Musings on life, travel, design,
family, art, and other stuff.

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.

References

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

Oregon

For our Honeymoon, Katey and I decided to travel to Oregon. Katey has always been a lover of the ocean, and I have always been a lover of the woods. It has always been a dream of ours to see the west coast of America, and we were generously given the opportunity to travel there after our wedding. We discovered a small a-frame coastal home in a town called Yachats, Oregon.

Oregon is a beautiful state. We spent hours driving on Highway 101, soaking in the views of the coast at every stopping point available. The coastline twists and curves through cliffs that jut out into the Pacific. Fog often moves in over the sea and rises up the mountains. Plumes of old growth pine forests contrast sharply with the gray bright skies. In comparison to Ohio, which is very flat, everything in Oregon is massive.

We quickly became glad that we hadn’t scheduled anything. It allowed us to explore towns like Newport and Florence, sampling coffee roasters, local restaurants, and parks.

In the middle of the week, we took a trip to Crater Lake National Park. From Yachats, it’s a 5 hour drive inland to central Oregon. I was in awe of how diverse the state was in terms of its ecosystems. For an hour we drove down the coast, weaving through dark evergreen forests and mountainous cliffs; for another hour we passed through farmland; for the next two hours we entered mountainous highways with views of pristine lakes and snow capped peaks. As we approached the park, we passed through highland desert and red soiled forests of colossal evergreens.

Although we were only able to stay for about 2 hours, I will never forget how small I felt in comparison to Crater Lake. The rocky cliffs flow steeply into the lake. Pines and mountains surround the national park. It was the most open space I had ever laid eyes on aside from the Grand Canyon.

 

What I loved most was just being able to spend time with Katey. Traveling with her is wonderful. She is good at making jokes, long conversations, and listening to my repeated phrase “wow” as I see things I’ve never seen before. Whenever I am in nature with her, she has a congenial appreciation for its beauty that is expressed with a joyful silence.

Canoeing Pine Creek

The Susquehanna River is the longest river on the Eastern coast of America. As the water flows south down the north branch of the river from New York, it splits off into the west branch of the river in central Pennsylvania. Pine Creek—the place we headed on a canoeing trip for my bachelor party—flows into this west branch. Often referred to as “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” Pine Creek occupies a river valley running roughly 87 miles.

Driving 5 hours into rural Pennsylvania exposed us to rolling Appalachian mountains, evergreens spotting the horizon, and state forest after state forest, acting as the only signage to be seen every 25 miles. We headed to camp in Leonard Harrison State Park, and arrived at the best time to set up: dark. Dan turned on his Jeep headlights, and we set up the tent and started a fire.

After pipes and cigars around the fire, we went to sleep. It was a cold spring night, and we were all often awoken by the cold, compelling us to reconfigure our blanket cocoons. The temperature had dropped to about 35ºF, but it was a beautiful clear evening. I will never forget looking up at the stars before we got into our tent, filtered through the eastern white pines that surrounded our campsite.

I woke up early to woodpeckers. It was a dim hour of dawn, and the sun had not yet peaked the trees. Morning dew covered the ground. It was freezing, so we worked quickly to build a fire. Most of us don’t mess around when it comes to enjoying camp food. We made several batches of french press coffee, and cast iron sandwich makers to cook egg and bacon sandwiches.

After breakfast, we tidied up camp and left to go canoeing in Pine Creek Gorge for the day. We rented canoes from Pine Creek Outfitters. The store smelled like damp wood. We were greeted by two women who immediately let us in on the necessity of wetsuits. They told us a story about a group of men who had taken out three canoes (with beer coolers aboard), flipped within the first three miles, lost their canoes, and were washed downstream for several miles in freezing water (without a wetsuit of course). One of the guys had apparently hitchhiked his way back to the store. We all laughed, and then payed $10 each for a wetsuit. Luckily, we had chosen the “family section” of Pine Creek.

