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Friends along the Way

My friend Darrell Sullens passed away May 26. Darrell served in the Navy aboard the USS Pickerel, and was a well-known painter in the local art scene. He also opened an art supply store in 1978, the very year I started the design program at SFCC. When I wrote a blog post about his shop a couple of years ago, Darrell kindly commented. “We made many life long friends while running our little business,” he wrote. My wife Linda and I are grateful to be among them.

Last year helveticka celebrated its 30th anniversary. As part of the festivities, we designed an exhibit featuring 30 collaborators who helped us reach that milestone – individuals who made an impact both on my business and, in many cases, on me personally. Darrell was one of them. Here’s his story, along with my commentary, as shown in the exhibit:

Architectural Royalty

I. M. Pei recently passed away, but not without leaving a legacy of several iconic buildings from around the world. So it seems appropriate that I should share his (albeit thin) connection to one of Spokane’s finest architects.

While researching imagery for our 2013 exhibit SPOMa: Spokane Modern Architecture, 1948-73, I ran across a photograph taken in the mid-1940s at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. Under the tutelage of Walter Gropius – Bauhaus founder and world-renowned architect in his own right – there was a three-year waiting list to be accepted into this prestigious program.

(left) Gropius, wearing a bow tie and glasses, is surrounded by his students. (right) Pei is in the foreground, wearing a vest, his back to the camera. Photographs courtesy of the Francis Loeb Library, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Though the photo caption didn’t identify all the subjects, one particular student caught my eye. Was it possible that it could be Royal A. McClure? I got in touch with Harvard’s archives and discovered there were additional images taken on the very same day – March 22, 1946 – with identities noted. Much to my surprise, the gentlemen with the receding hairline, narrow face, and round glasses was indeed McClure.

Both McClure and Pei graduated in 1946, Pei going on to become one of the great modernists of our time, McClure landing in Spokane in 1947. The partnership he formed with Tom Adkison ultimately became ALSC Architects.

So what sort of influence did McClure have on Spokane’s own mid-century modern movement? Tom Kundig had some thoughts back in 2003:

Most people have watersheds in their careers. Tom Kundig had a water cabin. When he was a boy vacationing with his family on Lake Coeur d’Alene…, he was drawn to this 1960 Modernist cabin designed by his father’s boss, the architect Royal McClure. ”It left an impression on me even then,” he said. ”It was a very classic midcentury design, with delicate detailing and proportions — open to the landscape and very optimistic.” Thirty-odd years passed, and Kundig became an architect like his dad and started building weekend getaways for his own clients. Five years ago, he was on a Coeur d’Alene building site when a flashback made him wander down the road a bit. In a perfect bit of coincidence, there stood the McClure cabin. ”That little cabin helped teach me to keep things light and expressive of the landscape,” he said.

Fat Tuesday

After studying several instances of what we now call “spontaneous human combustion,” French agronomist Pierre-Aimé Lair (1769-1853) discovered that most of the cases involved “corpulent older women with a penchant for drink, thus combining fat and alcohol in a literally explosive mix.” His conclusion:

Thus there is no cause for surprise that old women, who are in general fatter and more given to drunkenness, and who are often motionless like inanimate masses, during the moment of intoxication, should experience the effects of combustion.

I’ve long suspected as much.

Anyway, it’s all there in Christopher E. Forth’s Fat: A Cultural History of the Stuff of Life, which hits bookshelves next month. Until then, you can read all about the black market in human fat over at The Atlantic.

Some Reading for the Long Weekend

I’m out early tomorrow, so here’s an assignment and a recommendation, in that order:

Caitrin Keiper’s “Do Elephants Have Souls?” is a magnificent read, and one of my favorite long-form magazine articles ever published – and that’s including all those New Yorker pieces that have brought me such unbridled joy. Please do yourself a favor and read it. Then go ahead and subscribe to The New Atlantis for even more awesomeness delivered right to your door. It’s one of the most interesting and consistently well-written periodicals out there.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone. See y’all next week.

Turns Out Technology Isn’t All Bad

Remember that post I wrote three years ago about Irv Teibel and his Environments records? Of course you do.

As usual, I was well ahead of the pop culture curve, because all 22 recordings have now been fully remastered and turned into an iPhone app. And it’s awesome.

For $3, you get all 11 albums with original artwork and liner notes and the ability to create your own playlist. Best of all, the recordings are part of the app – meaning you don’t need an Internet connection to enjoy what you’ve purchased. In an era in which streaming reigns supreme, this is a truly creative – and far superior – way of delivering music.

Makes me wonder why other record labels aren’t following suit.

