photographer julius shulman

modernism in pictures

Do an image search for modernist houses and chances are the most striking photographs that come up will be the work of one man. Julius Shulman is regarded as the most important of all architectural photographers. His most famous works might be as familiar as any iconic art of the previous century.
  Perhaps his best-known is a 1960 photograph of Pierre Koenig's Case Study House No. 22 in Los Angeles. It's not just a perfect shot of an incredible house but a cultural time capsule. Architecture critic Paul Goldberger described it as “one of those singular images that sum up an entire city at a moment in time”.
  Shulman took his pictures to spread the word about new and innovative architects. One shot printed in an architecture journal could kick-start a brilliant career. Sadly, some of his pictures are also the last records of great designs that were torn down or destroyed.
  He had Russian Jewish roots and was born in Brooklyn in 1910. The family lived on a farm for a while where he said he got his appreciation of light and shadow, a key element in his work. He studied various subjects after school, unsure what to do until he met architect Richard Neutra by chance in 1936. He was invited to go see one of Neutra's houses and took along his pocket camera. “I had never seen a modern house before,” Shulman said. “It intrigued me with its strange forms – beyond any previous identity of a house in my experience.”
  Shulman sent his pictures of the house to the architect, who ordered prints and asked him to photograph more houses. A legend was born – a genius who never used a light metre and often took only one shot.
  Purists complain sometimes about Shulman staging his compositions. He would bring in furniture and props and even pose models or shoot through branches or potted plants to make a new house look like it was landscaped already. Shulman said he wasn't just taking pictures, he was “selling modernism”. To him modernism wasn't just a building style: it came with a philosophy which matched his own.
  Gallery owner Craig Krull explained: “Modernism is characterised by an optimistic spirit, a belief that the future holds great promise and technology will improve civilisation. Julius was perfectly suited to translate the tenets of optimism.”
  Shulman died in 2009 not long after his works were moved to the archives of the Getty Research Institute and a wonderful documentary about his life was completed. Visual Acoustics shows him revisiting classic buildings by just about every modern architect working in America since the 1930s, including Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, Charles Eames and Frank Gehry.
  Whether watching him in this film or looking at his work, Shulman is an inspiration, a reminder that it is fair to be optimistic about the future of humanity and not unrealistic to believe that we can build a better world.


German pavillion, Barcelona

ARCHITECt mies van der rohe

The man who built more with less

Standing in the German Pavilion in Barcelona was like being inside a clear, ordered mind. German architect Mies van der Rohe designed it in 1927 for the international exposition in the Catalan capital two years later. It has a flat roof resting on columns and the glass and marble walls inside can be moved around since they don't support the building. Another marvel inside is two of the famous Barcelona chairs Mies also designed for the occasion.
  No matter where you stand inside, you see neat lines leading the eye to other spaces. You're never just in one area, but always have a glimpse of what lies beyond. It flows seamlessly from inside to outside, where a shallow pond lined with stones stretches down to the gift shop at the far end. That was where a stern-looking man sold expensive post cards, scratchy T-shirts and DIY paper kits of the building. I bought one of each - I was a tourist and in awe.
  Mies was born in Aachen in 1886, trained with his stonemason father and got his first commission for a house at 20. In 1930 he became director of the experimental design School the Bauhaus and ran it until the Nazis forced him to close down. In 1936 he was appointed director of architecture at what was later renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and built landmark extensions for the growing campus.
  The pavilion, the Farnsworth House and the Seagram building in New York, where he did groundbreaking work in skyscraper design, define what made him one of the greatest architects of the 20th century. His most misused quote, “less is more”, describes only part of what made him so influential. With his emphasis on open spaces and exposed construction materials, Mies helped define modern architecture.
  The pavilion is still carefully studied by modern designers. It can also change your thinking about any form of creativity. What I saw there - the form, the flow, the way space and materials are connected, enclosing without confining - changed my approach to writing. That might sound pretentious, but only until you experience the pavilion for yourself.
  Maybe I'll get to see Mies's American masterpieces some day. The hour or so in the German Pavilion was inspirational. And I still wear the T-shirt.

Posted on 11 August 2015

designer joe colombo

thinking ahead

He died in 1971 on his 41st birthday, so Italian designer Cesare “Joe” Colombo didn't have much time to make his mark on the world. But in his short career he did enough to be remembered as one of the twentieth century's most important designers.
  His first work was a ceiling for a jazz club in his home town of Milan in 1953 and the next year he built three miniature theatres with TV sets for the Triennale. This inspired him to study architecture and after a few years experimenting with materials such as fibreglass and polyethylene in his father's factory, he opened a design studio which did mostly interiors for ski lodges and mountain hotels. His trademark was bold curves - he disliked sharp corners and straight lines - and his ideal was to create “an environment for the future”, using new technology to change the way in which people live.
  Like many designers he started with a quest for the perfect chair, which in his case would be made of one material, stackable and easy to clean. He came up with the Universale, as popular today as back then. Instead of redesigning furniture he tried to reinvent them. Many of them are still being made, like the mobile office cabinet he called the Boby trolley, the mobile mini kitchen and the Additional Living System, six polyurethane cushions which can be stuck together in different combinations. Perhaps his ultimate creation was the Total Furnishing Unit, designed in 1971 for his own flat. It is a single unit of only 28 square metres containing a kitchen, cupboard, bedroom and bathroom, with elements sliding in and out as required.
  Joe Colombo's futuristic ideas lay the groundwork for the pop art and plastic design of the seventies. He was excited by the possibilities of new technology and the improvement of everyday life. He envisaged a future which arrived not too long after his death. More's the pity that he isn't here to design it for us.


painter paul delvaux

Untold stories

As a child, surrealist painter Paul Delvaux (1896-1994) was in awe when he saw electric trams for the first time in Brussels. The memory and a fascination with trains lingered. In the late 1950s he did a series of night scenes in which a girl was shown from the back gazing at a departing train. The paintings were quite realistic, but shimmering in otherworldly moonlight.
  Just as he never forgot his first tram, I can remember the first time I came across Delvaux. Turning a corner into a dimly lit room in the Royal Museum of of Fine Arts in Brussels, I suddenly stood before Train du Soir and was mesmerised by the painting's silence, mystery and sense of longing.
  The rest of the room showed what Delvaux is best known for: female nudes in unusual settings like buildings in classical styles, staring into the distance and making enigmatic gestures.
  Delvaux studied architecture because his parents though painting wasn't a sound career choice, but managed to fit in art classes and started producing naturalist landscapes, then moved on to the naked women… and skeletons. He had some unusual influences like the poetry of Homer, the sci-fi of Jules Verne and a mechanical Venus figure he saw at the booth of a medical museum during the Brussels Fair.
  He drew inspiration from René Magritte, as well as the metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico: “With him I realised what was possible, the climate that had to be developed, the climate of silent streets with shadows of people who can't be seen”.
  The thrill of finding Train du Soir  so unexpectedly will stay with me as much as the magic of his paintings with their shadows of untold stories.


designers charles and ray eames

love and genius

Someone should make a movie about this pair. It could start here: he was head of design at an American college the day the art major arrived on campus to do a weaving course. It was love by design. After working with her on a big project, Charles left his wife and married Ray. Soon they were happily moulding plywood in their flat with a home-made contraption they named the Kazam!Machine. Charles nabbed the wood and glue for the job from the MGM studios where he worked as a set designer.
  During World War II they made wooden splints and stretchers for the army. After that they got stuck into their famous plywood chair designs, followed by furniture in fibre glass, plastic and aluminium. Their mission statement: “Get the most of the best to the greatest number of people for the least”. Imagine a 21st-century multinational working like that.
  “Take your pleasure seriously,” Charles used to say. The Eameses must've had a lot of fun together. They made short films to explain their ideas, amazed their peers with a novel idea called a multimedia presentation and broke new ground with exhibitions that were never less than a great party. The house they built for themselves is considered one of the greatest post-war home designs.
  Visit Eames Office and you'll be surprised by how many of their designs are still around. You might be using some now.


