Links for Small Living

Some helpful links for living small:




Pope on the Wall

Last month, my evening bicycle commute up 8th avenue was interrupted by the face of Pope Francis emerging from the whitewashed side of a building. I pulled to the curb, snapped a picture with my iPhone, and continued home. I repeated this ritual four times the following week, thus documenting the painting of a wall mural advertising the Pope’s visit to the USA.

Why did I stop and take notice? Years ago, before living in New York, I watched the short film Up There, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the rare individuals who hand paint walls for a living. It fascinated me. The opportunity to see many hand-painted walls – and their progress – first-hand is one of the unique joys of living in New York.

Irving Harper

Before this week, I had assumed that the Nelson Marshmallow Sofa and the Nelson Ball Clock were designed by their eponym, George Nelson.1 This is untrue, as I learned in an epitaph written by Michael Bierut this week:

RIP Irving Harper, quiet designer behind George Nelson’s iconic products

Irving Harper, the designer responsible for these objects, passed away last week at the age of 99. An obituary in the New York Times describes his role working with Nelson:

Mr. Harper was famously obscure, working as an industrial designer from 1947 to 1963 for George Nelson, who was often credited with the company’s creations for the Herman Miller furniture line.

Researching Harper’s career reveals a body of work that is as diverse as it is inspiring. For example, he designed the iconic Herman Miller “M” logo, without necessarily intending to do so. DWR’s profile of Harper describes the circumstances:

One of his early projects for Nelson was Herman Miller’s first-ever ad. There was not yet any photography of the furniture, so Harper instead rendered a large “M” – for “Miller” – which is essentially the same logo design that the company uses today. “There was no project to do a logo,” he says. “It was probably the cheapest logo campaign in advertising history.”

Harper described himself as a generalist and executed an impressive body of graphic design work in addition to his industrial design work. Perhaps even more astounding is the world of sculptures Harper created within his home over the span of 40 years. These works are incredible and prompted both a gallery exhibition and a book. However, this was never Harper’s intention. His sculptures were private works created as an antidote to the stressful projects he worked on during the day. He initially considered knitting, but the medium of paper proved a more natural fit for his hands. In a video made for the exhibition, he describes the effects of his work:

Many of the things I do require repetitive behavior, and then they build up to something else. The reason I like the repetition is that I found it relieves stress, and it was very soothing. (5:12)

He didn’t think of himself as an artist:

I never thought in terms of being an artist. I never envisioned myself as an artist. I just made them as they occurred to me and then I went on to the next after it was all done until I ran out of space and I stopped. (6:12)

And he never stopped to think of the commercial value of his creations, as quoted in Herman Miller’s WHY:

“I never sold any of my pieces,” Harper says today. “I had all the money I wanted. Then I would have lost my sculptures and just had more money. I just wanted to have them around.”

If Harper was born of this generation, I can’t imagine him ever tweeting or Instagramming his work. I don’t think it would have occurred to him. In a world where over-sharing is the norm and every creative act is seemingly purposed to exhibit, sell, or self-promote, not only is Harper’s incredible body of work inspiring, but his quiet approach is a fresh breath of air.

Also, be sure to read Sam Grawe’s personal remembrances of Harper in the last years of his life. Taken together with Herman Miller’s video, it offers a heartwarming glimpse into Harper’s home and life.

  1. It is worth noting that both Herman Miller and DWR credit Harper in their descriptions of these products.

History of the Chemex Coffee Maker

Some friends recently purchased a Chemex coffee maker, prompting me to remember that it was created in the 1940s (1941 to be exact). Details from the story of the design and its designer, Dr. Peter Schlumbohm, are fascinating and include:

  • Its design was influenced by Bauhaus principles: “A table must be a table; a chair must be a chair; a bed must be a bed. … A coffee maker must make coffee.”
  • Ironically, Macy’s initially rejected it because it did not look like a coffee maker.
  • President Roosevelt played a hand in the success of the Chemex. He granted access to production materials during wartime, after being personally persuaded by a Latin pun written by Schlumbohm.

These details are not to be found on the History page of Chemex’s website. Instead, they’re found in One Hundred Great Product Designs (1970) by Jay Doblin. Doblin corresponded with Schlumbohm to get the full story. As the book is out of print, I scanned the relevant pages. View the PDF.

Frequency Failure

Though a fruitful exercise, it is difficult to examine one’s failures. The process begins unpleasantly enough, with the admission that success has not been achieved. The thing that was intended has been left undone. The fault lies close to home.

Delving deeper, patterns of failure and contributing behavior emerge. The temptation is to despair and give up. However, lack of success is not the same as utter defeat. Failure often leads to more insight than success.

An insight from my own failure: frequency is a powerful tool that I underutilize. In Manage Your Day-to-Day, Gretchen Wilson lists seven benefits of frequency. Two in particular stand out:

  • Frequency keeps ideas fresh.
  • Frequency keeps the pressure off.

The idea of frequency is this: do a small amount of work in short intervals instead of large amounts of work in long intervals. My modus operandi, unfortunately, is the latter. As a result, I forget where I left off and rework the same parts of a project. My ideas have grown stale. When a deadline comes, much work is left to be done in a condensed period of time. The pressure is high. Stress, and at times incompleteness, results.

Interestingly, frequency also provides the power to move forward. Success doesn’t have to be achieved in one, monumental effort. It can be reached one small, frequent step at a time.