The Political Symbol We Need

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On January 21, 2017, hundreds of post-Inauguration Day protests, rallies, and marches took place across the US and around the world. Largely organized by women and around “women’s issues” (which are not really only pertinent to women), the Women’s March on Washington and its related events served a smorgasbord of issues that were probably not all, entirely, to the taste of every participant–which did not keep them from coming out by the millions. Such is the nature of progressive politics in its sweeping gestures toward inclusion and diversity. Even so, the various marches were alike in several factors, including their overwhelming numbers, their overwhelmingly peaceful character, and their overwhelming pinkness. The latter was in part due to many artifacts in the crowds utilizing that color so long associated with all things feminine, but one item rose above the rest: the headwear that many of the participants wore. Simple in shape, the flat, boxy hat, when slipped over the head, reveals pointy “ears” that gives rise to its name: the pussyhat.

Given the success of the marches and ubiquity of the hats within them, the pussyhat may become one of the great examples of political headwear in the history of this sub-sub-sub-set of material culture history, which is a long one. Hats have enjoyed a rather rich association with politics through time, as their meanings might be casually hewn or (as in this case) intentionally sewn. Ancient Greeks recognized different tribes by their chapeaux, especially those who donned a pointy cone later called Phrygian caps, which were later embraced to signify freedom and the pursuit of liberty during various eighteenth-century revolutions: Americans called it them Liberty Caps. In the early twentieth century, hats were intentionally wielded within the strive toward Turkey’s westernization during the establishment of the Republic when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk required men to wear European-style hats in replace of the fez that had been traditional for about a century, thinking that modern hats would modernize their wearers. Meanwhile, Americans popularized straw boaters, usually festooned with bunting and buttons, as the canonical rally and convention hat. Again in the 1960s, activists and revolutionaries countered the decorum of broad-brimmed hats by donning berets to conjure a militarist attitude, famously captured in the Guerrillero Heroico.

Hats have only gained prominence at political rallies–especially televised ones–in the most recent decades, as a way for individuals to draw media attention to themselves (and, of course, their party), and for organizers to indicate solidarity among a crowd. Such was certainly the case during the 2016 presidential election, when the platform of the candidate who ultimately won the Electoral College became closely identified with a red trucker hat bearing an ostensibly, but backwards-looking and nostalgic, patriotic slogan. Reaching a certain portion of the electorate that was clearly feeling left out of global change, its form identifies with traditional masculinity and blue-collar labor, while its color is associated with the American flag but, perhaps more to the point, is also the shade favored by bullfighter to enrage their prey and thus may likely pump up (if not help to flat-out enrage) rally attendees. The factory-made hat (sometimes labeled “made in the USA,” but not necessarily so and not entirely so) was a tremendously successful element of the campaign, yet as ill-fitting and foreign in its candidate’s wearing–one might argue–as are the values it symbolizes within his actual life experience.

How different, then, is the hat we saw amidst the crowds flowing through the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Boston and beyond on January 21: not a device shrewdly chosen and mass-produced to elicit common response among a crowd of followers, but the result of a totally grassroots campaign, like the rallies themselves. While the innocent (or out-of-touch) might see their shape as having some vaguely feline-feminine quality appropriate to a Women’s March, no one was calling these kittyhats; they of course were a direct response to one of the most degrading and disparaging comments to come out of the red-capped candidate’s mouth. In no way is the pussyhat’s hue a washed-out, weaker version of the candidate’s hats; in this context, pink is potentially more biologically referential than generically pretty–although it’s that, too (and, depending on the wearer, ironically so–or not).

hatsAlso unlike the uniformity of the manufactured red hats, the pussyhats reveal a variety of shades and patterns of pink, as diverse in their slightly different shapes, fabrics, and methods of fabrication (some real works of art by skilled knitters and others clearly a person’s first go at a sewing machines). This too is significant, for the making of these hats is as important as their wearing. The real gist is for them to be handmade–so much so, that knittters took pity on their non-needlework-able sisters and passed them around both through small social circles as well as through a well-organized online campaign (no doubt the need also drove some robust Etsy traffic).

The mass creation of hundreds of thousands of pussyhats in a relatively short time frame is a testament to both contemporary social media and age-old needlework technology. The two merge in what may be the biggest global act of Craftivism in history: a pointed use of handicraft for the cause of activism, oftentimes (maybe usually) from a feminist point of view and making use of crafts that have been traditionally associated with the feminine sphere. In the best Craftivist practice, the pussyhats accomplish both goals by merging the advocacy of voice and hand, while also bridging the divide between the personal and the global.

So the pink hat is at once an individual, unique artifact in the making and a communal event in the wearing, much as the marches themselves joined vast swaths of people from broad demographic representations. As a specifically feminist strategy they reclaim and repurpose a word that had been used to belittle and degrade while claiming and proclaiming a color that is a powerful, clashing counterpoint to last summer’s red hat and its regressive attitude. With varying levels of craft expertise, fiber, fabric, pattern and color, they announced diversity within overall unity, perfectly symbolizing the recognition of plurality’s strength within any movement–or society–that hopes to march forward.

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William Morris & the Minor Arts

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On this day in 1882 William Morris presented a lecture titled “Some of the Minor Arts of Life” before the Birmingham and Midlands Institute.

It was a significant iteration of ideas that he had shared with audiences at places like Trades’ Guild of Learning as early as 1877 and that would, in a later and revised form, becomes the famous “Lesser Arts of Life” essay (available in its full form here).  Morris described the “Greater Arts” as those that appeal “to [man’s] emotions and his intellect,” as well as his memory, imagination and spirit, by the direct means of his senses–say, by looking at a Giotto fresco.  On the other hand, the “Lesser Arts” have as their first intention the service of “bodily wants” and “material needs:” Giotto’s boots…

Read more by our friend Clio

‘Death by Designer:’ Aaron Schock and the Downton Downfall

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The Red Room’s to Blame

How often does a piece in the Style section tank a Congressman’s career?  What started as a pretty mild inquiry by Washington Post writer Ben Terris in early February, blossomed as his visit to the congressional office of Rep. Aaron Schock apparently accidentally but very importantly overlapped with one by its eager designer, Annie Brahler of Euro Trash, prompting a major PR fumble and more serious investigations into the Republican’s finances and travel, leading to the all-too-predictable dénouement (the media are distracting me from my job, blah blah blah).

The story of Rep. GQutiepie’s plummet from power might have happened eventually, given all the apparent financial malfeasance, but it sure does look like it’s the office that precipitated his sudden and very public demise: by all accounts, a stunning fall (we will avoid the obvious pun and you’re welcome!).  Surely the private planes, concert tickets, and dubious mileage math might have been enough to swat his erstwhile meteoric rise out of the political stratosphere.  But the story that took root was about the office: brilliant red rooms with a hefty sprinkling of gilt (or at least gold-painted), lavish crystal, multiple urns of pheasant feathers, a table with flying-eagle legs.  Of all the possible reasons for Rep. Xtreme to meet his end, how was it design that did him in?

Was it just the ridiculous crudeness of it all?  A suite of rooms that were more akin to an Old West Madame’s Saloon than the meeting place of a legislator?  (But then, Rep. Glossypage did not accomplish much during his tenure in office.)  Note to future office holders: avoid associations with businesses that feature the words “Euro” and “Trash” in their names.

Was it somehow the style itself: sort of Neo-American-Classical-Exceptionismesque, with vaguely traditionalish pieces glamored up and arranged in wacky, unexpected ways?  That’s especially true of the overlapping frames and floating pictures of presidents that hover within them (ostensibly sourced by staffers from the print-on-demand station at the National Portrait Gallery).

Was it the way this suite stood so brashly out from the pack, its red color not only generally announcing soe kind of rebel spirit manifesting Rep. Abulous statement that he wasn’t one of the “old crusty white guys” and dismissing critics of the office with a bon mot featured in a Taylor Swift song, but specifically disregarding the paint color guidelines set down by the architect of the Capitol?  (Yes of course there are rules about these things, even if the Washington Post calls them “arcane.”)

Or might it have been the description of the room that took hold in the media as “based off of (sic) the red room in Downton Abbey.” This statement, told to reporter Terris by an unamed “woman behind the front desk” of Rep. Instagram‘s office, struck a nerve with the public, even though it seems like a false comparison.  The Congressman’s denials of having ever seen the show are probably true, since PBS rarely plays at 24-Hour Fitness.  Likewise, designer Brahler has huffed at the comparison, demanding the design is her own, with no inspiration from the show or otherwise.  This seems reasonable too.  By her own admission, Brahler is not a designer: she rather proudly proclaims to have avoided being “classically trained” (whatever that means), in other words, she is uneducated in design.  She describes her work as being a purchaser and arranger of stuff, kind of like the people who load up TGIFs and Chili’s restaurants with garage sale loot–just with more crystal and feathers.  And now, political scandal.

For Unnamed Lady Behind The Desk to make the remark with such certainly, there must be something to the comparison, and something that triggers the real criticism and outrage over a lavishly decorated room that perhaps represented a misuse of taxpayer money but is by no means one of the grossest expenditures on office equipage by Congressional representatives.  Perhaps it’s not the dough, or the degree to which Schock’s office simulates the alleged original English estate, but the fact that the comparison can be made at all.

The backlash is one more example of a sentiment rooted in the aspirational, chip-on-the-shoulder aesthetic desires of a certain brand of striving, self-loathing American for the elegance and taste that the landed, royalist Brits seem to do so easily.  Since we cut the cord back in 1776, Britain has been a source of admiration and scorn, longing and denial.  Although (often) unconscious, this national tendency may explain why this extravagant room, which might have been just a source of eye-rolling without the allusion to a television show, became such a lightening rod once it was tied to the story about English elites.  Not only that, but Downton is of course the biggest hit on PBS: the visual equivalent of NPR, the station of Prius-drivers and soy latte-drinkers; it’s not the network for real red-meat guns-rights ‘Merika.  A $40,000 design that emulated Duck Dynasty would have a been a different thing all together.

Maybe Rep. Fancypant’s office was a misguided, silly, excessive recreation of the Downton set; maybe not.  Surely it is a fitting tribute to a (former) congressman who placed high priority on sizzle and appearances, one who was expert at gobbling up power rather than wielding influence.  And fear not, fans of Schock, for this is not the death of a congressional career, but–we bet dollars to doughnuts–rather the birth of cable-channel personality, once the inevitable cross-over travel/design/political programming is launched.  Stay tuned.

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#FailedIntellectual

3On Tuesday, 11/11 (the date chosen, no doubt, for the lovely sadness of all those lonely numbers standing side by side), the Nein Quarterly #FailedIntellectual Goodwill Tour crept into Chicago, making stops at some university and the Goethe Institut (where severe eyewear abounds, as you would expect).  If you are not hip to Nein (a “compendium of utopian negation”), by all means fix that.  Go, now: we’ll wait right here.

Dr. Eric Jarosinski, the mind behind the Twitterfeed, is no caricature; he just plays one on the interwebs.  His presentation and the ensuing Q & A included observations on social media, academic life, dumb luck, the mathematics of humor and the virtues of being nice, and of course the awful beauty of the German language.

We left with questions:

  • Why is the umlaut funny but the ß not so much?
  • How many #SuccessfulIntellectuals are just #FailedSomethingElses?
  • Will the monster under the bed ever open his own Twitter account?

If the #FailedIntellectual Goodwill Tour comes to your town, go.  In proper Nein fashion, expect nothing.  But we warn you: your expectations will be disappointed.

the other tastiest place in the world

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Arts & Crafts gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum

Back in 2010 we named the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna as the tastiest place in a very, very tasty city, but must report that its crown is challenged by one single room in London.  (Surely a topic of such weight merits the esteemed position of this post, which is our 100th, thank you very much & you are welcome!)

During our most recent jaunt through Dear Old Blighty, which was awash with Artsy-Craftsy wonderfulness, we swooned in the Arts and Crafts galleries of the Victoria and Albert.  The museum presents, as one might expect, a singular collection of this great movement that we’ve been increasingly obsessed about (and that we’ve talked with you about before, like here, here, here, and here).  Any reasonable gallery with a reasonable nineteenth-century design collection will have a bit of Morris, maybe some Voysey; perhaps something shiny by Archibald Knox if they’re really fancy.  Well howzabout all of that, and then some, gathered up in one place at one time.

That image at the top is a veritable family picture: Burne-Jones glass, Liberty & Co. washstand, Voysey owls & clock, Farnham pottery, Knox pewter, Webb candlesticks & chair, De Morgan pottery, Ashbee decanter, Townsend fabric, a Morris cabinet and carpet and, of course, the movement’s unofficial mascot, the Strawberry Thief.

Seriously, just look at this stuff:

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in the Medieval Gallery

And because it’s the V & A once you’re finished swooning here, you can walk yourself down to the medieval stuff and see their inspiration. Or over to an adjacent room for Pugin and the Crystal Palace.  It’s almost too much for nineteenth-century people to bear.

Just one downside to the V & A.  Unlike the KM in Vienna, the environment of its wonderfully-designed cafes trumps the nosh.  Such a pity.  Then again, and while there are probably scones to be had in Kensington, why not make your way two miles to Conduit Street, where you can have the cream tea at the Sketch cafe and commune with other tasty ghosts at this former home to the RIBA?

why not, indeed

why not, indeed

 

cats & modernism

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design an adequate scratching post

suddenly, Mr. Whiskers realized that not even Frank Lloyd Wright could design a scratching post that would meet his expectations

A notice came across our desk today that identifies October 29 as National Cat Day (not to be confused with International Cat Day on August 8, which is a semi-legit event sponsored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, who seem like very decent folks), which is founded by someone who calls herself a “pet and family lifestyle expert, animal behaviorist, designer and author” but who somehow does not even have her own wiki.  Unlike most “national” holidays, Cat Day has a sponsor: a kitty litter company.

This is silly, and not only if present company raises an eyebrow to the idea that cats deserve any kind of celebration (dogs, on the other hand . . . ).  Rather, our concern is for the sake of the felines themselves.  Did anyone ask them if they wanted or needed the honor?  We assume their response would have been a collective are you kidding dahhhrling, every day is cat day, before (or while) they sauntered away to poop in the fern.

Still, the pictures of cats in architecture got us wondering.  Of course the picture-story from Architizer features only Modernist buildings, but this time the bias seems only too perfect.  Slinky, sexy and alluring, yet cold, aloof, high-maintenance and unaccommodating: cats & modernism are a match made . . . somewhere.

truth be told, we dig this one

truth be told, we dig this one

we’re five!

Ordonnance des cinq especes de colonnes selon la methode des anciens (Claude Perrault: 1683 )

Ordonnance des cinq especes de colonnes selon la methode des anciens (Claude Perrault: 1683)

original post & theme (24 Sept. 2009)

original post & theme (24 Sept. 2009)

Happy Birthday, Matters of Taste, and congratulations on five years of celebrating martyrs and dogs and architects’ birthdays (here’s looking at you, birthday-buddy Francesco Borromini), castigating Barbie dolls and men’s feet, assessing the architecture of Lord of the Rings and the Avengers  and Harry Potter, swooning over all the wonderfulness of the Arts and Crafts Movement in all its varieties, feeding wizards, hobbits, and padawans, avoiding pumpkin spice,  and lots and lots of buying presents for architects–on all the world’s continents (well except Antarctica).  It seems to us that a milestone birthday calls for a new dress, and so today we retire the old ChaosTheory and don Triton Lite make that Suburbia!

We extend our thanks to you, dear reader, whether you are an old subscriber or new to the party.  Glad you are here.  Make sure to join us in a slice of celebratory cake today and, of course, stay tasty!

apparently have no need for the Taste

these guys apparently have no need for the Taste

a walk on Brick Lane

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Brick Lane is not unique among the streets of the world in the fact that it bears the evidence of shifting demographics, but it is certainly a fantastically diverse and colorful example of the phenomenon.  Even a short walk along part of this long street, which runs mostly north-south-ish in London’s East End, passes through divergent communities and multiple layers of cultural archaeology.  And while it might be short in distance (say, 1/3 of a mile), this walk is long in experience and deep in delight.

Our walk began at Fournier Street, on the corner of which stands an appropriately bricky eighteenth-century building whose tenant list already reveals part of the history of the district.  The Brick Lane Mosque has been used as such since 1976, but was formerly a synagogue (from 1898), before that a church (used by Methodists since 1819), before that serving for a decade at a time as the headquarters of the “London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews” and a Wesleyan chapel; originally it was built as La Neuve Eglise for French Huguenots in 1743.  To further complicate (and/or enrich) matters, its minaret (which lights up at night) was added in 2010, paid for by the Bishops Square development near Liverpool Street Station.

This section of the street is pretty much free of architectural monuments after the mosque, leaving one tempted to fall back on the old chestnut of describing the 3- and 4-story structures that line Brick Lane as “nondescript buildings.”  Maybe once upon a time these (mostly) 18th- and 19th- century blocks were unremarkable, but by 2014 they have achieved an impressive patina through use by layers of use through the centuries.  Not much reflects the earliest history of this road that is really, really old and gets its name from a brick factory that was built before the first Queen Elizabeth took the throne.  Successive groups of immigrants have moved to this part of the city, oftentimes to take over the silk and weaving shops that were prevalent through the nineteenth century, when the business dried up.  In the 1970s Bangladeshis became the predominant ethnic group in Brick Lane.  Their presence is evident in the street signs written in Bengali and lamp posts painted in the colors of the flag of Bangladesh, as well as the preponderance of curry shops along the street.

Perhaps like pizza being taken over by Americans from its Italian immigrants, curry rose in popularity along with the multiplication of Bangladeshi restaurants in Brick Lane, through the rest of London and wider in the country.  So popular did the immigrant cuisine–admittedly with some alterations–become, in 2001 British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in a speech to “celebrate Britishness” and its longtime multicultural character, claimed that “Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences.”  The acknowledgement of Bangladeshi culture as an integrated part of Britishness was made official by the renaming of the district as “Spitalfields and Banglatown,” also in 2001.

Recently, Brick Lane has continued to show signs of change as its character (and relatively cheap rents) have drawn the attention of artsy types.  Just off the path of our walk, the Rag Factory, a repurposed building housing studios, performance and exhibition spaces, is not far from the intersection of Brick Lane and Fashion Street (originally the Hugeuenot name “Fossan” Street, the word was later corrupted into “Fashion,” and recently became a magnet for designers).  Walking north, such establishments as the Cafe Mumbai, Mango Masala, Eastern Eye Balti, Bengal Village, the Curry Bazaar, and Cafe Bangla cede way to the Vibe Bar, the Laden Showroom, Rockit, Vintage, the Brick Lane Gallery, the venerable Beigel Bake.  What might seem like a rather abrupt transition between the Bangladeshis and the more recent settlers, around Woodseer Street, is visually bridged by a new scrim on many of those old buildings.  The once-plain walls along the path have been turned into a fantastic open-air street art gallery. The big crane by Belgian artist Roa is probably the most notable work in the gallery above, but we are partial to the portrait of local hero Charlie Burns (d. 2012) by Londoner Ben Slow–it’s beautiful, and painted to look like its fading away, along with Charlie’s Brick Lane.

Having started at the church-synagogue-mosque at the intersection with Fournier Street, the walk ends at a rather different, and rather new, cultural icon just below Bethnal Green Road.  Fika, named after the tradition of Swedish coffee break and opened some five or six years ago, is a bar and restaurant that is pretty serious about its Nordicness, featuring kladdkaka and gravadlax on the menu.  We might be just a few blocks north of the mosque, but it feels farther away.  Not as far as Stockholm is from Dhaka, the difference between the ends of this short walk is better measured in messier terms than mere miles.  The self-consciousness of cultural construction to the north is palpable, but maybe that’s been the case whenever a new wave has flowed down Brick Lane, going back to the Huguenots.  Regrettable neighborhood gentrification?  Maybe.  Expected urban evolution?  Undoubtedly.  It’s the natural way in these unnatural things that we call cities and that are, afterall, the artifacts of everyone who passes through them and takes the time to leave part of their story behind.