Friday, June 29, 2007

Captain Boyton and His Rubber Suit

Adventurer and amusement park owner Paul Boyton was born on this day in 1848 in either Dublin, Ireland or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Boyton gained world-wide renown for his ocean exploits performed while wearing a floating, air-tight rubber suit, designed with the help of C.S. Merriman. In 1874, notably, he jumped overboard into heavy seas from a transatlantic ship wearing the suit, a day's sail away from Ireland, and paddled himself -- feet first, kayak style -- back to Cork. His navigation of the Mississippi River in a similar fashion made headlines in the U.S.

As a paid mercenary, he swam in the service of the Peruvian government in 1885, attaching explosives to a Chilean man-of-war in the dead of night; the grateful Peruvians awarded him the rank of "Captain." Upon his return to the U.S., he helped to organize the United States Life-Saving Service, a precursor to the Coast Guard, and briefly served as captain of the Atlantic City ocean life-savers. In 1892, he published a popular memoir of his exploits in the water, The Story of Paul Boyton.

After his arrival in New York City in 1895, he bought 16 acres behind the Elephant Hotel in Coney Island, and opened Sea Lion Park, the first outdoor amusement park in the world. The park was best known for its Shoot-the-Chutes ride, in which flat-bottomed toboggan boats slid down a steep slide into a broad lagoon. Boyton also entertained guests with his 40 trained sea lions, a la Sea World, and with demonstrations of his famous rubber suit. The park enjoyed a modest success for a few years, overshadowed by George Tilyou's gigantic Steeplechase Park.

After a dismal rainy summer season left him financially hobbled in 1902, he sold the business and lived the rest of his years quietly (and mostly on dry land), and died April 19, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Cerfing the Net

As every schoolchild knows, the Internet began, oddly enough, as a U.S. national security imperative: RAND Corporation staffers, faced with the hypothetical problem of a communications paralysis in the U.S. following a nuclear attack, developed a proposal for a completely decentralized communications network, connected by "nodes"of equal status that could toss a "packet" of information from one node to another until the information could reach its intended destination.

A few years of noodling and testing followed, until the Pentagon asked the computer science department at UCLA to assist in building a computer network that encompassed the RAND concept of "packet switching."

While the Pentagon had national security in mind, Vinton Cerf, a grad student in computer science at UCLA in 1968, had a personal stake in this alternative method of communication. Cerf (who was born prematurely on this date in 1943) was hearing-impaired and could not differentiate between telephone voices; "electronic mail" would eventually prove to be a more friendly form of communication. Cerf worked on the first relatively crude system of computer protocols that would allow different computers speaking different languages to communicate with each other over telephone lines in service of "packet switching."

By 1971, UCLA had built a 15-host system, known as the ARPANET, which was used by Pentagon scientists and their counterparts in the university sector to communicate with each other and post information of mutual interest. In 1972, Cerf joined the faculty at Stanford, and with the help of Robert Kahn and several others, conceptualized and refined the more sophisticated TCP/IP protocols for computer communication. The Transmission Control Protocols, or TCP, convert messages into streams of packets at the source and reassemble them back into messages at the destination; the Internet Protocols, or IP, handle the addressing of packets being routed across multiple nodes.

In the mid-1970s, Cerf joined the Pentagon to implement TCP/IP as the prevailing standard for computer communication. By the mid-1980s, the Internet had become one of the most influential scientific instruments of the century, enabling the free exchange of research and even the sharing of computing facilities on a global basis at low cost and high speed; but even Galileo's refracting telescope, another influential scientific instrument, could be used for other things than its intended scientific purpose -- as a window to the beauty of the firmament, as a club to beat people over the head with, or, one supposes, if you take the lenses out of a hand-held one, an imperfect funnel.

As the Internet expanded past the original ARPANET sites to 30 million hosts by the beginning of 1998 (due in part to the creation of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, among others, which began to give the Internet its user-friendly media and navigation characteristics), users found a myriad of decidedly non-scientific uses for the Internet, the most significant being perhaps the transaction of consumer commerce (see funnel, above) for everything from mechanical parts to flowers to real estate to pornography. Cerf later served as a vice president at MCI Communications, where he continued to develop Internet-based services and tools, and now holds the title of "vice president and chief internet evangelist" at Google.

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Something My Wife Whipped Up, #1

The wife's always good at whipping up something out of nothing.

Impromptu Toasted Crab

Squirt a little Dijon mustard and drizzle a little olive oil into a salad bowl, and whisk until combined. Toss in one whole Cucumber, chunked; then add a little bit of Feta cheese, a can of Lump Crab Meat, a generous handful each of Fresh Spinach and Fresh chopped Broccolini, some chopped Cilantro, and a few tablespoons of Black Beans. Add ground red and black pepper. Toss with red-headed élan.

Melt a slice of Manchego Cheese onto both halves of four toasted English muffins. Scoop out Crab Salad mixture onto English muffin halves, for four tasty little sandwiches. Enjoy with a glass of Artesa Sauvignon Blanc, or another dry, citrusy California white.


Friday, June 22, 2007

The USAF Thunderbirds

... during practice flights on the day before the Wings Over Pittsburgh Air Show, on June 15, 2007 ...

... and immediately afterwards, on the tarmac at the 911th Airlift Wing U.S. Air Force Reserve Base in Moon Township, Pennsylvania ...

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What Santa Looks Like

Haddon Sundblom was born on this day in 1899 in Muskegon, Michigan.

Sundblom was a commercial illustrator for Chicago's Stevens-Gross Agency. He was best known for his 35 years of illustrations of Santa Claus for Coca-Cola ads (beginning in 1931) that fundamentally sealed the American pop culture image of jolly old St. Nick as a big plump man -- rather than as an elf as depicted by Robert Walter Weir (c. 1837), Thomas Nast (c. 1862) and others. Sundblom is also allegedly responsible for the creation of the Quaker Oats Quaker and Aunt Jemima.

Sundblom died on March 10, 1976 in Chicago, Illinois.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pride of the Yankees

Baseball legend Lou Gehrig was born on this day in 1903 in New York City.

A high school sports star, Henry Louis Gehrig was declared ineligible for athletics at Columbia University because he had signed a professional contract with the Hartford minor league team. He played for 2 years with Hartford before joining the Yankees as their starting first baseman in 1925.

In 17 seasons with the Yankees, he knocked in over 100 runs 13 times, leading the league 5 times, and he hit 493 home runs, second at that time only to his friend and fellow Yankee slugger, Babe Ruth. The 1927 Yankees were considered the greatest baseball squad of all time, and the Yankees themselves considered Gehrig, who hit .373 with 47 home runs and 175 runs batted in (a record at the time), to be their most valuable player. In 1931, he set another record for RBIs (184), and in 1934, Gehrig won the Triple Crown, leading the American League in batting (.363), home runs (49) and RBIs (165) -- all the while playing in every single game of every single season -- beating the previous record of 1,307 consecutive games, set by Everett Scott in 1925, during the 1933 season.

In contrast to his pal the Babe, the gentlemanly Gehrig didn't smoke, drink, gamble or carouse, and was singularly devoted to his mother (legend has it she had to scold him into leaving her bedside to play in the 1927 World Series after she had undergone surgery). In 1933, when he married debutante Eleanor Twitchell, he became a singularly devoted (and teachable) husband, bending to Eleanor's tastes in art and literature and taking her advice on opening up to the fans.

With life going as well as anyone could imagine, during the 1938 season Gehrig felt he had not played up to his own standards (although he still hit 29 homers, including his record 23rd career grand slam, and batted in 114 runs), so in the spring of 1939 he put himself through an exhausting physical regimen to get into better shape; but as the season began, it became clear that something was wrong. On May 2, he told manager Joe McCarthy to put in his backup, Babe Dahlgren, because, as Gehrig said, "I'm not doing the club any good out there." With that, Gehrig ended a remarkable streak, playing a record 2,130 consecutive games (a mark that would only be broken 56 years later by Cal Ripken).

Soon afterward, Gehrig discovered that he was suffering from the early stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative muscle disease that would come to be known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease." On July 4, 1939, the Yankees held a farewell testimonial day for Gehrig, during which he addressed the crowd in a moment considered by many to be among the most emotionally intense in the history of sports, telling the world: "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

(Proving that the moment has entered our pop culture consciousness indelibly enough to be trodden upon, Norm MacDonald provided a theoretical follow-up to Gehrig's moment at the microphone on an episode of Saturday Night Live: "I was being sarcastic! I am the unluckiest man in the world! I have a disease so rare they named it after me!").

After Gehrig's retirement, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed Gehrig to be a New York City parole commissioner, a job at which he worked conscientiously while lending his time to youth groups. He died on June 2, 1941 in Riverdale, New York at the age of 38, two years after entering baseball's Hall of Fame in a special election. Lou and Eleanor were played by Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright in the classic film The Pride of the Yankees (1942), which both lovingly drew upon and fortified the Gehrig legend.

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Saturday, June 16, 2007


Stan Laurel was born Arthur Stanley Jefferson in Ulverston, England on this day in 1890.

The "thin" half of the comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, Stan Jefferson was born into a family of British stage performers, and sought a stage career from an early age. Stan earned his first stage appearance on his own comic merits at 16; and when his father witnessed his son's talents, he arranged for young Stan to join a traveling pantomime company. By 1910, he was working with Fred Karno's Troupe, one of the best companies in England, clowning alongside (and sometimes as understudy to) Charlie Chaplin. When Chaplin left the Troupe during a tour of the U.S. to join Mack Sennett's Keystone movie studio in 1912, Stan decided to stay on in the U.S. to try American vaudeville, shortly thereafter adopting the name "Laurel" to avoid the bad luck of using the 13-lettered "Jefferson."

In 1917, Laurel began starring in short comedy films, often writing and assisting with direction; but in about 9 years he failed to make much of a mark, jumping from studio to studio. He joined the Hal Roach studio in 1926 as a gag writer, but was eventually persuaded to team with Roach contract player Oliver "Babe" Hardy in a series of short silent comedies, many directed by Leo McCarey. Together, Laurel and Hardy made more than 100 films (27 of them full-length features), bridging the gap between silent and talking pictures and becoming the most enduring comedy team in screen history.

Always a craftsman, Laurel took a special interest in writing the scenarios and was known to spend hours in the cutting room, painstakingly pacing the team's sequences. By contrast, Babe Hardy loved to play and eat and drink (and he was probably a gambling addict). In a role reversal of sorts, on-screen Hardy was the putative leader of the two derby'd man-children known as Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. Sputtering with frustration, the on-screen Laurel could barely transfer a clue from one hand to the other, and would inevitably dig them into a precarious mess, registering his fear through blinking sobs and head-scratching. The really distinctive aspect of the team, however, was their giant hearts. There was little meanness in them on screen, either to each other or to any bystander. When things went wrong, they frequently knew it was their own fault, and when things went well, they received it as good fortune, linked arms, and frequently broke out into song. Contrasts aside, Laurel and Hardy were great friends off-screen, frequently vacationing together.

Laurel's only professional separation from Hardy from 1924 until Hardy's death in 1957 was during Laurel's contract dispute with Roach, during which Hardy starred with veteran comic Harry Langdon in Zenobia (1939). In tribute to his friend, Laurel retired from performing upon Hardy's death, but continued to ply the art of comedy as a writer. He died on February 23, 1965 in Santa Monica, California.

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Friday, June 15, 2007


Paul Cornu was born on this day in 1881 in Glos-la-Ferriere, France.

An engineer living at Lisieux, Cornu designed a 28-pound working model of a vertical flying machine (or helicopter) which he had flown successfully in 1906. He decided to build a life-sized version of his helicopter for a try at the Deutsch-Archdeacon Prize, a bounty of 50,000 francs offered by a pair of wealthy Parisians to the first to achieve manned, mechanically-powered flight over a specified 1-kilometer course. Cornu raised 100 francs from about 125 friends, built a 573-pound version of his flying machine, and after several unmanned tests with a 110-pound sand bag on board, on November 13, 1907, Cornu piloted his awkward copter to one foot above the ground and hovered for about 20 seconds -- the first manned helicopter flight ever.

On later flights, Cornu managed to ascend to five feet and accidentally achieved a record for two-person flight when his brother grabbed the frame of the machine to keep it from tipping and was briefly swept aloft. In 300 flight attempts, Cornu gingerly guided his craft forward and backward at a maximum speed of 6 miles per hour, but could not achieve the Deutsch-Archdeacon objective; the prize was won by Henri Farman in an airplane in 1908. Cornu gave up his experiments in 1909, lacking necessary funding.

It took another 31 years before Igor Sikorsky would design a practical, stable and navigable helicopter. Cornu died in 1944.


Thursday, June 14, 2007


Jacon Christian Ellehammer, motorcycle manufacturer and aviation pioneer, was born on this day in 1871 in Bakkeboll, Denmark.

