Urban Elements: If Firetrucks Had Feathers

Firetruck Falcon Collage - Tim Gemperline   Falcon courtesy Mike Girone

It’s a summery day, pristine enough for the cafe’s garage door front to be open and the patio full. Converse to our seasonal clothing  pattern, the trees are thickly garbed, in full leaf and, at least the ones outside the cafe, lamps with white fabric shades. Round rimmed cups clink against doubly-wide saucers which in turn fill the even larger shade-sphere the umbrellas project. It’s, one taking in and fully appreciating the moment might call, a nice day.

It is only fair to be warned on a day like this day, and it was kind enough to do so. That’s how it is designed to work. The sound segues into  the chatter, mentioned porcelain clinks, and passing car hum. It is heard and the mind registers it and passes it along to memory and  recognition, but for now it is ignored, relegated to the pile of least concern in the constant data flow of the senses. Everyone knows  what it is, anyway.

So it increases and grows steadily, testing how loud it must be to get attention, like a child at that age where they begin to command tantrum volume as a tool. And like the parent, the patrons ignore the rising auditory flood until it reaches the right level in  the ear canal. All becomes sound.

And lights, too. The lanterns hung poshly from the trees and the umbrellas stenciling the patio could be Chinese paper. The lights,  then, should be the quick, bombastic bursts of gunpowder and ferrous metals, the mediums of a fireworks display. That’s the look; The  effect is like hearing about Ali v. Foreman for weeks, all the build-up and publicity, then turning the TV on to see the knock-out  punch in the seventh round, only to have the tube go out immediately after.

But here it is, sirens, the patented message of red and blue strobing lights, and the white gloss-paint and chrome shine of the  engine. People talk away until the last moment, then mouths rest, all pupils redirected toward the one, big window left behind by the retracted glass garage door. Without a second to spare, and lasting only as long, the blurred firetruck absolutely fills the frame and the attention of everyone in a unifying event.


The sound and sight of a firetruck is one known to everyone, and a common one to those who live in the city. I always find it  interesting that another sense, smell, is the sense with the strongest connection to memory; it seems almost a background sense, a sense in passing. Elements like firetrucks are the same way; they are familiar and common, processed at the moment then dismissed, but represent a major part of our environment. They are also a unique  element, in that they move, almost filling some gap, between large, stationary buildings and ambulatory, compact people, at least in a broad, physical lineup.

The amazing firetruck, a blocky hulk of a mobile, fulfills this role similarly to a bird, an equally astounding cohabitant (even if simply because they can fly – how long did we dream of that, how little time have we known how, and still never as elegantly?…) that likewise is placed in the gaps of our view of our environment, despite (…but, we know the secrets of flight now, any golden age of it is long gone, half the clouds are contrails; ho hum). Yet, they are the two regular passersby outside my window that halt what I am doing, both with the welcome familiarity and frenetic uncommonalities.

After becoming familiar with a ‘population’ of firetrucks (I imagine this is what Burt Lancaster’s character would have done, looking out between bars in ‘Bird Man’, had he been transfered to an inner-city prison that birds knew better than to hang around), the terms ‘behavioural patterns’, ‘territories’, ‘routes’, ‘vocalizations’, ‘markings’, ‘nests’ don’t sound so absurd and actually make themselves readily apparent. The array of noises the emergency vehicle communicates even matches a bird’s set of songs. Though less complex more cacophonous, these noises define the urban environment. Take a bird’s voice away, silence the siren, and the space would be noticeably off. Of course, there is the question of which would really be missed, but the make-way! wail is a defining track to any city soundscape.

The forests and fields have flecks of feather iridescence, beak-spouted audio, and specialized flocks. Well, the city has its own flashes of light, loud-speakered communications, and purpose-ingrained fleets, in the distinct fashion that humans mimic nature in design and organization. ‘Concrete jungle’ is more than allusion, it is a model, and firetrucks, police cars, ambulances are a fleshed-out detail of it.

The jungle is rich, it is diverse, stuff happens constantly in it. That is the allure of the city, and stuff happens in it, too. Even when it is thriving, not all of that stuff is good. Both birds and emergency vehicles act for survival, but of different varieties. In that way, the excitement of watching a firetruck roar past with building shaking momentum is tinged with voyeurism; the haste is not for show – it is for life and limb. There is an intrinsic link to destruction in these vehicles, there is an intrinsic, constant link to destruction in nature and in cities.