Getting into the canoes (only two out of six of us had previously been canoeing), I could tell by the looks on our faces that we were all slightly nervous, despite the energy and confidence everyone portrayed. We were all overwhelmed with anticipation, though, and learned our rowing techniques with our partners within the first few minutes—not without running over some small rocks and cat tail plants, though. The peaks of the canyon towered over the river. Pines lined the shore. The smell of the river water was refreshingly cool.

As we canoed further and further downstream, the current became increasingly strong. Gray and brown cliffs of stone lined the river, and the plumes of pines lined the tops of the steep canyon we had drifted into. There were small patches of tiny rapids, and we enjoyed the rush of paddling through them. Three miles into the river, we neared a spot in the river that split left and right. We recalled a previous customer in the store who had told us to steer left. As we approached, we realized that it was a section of white rapids. We were no longer confused as to why a group of spectators sat in the middle of the bank at the head of the rapids. It was at this point that we realized we had no idea what we were doing in this section of the river. After all, this was apparently the “family section” of Pine Creek. So, we paddled hard and hoped for the best. Jason and Mark made it through. Collin and I followed. We were being washed around pretty heavily by the waves, and water was continually being splashed into our canoe. It was loud, and Collin continually yelled to paddle harder. As we neared the end of the section, I turned around to watch Dan and Josh’s canoe flip into the water. This was definitely not the family section.

Earlier upstream, it was hot, so Dan and Josh had taken off their life jackets. All of us had packed lunches and put them in baggies. Most of us had left our phones in the car, but Josh had decided to bring his along for photo ops. The baggies of lunch, iPhone, paddles, and lifejackets were now being washed downstream in a current that was not possible to swim across.

“I’m hyperventilating!” yelled Josh, “there’s rocks!”

Dan (half-laughing, half-furious) told him to shut up. They were being pushed around by the rapids 6-7ft deep over giant boulders. The cold water was getting into the top of their wetsuit. Yet, in a miraculous way, they neither lost their footing nor drowned.

Collin, Mark, Jason and I had pulled over to a bank only to watch Dan and Josh’s canoe float by. Without hesitation, Jason and Mark yelled, “we’re going to get that boat!” and got into their canoe heading downstream. After making it up the river bank, Dan and Josh found Collin and I. We settled on the idea that Collin and I would find Mark and Jason—Dan and Josh were to walk downstream until they found us with their canoe.

After paddling downstream for 1 to 2 miles, Collin and I found a flipped canoe on a rock. We flipped it onto higher ground. There was no sign of Mark or Jason. At this point Collin and I realized the extent of what was happening. We had no means of communication, were in the middle of a river valley—perhaps tens of miles from the nearest town. There were seemingly no other canoeing folk on the river to ask for help, and we had lost all of our friends. We had never formulated any emergency plan. So our only option was to continue heading downstream to find Mark and Jason.

After paddling another mile through more rapids, we found them sitting on the bank with a man named Emert from Colorado. In an attempt to grab onto Dan and Josh’s canoe, they had flipped their own. They had quickly flipped back over, but the canoe filled with water. Mark jumped in, but Jason grabbed onto the back, and was dragged over boulders in the river for over a mile. He had bruised his knees and thighs, torn his shoe open, and was shivering in a wet shirt. Mark had broken his toe and soaked his shirt in the frigid river water. Emert, partially intoxicated in his cowboy hat, had roped in 4 paddles, all of their lunches, Dan and Josh’s lifejackets, and had roped Mark and Jason onto shore. He kindly let us know that we had “killed his buzz” as he urinated in a bush. He was a warm hearted and humorous man, and had truly prevented us from disaster. While he told war stories about canoeing rapids in Colorado, we sat bewildered, cold, discouraged, and exhausted. Dan and Josh were still missing.

After asking several other members of Emert’s cohort from Colorado if they had seen Dan or Josh, we learned that they had been transported across the river (almost flipping another man’s canoe), and were heading downstream on foot. Mark and I took two paddles, and walked down the dirt road hoping to see Dan and Josh. After a mile of walking, they both emerged from the bushes on the river bank carrying the canoe Collin and I had flipped earlier.

