Category Archive • Design
January 28, 2005
Make that the three most expensive puddles in London

So I went past that puddle again today, on the bus again, and guess what, I photographed two more puddles in the same place - Duke of York Square, right at the Sloane Square end of Kings Road. I spotted the third one on the way back, and thought I'd missed photo-ing it, but when I got home I found that you can just about make out that one way behind the one I photoed properly, on the way.


I'm starting to rather like these damn things. At least they are different. Different because stupid, but different.

I am going to have to take a closer look at them. Maybe there are more that I have yet to observe. Expect lots of reflections in puddles photos, although I promise nothing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:29 AM
January 25, 2005
The most expensive puddle in London

Now you people all know that I love a good puddle, but really, is there any need, in London, with London's weather, to create a puddle?


In some baking southern Italian town with two hundred days of hot sunshine every year, this would make sense. But here? Stupid, I think.

This photo was taken, as was this one of the school bus (not the yellow one – the other one), from the top of a double decker bus in the Kings Road, looking south.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:41 PM
January 20, 2005

Earlier today I did a Samizdata piece about the dodgy methods being used to sell the Airbus A380, and in the course of googling for info about this massive aircraft, I visited this blog. (Go there now, and scroll down, and you eventually get to an A380 picture.)

This blog, written in a language which is entirely unfamiliar to me, is not a very copying friendly blog, and I assume that the delightful picture it now features of a cross between a high speed sporting motor bike, a Reliant Robin, and a tilting high speed train, will soon be gone. Which would be a pity. So here is a photo of the picture on my screen.


This is the kind of contraption that in earlier times I would have written about and posted pictures of here. (I still remember this amazing device with fondness.) But now, I must put all such things here, adding inexorably to the atmosphere of culture-means-anything-Brian-thinks-is-cool that pertains here, and which I have no plans to resist.


And how about that, which I found here?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:50 PM
January 12, 2005
Bridge that rolls up

Watching telly this evening I finally heard the word I needed to go a-googling after this bridge:

FoldingBridge1.jpg FoldingBridge2.jpg FoldingBridge3.jpg

Cute, yes?

Slightly bigger versions of those pictures, and a description of how it works, here.

The word I needed was Heatherwick, the name of the designer. BBC4 TV had a show about him this evening.

More recently, Heatherwick has done this. Which was unveiled this very evening, apparently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
January 09, 2005
My back yard from the air

Incoming email from Billy Beck, who reckons I might like this photo, of my part of London, from an airplane. He reckons right, partly because of the cute little union jack, shining forth in the gloom, but mostly because of what's on the ground.


Not to be used for any reason blah blah, so maybe it will vanish from here, but either way you can find a bigger version here.

I live pretty much in the middle, and can pick out all my local roads and walks. Top(ish) right(ish): the Wheel. Bottom in the middle: Battersea Power Station. Three famous parks (left to right): the right hand end of Hyde Park, Green Park and St James' Park.

Did some more rootling at the same site, and also came across this rather striking picture of an Airbus A320 control panel.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:32 PM
January 06, 2005
Another nice bridge

Regulars here will know that I collect bridges. So, here's a rather pretty one, this being one of a number of pictures that appear here. That's right: Eton. I found it while concocting this posting.


Why I was younger I too had a brief phase playing with objects like this, although on a smaller scale. Hyperbolic paraboloid was what my things were called, although the maths at the end of that link remains utterly foreign to me. My things, like the bridge also looks, were constructed entirely of straight lines, but were pleasingly curved.

Which makes me suspect that this bridge was probably built by Etonians. It looks like a boy thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:01 AM
December 20, 2004
Skating in the Eiffel Tower

This guy linked to this, and from him I learned of this, this being that they have built a skating rink inside the Eiffel Tower. The photo he has is okay, but I found what I believe is a better one here:


It's all part of the big Paris Push to get the 2012 Olympics.

Interesting the way they're doing cool things in cities, just to get these games. The games themselves, I think, are stupid. But the things being done to get them include some good stuff. Like this.

London is in this race too. With luck we'll get lots of good things too. And Paris will get the damn games.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:02 PM
December 16, 2004
iPod earings

That's it really. What I'm saying is: It's only a matter of time.

"We understood the whole thing with these players can't be just functionality, that we always concentrated on," she said. "People were using them as fashion statements."


And they're getting smaller and smaller. So …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:45 PM
December 14, 2004
A huge new viaduct in the south of France

A dramatic new bridge!

Taller than the Eiffel Tower and longer than the Champs Elysee, the Millau viaduct was today unveiled by President Jacques Chirac to acclaim as a marvel of art and architecture.

Its seven slender pillars, the tallest rising to 1,122ft (340 metres), were likened to needles supporting a taut thread in one the many poetic newspaper front pages marking the elegant structure's unveiling to the nation.

That's how Times Online reports its opening, and these Times Online photos were the best I could find of it.


This picture of the bridge under construction, from above, is also very good.

Economically it looks crazy to me. A few more curves on the road and they could surely have saved themselves billions. But what the hell, it looks very fine. And a British architect! Although, I'm not sure it's exactly what you'd call architecture.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:22 PM
December 02, 2004
B with wings (again)

For as long as they keep on parking it there, I'm going to go on photographing it.


A click gets it bigger.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas. A white something, anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:29 PM
November 29, 2004
The B with wings in November

Another photo for Tatyana's son (see comments here). It's the same car. But the view is slightly different, and the leaves on the trees have now gone.


Click to get the same thing bigger.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 AM
November 11, 2004
Balls of steel

I like these, which I got to via this, and then wandering.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:50 PM
Pictures of the London Olympic bid

Busy day, so expect not a lot from me here today, other than this.

On my blog travels I stumbled upon the pictures being emitted in connection with the London Olympic bid.

If this was a Samizdata posting, I would now sneer for a paragraph at the London Olympic bid. But this is not Samizdata, so I will merely say I'm not sure about these edifices. Plus, as a London council tax payer in a part of London that the Labour Party has it in for, I am very nervous about what it will cost me.

I can see these objects working quite well during the Olympics, but then what? What, for instance, will happen to all those huge walkways? The phrase "herd of white elephants" suggests itself.

See a bigger version of this aerial view …


here. Note that you can see that other white elephant, the Dome, in the distance.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:36 AM
November 08, 2004
Two faces of London

Today I was wandering around in the general area of Samizdata HQ in Chelsea, and came across this house - 50 Glebe Place, London SW3. That's a pretty bad photo at the other end of that link, but it gives you an idea. Mine is better focussed but only shows half of it.


I did a proper view from further back, but it came out blurry. Write out fifty times: I will always keep the camera still.

I googled, but all I could find about 50 Glebe Place was "vimero" describing it as "the most beautiful house in London", but saying nothing else about it.

I'll have to try looking in a book, which I don't have time to do now.

And I will also go back and try to do a better photo.

Meanwhile here is another photo of a very different sort of London exterior facade, of the generally rather dull but occasionally, as here, amusing lights in Piccadilly Circus, which I was driven through last night on my way back from doing some radio.


When you photo lights like these, you often get effects of a sort you could never actually see, as in this case. The same thing can happen, but in a less good way, when you photo TV, as I like to do from time to time.

The journey to the BBC last night was a nightmare of diversionary panic, and I only got there with about two minutes to spare. I could have walked quicker. The diversions were because they were putting up the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, which (on the way back) looked really rather good. I snapped away from inside the car, but none of those snaps came out properly either. Funny, on the way, it was nothing but bloody red lights. But when I wanted red lights, so I could snap the Christmas lights from a stationary car instead of a blurrily moving one, it was bloody green greeen green all the way.

I'll be back, on foot.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:14 PM
November 07, 2004
Modern structures

Michael Jennings has another of his big set piece postings up at Samizdata, about his recent trip to Spain and Portugal. He is a container spotter, it turns out. He includes a most useful map.

Two things caught my eye. First was this observation about recent architectural trends:

(Yes, okay, I realise I am in a minority in that I go to look at industrial sights when I travel, but the most interesting architectural trend in the world is what is being done with decaying industrial structures, and how they are being rebuilt with modern materials and modern design to become commercial and residential centres. The result has a tendency to look like monsters with spider webs growing on them. Bilbao as a whole is maybe the best and most fascinating example of this kind of thing in the world. The Guggenheim museum in Bilbao works architecturally because it understands this and complements the rather brutal architecture around it - not because it is some gem surrounded by a sea of effluent (as most guidebooks seem to suggest). Don't tell me you have missed this trend entirely? Yes. You have missed it entirely).

And the other thing I emjoyed was an aerial photo of the city of Porto, featuring a couple of huge bridges. Porto was nothing but a football club to me, until today.

Porto is a city with a chasm through the middle of it, through which flows the magnificent Douro river crossed by wonderful bridges built during the 20th century.

Here is a river level close up of one of them, which I found here:


What the aerial view does not show, but what this close-up does show, is the way that this bridge (and the other similar one?) doubles up as a high level arch bridge that the trains use, and as a low level suspension bridge that you can drive or walk across. Clever. I've not seen this sort of arrangement anywhere else. But then, I've not been to many places. Certainly not to Porto.

It was about time I had another bridge here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:29 PM
October 24, 2004
Looking gorgeous in pictures

For reasons of my own I need to display a cinema poster, which I saw in the tube yesterday.

I have been watching L'Appartment (silly me - I completely missed those Hitchcock references - he likes it too) and this has given me a taste for French Romantic comedies with gorgeous and fascinating women and adoring but decidedly ridiculous not to say ugly men (I wonder why), and, well anyway, here is another that looks promising.

CommeUne ImageS.jpg

Something about how 'society' (i.e. me and you and everybody) attaches too much importance to looking gorgeous in a picture, a point made (I'm guessing) by making lots of gorgeous pictures (i.e. a movie) about a particularly gorgeous woman …


… (and god help anyone who wasn't gorgeous who was up for that part), and others of the kind of gorgeous woman who can be made up to look non-gorgeous, with done-up hair and glasses, which can then be undone and taken off. …


IMPORTANT NOTE: All these french actresses have distracted me from doing an Important Posting about the play I saw last weekend. I now have no time to do the review of this that I promised in the previous posting. The instructions at the top of that posting about what to do if I did not post this posting immediately are now inopperative. I will try to do the review over the weekend. It's my blog and I'll procrastinate if I want to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:52 PM
October 06, 2004
B with wings and trees and sky

A lot yesterday. Today, just a quota photo.


