Brian Micklethwait's Blog

In which I continue to seek part time employment as the ruler of the world.

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Category archive: Design

Sunday October 19 2014

Here is another way I might get those high up views of London that I am always searching for:

image

DPReview review here:

In my own experiences, aerial shoots have proven difficult to pull off. The window of shooting time was limited, the cabin was cramped, and the first time I ever stuck my camera out the window, the lens flew off and I miraculously caught it in mid-air. It was also roughly $250 for an hour.

But within the past couple of years, aerial photographers have been introduced to a burgeoning market rife with little flying machines that don’t require passengers, don’t need fuel to operate, and can fit inside a cubic foot. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the era of user-operated photography drones is upon us, and it’s already kicking into warp speed.

I’m guessing that the technology of it would be beyond me, and the legality of it a minefield.

Wednesday October 15 2014

It’s that time of the year when I go into one of my local supermarkets and immediately start taking photos, like that, or like this:

image

Yes it’s Halloween.  And the shops, in this case Sainsbury’s, are full of Halloween crap.  And I photo it.  I wouldn’t buy any of it.  Oh no.  I am far above that sort of thing.  But, I photo it.

Except, how about these rather cute buckets?  Just the thing for my Last Friday of the Month meetings, to put crappy food in:

image

Only 50p per bucket!  I got two.  And I just might go back for more.

image

Not that.  I wouldn’t want one of them.  That’s my picture of Sainsbury’s, having the last laugh.

Sunday October 12 2014

I have already quoted a couple of interesting bits from Bill Bryson’s excellent book, At Home.  I have now finished reading this, but just before I did, I encountered some interesting stuff about paint (pp. 453-5):

When paints became popular, people wanted them to be as vivid as they could possibly be made. The restrained colours that we associate with the Georgian period in Britain, or Colonial period in America, are a consequence of fading, not decorative restraint. In 1979, when Mount Vernon began a programme of repainting the interiors in faithful colours, ‘people came and just yelled at us’, Dennis Pogue, the curator, told me with a grin when I visited. ‘They told us we were making Mount Vernon garish. They were right - we were. But that’s just because that’s the way it was. It was hard for a lot of people to accept that what we were doing was faithful restoration.

‘Even now paint charts for Colonial-style paints virtually always show the colours from the period as muted. In fact, colours were actually nearly always quite deep and sometimes even startling. The richer a colour you could get, the more you tended to be admired. For one thing, rich colours generally denoted expense, since you needed a lot of pigment to make them. Also, you need to remember that often these colours were seen by candlelight, so they needed to be more forceful to have any kind of impact in muted light.’

The effect is now repeated at Monticello, where several of the rooms are of the most vivid yellows and greens.  Suddenly George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come across as having the decorative instincts of hippies. In fact, however, compared with what followed they were exceedingly restrained.

When the first ready-mixed paints came on to the market in the second half of the nineteenth century, people slapped them on with something like wild abandon. It became fashionable not just to have powerfully bright colours in the home, but to have as many as seven or eight colours in a single room.

If we looked closely, however, we would be surprised to note that two very basic colours didn’t exist at all in Mr Marsham’s day: a good white and a good black. The brightest white available was a rather dull off-white, and although whites improved through the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1940s, with the addition of titanium dioxide to paints, that really strong, lasting whites became available. The absence of a good white paint would have been doubly noticeable in early New England, for the Puritans not only had no white paint but didn’t believe in painting anyway. (They thought it was showy.) So all those gleaming white churches we associate with New England towns are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon.

Also missing from the painter’s palette was a strong black. Permanent black paint, distilled from tar and pitch, wasn’t popularly available until the late nineteenth century. So all the glossy black front doors, railings, gates, lampposts, gutters, downpipes and other fittings that are such an elemental feature of London’s streets today are actually quite recent. If we were to be thrust back intime to Dickens’s London, one of the most startling differences to greet us would be the absence of black painted surfaces. In the time of Dickens, almost all ironwork was green, light blue or dull grey.

