The Gift That Keeps on Gifting

Thursday  August 24, 2006

The Gift That Keeps on Gifting

I stopped by the New York International Gift Fair last week.  Like most tradeshows, it offers a motley assortment of home goods (objects you might plausibly allow into your life) and, as the event's name implies, "gifts."  After passing through aisle after aisle of disturbingly lifelike figurines, strongly scented candles that border on chemical warfare agents, and malformed plastic everything, I've come to better understand what it is that differentiates a "design gift" from a designed object.

A design gift has some immediate appeal—it's usually whimsical, funky, ironic, or sleek, and provides a sense of instant gratification.  You want it, but you instinctively know that it would be unbearable to live with over the long term.  And so, to satisfy your initial impulse to own it, you buy it (you almost can't help yourself), but you buy it with the intention of "gifting" it to someone (as opposed to simply giving it to them).

The Gift Fair is an industry event.  It's where stores around the country shop for the merchandise they carry.  The sheer volume of manufactured garbage (which is ultimately where most of this ends up) that is on display is unnerving.


That said, there is a small oasis at the fair where some of the finer design companies set up camp, and that alone makes the whole event worth attending.  I was heartened to see a significant presence by the venerable German cutlery maker Pott, which until now has kept a low profile in this country.  They produce exquisite and shockingly expensive eating utensils. One of my favorites is the Pott 86 series, designed in 1956 by Josef Hoffman, a founder of the Wiener Werkstätte.



There's nothing practical at all about this cutlery. It's made of sterling silver, its sculptural shape is impossible to mass produce (the knife alone requires over 90 steps to create), and each place setting costs over $900.  But it is beautiful to behold.

Another favorite is Pott 16, designed by the company's creative visionary, Carl Pott.  The trend at the time was toward ornamentation, and this 1935 design was radical in its austerity.  It still looks quite modern today:


Pott is making a concerted effort to expand its US distribution (hence its presence at the fair), which means its cutlery should be easier to acquire—or, considering its price, at least admire from afar.

Friday  August 11, 2006

Time and Money

Picking a few stylish clocks for the August issue of GQ involved poring over scores of them, large and small, practical and preposterous. But it wasn't until I started researching a classic Castiglioni clock that I realized something glaringly obvious: On clock dials with Roman numerals, the number four is often spelled "IIII" instead of "IV." Here's the Firenze Clock, designed by Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni:


The use of "IIII," it turns out, is actually quite common. One popular explanation is that the heaviness of four solid strokes provides a better balance to the weighty "VIII" that sits across from it on the dial. If you're interested, the British Horological Society (I wonder what their meetings are like) posts other theories of how the spelling came to be.

Being so immersed in clocks also got me wondering about their origins. According to Neil Postman, the clock was invented by Benedictine monks, who sought a more precise way to practice their their strict prayer regimen. In the intervening 800 years, the clock has become the foundation of modern life as we know it. As Postman explains in an amazing speech (very worth the read) that he delivered to the German Informatics Society (they play softball with the British horologists every Tuesday):

"The mechanical clock made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours, and a standardized product. Without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible. And so, here is a great paradox: the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; and it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money."

Granted, a devotion to the accumulation of money doesn't hurt if you want to get your hands on today's more stylish timepieces, but we kept an eye out for regular guys, too. The clocks in our lineup range from $22 to $325.

Friday  August 04, 2006

The Lance Armstrong of Baseball

Even if David Ortiz is juicing—and we have no way of knowing whether he is, and it's sad that we even have to suggest he might be—how is he hitting so many walk-off home runs? Sosa, McGwire, Giambi, Sheffield, even Barry Bonds never came close to this. Maybe Papi is the Lance Armstrong of baseball: In a sport in which everyone (himself included, possibly) is assumed to be juicing, he's still finding a way to be extraordinary.

Friday  August 04, 2006

Building the Perfect Major Leaguer

In the course of reporting a forthcoming story about the science of baseball performance, I interviewed the pioneering and outspoken ex-baseball exec Syd Thrift. Thrift told me about a fascinating and seemingly forgotten episode in baseball's recent past—viz., the short happy life of the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy.

