Dec 25, 2009

I'm a Mac (Just a Regular Guy)

You can download an illustrated version of this essay here. (pdf, 1.02 MB)

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet;”
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II

The Many Macintoshes
Once upon a time, a Mackintosh was a rather unglamorous looking raincoat made in Britain. Then, on January 24, 1984, the word Macintosh (without the letter ‘k’) acquired a new meaning: a personal computer manufactured and sold by Apple Computers, Inc. This computer was sold with two applications developed by Apple: MacWrite and MacPaint. Thus was born the brilliant nickname that would stick to every subsequent computer product that Apple released – “Mac”. In both Apple’s products and their marketing, this nickname has played out in a delightfully unforeseen but meaningful way.

Dec 22, 2009

Pedicab Wala

Listen to me talk about Rickshaws in New York City, or download the file here (mp3, 6.45MB).

Rickshaws in New York City? Oh yes, they exist. And they're thriving.

(Clockwise from Top Left)

1. Stan O'Connor, who's been a pedicab tour guide for 14 years now. He loves giving tours to Indians, can sing "Chamma Chamma", and hum "Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai". He says that the one building Indians love to see in New York is the United Nations. Yup, that's us: world peace lovers.

2. An anonymous cycle rickshaw driver from India, and his passengers who luckily brought their own weatherproofing. The basic frame is the same as the pedicab's. The drivers are very different, as you can see.

3. Just Married, on a pedicab rented from Tony Roy's Pony Cab rental service. Movie and TV appearances are also part of their services.

Thanks to Stan, Tony and Ismail. The music is "Main Rickshawala" from the film "Chhoti Behen" (1959)

Dec 12, 2009

The Belle of the Ball

The George Washington Bridge Bus Station (GWBBS) once dreamed of fame. She had been encouraged to, because the men who created her in 1963 obviously suffered from incurable optimism, and a very strong idea of how things should be. To Robert Moses, she was to be the gateway to upper Manhattan. She was raised to take in all the traffic that poured off the Bridge and politely show it where to go: “Cars this way please, Heavy Vehicles go there, and Buses come to me.” She was trained to wave goodbye to the thousands of people leaving Upper Manhattan for Jersey and other points East: a warm goodbye that would make them want to come back to the greatest city in the world.

Dec 2, 2009

The Tall Bank Building Sustainably Considered

In December 2007, a 255.5 ft architectural spire was added to the new Bank of America building at One Bryant Park, finally giving it its intended height of 1,200 ft. This made it the second tallest building, and the tallest glass‐walled skyscraper in New York City. However, its biggest claim to fame is something that is unfortunately not visible in the architectural renderings, or to the passer‐by on the street: it is being touted as the world’s greenest skyscraper.

The Bank of America Tower is the first skyscraper designed to attain a Platinum LEED certification: the ultimate stamp of approval for sustainable construction. The developers, the Durst Organisation, and the architects Cook+Fox are confident their building will achieve this rating. At One Bryant Park, they claim to have bettered their earlier efforts with the Four Times Square building, creating a compendium of best sustainable practices using the technology that exists today.

Celebrating Design

September is the best time to visit Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, India. In the gentle autumn weather the Bengalis celebrate a ten day festival in honour of their favourite diety: the ten-armed Mother Goddess Durga. There is private worship in every home, but each neighbourhood organizes public worship at a stall, or pandaal. These pandaals are elaborate affairs: ranging from small sheds to enormous halls that are several hundred square feet in area. They are designed and built by local artisans, and have the most diverse inspirations. Last year’s pandaal themes included Victorian, Tribal, Gandhi, and Harry Potter. The highlight of each pandaal is a large idol of the Goddess Durga, designed in keeping with the theme. The Harry Potter pandaal was shaped like Hogwarts castle and the idol had moons and stars on her sari.

Nov 17, 2009

My Pressure Cooker Fascination

Listen to me talk about pressure cookers, or download the file. (4.22 MB .mp3)

1. The ubiquitous aluminium Hawkins pressure cooker
2. The Hawkins Futura, introduced in 1985, became an instant design classic.
3. Typical publicity material that always comes in the pressure cooker carton: in this case, a recipe book for a Futura.
4. How do you open a Hawkins pressure cooker? Opening pressure cookers is never easy for first-timers, no matter what pressure cooker you buy.