After eating soggy lunches together, we reluctantly got back into our canoes. We had 13 miles left to go. Somehow, it all went smoothly after that. We regained our confidence. We enjoyed the beautiful views. We bonded and laughed over our new adventure. We joked about how we would tell to all of our friends when we got back. And we learned that we were not completely in control.

Nature is powerful. A river is beautiful on the surface, but filled with power and strength. Rivers flow increasingly to places that we will not see. They entice us to follow them. There is something about the way a river continually moves that lures us to seemingly greener pastures.

That night, we enjoyed food around the campfire and laughed about the day. Watching the flame burn out, I found myself thinking about the current of the river. I think it’s figurative of our lives in a way: it keeps moving. A river continues forward until it dries up or forms a new river, and we don’t have the strength to interrupt it or stop it. We may float upon it for a short time, hoping to arrive at some destination; we may plant our roots in it while letting it thunder by; or we may be swept away by its current altogether.

The Strip District

Katey grew up in Butler, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh. As we started dating and I met her family, they continually talked about the Strip District—especially its food markets and festivals. As part of a project Katey was working on at the time, we decided to visit and then take a picnic to Moraine State Park.

Penn Ave. and Smallman street are lined with historic buildings, poorly painted brick, crates of fruit and vegetables (some admittedly rotting), flower stands, pizza shops, men smoking cigars and wearing Steelers shirts, and Wholey’s Seafood market. There’s this strange mixed feel of pride and humility on every corner—embodied by someone who would yell at you if you said something negative about the Steelers, but kind enough to give you a free handful tomatoes if you bought some zucchini.

Everyone there seems to be working hard to deliver something important. Workers labor in alley ways unloading freight trucks from Pennsylvania farms with crates of corn and asparagus. The fisherman’s catch of fresh perch, flounder, or salmon is hauled in to be laid among beds of ice in Wholey’s market. The men behind the counter cut fillets and yell jokes. The butchers in the deli slice pastrami. The line at the Pennsylvania Macaroni Co. cheese counter is so long that it blends into the next room (giving you plenty of time to rehearse your order for the folks behind the counter, who stand glaring at the long line).

After making our rounds, we drove north to Moraine State Park. With only a few visible boats out on the lake and the calm waters to watch, we grilled asparagus and fresh perch with rosemary and lemon. To be honest, the perch smelled terribly fishy and turned out pretty dry, but the day spent together made it inconsequential.

Why I am Starting a Blog

Ohio summers bear witness to the sounds of morning songbirds pouring in open windows, hot afternoons spent watching the river, and evening bike rides. They are infused with idle lounging, sitting with my wife and cat in our apartment, sipping coffee for an extra hour when I can, and reorienting my heart towards what is important in my life. In short, summer brings one glorious commodity that I cannot seem to find in any other season of life: time. Time to breathe, time to rest, time to mull over the important stories of everyday life.

I have not experienced such steady free time since beginning design school in 2010. Throughout college I learned about who I was and how I ought to live. Now that I am finished—with undergrad at least—I am realizing something my friend Mark recently shared with me: that “this is my life.” It is happening at this very moment. In fact, I am 1/4 of the way into my life.

And so, here I am, excited to keep living as God might have me live. I believe that with this life comes a daily cycle of failure and renewal. I am being shaped into a new person day by day—slowly, and with much cultivation. I am continually making mistakes, yet being guided back to a better path. In Psalm 1, the one who is blessed is like a tree rooted in a steady stream of water. While the stream continually flows where it will, the tree remains unmoved. The notion of the tree asks me to simplify—to watch the stream float along. Its meaning in the midst of everyday life, however, becomes increasingly complex.

I am starting a blog because it provides me an outlet for mulling over the fragments of life that are easy to miss as they float away with the current.


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