Ken Isaacs

This week at work I picked up an old book, How to Build Your Own Living Structures, by Ken Isaacs, to read at lunch. I didn't finish it, so I brought it home. A little internet-ing revealed this book was out-of-print, rare, and selling for a good bit at various outlets. However, I think the copyright has lapsed, because it is available online as a PDF.

Isaacs was born in 1927 in Peoria, Illinois, and served in the military as a young man. After Korea, he studied architecture, and then began to craft a career as a designer, architect, and educator. In the late fifties, he became Head of Design at the Cranbrook Academy of Arts, birthplace of much notable mid-century modernism, including Eliel and Eero Saarinen Charles and Ray Eames, and Harry Weese. He also spent some time teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology, founded by Mies van der Rohe as a sort of Bauhaus West.

During an itinerant period in the sixties, Isaacs began to develop what he called a Matrix system for home furnishing. He theorized (rightly and wrongly) that most of the interior volume of our homes and apartments lay unused, as most furniture only inhabits the 2-D floor plane. In his own words: "traditional furniture was never organized as a whole system. the pieces were a bunch of separate, unrelated objects determined by inertia & sentiment. feeble efforts were made to organize them "visually", but that was always just another trap. the old culture has always tried to make the unworkable endurable by overlaying it with whichever "good taste" is going at the moment. unfortunately this is like trying to make airplanes look like birds. that never worked either. that's because you can't make feathers out of aluminum." (p. 35 Liberated Space) Spoken like one fierce guerilla.

Cover, via Pop-Up City.


Bent Cardboard

Me and cardboard furniture go way back. I built my first series of cardboard chairs for my freshman design studio, a decade ago this fall. I made three, each relying on a system of intersecting grids to support the seat. The next two years I also made cardboard chairs, entering them in the Chair Affair, a competition sponsored by the American Institute of Architecture Students. I made a stool from Fed-Ex mailing tubes, with a woven seat, and a cantilever chair, combining corrugated material with laser-cut chipboard and cardboard tubes. 
The FedEx stool, one of my first (and ugliest) attempts at cardboard furniture.
All five of these efforts were rather clumsy, each in their own way. They were some of my first chairs, and each was less than ergonomically ideal, suffering from a wide range of dimensions as I cast around for a set of good proportions. None of them were terribly durable, although two survive to this day, albeit with intermittent use. Aesthetically, I'm not thrilled with any of them, and only show photos here as a window to the process.

Another early effort, covered in a really ineptly applied, wrinkly-ass coat of paper-mache.


Google Maps and the Design of Memory

A few months ago, I wrote a post about Facebook's then-looming IPO and a business model predicated upon the redesign of human memory. Today, I heard a podcast from The Story, an interview show out of North Carolina. One of the secondary spots in the program concerned Google Street View. Guest host Sean Cole introduced the piece with his own Street View experience, wherein he, as a young man, realizes his bike is stolen as he is on the phone with his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. All of this crystallizes in his memory when Cole looks up his old apartment on Google. His bike is still locked up in front of the building, waiting for its owner to hop on and ride to a date with his girlfriend. 

That is a lot of baggage to hang onto a grainy, digitally refracted photo of an old walk-up in Brooklyn. But it gets heavier. Cole introduces Erin, an old friend, who has archived several Street View screenshots of the house she grew up in. The front yard still holds her father's beat-up old Suburban, covered in University of Wisconsin stickers. It has been gone for years, sold after her father committed suicide by jumping off of a parking garage. He left no note, but did leave voicemails on Erin's phone and, unconsciously, a faint imprint on the internet. So she treasures these things, as I think we all would, backing up the voicemails to her computer and saving these screenshots in case the SV team comes back and updates their data. 

My last apartment in Chicago.