The midget folio

This is a book I once saw in the rare books room of the San Francisco Library called Quads Within Quads. It was published by an oddball British printer named Andrew W. Tuer in 1884 and contains a collection of jokes about printing.

The jokes about printing that I am capable of understanding are generally pretty corny and hard to explain and not really worth the effort of explaining anyway. Take, for example, the left-hand page pictured below: you see a caption THE NEW STEAM COMPOSITOR under a robotic figure of someone standing at a weird kind of table. The joke is that steam-powered presses had been introduced earlier in the century to speed up the printing process; compositing, meanwhile, was the thankless task of assembling metal type by hand (thus, the weird table which held the type); therefore, one expects to see some sort of newly-invented machine that automates the task of compositing but instead sees a compositing automaton. Get it? No? OK, let’s just move on…

The great thing about Quads Within Quads is that it was printed with a square section cut out from the middle pages, like where you might hide a bottle of whiskey or a roll of microfilm. So, what’s placed in the cut-away square section? A miniaturized version of the same book. Apparently, this is called a ‘midget folio’ (when you produce a mini-version of a larger book). I was a little disappointed to learn that the miniaturized version does not itself contain an even smaller version, and so on and so forth like Russian dolls.

Quads Within Quads


Top photo: both versions together. Lower photo: zoom-in on midget folio.

Enjoy Mock Duck


I found this vintage promotional Holiday Inn postcard in my step-mother’s house and it instantly became one of my prized images, earning the strongest magnet on my refrigerator door and loosely inspiring – with its garish, ghoulish Stepford-leisure-suit vibe – the whole ‘Enjoy Mock Duck’ concept.

As with the White Album or Carl Lewis’ disastrous rendition of the National Anthem, it’s hard to pick just one favorite part. But one minor detail I enjoy is where the father’s hand is lying on his daughter’s shoulder in the Swimming Pool Scene: note the strange turquoise shape that’s hovering over her shoulder. Is it a snorkel? A discolored candy cane? A sea horse? No, it’s a ribbon in her hair that’s somehow as perfectly stiff and lifeless as everything else in this little set. Marvelous.

Frontier-style justice with Mayor Schmitz

killprocWith the recent talk of martial law in Tehran, my thoughts have been wandering back to the 1909 San Francisco earthquake and its insane aftermath, when the city’s mayor issued a blanket proclamation warning that any and all looters found in the streets would be shot dead on the spot. And, apparently, over 500 civilians were shot, many of whom were not in fact looting but instead trying to protect their belongings from advancing fires.

With earthquake, fire and out-of-control firing squads already accounted for, its a wonder that tornado, tidal wave and killer beers weren’t inflicted on the citizenry just to complete the natural suite of terrors. It feels like it must have been a hundred million years ago that firing squads roamed San Francisco, given that nowadays you can’t step on a bug without people drafting a ballot measure in protest. It’s a vivid reminder of the old, weird Wild West past that the city emphatically grew out of.


The alleged actual proclamation is posted above (although it clearly seems to have been photoshopped up a bit). Apocalyptic post-earthquake photos here. Many years ago, I made a weird little installation page using two of these photos on the old, defunct Mock Duck Project site.  Photo: fallen zoologist Louis Agassiz outside Stanford University.

Just enough is more


I guess it’s telling that, in all the design-related posts I’ve done so far, I haven’t posted anything in the classic modernist tradition. The truth is that while there are many modernist works I love, the hegemony of modernism annoys me– I feel like it gets too much credit relative to other branches of design history that are more challenging to understand. I guess that in the end, I suspect that it’s fairly easy to develop an attitude towards modernism: one can latch on to a few easy catch-phrases – less is moreform follows function – and feel that there’s a basis of an opinion here, whereas the underlying assumptions of, say, Constructivism or Art Deco are harder to wrap one’s head around.

One of my very favorite statements on design comes from Milton Glaser (the creative partner, incidentally, of Seymour Chwast, whom I blogged on yesterday) in his essay Ten Things I Have Learned as he calls into question one of the blanket assumptions of modernism:

Being a child of modernism I have heard this mantra all my life. Less is more. One morning upon awakening I realised that it was total nonsense, it is an absurd proposition and also fairly meaningless. But it sounds great because it contains within it a paradox that is resistant to understanding. But it simply does not obtain when you think about the visual of the history of the world. If you look at a Persian rug, you cannot say that less is more because you realise that every part of that rug, every change of colour, every shift in form is absolutely essential for its aesthetic success. You cannot prove to me that a solid blue rug is in any way superior. That also goes for the work of Gaudi, Persian miniatures, art nouveau and everything else. However, I have an alternative to the proposition that I believe is more appropriate. ‘Just enough is more.’

