October 10, 2021

An Object Removed

This past weekend, I was fortunate to be a part of a workshop at Temple University in Philadelphia as a part of a project we’re working on at Each+Every. As a part of our orientation and to get to know one another better, we began by bringing an important object and explaining it to our partner—they would then listen and share with the group what our object meant to us.

I brought a 45rpm record, Open Book / With the Ink of Ghost, released in 2016 by José Gonzalez. For me, this record holds memories of listening to records with my son Arlo and our family in our living room on Saturday mornings; it holds memories of listening to and making music with my own Dad as a kid; it holds my original love of album art as a way of entering into graphic design when I was in high school. While these things are not my whole story, they’re meaningful parts of it, and this act was repeated as our group shared their objects around the room: a necklace, a drawing from a daughter, a stone from Lake Superior, a camera from a grandfather.

Throughout my life, I have been drawn to the power of an object to hold people’s stories: Jeffery Miller’s handwritten playlist on a 45rpm; found shells from a beach trip; photographs of my grandmother; a recording of my dad playing guitar on a Concord Automatic 994. When I was in college I ran a blog called “Beautiful Things from Home” where I photographed family objects I would dig up in our basement. I could spend a lot of time talking about what lies behind each of these. There’s a sense in which an object can hold truths about who we are and where we came from. Maybe this is obvious though, and the reason why objects fight for space in natural history museums, historical societies, and peoples’ attics.

In Statement and Counter-Statement, design studio Experimental Jetset discusses the ways in which some objects, like a poster, act as both an object as an image. If an image of a perfume bottle is printed on a poster, it’s often taken for granted by the viewer that they’re not looking at the actual perfume bottle, but a reproduction. In this way, designed objects can act as illusory objects. At the same time, the designer then has power to bring awareness to the viewer of the object itself, to cut off the illusion that the image on the poster is the real thing (for example, by folding the poster and then hanging it up). In short, I think they’re really asking how much distance exists between an object and a viewer in a designed object.

Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher, argues in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that reproductions of an object devalue its original “aura,” or uniqueness as an object. In other words, to look at a reproduction of the Mona Lisa in an art book is not to really see the Mona Lisa, as one would in the Louvre Museum. Experimental Jetset explores this concept themselves in Statement and Counter-Statement as they photocopy their work at actual scale and reprint it in the book at 100% of its actual size. Folded and die-cut posters bleed off the edges of the paper, buttons sit alongside wristbands and t-shirts on the scanning bed, graphic identities intermingle with cd’s and large-scale posters.

There are a few books I’ve been enjoying lately that play with this idea of aura and object: Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, and Touchable sound : A Collection of 7-inch Records from the USA. Both books explore this idea of reproduction and original, sometimes painstakingly created artworks or poems. It’s sometimes overwhelming to know that for the many artists whose work is in Touchable Sound or for Dickinson herself, that each piece holds a story.

Maybe in another life I would be an archivist, but to look at, see, touch, and hold original artworks (or any crafted object) has become evermore important and special. Our culture has become increasingly digital, and the old adage that “print is dead” could not be more false than ever. Whether or not you agree with Benjamin’s feelings about an object’s aura, I have this feeling that even objects which are one of many still hold value for each individual who engages with it—whether it’s one of a kind or not. In the world of graphic design, we often deal with editions: sets of hundreds or thousands of reproductions. This is the reality that Benjamin foresaw. Yet I think he missed this attachment to objects that people hold on to. The José Gonzalez record I shared about is one of 1,000 that was released, but it’s still a special piece which represents the time spent listening to it with my family. If that was the only copy in existence, I would definitely feel closer to the artist and their work. But my own experience of the record itself and what it holds as an object is not dependent on how many reproductions of the object exist. Within the age of mechanical reproduction, I think I’d like to call this an “aura of memory.”

December 24, 2019

Objects: Mixtapes + Playlists

As a graphic designer, I spend a lot of time thinking about objects and formats. Not only file formats, for example, but mediums—the possibilities and limitations of them, their contextual uses. In Statement and Counter-Statement by the Dutch design studio Experimental Jetset, the trio comments on how a standard LP can only contain 45 minutes of music, acting as a creative limitation in a very physical manner–leading to the classic discussion around the relationship between form and content: “This is also what we consider to be one of modernism’s most defining characteristics: this state of being permanently aware of the way in which our material environment shapes us, and how we, in return, can shape our own material environment.” I love this idea of our physical world acting as a constraint, and I’m really interested in how certain objects have shaped us—and how we can consider shaping them in new ways.