Famously, the rise of the Modern Movement in Architecture was triggered by, among many other things, a revulsion against the excesses of Victorian-era decoration, especially architectural decoration.  Decoration became mechanised, and thus both much more common and much less meaningful.  What did all this mechanised decoration prove, what did it mean, when you could thrash it out with no more difficulty than you could erect a plain wall?

What the above Bryson quote strongly suggests, at any rate to me, is that something rather similar happened with colour.

Why is the overwhelming atmosphere of Modernist architecture and architectural propaganda so very monochrome, still.  Part of the answer is that it was only recently learned how to do monochrome.  Monochrome looked modern, from about 1900-ish onwards, because it was modern.  Monochrome was the latest thing.  Colour, meanwhile, had become much cheaper and had been used with garish nouveau riche excess, and there was a reaction to that also, just as there was to excessive decoration.

Thursday October 09 2014

Dezeen has pretend-photos today of London’s soon-to-be-unleashed new driverless tube trains.  As I write this, they’re all over the TV news.

Their pictures are spooky, being mostly of the black and mysterious fronts of the trains:

image image

The BBC reports that the Train Driving Union is angry.  I’m sure it is.  I guess it will refuse to drive these driverless trains.

Seriously, they’re on a hiding to nothing.  The D(ocklands) L(ight) R(ailway) already has driverless trains and having them on the tube is the obvious next step.  It’s like they said when the atom bomb was first used in anger.  The only important secret, said somebody clever and famous, is now public knowledge.  It works.

The picture that interested me rather more was this one (which I found earlier today at the Evening Standard):

image

This is a trend that has been growing and growing.  Instead of each carriage being a separate room, the whole train is now one huge elongated room.  The Tube already has trains like this, but they are just a bit clunky at the joins.  These new trains, judging by that picture, will accomplish this effect with unprecedented elegance and panache, or so it looks to me.  You almost can’t seen the join.

I guess one good consequence of this is that if one part of this single room is extremely crowded, such a crowd is able to spread itself out, towards the not so crowded parts of the room.

That might be the good news.  But the other day, I found myself doing something really rather annoying to my fellow passengers, on one of these new, single room trains.  I was in a big hurry, and had just managed to catch the train I found myself on.  But, I happened to know that, in order to minimise the time of my journey, I needed to be at the other end of the train.  So, crowded though the train was, I barged my way through it, as politely as I could but still rather disruptively, thereby getting a lot nearer to where I knew the exit was at my destination station.

Is this a Thing now, I wonder?

I also wonder what other effects there will be of these new and improved connections between tube carriages.  What effect, for instance, will this have on busking?

Friday October 03 2014

Yes, dezeen (Dezeen?) continues to be a favourite wwwspot for me.  Here are some recent dezeen postings that got my attention, for this or that reason.

First, news that there will be a viewing platform on top of the Walkie Talkie:

The Walkie Talkie Skygarden has yet to open and will, I’m sure, come with a catchier name. But already it is in obvious competition with the Shard – pricey versus free, ascetic steel and glass versus sylvan repose, supreme height versus not being able to see the Walkie Talkie. ...

Very droll.  The original was about how you couldn’t see the National Theatre from the National Theatre.  But me, I am warming to the Walkie Talkie, and I don’t just mean I’m standing under it and being fried.  I especially like how it looks from a distance.  The point being: it looks like the Walkie Talkie.  Not just some anonymous rectangular London lump, no, that particular Big Thing.  Yes it is not properly beautiful.  But neither is London.  Besides which, anything that just might compete down the price of going to the top of the Shard has my vote.  I’ll definitely make my way up there, as soon as they’ll let me

Next up, isn’t fun when someone hitherto impeccably cool suddenly turns into Grumpy Old Man:

Speaking to Dezeen, the 85-year-old English designer said tech products like the iPhone and Apple Watch were turning people into zombies, adding: “I’ve got a certain cynicism of Apple and their motives. It’s a bit of a monster.”

“It’s a game they’re playing and it’s an absolutely straightforward, commercial, ruthless game, and it’s dressed up nicely because they’ve got some talented people in their employ,” he said.

