Billheads of Distinction

"Telephonic connection"
This kind of wiry, loose lettering is typical for the late 1880s to early 1890s.
Beautiful combination of lettering and scrollwork reminiscent of stock and bond designs.
Possibly one of my favorite item lists of all time.
"Dixon's Plumbago" has a wonderful ring to it.

This forlorn hulk is all that's left of the New York Architectural Terra-Cotta Co., and it sits in the shadow of the 59th Street Bridge, in LIC. It it the small building on the right in the vignette above.
Virtuoso lettering! 
Outrageous exaggerations of scale! 
Innumerable smokestacks belching forth prosperity! 
Curious products touted with sincerity and grandiloquence!

Find them here:


The Ducks of Mill Basin

Michael Appleton, a Daily News photographer who shot post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, has said some of the homes remind him of minipalaces in Baghdad. Near this home there was one with a guard house and a white Rolls Royce in the drive.
At first I thought this was a shopping mall. In fact it is the 50 million dollar house of a Russian industrialist, complete with motorized gate and security guard, just out of the photo to the left.
The Senator's house which spurred my trip out to Mill Basin. A building so contrived, virtually its whole existence is as status proclamation.
The front entrance and garage doors are not wood— they're copper.
Catering hall or private residence?
In Mill Basin its not only about historical pastiche, there were quite a number of "modern" houses.
There's something 1970s ecclesiastical/synagogue about this one.
Sidewalk "parterres" on the street of mausoleums (see below). I actually really like this one.
I'd read in the New York Times about a Brooklyn Senator being investigated for corruption and incidentally they had a photo of his house. It was so outlandish, so kerazy I knew I needed to see this thing up close. So last weekend a friend and I took a drive out to the senator's neighborhood —out in far south Brooklyn adjoining Jamaica Bay. An area once known for oysters, clams and crabs, Mill Basin is now known for Greco-French Builder-Regency chateaus, bulging Juliet balconies and hypertrophied porticoes. It sent me running for my copy of Learning from Las Vegas, but more on that in a moment.

Mill Basin started off the 20th century with a lead smelting plant but up until then the shellfish were its major attraction. Landfill started the housing boom and bungalows and modest Capes —Levittown like—were built in the 1950s and 60s. Some streets still retain structures from the original building wave. One, lined with a series of spit-shined split-level shingle and brick numbers, each sporting enormous pedimented and columned entries, looked like a row of mausoleums. And that's not necessarily a criticism.

Some Things I Learned:
Mill Basin is almost preternaturally neat and tidy.
Recall The Truman Show where everything about the town is perfect—except for the fact that it's all a stage set.
While it's suburban in feel, Mill Basin is not exactly leafy
A whole lot of custom sidewalk tiling laid in lozenge patterns, and a surprising amount of topiary lend it an orchestrated Home Depot-Vaux-le-Vicomte sensibility.
Mill Basin architecture is about symbols.
As Robert Venturi et al. in Learning would have us understand, much of our country's commercial architecture and building "vernacular" is maligned because it's misunderstood.* See, the simplified story is that the big crude columns and empty historical and atemporal references of American buildings have to be B I G because they are meant to be seen and recognized from a highway, at 60 mph. The issue in Mill Basin is that the symbols of success on each and every home are meant for the neighbor across the street. Here, where the houses are built up to the very lot line, the chrome and novelty stained glass and balustrades practically assault you as you walk past. You're not protected by doing the 60 mph driveby.
Mill Basin is made up of lots o
f ducks Venturi and Co. on ducks:
Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form. This kind of building- becoming-sculpture we call the duck in honor of the duck shaped drive-in building on Long Island.
In other words the architectural form itself is the symbol, the meaning of the building. Like the senator's house, I would posit that many of the buildings in Mill Basin are architectural contrivances more than they are home. Their raison d'etre is to shout in the most personalized way that money can buy, "The Good Life Lived Here!"//

This sort of thing—teardowns replaced with custom-tailored stage show fantasies—is happening all over the city. Similar neighborhoods are mushrooming in Queens (see a Times piece on Bukharan Jews' architectural predilections in Forest Hills, and this new piece on the "Beverly Hills of the East Coast" in Malba). The Bukharan article especially gives some insight into the custom-paved-sidewalk mindset:
The Bukharian tendency to pave over everything is practical, he continued. Bukharians preferred a terrace or patio to a lawn, which he called “useless land.” A yard required mowing — “a waste of time,” he said.//
While doing some image research I came across Shenker Architects, a firm in Brooklyn, by way of Ukraine, that appears to do significant residential business in the High Arriviste style. From their web site:
many unexpected perspectives throughout the house were enhanced by carefully fashioned details, where design overpowers expensive materials.
*(Also because he thinks Modernists are insufferable poseurs who put one over on everybody, but you'll have to reread the book as I did to enjoy all the snide commentary.)


design notes

I just stumbled on a great article in Creative Review about how the campaign for the film Trainspotting came about. Fifteen years on (15!) and I think the design (by British studio Stylorouge) really holds up. I remember thinking then it had the coolest look imaginable, especially for a movie: spare-- almost clinical -- and modernist but edgy too. It was Euro-looking, modulated. Then there were those portraits. They reminded me of Avedon and fashion shoots: think CK One and that era's bete noir, 'heroin chic'.

Coincidentally, a couple weeks ago I saw this Balmain ad and thought it seemed rather indebted to Trainspotting...//

Speaking of ads, the ones I've been seeing lately in Vogue and Vanity Fair seem to represent a new low in quality: Ludicrous ill-conceived shadows Photoshopped to indicate gigantic watermelon breasts where there are clearly none; long swaths of rubbery-looking undifferentiated "flesh"; generally cheap-looking rinky dink production values, and many that are just very down market. What the hell is going on? How has all this money and technical wizardry gone so wrong? What about the ad sales people at these magazines— do they take anything that will drop a couple coins in their cup? Have they no editorial pride at all?

I'd been pondering all this when I came across this 4-page campaign (I have omitted the double page spread that appeared with these shots) in Vanity Fair. This, the creme de la creme of marketing effluence, of creative putrefaction, just might be the single most offensive ad I have seen in quite a long time. Let me tell you how offensive I find this ad for Neuro flavored water:
it offends my aesthetic sensibilities:
Into this most garish toilet-bowl-cleaner blue "water" has been thrown a headless torso with its breasts sheared off. This is overlaid with a logo incorporating a 1970s clip art diagram of "brain waves." Along the bottom are plastic bottles that appear to dispense body wash, or judging from the nether regions featured so prominently in the photos, perhaps feminine hygiene lotion.

it offends my sense of logic:
The name Neuro, a woman's ass, garish bottles and the tag line "It's all about You". What is about me? Is this something I wash my privates with? Why is this woman proffering her ass crack like a baboon in heat? I dont understand. (I do, in fact, know that this ad is for a drink. It just looks a hell of a lot like some sort of anal lavage)

it offends my peace of mind:
Lots of money has been tossed around here! Four ad pages in Vanity Fair for the type of product that will host launch parties in Vegas or Miami with one of the lesser Kardashians. Really? Then there were the art directors and production people and photographers who got paid cash money for creating this. Dont forget the manufacturing plants in China churning out cargo loads of these heinous colored plastic bottles all the while leeching toxic petrochemicals into streams—they get paid for this!

Most disturbing of all, why should I ever, ever have to read the "flavor" neuro-gasm?


horror vacui— a fond look

"Mrs Leoni's Parlor" 1894— part of a series of NYC interiors by Byron
Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1852-53
A reblog with updating

I've been thinking about Victorian painting— specifically about the pre Raphaelites and their hallucinatory hyper-realism (its difficult to use "realism" in conjunction with these paintings of knights errant and damsels). The shrill colors and the complexity of the details are fascinating to me at the moment. Something in my head is percolating about the artist Meghan Boody and the updated pre Raphaelite vision —but who knows if I'll be able to say any more than just that.

A 20th century art historian remarked on the pre-Raphaelite tendency toward "blade-by-blade" painting-- that is rendering each and every line and form in equal detail. Filling the entire canvas with detail, filling a page with 9 different typefaces and varieties of ornament, filling an entire room with dainties, what-nots, and doodads— a Victorian inclination and equal illustration of horror vacui.
Horror vacui - "fear of emptiness" or empty space is a term I love. The phrase carries with it intimations of mania and compulsion —covering every surface, interweaving pattern atop pattern. Perhaps it can be as loosely interpreted as Collyer Brothers piles or the noisy and noisome claustrophobic streets of Dickensian London. Somehow, though, I relate the term to an overall sensibility. A complex density with an awareness of the whole, not an open-ended haphazardness. But I'm not sure if this is really the case.

I came upon these rather amazing photographs
taken by Philip Henry Delamotte (above), in about 1859, of the later incarnation of London's Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851. (After the exhibition closed it was moved to Sydenham Park and rebuilt, which is what is shown here. It remained standing until it burned, November 30th 1936.) The Crystal Palace exhibit was a kind of World's Fair, an enormous display of technological and cultural achievements. Though international in scope, it was sort of Britain on parade. ( I believe it was in the 1850s that the term "Victorian" solidified into a cultural identity.) The exhibition opened the floodgates for all manner of manufactured ornament, embellishment and gewgaws.

About this same time, Richard Dadd, locked away in a London hospital for the criminally insane, began the first dabs of Fairy Feller's Master Stroke, below left, and then continued for nine years.
For the rest of the 19th century (and into the 20th) great moral debates raged over "taste" and the "proper use" of ornament. And in the midst of that, many people's houses ended up looking like this "Parlor, 11 West 45th Street, New York, 1896" (taken from the wonderful The Tasteful Interlude: American Interiors through the Camera's Eye, 1860-1917 by William Seale). Called a Japanese Parlor, the nook features a "Moroccan" inlaid table, Turkish- inspired seating and cushions, most likely a Persian carpet, and no less than four window treatments.
J.K. Huysmans' Au Rebours ("Against Nature"), published in 1884, is practically a recitation of the senses; a literary horror vacui in which words stand in for the over-stimulated eye sweeping across every surface:
"In other days, when he was still in the habit of inviting women to his house, he had fitted up a boudoir where, amid dainty carved furniture of the light-yellow camphor-wood of Japan, under a sort of tent of pink Indian satin, the flesh tints borrowed a soft, warm glow from the artfully disposed lights sifting down through the rich material. This room, where mirrors hung on every wall, reflecting backwards and forwards from one to another an infinite succession of pink boudoirs, had enjoyed a great renown among his various mistresses, who loved to bathe their nakedness in this flood of warm crimson amid the aromatic odours given off by the Oriental wood of the furniture.../ The dining-room, draped in black, opened out on to a garden metamorphosed for the occasion, the paths being strewn with charcoal, the ornamental pond edged with black basalt and filled with ink, and the shrubberies replanted with cypresses and pine. The dinner itself was served on a black cloth adorned with baskets of violets and scabious; candelabra shed an eerie green light over the tables and tapers flickered in the chandeliers. While a hidden orchestra played funeral marches, the guests were waited on by naked negresses wearing only slippers and stockings in cloth of silver embroidered with tears..."
While not a literal transcription of synesthesia, it renders the effect.



Um, what? 
Yes, it seems the enthusiasm for letterpress printing continues and evolves in unexpected (to me) directions. When someone sent me the link to this kickstarter project I was bowled over by the amount of work and planning that has gone into it. LetterMpress, the actual app title, will be:
a virtual letterpress environment—released first on the iPad—that will allow anyone to create authentic-looking letterpress designs and prints. The design process is the same as the letterpress process—you place and arrange type and cuts on a press bed, lock the type, ink the type, and print. You will be able to create unlimited designs, with multiple colors, using authentic vintage wood type and art cuts.
No rubber cement thinner or apron required.

The idea is astonishing: recreate the chore of the type lockup, namely, setting type backwards, using quoins and 'furniture' to secure it into place. The annoying, antiquated methodology and physical craft, painstakingly preserved and simulated to give you the virtual experience of doing something time-consuming. (Its like an app that gives your iphone a dial to make a call ...hmm thats not a bad idea...) And I totally and completely love the concept.

Of course impression on paper and satisfying physical exertion are sacrificed. Also missing would be the serendipitous discoveries—the quirky flukes—which reveal themselves when one tries to master 100+ year old wood, ink, machinery and paper. Although nineteenth century printers strived for perfectly even inked impressions from their wood type, the 21st century fetish is for grainy, under-inked, distressed letters. Will LetterMpress have multiple print settings-- "over-inked", "light impression", "uneven packing"... ? //

This prompts me to remind people why we need (needed) places like Bowne & Co... where real, historical wood type collections got set on real nineteenth century presses...//

We know the author/inventor of LetterMpress is serious in his research because in the background in the video we catch a glimpse of Rob Roy Kelly's ground-breaking American Wood Type: 1828-1900
First published in 1969 and long out of print, the book was just reissued last year. All b/w but still a heart-stoppingly desirable tome...


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