Place Into Words

Place Into Words was originally produced as a part of Kent State University's School of Visual Communication Design MFA exhibit titled “Surveys: A Design Exhibition Immersed In The Journey Between Earth and Mars.” I worked on this part of the project with Alan Walker and Jordan Kauffman. Our hope was to inspire, provoke, and stir a sense of curiosity and wonder surrounding space travel. To do this, we juxtaposed interviews we conducted on campus around the question "What do you think is the most beautiful place on earth?" with archival imagery of Mars. The result was a large scale project installation.


Oak Hill

Ohio winters are sometimes difficult to bear. They seem to last forever, sometimes into March or April. There’s a certain persistent grayness, and the dark afternoons push us indoors. Yet there is an inherent warmth to winter that I love. The pale winter light is beautiful. There is such joy in taking a walk on a cold morning, and then returning to a warm apartment. Katey and I have had such great opportunities to enjoy meals with our friends or to sit around the fireplace at her parent’s house.

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.

Watching Storms

Every year in July, we go with Katey’s family to Emerald Isle, North Carolina. We spend a lot of time resting, sharing meals, talking, and watching the ocean from the porch. I love and savor these slow times.

God often uses his craftsmanship in nature to teach me new things, or to gain my attention. Because he has made me as a designer and artist, I see his artistry in the cosmos. I see nature not as an accident, but finely tuned and designed with care.

So as I sat watching a storm roll in over the Atlantic last week, I was struck by how slowly it moved—how it molded itself into continuously new forms. Over the course of an hour, the darkness moved towards me, the lightning and distinct shadows of rainfall dotting the white horizon seemed hardly to move, and yet the cloud grew larger imperceptibly.

We live in a culture of speed. As a designer, I am constantly feeling rushed to work and to innovate. Hardly anything nature moves as quickly. We do not sit to watch a seed sprout, a lake form, a glacier melt, a mountain born. It is the way in which God intended nature where I see the fault in humans to hurry life along.

Even in spiritual growth, I often pray speedily, counting on spiritual fruit to be grown swiftly. I think it is no mistake that in Galatians 5, Paul articulates the fruit of the spirit. I pray often that I would grow in love and kindness, expecting these virtues to have been completed within a week. Who ever watched an apple grow within a week? It requires the planting of the seed, the searching of the roots, the growing of the trunk, the slow formation of the branch, and seasons of poorly grown apples before a sweet one can be picked.

It is with this thought that I trust God in his workings of time. Though he exists outside of time, he has formed it and governs it. He will cultivate fruit in us in due time if we simply step out of the way and let him.

A Morning in the Valley

I have been visiting the Cuyahoga Valley consistently for the last 5 years. In all of the times I have set out on a trail there in the morning, each has been uniquely different. I woke up at about 6:00am, and got to the Virginia Kendall section of the park around 7:00am.

There was a tranquil silence as I get out of my car. The pines stood perfectly still. The pond sat pristinely blanketed with a thin layer of curling fog. The sounds of woodpeckers, cardinals, bluebirds, American robins, and bank swallows could be heard around the trail.

The natural fragrances of the Valley in the summer are really what make getting up early worthwhile. The dew covers the grass well into the morning, and seemingly absorbs the night air into small globes. The sun evaporates the dew throughout the morning, releasing a fresh, ambrosial smell of pine, herb, flower, and pond.

Nature is a place which lures me to think of the qualities of God. He is a master craftsman. His art lies before us, waiting to be seen and experienced by our senses. When free of distraction, there is nothing to do but wonder at it.


For our first anniversary, Katey and I decided to take a short trip to Chicago to explore the city. A few of our friends had recently moved there after school, and gave us some great recommendations of places to check out. We booked a megabus trip from Cleveland to Chicago, had decided to save some money we'd walk and take trains rather than renting a car (and attempting to park). We stayed in Ravenswood, which is on the northside, and planned out the restaraunts and shops we wanted to visit.

We visited quite a few neighborhoods, including Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Downtown, and Hyde Park on the south end. We were able to enjoy some Chicago touristy standards, like eating a deep-dish on our back porch or taking a selfie at Cloud Gate... but we also got to visit a few gems like Cellar Door Provisions in Logan Square and Plein Air Café in Hyde Park. Walking and riding the train lines was a great way to explore, and although we wound up walking several miles a day (hence the photo of Katey with her feet in an ice tub holding a Heineken), I feel like we were able to see the city for what it was—both in its beauty and brokenness.


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.