publisher benedikt taschen

one for the books

The shallow view of Benedict Taschen is that he made his money with dodgy pictures and coffee table books on architecture. King of Kink is a typical headline for an article on the driving force behind the classy Taschen publishing house. He does print books other publishers wouldn't touch, but by doing that he's merely expanding the boundaries of art - and without his treasure of titles a trip to your local word franchise would be even more disappointing.
  Benedikt was born in Cologne in Germany, the son of two doctors and the youngest of five children. “Nobody played with me,” he's said. “Neither parents nor siblings. Though my brother-in-law Ulli did. He was an art and music fan.” When he was eight, his 22-year-old brother Wolfram committed suicide. A distressed Benedikt took refuge in the world of comics and built up such a huge collection that he didn't have enough space for storing them. At the age of 12 he started a mail-order business and at 15 he opened a comics shop.
  The market for graphic novels and comics was still small, so in 1984 he got a loan from his family and bought 40 000 copies of a book on Magritte. At a new, lower price they sold well and Benedikt could afford to print a book on upcoming photographer Annie Leibovitz. After that came more art books and Taschen's enduring reputation for quality printing and value for money.
  His wife Angelika, also from Cologne, wanted to be a ballet dancer but grew too tall. She considered an operation to have her legs shortened, but thankfully her parents stopped her and she went to study art in Heidelberg. With a PhD and nothing to do she went to the Frankfurt book fair and fell in love with the Taschen brand. She wrote to the publisher, landed a job and fell in love with the boss as well.
  “We never start with a huge print run,” is how Benedikt explains his business strategy. “We reprint. If you don't reprint a book, it is not a success, but neither is it a big failure, so you don't have a problem.”
  The Tachen family live in Cologne but also have a unique home in Los Angeles. It's the Chemosphere, an experimental design by John Lautner, who is worth an entry of his own. Benedikt won an award for his restoration of this landmark.
  King of kink? Much more than that.


superflat art

big in japan

Japanese culture might seem rich and colourful to you and I but to the artists of the Superflat movement it seems commercial and without substance. The movement got its name from frontman Takashi Murakami and refers to the tradition of flattened forms in Japanese art which lives on in animation and pop culture. In the works of the Superflat artists it also reflects what Takashi calls the "shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer culture."
  The best-known Superflat artists include Chiho Aoshima (the work on the right is called Divine Gas), Mahomi Kunikata, Yoshitomo Nara, Tatsuyuki Tanaka and Aya Takano. Manga men Koji Morimoto and Hitoshi Tomizawa have also been called Superflat artists. Henmaru Machino's work is supposed to be satire, but you might find them as kinky (and dodgy) as the "lolicon art" it's targeting.
  Murakami says the Superflats make their own pop culture as a protest against the overpowering forces of the media, entertainment and consumer culture. And so the media writes about them, people are entertained by them and they sell by the truckload. It seems ironic, but is precisely what the Superflats wanted to happen.
  There are many theories about the Japanese obsession with cuteness (kawaii) and the escapism of the eternal teen geeks, the otaku. Some say it became huge after World War II as a humiliated and traumatised nation tried to forget. Sounds plausible, but cuteness is also prominent in other Asian pop cultures.


artist takashi murakami

Keeping it light

He wanted to be an animator like the famous Yoshinori Kanada, but decided he wasn't good enough to do more than draw the backgrounds for animated movies. There was nothing wrong with that career move, since nihon-ga artists are paid as well as the animators themselves. “My goal was to make money and build a traditional Japanese house,” Takashi says. “My father was a taxi driver and I was poor as a child. I hate the poor life.”
  The trouble is he got bored and started hanging out with the computer geeks known as otaku while shaping his own painting style. Soon he had Hiropon Factory, a studio producing paintings and sculptures influenced by pop culture and the traditions of Japanese art. “What is important in Japanese art is the feeling of flatness,” he wrote in an essay about the Superflat movement. “Our culture doesn't have 3-D.”
  On the web site of his current company, Kaikai Kiki, Takashi tells what happened next: "In 1996 I founded the Hiropon Factory, which would become Kaikai Kiki’s predecessor. At the time the ‘factory’ was nothing more than a small workshop-like group of people assisting me with my sculptures and paintings. Two years before that I had travelled to New York on a scholarship and set up a studio there as well. As I took on new projects, the scale of my production grew and by 2001, when I had a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, the Hiropon Factory had grown into a professional art production and management organisation. That same year I registered the company officially as Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd."
  Japan’s critics generally don't like Murakami and his soul mates much. Here's what the Japan Times wrote about one of his exhibitions: “Far from challenging perceptions the show at times comes across as little more than a clever repackaging of selective ‘exotic’ and ‘wacky’ features of contemporary Japan for American consumption.”
  Murakami couldn't care less. He's happily making animated shorts (one was for Louis Vuitton) and has been designing CD covers for the likes of Kanye West and several J-pop groups. It's a living.


