Culture Nature

Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture

I was looking for an internet copy of Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director (which is a large collection of the most elegant and useful designs of household furniture in the Gothic, Chinese and modern taste) and found the University of Wisconsin’s Digital Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture. Not only does it have complete scans of the Chippendale, it also has Owen Jones’s The Grammar of Ornament, and lots of similar stuff like Temple of Flora, or, Garden of the botanist, poet, painter, and philosopher, The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs, or, The art of drawing and working the ornamental parts of architecture, and A New Treatise on Flower Painting, or, Every lady her own drawing master: containing familiar and easy instructions for acquiring a perfect knowledge of drawing flowers with accuracy and taste: Also complete directions for producing the various tints.

And while I’m posting links to that kind of thing, I can’t resist adding one to Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur.


‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ at the V&A

I went to see the Modernism: Designing a New World exhibition at the V&A, which was good. It was largely what you’d expect – white houses, angular furniture and posters with large sans serif headers printed at an angle – although there were some treats and surprises, like a Tatra T-87 saloon car.

Looking at the best of the modernist buildings, like the Villa Savoye and thinking of all those lumpen, red-brick, pitched-roofed houses that the British construction industry threw up over the course of the C20th, you can’t help feeling that our suburbs might be less ugly if we’d embraced modernism a bit more. Of course no style or philosophy is a substitute for a good architect. An industry that cares so little about aesthetics and design would only produce equally lumpen, graceless buildings in white-rendered concrete.

Incidentally, note that many of the most successful modernist dwellings seemed to be (like the Villa Savoye), stand-alone houses set in the country, where the trees provide a soft green background to the starkness of the design and the sweeping picture windows can look out over beautiful views. The large scale housing projects – and there were plenty of those in the exhibition as well – struggle to have the same impact. With rows of separate buildings, the effect can be rather a lot of visual clutter; perhaps because Modernism eschews decoration, so the aesthetic effects are achieved with structural elements – i.e. the shapes of the buildings. Or something. I haven’t really thought that through yet.

One of the odd things about the exhibition was that it was a constant stream of utopian, reformist ideals, but in the back of your mind was that the period it dealt with was bookended by the Great War and the Russian Revolution at one end and World War Two at the other, with the Depression and the growth of Fascism in the meantime. And yet somehow, all these idealists who were trying to change the world by giving the working man an efficient living space with Licht, Luft und Sonne seem to fit quite well into that kind of background. The wish to change the world by throwing out everything old and rebuilding it from scratch, to draw a line under ten centuries of European history and say “we can do better than that” has its echoes in the politics. Of course revolutionary Russia was one of the centres of early Modernist design.

And while I’m sure they wanted nothing but to make people’s lives better, the rhetoric – of the house as a ‘machine for living’, of progress, efficiency, mass-production – can be rather dehumanising. It reeks of top-down planning. And then there’s all the stuff about ‘hygienic’ living, with its celebration of cleanliness and the body. There’s a section about it in the exhibition, including some film of the ‘Sokol Slets’ – massed displays of gymnastics in Czechoslovakia which look like something Reni Liefenstahl would have dreamt up after eating too much cheese.

‘Performance of 16 800 women at the 1938 Sokol Slet. Strahov Stadium, Prague.’

Despite all the dubious parallels I’m drawing, it’s worth pointing out that both Hitler and Stalin disliked Modernism. Their idea of a good building was one smothered in heavy-handed political symbolism. And although some of the architects and designers were quite political (mostly leftists of various kinds, but some of the Italian Futurists were Fascist sympathisers, apparently), I’m not suggesting that any of that is terribly relevant to the actual buildings. I’m just drawing connections because I think it’s interesting.

Culture Other

Curious clothing links

both from wmmna:

naked knitting
spray-on clothes

Culture Other

My latest web design bonnet-bee

I was looking through WordPress themes on the Codex. I find it surprising how many people design themes with flexible-width text columns – i.e. ones where the columns get wider and narrower when you resize the browser window. One of the first things you learn when you pick up a book on typography is that if there are too many or too few words per line, the text becomes difficult to read. That’s one of the reasons newspapers divide up their articles into columns; with such small text, columns running the full width of the page would make it very difficult for the reader.

Picking a book at random off my shelves (a biography of Lewis Carroll, as it happens), it has about 13 words a line. On my computer, this blog has about 15 words/line. I can’t control how it will look on other system/browser combinations, but hopefully it doesn’t have many more than that. But this online version of Ulysses, with the browser window at a fairly typical width for me, had 24 words/line; and more if I stretch the window. That’s just silly.

Web design isn’t the same as traditional typography, but there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. I just can’t see any advantage to flexible-width columns that would make up for the loss of control over how the text looks – and indeed the overall look of the page. Either decide to support people with small screens, or not, but pick a page-width and stick to it. Of course, if useless bloody Internet Explorer supported the max-width property, that would be a good solution, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

Culture Me Other

WordPress Theme Competition

Well, that WordPress 2.0 Themes Competition I entered has had 188 entries. Hmmm. I’m not sure I like those odds…

It’ll be interesting to see what people have come up with, and to find out what the judges were looking for.

Culture Other

CSS positioning

[Sorry, I know most of you won’t be even slightly interested in this]

I’ve just had a major intellectual breakthrough about how CSS positioning works. Or, to put it another way, I’ve just realised that I’ve been being very stupid for a very long time.

I’ve read lots and lots of online CSS tutorials, and either none of them made it clear, or I was being dense. They often suggest that ‘absolute’ positioning is measured from the containing block – or sometimes they say that it’s measured from the edge of the browser window. The containing block theory clearly didn’t work. The screen approach seemed to work most of the time, but it meant that you couldn’t, for example, center the page on the screen if you were using absolute positioning – because it would always be a fixed distance from one of the window-edges.

In fact, absolute positions are measured from the nearest containing block in the hierarchy which has a ‘position’ property specified as something other than static. So if you just set the page’s ‘position’ tag to ‘relative’, you can then move the page around as much as you want and all things you’ve positioned with ‘absolute’ measurements will follow it. Similarly, you can take one area of the page and set it to {position:relative} and then use absolute positioning within that area.

I assumed, you see, that you’d only set the position property if you wanted to change the position of the block in question, not as a way of affecting the blocks contained within it. Now I know better. The CSS positioning system is suddenly much easier to use and much saner. I can’t believe I’ve been struggling along trying to design table-free webpages without grasping this; and I can’t believe that none of the tutorials I read made it clearer, since it’s the single most important thing to understand if you want to use CSS positioning.