It's a car, a Bentley.

I am learning that the things that the human eye hardly registers, to the camera can be fascinating.

And vice versa. Yesterday London enjoyed bright sunshine, followed by rain, in other words, a rainbow! To look at, it was spectacular. I took photos. Boring. We don't need a camera to make us notice a rainbow. So, the camera adds nothing.

Reflections in cars, on the other hand, we are programmed not to notice. We only notice the cars. The camera sees it all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:49 PM
September 30, 2004
Tubular art

I just watched a nice little TV programme ("Map Man" BBC2 TV 7.30pm) about the London Tube Map, during which a brief reference was made to this:


I found my way to it via here. (Scroll down to "The Tube Map as Art".) Art? Well, if an "artist" says so, so be it, but all the art in this is surely down to the original designer, Harry Beck. Simon Patterson's rehash is not very profound, being little more than a joke. But it does show what a very strong design the original is.

Change all the stations, yet still it remains instantly recognisable.

The philosophers go round and round in a circle, going nowhere. Ho ho.

I also found myself being intrigued by the sight of this. Strange how isolating the middle of the original muddle makes it seem so much less muddled.

More Tube mapology here.

Nice things were also said on the programme about the design of the Moscow Underground map.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:16 PM
September 24, 2004
Nice shoe


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:36 PM
September 14, 2004

Profuse thanks to Adriana, for the link, to this report:

A Hungarian architect has combined the world’s most popular building material with optical fiber to create LiTraCon a new type of concrete that transmits light. The results are stunning.




Where does she find these things?

Well, I can tell you where that picture at the top with the trees came from. It came from this guy. Go there. Worth a scroll. I like this. More games with light. A bit too seventiesish to live with though.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:10 PM
September 12, 2004
Big maps on the ground in public places

This, from Beyond Brilliance, looks like a fine idea. The idea being: a giant map on the floor of a public space, of the surrounding places. The one they illustrate is quite large scale, it would appear, and is in Washington DC.

My guess would be that, what with all these new materials (spin-off from Space Shuttles blah blah blah) everyone talks about these days, this kind of thing has got a whole lot easier to do than it would have been, say, twenty years ago.

I'm guessing ceramics would be how to do it. If you had a London map in, say Trafalgar Square, there would be nothing to prevent other almost identical maps, done with the same kit of ceramic tiles, in other open spaces, if the idea caught on and was liked.

And I know that ceramic tiles have improved dramatically in recent years, because I collect promotional mugs. The old ones get scratched when regularly washed, and the colours of whatever promotional junk is on them often fades quite badly. Coffee/tea gets stuck in scratches. Not good. But more recent mugs with lots of colourful messages on them remain pristine no matter what vicious scourers are applied to them.

Are there any maps like this in London already, for me to go and photo?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:37 PM
September 09, 2004
A tale of two posters

I spent most of my blogging time this evening concocting this, so only time for a quicky here, in the form of a snap taken in the Underground of a movie poster:


I like this poster a lot, if only because of the cricket bat. How often do you see cricket bats in movie posters? And wielded by the leading man?

But there is another reason to pay attention to this poster, which is that it illustrates an interesting trend. Look carefully. This is not an advert for the cinema release of this movie. It is an advert for the DVD and the video. I remember being very struck when I first noticed this trend, which has surely only happened since the arrival of DVD.

Here, by way of contrast, is the poster for the original cinema release. No sign of that splodge of yellowness. What's that about?


That was to be seen a lot on phone boxes. Which makes sense, I think you will agree.

Interesting that the DVD poster makes great play of quotes from the critics, the way the cinema poster doesn't. Presumably this reflects the fact that the adult stay-at-home audience is the one that buys the DVDs and adults pay more attention to critics. I certainly find that I do, now, as I get more … mature.

Prediction In a few years time, DVDs and DVD players will have got so good that cinemas will in many cases simply be big DVD playing rooms, with both domestic machines and cinemas using the same software. Why not? Under the influence of the copying menace, movies will get more numerous, but on average "smaller", with the big hits being surprise successes rather than big blockbuster pre-crafted smash hits of the sort that will immediately attract piratical attention.

Michael Jennings will be giving my next Last Friday of the Month talk, on the 24th, about the impact of new technology on the workings of Hollywood, and although he may not talk about this particular matter (what with the impact of new technology on Hollywood being such a huge subject), I will try to remember to ask him about this. He has already told me that in his opinion the copying of big movies is done by treacherous Hollywood insiders (in a manner that Hollywood doesn't like to talk about) rather than by people sneaking into cinemas with cameras (the story Hollywood prefers).

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 PM
July 22, 2004
Hating what we have – loving what we lose

Arts & Letters Daily links to an article which kicks off from a thought that has been close to my heart for some time now, especially the parking lot reference:

Many years ago, I was supposed to move to Los Angeles, but every time I went there, something about the light and space made me think that life was basically meaningless and you might as well surrender hope right away. I was still an art critic in those days, and I would drive from north-east of Los Angeles, where I was supposed to settle into my new suburban existence, over to the downtown museums, look at some art, and drive back. But when I got home I would find that the hours I'd spent negotiating freeway merge lanes and entrances and exits and parking garages was, in some mysterious way, more memorable than the museums. I was supposed to have a head full of paintings or installations, but instead, I was preoccupied with the anonymously ugly spaces that are not on the official register of what any place is supposed to be.

Every city has them. Thinking about Paris is more likely to bring to mind the Eiffel Tower, or graceful rows of mansard-roofed buildings on chestnut-lined boulevards, than the long cement passages of the Métro lit by bad fluorescence and smelling of piss, or the dank passageways descending from cafés into Turkish toilets. Even national parks steer their visitors into an asphalted world of public toilets, parking lots, and thou-shalt-not signage, stuff that almost everyone is good at fast-forwarding past to the waterfalls and forest glades and elk doing ungulate things in public. Certainly a waterfall is more striking than the parking lot near its foot, but I wonder how it is that visitors can be so sure they saw what they were supposed to and so oblivious of what they were not.

Human aesthetic response is very strange. Very strange. One day, a totally different way of getting around to the automobile will be devised. Something involving jet-packs or helicopters or gravity engines that enable vehicles to travel the way they do in The Fifth Element (an architecturally fascinating movie, I think you will agree). And at that exact moment, all the automobile crap we now complain about – the motorways, motorway intersections, signposts, petrol stations, and car parks – will suddenly acquire the charm of a village made of thatched cottages. Those big and complicated motorway intersections will remain as great big picturesque ruins and be clambered over by tourists armed with whatever has replaced digital cameras. I mean, Spaghetti Junction has all the makings of a future Stone Henge.

By the same token, when thatched cottages was all there was, I'm absolutely sure that people went around saying: bloody thatched cottages.

Or to put it another way, as I once heard it put, as soon as pylons stop being put up and start being taken down, the Society for the Preservation of Pylons will at once be formed, and people will go out and spot them, the way they now spot steam locomotives.


Pylons photoed by me from the train, in northern France, on my Brussels trip earlier this year.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 AM
July 16, 2004
Philippe Starck

Two pictures. The first, on the left, which I took a few hours ago, is of my lemon squeezer. This cost me - what? - about a quid? And on the right is world famous designer Philippe Starck's world famous redesign of the same object.

LemonSqueezerOld.jpg    LemonSqueezer.jpg

It's a brilliantly appealing idea, but apparently the thing itself doesn't work very well. I'm guessing that the juice doesn't go quite where it should, that, for example, it goes down the legs as well as down from the point in the middle) and that the pip problem is … a problem. My one may demand a two stage process, but it does the job.

But the price of the Philippe Starck Lemon Squeezer is right, i.e. very high, and lots of people buy the as an art object, confident that lots more will be frightened away by that same price, and presumably also by the fact that as an actual lemon squeezer it is unsatisfactory.

With my Intellectual Property hat on, I ask: is anyone else allowed to take the same basic idea and try to make it work properly, and if not why not? And while they're about it, to lower the price? Do they have to ask Philippe Starck's permission?

In general, what is the fate of brilliant ideas, badly exploited? Great scripts, abominably acted or directed, with hideous camera work? Great concepts for tin openers, that could open tins brilliantly, but which actually don't because that extra bit of work that should have been done wasn't done?

But there is no denying that Starck's Lemon Squeezer is very elegant, in an Invaders from Mars in a fifties film kind of way. But is it really just a piece of sculpture, that merely looks like it could squeeze lemons? (Later in the evening, Robert Hughes made a similar point about that famous Rietveld chair. It may look like a chair, he said. But after carefully sitting on it, he declared it to be sculpture.)

I learned about this Lemon Squeezer because there was a TV show about Starck on BBC4 TV last night.

Good designers, said the Hostile Talking Head talking about Starck on the telly, do ordinary things extraordinarily well. Starck does extraordinary things, but rather badly.

They showed some Starck designed hotels. I hate hotels. Starck's hotels look to me like hotels only more so, so I assume that I would hate his hotels even more. They are like James Bond sets, of the "sophisticated" sort, where gambling takes place and where Bond says things like "Bond. James Bond." Except that they are even more kitschy and decadent and hideous.

The Hostile Talking Head said that these hotels photograph better than they work as hotels. The presenter is called them super-elitist, and ultra fashionable, and added that there's nothing so unfashionable as an ex-fashion.

Hostile Talking Head: the best design is like the best English butler. It's always there, but you don't notice it.