For the last few months, I’ve been working on a pop-up exhibition project called Armed with Our Voices with the Kent State University’s May 4 Visitors Center and Wick Poetry Center about the May 4, 1970 tragedy. The exhibition features memorials to the four killed that day, specifically archival and personal artifacts that are now on display or tucked away in the University’s Special Collections and Archives.

One object which has stuck with me throughout the project is a handwritten playlist written by Jeffery Miller on the Chambers’ Brothers “People Get Ready” 45rpm vinyl. Miller hosted a radio show called “Short Mort,” and often utilized his personal collection. This object, now in a display case, is so personal—and now deeply painful to view. Ben Ratliff has said that “we build an autobiography and a self-image with music.” I think this is why there is pain in listening to the songs written on Miller’s 45. But it got me thinking about how playlists have changed as a format: from something very intimate, tangible, and crafted, to something more public, ordinary, and thrown together.

The playlist was really born out of the mixtape, which grew to popularity in the late 70s and into the 80s as cassettes grew in popularity. When people used to make mixtapes—a compilation of music recorded to a cassette tape—they could only be drawn from personal collections of things someone already owned—things which existed as a part of the physical world. They became a special type of communication from one person to another, often codified through track listings, or customized with personalized cover art.

In contrast, contemporary playlists have become streamable, and our access to music has grown significantly into a global digital library. They are still very personal, though not as popularly exchanged. Playlists often become symbolic of a particular season of life, or are made up of music that has a certain aesthetic flow or coherence. I’ve heard people mourn the loss of mixtapes in the age of streaming, and I wonder if this is because they lack the vulnerable aspects of knowing an LP or a tape inside-out. Spending money on music, or keeping it in your bedroom for that matter, makes the exchange of mixtapes a special sort of gift. In “PCs killed the mix-tape star,” Joel Keller writes: “The process of making a mix tape gave people a connection with music that the electronic version simply can't replace. Because it is so easy to drag and click a mix into existence, the sense of satisfaction with making what many feel is a work of art gets diminished.”

Mixtapes and playlists require active listening both from the creator and the listener. They require full attention since they are a special combination of genres or styles, or since they might be codified by the maker in some way. This active listening has perhaps become a lost art after the evolution of The Walkman, which made music private and portable, thus removing it from rooms where the only available entertainment was a record player or reel-to-reel player. Listening to music as a primary activity has now transitioned to serve as a background for cooking, riding the subway, working, and the like.

At first, I was thinking of how much we’ve lost because of this change in format from personal cassette to streamable playlist. But I was refreshed as I started reading Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty by Ben Ratliff. He asks an important question in an age where algorithms instead of people often determine the formations of our playlists: “How are we going to listen better than we are being listened to? […] There is a possibility that hearing so much music without specifically asking for it develops in the listener a fresh kind of aural perception, an ability to size up a song and contextualize it in a new and personal way, rather than immediately rejecting it based on an external idea of genre or style.” In other words, now that we have such a vast library of music to listen to—from other civilizations past and present, from around the world—how can we deepen our musical vocabulary? How can we utilize the tools at hand to expand the format of the playlist—keeping that same sense of craft that physical mixtapes once required? Can we make them more personal in new ways? How might this determine the ways we share them with the people we love? More importantly, how can playlists make us better listeners?

November 9, 2019

Objects: Found Shells

I continually find myself inspired by the work of Bruno Munari (1907–1998), an Italian designer and artist. During my MFA thesis studies, I often looked at the ways he was inspired by nature in his design works—whether observing “continuous forms” and replicating these in a lamp, or cutting up oranges and rose petals to see their symmetry. Munari is also known for his own found object collections, whether stones, shells, or paper. This summer, I spent a lot of time at the beach with friends and family. Whenever I had a chance, I would take walks in the morning and comb for interesting shells or driftwood. My son Arlo also found some great objects in the sand (and then I found them while stopping him from putting them in his mouth).