Grange, who was knighted in 2013 for services to design, believes that the tech giant has successfully turned Modernism into “good commerce”, using aesthetics to dress up a self-perpetuating product cycle.

“There are probably few companies around now that absolutely answer the prospect that Modernism is good commerce,” he said. ...

Modernism is good commerce?  Can’t have that.

… “They’ve been so bloody ruthless that you almost get no choice in the matter.”

“Almost” there means “not”.  (See also: essentially, basically, fundamentally, etc. etc. etc.) Because actually, you get plenty of choice about whether to buy Apple stuff or not.  Apart from one rather nice keyboard, I never have.

People always talk about the behemoths of capitalism like this, just as they are starting their long slide down into moderate size and moderate success, into business as usual.  How do I know Apple is now at the top of that slide?  Easy, they are building a custom-designed headquarters.  It absolutely yells: from now on, all Apple-persons will talk to each other and keep everyone else out.  And what they will be talking about, to an appalling degree, will be their own living arrangements inside this huge circular corporate burial chamber.  They’re doomed, I tell you, doomed.  Someone tell Sir Grumpy (above) that he can relax.

Next: what a driverless car might look like.  Not.  But, it looks very pretty.  The basic point, that driverless cars will in the longer run utterly transform the look of the outdoors is, I think, a very good one.  Maybe that is how some of them will look.

I really do not like the way this floating bikeway along the River Thames looks, in the pictures there.  At the very least, I say, find a way to avoid having those obtrusive shapes above the level of the track, which makes it look like an infinitely extended item of tasteless garden furniture.  I get it, that crap is there to enable it to float up and down on the tide.  Well, find another way to do that.

Next, some excellent photos of the High Line, in New York.  I especially like the distant aerial view of it curving its way over the Rail Yards, with the spontaneous architectural order of Manhattan’s towers in the background.

I do like this rectangular block of a house, but with one end lifted up.  Usually the rectangular block houses featured at dezeen are impeccably, terminally tedious.  But this one, I like.  Apart from the fact that whenever the damn architect called round, you’d have to tidy up all your domestic crap all over everywhere, and turn the place back into the dreary corporate office it resembles in the photos.  What is it with architects not wanting homes to look, inside, like homes, but instead like some kind of dystopian hell with nothing in it besides a wooden floor?

Here are some impeccably, terminally tedious rectangular type houses, in Japan.  To me, by far, by several hundred miles, the most interesting thing about these photos of them is the amazing amount of electrical crap in the sky over the street outside.  If I was photoing in Japan, I would be all over that.  More Japanese sky clutter here, in photos of another impeccably, terminally tedious block house with an interior that also looked like a corporate office reception area when the photos were taken.

Google drones.  Spooky.

A weird footbridge in Paddington.

Parisian blocks become wavey.

Finally what with this being Friday, some black cats with bronze bollocks.  I kid you not.

Tuesday September 30 2014

Indeed.  Photoed by me this afternoon:

image

I don’t know what went wrong with this one.

Googling reminds me that there were a lot of complaints, the summer before last, about Boris buses getting too hot.  Has that been sorted?

In general, I am suspicious of these new buses, on two grounds.  First, as its nickname makes clear, this is a very political sort of bus, being the Boris Johnson answer to Ken Livingstone’s Bendy Bus.  When politicians push technology, expect trouble.  I’m not saying they always get things wrong, because they don’t want to look like prunes, and when they push things that go wrong, they do.  But, they are still tempted to push, because, in defiance of what you often hear, politicians are typically very short-termist, being unable to look beyond their next election.  Businessmen, at any rate businessmen of the sort who preside over the design of buses, tend to look further ahead, and not unleash their buses until their are truly ready.

Second, it was designed by a “designer”.  By Thomas Heatherwick, who designed that cute roly-poly bridge in Paddington and also the bridge Joanna Lumley wants to have built across the Thames.  If you want a bus not to malfunction too much, the kind of designer you want designing it is a bus designer, who is thoroughly familiar with the particular problems that buses can get engulfed by and knows all the tried-and-tested recipes for avoiding such problems.  This Heatherwick bus smells to me of change for the sake of it.  This is okay if you are designing something small enough to fail without too much expense, like a chair or a spoon or an iPhone case, or a rather pointless roly-poly bridge.  But buses are serious.  When they go wrong it can cost millions.