Ellehammer made tests on a craft of his own design, a tractor biplane, on the small private island of Lindholm. Because Lindholm wasn't large enough to accommodate a straight runway, Ellehammer tethered his plane to a pole and tested his plane by lifting off and flying around the pole in a circle, without worrying about steering or control issues. In this strange little "lab," Ellehammer managed to fly for 42 meters on September 12, 1906 (almost 3 years after Orville Wright's first successful flight), but he would not make a sustained, untethered flight until 1908; nonetheless, some Danes make the case that Ellehammer was the first to fly. He died May 20, 1946.


Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wind vs. Petroleum. Near Delft, Netherlands, 1977.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Ever Try to Win an Earthquake?

"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." -- Jeannette Rankin.

Jeannette Rankin, the first woman in Congress, was born on this day in 1880 near Missoula, Montana.

A graduate of the University of Montana with a B.S. in biology, Rankin taught briefly in Montana before settling in New York and attending the School of Philanthropy studying social work. She worked briefly at a children's home in Spokane, Washington, studied at the University of Washington and joined the women's suffrage movement, returning to Montana in 1910 to lobby for the passage of the suffrage bill introduced there as the first woman to speak before the all-male Montana legislature.

Rankin drew a forceful connection between conditions of poverty and the inability of women to affect the democratic process, as well as arguing that women were being taxed without representation. While she was unsuccessful in Montana, she attracted the attention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which appointed her as a field secretary. She successfully directed the effort for suffrage in North Dakota, then quit NAWSA and returned to Montana to continue the suffrage fight.

In November 1914, Montana granted women the right to vote. Running as a Republican for one of Montana's 2 at-large congressional seats, Rankin became the first woman elected to Congress in 1916. Young and attractive, she became an object of media curiosity, but she also bore the responsibility, somewhat unfairly, of being the voice of American women in Congress. Thus, her position on the most important issue before the 65th Congress, American entry into World War I, became a hotly debated topic among leaders of the suffrage movement. NAWSA president Carrie Chapman Catt cautioned that a vote against the war would make women seem unpatriotic (and many had not yet received the right to vote which would be guaranteed by the passage of the 20th Amendment in 1920); meanwhile, the more radical Alice Paul thought that women should stand together for peace.

With the first vote on the issue of war ever cast by a female parliamentarian in the history of the Western world, Rankin voted with 49 other congressmen against Wilson's declaration of war in 1917 -- a position that cost Rankin her seat in the following congressional election. In one term, however, Rankin served as the ranking minority member of the special committee which drafted the women's suffrage amendment; sponsored a women's health education bill which later passed as the Sheppard-Towner Act (1921); presented the demands of the Industrial Workers of the World to the federal government during the Anaconda Copper Company strike in Butte, Montana; and enjoyed immense popularity throughout the country.

After leaving Congress, Rankin joined the pacifist cause with all her energies, helping to found the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919, repeatedly testifying before Congress against military budget increases, and lobbying for women's and children's legislation around the U.S.

As World War II loomed on the horizon, Rankin ran for Congress again in 1940, and with the help of well-known pacifists such as Bruce Barton, she won. Although Speaker Sam Rayburn would not permit her to speak against the War, she nonetheless voted against it -- this time as the only representative to do so -- and was jeered on the House floor. Failing to win reelection, in later years Rankin traveled to India to study nonviolent resistance with Mahatma Gandhi and organized an anti-Vietnam War march on Washington at the age of 88.

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Household Sounds

Fred Waring was born on this day in 1900 in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. He died on July 29, 1983 in State College, Pennsylvania.

Waring was a violinist and banjo player, best known as the leader of a 70-man white-bread swing band, "Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians," from 1923 up until his death. An expert marketeer and wheeler-dealer, Waring managed to build his rickety college jazz quartet into a diversified corporate venture, operated from his headquarters on Broadway in Manhattan, spawning radio and TV shows, recordings, world tours, summer choral workshops, music publishing, real estate ventures ... and a blender.

Waring's name is indeed associated with the first popular non-commercial electric blender, known as the "Waring blender." In the 1930s, an inventor named Frederick Osius asked Waring (a one-time Penn State engineering student and an incorrigible gear-head) for financing to develop his patent for an electric blender. Waring invested $25,000, but Osius developed technical difficulties with his design, so Waring fired Osius and had the machine redesigned. The new "Miracle Mixer" was introduced at the 1937 National Restaurant Show in Chicago. The following year, Waring changed the name of the product to the "Waring blender" and marketed the machine while touring the country with the Pennsylvanians. The Waring blender became a must-have item, whirring away in every American kitchen (over a million of them were sold by 1954), and commercial versions of the blender became standard laboratory equipment -- apparently even Jonas Salk used a Waring blender while developing the polio vaccine.