designer jean prouvé

form with function

He's been tagged the pioneer of prefab – which sounds a bit bland if you consider all the achievements of French industrial designer and architect Jean Prouvé. Until recently mostly people in his field knew about him and admired his genius, but that changed when the Tate gallery in London rebuilt one of his prefab houses on its front lawn for a special exhibition. It was a chance for architecture fans to discover the beauty of his ideas.
  Considered one of the great designers of the 20th century, Prouvé was a craftsman, designer, manufacturer, architect and engineer whose career spanned over 60 years. He created prefabricated houses, building components and façades as well as furniture for the home, office and school. His goal was to keep everything simple, functional and economical.
  Jean Prouvé was born into an artistic family in Nancy and trained as a metal smith before studying engineering and opening his own workshop in 1923. He worked with the best, including Le Corbusier, and made a name for himself with classics such as his standard chair of 1934, the Antony chair of 1954 and tables made of sheet metal that he folded with a self-invented method. As admirable as his work ethic was his treatment of his workers: he provided them with insurance and gave them paid holidays, which were a novelty at the time. Never design anything that cannot be made, he said, and so he made sure all his designs could be mass-produced in his factories.
  In the fifties he took up the challenge of designing prefab houses which would be easy to assemble, durable and also affordable. His greatest creations here were the “maisons tropicales” made for Niger and the Congo.
  Métropole House (on the picture) is a good example of his work. It was built for a competition held by France's Ministry of Education in 1949, to create a “mass-produceable rural school with classroom and teacher accommodation”. The teacher's house was an all-steel structure, with an aluminium façade, a wooden interior and a winter garden enclosed by glass.
  Since his death in 1984 Prouvé has become a legend and many of his buildings have been declared monuments. But he might have hated the fact that his furniture pieces are now collector's items and that one of his tropical houses was sold for over R35 million to a hotel boss. The idea was to help the poor, not to amuse the rich.


kamishibai

news in a box

Kamishibai is storytelling in a small box theatre with illustrations on sliding panels. The storyteller would go to street corners where kids gathered, set up his little stage and provide free entertainment, ending with a cliffhanger to ensure his audience would return the next day. He made his money selling sweets before the show. In the mid-thirties Tokyo alone had more than 2 500 kamishibaiya walking the streets.
  The stories were traditional tales of ghosts and bravery, dreamt up and illustrated by artists who rented them to the storytellers. During the war they helped to spread propaganda. After the war, with hardly anyone owning a radio, they helped to spread the news. By threatening to ban them, the American occupational force after the war got the kamishibaiya to deliver their propaganda instead.
  The first ever cartoon superhero (five years older than The Phantom, which was the American first) emerged from kamishibai. Golden Bat was a flying skeleton with popping eyes, wonky teeth, a cape and a sword. He came from 10 000 years into the future and his adventures featured aliens, rockets, dinosaurs and giant robots.
  When TV landed in Japan in 1953, it was first called denki kamishibai (electric paper theatre). It was also the beginning of the end for the roaming storytellers. These days only a few novelty acts are left, but many of the drawing techniques used for the story boards have become standards in anime.
  Try the beautifully printed book Manga Kamishibai - The Art of Japanese Paper Theatre by Eric P. Nash for more on the art.


