.
One of my favorite sites right now is the Missouri State Archives flickr account, especially photos of people using their hands to make things. I can only imagine that assembling on a factory floor was not glamorous or well-paying, and that perhaps a great deal of her daydreams were spent imagining other things she’d rather be doing.
And yet, since technology has removed us from making things, there has been a longing to make things again. Knitting is up. You can find a tutorial (I mean, still online of course) to DIY almost anything. And it seems for every person who helped mass produce paper, food, or clothing in the 50s, there is a millennial counterpoint serving up handmade scarves, local produce, and letterpress-printed wedding invitations.
While the production may be dominated by hipsters, the market is much wider. There’s a longing, maybe, to feel closer to the things we use and consume. Of course, we still want them cheap, fast, and always in stock, but even in my own spending habits I see that I’m willing to pay a bit more for tomato that was grown in Missouri, or a paper that was crafted intentionally, with care, by people who love paper (instead of people who happen to be working for a paper company).
I hope to share more of my maker roots soon, but in the meantime, here’s what I love to make with my hands:
I really hate the name Boogie Board. But I love their product; I got one for Toby because he loves, loves, loves drawing but also loves, loves, loves to eat whatever is in his hand. I started using them to make woodblock print-style drawings and then Instagram them in the dark. They turn out really grainy but awesome.
I got my first check for illustrating when I was 7. I was producing awkward sketches of horses like an awkward horse sketch-producing factory, and I insisted on being paid for my hard work. My prices were pretty competitive: 5 cents. My grandmother and uncle both purchased one of my pieces and sent me a check for $0.05.
Spending the last few days at the excellent AIGA Head, Heart, Hand Conference in Minneapolis, MN among graphic designers, illustrators, web designers, architects, teachers, and all kinds of people in creative fields, we talked and heard a lot about creativity: how to nurture it in your own work and life, how to inspire it in other people.
I was fortunate to join a roundtable today all about creativity with Bruce Nussbaum, author of Creative Intelligence (also at: Business Week, Fast Co. & HBR), and while there are so many things to hash out about creativity, like where to find it, how to feed creativity when you’re grinding hard, striking a balance between work and life, teaching young people how to solve problems creatively, I still end up at the end of run-on, preposition-ending sentences thinking how loaded the word “creative” is.
On more than one occasion, I’ve felt like “creative” is a bad word.
"She’s one of those, you know… creatives." Oh, I see it now. That explains it.
Or it excuses people from trying to understand.
"Well, I’m not creative…"
Sometimes it’s a way to avoid giving real criticism you think might hurt someone’s feelings.
"What do I know? I’m not a creative."
But, here’s the thing: creative is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do. It’s a practice. A habit. You can cultivate it, or not, but it’s a way of doing things, not the category of things you do.
Anyone in any job can be creative. You can come up with a creative solution to a problem using the tools you know. The same creative habits work for everyone; at the very least, they can’t hurt: taking a walk, carving out time to work vs. time to connect with other people, experiencing something new, traveling.
That’s my anthem.
It was easy as a 7-year-old to not see the ways I could fail, but only the ways that I could succeed; it’s so much harder for us to do this as adults. Labeling what you’re doing as “creative” is scary, I think, because it involves a really personal offering (“I really put a part of myself into this solution, and this is what I believe we should do” vs. “I just did the thing I was asked to do, so, whatever”). It involves having someone potentially not like that very personal offering. It’s a big mantle.
It’s something that everyone is doing, not just a few outlying weirdos.
People begin to think it’s weird if you’re not working hard to find a different perspective, to innovate, to feed your creative beast.
One of the many thing that stuck with me from AIGA HHH 2013 was the constant call to be more bewildered, to wonder more, to approach the world with amazement; in short, to be childlike. To be impressed that you are here, at the million coincidences that put an iPhone in your hand or a thought in your mind. To believe that your awkward horse drawing are valuable.
Here. This might help.