Another window-framed view to a flash of motion, but no foreshadowing sirens; in fact, all sound is muffled by snow that replaces the white of the previous vignette’s porcelain coffee cups with its albedo. Through the drifting and downy texture of already chubby crystals, I remember one big flake of grey precipitate from above, coming to a soft stop upon its predecessors. The structure and quality of snowflakes and feathers are poetically akin, these mediums of loftiness. The peregrine falcon lay wings spread, Meal,-Ready-to-Eat beneath its mess kit of talons and the tablecloth of white.

Without plunging into philosophy, life and destruction are entangled. It can have a structure and gracefulness to it, though. There is a difference from decay.  Yes, that firetruck that you and everyone else pulled to the side of the road for is either going to or coming from something of some degree of unpleasant, a negative of reality. But is it not reassuring to know that integrated into the habitat you live in is a means to contend with it, that in the way everyone knew to make way, the way the speeding creature moved with purpose, that there was a wider understanding and coherence to the objects and roles in the city we created? Both the firetruck and the raptor rush in parallax towards a point of destruction for a reason that is meaningful and beautifully integral to the larger environment they stem from. The firetruck is one of the small, tangible ways a city provides in the background, like a clock tower chiming every quarter hour in an oppidan language to everyone.

Firetrucks are not birds, buildings not trees, roads not rivers; when extraordinary, integral elements around us are relegated to just superficially noticed commonplace elements, a different perspective, be it biomorphic or otherwise, can bring a new appreciation for them. Such correlations and views might even help evolve their design and roles. Regardless, it is nice to see birds and firetrucks out my window, for the nuances and value they contribute from under a masterful front of admirable excitement, these flashing and feathered friends.

Support Firefighters!:   http://www.firehero.org/donate/

and those they help:  https://www.redcross.org/donate/

In the UK:  https://myfirefighterscharity.org.uk/donate

Adopt a bird!: http://www.horizonwings.org/adopt_a_bird.html


Architecture & Art: Spirit, Craft, Allied Works’ Models, and El Anatsui’s Art

Allied Works Models, El Anatsui

Whether or not you are familiar with the works of Allied Works, headed by Brad Cloepfil, a particular step in their process deserves a look. Especially with the rise of Building Information Modeling, computer rendering and analysis, and…well, everything computerized, the physical model maintains a unique role. More than trying out ideas from the mind and the computer in the place they will eventually inhabit, the physical world, models can distill architecture to its base, ‘not so much to inform the form, but to capture the spirit.’

Such comments from Cloepfil at a recent talk on his firm’s Still Museum were revealing of what role the model performs in their design process. Listening to Cloepfil, one could connect the models illuminating the projection screen behind him and begin to see where he, where the building is coming from. Indeed, some of those abstracted, conceptual models went to interviews with him, before it was even certain Allied Works would have something to design.

A weathered block of wood; the top is hewn, as if someone using a checkerboard for guidelines sunk a dull chainsaw into it a dozen times. It’s an early model of the building next door to where Cloepfil is talking, which is where, coincidentally, Ghanian artist El Anatsui had a few pieces exhibited not long ago that used exactly that language, that tool. To say that architecture is, in part, art is a given, but to have it so clearly modeled as such is refreshing. As an aside, furthering that point from the converse, Anatsui’s more tapestry-like works graft amazingly to architecture. In the convergence is an esteem for craft that such artists and architects share. Why shouldn’t architectural models reflect that artistic craft?

The reflection is refreshing, but also pragmatic. Such models, Cloepfil explains, are ‘to remind ourselves…give us touch-points as we move forward.’ Strip a design of its architectural detailing and systems, and you’ll eventually get down to its heart and soul, if that is what it was built upon. And if it was, it can be modeled. Then, regardless of changes and additions as the design progresses, that all important seed remains the driving force to refer back to and build upon. A final model may look nothing like the initial, conceptual model, but can be imbued with everything it embodies.

Some modeling done by Allied Works is used not to be held up as the spirit of the design, but to reveal it. For the Still Museum, ‘hundreds’ of concrete explorations were made with the contractors to find the right option. Direction to the contractors was to ” ‘make messed up concrete.’  ‘How messed up?’  ‘We have no idea!’ ”

Against the technical, exact documents architects create on computers and contractors execute to technical exactness, the models seem all the more relevant. A building designed and constructed to perfection doesn’t guarantee a thing; One modeled off of a simply and sincerely expressable spirit has a good shot at saying something meaningful and succeeding at a magnificent range of levels. Allied Works’ models are a reminder that what architects do begins and ends in the challenges of the tangible, graspable world, but that what must drive them is so much more.