“When the artist observes nature... it is as if nature communicated, through the sensitivity of the artist at that moment, one of its secrets.”

—Bruno Munari

January 16, 2017

Photos of Home

Katey and I have called many places home around Kent over the last few years. This is just a small collection of photos of the places we've shared morning coffees, watched lilac shrubs bloom, and seen winter light cast shadows on the walls.

August 17, 2014

Discovering My Family History

Last July, my Grandmother Margherite Catanese passed away. For a week or two, my family told stories about her as we rummaged through photos. It was a hard time, but also cathartic. My family is filled with hard-working, Italian-American immigrants with midwestern souls. My grandmother’s grandparents came to America on a boat from Italy. “Catanese” is an Italian surname, meaning literally “Catanian,” “from the city of Catania” or “from the province of Catania.” Catania is the capital of the Province of Catania in Sicily. She and her family grew up in north Akron. I always imagine that they were proud to see their sons and daughters settle into America—to create their own life and run their own businesses. They have run their own excavating companies, started their own taverns, and settled into the Akron community.

The Importance of Old Stuff

I love rummaging through my grandparents’ old keepsakes in the basement, and the beautiful kitchen items from their tavern. The white enamel coated steel pots have red rims and slight patina where the enamel has worn. My grandma kept everything—from vintage travel brochures to steel bottle openers. There are old photos of when my grandparents traveled to Italy. Katey and I even have an old red leather and steel stool from the tavern her husband Carl helped run in our living room. These items hold deep histories and sat at the heart of where the stories of our family were made.

Although I am often looking at people I’ve never met, flipping through old family photo albums calls forth a deep connection to my ancestors. There is something very primal about wanting to know where I came from. I even find myself creating my own memories from the photos themselves—picturing the stories unfolding as though I were present at the time they were taken.


JoJo’s Tavern

In my english class during my sophomore year of college, we had to write about a piece of our family history and the historical context that it was set in. I decided to do some research about the time period that my grandfather Carl and his brother Joe opened their Tavern on E. Tallmadge Avenue in Akron. I interviewed my grandmother about her experiences working in the kitchen there alongside her husband. At the time I interviewed her, I knew that what I was doing felt important, but didn't quite understand why. Now that she has died, I am realizing how valuable her stories are, and the way they have preserved pieces my grandmother’s life.

I recently listened to a podcast from On Being, where Krista Tippet interviewed David Isay, who started StoryCorps. They discussed the importance of creating spaces to tell stories and have intimate conversations. Isay once recorded and interview with his father, which at the time he thought was insignificant. Shortly after, his father passed away. Isay then understood the beauty and depth of the interview. Isay often says that “The soul is contained in the voice.” I think this is what happened when I talked to my grandmother and wrote down our conversation.

The following is from an interview with my grandmother Margherite Catanese, 2011. I did my best to write down her words as we talked.

“We had the Tavern for 18 or 20 years. We had a good family business. It was on Tallmadge Avenue, you know, near the train tracks. It was across from a shop, I think, called the Working Man’s Overall shop, and Carl’s brother Tony lived in a bungalow next door. There were eight or nine people who worked there in all: Joe was the oldest, and he ran the place with his brothers Tony, Ross, Pete, his sisters Margaret and Janet, his mother Mae, and me. Tony was in his excavating business, and Pete was the youngest and did all the papers for the place.

“You know, I used to make the meatballs and sauce at home. It would take about three hours, and we would load it up into crock pots and set them on the floor of the car to take to the tavern. We lived on Damon Street. The work wasn’t hard. We were closed on Sundays, and we would clean all day—our place was always spotless! We had big tubs in the back kitchen that we could clean our big pots in. You know, we had no dishwasher then.

“That was during the 40s, when the war was. Everybody was busy. We served all week to the workers who would come in for lunch, usually about noon or so. I can still picture the guys lined up there. They would give the orders and you’d hear: Cheeseburger! Grilled Cheese! Chili! Meatballs! A lot of the men usually sat at the bar. Joe was the bartender. There were red stools at the bar and wood chairs at the tables—they held up pretty good.

“The men would usually come after work, and Joe and the other guys would sip beer and talk about whatever men talked about.

