Design by Jan Lenica,1998

The Standards Manual story

It started, as so many things do, in a basement. In this case, it was the basement at the eminent design firm Pentagram, on Fifth Avenue in Flatiron, where a mouldering graphic design artifact would become an unlikely indie publishing sensation. The book was the implementation guide for the signage of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, designed by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda at Unimark in 1970 with its Swiss-style typography and memorable circular letter route designations. To the young designers who flipped through its discarded pages underneath the corporate identity design giant in twenty-first century Manhattan, it appeared as a kind of urtext, a Dead Sea Scroll of modern graphic design. Two young designers at Pentagram — Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed — who both happened to work with Pentagram partner Michael Bierut, a Vignelli alumnus, felt the need to share this sunken treasure. They hastily built a website that displayed each spread of the manual, and it attracted enough attention to convince them to pursue an audacious reprint project. With the help of Kickstarter and one Alex Daly, the design imprint Standards Manual was born.

David Lynch interviewed by Mark Cousins on BBC’s Scene for Scene (1999)

Benjamin Hirte: ‘Gene Tryp’

Kleiner Feigling is a brand of naturally-flavoured fig liquor, made by BEHN in Eckernförde, Germany. The production of Kleiner Feigling started in 1992 and since then has reached annual worldwide sales of 1,000,000+ cases. The name translates literally to Little Coward and is a pun on the words feige (cowardly) and Feige (fig), which are homophones in German. In Germany, the drink is often purchased in 20 milliliter shooter-sized bottles. Custom dictates that the drinker tap the cap of the upside down bottle on the table, making bubbles in the liquid just before it is consumed.

Thomas Keymer on Autobiography

Thomas De Quincey invited comparison with Rousseau in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but relinquished Rousseau’s sense of personal control. The opium becomes a rival protagonist of his story, almost at times a rival author. It strips away the ‘veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind’ and opens the narrative, in proto-psychoanalytic ways, to dream and unreason. De Quincey sees how strange it is to use an inherited literary model to express one’s own uniqueness, and at one point wonders if he might not in fact be ‘counterfeiting my own self’… Influential accounts of the genre like Laura Marcus’s Auto/biographical Discourses (1994) have emphasised the way identity seemed to fracture in literary modernism. Katherine Mansfield’s scepticism about ‘our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent’; Louis MacNeice’s wry sense that ‘as far as I can make out, I not only have many different selves, but I am often, as they say, not myself at all.’ In Virginia Woolf’s remarkable ‘A Sketch of the Past’, drafted as she wrote her biography of Roger Fry, the gap between narrating and narrated selves – ‘the two people, I now, I then’ – proves recalcitrant and persistent, refusing to close. In any case, the self Woolf sought to document was not so much subject as object: not a self-determining agent but ‘the person to whom things happen’, acted on by immense, inscrutable social forces. To consider these forces, their power and their invisibility, is to realise ‘how futile life-writing becomes’, Woolf writes: ‘I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.’

Paul Goldberger quotes Peter Eisenman in a discussion of House VI, published in The New York Times Magazine, March 20, 1977.

…the house is not an object in the traditional sense–that is, the end result of a process–but more accurately the record of a process. The house, like the set of diagrammed transformations on which its design is based, is a series of film stills compressed in time and space. Thus, the process itself becomes an object; but not an object as an aesthetic experience or as a series of iconic meanings. Rather, it becomes an exploration of the range of potential manipulations latent in the nature of architecture, unavailable to our consciousness because they are obscured by cultural preconceptions.

Gucci Man

Later, “these trousers”

Newman’s immensely enjoyable book ranges from the 19th century to the present and rearranges the literary canon with abandon to illuminating and sometimes comic effect. Organised like an extended magazine feature it has sections on ‘Signature Looks’, which include ‘Glasses’, ‘Hats’ and ‘Suits’, the latter bringing Gay Talese and T.S. Eliot into unlikely proximity. There are also pull quotes with such fun facts as that Jacqueline Susann’s ambition as a schoolgirl ‘was to own a mink coat’, and in the early 1970s Samuel Beckett used a ‘now classic leather Gucci hobo holdall as his day-to-day man bag’. Beckett, Newman suggests, would have been an ideal model for Comme des Garçons and with that thought in mind a photograph of him gazing out in moody monochrome looks for a moment like a page from a Toast catalogue.

The juxtapositions are playful but not trivial. The relationship between the work and the clothes is discussed but not laboured. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the women and the gay men make the most interesting studies. Simone de Beauvoir, whose silk dresses, turbans and perfect manicures bore witness to her willingness to undertake what she called ‘the work’ of fashion, says in The Second Sex: ‘dressing up is … a uniform and an adornment; by means of it the woman who is deprived of doing anything feels that she expresses what she is.’ Sartre, wearing a suit on the beach at Copacabana, looks dreary beside her. John Updike in his dull dad jumper feels like a token inclusion, Hunter S. Thompson naturally stands out. His Hawaiian shirts and safari suits became so recognisable that Gary Trudeau turned him into the demonic Uncle Duke of Doonsbury, much to Thompson’s chagrin. As he said, ‘nobody wants to grow up to be a cartoon character.’ On the whole, though, it is those writers who saw the potential of clothes to create an identity and visibility that society would conventionally deny them that are the most revealing. This was the impulse that propelled Quentin Crisp, ‘blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick’, through the ‘dim streets of Pimlico’. ‘Sometimes I wore a fringe so deep that it completely obscured the way ahead,’ he recalls. ‘This hardly mattered. There were always others to look where I was going.’ Edith Sitwell’s huge jewellery and flowing robes, which gave her the appearance of ‘a high altar on the move’, were also the result of a desire to turn the tables on the world. Made to feel self-conscious about her appearance as a child, as an adult she ensured that everyone else should be conscious of it too.

Michael Penn, “No Myth” (1989)

Walking in Memphis

Fiorucci, 1984. Via It’s Nice That.

This essay was originally published in the inaugural issue of August Journal as “Learning from Milan.”

In the eleventh grade, at a small Quaker school in Durham, North Carolina, I wrote a history paper about Memphis. Not the city some ten hours away, but the seven-year-old Italian design movement known for its subversive combination of plastic laminate, abstract pattern, and totemic shapes. The cover of my report was blue, and on it I attempted my own hand-lettered version of a jazzed Memphis typeface. Its contents have since been lost to history, as has my teacher’s reaction to the celebration of plastic, color and artificiality at a school where the wind whistled between the vertical siding and, when the wood stove proved inadequate, we just wore our coats inside. Style was not one of the virtues taught here—critical thinking was—and yet a previous generation of upper schoolers had included a boy who thought he was David Bowie, and one of my lunch companions dressed as if she were about to appear in a Guns N’ Roses video.