Allied Works Architecture:http://www.alliedworks.com/

El Anatsui:http://tinyurl.com/ElAnatsuiImages   Photos courtesy of  The October Gallery and Giuliano Photos

Typography: Kontrapunkt -or- Danish Pharmaceuticals, German Design Schools, and Me (and Railways, Too)

It is always a frisson experience when you’re walking through a museum and, unexpectedly, from around the (usually) white corner, you are faced with a familiar piece of work you love, but have never seen in person. This unique experience can happen the other way around, too.

Kontrapunkt is an independent brand and design agency, with offices in Copenhagen as well as Tokyo. A very un-indepth search for fonts and some almost random clicking quickly brought me to their page for a typeface designed for pharmacies. ‘Pharma’ is a well crafted typeface, which becomes apparent from the get-go. Their presentation of it includes process sketches and to-the- point explanations for the design. This contemporary typeface cites 15th century apothecary bottles and a 1932 Bauhaus typeface as influence. That tingle up the spine. In a small, hidden-away hall in the bowels of the art museum I work at, I came across such Bauhaus lettering the day earlier. The new- found typeface’s letter lineage was directly from the ink-and- paper examples in that small intestine of a corridor. They are the work of Herbert Bayer, and his ounces of ink from 80 years ago have the weight of lead in designer’s imagination’s today, without paper-weighting their progress. More than fun coincidence, it is the seepage of one good design into others, regardless of time and geography. It is refreshing to see directly how integrated and far reaching design can be.

Now just fun coincidence (on the surface; a sign of a good design firm and the global reach of design today, really); a link on the ‘Pharma’ page led to another well-done typeface, ‘Via.’ I also work with a team on a proposal for a Copenhagen rail station rehabilitation. This is the font the station uses, along with all the others in Denmark, tradition sensitive ‘Danish g’ and all. Looking past this bias (like one might have for someone in the family), it is a legible, distinctive font that is presented in a light, crisp way, again. The friction on metal scream undercutting the whooshing air-mass bass of a slowing train emanates from speakers while colorful letters flip-book flash and expand on screen and slow to a halt. Literal? Yes. But Kontrapunkt clearly designs their works from conceptual roots, past precedents, and a solid process. This is what their presentation highlights. Perceived as a dime-a- dozen multitude of stationery, black tools on a page to some, typography becomes a vibrant, evolutionary expression in the hands of this design house.

A third typeface, ‘Heart’ for the Herning Museum of Art, further exemplifies this approach. Graphic shapes of shirt patterns and the museum building inform the curves, while another slide states

Our eyes are made to follow the lines and see the letters by completing the shapes

in a sort of medical physiology meets design concept understanding. They seem to have a firm grasp on their field. For all the designing and defining, the ‘heart’ font also expresses Kontrapunkt’s embrace of imperfection and living design; graffiti flanking their font, methods of application ‘open to accident.’ They also see typography from an interdisciplinary stance, describing it earnestly as 2-D architecture. The surprisingly sculptural form of some of the sketches show these aren’t flower petal words; they’re not delicate or there just to look pretty, they don’t wilt when scrutinized.

The typefaces I came across on their site stand as examples of craftsmanship in typography and design based identity. Throw in the personal connections and their underlying implications, and it is a reinvigorating experience. Not the frisson of familiarity, meeting design you’ve seen in facsimile before, but one stemming from the freshness, depth, and reach of all types of good, contemporary design, typography and others.  It’s not having to worry so much about the liveliness and worth of it all anymore.

Their custom type page, including two free typeface downloads at bottom of left bar, and links to other great work:


Furniture & Film: Constructing Design (the triz in stool and Eames shell chair, specifically)

The material aim of designers is a good final product. If it’s reached, it can become an icon or embed itself in the everyday life of many.  A whole lot goes into a design that makes it to production, though. A chair can sit pieced together,  immobile in a room, but to get it there, a sequence of action must go on to produce it.  This is the sweat, after the blood and tears of it actually being designed (smiles and joy, too, don’t worry).  Rafael Nadal can see the ball’s entire path, his actions are pent up in his muscles and planned in his mind, but until the actual stroke that hits the yellow round back, no points are possible.

The creation of a beautiful, functional object is itself beautiful.  It is not as often thought about as the design, and it’s documentation isn’t always there to enrich the final product.  It is a major chunk of the whole process, and where craftsmanship and skill transfer an ethereal idea into a physical tool.