‘Just enough is more’ is one of the most instructive ideas I have learned about design. The Popova textile design I posted a few weeks ago is a great example of this, I think.

Image: Piet Zwart, whose layouts have a musicality and playfulness that cut between ‘too sparse’ and ‘too busy’.

Adventures in Czech language

mcescherAnother installment in an ongoing series on oddities of Czech language.

Czech, like many languages, has a formal and informal tense for addressing people. (I only realized a few years ago that English used to have this, too, before we decided to upgrade everyone to ‘formal’ status. That’s what all the thee and thou business in the Bible is about: God addressing his creations informally.) But unlike (I think) most of these other languages, Czech has explicit rules about who may propose the switch to informal status between two people (women offer to men, older to younger). And there’s also a specific phrase that means, Hey, let’s start talking in the informal tense! which I always find to be a very meta and out-there construct.

Today, my wife told me that she had been reading a Czech kids story to our son about a teddy bear who is accidently left in the woods by humans and adopted by a real bear. The teddy bear at one point asks the real bear, “Will you take care of me?” When my wife told me this, I noticed she was using the informal tense (i.e., while paraphrasing what the teddy bear said to real bear). “Wait,” I asked, “didn’t the teddy bear use formal tense to address the real bear?” If ever there was a situation among animals that would seem to dictate use of formal tense, it would be teddy bear-addressing-real bear. “Oh, yeah,” my wife clarified, “there was actually a part where the big bear suggested to the little bear that they start to tykat.”

This seems like it would be a very cumbersome plot convention for all kids’ stories to have to observe- that somehow, the switch to informal tense has to be negotiated by any two creatures who encounter each other in the woods (as kids’ stories are basically full of situations where strangers encounter each other in the woods and then become close friends). Somebody could do a good satire of all classic stores in American tradition with an obligatory ‘shall we speak in informal tense?” scene added in. Little Red Riding Hood. Huck and Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Poe’s The Raven. I guess that would at least compel the bird to say something besides ‘nevermore’.

End bad breath


Short-version post: This is funny, but it’s also a political statement.

Long-version post: There are so many things uttered along these lines every day in the news that it hardly makes sense to seize on any specific instance. But today, the odious Melanie Phillips opined about Barack Obama:

“What a disgrace that this man is leader of the free world; and at such a point in history. If he had put America stoutly behind the protesters and championed them against the regime, by now they might have toppled it,”

[In case you’ve missed it: the context is that Obama has prudently- according to every informed observer- avoided taking a high-profile stance on the disputed Iranian elections, realizing full well that any stance on his part will be manipulated by the Khameni to drum up support among fellow Islamic hard-liners. Yet, there’s still a contingent who somehow gets a fair amount of media time and can’t resist painting everything in binary terms, reducing complex geo-political situations to infantine constructs of ‘courage vs. cowardice’ and … ah, never mind.]

It’s situations like this where the application of graphic design as political commentary seems most underused and indispensable. It often feels as if one is unduly dignifying some nut-case argument if you bother to refute it on factual grounds. There’s something about a powerful graphic image that better sums up the sheerly malign psychology behind certain right-wing political attitudes. This Seymour Chwast agi-prop poster from 1967 is the strongest visualization I’ve seen to date, even though it’s over 40 years old and dates back to the Vietnam era.

Interestingly, my design students- most of whom hail from formerly Communist countries- don’t really get this one when I show it in my design history class. They tend to find it funny, and strain to get the political connotations. I imagine that there’s a political caricature that would hit them as clearly as this Chwast illustration hits me, but that the underlying psychological/visual language would be very different and speak more to the bureaucratic realities of 80’s East Bloc life.

The Uncanny Valley


Dan’s Robot Double post reminded me of one of my new favorite terms, “The Uncanny Valley.” It’s a hypothesis that humans have an instinctive response of revulsion to facsimiles of themselves. The “valley” is based on the idea that if you encounter a very crude and not-really-that-human-like robot, you are OK with it, but at a certain point as it gets too close to human-like, you have a response of revulsion that can be graphed as a dip or “valley” (and then you get out of the valley, presumably, when it becomes so real that you can’t tell the difference).

So in the handy chart above, industrial and even “humanoid” robots are fine, as are stuffed animals, “healthy persons,” and “bunraku puppets” (whatever that is) — but corpses, zombies, and prosthetic hands all fall within the Valley. These examples all seem to conjure up images of death, which may be what it’s all about — or maybe an instinctive fear of being replaced by robots? Anyhow, Dan’s robot doubles would surely have to contend with the Uncanny Valley as they went about their masters’ business.

More here, including a laundry list of possible explanations, with both the fear of death possibility alluded to above and some other interesting ones.