And when a “designer” is involved, mistakes do tend to happen, because designers are brought in precisely to design everything.  And when you try to do everything anew, you make mistakes.

And if that happens to a politicised design, such as this bus, other political things cut in.  Politicians and their supporters don’t suffer financially when their pet projects go wrong.  They can start fighting the wrongness by just chucking money at it, and just pass the bill on to the rest of us.  If unlimited money doesn’t sort out the mess and instead becomes part of the mess, then their next impulse is to try to cover things up.  If that fails, Plan C (we’ve reached about C, I’m guessing) is to find someone or something else to blame.  Does that also fail?  Plan D: just walk away from the mess, refuse to talk about it, and insist on talking about something else, anything else, everything else.  Change the subject.  In politics, in the end, all there is is “the subject”.  If politicians keep winning, then they “succeed”, no matter how much havoc in the form of things like crappy buses they leave in their wake.

I’m not saying that these Boris Buses are guaranteed to fail.  New designs, of the sort driven by politicians, can be a triumph.  Sometimes, they even triumph economically.  Look at the Volkswagen Beetle.  And nor am I saying that one bus attached to a tow-truck is evidence of complete failure.  I’m just saying that this particular bus has a lot of bear traps to get past.

LATER: By pure coincidence, favorite blogger of mine 6k right now also has things to say about Boris.

Quote:

He’s a law unto himself, but if you believe that there’s nothing behind the apparent buffoonery of his outward image, I think you’re mistaken. You don’t get where Boris is by being a buffoon. Acting one, perhaps – being one, no.

Spot on.  The British toff classes are full of people like this.  I had an uncle who behaved exactly this way.

Saturday September 27 2014

Earlier I showed you a old facade being carefully preserved.  Here is another:

image

But where exactly is this facade.  The photo was taken in May 2012, and I didn’t take any note-taking shots of where this was.  And I cannot now find any mention of it on the www, only a website of the enterprise that constructed it.  (This I learned by taking a closer look at the stuff at the bottom of the picture than I am according to you.  My original pictures are really very large.)

I like to think that I am becoming a better photographer as the years go by.  What I mean by this is not so much that the photos are getting technically better.  They are, but that is largely down to the cameras I use getting better.  What I mean is that I am, I hope, getting better at deciding what to photo, and better at recording what I photoed.

Maybe that is an idle boast.  But maybe what is now only a boast will, because I have here written it down, will become an influence on actual practice in the future.

Wednesday September 24 2014

Here comes another flying car ...:

image

… which I found out about at dezeen.  They put this above their report:

Creators of the AeroMobil flying car propose moving road traffic to the skies

I don’t see this solving any obvious existing traffic problems.  And I see regulators regarding it as a whole new bunch of problems, rather than any sort of solution to anything.

My prejudice is that something which is basically fun is instead being sold as environmentally positive, a solution to traffic problems, blah blah blah.  A few will want flying cars, because they do, money and economic irrationality no object.  Most people, and especially most regulators, will regard flying cars, in any but trivial numbers, as accidents waiting to happen.

I get regular google emails about robot cars.  A point that comes up from time to time in the stuff these emails link to is the idea that flying cars may eventually materialise, but only after robot cars are in regular use.  The point being that machines like the one above will only ever be accepted in the numbers envisaged by the makers of flying cars if these flying cars are driven and flown by robots.  Cars will eventually take to the air, but only when cars have become robot cars, because only robot driven flying cars will be safe enough for flying cars to be allowed to fly in significant numbers.  (If regular cars were being proposed only now, they too would have to be driven by robots to be allowed.) Flying cars driven by humans will just unleash a whole new world of fear and grief, and they won’t be allowed other than as ludicrously expensive curiosities.

If such curiosities as this one ever do fly, driven by mere people, they will be fun, to those to whom such things are fun, but very little else.

Monday September 22 2014

Chippendale most of us have heard of.  But Rannie?  Who is, or was, Rannie?  Exactly.

Seven years ago now, I wrote a Samizdata piece about two-man teams.  It still, I think, reads well, and it contained the following assertions:

Even when a single creative genius seems to stand in isolated splendour, more often than not it turns out that there was or is a backroom toiler seeing to the money, minding the shop, cleaning up the mess, lining up the required resources, publishing and/or editing what the Great Man has merely written, quietly eliminating the blunders of, or, not infrequently, actually doing the work only fantasised and announced by, the Great Man. Time and again, the famous period of apparently individual creativity coincides precisely with the time when that anonymous partner was also but less obtrusively beavering away, contributing crucially to the outcome, and often crucially saying boo to the goose when the goose laid a duff egg. If deprived, for some reason, of his back-up man, the Lone Genius falls silent, or mysteriously fails at everything else he attempts. ...

Now read this, from At Home, the Bill Bryson book I am currently reading.  On pages 234-5, concerning Thomas Chippendale, the noted furniture maker, Bryson writes:

He was an outstanding furniture maker but hopeless at running a business, a deficiency that became acutely evident upon the death of his business partner, James Rannie, in 1766. Rannie was the brains of the operation and without him Chippendale lurched from crisis to crisis for the rest of his life.  All this was painfully ironic, for as he struggled to pay his men and keep himself out of a debtor’s cell, Chippendale was producing items of the highest quality for some of England’s richest households, and working closely with the leading architects and designers - Robert Adam, James Wyatt, Sir William Chambers and others. Yet his personal trajectory was relentlessly downwards.

It was not an easy age in which to do business.  Customers were routinely slow in paying. Chippendale had to threaten David Garrick, the actor and impresario, with legal action for chronic unpaid bills, and stopped work at Nostell Priory, a stately home in Yorkshire, when the debt there reached £6,838 - a whopping liability. ‘I have not a single guinea to pay my men with tomorrow: he wrote in despair at one point. It is clear that Chippendale spent much of his life in a froth of anxiety, scarcely for a moment enjoying any sense of security at all.  At his death in 1779, his personal worth had sunk to just £28 2s 9d - not enough to buy a modest piece of ormolu from his own showrooms. ...

Rannie did not make the actual furniture, but he was essential to Chippendale in exactly the sort of way I describe.

It feels good to be so right.

Sunday September 21 2014

Just to drive the point home that not all the photos of mine that I show here were taken several weeks or even months ago, here is yet another which I took (just like the previous two in the previous two postings) today:

image

My picture is somewhat cropped.  Her hair somewhat less so.

Thursday September 18 2014

Alert readers of this blog will long have known that I have a soft spot for interesting vehicles, often because they are old.  (In general, the aesthetic nature of cars and of our response to cars interests me more and more.)

So, here is an amusing matching pair of vehicles:

image image

The full size Mini was photoed not far from my friend Perry‘s home.  The mini Mini was, as you can probably see for yourself, in a tourist crap shop window.  Only the two white stripes on the bonnet of the mini Mini spoil the identicalness.

Tuesday September 16 2014

We have most of us seen these tiny little cars they make nowadays, which are about half the length of regular cars.  A seemingly obvious usefulness of such vehicles, aside from them using half the metal and less money and power to make them and move them, is that they can be parked at ninety degrees to regular parking, which does away with the need for all that “parking” and doubles (and more) the amount of space available for everyone to park in.

But you seldom see such cars actually parked liked that, and when you do …:

image

… (as I did about a week ago near to where I live) you realise that this is actually a much more complicated arrangement than it might at first appear to be.

Suppose you see a half-parking-space, between two other cars, and you park your half-car in that space, at ninety degrees to those two cars.

You just might be making it impossible for one or even both of those cars to get out, unless you do first.  I mean, maybe the car beyond the half-car above can get out.  Maybe those two cars are cooperatively parked, so to speak, with both vehicles arriving and leaving at the same time.  But maybe the bigger car arrived first and will want to leave first, and was relying on being able to move backwards to get out, in which case …

Which actually makes me think this was cooperative parking, by the two vehicles in concert.  Otherwise there would be just too much potential grief involved.

I can’t think, off hand, of an easy way to sort all this out.  So, just as well it’s not my job to worry about such things.

There is also the fact that the half-car in my picture, isn’t actually quite a half-car, more like a two-fifths- three-fifths- or three-quarters-car, and it sticks out annoyingly.  This doesn’t matter much in a big wide road like the one shown, but in other roads it might matter a lot.

Monday September 15 2014

I want one:

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Dawkins just couldn’t handle www.dezeen.com, so today I had fun looking back through the last few days (with many more days yet to be looked at).  This cried out to be immortalised on BrianMicklethwaitDotCom.

Sunday September 14 2014

Yes, you read that right.  Sunday.  I am celebrating the fact that I now have a Proper Computer (a temporary arrangement called Godo) at my command by doing more than one posting here today.  There may (although I promise nothing) be even more than two.  The thing is, during the Time of Dawkins, I accumulated lots of interesting little titbits which it was too bothersome to be bothering with, but which I now want (as they say in California and now regrettably everywhere else (see also the even more vomit-inducing “reach out”, which means pestering by telephone)) to “share” with you.

So, first up, this luxurious Rolls Royce, from the time when us Brits were in charge of how they looked:

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As it says just above the roof, photoed in Lower Marsh, on Sept 1st.

Round headlights, but … four of them!  This car dates from the days when the only way to jazz up car headlights was to have two of them side by side.  How impossibly glamorous is that?!?!  I seem to recall that the puppet woman who presided over International Rescue on the telly had a pink roller, with the same kind of headlights.  Lady Penelope?  Yes.  Follow that link, and you will be reminded that Lady P’s roller had two sets of three headlights.  Only a billionaire, or millionaire as they used to be called, could afford that kind of headlight array.  (To say nothing of those doubled-up front wheels.)

(And it is so great that I am now back to hunting things like that down in about fifteen seconds.  There is nothing like deprivation to make you grateful for large mercies.)

But Lady Penelope missed a trick.  Her imaginary roller didn’t have a brush to clean its headlights, but some real rollers did!  You will see what I am talking about if you take a closer look at this:

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Yes, a sort of elongated rich person shaving brush, to keep those lights clean!

You didn’t get those on Morris Marinas.

Sunday August 31 2014

The weather in London today was particularly fine.  The light was bright and washed clean by recent rain, and the atmosphere was neither too hot nor too humid.  There was bright blue sky, but there were also plenty of clouds.  I had a bank to visit and electrical items to obtain, all doable on Sunday if you are in Tottenham Court Road, and then I and my companion went south towards the river.

I photoed tourist stuff, hereinafter termed touristuff.  I love to photo touristuff.  It changes from year to year, and it is arranged in hightly photogenic clumps such as you could never enjoy if you merely bought a single touristuff item:

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Those queens seem now to be very popular, but popes less so.  But those decapitated lady bottle openers are a new siting, for me.  It’s amazing what can look sexy, even after being guillotined.

I photoed books, under Waterloo Bridge.  Books in large and sunlit clumps, and particular books, with particular titles:

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It seems that the Conan The Barbarian books were written not by just the one writer, but by a team of writers.  I did not know this.  I wonder how that was organised.

I photoed Art.  I photoed a lady all in white, photoing Art under the Queen Elizabeth Hall.  That’s if you reckon middle of the range graffiti to be Art.  Is this a possible future for brutalist architecture?  Painting such concrete relics would surely make sense.

And I photoed people sitting on Art, in the form of giant green chairs, next to the Imax Cinema roundabout near Waterloo station

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Apparently these big green chairs used to be down in that strange circle of pedestrian space that surrounds the bottom of the Imax Cinema, inside the roundabout.

If my walkabout this afternoon is anything to go by, Art is becoming less about Deep Significance (of the sort that has to be explained with Art Bollocks essays next to the Deeply Significant Art), and more about fun.  Bring it on.

And bring on the day when they have exhibitions of Touristuff in Tate Modern.  I hardly ever go inside Tate Modern, but I bet that would be more fun than what they put there now.  And it might also be more Significant.