Maybe you’re sitting on one right now. It has a high back with slats, or arches, or a fan of leaf blades, or some intricate tracery. Its legs are wide and splayed, not solid. The plastic in the seat is three-sixteenths of an inch thick. It’s probably white, though possibly green. Maybe you like how handy it is, how you can stack it or leave it outdoors and not worry about it. Maybe you’re pleased that it cost less than a bottle of shampoo.
No matter what you’re doing, millions of other people around the world are likely sitting right now on a single-piece, jointless, all-plastic, all-weather, inexpensive, molded stacking chair. It may be the most popular chair in history.
That dawned on me recently after I started noticing The Chair in news photographs from global trouble spots. In a town on the West Bank, an indignant Yasser Arafat holds a broken chair damaged by an Israeli military operation. In Nigeria, contestants in a Miss World pageant are seated demurely on plastic chairs just before riots break out, killing some 200 people. In Baghdad, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III, during a ceremony honoring Iraqi recruits, sits on a white plastic chair as if on a throne….
The plastic chairs in all those places were essentially alike, as far as I could tell, and seemed to be a natural part of the scene, whatever it was. It occurred to me that this humble piece of furniture, criticized by some people as hopelessly tacky, was an item of truly international, even universal, utility. What other product in recent history has been so widely, so to speak, embraced? And how had it found niches in so many different societies and at so many different levels, from posh resorts to dirt courtyards? How did it gain a global foothold?
And yet, here are Cameron Moll and Bryce Knudson managing to impart all kinds of aura and ritual to the reproduction. The reproductions are weirdly more authentic than the original which is just a file with dubious forward-compatibility.
I enjoy this alchemy, made possible by the presence of easier reproduction techniques. It transmutes the time needed to make a letterpress work into painstaking labour when, at the moment of invention, it was labour-saving. Imagine the salespeople and inventors of these machines learning that their long term legacy would be assured by how difficult they are to use, compared to their displacing successors (yes, yes, I know there are special features of the resulting print that are unique to the process but the video is all about the process itself).
What I’m deeply curious about is what comes next. At what point will the techniques have morphed and changed to that point that lovingly submitting PDFs to be printed “by hand” on colour printer feels more authentic than whatever’s replaced it? I suppose we’re about due for dot-matrix nostalgia.
I think we’re already seeing some glimpses of that sentiment in essays like this one: I want to make things, not just glue things together.
So how does one design a building where people actually use the stairs? There are three key features.
1) Fewer turns between the stairs and the closest entrance.
2) Stairs with large surface areas (not too narrow and steep).
3) Create a view, either up, down, or across, from the stairwell. No one wants to walk up a tiny, white box.
The Booth School of Business staircases meet all of these requirements (perhaps it’s no surprise the building won a major design award last year). For those who can’t build new stairwells, there are a few other nudges to try. Displaying motivational signs in the lobby and throughout the building, and playing music in the stairwell can increase stair use. Together, these two nudges can increase usage by as much as 9 percent. Hanging artwork on the stairwell walls, closing elevators occasionally, and offering incentives like fruit are also known to work.
In truth, experts say, the developing world doesn’t need more incubators. It needs incubators that work. Over the years, thousands have been donated from rich nations, only to end up in “incubator graveyards” — most broken, some never opened. According to a 2007 study from Duke University, 96 percent of foreign-donated medical equipment fails within five years of donation — mostly because of electrical problems, like voltage surges or brownouts or broken knobs, or because of training problems, like neglecting to send user manuals along with the devices.
To compensate for this philanthropic shortsightedness, medical staffs either crank up the temperature in “incubator rooms” to 100 degrees or more, or swaddle babies in plastic to hold in body heat. Such makeshift solutions led the Boston team to ask: How can we make an incubator for the developing world that will get fixed? . . .
In his discussions with doctors who practice in impoverished settings, Dr. Rosen learned that no matter how remote the locale, there always seemed to be a Toyota 4Runner in working order. It was his “Aha!” moment, he recalled later: Why not make the incubator out of new or used car parts, and teach local auto mechanics to be medical technologists?
It consists of six pieces of wood - two circles, two sticks and a couple of arches - held together by 10 screws and two nuts. Together they make the wooden chair known as Thonet Model No.14, which although no one has ever actually done the math, is thought to have seated more people than any other chair in history.
The No.14 was the result of years of technical experiments by its inventor, the 19th-century German-born cabinetmaker Michael Thonet. His ambition was characteristically bold. Thonet wanted to produce the first mass-manufactured chair, which would be sold at an affordable price (three florins, slightly less than a bottle of wine).
I have carried a reprint of John Lasseter’s seminal paper on computer animation, “Principles of Traditional Animation Applied to 3D Computer Animation,” for the last 18 years. This hardcopy document has been to Japan, both coasts of the US, and has really been near/dear to me and is yellowed from age and embarassingly food-stained and so forth. It occurred to me today that maybe this paper might be available online, and I just found it in excerpted form here. I’m not sure what to call it … but maybe I had a kind of myopia when it came to this one document in my life. I felt that unless I held onto it in print, that I would never be able to handily access the information. Discovering that the content is available online right now seems truly freeing to me. And yet oddly enough, I am still hesitant to place my tattered reprint into my recycling box before I leave to my next engagement this evening.
There’s always the “just in case” when it comes to any information around you. Even in this digital era we know it’s easy to lose information forever. Nothing is truly permanent. But I’ve carried this paper around for 18 years — hmmmm, as old as an RISD freshman. Ah. The power of perspective. Looks like this paper will be sticking around me for many more years to come. Dilemma resolved. Paper wins.
In the moments when I can attend one of my children’s soccer games, I find great pleasure from sitting in a field of grass. Since I was a child I have been making little sculptures out of blades of grass … as I did so just this last weekend during a match. Coming off of the inauguration, it made me think of our Provost Jessie Shefrin’s phrase, “Thinking is a kind of making, and making is a kind of thinking.” I make. Therefore, I think. I hope you make something interesting today.
A RISD education is classical and rigorous; first-year students are required to practice the fundamentals of drawing and sculpture. Foundation Studies are taught in rooms filled to the ceilings with thousands of skeletons, taxidermy, minerals, reptiles, birds. (A sign warns “The doves are out so please close the door.”) Other departments cover everything from photography to ceramics. The curriculum is so conservative as to be radical.
Some of RISD’s studios probably haven’t changed in a hundred years. The stuff of art and design is everywhere, in the charcoal dust, the heaps of wet clay, the scraps of wood. A RISD education focuses on what you can do with your hands; an architecture student is expected to be able to draw, a print-maker to use a press. . . .
“A designer is someone who constructs while he thinks, someone for whom planning and making go together,” says Mr. Maeda, cocking his head, widening his eyes, moving his hands as if he were shaping a pot. Mr. Maeda considers himself post-digital; he has outgrown his fascination with hardware and is driven by ideas. “I want to reform technology. All the tools are the same; people make the same things with them. Everyone asks me, ‘Are you bringing technology to RISD?’ I tell them, no, I’m bringing RISD to technology.” He describes a visit to the campus by an executive from Yahoo. Mr. Maeda took him to see the visual resources center in the new library. Hundreds of thousands of drawings, photographs and news clippings, and images of art, architecture and decorative arts—on slides—are cataloged and stored in old-fashioned metal and wood file cabinets. The Yahoo executive was stunned. “This is a real live Google!” Better, says Mr. Maeda.
Soltzberg: So given that there are all these patterns and themes around us, yet being adept at noticing requires practice, how can people sharpen their noticing “chops?”
Portigal: I’ve assigned students to routinely maintain a noticing log, either a blog (words with pictures) or a Flickr account (pictures with words). The exercise helps sharpen noticing skills by giving people permission to simply observe and document. There’s never any requirement to suggest a fix; indeed what they observe may not be broken in any way. It just has to arouse their interest, and in documenting it make the details of that interest explicit. Establishing some discipline for this behavior can be very helpful.
Soltzberg: Sometimes I do an exercise with workshop groups, which works in a similar way. Everyone takes a turn describing something they saw or experienced between the time they got up and the present moment; something that they haven’t talked about with anyone that day. It could be something unusual or something really mundane—just a quick description with maybe one or two details. People are always surprised when they realize how many things they are actually experiencing but not really noticing. It’s such a simple activity, but people have told me later on that they felt much more awake after doing it.
Portigal: That’s a good place to be solving problems from. Well, let’s get out there and keep noticing.