Here are two crafted videos of great designs that celebrate the process of manufacturing them. The Eames need no introduction (nor, maybe, this video as it makes its rounds across sites), but the Triz In (‘wedge’ in Hebrew) stool by Michael Blumenfeld is worth mentioning as a well designed, well constructed contemporary piece.  So here they are:


Illustration: The Contemporary, Diagrammatic City

Maps are some of the most graphically beautiful tools that we have.  An old hand-colored, copperplate engraved map from one of Cpt. Cook’s exploratory expeditions is a perfect blend of art and science, romanticism and reality.  Both graphically and technologically, cartography has advanced, though.  Think of Harry Beck’s London Underground map and Google Earth.  In the process of mapping the context for a Copenhagen railway station revamp, I wanted precedents that were more schematic than the latter, but less ubiquitous than the former.  What I found was refreshing in a time where satellite imagery and narrated navigation is the bow of the field that made its greatest advances on wooden ships.

Instead of reading like  instruction manuals, some contemporary maps I found read like stories you look forward to spending hours in an armchair with.  While technological advancement in cartography and those maps that do provide a world’s-worth of quantitative information are invaluable (and beautiful, too), it is nice to know that a map can still provide just the set of info most people need through well-done graphic communication. A neon colored, computer rendered map in a tube under a city can still present the beauty and exploratory romanticism of an 18th century expedition map. And it will tell you where to get off to get to that bagel store in the Upper West Side.




Cover Illustration & Design: Worth Anything You Want

It always catches my interest when good design makes it’s mark in areas that might not typically be associated with it.  When someone mentions investment strategies and economic outlooks, exciting design doesn’t often flash effortlessly into mind.  Worth Magazine’s Design Director Dean Sebring and Illustrator Brian Stauffer disregard those preconceptions with one of the most attractive magazines being published.  Brian’s illustrations communicate a concept with a balance of crispness and texture, with geometry and color leaving tool marks.  The interior is likewise elegant and cohesive.

Another example is the Alex Miles Younger cover design work for ‘Anything You Want’ (by Derek Sivers). It is a book about starting multi-million dollar companies and entrepreneurship, but the cover throws aside any imagery of green paper for a yellow sun and genuine happiness at the beach.  Or maybe he’s trapped? Though far from Ben Franklin above the shoulders, this boy’s head could be more metaphorically complex than at first glance. It goes further; there is no title, no author, no blurb about the book anywhere on the front cover (though there is that publisher’s domino icon). It all seems like smart design (and hence business) to me.

When business and design take risks together, there can certainly be rewards.


Animated reading from ‘Anything You Want’:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/mpd/permalink/m27W83ZSVX5O9O/ref=flash_player_2_preplay


Furniture: Studio 2 4 8 (and acrylic)

Studio Two Four Eight’s designs look almost Scandinavian in their straight-forwardness, but they come from out of Thailand. They play up the structure of the design through natural coated wood, sometimes in combination with white or black metal components. A look through their gallery shows the sleek simplicity of their catalogue alongside some shots from factory production.  These in-the-process insights reveal the craftsman details and basis of Two Four Eight’s design.

On top of that, they have a coffee table that makes good use of acrylic. Acrylic plastic has been on the market, and hence a medium for designers to use any way they could, since the 30’s. It is still an innovation and has a modern aura to it.  But what does making furniture out of acrylic usually do?  It makes it see-through.  What does making it see-through achieve? Typically, nothing. It is a novelty. I picture acrylic furniture littering Liberace’s mansion.

This piece sits well with me because it uses transparency for a purpose, and its selection acknowledges acrylic’s material properties. It isn’t showing pointlessly what you’re not going to sit on, using an acrylic chair for example. It is exposing a well-designed and implemented structure.  The acrylic highlights the materiality, language, and engineering of the wood support, instead of being the focus itself. Acrylic also fits in with the slightly raw or industrial aesthetic and construction.  It is worked like the wood making up the rest of the piece, with drill holes and dowels attaching it; glass wouldn’t work so well for this.  Likewise, it’s synthetic makeup pairs well with the unfinished wood.  The use of acrylic is coherent and functional in the INF Coffee Table.

I also really like the stools in the same INF collection and similarly designed by Purim K. They have nicely faceted, metal seat pans and well-crafted wooden joints. No digression involving material or construction here.


A good overview of acrylic: