Category Archives: History

Wednesday Inspiration: Man Ray and Surrealism

Noire et Blanche, 1926This photograph by Man Ray encapsulates the inspiration of the time that pervaded the visual arts, literature, music and thought. In this photo, the use of the mask brought over from somewhere in the continent of Africa shows what stimulated the abstraction that would soon give way to Cubism.


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The Passion of Frida & Diego

Detail of a photograph by Nickolas Muray

The Toronto exhibit featuring the work of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera is heartwrenching, beautiful and inspiring. The months leading up to my first glimpse of any of either artist’s work were excruciating but being immersed in their realities as people and as storytellers made the experience more moving than thought possible.

The exhibit was curated with a mixture of photographs, videos, Mexican indigenous sculptures, canvases and one of Frida’s corsets with a hammer and sickle and an unborn fetus; both artists inspired each other and at certain points in the exhibit, canvases were paired and the styles were undistinguishable. It was an interesting experiment that would have an enthusiast scratching their heads only to find the subtle differences to be nagging. This experiment should be kept internally since such conversations in public end up being ‘scenes’ in public. Just sayin’.

Up to this moment, there are ideas that Frida and Diego ponder about on their canvases that are still relevant today: feminism, equality, oppression, post-colonialism and chauvinism, among others. It’s a thrilling feeling to have access to the thought process that goes behind the otherworldly images that Kahlo presents in what one can call mental ‘landscapes.’ It was thrilling.

With Google images being two clicks away, I am only including the one image for this post. Ideas after all live in the air around us. It is up to us to leave traces of thoughts. Frida and Diego accomplished this with their canvases and murals. It’s up to us now to do the same. Go ahead. Read. Contemplate.

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Finally Frida!

The Art Gallery of Toronto is bringing Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera to Canada for the first time in an exhibit called ‘Frida & Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting.’ This event has been on my iCalendar since it was announced so ‘anticipation’ would be the word that first comes to mind.

I will be at the Members’ Preview so please watch this space.

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On cartography

Ork Map of Toronto

Christopher Columbus' Map of the New World from c.1490

Christopher Columbus_Map_New World_1490

By Mike Baldwin

Directions are either helpful or confusing, maps included. Visual cues are meant to minimize interference by by language and this is where design comes in. Conventions and cultural references are used to help in this experience but there are still shortcomings.
The visual that a map presents to its beholder is spatial; ingenious use of other elements like colours and texture gives the said beholder a space for personalizing the experience of wayfinding. One good example of this visual map is the ‘You Are Here’ map that can be found at any shopping centre. By using the beholder’s relative starting point, the hunt for the shoe sale is a little closer for someone shopping with daddy’s credit card which is a blessing (for the current teenager) and a curse (for the same teenager but ten years from and now also for the unknowing father).
Maps are documents of discovery. Without blazing trails, maps would not exist and without verifying accuracy, maps could very well be drawings mazes that can be filled with colour using wax crayons. Navigators commissioned by kings earned a living heading to the unknown seas brought back trophies as well as roughly plotted maps of their routes to get from one place to their destinations. Christopher Columbus had an estimated idea of how to get to the New World but confusion about where exactly his ship landed has born a huge influence on our present geographic references.
Recently, experimentation in cartography has come from graphic design. The maps are neither topographic, geographic or political; they have become typographic. Looking at the Ork maps of cities, including Toronto, the intention is to visually represent the different neighbourhoods and districts in urban centres through kerning and letting. They are useless if you are a tourist trying to navigate the streets but heck, they are beautiful.
Present-day collectible maps are great to serve as art and design pieces. Nothing else. They are visual references and approximations that could be slightly helpful. One can argue that this is a design failure; another can rebut by asking if we even need maps still. The analog/puritan in me would say ‘yes.’ The tech enthusiast in me asks, ‘don’t I have an app for that?’.

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Where have you been all my life, Walkman?

'Hello there, friend!' 'I can't be your friend. Your neckerchief is in my space.'

The issue of personal space becomes a important point of discussion as population densities increase especially in urban centres. Personally, the sight of people in the subway (where I spend a hefty chunk of my waking life) with earbuds and headphones makes me think of the days of yore when music had to be on a medium independent of the personal entertainment devices the we use today; in short, the image of the Sony Walkman came waltzing into my brain.

When music was still distributed analog, at the risk of sounding like a luddite, human relations were better, if one looks at the Sony Walkman’s design. Contrary to the way music is consumed now in bubbles of private space in a public setting, thanks to earphones, music was shared between two friends, thanks to two phone jacks. If one was resourceful, four people can be on the same Walkman device at the same time. Music was shared. Wouldn’t you call that a party?

The idea of experiencing music on the go was such an innovative idea that no one could have predicted how much the technology would affect the industry in ways that we know of today. Before MP3s, kids, there were big discs made of vinyl that had music, physically recorded on both sides. Think of CDs but bigger and more sensitive to heat and pressure, hence more prone to warping. It was impossible to carry them in your backback and listen to the music at the same time, hence the invention of headphones with extra long cables for walking around the house.

