Exploratorium ExplainersThis weekend a friend was in town, and visitors are great prompts to do all the local things we don’t get around to — in this case, the new Exploratorium!

Something that caught my eye is their name for exhibit guides: Explainers. It’s a miniscule detail compared to the immensity and wonder of all the hands-on exhibits, but this struck me as truly the perfect word. In contrast to titles like Docent, Explainer is simple, kid-friendly, and communicates exactly what they do. Bonus points: Exploratorium Explainers is alliterative!

While small, this is a touchpoint that reinforces a playful, thoughtful brand experience.


The comfort of ritual

I first visited Tadich more than 25 years ago during my first family trip to San Francisco. Over the years we have returned there time after time for local classics like cioppino, hangtown fry, and petrale sole.

Tadich is a San Francisco institution, the oldest restaurant in the city and the kind of place politicians and financiers meet for a late lunch or a post-work martini. It is the very definition of old-school with its white-coated servers, career bartenders who know their classic cocktails, and wood-paneled rooms perfect for a private lunch.

My parents and I made our annual pilgrimage last week on a typically chilly, cloudy day. We camped out in one of the little wooden rooms for a long lunch, then wandered through some downtown buildings — we’re always on the lookout for architectural details — and finished up shopping for cheese at the Ferry Building. Food, wine, and architecture make for a perfect day!

I’m not always a fan of tradition in a larger cultural context, but I enjoy family rituals like this which provide a comforting touchstone and a connection to personal history.

Back to 1968

The 1968 exhibit at OMCA is so packed with facts and experiences I needed a second visit to take it in. As years go, it’s hard to imagine many more momentous in modern U.S. politics and culture than 1968, considering the assassinations of King and Kennedy, a pivotal election, the Vietnam War, and countless civil rights clashes.

Balancing the social upheaval were charming artifacts of my childhood. The living rooms were comfortingly familiar, complete with glass grapes on the cabinet TV, mid-century furniture, and World Book encyclopedias. Between the homes of my family and neighbors, every single item was familiar. There were also fun collections of advertising and, naturally, plastic.

For me the biggest highlight was the TV nook, a nice mood lifter following the Vietnam War exhibit. It doesn’t sound like much on paper — cartoon-like MDF television frames housing clips of movies and shows  — but in execution it was a fantastically engaging, seamless symphony of audio and video. There’s a particularly nice moment in the beginning of the loop where Planet of the Apes melds into the Star Trek voiceover, drama contrasted by the gentle ending of Mister Rogers promising us a smile and a hello tomorrow.

OMCA creates relevant, contemporary exhibits that inspire me. I’m so privileged this is my local museum!


Earthquake mashups

Shawn Clover, 1906 + Today: The Earthquake Blend

This photo mashup series by Shawn Clover that merges images from the 1906 earthquake and San Francisco today is a fantastic concept, with stunning execution.

From the artist:

To put these photos together, I first create a catalog of historical photos that look like they have potential to be blended. Unfortunately most of these photos end up on the digital cutting room floor because there’s simply no way to get the same photo today because either a building or a tree is in the way. Once I get a good location, I get everything lined up just right. My goal is to stand in the exact spot where the original photographer stood. Doing this needs to take into account equivalent focal length, how the lens was shifted, light conditions, etc. I take plenty of shots, each nudged around a bit at each location. Just moving one foot to the left changes everything.

I am in awe.

Transit Art

I love public art, and this new series of surreal scenes on (and about) BART is charming.

A few weeks ago I snapped this poster of the little girl and the duck at my local BART station, wondering what it was. Other than the station scene, the poster offered no clues to the purpose or message.

Fortuitously, a Facebook friend posted a link to this article about the posters, which are whimsical stories created by Josh Ellingson. In each scene a child’s fantasy crosses over into reality — a boy with the undersea-themed backpack spots a deep sea diver with a squid, a boy with a toy rocket sees rockets zooming past through the window, and a girl with a toy duck passes a duck with a toy girl. While they celebrate the adventure of travel, in keeping with transit poster tradition, they are mostly just plain fun and avoid seeming like ads.

Transit art is my favorite type of public art because it adds much-needed lightness and beauty to what is so often drudgery. Years ago while commuting on a bus in Chicago, I saw an excerpt of a Mark Strand poem about a snowflake that affected me so much I was inspired to jot down the name and buy the book. (And I’m not even a poetry fan!) Recently on the Metro light rail in Phoenix I also spotted mosaic sculptures built into platform shelters.

There is currently a MOMA exhibit of London Underground posters from the 1920s-40s, including pieces by E. McKnight Kauffer (one of my favorites of the era) and László Maholy-Nagy. Unfortunately this kind of poster has largely disappeared, replaced by commercial ads, but sometimes we get lucky and find ones like the new BART series or the iconic national parks posters by the amazing Michael Schwab.

I hope to see more art like this popping up. The Bay Area has a tremendous wealth of artists and stories to tap into, and in these tough times we could all use more beauty and levity around us.

Shanghai Exhibit

This week I spent the day in the city with my parents, including a visit to the Shanghai exhibit at the Asian Art Museum. There was no photography allowed, so I couldn’t snap my favorite pieces to show here and I struck out finding them online as well:

  • Shen Roujian, During the Great Leap Forward, 1958
  • Chen Yifei, Morning on the Long Canal, 1995
  • Li Hua, A Corner of the City, 1947
  • Shao Keping, Morning toilet on the Huangpu River, 1961

The biggest surprises for me were the Impressionist and Deco pieces. Deco should not have been a surprise, as it was the first truly global design style. I liked the asymmetry and bamboo motifs, which distinguish it from other regional Deco styles. The most intriguing aspect of the Impressionist work was that much of it was contemporary, yet would have looked right at home hanging next to paintings 100 years older.

The last major point of interest was the cultural debate of “national essence”, the desire to preserve tradition, versus “reformist”, the desire to evolve and revive the art scene by blending new and old. I am a proponent of maintaining tradition, but history has shown time and again that doubling down on the past to the exclusion of all other influences is a losing proposition. A giant painting in the last room was a poster child for this squabble, with some critics arguing it could not be considered contemporary simply because it uses a traditional medium. It seemed like a purely academic argument, because it was obvious to me that this emotional, abstract painting was inarguably contemporary in its composition and style. I thought it was an excellent example of blending the past and present into something progressive but still indelibly Chinese. Then again, what do I know? I’m not a critic.

Library a-Go-Go

Out at the farthest edges of the Bay Area in Contra Costa County, I saw this amazing mini-library in a BART rail station. From the library web site:

“Library-a-Go-Go is an automated book dispensing machine. It’s a self-contained collection of books that allows Contra Costa County Library card holders to borrow library books and return them when finished.”

The selection is probably quite limited and it doesn’t replace the library browsing experience, but it is a fun idea. Sort of a modern Bookmobile. I like the convenience of being able to get or drop a book on the way to work, and anything that improves library use and access is a good thing. I just hope it actually gets used — the decline of libraries is such a shame.

Tasty Salted Pig Parts

I saw this sign at the Ferry Plaza, and burst out laughing. Tasty Salted Pig Parts?!

People think of SF as a vegetarian heaven…and it is. It’s also a city that worships local, artisanal meats, especially pork. In line with the recent restaurant trend of house-made salumi, Boccalone sell cones of salumi to Ferry Plaza passers-by, and there was certainly no shortage of customers. Even better, the folks from Prather Ranch were selling t-shirts that said “Praise the Lard.” I love this town and all its delicious food affectations.

Play That Silver Ball

For my elective class this semester I chose Mythology, Meaning, and Design, an exploration of myths, archetypes, and symbols and how they continue to play out today in modern storytelling such as media and branding. So far it’s a very demanding class — more than an elective is worth, probably — but I’m having fun with it.

For our second module I’m investigating of the experience of pinball: why people love the game and why there has been a small recent revival. Conveniently, the Pacific Pinball Expo just took place, and in Alameda there is a local pinball palace/museum, Lucky JuJu, so I have been able to observe players in their natural habitat.

The most surprising discovery has been the charming art of pinball. Before licensed themes became dominant (the era I played in as a child) there were decades of beautiful graphic art exploring every pop culture theme from science fiction to sports to the Old West. (Hmm, see any myths there?) Rows of seemingly endless machines displayed an incredible collection of this unique but endangered American art form

So far in this project I’ve created an epic pinball infographic that think may be portfolio  material. Next, for the branding portion of the project I’m considering designing a beer company with the pinball art as a centerpiece. Can’t wait!

…Put up a parking lot

I live in downtown San Leandro, California, a city east of San Francisco that is more like a small town than a suburb. It’s one of the most walkable areas I’ve ever lived  — better than my neighborhoods in SF and Chicago, even — and the city is working hard to develop the downtown core as a transit village.

The newest target of redevelopment is former Albertson’s grocery store, Lucky before that, which sat empty for years after more than 55 years in operation. After Albertson’s pulled out, the city failed to lure a Trader Joe’s and then the neighborhood blocked two discount chains who wanted the space. The fight between those who want to gentrify downtown and those who want to bring in retailers that would serve the working-class locals is a familiar tug of war.

Fenced off and neglected, the abandoned store has long been an eyesore, a constant reminder of a struggling city in a tough economy. As I learned when researching a food project, empty grocery stores are a particular challenge to re-let — they have an architecture and square footage that is unique to grocery stores, yet other grocers are wary of taking on a failed space. After many tanked plans and heated discussions, the city has purchased it to use as a temporary parking lot while they rebuild a downtown garage. After that, they will attempt to find retailers to anchor a mixed-use space. I can only hope by then the economy will have strengthened and other city development plans will have taken strong enough root to support it.

The company in charge of the demolition claims to be “environmentally conscious”, recycling 75% of materials generated and properly handling toxins. It’s such a specific claim it makes me wonder if this is unusual, or if most firms do it but don’t talk about it. After all, they are paid for scrap and charged for landfill runs so it would be logical for most demolition companies to encourage recycling at a minimum. On the other hand, I have watched firsthand as a construction crew junked leftover, whole pieces of expensive material. Even if the owners and contractors don’t support waste, this ethic may not trickle down the the workers who simply want to get the site cleared as fast as possible.