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:



Photography: Lois Conner

With an affinity for silvery hued scenes cast in cinematic aspect ratios, Lois Conner is a photographer who seems to grasp the idea of place and place-making. The homogenous content of rooftops and lotus spread out, making the disparities in details stand out between each individual. Landscapes can be equally placid or marked by human intervention that just was or will shortly be; a bird’s eye shot of a snow-devoid square where a car was, a Hanoi alley filled with a hodge-podge build up of wood scaffolding and walled by ancient brick.

She has a knack for providing the subject of the city with an air of contemporary documentation. It is as if the city were doing what it does every day, bustling with continual interactions as the setting for urban humanity, and then Ms. Conner, all set with her aperture settings and tripod levels, let’s the city know that she’s set, says with a flourish ‘smile!’ , and the city, all at once stopping and turning for the longest pause it can accommodate her with, has it’s portrait taken.  Dignified but impromptu poses and expressions cast the buildings in a historical light, with all the evidence of their contemporary lives about them. She is able to make out the coherence and common history from the complexity of the city. The buildings are a populace, interactions constant, roots shared.

Lois Conner speaks to this quality and her intentions:

My subject is landscape as culture. I am not interested in an untouched, untrammeled world. What I am trying to reveal through photography in a deliberate yet subtle way is a sense of history. I want my photographs to describe my relationship to both the tangible and the imagined, to fact and fiction.

Occasionally, a shot comes off as less genuine due to a curio-cabinet presentation (the fictional relationship she mentions?). Mere graphite for some shots, this makes diamonds of some of her portraits. They ring with the documentary tone of the Farm Security Administration’s Depression era photography program. She even manages to make an office cubicle look, if not downright modern and sensible, at least attractive in its texture and Cartesian arrangement. She also trades those silver hues for brilliant color in a few well chosen and composed images.  She sets out to do something in particular with photography, and I think she very often succeeds in it.


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.




Architecture: Wingårdhs

A gateway of pleached oak trellises leads to a small outbuilding in the Swedish countryside, designed by Gert Wingårdh. The simple, gabled cube is a jointing of far-flung relatives, Scandinavian and Japanese aesthetic and attitude, carried out in dove-tailed stairs, exposed wood beams, and a triangle of glazing mullioned in a diamond array. This is the Mill House, and just one of many great examples of Wingårdhs’ work.

The idea of the rift and striation seems to find its way into more than a few of the designs.  This movement breaks the megalithic, singular geometries of the massing.  The results are stark.  The project descriptions, sometimes due to welcomely coarse translation, are likewise brazen and place their design language in a similar vocabulary.

More subtly (but just as powerfully), they are able to create a calming intrigue by using some of their buildings as studies of materiality. Forms awe with it. Wetlands mold into a sculpted, straw visitor center, charcoaled cladding rises conversely to the lake bed, sibling reflections about the lake surface.
The site’s character is studied and repeated back, a process of learning, but it is retold in a different voice. Any mimicry of the landscape immediately surrounding the building, be it natural or urban, isn’t a stale blending, but an elegant sensitivity.

Whether manifested in serenity or starkness, the thoroughly designed works of Wingårdhs strikes as good architecture.


Music: Magic’s Better Half

Mrs. Magician is a good reason to go to shows on time.  The opening act for the opening act (Spectrals) for Cults at Denver’s Bluebird Theater last night, Mrs. Magician played a continuous set of high electricity, unmistakeably surf rock influenced songs. The vocals sometimes swing up and down with chords in a James Mercer (of The Shins) likeness, while composition reminded me of Telekinesis!’s ’12 Desperate Straight Lines’ caught in a riptide and dragged, somehow, through both a ’50s beach party and CBGB. Each song is distinctively voiced but unified cohesively in driving post-punk, San Diego wave spattered sound. Covered in optically viscous dunes of monochromatic, topographic stripes, their debut album ‘Strange Heaven’ will be released on April 17th, while the digital version is available now.



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