Category historic figures

Italian sculpture on French wheels

citroenSMMy Uncle Frank drove this car.

I remember sitting in the back from time to time as he motored around the New England countryside.

Some cars make you feel different than other cars do; some make you feel special.

Driving my kids around town in our CJ (with no doors or roof) does this same thing. When you’re in the Jeep you’re keenly aware of the weather and time of day. If the sun is rising it’s in your eyes; if it starts to rain you’re wet.

The Citroën DS had a similar effect except the feeling was connected to art and industrial design.

You weren’t just wishing Jetsons-inpired innovation and design would take root at some point in the future because you were running an errand in a car that looked like it actually might fly.

This vehicle was styled by Italian sculptor and industrial designer Flaminio Bertoni and French aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre. It was Italian sculpture on French wheels. This Citroën was introduced in 1955 yet, looks fresh enough that it could make a successful debut today. 

George Washington would have loved Kickstarter

It’s hard, maybe impossible, to look at historic figures without a large dose of presentism.  Let’s acknowledge that fact and move on.

If we plopped our founding father, George Washington, into late 2012… what would he like… what would he admire?

In my opinion he’d love the internet and more specifically… he’d dig Kickstarter.

Among Washington’s greatest strengths was his ability to see a few years down the road and embrace the early stages of large-scale, potentially radical change.

His early life was the same as most people born in the 1730s, he wasn’t born into wealth and didn’t go to a private school. He didn’t even go to public school. George was tutored by his father and trained to survey land.

Where he was different, like many of today’s entrepreneurs, is with his ability to read the winds of change.

Washington, like Edwin Land or Steve Jobs, didn’t wait for an idea to be fully fleshed out or a product to be fully baked before engaging the public with it.

About halfway through Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life it hit me… the story of George Washington’s role in the creation of the United States parallels that of today’s entrepreneurs.

His life during the American Revolution offers an illustration, complete with wobbly early periods, of a modern day startup. Washington was more than a big thinker and calculated risk taker… his life was dedicated to transforming culture.

So how would Washington view the concentration of power in distinct regions and niche population groups? I think he would understand these as inevitable but also see the inherent limitations.

And that leads me to Kickstarter.

Kickstarter, and similar organizations like Kiva, are democratically transformational. That is… they enable unfiltered access to numerous, unconnected, small pools of capital. They assist by organizing the potential value and overseeing the transactional needs. Simultaneously they deliver a templated, scalable platform for ideas that need capital but until recently had fewer places to find it. The connection of these two forces… changes the world.

Washington’s leadership in the American Revolution from 1775 – 1783 is a similar story. He understood that if he organized numerous small pools of soldiers and optimized best practices (their ability to organize and fight) then he would be able to amass the needed power to take on the largest military in the world. He crowdsourced a revolution. He templated training regimes, drew on innovative fighting approaches from indigenous cultures… he focused the cultural chaos of the day into a collective energy and… changed the world.

George Washington would have loved Kickstarter

Stanley Kubrick’s obsession with geometry

Stanley Kubrick, arguably one of the most important film makers of our era, had something approaching a fixation with using a single vanishing point in his films.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw 2001: Space Odyssey. I distinctly remember two things. One is the fact my friend that couldn’t deal with it… he hated it, he wouldn’t stop talking and then he left. He was lost at the chimps… and it went downhill from there. The second thing I remember is feeling like I was lost in a dream… like I was in some alternative reality.

The truth is that all Kubrick’s films make me feel like I’m dreaming… it’s almost as if they take over my brain for an hour or two. That, at least to me, is the sign of a master director… commandeering someone’s mind for the duration of a film.

This… stunning… clip suggests one reason why. Stanley Kubrick had a distinct, signature perspective and he forced the viewer into it.

The vignette reminds me, yet again, of the depth of his legacy. Give it a watch.

Kubrick // One-Point Perspective from kogonada on Vimeo.

The original information architects: Ray and Charles Eames

Before there was Google, Jobs or Nick Fenton there was Charles and Ray Eames.

This is the story of two castaways who find their muses and end up influencing design, information presentation, furniture, photography, interiors, multimedia exhibits, games and in the end… modern society.

These are quite possibly America’s two most relevant designers and the film Eames: The architect and the painter tells this story.

3 thumbs up (and streaming free on Netflix at the moment).

 

Swing punk: Benny Goodman

At the suggestion of our piano tuner we rented The Benny Goodman Story (1956 film with Steve Allen and Donna Reed).

Oddly enough it felt like it could have been The Iggy Pop story… or The Joe Strummer Story. His story is one where the status quo is challenged via a new musical approach.

Something deep inside me respects people who challenge things and eventually, via commitment to something larger than themselves, change the world.

Every individual included in Apple’s Think Different campaign falls into this bucket. Steve Jobs and Lee Clow missed a few people… I’d throw Iggy, Joe and Benny into the same bucket as Pablo and Hensen.

Born in 1909, he was a lad when the massive force of the Roaring 20s hit. Popular music at that time was classical waltzes. Benny drew from every source he could find (mostly from New Orleans players), did the equivalent of tearing the roof off… and invented Swing.