Waring's other distinct claim to fame was his direct effect on the nature of music played on the radio. While during the 1920s, it was fairly common for radio stations to hire bands to perform live on the air, the effects of the Depression had forced radio stations to cut back on such gigs, resorting instead to spinning records, despite the fact that records were generally sold with a stamp that prohibited them from being played on the air. Waring and his band were popular recording artists in the 1920s on the Victor label, but by 1932, Waring decided to stop recording, fearing that his records were cutting in to his more lucrative live gigs. He was also well aware of the fact that as a performer, he did not receive a penny when one of his records was played on the radio -- despite the fact that ASCAP, the American Society of Composers and Publishers, had already begun to establish rights on behalf of songwriters to be paid each time their work was broadcast. (The rival rights organization, BMI, was actually established by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1940 to break the grip of ASCAP, but expanded protection for songwriters by signing African-American songwriters who had been barred from participating in ASCAP.)

While Waring was still under contract with Victor, a bootlegging sound engineer made a transcription of one of Waring's live radio performances and sold a copy of it to a radio station. Waring successfully sued both the bootlegger and the radio station, WDAS in Philadelphia, and then he his sights on something bigger -- securing a piece of the action for performers whenever an authorized recording was played on the radio. Waring founded a new organization, the National Association of Performing Artists, and took aim at radio stations. In a case in Pennsylvania court in 1937, Waring successfully enforced a restrictive legend placed on one of his records that stated that the record was "Not Licensed for Broadcast" -- thus, in theory, giving Waring the ability to negotiate a fee for permitting a station to play the record.

In 1940, however, in the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Learned Hand virtually ignored the Waring case and articulated what became settled law in the matter in a case between bandleader Paul Whiteman and RCA (on the one hand) and WBO Broadcasting (owner of radio station WNEW), stating that RCA, Whiteman's label, had no power "to impose ... pretended servitude on the records; and WBO Broadcasting Corporation is free to buy and use them in entire disregard of any attempt to do so." In reading the opinion, one senses the usually redoubtable Hand's reticence to elevate the work of performers to the same status enjoyed by writers, viewing performers' work as somehow inherently ephemeral. (Maybe yes, maybe no; but what, pray tell, would Judge Hand, if he were alive today, be listening to on his iPod?)

The upshot was that, as a result of Whiteman's defeat, radio stations were emboldened to play records without worrying about claims for compensation from the performers. The record companies were quick to see the angles following the Waring and Whiteman cases; they switched their strategy from attempting to collect licensing fees from radio stations to buddying up with radio stations, enticing them to play their records in order to promote their sale. While record companies were trying to increase the free airplay of records, musicians like Fred Waring began receiving fewer invitations to perform live on the radio. Singer-songwriters, slowly and steadily, began to assert themselves as the prime movers in the pop music medium, since at least they'd get paid through ASCAP or BMI for radio airplay.

After heaving a professional sigh, Waring went back to recording after World War II.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright was born on this day in 1867 in Richland Center, Wisconsin.

Wright's earliest influences were his doting mother, who had decided he would be a great builder before he was born, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sought to define for America a wholly American aesthetic and a wholly American way of life; it would be Emerson's exhortations which would subconsciously play through most of what Wright tried to achieve in his work during his enormously productive 92-year life.

He found his passion for architecture early, preparing for it by studying engineering at the University of Wisconsin. After working as a draughtsman and later as chief assistant to Louis Sullivan, he opened his own firm and was immediately successful. His first commission, a dramatic house for W. H. Winslow, launched a period of critical acclaim, and among his earliest champions was Charles R. Ashbee, the well-known Arts-and-Crafts designer.

During this early period he sought in each design to develop a style which was distinctively Midwestern, and soon became the leading interpreter of the architectural movement known as the "Prairie School." For Wright -- stimulated by the writings of Ruskin, the aforementioned Arts-and-Crafts movement and Japanese architecture -- this style developed into "organic architecture," in which buildings were integrated into and inspired by the landscape rather than imposed on it. His credo: "No house should ever be on any hill or on anything. It should be of the hill, belonging to it, so hill and house could live together and each the happier for it." His interiors replaced the traditional compartmentalization of a home with one in which large, open living spaces predominated and interior rooms flowed into external balconies and terraces, and into which nature was invited through the use of expansive windows.