The Academy's remarkable premise was this: Find gifted athletes who don't play baseball—wrestlers, sprinters, pole vaulters, quarterbacks, even bowlers—and transform them into Major Leaguers. Between 1970 and 1973, the club auditioned 23,000 kids at tryouts around the country, testing their physical (sixty-yard dash, arm strength, high jump and broad jump, vision) and psychological fitness against those of professional ballplayers. The 77 kids who made the cut attended classes at a Florida junior college in the morning and practiced or played against college or minor-league teams in the afternoon. They demolished the competition; in its first season, the Academy went 156-30.

Their teachers were a Dream Team of future big-league eminences; even the batting-practice pitcher would go on to become a GM. Ted Williams himself lectured on the science of hitting. A Disney stop-motion photographer took high-speed film of baseballs in flight, which had never been done before, and which yielded vital data (for instance, the fact that a two-seam fastball flies more slowly and falls farther than a four-seamer; differences in rotation account for this.) From vision skills to nutrition to the now-lost art of bunting, the Academy instructed its students in every aspect of the game.

Before the program's termination for financial reasons in 1973, it sent 14 of 77 graduates to the big leagues—a higher proportion than most farm systems—including superstar Frank White. Years later, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman called shutting down the Academy the worst mistake of his career.

"The Academy was way ahead of its time," says Jim Bowden, Thrift's onetime protégé and today GM of the Washington Nationals. "It's something that people are working toward now."

So what is the Academy's legacy? Does it even have one? This is what my story, which will appear in the September issue of GQ, will consider.

Frank White and U.L. Washington, Baseball Academy graduates who formed the big club's double-play combination from 1977 to 1984.

Wednesday  August 02, 2006

Terminal 4

I had the pleasure of flying in to JFK's Terminal 4 last week, one of the most humanely designed airport terminals in the country. The usually demoralizing walk from the plane to the immigration area is made tolerable by windows (it's amazing how invigorating a little natural light is after a seven-hour flight) and artwork (which the long, barren halls of airports seem particularly suited for). In this case, the art is Diller + Scofidio's Travelogues, a jumble of travel snapshots and medical x-rays that appears to flicker to life as you walk by, and Harry Roseman's Curtain Wall, a long row of plaster curtains in various states of windswept rumpledness. Terminal 4 features one of the largest private art collections in a public space. Next time you're there, make a point of seeing Alexander Calder's "Flight" in the departure area, which is accessible even if you aren't flying.

Big-name artists aside, my favorite design flourish at the terminal is the urinals, which have the silhouette of a fly etched just above the drain. (I wanted to photograph it, but thought better of taking out my camera in an airport bathroom; the only thing more reviled than perverts and terrorists must be perverted terrorists). The silhouettes are beautiful to behold, and yet you feel okay pissing on it (which creates a nice dissonance). And they have all the hallmarks of good design: they're aesthetically pleasing; they elevate the most mundane of activities; and they're functional, too. According to a source quoted in The New York Times, the fly helps keep the bathroom cleaner since "the male nature is to want to aim at something."

Wednesday  August 02, 2006

First Prefab Kitchen

I was in London a few weeks ago and had a chance to see an amazing exhibit at the V&A Museum, "Modernism: Designing a New World 1914-1939," which traces the trajectory of the modernist movement in architecture, industrial design, fashion, dance, and beyond.

One of my favorite parts of the show is a full-scale replica of a Frankfurt Kitchen, the first prefab kitchen to be mass-produced in quantity. About 10,000 of them were installed in apartments in the 1920s and '30s (photo by Carlos Draisci):


There's a photo of the original kitchen on the V&A's Web site. Notice how the sink and countertop are seat-height so you can sit while preparing food. The cluster of handles you see in the lower right of the V&A's archival photo are small storage boxes for flour, sugar, and other goods, while the large strip of gleaming metal just past the stove on the left is a drop-down ironing board. Given the huge interest in prefab housing today, it's fascinating that this design was brought into production on such a large scale over 70 years ago.

The exhibition Web site offers a wealth of information on the Frankfurt Kitchen (including an eight-minute promotional video showing the kitchen action—not to be missed). The London show closed in July, but you can catch it when it comes to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC, next March.