On Christmas day a week or two ago, an American painter named Wayne Thiebaud died at 101. I had never heard of Thiebaud, nor can I remember ever seeing any of his work. Which, now that I have, feels like a fatal flaw in my two years of higher art education.
I’d like to write a full piece on Wayne Thiebaud, but today I’m just going to point at some of the pieces that stopped me in my tracks the other day as I was poking around his past. Specifically his landscapes. Not the subject matter he became famous for, but certainly the subject matter that ensnared my imagination.
Look at how soft those clouds look!
These works feel like glorious caricatures of space. Caricatures of land. And that’s something I’ve never seen before. And I love it.
And now I’m going to let this all percolate and soak into my subconscious and see what comes out.
As I assume you’ve long heard by now, Stephen Sondheim (writer of Into the Woods, Company, and Sweeney Todd among others) passed away last week. A hero and a pillar in American theater.
On a plane, two days after his death, I watched Six by Sondheim on HBO. A documentary covering the life and career of Sondheim. I was enthralled by this man whose art I had already come to love, and now I’d like to share some of his words from the film.
“Nobody goes through life unscathed. And I think if you write about those things, you’re gonna touch people.”
“I’m not interested in making people unhappy. But I’m not interested in not looking at life.”
“The songs I write don’t really reflect me in any conscious way. They all are about the characters that the book writer has made, and I’m getting into those characters. I never think of them in my own terms.”
“A puzzle, like art, is making order out of chaos.”
“I still get pleasure out of writing a musical phrase I think is really good. I still get a pleasure out of writing a line that I think really encapsulates what I want to say.”
“I love inventing. The hard part is the execution, obviously.”
“It’s all about getting into the character. And you start to make lists of what she would talk about… It’s very much about serendipity.”
“The only reason to write is from love. You must not write because you think it’s gonna be a hit, because it’s expedient or anything like that. It’s so difficult to write… You write it out of passion. That’s what failure taught me.”
Throughout the film, Sondheim stressed the importance of curiosity and teaching and learning. And since watching, I have heard many people talk about the great influence he had as a teacher, friend, mentor, and supporter (I found an Instagram account full of letters he sent, it’s delightful).
Sondheim, in many ways, lived a life I would like to emulate. He laid on his couch and wrote. He created things that moved people. And he supported others in doing the same.
I’m writing you from a chair. A large chair. A very large chair, all my own, taking up the corner of my room nearest the window. My feet are up, as it is a recliner. A very large, brown leather recliner that I bought from a woman named Heather on the internet. She was kind enough to help me lug it to my car, which had trouble stomaching the entire mass of my new, very large chair. But we eventually maneuvered the thing through the hatch in the back, where it sat neglected for several days and nights until I worked up the nerve to ask my new housemate to help me lug it out of the car. Then, up two flights of stairs and through my narrow door into a room that simply shouldn’t be asked to hold so many things.
But now, I’m writing you from my chair. And it is delightful. Upright and comfortable, I sit twiddling on my keyboards and computers, grateful to have left the days when I’d come home from work, collapse on my bed for lack of a chair, and promptly fall asleep far too early.
My chair is not just a chair, though, it is a place to work. A place to be. To be awake and comfortable. Because beds are not for sitting and typing, they are for sleeping. Chairs are for working and living. For being awake and alive. Chairs are where things get done.
And I’m not the only one with an affinity for armchairs.
Above is Eve Sedgwick, an American scholar in the fields of gender studies, queer theory, and critical theory, working from home in a recliner of her own.
And below is Willem de Kooning, an abstract expressionist painter, in his large wooden studio chair.
Writer Virginia Woolf supposedly had a favorite chair as well.
“Every morning she would walk down to the basement and into a storage room with a cozy old armchair that she loved. She would write away sitting in the armchair in her peace and quiet.”
“A house that does not have one warm, comfy chair in it is soulless.”
A sentiment with which I whole-heartedly conquer. Writer Alan Garner said:
“Everything I have ever written has been in the same chair, in the same room.”
But the setup of famed children’s author Roald Dahl may be my favorite of them all.
With his blanket and writing board, lamp, pinned up papers, and cluttered desk. His writing shed seems the ideal place to be.
Chairs are one of those things for everyone. They’re all around us, in every shape and color and pattern and texture.
In the wonderful documentary, Rams, product designer Dieter Rams tours a collection of whimsical chairs giving his opinions on some of the outrageous maximalist designs.
And chairs have come to mean so many things. They can be symbols of status and life circumstance. Our actions around chairs communicate much. And chairs are often used in movies and media as pieces of the story, as analyzed in this wonderful video essay from 2015. One of my all time favorites.
Of course, how can you write about chairs without mentioning those highest of all?
Though thrones are quite regal, they often seem to be rather uncomfortable, and occupied by cruel folk. Like the angular throne cut of black marble in Eragon, or the Iron Throne made of the swords of past enemies in Game of Thrones.
“It was not a comfortable Throne, this seat made of stone. But power was not supposed to be comfortable.”
– Elizabeth D. Marie, Chasing Cinders
Other times, thrones are full of pomp, showing plainly the disparity between the rulers sitting on the throne, and the ruled kneeling before it.
Neither holds much sway on me. I myself prefer a soft, plain chair. To recline and work away on this and that.
“Every chair should be a throne and hold a king.”
– Ralph Waldo Emmerson
So this old leather recliner I shall make my throne.
This is Nicole McLaughlin, 27 year old designer based in New York. She specializes in upcycling and sustainability in her bizarre and fantastical apparel.
This video dives into Nicole’s thoughts on sustainability in design and fashion, and her making-process (you can skip the in-video ad from 0:45-1:27).
I happened upon Nicole’s work within the last couple weeks, on one of my brief and shallow dips into Twitter, and was immediately captured by the playfulness and originality of her designs. Not only is she making things that are so clearly sustainably repurposed goods, she is doing it in a way that highlights the past lives of each item. Like a woodworker highlighting live edge of a maple slab, Nicole is beautifying the scraps of material. She is creating a sense of fashion in a place few people have ever looked before.
After gaining traction online with items like volleyball slippers and bread mittens, Nicole has become a voice in the fashion world for sustainable and eco-friendly design.
Her creativity and willingness to play with her work is inspiring.
You can read a more in depth look at her life and work here.
Two famous painters from history – Francisco Goya and Vincent van Gogh – were born on this day, 275 years and 168 years ago respectively. I do not have anything very insightful to say, I just scanned through each of their works again this evening, and pulled several ‘comparable’ pieces (only in rough terms of color and subject matter) to put on display here.
First we’ll start with self portraits, hard at their work. (These remind me of one of my favorite paintings)
Churches with blue skies.
Women in blue.
And finally, secluded gathers behind tall trees.
It’s quite beautiful to see how unique these two worlds are. And, despite how different the subject and scene of each painting is, how clearly every work fits in to the over arching world of the painter.
Both Goya and Van Gogh really found their thing. I wonder, when I’m old and gray and looking back at my life’s work, what my thing will be.
Here’s a bonus video about a piece of Goya’s work by one of my favorite YouTube channels.
Rams, a documentary by Gary Hustwit, paints a beautiful picture of the life, work and philosophy of one of the world’s most influential industrial designers – Dieter Rams.
Kindly, organized and reclusive, Dieter Rams does not fall in with the authoritarian stereotypes of world-changing innovators – like Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison. He is generous with his time and ready to help. His demeanor is remembered by some of his former employees as fatherly. Through his 40 year tenure at the German electronics company, Braun, from 1955-1995, he gained the respect and loyalty of those he worked alongside.
Although his attitude and leadership differed greatly from that of Steve Jobs, they’re design sensibilities were much the same. The work of Rams is perhaps the single greatest contributor to the design of Apple products we see today.
A CNN article on Rams and man and Rams the film asked the director, Gary Hustwit what if he’d asked Rams about his influence on Apple Products.
“He thinks it’s a compliment. He likes Jony [Ive, Apple’s former Chief Design Officer] a lot. But I think it’s hard for him to judge that impact because he doesn’t have a computer. He’s not on the Internet. He’s not interested in digital interfaces and user experience design and all these screens that we have to look at all day. There are no screens in his life, there’s just an old Braun television from the 1980s and that’s really the only screen in his house. It’s just not something that he’s interested in engaging with.”
Rams’ leading philosophy in design and in life is:
Less, but Better.
This leading ideal is then broken up into the now iconic 10 Principles of Good Design.
Good Design is Innovative.
Good Design makes a Product Useful.
Good Design is Aesthetic.
Good Design makes a Product Understandable.
Good Design is Unobtrusive.
Good Design is Honest.
Good Design is Long-Lasting.
Good Design is Thorough to the Last Detail.
Good Design is Environmentally Friendly.
Good Design is as Little Design as Possible.
When asked by an aspiring industrial design student what advice he had for her, Rams replied:
This is author Fran Lebowitz. She hates the world.
What’s fascinating about Fran and her dismal outlook on life is the joy that she brings to others through her fickle hatred for the commonplace pieces of life. Through her vocal distaste of the news, smartphones, traffic, humans in general – she is able to bring laughter.
Me and my roommate just finished the new Netflix documentary series, Pretend it’s a City, directed my Martin Scorsese (left). It is a beautifully directed seven hour exploration into the mind of this incredibly witty, pessimistic, short, tack of a woman.
I quite enjoyed it – though I’m not sure exactly why. Fran’s viewpoint and outlook is not one I wish to share. But it was thrilling to see a woman so unapologetically bitter at the world, who bring mirth to countless audiences through that bitterness.
It’s like what Austin Kleon talks about – finding the things that disgust you in the world, and creating things that work to foil those things. Except, in Fran’s case, she finds the things that disgust her in the world and talks about them. And she’s been doing it for 50 years.
Tom Sachs, a New York-based sculptor, gave a interesting TED talk on creativity and standards. In it, he said:
“Authenticity also demands endurance. Do it for a long time – whatever it is. Two years, it’s just an interest. Do something for five years, and it’s a hobby. Do something for 20 years, and you begin to build a sense of mastery and the holes in your position on the thing become too small to be of any consequence.”
The problem is that I’m constantly distracted. Distracted from my book while I’m reading. Distracted by that idea I need to jot down, or text that I’ll forget to send. Distracted from hobby to hobby, focus to focus. From season to season to season.
How do I attain mastery over any single thing when my lens of attention is constantly shifting?
Leonardo Da Vinci, famous for his mastery over so many varied things supposedly uttered these final words before his death:
“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
Of course, that is ridiculous. Leonardo was one of mankind’s greatest artists and thinkers – yet he too felt this sense of impending failure. Honestly, I don’t know how to reconcile that contrast. That a man we revere for what he created and gave to the world, himself felt unfulfilled.
For now, as I ponder the quandary of Leonardo Da Vinci’s happiness, I suppose the only thing to do is continue in curiosity. To look every more intently for the beauty the world has to offer, so that I may add to it in whatever small bits I can. And, of course, to take David Sedaris’ advice from his book, Calypso:
“Everybody has the same energy potential. The average person wastes his in a dozen little ways. I bring mine to bear on only one thing: my paintings, and everything is sacrificed to it – you and everyone else. Myself included.”
This is a quote from a letter Pablo Picasso wrote to a lover, discovered through this video about the daily routine of the artist.
It seems quite a dreary way to live, but effective. Isolating, but inspiring. Like so many things, there are positive things to glean and add to my own life, and things to leave behind.