“Sometimes we would sit at the end of the bar closest to the kitchen door, and would take orders or eat something when we got a chance. I remember during New Years Eve we all sat together at the bar. It was always crowded that night. Most of all the men drank beer. I had 7up.”



A Short History of JoJo’s Tavern

The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company bought land in Akron, Ohio in 1916. One year later, it branched into another plant known as the Goodyear Zeppelin Company, which produced zeppelins for World War I. As the war died down, it continued manufacturing this early form of the Goodyear blimp. During World War II, the economy slowly pulled out of the Great Depression.

During the 1930’s, the New Deal programs began to hit Akron, along with prohibition and gambling. Wartime mobilization pushed factories into full production. By 1950, Akron’s population was nearly 275,000. Small businesses in Akron and surrounding areas began thriving.

Joe Catanese (my grandfather Carl’s brother) was a World War II Veteran, and in 1942 he returned and his family opened Jo Jo’s Tavern on E. Tallmadge Avenue. It operated for 21 years, with constant business from Akron’s factory workers and the like.

Following WWII, the traditional industries like the Goodyear company began their decline, and Akron faced financial downturn. A population decline ensued, and Jo Jo’s Tavern was sold in 1963.


Jo Jo’s
By E.A. Goble Jan. 1951

There’s a tavern in our neighborhood
Where the eating and the drinking’s good;
A nice place as taverns go—
Run by a fellow named Jo-Jo.
But Shannon and Zurbuch with smiles angelic
Insist on calling him “old smart Alec”
And they call Russ Copping the same.
Because of his funny euchre game.
If you happen up in this part of town
And have an hour, just drop around
And watch the characters come and go
And meet me in host—my friend Jo-Jo;
And meet his three nice brothers,
Tony, Carl and Ross—and there are others
Besides the ones here portrayed;
You’ll see them all on parade.
Bob Lewis with a poker face
Hangs funny signs all over the place.
There’s Rog Anderson and his smile,
He buys a drink every once in a while.
And Sam, the genial man about town
Who takes our Jo-Jo round and round,
Through every night club they have reeled
From Bucket of Blood to Chesterfield.
And “Jop” is another nice guy to know
Though he bets the yanks and DiMaggio.
Piney, whose train blocks the avenue
Comes in sometimes for a drink or two.
Shaffer, who quietly sits at the bar,
Can tell you what the answers are
To questions the television brings
About places, people and dates and things.
There’s Anna—I’m sure you’ll agree when I say
She’s tops! As a waitress she’s “George all the way.”
The names of them all would fill a book.
I remember Johnson, Jacobs and Charley Shook,
And there are many whose names I can’t recall,
But come in and you will see them all.
If there’s a “closed” sign out, please try the door-
They’ve closed it from outside before,
And Jo-Jo stood at his bar all day
Wandering why the crowd all stayed away.
So whenever you travel out this way,
Here’s hoping I’ll see you there some day.
We’ll watch television while the grunters “rassle”
And drink Iriquis and Copenhagen Castle.
This is a cordial invitation to you and to you
To come to 803 E. Tallmadge Avenue.

July 8, 2014

Objects: Painting the Tin Can

Imagine it’s 1962 and you’re a designer experiencing the glory of mid-century architecture, industrial design, and graphic design. The Eames’ have recently developed molded plywood chairs, Buckminster Fuller is about to begin work on Montreal Biosphere, and Paul Rand is designing annual reports for IBM. Their contributions to the professions and culture are becoming monumental, and the era is bursting at the seams with good design.

Now picture a used juice can made of tin. It has a burnt top made of copper fringed “antennae”, and is connected haphazardly with wires to a rusty nail and radio transistor. In the context of mid-century design—or any era of design for that matter—it’s very, very ugly. But for just a moment, I want to question what designers really consider to be beautiful, and how beauty can go deeper than appearance or even function in design.

In 1962 Victor Papanek, a designer and educator, was approached by representatives of the U.S. Army. New communications and transport problems were emerging on a global scale—especially in third world countries, where access to basic needs dwindled. The Army needed help designing a device that could deliver a radio signal to people living in remote parts of the world: villages which were primarily illiterate, unaware of the fact that they lived in a nation-state, and had no electricity, money for batteries, or access to broadcast news.