Nov 16, 2009

Revolution on a Keyboard

IBM’s place in history is secure, as one of the 20th century’s largest drivers of technology and purveyors of the most advanced products in electronics and computing. But their consumer products, even acclaimed seminal ones such as the Selectric typewriter or the IBM PC, never achieved the cult status accorded to the Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, or the Apple iMac G3. How did these objects, from much smaller competitors, create their cults?

Nov 1, 2009

The Japanese Total Design Idea

My conception of Japanese Society has been shaped mainly by films. For images of the traditional, rule-bound, society of aesthetes, there were Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant films, set in the age of the Samurai. To get the essence of a rapidly modernizing society that still retained its gentle traditional core, I saw Yasujiro Ozu, especially his masterpiece Tokyo Story (1953). For an outsider’s view of contemporary Tokyo, there was Wim Wenders’s Tokyo-Ga (1985); and for an insider’s conception of a fantasy Japanese world, there is, of course, Hayao Miyazaki. But to find an object that encapsulated all these ideas in one compact envelope of cuteness was completely beyond my expectations.

When I entered the Sanrio store on 42nd Street in New York, I was prepared to encounter a cult that I did not understand. Sure, I have little cousins who have Hello Kitty lunch boxes, and who tote tiny pink Hello Kitty bags, but I could not conceive how people of all sizes, ages, and genders found something they liked on shelf after shelf of Hello Kitty madness. Yet, there they were: picking out not just toys and stationery, but laptop cases, iPhone covers, and even rear view mirrors with a mouthless Kitty saying ‘Hello!’ to them.  I joined them, scanning every item, not willing to believe that anything in all this madness could possibly appeal to me. But on a shelf right near the entrance to the store, I found it: a Hello Kitty Dairi-bina.

The New Park on the Old High Line

For a park so young, the High Line Park, built on an abandoned freight train track that runs from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to 34th Street, between 10th & 11th Avenues, has already created a mythology of sorts for itself. Reviews of the park in various publications, a packed events calendar and a multitude of blog posts ‐ such as the one claiming that the park is a ‘babe magnet’ ‐ have given it a larger‐than‐life presence. Other American cities are queuing up to emulate it: on the Bloomingdale Trail in Chicago and on the Skywalks in Morristown, Tennessee. But the High Line Park is a very particular product of the people and circumstances that brought it into being.

The Friends of the High Line, a non‐profit group formed by concerned members of the community, wanted to find a viable way to preserve what was essentially a defunct piece of urban infrastructure. The last train ran on the High Line track in 1980, carrying, as they are strangely pleased to remind you, a load of cold turkeys. A small piece of urban wilderness soon took root on the track, beautifully documented in the photographs of Joel Sternfeld. Property owners in the area began to lobby for tearing the whole thing down, but by 2002, a resolution was passed reserving the High Line for reuse as a public space.

When the firms Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro took on the challenge of re‐imagining this iron behemoth as a public park, they were handling a bristling set of contradictions. They had to make people believe that they were strolling in a park while they were actually walking on a train track thirty feet off the ground. The park had to be modern, clean and sophisticated, but it also had to serve the purpose of historical preservation: both of the rusted, outdated High Line, and the wilderness that had grown on it. It had to deal with convoluted zoning laws while maintaining its integrity. The architects initially proposed to achieve these lofty aims with semi‐transparent concrete threaded with fibre optics, snaking between plantings designed by the Dutch designer Piet Oudolf. What finally got built isn’t as futuristic, but it preserves the contradictions of the design brief, creating a taut solution that is stretched along those lines of tension.

Oct 24, 2009

A New Mythological

The first feature length film made in India was ‘Raja Harishchandra’ in 1913. It isn’t surprising to any Indian to find out that the film was a ‘mythological’: it told stories of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, of ancient kings and curses. The medium of film provided the means, for the first time, for visual spectacles such as Gods flying in air and actors burning on funeral pyres to emerge unscathed. The mythological film was a prominent part of Indian Cinema till the 80’s, when television took over that genre. Tarsem Singh grew up in India, and while his film ‘The Fall’ bears an unmistakeable Bollywood stamp, I could not shake off the thought that its true progenitor is the bollywood mythological.

The film is a freefall into a world of fantasy. A stuntman in Los Angeles of the 1920’s breaks his legs in a fall, and then, while he is in hospital, discovers that his true love has betrayed him. After a failed suicide attempt, he befriends a little Spanish girl in the hospital. Hoping that he can trick her into getting him pills for a second suicide attempt, he begins to tell her a story. The audience now tumbles into the girl’s imagination, and the story unfolds through her eyes.

Exhibitions for a Living World

“There are many ways of working for the needs of underdeveloped and emergent countries. The simplest, most often employed, and probably shabbiest is for the designer to sit in his New York, London, or Stockholm office and to design things to be made in, say, Tanzania. Souvenir-like objects are then manufactured, using native materials and skills, with the pious hope that they will sell in developed countries.”

I returned to this passage in Victor Papanek’s seminal book today, and with good reason. I recently saw an exhibition that has a name so similar, it set off alarms in my head. “Design for a Living World”, an exhibition by the Nature Conservancy, co-curated by Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, and designed by Pentagram, opened at the Smithsonian-Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum on the 14 May, 2009.

When The Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest conservation organisation, approached the show’s curators to create an exhibition on “landscape, conservation and sustainability”, the curators hit upon the idea of basing the exhibition on ‘materials’. This in itself is problematic, and undermines the whole exercise.  Just because a material is natural, or certified as sustainable, it does not automatically ensure that any design that uses it will be sustainable in the true sense of the word.

Indian Design Edge: From the Top of the Pyramid

On the 25th of October 2008, Dr. Darlie Koshy retired from the post of Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), a position he held for eight years. Within the Indian Design World, this is about as high a position as one can hold, and he has literally filled that capacity to bursting with a long series of much discussed actions. His coup de grace is definitely his book, ‘Indian Design Edge: Strategic Insights for Success in the Creative Economy’, written from his ‘enviable ringside view’ of the world of design.

Following a good many years after Prof. S. Balaram’s ‘Thinking Design’ (1998), this book positions itself as the next macroscopic view of Indian Design. In Dr. Koshy’s inimitable style, it is filled with case studies, vision strategies, ‘design for-’ sub-headings and heavy doses of design evangelism. If not anything else, the book brings Indian Design out into the sunlight, in riotous jubilation and in considerable detail. It is unsurprising that Chief Secretary Shri Ajay Dua, of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, publicly acknowledged Dr. Koshy as his mentor in all things Design, at the launch of the book in Mumbai.

Beginning with ‘design for development’, and quoting the Ahmedabad Declaration of 1979, the book works its way through design history, comparisons with other Asian design achievements, ‘crafts as foundation of design innovations’ and ‘designs for grass roots innovations’. The chapter ‘change for design’ is in large part devoted to the author’s perspective of his role in shaping NID, ending with a charming classification of ‘progressive’ and ‘retrogressive’ designers: those who saw eye-to-eye with him and those who didn't. The chapters on ‘Strategic Design’, ‘Sectoral Growth by Design’, and ‘Creating GenNext Designers’ are large in their scope, and in the vigour of their arguments. One sector or topic after another is taken up, and the author’s view of the potential of design is forcefully sketched out for the unconverted.

Any glitches in this sumptuous smorgasbord are perhaps purely semantic. Delineating the ‘strategic perspective of the first national design policy’, the author begins the list with ‘Bottom of the pyramid model: design for masses, source of innovation and wealth’. This little loose end might well be the unravelling of the   edifice. It positions the designer/policy maker at the top of a pyramid of money, power and class reaching down, as it were, to those at the bottom. It also presents a view of these ‘masses’ at the bottom of the pyramid as the new frontier for design and business, where business conquistadors can ride on horses called design and discover new treasure viz., ‘innovation’ and ‘wealth’.

A Nose for Criticism

There is something to be said about stereotypes: hooked noses turn up with alarming regularity on the faces of critics of every historical age, gender or genre.

Before you decide that I am exaggerating, please consider these: John Ruskin, the art critic and culture sage of Victorian times, stared down an  aquiline nose that matched perfectly with his long flowing white beard. T. S. Eliot, who was a great literary critic apart from being one of my favourite poets, had a roman nose with a magnificent hook. Architecture and culture critic Lewis Mumford had one too, and so does one of Britain's finest literary theorists and critics, Terry Eagleton.

What began as a simple curiosity has now become a question that keeps me awake some nights: if I continue to write criticism, will I also end up with an extra-prominent proboscis?