architect john lautner

fantasy made real

One of the most remarkable buildings in Los Angeles is an octagonal home on a single concrete pillar which can only be reached by rickety finicular. Called the Chemosphere, it was the designed by John Lautner in 1960 and built on hills overlooking the city. The upkeep costs a fortune, apparently, but current owner Benedikt Taschen doesn't have a cash flow problem. He also published a book on the architect which created a new awareness of his work.
  Chemosphere with its Modernist style and interior (thanks to Taschen's revamp) is the kind of house in which James Bond and the Jetsons would feel equally at home. John Lautner created many such futuristic marvels in a career of six decades and some of them were used in films such as Diamonds are Forever. In his time he was overshadowed by his Modernist peers Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, but these days the fundis acknowledge that he wasn't just an escapist creating fantasy worlds. There was a serious philosophy on humankind's relationship with nature and the environment behind his designs.
  A good example is his Carling House. Its sitting room turns on a platform and becomes an outdoor patio overlooking the city. He was also a practical designer, as he proved with a desert motel which can withstand the fiercest storms, a solar home in Alaska and a wavy seaside home on a ridiculously narrow plot in Malibu.
  One of his great legacies also cost him some credibility. In the late forties he designed Googie's Coffee Shop, which led to a wildly popular style named Googie. Critics and other architects considered it silly and laughable. For a while Lautner couldn't find work and had to survive with modest jobs like revamping kitchens. This changed in the seventies when he built a now famous home for comedian Bob Hope in Palm Springs. Suddenly it was okay to like Lautner again and he won medals and lifetime achievement awards. In 1994 he died a respected and famous architect.


googie

a world of wonder

Space Age is what some call it, but most people know it as Googie, a quirky design style which spread through America in the fifties and all but disappeared about a decade later. Its main root is architect John Lautner's forties design for Googie's Coffee Shop on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights in Los Angeles. An architecture professor gave the style the name Googie in a 1952 article and it stuck.
  Googie architecture is on the endangered list. Like art deco at the end of the thirties, it became unfashionable and few thought it was worth preserving. Googie's Coffee Shop and many other icons of the style were torn down before Googie was recognised as a piece of Americana to be treasured.
  Googie is instantly familiar. It's the home of The Jetsons, the classic Vegas neon signs, road houses and motels and even some cars from the era. Common features are flat roofs tilted upwards, which left room for a huge front window, roofs in the shape of parabolas, big concrete domes and boomerang shapes often used for signs, logos and printed patterns. Nobody is entirely sure here the boomerang came in - maybe from science fiction's “flying wing”, or else it's a stylised arrow suggesting progress. The amoeba blobs might have been inspired by camouflage from World War II. Then there's the starburst and the atomic diagram which reminded people of outer and inner space in a time of exciting advances in science.
  Googie designers loved the new materials that suddenly became available after the war. They used sheet glass, plywood and plastic to give structures of steel and cement a new look. They were trying to build the world of tomorrow in an age of almost naieve optimism about the future. The romantic view is that Googie lost its appeal when America lost its innocence in the sixties with the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam and space exploration bringing back more questions than answers. Who knows. Now it's just another part of retro pop culture. Pity. Like many styles that fell out of favour, Googie was built on some solid, sensible concepts. There's more to it than ideas for an eye-catching promotion or cool web design.


architect le corbusier

machines for living

On his first visit to New York in 1935 this radical genius said the skyscrapers were nice, but too small. Le Corbusier (he worked under his grandmother's maiden name) had arrived in Paris, checked out the design scene and said it was time to start over.
  He did just that with the International Style, intended to bring nature back into human lives by redesigning cities and transforming them into orderly, healthy environments. He even proposed knocking down virtually everything on the right bank in Paris, which was a bit extreme and didn't get council approval.
  In his spare time he wrote books like Towards a New Architecture, the best-selling architecture book ever, published a magazine, painted, sculpted and intimidated people with statements like “a house is a machine for living in”.
  What tarnished the man's reputation after his death in 1965 was urban designers using his ideas to build cheap and nasty areas that turned into monstrous slums. They missed the point: Corbusier didn't want to slap a concrete roof over every homeless family and call it a home. He wanted everyone to live better.