He and the people around him created the taproot that later became Jazz. He called his alternative approach to music making “hot” music. When looked it within the context of the music around at the time it was, indeed, hot.

Benny was a punk… a Swing punk.

Lunatic, Liar or Lord

If I updated my Facebook status and called myself “Savior of all mankind” you’d think I’d lost my mind. You’d call me nuts, a liar and probably then do the modern equivalent of walking away… unfriend me.

Which brings us to the essence of Christmas.

We’ve lost our perspective, we’ve co-opted and bent the meaning of what happened two millennium ago. Worse, we’ve connected it with an economic growth chart.

Christmas isn’t about buying things for people. It’s not about black Friday sales, two-for-one coupons or PayPal transactions.

It’s not about lying to our kids about Santa Claus coming to our homes, eating cookies and leaving swag behind. It’s not about blockbuster movies, red and green, twinkling lights or ugly sweaters.

It’s not about a family reunion, pine trees from a Northern region or sentimentalism.

Christmas isn’t even about making an annual trek to church.

Christmas is about relating to a person who was born a few thousand years ago. There is a question embedded in this man’s existence; a response required to the claims he made; he was either deluded, lying, or telling the truth.

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.” – C.S. Lewis

Lunatic, liar or Lord?

John Adams, generational succession and globalization

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
– John Adams

I love this quote. It gives a hint to where our forefather’s heads were when they were alive but it goes further than that. This offers a brilliant blueprint for what they saw coming after them. Since they were the founders, the instigators, of a number of ideas they were hyper aware of the generational view of history. They were actively involved in planning their legacy, even within their own family tree.

Henry Adams, John Adams great-grandson understood this flow and followed it. He fell into that last layer and studied various forms of the arts.

As a father whose daughter is about to head to college I see this kind of thinking among many of my peers. Elements of what John Adams shared are present today and as is the case with everything… there are pros and cons.

My parents grew up as first generation Americans. In addition my parents were born after the Great Depression. Like all others shaped by that era they operate with a razor sharp focus on practicality. They chose careers that would deliver them from the challenges their parents lived through in the post stock market crash of the 1930s. The key phrase in that last sentence might be as simple as “they chose careers” (places they could work for 40 years, they didn’t look for a job).

They gave birth to the generation of baby boomers. This next generation, even though they were raised within the structure of practicality, has many characteristics that are quite different than their parents. In my opinion one overarching characteristic is being more self-centered. This generation is widely associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values, they think of themselves as being special. Further, one could argue that the very option to work at a single place for 40 years was killed by this generation.

The boomers created the generation coming up today. This group is much more informed due to instant access of massive amounts of information via the Internet. They are also much less pragmatic and practical. In the spirit of the Adams quote, this generation is much more likely to study (and potentially get a degree in) audio engineering or film. Part of the shift is due to a media landscape shifting dramatically (access to professional level media tools are in the hands of everyone) but part of the shift is related to what Henry Adams did as a great-grandson of John Adams. Henry Adams had more options than John Adams; our kids have more options than our parents.

Or do they?

The thread tracing this process through time doesn’t connect.

It doesn’t connect due to the fact that if you start with John Adams generation and successively move on to future generations you do NOT get a smooth line or even a unidirectional vector. If you did our parents would have studied something far less rigorous than what they did. Richard Florida’s Creative Class would have been invented well over a hundred years ago.

The reason the thread through time doesn’t connect is because of unplanned, large-scale disruptions.

Various forces caused re-starts. In the case of our parents generation it was the Great Depression and wars. In today’s case it’s globalization and technology.

Historically speaking, it’s quite hard to operate without being strongly influenced by the scale of disruptions we’re talking about here.

A person may have wanted to become an accountant or a painter as World War 2 kicked into gear but being drafted may have taken those opportunities away.

A journalism student may have written newsletters when they were seven, become Editor of the college newspaper but a job at a regional newspaper may simply no longer exist.

The inverse to fretting about globalization and technology is seeking to understand them deeply… even embracing them.

I believe that is the best strategy at this point in time. I believe this is even more valid for our offspring. If they are going to have anything even remotely close to an easier live or a life with more options we must prepare our kids to compete with kids from Bangalore. We should encourage them to study meaningful languages that they’ll use in the years to come because the job waiting for them might very well be in another country. We should push them to experience, even live, in places well outside the boundaries of this country.

John Adams was a first generation explorer of a new world.

So are we.

More :

John Adams by David McCullough

The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough

Picasso the destroyer

I remember the first time I saw Guernica, the 25 foot wide canvas of a town in Spain bombed into oblivion. Honestly, I almost threw up. It was that powerful.

Picasso’s quote about it adds even more intensity to the piece…

“Screaming children, screaming women, screaming birds, screaming flowers, screaming trees and stones, screaming bricks, screaming furniture, beds, chairs, curtains, sauce-pans, cats, paper, screaming intermingling smells, screaming smoke hitting you on your back, screams stewing in a big cauldron, and the screams of birds falling like rain on the sea and inundating it.”