Starck, you notice. What he truly excels at, the Hostile Talking Head had said, in his first sally of the programme, is self promotion. I know this because they're now showing the programme again, and I can inform you that the Hostile Talking Head is Stephen Bayley. He's quite a good self-promoter too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 AM
April 28, 2004
Styling the Dreamliner: "… more to do with marketing than aerodynamics"

There is a fascinating "cultural" titbit buried in this article (linked to by Transport Blog In Brief section - April 28th) about the battle between Boeing and Airbus for the aircraft market. I'm sure others have spotted this months ago, but I've only just realised what is going on here.

Styling has finally hit aircraft design:

… The Dreamliner will be the first airliner with a fuselage made entirely of lightweight carbon fibre and plastic instead of aluminium, allowing the aircraft to burn 20 per cent less fuel than similar aircraft.
Its windows are 30 per cent bigger and "electrically dimmable", meaning the view does not have to be blocked by lowering the blinds. It will also look different from other aircraft, with a pointed nose and a swept tailfin.

So far so logical. But now hear this:

Mike Bair, Boeing’s senior vice-president, admitted that the aircraft’s appearance had more to do with marketing than aerodynamics.


"The airlines wanted something that people would recognise. So that influenced the design, much to the chagrin of our engineers who normally decide what the aircraft is going to look like."

The "chagrin of our engineers"!

Mr Bair said Boeing would even be willing to sacrifice a small amount of efficiency in order to preserve the Dreamliner's unique appearance. Andrew Doyle, of Flight International magazine, said Boeing was desperate to have an aircraft as distinctive as the double-deck A380 but added that the key factor in the battle between the two aircraft would be people's willingness to fly with 800 other people.

The significance of this little moment in aircraft history would, from the aesthetic point of view, be hard to overestimate. For a century, the airplane has been held up by designers (and in particular by envious architects) as the perfect expression of how form follows function. When Le Corbusier wanted to rethink architecture, he said it should be done like a modern airplane, not like the decorated Victoriana he so hated.

But now, the aesthetics of airplanes has gone beyond painting them in wild and wacky colours. The very shape of the airplane itself is now being considered as a distinct matter from the mere engineering considerations which give rise to such shapes. Form has stopped entirely following function. Now, function is starting to accommodate itself to form. And form comes not (only) from the engineers, but from the comics and the movies and sculpting department where they attend to such things. (Virginia Postrel must surely have spotted this, and loved it, although searching for Boeing at her blog didn't yield any treasure.)


Airplanes are now becoming like cars, in other words.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:44 PM
April 18, 2004
Nice poster shame about the movie

I won't be seeing the movie because it's not (any longer) my kind of thing, but I do (still) love these huge movie posters. How much would they be paying per week for a spread like this?


This one was photoed last week, right under where the Eurostars come and go in and out of Waterloo.

Looks like tosh to me. But I'm glad to see Kate Beckinsale keeping busy. That must be her in the poster.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:23 PM
March 24, 2004
I'm a web designer!

He already had this. But I was the one who turned that into this and now there is this.

Warning: I'm not cheap, and you will have to sort out all that … (waves hand in air) … computer stuff, for yourselves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:08 AM
March 12, 2004
Nanotech jewelry will soon be here (if it isn't already)

Via here and here, I found myself here.

swissUSB.jpg   iPod.jpg   earrings.jpg

This, and also this make you think, I think. Swiss Army Knife is one way to go, but the really cool stuff soon will surely be jewelry. I mean, the logical place to hang a nano-iPod is on your ear, right?

Comments linking to someone already doing this welcome.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:49 AM
March 09, 2004
The flying motorbike from Oz

It's a funny old Internet. I went looking for pictures of the modernistical composer George Ligeti, and found my way also to this:


Yes, it's the Ligeti Stratos, which took to the air in late eighties Australia but never achieved economic lift-off. It makes it to Brian's Culture Blog because it looks so cute.


It was very small, and very light, and took off and landed in a very small space. It could even land by sprouting a parachute if it had to. Which it never did because it could also glide well.

It was a biplane with swept wings on the bottom and unswept wings on the top, joined together at their tips.

But, nobody wanted one, not even James Bond (unless Timothy Dalton did a turn in one and I missed it). Or, they never got to the point of being able to ask people if they wanted one.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:36 PM
March 06, 2004
Why are so many people dressed in black these days?

I'm noticing it all around me, wherever I go. People entirely dressed in black.

I'm now watching a chamber music concert from the Barbican, on BBC4 TV. And all the musicians are wearing entirely black.

This works well. Black is black. There can be no argument about whether a garment is or is not black. It either is black, or it is not black. So, provided all their visible garments are black, they end up looking like team players, even though in all other respects their garments are completely of their own choosing. Convenience, and style.

But it isn't just classical musicians; it's everyone. Take a random picture of a crowd in London. What you get is black.

I never realised I had a blog posting in this until now, so I haven't been opportunistically snapping people in black. I have just been doing it anyway, in the natural course of photographing other things. It took me about one minute to dig out this picture from my photo-archives, which shows you exactly the kind of thing I mean. It was taken at Victoria Station, just near where I live, because I liked the way the station framed the view of the distant cityscape and because I had some idea of blogging about how the camera sees very warm and very blue colours when the eye sees only grey. But in the process I snapped a typical clutch of People In Black and here they are:


It's not total. There are some guys in light coloured trousers, and another guy in a beige top. But on the whole: black, black, black.

I can't be the only one to have noticed this. Come to think of it I have girl readers, who probably know about fashion and all that. Maybe they can enlighten us all. I.e. me and my boy readers.

What is going on here? Does 9/11 have anything to do with it? Is Nazism on the rise? (Guess: no. Another guess: the memory of Hitler's Black Shirts had to dim as a precondition for this happening.)

Is it something to do with the Baby Boom getting old, and needing something Dignified yet Not Done Before to do with their clothing? It is noticeable that black clothing and the grey hair of the rather elderly piano player do look rather good together.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:09 PM
The expected - and the unexpected

A couple of photos from my walkabouts yesterday.

First, number two in what may or may not become a series here: London Pubs Dwarfed by Surrounding Modernity. Number one having been picture number two of this posting.


This one is the Albert, in Victoria Street, just down the road from Westminster City Hall in the Parliament Square direction.

That was the picture I went looking for. But later, in a charity shop, I found something much more unexpected. A swastika!


All perfectly logical and all perfectly innocent.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:47 AM
March 02, 2004
"Aesthetics matter"

Patrick Crozier, basically talking about safety, tangents interestingly into aesthetics, here.

… Last week I walked into a shop in Twickenham’s high street and bought myself a throw and two cushions. I could have spent that money on health insurance but I didn’t. Why not? Because aesthetics matter. They matter to me. Do the test for yourself. How much do you spend on clothes, CDs, pictures and soft furnishings? How much extra do you spend on cars, houses and stereos in order to get a better looking one? Plenty, I should think. Why? Because aesthetics matter. Because they matter to you. Remember, you could have spent that money on health insurance or a safer car/house/stereo. But you didn't. Why not? Because the marginal aesthetic benefit was more important to you than the marginal benefit to your health or personal safety.

Amen. Very Postrelian. But what is a "throw"?

Tangenting (a useful verb I think - it eliminates the need for the misleading, because suggestive of out-of-controlness, word "flying", as in: off at) myself, I think and have always thought that Patrick writes well. And I think he has a definite preference for short sentences, if this quote is anything to go by. I'm sure there's a connection.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:28 PM
February 25, 2004
More footbridges – in Redding, London, and Newcastle

Knowing my fondness for stylish new bridges, a while ago David Sucher emailed me – and knew that I would like the look and the sound of – this:

The bridge is Mr. Calatrava's first free-standing bridge in the United States. Scheduled to open in April, it is already poised to alter the image of a conservative, decidedly unaffluent community that has struggled with its identity since the decline of the timber industry in the early 1990's. Shaped like a reclining harp with an aquamarine glass deck, the bridge threatens to bring high romance to a river whose niche in the popular American imagination has never rivaled that of the Hudson or the Mississippi.

It's a new footbridge in Redding, California, for crossing the Sacramento River. My personal map of America has no red bits at all, so I don't really know where this is, but it sounds wonderful.

Footbridges have been on my mind a lot because of the three new ones across the Thames in London: the Millenium and the two Hungerfords. As I explained in this posting, walking towards Charing Cross on the downstream Hungerford is especially good fun, because when you get to dry land the fun doesn't end. The footpath dives into a tiled mystery world worthy of a Jack the Ripper movie, and then, in order to find its way to a new (i.e. last decade or so) bit of elevated walkway, it goes over this:


… which I think is nice, although I agree, many may not be that impressed.

You then either nip down some stairs into Villiers Street (get an A-Z – I can't be explaining everything) or you go through the concourse of Charing Cross Station. Either way, you discover that at the top end of Villiers Street, there is another footbridge.


This seems to connect the Charing Cross Hotel, which is right on top of the old, still olden style, people entrance to the railway station (the train entrance having been totally redone) to …well, I'm not sure. The other bit of the Charing Cross Hotel, the other side of Villiers Street? None of the websites involving the Charing Cross Hotel make any mention of this little bridge, even though it surely deserves a nod of recognition. It looks as if it was built at the same time as the hotel and station itself. Anyone able to tell us more about it?

And talking of private, covered and rather mysterious footbridges, I now come to the bridge which regular Brian's Culture Blog commenter Tatyana Epstein told me to photo, and eventually gave up asking about because she assumed I was not interested. But I was and I am. This bridge is the real point of this posting. What delayed me was that I found it rather hard to photograph. Plus, I wanted to do a longish posting about footbridges in general, to get them all out of the way, rather than just a casual snap of this one little bridge, and then have more footbridges in later postings, and more, and yet more, until everyone got fed up with footbridges.

Anyway, Tatynana's bridge connects the Royal Opera House Covent Garden with the Royal Ballet School.

There is something very charming about a balletically beautiful footbridge enabling ballerinas to get from their ballet-nunnery or whatever it is, to their big cathedral, without having to cross the street, where the poor little creatures might be attacked and damaged, or where they might be persuaded by passing graphic designers or record producers to forget their ballet vows.