This tin can was a prototype solution for Papanek and a particularly gifted graduate student, George Seegers. The tin can was able to act as a one-transistor radio. It was non-directional, meaning it could only pick up one radio signal. This seems problematic, until you consider that the particular areas the radio was designed for typically had only one national news broadcast. Used tin cans were in abundance around the world, and the radio could be fueled by dried cow dung, paper, wax, or generally anything else that caught on fire. The heat produced would then rise to the top, and was converted to energy which would power an earplug speaker. Its manufacturing cost was 9 cents. It functioned as a communication device for preliterate areas of the world, and was given to the U.N. for use in villages in Indonesia. The radio is truly a great accomplishment—it was sustainable, served the people who would use it in the affordable and accessible way possible, and was at least beautiful in a functional sense. But the consideration of form, of visual beauty, seems to be missing entirely. For designers especially, visual attractiveness is often how beauty is measured, and Papanek’s radio begins to poke at designers’ seemingly innate preference for “tasteful” design.

Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which deals with the nature of beauty, and it has been a debate among philosophers, artists, and designers for centuries. Consider Plato as an example. He argued that beauty was objective in the world. Plato thought that experiencing individual material things with our senses were pointing us towards the highest, most objective forms of beauty. Aristotle, on the other hand, was more focused on the idea of natural beauty as it relates to function, utility, and purpose. Rather than pointing towards an abstract, objective concept of beauty, Aristotle sought more practical explanations. He believed formal qualities in the world which have a particular fit, purpose, or goal were beautiful. Aristotle is sort of a precursor to the idea of form and function in design. Jumping ahead to the 1960s, Bruno Munari, the famous Italian designer, inventor, and artist described a leaf as the perfect combination of form and function. In his 1966 book Design as Art, he talked about how beauty in an abstract sense for designers often means that a design has particular style, and is tacked on at the end of a project.

Munari thought that designers ought to “discard” beauty in an abstract sense, and instead consider beauty as formal coherence to function:

“A leaf is beautiful not because it is stylish but because it is natural, created in its exact form by its exact function. A designer tries to make an object as naturally as a tree puts forth a leaf. He does not smother his object with his own personal taste, but tries to be objective.”

In Munari’s eyes designers are the connectors of art and the public. He believed we must have humility to approach problems without preconceptions of stylistic choice, and should focus on responding to human need. This ushers in a new dimension for visual beauty: one which is based on people’s needs. It also introduces an ethical element to aesthetic choices.

Back to Papanek’s tin can radio. In 1967, Papanek showed slides of the radio at Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm Germany. Sadly, it was criticized for its visual ugliness. When I first saw the radio, I agreed. In my mind, I felt Papanek had completely ignored the aesthetic qualities of the design. I thought about how it would feel for the people who would receive it, and how it seemed that no consideration had been given to their reception of the object. Why not just paint it a solid color? Interestingly, this is exactly what was suggested by the others at Ulm. Even Papanek admitted that he believed it to be ugly. Yet he felt he had no right to make “aesthetic” or “good taste” decisions which could negatively affect millions of people in different cultures around the world. And the payoff? When Papanek’s radio design was given to the people of Indonesia, they decorated their tin cans using native materials: paper, glass, shells, fabrics, and stones. Papanek had cleverly “built-in” a chance for the users to make the radio their own.

As communication designers continue to move into the frontier of web and user experience design, designers ought to consider the needs, expectations, and cultural understandings of beauty which are unlike their own. The risk is miscommunication on a global scale. While the web is certainly a great equalizer and homogenizer of sorts, simple aesthetic choices such as choice of color, typeface, grid structure, or even the alignment of various languages can communicate a lack of cultural understanding. Aesthetic choices have the ability to demonstrate empathy on the part of the designer—to cultivate understanding across cultural barriers. As designers, it’s becoming necessary that we consider the ethical dimensions of our aesthetic choices, and what we consider as beautiful.


Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change
by Victor Papanek, 1971
Design as Art by Bruno Munari, 1966
Art and its Significance: an Anthology of Aesthetic Theory
by Stephen David Ross, 1994

All Content © 2020 Alex Catanese. All rights reserved.