8-Track paved the way for a smaller, portable device that allowed people to go outdoors with recorded albums without commercials like the radio. One can argue that the move towards portability was the destiny of music and the Sony Walkman was the medium.

The cassette tape made recording and transporting full-length albums possible; the easy-to-use recording mode of cassette players made compiling songs easier to do than ever! The age of the mixed tape is born.

Another testament to how human relations were better, the time and care it took to curate a mixed tape was in itself a statement. Personal compilations were made according to mood, subjective tastes, themes, etc. The mixed tape became a declaration of whatever the maker wanted to declare. A ‘mixed tape’ was usually a love note passed between lovers. ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ had a place in any 60 or 90 minute blank cassette tape sold between 1981 and 1992.

The move towards a more compact, easily distributed medium beginning with the cassette can be blamed for the music industry’s current perilous state; digital piracy is the big elephant in the room. Although it’s not a direct correlation, compact media like the cassette tape made blackmarket commerce of music grow at a rapid pace. It was more difficult to counterfeit vinyl recordings, for sure.

A mixed CD is just not the same as a mixed tape. The quickness of a drag-and-drop has taken away the involvement and the time needed to add sentimental value to the ‘Summers Jams 2009’ compilation that you made on your iTunes library. It’s just not the same.

The next time you are on the subway, look around you and notice the earbuds and headphones-shared space with personal headspace. The only sharing I have noticed is of the unwanted kind (see: overhearing ‘Umbrella’ at 8:30am is not as fun as the acoustic version played at the Open Mic night before). Sharing music on the Walkman, with the two headphone jacks, is no longer a practice. It would be just too awkward. Bye-bye mixed tapes. Hello Ping friends.

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Rebirth/Rebranding: An Unwanted Sequel?


A lot has happened since my last entry but the motivation for the blog remains the same. Little responsibilities have gotten in the way but here is Urban Peanut: A Gallery’s redux. It’s still far from becoming a brick and mortar gallery but here it is with a vengeance.

The theme of rebirth has fascinated humanity for a long time and various faiths and schools of thoughts have found new beginnings, for better or for worse, to be inspiring; this might offer a small clue about why popular brands rebrand.

The Gap, Starbucks, and American Apparel have in the last couple of months decided that a new take on their respective logos for different reasons.

For the Gap, the general consensus about their new logo was so utterly horrible that within days. I am quite certain that received new business in the aftermath.

Starbucks’ reason to rid its logo of its written word is valid; to reach new, non-English speaking markets is a goal that any company would like to have on its five year plan, to the dismay of some loyalists who might feel alienated.

Just walking on Queen Street over the weekend, I noticed that American Apparel on Toronto’s esteemed street, also went through a little facelift. (I tried looking for a press release regarding the new look and was unsuccessful.) I was thinking of using ‘touchup’ but changing the typeface is  closer to butchery and is not turning anyone on as much as their well-placed ads on the back of weekly magazines, right after the adult ads. Inspiration: ugly script is the new Helvetica.

The more image-saturated our daily lives become, the more we rely on visual cues to speed up the way we process information. Logos symbolize, in one image, what we want and expect. It is still a mystery to me why the Gap thought it would be a good idea to change their logo. A new beginning evokes hope and rebirth/rebranding is on the same plane. Ultimately, though, rebirth can sometimes just mean a second hack at life as a dung beetle.


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Of plants and plastic

Cité de la mode et du design, Paris

A couple of weeks ago, tired from a full week of completing projects both at work and at home, I decided to do a little indoor gardening. The tropical plants, lucky bamboos of birthdays past and and whatever is  left of an orchid plant after the bloom is gone were the subjects of the Friday night impromptu botany experiment.

Fifteen years ago, my grandmother gave me a plant that has not been repotted since. Imagine a 4 foot tall plant in a 6-inch plastic planter. It was an odd thing to behold.

“Why don’t I cut stalks from this plant and put them in water? I know roots will shoot. Let’s just see,” I thought to myself. the success story involves the first plant, roots and all, being potted the day before yesterday.

I never fancied myself a greenthumb but here I was, little plant in my hands, dirty with soil. I started thinking: “What’s an interesting plant to grow?”

I started thinking about my lithops when I was living in Montréal. Lithops are also known as living pebbles because they are the perfect example of biomimicry. Their camouflaged appearance has helped these succulent plants (ex. cacti) escape predation and getting eaten by the thirstiest of animals for the water stored in their leaves. They are ‘designed’ by nature to withstand the dry summers in Southern Africa, their native habitat.

I know I am geeking out, dear readers, but they are such strange plants and lithops just made me read more about them and other succulent plants. The best design inspirations definitely come from nature. Have you read Darwin’s “Origin of Species”? Go ahead. You’ll see how Alexander McQueen‘s Spring 2010 collection makes sense.

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