The new 9.5m span footbridge for the Royal Ballet School crosses Floral Street at fourth floor level and provides a direct link between classrooms and stage for the ballet dancers and staff of the school. The design addresses a series of complex contextual issues and is legible both as a fully integrated component of the Royal Ballet School and the Royal Opera House, and as an independent architectural element with a strong identity.

Yeah yeah.

The skewed alignment and the differing landing levels dictate the form of the crossing, disfavouring ‘neutral’ orthogonal solutions which would result in an inappropriate geometric interaction with the opposing buildings, and accentuate the fact that the bridge is pragmatically planned. The complete bridge structure was pre-assembled off-site before being craned into position in one efficient operation.

Well, if website guff like that is the price of this bridge, then I'll gladly pay it. Nevertheless: pragmatically planned, nonsense. The pragmatically planned answer would have been a simple rectanguloid box at an angle, not unlike the pleasing but aesthetically modest footbridge in the first picture here, but with a lid on it in the manner of picture number two. As it was, designers Wilkinson Eyre used the arkwardness of the site as an excuse to build a really weird and wonderful bridge.

Not having access to the inside of the bridge, or to the roof right next to it, or, to be frank, being such a good photographer, I was unable to take any photos as good as the ones here (scroll down a bit), at the Wilkinson Eyre website, by one Nick Wood, of which those two are my favourites:

weballet1.jpg      weballet2.jpg

The best I could manage was this, below. Still, at least the picture is black, white and blue, which Tatyana likes.


balletbr2.jpgPlus, on the right, here is a less satisfactory picture which at least gives you an idea of how the bridge relates to its architectural setting, spanning Floral Street way up high. I will have another crack at this bridge in the summer, when there is more light around, and when it lasts a decent length of time and isn't fading into gloom by the time I get there.

I'm really looking forward to my photographic summer of 2004. I'm learning about my new camera all the time. For example I have recently learned how to take adequate portraits indoors (see the picture of my brother Peter in the posting immediately below this one) without flash – about which I feel an entire blog posting coming on. As I discover more about it, I am ever more relieved that it is pocketable enough to have with me always, and not so expensive that I am totally terrified of dropping it in a river or something. Just rather.

It has already reached the point where, if I did drop my Canon A70 into the river Thames, I would immediately replace it with another Canon A70, which is the ultimate accolade. Further Canon A70 news: my good friend Antoine Clarke, in accordance with the logic of this posting has also just bought a Canon A70. He paid around £180 for it, apparently. So that's a three man user group already, consisting of me, Patrick Crozier, and now Antoine. Four, if you count David Farrer who has, if I recall it right, the (very similar) Canon A80. But I digress.

Final footbridge. I once lived in Newcastle, but I was long gone when they got around to building this:


This is another in the Brian collection of Bridges That Are Longer And Curvier Than You Might Think But For Good Reasons (see comments). This one is long and curved so that it can be lifted up in a way that automatically turns it into an arch, while it still remains in one piece. Very cute.

It features in a recent Newcastle based rom-com movie which I enjoyed more than practically anyone I know or know of, called The One and Only. I couldn't find any production stills of The One and Only, featuring the new footbridge or featuring anything else for that matter.

But for some really terrific pictures of the bridge itself, including the one above, go here. That one, above, shows how curvy the bridge is. This picture, on the other hand, is probably the most dramatic, featuring also other bridges beyond it:


And this one is the most informative, because it shows the bridge in the up position with boats going under it:


Beautiful. I must go there sometime and take a proper look at it. And all the other Newcastle bridges of course.

And with that I will now take a vow of silence on the subject of bridges, for a while.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:44 PM
February 24, 2004
This is not a urinal

urinal.jpgThe ever alert Dave Barry links to this.

With these innovative and playful designs, Meike dazzlingly transforms the bathroom experience, giving a whole new meaning to the term 'total relaxation'. Today's hectic world doesn't usually allow much opportunity or time for our fantasies, but the Bathroom Mania! designs help us to let our minds relax and drift off into another, imaginative world.

And I say that when you are trying to take a piss, you do not want your mind occupied with thoughts of getting a blow job.

The good news is this (scroll to the bottom, if you'll pardon the expression):

Most of these designs are prototypes and not yet for sale. If you are interested in manufacturing any of the Bathroom Mania! designs, please be so kind to contact us.

Please be so kind as not to manufacture this one, please, anyone. Stick this "prototype" in an art gallery where it belongs.

Get infected by the Bathroom Mania!

No. Don't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 AM
February 22, 2004
More from Virginia Postrel on the aesthetic economy

Here is a New York Times article by Substance of Style author Virginia Postrel on the rise of the aesthetic economy.


The official job counters at the Bureau of Labor Statistics don't do much to overcome our blind spots. The bureau is good at counting people who work for large organizations in well-defined, long-established occupations. It is much less adept at counting employees in small businesses, simply because there are too many small enterprises to representatively sample them. The bureau's occupational survey, which might suggest which jobs are growing, doesn't count self-employed people or partners in unincorporated businesses at all. And many of today's growing industries, the ones adding jobs even amid the recession, are comprised largely of small companies and self-employed individuals. That is particularly true for aesthetic crafts, from graphic designers and cosmetic dentists to gardeners. These specialists' skills are in ever greater demand, yet they tend to work for themselves or in partnerships.

So read this blog regularly, and make yourself more employable.

Personally I prefer a world in which the government doesn't spend its time counting people, or come to that doing anything very much. To make her point, Postrel sounds like she'd actually like her government to go snooping around among the ranks of the self-employed, aesthetic and of every other sort. That aside, the point she makes is a good one.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:29 PM
February 16, 2004
Another great bridge photo

Via Instapundit, I got to this:


And it's British. In Middlesbrough.

Talking of bridges, the Samizdata commentariat has now, it would appear, sorted out why the Coronado Bridge was paid for by the Federal Government and why it is so long and so kinky. And it actually does seem to make sense, as I at first contested with extreme enthusiasm. Or rather, as David Sucher notes, it makes sense if you are content with how civilisation won the Cold War, as I am.

Busy day today, so maybe that's your lot. But despite threatening nothing over the weekend, I actually put up quite a lot here, so you may still now have quite a bit to catch up with.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:11 AM
February 12, 2004
Two blokes and a bra

bioform.jpgA favourite brousing place for me is (for I love London more than life itself), and browsing here today I found (click on "British Culture – faces of the year" and go to pic 6) this charming picture. Everyone looks so happy.

What is more, I recognise the two geezers in the background, and diamond geezers they are too. Many months ago, they starred in a series of fascinating TV shows in which they had a go at redesigning various familiar objects. The Shaver, The Toilet, things like that. And one of the things they took a crack at was The Bra. I remember at the time thinking that The Bra seemed like a very well done piece of work, and wondering how well The Bra might do out there in the real market. ("Design Classic" books are full of pictures of famous things that have been more admired by the admiring classes than bought by the buying classes.) Well, it seems that The Bra is doing very well (you have to scroll down a bit).

The Bioform Bra in my opinion uplifts and contours the breasts so well that it immediately takes ten years off a sideways sagging bust. If you are past 40 with a full cup size you may realise that you have not seen your breasts in this position for twenty years. It has the effect of centering the breasts more, whilst uplifting them at the same time. And it does it up to size 42DD with many smaller sizes going up to G cups. Probably the greatest achievement of it, is to successfully lift large breasts and make them look more youthful. Can't be bad, has to be good.

Indeed. Plus, ladies (and gentlemen), there have been developments.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:28 PM
February 04, 2004
Another sexy bridge

Last November I posted a picture of the Coronado Bridge which, it was eventually established, is in San Diego. Gareth Rees commented on this thus:

The San Diego Coronado bridge reminds me of this beautiful cross-sea bridge in Macao.



It's the dip in the middle which makes it special. Also, that must make it a lot easier for the ships to know where they're going.

This bridge reminds me of some hills in the Mid-West of the USA which are called, I think, the "Tetons", which in French means … well, I'm sure you can guess, although at ground level I suppose that this impression wouldn't be so obvious. Well, maybe if, as in this picture, you view it from an angle ...

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:08 PM
February 03, 2004
Paul Johnson on the early spread of printing

Paul Johnson's vast book called Art: A New History (all 777 pages of it) is a most inconvenient volume. It is very big and heavy and unwieldy, and almost every page seems to contain beautiful illustrations of one sort or another. Also, my copy of it was purchased brand new, which is not my usual practice at all. To me books are cheap and expendable, and meanwhile to be treated without care, preferably purchased second hand for next to nothing. Trying to read this book is like having a priceless first edition on my desk all the time, which it may one day be, I suppose. Yet despite all this, as the posting yesterday (see immediately below) illustrates, I am now dipping into this book, and today I came across an interesting description in it of the early spread of the very printing technology, the modern manifestation of which made this book possible.

At least when reading Paul Johnson's book I don't have to worry about spilling coffee on a Gutenberg Bible. Here's how he describes (on pp. 200-201) the way that was created:

In the years 1446-48, two Mainz goldsmiths, Johann Gutenberg and Johann Fust, made use of cheap paper to introduce a critical improvement in the way written pages were reproduced. Printing from wooden blocks was an old method. The Romans used it in textiles. It was the means by which the Mongol Empire ran a paper currency. By 1400, on both sides of the Alps, devotional pictures and playing-cards were being mass-produced by this method. What the Mainz team did was to invent moveable type for the letterpress. It had three merits: it could be used repeatedly until worn out. It was cast in metal from a mould and so could be renewed without difficulty. And it made lettering uniform. In 1450, Gutenberg began work on his Bible, the first printed book, known as the Gutenberg, or Forty-Two-Line Bible, from the number of lines on each page. It was completed in 1455 and is a marvel. As Gutenberg, apart from getting the key idea, had to solve a lot of practical problems, such as typefounding and punch-cutting, devices for imposing paper and ink into the process, and the actual printing itself, for which he adapted the screw-press used by vintners, it is amazing that his first product does not look at all rudimentary. Those who handle it are struck by its clarity and quality. It is a triumph of fifteenth-century German craftsmanship at its best. Indeed, it is a work of art, in the true sense: the application of manual and intellectual skills to produce a thing of beauty, as well as use. Gutenberg was an artist, and a very important one in the history of art, for the spread of black-and-white reproductions in books, which could be hand-coloured, did more to internationalise art than any other factor.