While most of his commissions were for private residences (such as the Kaufmann House, known as "Fallingwater," in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 1935-48, his masterpiece), he also designed many public buildings, including schools, churches (notably the Unity Temple in Chicago, 1905-08), corporate headquarters (such as the Johnson Wax Building, 1936-39), and hotels (including the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, 1913-22, which survived the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake only to be torn down during civic modernization in 1967), as well as the astonishing geometric exercise that became the Guggenheim Museum (New York City, completed 1960).

In all, Wright designed about 800 buildings, 380 of which were built. His designs were known for their originality, spaciousness even in small structures, and, unfortunately, for their chronically leaky roofs -- but, as one client quipped, "this is what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain."

Wright's personal life was scandal-ridden, a fact that decreased his popularity for a time: he and his first wife separated soon after their sixth child was born, and Wright lived for a time with a mistress until she was brutally murdered with her children in his home by a deranged servant; he married a second time to a morphine-addicted sculptor before running away at age 58 with 26-year old Olgivanna Hinzenburg, with whom he had a child before taking her as his 3rd and last wife in 1928. His primary home in the Wisconsin countryside, Taliesin, burned during the murder episode, was rebuilt twice and temporarily seized by the bank when Wright's finances were at a low ebb.

When it looked as though his career was over in his 60s, Wright outflanked the International Modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier with his own new revolutionary style, and began to extend his evangelical efforts when he built Taliesin West (1937, Scottsdale, Arizona) as a studio and retreat for his student disciples. He had a colossal ego and did not collaborate willingly; for the sake of his architectural vision, clients sometimes found that his designs did not always accommodate their personal objects, or they might bump their heads on his stubbornly low doorways. In fact, Wright had a talent for making even the most progressive thinkers appear to be philistines: when modern abstract artists Willem deKooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell publicly denounced his design for the Guggenheim Museum, he ended up making them look like reactionaries after enlisting the aid of Robert Moses (of all people, a man who preferred to build expressways than anything remotely like human-scaled shelter) to make sure the Guggenheim would be completed.

Up until his death on April 9, 1959 in Phoenix, Arizona, Wright collected promising young architects around him in his Taliesin Fellowship -- incidentally leaving them, according to disciple Edgar Tafel, with a shared lack of a solid grounding engineering principles, but exhorting them nonetheless to explore new technologies, to maintain consistency in device, and to use a minimum of "design" to achieve maximum aesthetic effect.

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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

Charles Rennie Mackintosh -- architect, designer and painter -- was born on this day in 1868 in Glasgow, Scotland.

Mackintosh studied at the Glasgow School of Art and in Italy (obtaining a solid grounding in the Arts-and-Crafts style) before joining with his soon-to-be-wife Margaret, her sister Frances and friend Herbert McNair (known collectively as "The Four," "The Mac Group," the "Glasgow School" or the "Spook School") to produce posters and decorative pieces, marked by an Art Nouveau-inspired calligraphic style but without the exaggerated floral motifs.

His architectural work, beginning in the 1890s (Glasgow Herald tower, 1893; Queen Margaret's Medical College, 1894-6; Martyr's Public School, 1895; Glasgow School of Art, 1897-1909; Hill House, Helensburgh, 1902-3), is a departure from out-and-out Art Nouveau, seeming to be more of a class with Louis Sullivan's view that "form follows function"; in Mackintosh's own words, architecture needed to be more than "a mere envelope without contents." In search of functional sturdiness, Mackintosh drew upon Scottish vernacular architecture (forts, Medieval towers) to produce an austere overall effect, but accented it with curved metalwork, deployed like calligraphy.

The designs by Mackintosh and his wife for the interior of Kate Cranston's Tea Rooms (1897-9) -- white high-backed enamel chairs, leaded glass accents, everything down to the teaspoons and waitress' uniforms -- were a comprehensive statement of Mackintosh's personal vision of combining the rational (function) and the expressive (realized through Art Nouveau decoration) with graceful elegance. Through their participation in the Sezession Exhibition in Vienna in 1901, Mackintosh and MacDonald enjoyed greater influence in Germany and Austria than in Scotland and England where, after Mackintosh became a partner in the architectural firm of Honeyman, Keppie & Mackintosh, his buildings fell out of favor, attacked by hardcore Arts-and-Crafts critics as being infected by corrupt Art Nouveau influences. In his later years, most of his designs were for residential interiors, fabrics and book covers. He died on December 10, 1928 in London, England.