There’s a Lesson in There Somewhere

In a conversation about grammar and style over at Literary Hub, Mary Norris and Benjamin Dreyer were asked the number one grammar rule that everyone should know.

Dreyer, vice president, executive managing editor, and copy chief of Random House, got right to it: “People would do well to learn the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom,'” he said, along with ‘I’ and ‘me’ and, for that matter, ‘they’ and ‘them.’

Norris, copy editor at The New Yorker, had a slightly more…nuanced response. “You can have friends,” she said, “or you can correct people’s grammar.”

Opposites Attract

One of my favorite books is The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson.

The now-famous 1995 publication achieved its rarified status for two reasons: Carson’s emergence in the 90s as graphic design’s bad boy – doing groundbreaking work that defied every mainstream design convention – and the fact that it’s the best-selling graphic design book of all time. Its title is in part a response to a 1993 interview with Neville Brody, another graphic designer of note, who suggested that Carson’s work represented the “end of print.” Carson took it as a challenge.

Among his notable work is a three-year stint as art director (1992-95) for Ray Gun magazine. Note the full-page ad for subscribing – another dig at Brody:

I remember going to my local grocery store and thumbing through issues whose provocative pages were artfully illustrative and alluring. I discovered – much to my surprise – that if you’re interested in the content, you don’t mind working a little harder to read the text. (It’s a magazine, not a book.)

Carson’s surfer lifestyle and lack of formal training definitely informed his chaotic design solutions. Is it art or graphic design? Is it beautiful or just plain ugly? Is it communication or decoration? The answer to all of these is both – all at the same time. It’s like reading a puzzle or interpreting hieroglyphics. It sometimes takes a little longer to connect the dots, but it’s well worth the time.

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Carson’s approach is that there are actually clients who continue to appreciate it – though his design sensibilities are about as far away from my own aesthetic as you can get. As he said himself, he would never be caught dead using Helvetica.

Today, David Carson continues to influence and shape the design landscape. His client list, industry accolades (including a 2014 AIGA Gold Medal), and constant demand on the global lecture circuit are all signs that both print and Carson are alive and well. And while he has his detractors, he’s pretty much considered the coolest graphic designer ever.

Making It Better

Richard Lehnert, Stereophile copyeditor for the last 34 years, is calling it quits. He wrote a short reflection at the magazine’s website, and it’s worth a read – even if you’re not that into hi-fi components or misplaced modifiers. (Though, to be honest, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t be.)

Here’s Lehnert on voice:

We like to think, or at least we like to say, that each writer’s voice is unique, but it isn’t. Too often, what a writer most fondly feels is his unique voice is actually a combination of bad habits and received language and tones shared with all too many other not-very-good writers. The inspired copyeditor’s task is to bend an ear finely tuned to hearing the least hint of unique music in a writer’s voice, strip away the accretions of junk language and tone picked up in a life drenched in TV and marketing and promotional copy and political obfuscation and bureaucratese, and then revise, even rewrite the piece in whatever authentic voice remains. The job is to produce a final edited article written in the writer’s own voice, but in language and tone more consistently and authentically the writer’s very own than that writer can produce herself or himself.

Reminds me of the complicated relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish.

And while Lehnert agrees that a writer shouldn’t condescend to the least-informed reader, he also makes a quite reasonable case for not insulting the more intelligent: “No, most readers won’t notice or care about an absence of dangling modifiers, or the presence or absence of the serial comma, or a careful deployment of close punctuation—but why offend those who will? Truly excellent writing will please both types of reader. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. It never is.”

Poetry Break

Philip Larkin

The first day after a death, the new absence
Is always the same; we should be careful

Of each other, we should be kind
While there is still time.


“A great civilization is not conquered from without,” wrote Will and Ariel Durant in Caesar and Christ, the third of their eleven-volume The Story of Civilization, “until it has destroyed itself from within.” Just something to think about as you ponder the following:

There’s a live-action Pokémon movie in theaters – and audiences like it.

One of those Silicon Valley bros just got $1.6 in seed money to bring Liquid Death – a brand of plain water served in tallboy cans – to market. Early reports indicate that it, um, tastes like water.

We live in an era in which this is considered newsworthy. (Also, can you imagine reading that headline 15 years ago?)

But all of this pales in comparison to an act of barbarism committed just this morning by someone – I won’t say who – in our very own office:

Those are cake pops, which, according to contributor “Bakerella” at, are “bite-sized balls made of crumbled cake mixed with frosting and covered in candy coating.” That’s right: “bite-sized.” As in, “small enough to be eaten in one mouthful.” As in, “no need to cut into smaller portions on accounta it’s already the exact size it needs to be to provide the optimum flavor experience.”

Madness, folks. Sheer madness.

The Secret’s Out

When people ask me what I do for a living, and I respond with, “I’m a writer,” there’s a 99.78 percent chance that the followup question will be, “Like…for what?”

It’s not as easy to explain as you might imagine, because normal people have a hard time believing that actual money changes hands for the kind of work we do around here.

“You write books?”

“No. I…”

“So you work for the newspaper, then.”

“Um, no. It’s more like…”

“Have I ever read anything you’ve written?”

“Probably not. Look…”

“But you’re a writer.”

By this point in the conversation I’m in full-on defensive mode. No, I don’t have a degree in creative writing or journalism or English or anything like that, I explain as patiently as possible. (I actually studied music, of all things – if by “studied” you mean “drank copious amounts of cheap beer and listened to a lot of records.”) And even though I know about verb tenses – there are 12 of them in English, if memory serves – I couldn’t define what “future perfect progressive” means if my life depended on it.

“But wait,” I say. “I’ve published stuff!”

Too late, though. Because that’s when it occurs to my interlocutor that, if this guy can throw a bunch of words together on a page and call himself a writer, what’s stopping me?

Nothing, it turns out. Absolutely nothing.

Bonus Post!

I don’t normally post on Wednesdays.* But today’s special. First, there’s, um…this. Celebrate accordingly.

It’s also Keith Jarrett’s birthday. One of my all-time favorite musicians in any genre, Jarrett is a remarkable multi-instrumentalist and piano virtuoso whose playing could perhaps best be described as sort of an angular lyricism informed by a distinctly American blend of classical, jazz, blues, folk, and gospel.

A Jarrett performance is just as likely to elicit a sense of visceral joy as it is to astonish with technical brilliance – depending on whether it’s a live solo improvisation, a performance with his Standards Trio, a duet with the late Charlie Haden, or an interpretation of the compositions of Armenian mystic G. I. Gurdjieff. In a word? It’s sublime.

Not to mention influential:

“‘Long as You Know You’re Living Yours,” from Belonging (ECM, 1974). Jan Garbarek, tenor and soprano saxophones; Keith Jarrett, piano; Palle Danielsson, double-bass; Jon Christensen, drums.

Steely Dan, “Gaucho,” from Gaucho (MCA, 1980).

Notice the resemblance? Jarrett sure did. He sued, and ended up with a co-writing credit and a share of the royalties.

Anyway, if you’re new to this stuff, check out The Köln Concert (1975, ECM). That’s pretty much everyone’s gateway Keith Jarrett album. After that, you could go in any one of a number of musical directions, all of which are deeply satisfying. Do yourself a favor and check him out.

*Long ago, the suits upstairs mandated a strict four-post-a-week maximum, lest I overwhelm readers with my awesomeness.

Everything you thought you knew is a lie. Or not.

Did you know that Theodor Geisel took his pen name – Dr. Seuss – from his mother’s maiden name? Neither did I. And did you also know that pretty much everyone has been pronouncing it incorrectly? From You’re Saying It Wrong (Ten Speed Press):

The American public, unfamiliar with the German name, went the phonetic route. “Soos,” they called him, incorrectly. Alexander Lang, a college pal with whom he worked on the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, commemorated this lapse on the part of the reading public in verse:

You’re wrong as the deuce
And you shouldn’t rejoice
If you’re calling him Seuss.
He pronounces it Soice (or Zoice).

Not so fast, says Philip Nell, author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon and The Annotated Cat: Under the Hats of Seuss and His Cats. “If you pronounce it ‘Doctor Zoice,'” he writes, “you’ll sound like a fool.” Turns out the good doctor was totally fine with the Americanized soos.

So. If you want to sound all fancy and pretentious, insist on “Dr. Zoice.” If you want people to know what the hell you’re talking about, just say it the way you’ve always said it.

Yes, Please!!!

“We are, all of us, office babies,” writes Madeleine Aggeler, “and exclamation points are the written equivalent of child-proof bumper guards — a soft piece of punctuational padding that protects our emotional fontanelles from the sharp edges of conversations.”

As much as I hate to admit it, she may be on to something. No one in the office would deny that exchanging emails or instant messages with our very own Courtney Sowards (who, let’s be honest, never met a punctuation mark she didn’t like) is a far more pleasant experience than it would be with, say…me.

But Aggeler’s larger point – that it doesn’t cost anything to be amiable, so why not? – goes well beyond the addition of a handful of exclamation points, I think. And it’s something we should all be working toward.

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