Which is of great interest to this blog, because most of the art experienced here tends to be either mass produced in and of itself, by such things as printing presses, or reproduced and served up here by similar means.


But now in this next bit, which follows on immediately from the quote above, Johnson deals with something which has always puzzled and bothered me, but which I have not read about very much, namely the extreme hideousness and illegibility of the so-called Gothic typefaces used especially by those early German printers. To my eye Gothic makes all letters look the same, which is hardly what you want with a typeface, now is it?

Well, it seems that I'm not the first to have been scornful of this extraordinarily ugly piece of design, which is plainly a creature of the pen, yet which was dumped, so to speak, onto the printing press. I suppose Germans in those days were used to it. But happily the Germans, much though we all owe them for inventing printing in the first place, were unable to make their Gothic habit spread, beyond the opening credits of war movies of course, as Paul Johnson relates:

Printing was one of those technical revolutions which developed its own momentum at extraordinary speed. Christian Europe in the fifteenth century was a place where intermediate technology, as we now call it – that is, workshops with skilled craftsmen – was well-established and spreading fast, especially in Germany and Italy. Such workshops were able to take on printing easily, and it thus became Europe's first true industry. The process was aided by two factors: the new demand for cheap classical texts, which were becoming available anyway, and the translation of the Latin Vulgate Bible into 'modern' languages. Works of reference were also in demand. The first printed encyclopaedia, the Catholicon, appeared in 1460. The next year, the first printed Bible for laymen appeared, quickly followed by the Bible in German, the first printed book in the vernacular. Presses sprang up in several German cities, and by 1470, Nuremberg had established itself as the centre of the international publishing trade, printing books from twenty-four presses and distributing them along trade routes and at trade fairs all over western and central Europe. The old monastic scriptoria worked closely alongside the new presses, continuing to produce the luxury goods that moveable-type printing could not yet supply. Printing aimed at a cheap mass sale. In 1471 the first best-seller appeared, Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ, which by 1500 had gone through ninety-nine editions.

Though there was no competition between the technologies (at Augsburg, the printing presses and the old monastic scriptorium were in the same building), there was rivalry between nations. The Italians made energetic and successful efforts to catch up with Germany. Their most successful scriptorium, at the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco near Rome, quickly imported two leading German printers to set up presses in their book-producing shop. Italian printers had one advantage. German printers worked with the complex typeface the Italians sneeringly referred to as 'Gothic' and which later became known as Black Letter. Outside Germany, readers found this typeface offputting. The Italians had their own clear version of the Carolingian minuscule. This became known as Roman, and was the type of the future. In 1458, Charles VII of France, impressed by the Gutenberg Bible, sent his leading artist-craftsman, Nicolas Jenson, master of the royal mint at Tours, to Mainz, in order to learn 'the art of printing'. But Jenson, having become an expert printer, refused to return to France. Instead he went to Venice and set up what became the most famous printing press in the world. The fonts of Roman type he cut were exported and imitated all over Europe. From 1490 he had a rival: Aldus Manutius, whose Venice press designed and used a practical Greek type for printing the classics, now available and in huge demand among scholars. He also introduced and made popular, c.1501-20, a slanting type based on the cursive hand used in the papal chancery. The international trade called it Italic, and entire books were printed in it before it slipped into its modern role of use for emphasis and quotation.

Hence, although the Germans made use of the paper revolution to introduce moveable type, the Italians went far to regain the initiative by their artistry and their ability to produce luxury items. By 1500 there were printing firms in sixty German cities, but there were 150 presses in Venice alone. …

So that's how it got called Italic.

Good stuff. I keep having to relearn this lesson. You don't have to read books in the correct order and all the way through. And Johnson's book especially seems to be the kind that will reward casual dipping.

Expect further dips from it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
January 18, 2004
On the aesthetics of gadgets

Reading Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style didn't tell me much that I didn't know, but it encouraged me to think more about how technically advanced and advancing electronics-based products do and do not benefit from the input of aestheticians. And I was also caused to think some more about such things by this link from Alex Singleton's personal techy-blog to this rather stylish computer. It is small, cute, and made out of just one piece of aluminium, and with a flat and empty top. And see also this picture of Perry de Havilland's new computer.

Perry's new computer has a curvy top. I prefer flat and empty tops for this kind of beast (also for music boxes), such as the thing Alex linked to has, because then you can put other gadgets on top, and pens, and paper clips and biros and Disprin and plates of food and cups of coffee. My new digital radio is wondrous, but I can't put stuff on top of it, and my new digital TV add-on is shaped not like a book but like a bug and is most inconvenient. Here is a case where being "aesthetic" is a downright negative.

The trouble with getting all aesthetic about computers, aside from the trouble caused by doing it badly, is that the technology is not stable. Imagine how car design would be if every two years or so they invented a whole new subsystem you had to bolt onto the thing. But actually, car design is stable. That is why the aesthetics department of car companies is so large and so important and so commercially vital. Aesthetics can regularly make the difference between car famine and car feast, and once you've perfected your new design, it can, with a bit of ducking and weaving, last quite a few years.

Not so with computers. By the nature of computer technology, extra bits of junk accumulate all the time. Techies may reply: ah but you can stuff it all inside, and thus ensure the aesthetic integrity of that cool box. Yes, but non-techies are the ones most influenced by aesthetics, and non-techies prefer to just add things on by adding them on, on the outside. (This is why the USB standard for adding on add-ons is so important to us non-techies.)

That said, computer technology is now more stable than it was ten years ago, and for that reason, computers of all kinds are becoming more aesthetic. Think Apple. The trend now is more towards buying a very similar machine every few years to the one you had before for far less money, or towards buying a massively more powerful machine than the one you had for the same money, but with the basic architecture and functioning of the machine changing less now than it was changing ten years ago. Computers are becoming more carlike, in other words. Hence, as with cars, the boxes are getting rather prettier.

The other things that influence whether gizmo aesthetics are worth bothering with are expense, and portability, which are closely related of course. Portability equals small. And with luck, small may mean cheap, and hence replaceable in entirely every year or two.

My new digital camera is very aesthetic, and yours too no doubt, if you have one. Why? Because digital cameras don't have add-ons. When digital camera technology does its customary leap forward every eighteen months the only ways to respond are either by getting a new camera, or by making do with the old one. Add-ons get added on in the design stage. Users aren't going to cart them around in their pockets.

(Although, I do sometimes carry with me my little widget for stuffing the photos on my Flash Card into other people's computers. Aesthetically, this gadget bears no relation to my camera. By the way, being able to take this little thing on holiday with me is part of why I didn't want to bolt it irrevocably into my big box computer.)

It is noticeable that aesthetics has a far greater impact on the shaping of portable computers than it does on the shaping of the big bastard non-portable computers of the sort that I have. This is because, for the kind of people who buy them, portable computers are actually very cheap (corporate petty cash) and are hence replaced every year or two in their entirety, and because portable computer people can't be doing with carting extra bits of clobber around. Thus it makes sense for someone to pull everything in a portable computer together into a sexy looking package. As with cars, all the components are the same as they are for all the other portable makers (not completely true but it will do as a generalisation). Aesthetics can make all the difference.

Portability also says aesthetics because portability means that you are more likely to be showing the thing off to second parties, to corporate rivals, to admiring audiences. Portable gizmos are more likely to be aesthetic status goods. See also: portable phones. Very similar tendencies there to digital cameras, only more so. Think of all those fancy new cases you can buy for them. And note how when portable phones do a leap forward technologically, aesthetics steps back a little. (That's happening now, isn't it? – and those fancy covers are a little less common now. They'll be back.)

But that big computer box that stays under my desk? The only aesthetic I want there is how such things look when they work well. The functional look is all I want there. The aesthetic "honesty" of the engineering brick or the out-of-town warehouse circa 1960. My computer is a boring metal box which is there to do a job, not to look cute. And it looks like a boring metal box, which is just fine by me. We need to be "smart and pretty" now, says Postrel. All I want from my big box computer is smart, thank you.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:11 PM
January 07, 2004
More bridges

Not feeling well today, so a quota picture from the archives is all I can manage, of the Millenium Footbridge (the one that wobbled) which joins St Pauls to Tate Modern, looking downstream. Tower Bridge beyond.


Taken with the old camera, so a hint of strawberry icecream in the sky, I'm afraid.

I rather think I may have put up something like this here before. The way I see it is: never mind. It's pretty.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:02 PM
December 31, 2003
A nice picture

On Monday night I attended a dinner party and my hosts had this image up on their wall, which I rather like. It's by Peter Saville, a new name to me, but a very big cheese in the world of graphic design, record sleeves, etc..

I rootled around various websites and the version here is the best that I could quickly find:


It's called "Colour and form" and dates from 2002. Saville was a late-comer, compared to many graphic artists, to computers, but now he loves them.

Once again, it seems that in all innocence I've picked a very well known picture, one of those ones that lots of much Better Informed people know about and like, apart from maybe disliking how many badly informed people like me like it too.

In a way, art is a bit like pop music, in that things which are merely rather nice get copied and experienced on this colossal scale, which seems out of all proportion to the modest niceness of the original object. Add a couple of million square yards of posh writing in praise of these innocuously nice objects and you're going to stir up a lot of hostility, not to the things themselves exactly, but to the enormous fuss that gets made of them. This fuss (which I'm now adding to of course) seems particularly bizarre when you compare it to the total lack of fuss that is made about millions of other objects and images which are just as nice but which don't happen to have got the attention of the Designers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:36 PM
December 23, 2003
Today I'm fobbing you off with postage stamps

Did a posting today on Samizdata about these Christmas stamps, and some of the commenters have responded with links to other countries' corresponding efforts.

Other than that, nothing here today. And this week, be thankful for whatever materialises.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
December 21, 2003
Why the absence of style?

As you can see from Michael Jennings' report on Samizdata, I have finally got my hands on a copy of a book which should probably have been a founding text for this blog, namely Virginia Postrel's The Substance of Style.

The picture of me and Michael is particularly gruesome, is it not? And it raises the more serious question of why it is that geezers like me and Michael, who are not at all indifferent to matters aesthetic, are nevertheless content to attend social events and to be photographed at them, while contriving themselves to look like … well, invent your own put-down. Seriously, there really does seem to be a tendency for people to compartmentalise their aesthetic endeavours. The extreme case probably being the stereotypical artist, who paints genuinely beautiful paintings or makes genuinely beautiful sculptures, but whose home is a dirty shambles and who dresses like an ugly old tramp.

I toook quite a few pictures myself at that Samizdata do, but I think my new Canon A70 digital camera is wrongly adjusted for indoor stuff, indeed for anything which moves, even a little. Can anyone suggest which nob or setting I might need to twiddle? Once I get that right, there may be no more artistically blurry pictures to show off here, but there may be better pictures of people. Thanks for all the kind feedback about those pictures by the way, in the comments, last night, and in emails.

UPDATE: Oh dear.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
December 15, 2003
"Love the tie" – "Thanks it's Hepatitis-B"

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you are interested in unusual designs, Dave Barry should be on your permanent list of places to go.

Thanks to him and his army of curiosity seekers, I got to look at these deadly disease ties. Amazing.

Busy evening. That may be your lot for today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:58 PM
December 14, 2003
A non-conformist car is no good if everyone else has it too

I know it's not to everyone's taste, but I love this car. Or, I did.


It was an immediate hit, but now sales are slumping. Why the slump?

This is the New York Times report:

What happened? Industry analysts say the fate of the PT Cruiser mirrors that of other halo cars - the industry term for unique vehicles that are meant to cast a favorable light on a company's lineup, drawing customers into showrooms.

The PT's experience echoes that of Volkswagen's New Beetle, which arrived on the market two years earlier, in 1998, to even more acclaim. Interest in the car fell after VW failed to offer new versions to keep the excitement going.

But I wonder if "new versions" would have saved the PT Cruiser. My take is that the initial enthusiasm was because this was a truly different car, and that it then slumped because too many other people had the damn thing for you to be a true individualist, different-from-the-crowd guy if you then bought one.

Buy one of the first, you’re a trend setter. By one now, you’re a trend follower.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:25 PM
December 11, 2003
More PMI

Time I had another posh picture, straight, with no post-modern irony.

Here's one I found earlier:


Ah, culture. Seriously, can anyone point me to the original, into which ML is inserted? And I seem to recall that in the original, he isn't so happy, right?

I found it via (again), but can't remember how exactly. It's something to do with these people, who also link to this amazing page, which I am now about to link to from Samizdata, because they'll love it.

Post-modern irony is a hard habit to shake.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
November 30, 2003
Taxpayer's Bridge

I love a good bridge, and last night at the Samizdata blogger bash I found out about this site, which Samizdata has been linked to all year long.

I rootled around there, and this is the best looking bridge I've found so far:


Follow the link above for a somewhat bigger version of this fine picture.

The web-address for it includes "princeton", so I'm guessing this bridge is in Princeton, New Jersey. Correctional comment welcome.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:26 PM
November 06, 2003
Lauren furniture and Lauren selling furniture

I think this chair is rather handsome. It's from from Ralph Lauren, who is the bloke on the right.


I thought he only did frocks and pullovers and the like.

I'm sure many would regard this chair as by far the worst of this lot. But where, on any of the other four chairs, do you put your coffee? Also, it looks a hell of a lot easier to dust. Plus, you can put things underneath it, such as a Scalextric layout.

This, on the other hand, is the Ralph Lauren sales spiel for the chair and for all the other chairs and other stuff being sold by this operation:


Our Philosophy

What began as a tie 35 years ago has grown into an entire world that has redefined how American style and quality is perceived. Polo has always been about selling quality products by creating worlds and inviting our customers to be part of our dream. We were the first to create lifestyle advertisements that tell a story. We were the first to create stores that enable customers to interact with that lifestyle.

As an industry leader, we continue to create opportunities – like, where you can find great products, read about adventure, style and culture, find amazing vintage pieces, buy unique gifts, take trips that transport you into the world of Polo and a lot more. Back when all this started, I felt that there were no boundaries for Polo. I'm even more sure of that today.

(signed) Ralph Lauren

I now understand terrorism a bit better. Ralph Lauren himself looks pretty - a superbly bio-engineered grey alpha-wolf - a role model for his generation. But Grey Power in general is not a pretty read.

Give me the grunge look any day. Being grown up and normal means not cursing about how all those damned Other People spend their money, and just doing your own things as you want. But the impulse to curse, and worse, remains.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:40 PM
November 03, 2003
Concorde again

David Farrer has this picture of Concorde up at Freedom and Whisky, taken at Edinburch airport. I'm guessing he took it himself but he doesn't say.


I believe I may have improved its presentation. He has it up as a .bmp, and on my screen it has bumpy things happening at the join between the fuselage and the sky. Also it takes a long time to load, because he had it as a rather big file. On my screen - and maybe yours? - this now looks better. If you want a/the bigger version of this picture, do what I did and copy it from David.

The earlier Concorde picture here showed the shape from below. This is the best I've seen lately of its beak.

Antoine Clarke gave an excellent talk at my place last Friday evening about Concorde, and about the contrasting attitudes of Britain and France to its demise. Basically, British Airways made a success of running it, if you exclude the small matter of how much it cost to build the damn thing! So we mourned and celebrated. Air France couldn't even do that, and were glad to see it go. And France didn't mourn or celebrate, other than giving a media nod to all the mourning and celebrating going on in Britain.

Which is odd, because usually the French State is quite good at these money-no-object flag-waving ikon things, while here in Britain we tend to screw them up.

Although, British Airways also owns London's Wheel (of the "London Eye" as they insist on calling it) and that looks great and works well too.

It's obvious really. Give The Dome to British Airways too. They obviously have the magic touch with these things. After all, for many decades they themselves were one of "these things". Turning national monuments into profitable national monuments is what they do, because when they were privatised they started by doing this to themselves.

This will have to mentioned also at Transport Blog.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:32 PM
October 29, 2003
New look

Most people wouldn't see it. But the readers of Brian's Culture Blog are an aesthetically sophisticated lot, and some at least of this elite will be asking themselves now: "Has there or has there not been some sort of a change in the way this blog now looks? I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about this place is different." Etc. etc. Quite right. Well spotted, those of you who did. Things have indeed changed here, visually.

But the content is unaltered. The only immediate practical consequence is that comments on ancient posts can now be accessed whereas before they couldn't, for some reason that I still don't understand. It is therefore more worth commenting on recent posts than it used to be, because others will be able to access your comments for ever and be amazed by them, instead of just while the post lasted on the front page.

My deepest thanks to the genius who did all this for me (and this as well don't forget). I hope some time soon to gather my thoughts on the subject of the aesthetics of blogs and to present some of them here. This is a subject concerning which I felt it improper for me to comment until now.

One opinion about aesthetics I am already sure of is that whereas I hope you like the new design, I am confident that if you don't like it but have tended to enjoy reading this stuff, you will be back, and will put up with the look. On the other hand, newcomers who love the look but don't like the content will probably not return very often, if at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:00 PM
October 24, 2003
Farewell to Concorde

Today Concorde flies for the last time, in England, I think. I really can't tell exactly what's happening today, which is being called a "celebration". Will the French be flying theirs some more? Will there be further celebrations? Will Richard Branson buy one and use it for holiday outings and to annoy British Airways, which he likes to do? Don't know, don't care. All that matters to me is that the serious flying career is ending, some time around now, of one of the most beautiful objects ever to take to the skies. I will almost certainly neither hear it or see it ever again.

Really good photos of the big bird are surprisingly hard to come by on the internet, although there are dull ones in abundance, mostly of one of them on the ground, or taking off which is impressive I do agree.

I like this photo because it shows Concorde as I saw it, from below, and dwarfed by the sky which it still dominates aesthetically. It captures the shape of the whole thing, whereas many of the pictures seem to focus in on close-up detail, like that extraordinary dipping beak, or the strangely thick neck, or those downward sloping wings as seen from head on.


The ideal Concorde photo, for me, would have a vast and mundane London roofscape, with Concorde itself only a tiny fragment of faraway beauty in the sky. I might have taken such a photo myself, but I never got around to it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:39 PM
October 07, 2003
Smart left

Okay these people are very post-modern and lefty and all that. I mean, here's what they think of the Pentagon.

But you do get a sense from their site of just how expressive the Internet can be when it's in inventive (don't miss this and this) and exuberant hands like these.

Well worth a look. Link via

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:43 PM
September 06, 2003

Prodded by a couple of comments, I took a(nother) look at The last time I looked, I vaguely recall thinking: any pretty buttons from this hippy bird which I could feature on my Culture Blog? Can't see any. And I was away, or distracted, or something, and that was that. The internet is a cruel space to operate in. Fail to make a connection with the net wanderer in three quarters of a second, and he's gone. It isn't right, but it is reality.

Anyway, this time I gave it several more seconds, and the point is that is not about buttons. It's about badges. Here in England, which as everyone knows is the centre of the world (look at the maps), buttons keep your coat on. It's only badges that are merely attached to the outside of the coat and have propaganda messages on them. So these are badges.

What I did was I browsed the catalogue and then picked THE ARTS. Then I copied and pasted the entire list of Arts slogans and culled it, leaving my favourites. Which are:

Americans love tragedy as long as it has a happy ending

Being a pain in the ass is a prerogative of the creative mind

The cow ate bluegrass and mooed indigo

Fear no art

Go not to the surrealists for counsel, for they will say both blue and hippopotamus

God created music so people could pray without words

Imagine Escher drawing his own bath

The mome rath isn't born that could outgrabe me

No one ever built a statue to a critic

Opening night – the night before the play is ready to open

Scottish country dancers are reel people

Those who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music

Welcome to heaven. Here's your harp and your tuning key. Welcome to hell. Here's your harp.

What do you get if you play New Age music backwards? New Age music

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture

Music is my drug of choice

People complain about "soundbites" nowadays. What do they think a book of ancient quotations or aphorisms is full of? This is the jealousy of the waffler, of one who can write entire bad book, but who can't turn a single memorable phrase.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:28 PM
August 22, 2003
Why expensive clothes rescue ugly men but not ugly women

Yesterday I attended a funeral, and whenever I do that the conversation turns to clothing, because my clothes are so weirdly smart. "You're looking smart Brian", says everyone.

And here's what we said. We said that it is indeed remarkable how impressive ugly men can look in really good men's clothes. Is their a finer sight in the world than a hideous man, who is normally just one big explosion of visual pollution, decked out in a thousand pounds worth of state-of-the-art Men's Clothes. Ugly women, on the other hand, tend to look ugly whatever they are wearing.

Someone else (a woman, as it happens) claimed that this is because men's clothes don't ever change in basic design. They just get ever more perfect and magnificent. Women's clothes, on the other hand, what with women being so fatally fascinated by clothes, are constantly yanked this way and that by fashion, which doesn't apply to men, and thus women's clothes are in a perpetual state of confusion, and ugly women are in permanent danger of being made to look even more ugly in ways that aren't corrected by spending a thousand pounds but instead made to look even uglier.

I am enough of a man not just to be ignorant of such things and to have no strong opinions about them, but to be downright disapproving of any man who is not so ignorant. But I have weak opinions on this subject, and the above analysis makes sense to me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:59 PM
August 14, 2003
Art Deco versus the Modern Movement

Yesterday Alice Bachini posted the following:

Write me some encouraging comments

I'm feeling all alone here. Help.

I commented thus:

I thought your previous posting about Beethoven's Fifth was so good I stole the whole thing for my culture blog.

Which you already knew. And then I commented as follows:

And ...

... provoked by something you said about Art Deco equals Capitalism (when was that?) I watched a TV show last night about Art Deco, and guess what they said: Art Deco equals Capitalism.

I now understand twentieth century design an order of magnitude better than I did two days ago. And I owe it all to you.

This may not be right, about Alice having blogged that I mean. After posting that comment, I spoke with another woman friend who said that she had said something like this to me, in conversation. Maybe that was what I was remembering.

Next comment by me:

And ..

... during the Art Deco TV show they made a point that I think you would like a lot, which is that the sort of capitalism Art Deco was was women, for the first time in the history of the world, being able to go shopping, and buy pretty things.

Art Deco equals Capitalism equals Women – Modernism equals Totalitariansim equals Men. That was the message.

Interesting, I think you will agree. I'd never thought it through in exactly that way, but doesn't it make a lot of sense to see early twentieth century political nastiness as a pathological male reaction to rampant girlieness?

I think this is a good answer to all those male idiots who have started to say, on Samizdata, Why all this architecture? – as if architecture, had nothing to do with anything IMPORTANT, it's just a matter of taste, and taste doesn't matter. Wrong. Ditto all your stuff about shoes, Oxfam caste-offs etc.

Now I will copy and paste all these clever comments onto my Culture Blog.

Thanks for making me do this.

I had more to say. Next comment:


Just to emphasise the point about Woman/Man, Art Deco/Modernism.

The big difference between Art Deco and Modernism is in that "Deco" bit. Decoration. The Modernists loathed decoration. They believed in buildings, and chairs, and everything, having a ruggedly masculine what-you-see-is-what-you-get look to it.

The Modernists loathed decoration, in the way that many men loathe female make-up. It is deceitful. It conceals the true nature of things.

For culture vultures, see the scene where Hamlet confronts his mother in her boudoir. Quote:

Sorry can't find it. I have every other play the Big S wrote but not that one.

It goes something like:

"You bloody women, you slap on piles of make-up and prettify everything and lie about everything and "nickname god's creatures" instead of just calling them dogs and horses and "you there", and generally the earth should open up and swallow the damn lot of you. Fie upon you, fie, fie I say. I'll have none on't." Or something. And I may be muddling this up with what he later says to Ophelia. "Get thee to a nunnery!" – where they don't allow make-up, and you aren't allowed to go on shopping expeditions.

Women as decorators and prettyfiers and deceivers. It's not a new idea. But the Art Deco v. Modernism things is a recent round in the eternal boxing match of the sexes. And in the twentieth century it all got deeply mixed into politics.

All right, that's enough commenting for now.

I wasn't the end of my commenting, but I went off at various tangents that have no place here, now. I've cleaned up a bit of the spelling, but otherwise that was how I wrote it. My thoughts on Art Deco and all that are now very half baked, so I see no sense in fully re-baking the prose into which these thoughts were stuffed so messily.

But what a thing for a pro-capitalist culture blogger to have to admit to! A huge blind spot about one the twentieth century's most obviously pro-capitalist cultural trends. And me Mr Expert on Modernism.

There are two reasons why I never got Art Deco properly before. Neither are especially honourable. But I can't help that. They happen to be the truth.

First: For most of my life I simply haven't liked it. This is because al lot of the dreariest aesthetic experiences of my youth consisted of seeing fifth-rate fifth-hand after-echoes of Art Deco, in the form of grotesquely ugly furniture (twice my size don't forget) in places like cheap boarding houses or the home of my spendthrift grandparents, and even in some examples in our own home. Art Deco equals veneer equals seventeen shades of shit coloured horribleness. That was the aesthetic world I grew up in. Plus veneer frays at the edges in an especially ugly way, and sometimes peals off in great strips, revealing cheap and ghastly wood or even chipboard underneath. Urrgh!! On the other hand, furniture that simply consisted of blocks of wood that looked like what they were, big blocks of wood, was much better.

Ever since those experiences I have been a devotee, as far as interior decor and furniture is concerned, of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school of aesthetics. My pathologically gigantic CD collection, for instance, is accommodated in shelving made of untreated timber. Modernist architects of my youthful acquaintance would use bricks of various kinds to support their shelves. My habit of propping up shelves with things like coffee jars or soup tins is a post-Warhol adaptation of the same as-it-comes aesthetic.

The problem with architectural modernism of the Modern Movement variety, i.e. the people that Art Deco was up against, is that this Modernist attitude (they insisted that it was not s style, because no surface covering was added) doesn't work out of doors. What can work beautifully for furniture does not work for buildings, and especially for buildings not basking in a warm Mediterranean climate.

In damp old Britain, you must think of the surface of a building as a distinct design problem from its structure. A building must have a "skin". You must separate the technology of architectural surfaces from all the other technologies that goes into a building; The emerging triumph of the refurbished modernist aesthetic represented by the likes of Foster and Rogers, who proclaim structure, but make sure that it looks the part, is based on accepting some of the tenets of the Modern Movement, such as the idea that buildings ought to look modern, but on rejecting many others, such as, most fundamentally, that beauty itself is suspect. (Shades of Hamlet, above.)

Second - and this is a notion I don't have either the time or the space to do justice to here, but I'll try to sketch the picture quickly: the ideological camp followers and fellow travellers of The Modern Movement managed, I believe, to misrepresent the basic conflict between the Art Deco attitude and the Modernist attitude as not a conflict at all, but as a first-one-then-the-other process. And if that reminds you of the way lefties have written about "late capitalism", well, it is intended to. I think these bastards pulled this trick on me. They didn't spell it out like that, or not so as I remember. They just bent the facts that way by nudging X into the foreground with big pictures, and shoving Y into the background with a few dismissive comments.

I have hardly done more than suspect what the trick was, so I can't give you names and dates, but I think they did this by emphasising the Art Nouveau antecedents of the Art Deco style, and calling that a rejection of High Victorian neo-classicism, and then down playing the Art Deco continuation and popularisation (which is surely what it was) of Art Nouveau. Art Nouveau was treated as "half way to Modernism" and given half a pat on the back, for getting a bit of the way towards the Modernist U- as they saw it –topia. Thus Charles Rennie Mackintosh gets huge attention, while the guys made much of in that TV show I saw the other night get no mention at all.

Again, this is exactly the kind of trick that Marxists used to damn the bits of capitalist progress which they couldn't ignore with faint praise, because of what they patronisingly claimed that it was blindly groping towards.

But Art Deco was not a step towards Modernism. It was a quite deliberate rejection of it. And the Modernists, at the time, knew this, and hated Art Deco, and said so. Or so I now believe and expect to discover for sure.

I have lots more reading and discussing and learning to do. A trip to the V&A Art Deco exhibition (damn – missed it) would be an obvious first step in the right direction. Because all the vibes I'm getting from that show are to the effect that this is all explained, rather than brushed under the Modernist carpet. It couldn't really be otherwise, really, could it? The very decision to hold the exhibition and make it work and make it successful and make it fun, was a decision to push Modernism aside and enjoy the contemporary alternative and opposition to it.

It took a slump and a war to unleash the temporary triumph of the Modern Movement. But now, we have just about shaken it off, taken the best bits of it, and generally learned to live with it.

I could go on, about the relentlessly dishonest manner in which anti-capitalist ideologues rage at all forms of truly popular popular culture while it is happening, but then, when it has proved its enduring validity beyond any doubt and despite all the muck they could chuck at it, have then turned around and claimed it as their own, twenty years later, while simultaneously entirely misrepresenting its true nature. And I guess I just did. But for now, I'll leave this at that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:17 PM
July 02, 2003
I like this chair

A few days ago I took about twenty pictures of a poster in the tube, for Samizdata, and almost every photo came out really well. I could have used any one of a dozen for the piece. Hey! I'm a photographer! So now I'm back in the groove of taking my camera with me whenever I go out.

Today I was humping an electrical item home when the still (to me) amazing BT Tower suddenly presented itself out of a clear grey sky. So I took a lot of photos of that, and then I came across this delightful chair in a shop, just near the front door. I took about a hundred more photos after seeing this chair and taking a dozen pictures of that, and about half a dozen times I nearly left the electrical thing in the street. But this photo of it is of it is probably the best one I took all afternoon.


The chair was near the front of a shop, and I went right inside with my camera. The bloke at the back, behind his desk, on the phone, didn't seem to mind. In fact he waved. Alright mate? Copying our designs? Any time.

Frankly, most of the stuff in there was pretty forgettable, although the place was beautifully layed out and everything there looked good because of that. But this chair stood out.

It's the contrast between the straight-up classical, normal shape of it, and the outrageous home-made-ness of how it is actually put together (or maybe decorated). I have no idea who made/designed it. I can find no reference to it at the website of the shop, the address of which was, as always these days, prominently displayed on the front window.

I am, of course, not a real phtographer. Not in the slightest. Absolutely not at all. Real photographers know what they want the picture to look like, and they set it up, and they take it. And that's what it looks like. The only surprise is if it comes out even better than they imagined, as what they wanted only more so.

Me, as with all the other digitised amateurs now turned loose upon the world by the Japanese electronics industry, I just get out there and take a hundred pictures, and then pick out the three or six best ones, and try to pass them off as decisions instead of happy flukes.

The only clever thing I did was realise that the digital camera was the first camera ever made that suited me. With a digital camera, I spent all the money at the outset. The marginal cost of taking another stupid failed photo is: zero. And that goes for bother as well as the expense. There's no faffing about with film or taking things to Boots the Chemist so that they can tell on you to the Government. You just take out the little chocolate-biscuit-like object where the pictures are stored, stuff it into the PC, and copy it all across. All the hardware can be used over and over again, including the chocolate biscuit.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:04 PM
June 12, 2003
Michael Graves – from architecture to objects (and probably a good thing too)

This New York Times article about the architect Michael Graves, who is now wheelchair bound, includes a nice little slide show of some of his designs. (I couldn't get that particular link to work. Look for the kettle, and where it says "MULTIMEDIA", on the right of the NYT article, and click.)

It's hard to tell whether these designs are really any sort of improvement on the regular versions of the various things Graves has "rethought", or just rethinking for the sake of it, which is one of the great architectural vices of the twentieth century.

The kettle, for example. Pretty shape, sure. But why? Does it work well? Does it do what kettles are supposed to do?

And that chess set. Redesigning a chess set is the absolute quintessence of design lunacy, if you actually want to use it to play chess. The whole point of a chess set is that you want your mind to be clear of all distractions and to think about your moves. What you absolutely do not want is to be worrying about which is the bishop and which the knight, which is the king and which is the queen, even very slightly. You just do not need that. Playing chess with this collection of elegant abortions would be like you trying to read this blog if I had used a typeface "rethought" by this man. Lunacy. Stick with the conventional design, because that is what chess players are used to, and stick with it on principle. In the same spirit, I stuck with a conventional typeface, on principle. And I use a conventional language, with conventional words, and conventional punctuation.

That Graves is even willing to think about buggering about with chess pieces suggests to me that there is a basic wrong circuit in his brain, involving the complete non-understanding of the value of traditional design recipes. Even more shockingly, the error is in the exact area where you might expect him to be strongest, in the matter of the message that the look of something communicates (or in this case fails to comunicate). This is not a merely a technical failing, at the level of materials. (For example, I've no reason to think that these chess men are especially liable to fall over if jogged (although come to think of it, yes I have - this is what this entire posting is all about, dammit).) It's a failure to understand how design "messages" actually work in the brain of the receiver of them. I'm not impressed.

It may seem unfair to bash away at someone like Graves for being unconventional. After all, his buildings look much more conventional than a lot of earlier and more "modernist" architecture does. But looking at his stuff, and seeing only the surface of it I do admit, it looks to me like it could be mere surface. It evokes the look of the conventional, but I wonder whether it really is. His buildings, in other words, look more like they're going to work properly than some anti-conventional blockhouse where the water collects on the roof in great stagnant pools and then leeks down the central staircase, but looks can deceive. What I suspect is going on is that, just as he takes the chess set and messes around with it, while leaving it just about recognisable as a (bad) chess set, he takes conventional architectural gestures and mucks about with them (but not enough to make them look totally non-conventional) and then slaps them on the outside of the same old stupid concrete boxes.

There's a lot of that about.

Of course, if what is really being sold here is just decoration, then okay. But a little hut in the garden which isn't actually constructed properly and which falls to bits in two years doesn't even work as decoration, let alone as somewhere to have a tryst in or to get out of the rain in. On the other hand, if the thing is a best-seller, it probably works.

The good thing is that if you buy that damned chess set, for example, and then regret it on account of it being idiotic, that's a few hundred dollars down the tubes. When you buy a piece of bad architecture, and especially if it's a really big piece of bad architecture, that's something else again.

This is why architects so often shift, as Graves seems to have been doing, away from designing big buildings and towards designing smaller, mass produced objects, like kettles, and like furniture. Wise move.

The irony is that "architects" aren't actually trained to do architecture properly, because too often they've been bainwashed into believing that "rethinking" is an automatically virtuous thing, when in fact it mostly results in stupid and unusable junk.

A stupid and unusable chess set is not a huge problem. You just don't make any more of the things, and stick to the tiny percentage of objects you've designed that have turned out to be quite good, and you mass produce those.

A stupid and unusable big city hospital, on the other hand, or a stupid or unusable big city concert hall (such as the Royal Festival Hall here in London – where the accoustics are a horror story) is not something that can be "discontinued". There's only one of it, and the damage has all been done.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:54 PM
May 29, 2003
Linley update: it may all be perfectly crafted but it looked like tacky overpriced rubbish to me

That's it really. Further to this posting, when I next walked along Pimlico Road, I kept an eye out for Viscount Linley's furniture shop, and bingo, there it was: "LINLEY".

I took a look through the various huge windows, and frankly, I was not impressed. There was no Brunel desk to be seen, but the desk that was on show looked like £30,000 worth of garish, tacky nonsense to me. Everything either was or looked veneered. I hate veneered. There were bits of gold and silver painted on all over the place, and frankly it looked like something I would not buy at a garage sale. I'd sooner have an old door balanced on a couple of dead loudspeakers, which, quite often, I do.

Viscount Linley has a website.

Welcome to our website. It has been designed to give an idea of the breadth of furniture, accessories and upholstery that you can discover in our London shop at 60 Pimlico Road. It also allows you to purchase gifts and accessories online should you so wish.

Every item you find on our website has been exclusively designed by us and made in Britain using the highest standards of traditional craftsmanship to ensure each product is of a superlative quality.

We hope you find our website both inspiring and useful and we look forward to seeing you at 60 Pimlico Road.

But I couldn't get the damn thing to load beyond that bit. Warning: Failed opening '' for inclusion (include_path='') in /home/.sites/106/site3/web/cust-bin/home4.php on line 11. I hate it when that happens.

So if my experience is anything to go by, the website aspect of the operation is not using the highest standards of craftsmanship and is not of superlative quality. And don't try putting a desk in that carrier bag.

But don't let me stop you buying one of his desks. Me, I'd go with a new house.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:51 PM
May 26, 2003
Brunel tribute desk

More fuel to the debate about who the greatest Brit was, in the form of a desk built by Viscount Linley in honour of Brunel:

The Queen's nephew, Viscount Linley, believes that Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the greatest Briton and has backed his view by producing a unique desk commemorating the achievements of the 19th-century engineer.

The Brunel Desk, an intricate piece of workmanship which has taken designers and craftsmen more than eight months to create, went on sale for £95,000 at Lord Linley's shop in London last week.

Among Brunel's projects which have been incorporated into the design are the Thames Tunnel, SS Great Britain and the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The desk was conceived after Lord Linley, son of the Earl of Snowdon and the late Princess Margaret, nominated Brunel as his choice in last year's BBC poll to find the greatest Briton.

"I have always been interested in the amalgamation of engineering and craftsmanship which I think he showed," said Lord Linley, who trained as a cabinet maker and now has a shop in Pimlico Road.

"Workmanship", "designers", "craftsmanship" – good to see these words being given a bit of exercise. It would seem that someone still knows how to make furniture in these islands.

Linley's shop is only a walk away from where I live, but this thing is still way out of my range.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:42 PM
May 22, 2003
Home cinema seats

There an intriguing piece, complete with a picture, in today's New York Times about the influence of the domestic DVD machine on furniture. First three paragraphs:

The $23-billion-a-year furniture industry is in a state of high excitement over an item of furniture that, in the average living room, looks like a huge Danish. Your local bakery would call it a bear claw. The furniture industry calls it home theater seating.

With the ascent of DVD players, flat-screen and high-definition television and surround-sound home "theaters in a box" as standard equipment in American households, the furnishings of media rooms and movie theaters are descending into the mass-marketplace.

The new home theater seating is typically a free-standing unit of three or four reclinerlike modules attached at the hip by cup holders and eating trays, features more typically found in multiplexes or screening rooms. It is now generally available and affordable — a question of hundreds or thousands of dollars and not tens of thousands. Since its introduction by Berkline, a furniture company in Morristown, Tenn., in 1999, home theater seating has proved popular enough to encourage most other major players in the business of "motion" furniture (a k a recliners) to jump into the fray.

Ah, but what happens when the kids start having home cinemas in their bedrooms?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
April 12, 2003
On the irony of airplane aesthetics

One of the great ironies of twentieth century aesthetics is that one of the most aesthetics-driven design enterprises, architecture, has been obsessed by its perceived aesthetic inferiority to one of the least aesthetics-driven design enterprises, namely aircraft design. Modernist architects queued up ever since the aircraft was invented to say that buildings should be like airplanes, in that the form of buildings should follow their function, in the way that the forms of aircraft followed their function. And the architects were right. If airplanes are beautiful, it is because they have to be beautiful.

There has been no more perfect illustration of this fact than Concorde, whose withdrawal from commercial service by both British Airways and Air France was recently announced.

The shape of Concorde was determined by the demands of aerodynamics. Since then, the other great legislator of airborne beauty has been stealth technology. Here too, amazingly beautiful shapes are created by the application of the most rigidly non-aesthetic considerations.

Airplanes. They're a bit like life, aren't they?

Just a thought. No time for more. Rushing off to a blogger social.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:35 PM