The connection between the overpowering canvas and his words enabled me to start to see the artist within. On that canvas he painted pain. He painted demolition. He painted hell.

He created destruction. More than any of his other works, Guernica embodies his strength as an interpreter of ideas.

His talent was so impressive that I put him on a pedestal. I translated that canvas and those words into something larger than life. I started to see it as a work painted by a true genius. I became a fan boy, a groupie. I sought out his other works and his museums whenever I could find a spare hour or two in a new city.

Then I read this book. It’s a powerful biography of the man that created and the man that destroyed.

He’s known for his prolific work. He created like few others. During his life it’s estimated that he created 30,000 pieces of artwork.

What I wasn’t aware of was his equal cadence of destruction. This book offers a deeper view into a man who truly saw himself not only as a Sun, complete with a series of planets orbiting him… but perhaps as a stand-alone universe. If you’re a fan of his work (and who isn’t) pick this book up. I can almost guarantee you won’t look at his work the same way again.

“Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” – Picasso

Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Wright

I have a vivid memory of a white water rafting trip I took in college. The truth is that the rafting itself was a bust, there was too much water and so our class 5 rapids ended up producing something not very interesting.

What snagged me and captivated my attention was a side trip. We were in deep in the heart of Pennsylvania and driving on roads surrounded by thick woods. If my memory serves me right we were lost. We saw a sign for an attraction, followed the signs and this is what we found.

Falling Water.

The idea of a home in the woods isn’t new.

The idea of modern, horizontal architecture isn’t new either.

The idea of putting a dwelling that for all intents and purposes offered a frontal-assault challenge to Bauhaus designs of that era… in the middle of a 5,100-acre nature reserve… was a radically new idea.

Even today it feels new.

Fresh.

After I saw this I became a bit of a Frank Lloyd Wright fan/fanatic. I remember making side trips to see places like Oak Park, Ill where one can see entire neighborhoods of his designs. I also have spent a fair amount of time walking the interior spiral of the Guggenheim in New York.

I love his comprehensive approach. He didn’t just design the structures… he designed tables and chairs. He designed the napkin rings.

And yet after it all I still come back to this house. It’s beyond what most people would enable themselves to dream. It’s peaceful, it’s elegant, it has a stream running thorough it. To cap it all off it has it’s own soundtrack, falling water.

 

Jefferson, France and the formation of America

I grew up in the Midwest, spent an ample amount of time on the east coast, have lived in New York, Chicago and San Francisco/Silicon Valley. For the last two decades I’ve resided in Southern California.

I share this to set up the following statement.

I truly did not start to understand America’s place in the world until I left its shores.

It’s hard to grasp something if you’re inside its bubble.

The more I travel the more I understand how much we’ve borrowed from other cultures. The deeper one looks the more they find that America is the result of our collective experiences and our historical roots in other countries.

When we think of technologies and innovation we think of Silicon Valley and perhaps emerging hubs in Bangalore and Beijing. Yet the roots of innovation, whether we segregate that to technology, or take a larger view, point back to places like Paris.

The literal foundations of this country were built on the technological advancements from other countries. For example, to understand the significance of the Brooklyn Bridge is to understand the role of Paris as a hub for creativity and engineering during the late 1700s and early 1800s. Another way to say that is no Paris, no Brooklyn Bridge.

But this goes well past technology and engineering. EVERY element of the New York art scene (museums, galleries, performance halls, bands, art and architecture schools) originated somewhere else and most have roots pointing directly back to Paris. One can make the same argument for medical schools, hospitals, culinary schools, etc. The list is long.

An umbrella metaphor for this is Thomas Jefferson’s time spent in Paris.

Before he ascended to Secretary of State and eventually to the Presidency he occupied the role of Minister to France for four years. When I think of the experiences and cultures he drew on for his last two positions and his legacy after… when I think of his love of architecture, agricultural techniques, writing and culinary exploration… I find myself pointing back to his time in Europe. It all points back Paris.

True, Monticello was started before Jefferson went to Paris but it was a shell. It was while he was in Paris that he integrated the ideas of the central dome, natural light via skylights and even indoor toilets.

Jefferson is celebrated as somewhat of a quintessential American due to his varied interests, overarching optimism and stirring rhetoric captured in iconic documents like the Declaration of Independence. Since he’s one of our founding fathers it’s important to understand where his inspiration came from.

I see Jefferson as a quintessential American BECAUSE he reached past what was available here, sought out the best of what was available elsewhere and brought the best back. In my opinion that is what being an American has come to mean.

America is a global mashup.

All of our roots point to other places. Our family trees have sampled the soil of alternative forms of government and reacted to those with the bedrock documents of this nation: the Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. More than three hundred years later we continue to attract people who risk their lives to get here because they believe the opportunity here is greatest.

Sure, America invented baseball, national parks, jazz and the internet. I’m sure others can extend that list. We should also recognize that a large percent of what “America is” hails from somewhere else.

If you want to go deeper, I recommend two books. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph Ellis and The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough.