Why vintage design books are now so radical—and radically expensive
In February 1972, the design director at MIT Press thought she had a fabulous idea. The publisher’s forthcoming book was about Las Vegas, and she would make the cover an “homage to Vegas Glitz.” Bubble wrap would echo the shape of the Strip’s bulb lights, fluorescent dots printed beneath would shine through the plastic. “I thought: boy, this is wonderful material. I’m not gonna let them screw it,” she later told an interviewer. “Well, they hated it! I loved it.”
The authors of the book responded by letter: “The cover as designed is absolutely unacceptable: leaving out questions of good or bad design, it is inappropriate. It is against the philosophy of the book; it is a duck—‘heroic and original’—almost fruity in its appearance.”
“For so long, high-end taste has been in this really stripped-down place, but lately there’s been a bubbling up of interest in more exuberant postmodern looks.”
Me, in this WSJ story on 1980s plastics.
The sprinkles got to me first: After Boomerangs on banana swings, the second-most-popular ’gram from the Museum of Ice Cream seemed to be kid-buried-in-the-sprinkle-pit. When the museum premiered in New York in 2016, all the sprinkle pictures confused me, because who would want to eat something in which people had wallowed? The sprinkles aren’t edible, of course—they are plastic. (Duh.)
A recent profile of co-founder and creative director Maryellis Bunn helped me see what should have been obvious all along: The Museum of Ice Cream is not a museum, but a playground, albeit one with a seriously twisted idea of fun. The sprinkle pool is not Willy Wonka’s world of candy, but a giant sandbox.
All the pretty colors led me to dismiss it as just another millennial photo op, falling for what pioneering play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith called the “triviality barrier.” Children’s play in particular—and play, irrationality, and aesthetics in general—are so out of step with our work-oriented civilization that, he wrote in 1970, they have been seen as beneath the dignity of study. I was guilty of making the same mistake, but in fact, a little play theory helps us see the MOIC and its ilk, like Color Factory, for what they really are: working for the weekend.
I would never have noticed if the world-famous architect had not raised her arm to point. On her upper half she wore a white blouse, black jacket, angular glasses. Below, a seemingly unremarkable pair of black trousers. But as she lifted her arm to trace a curve in the air I noticed the stitched insignia just below the pocket on her pants: a puma in white thread.
Was she wearing track pants?
As I scribbled notes about the building I took a closer look: matte finish, slightly tapered legs, ankle zips casually unzipped. Yes, they were track pants, worn not to work out at the gym or hunker down at home but on a day when she would be in front of an audience, traipsing up and down showing off her firm’s latest building.
That night, as I typed up my assessment of her tower (I found it to be a bit much), I simultaneously opened a tab and searched “puma track pants,” clicking through pages of seemingly identical offerings looking for the platonic version — her version. Too loose, they looked messy. Striped sides, too sporty. Too tight, they would resemble the dreaded yoga pants. I clicked and clicked but I couldn’t find them.
When the Unites States Congress set aside federal construction funds in 1965 for a new, underground transportation system for Washington D.C., President Lyndon B. Johnson decreed it “should be designed to set an example for the Nation, and to take its place among the most attractive in the world.”
“While we seek to resolve problems of moving people and goods within the congested National Capital area, our concerns must not be confined to the utilitarian requirements of transportation alone,” Johnson wrote to Walter J. McCarter, administrator of the National Capital Transportation Agency (NCTA, the forerunner of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (WMATA) on February 22, 1966.
At a time when public opinion of East Coast subways has reached a low, it is worth revisiting this high: a subway grand tour, CFA minutes with design advice from architect Gordon Bunshaft and art critic Aline Saarinen, rejected graphic designs that are the opposite of Unimark’s low-key Helvetica.
The American Museum of Natural History announced this week the closing of its Hall of Gems on October 26. Designed by architect William F. Pederson in high 1970s style, these galleries are as close as you can get to lounging in a conversation pit in public in New York City. I am sad to see them go.
One of my first parenting memories of New York is being at the Museum of Natural History with my toddling son, and happening upon the soft darkness of the (as it’s officially named) Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals and Morgan Memorial Gem Hall. Finally, a place to rest! With no hard corners and no other exits, I could park the stroller and let him wander on feet or knees at his will. Maybe he’d learn something from his explorations, maybe not. When you go to a museum with a 2-year-old, it’s as much for change of location as it is to foster a future scientist. He’d learn something from the geode just as he learned from the sandbox.
On repeat visits I figured out that this surrender to the visual and tactile was Pederson’s point: more engaging than the old-fashioned taxonomic case, less technological than today’s touchscreens, that era of exhibition design leaned in to the body as a teaching tool.