A tradition of Mournful Music.

One gloomy December a few years back I was struck by the realization that I simply do not like Christmas.

A disappointing love affair might have had something to do with that, but the truth is that despite decades of cultural marination in the year-end hullabaloo, I’d never liked it. Rather than joy, inevitably what I felt was … melancholy

To, uh, “celebrate” my experience of the happy holiday that year, I put together a CD of sad and spooky songs and mailed it out in lieu of Christmas cards — the first Somewhat Mournful Seasonal Assortment.

One season led to another, and eleven years later the tradition persists. The strangest thing is how I’ve come to be able to recognize a song as a Mournful candidate pretty much instantaneously!

But choosing the music is only a part of it. I’ve discovered that the annual process of creating these things (and the handmade aspect is important) has become a ritual that I really look forward to. Noticing how my approach to design has evolved, thinking fondly of my friends on the mailing list — it all goes into getting a little Mournful every year a meditative and satisfying pleasure.

Anyway. Here’s eleven fifteen* years worth, all in one place. Enjoy …

*psst — I’ll be updating this post yearly.

Mournful_1

» 1999 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_2

» 2000 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_3

» 2001 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_4

» 2002 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_5

» 2003 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_6

» 2004 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_7

» 2005 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_8

» 2006 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_9

» 2007 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_10

» 2008 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_11

» 2009 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_12

» 2010 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_13

» 2011 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful_14

» 2012 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful 15

» 2013 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

Mournful 16

» 2014 track listing  |  iTunes cover art

 

History and inspiration — the Zeidler archtop project

zeidler project archtop

In another life, I was a wannabe luthier.

The intoxicating scent of Brazilian rosewood and Sitka spruce, the arcane and elegant tools and forms, the thrilling sensation of bringing an instrument to vibrating, singing life … ah well, turned out ’twas not to be.

I have built a couple of guitars, and fixed a whole bunch more, but the closest I ever came to becoming a Stradivarius of the six-string was spending an apprentice year in the terrific archtop-maker Tom Ribbecke’s workshop.

It was an amazing experience, and has deeply informed my life as a visual designer (more about that below), but why (you ask politely, as I continue what seems to be a random digression) am I bringing it up? Well, a good friend of mine happened upon the Mandolin Brothers in Staten Island, perhaps the finest purveyor of guitars in the country. He was knocked out by the joint, and — knowing I’d be interested — sent me a link.

Of course I knew about this place — Ribbecke had sold guitars through them, and so had most of the top-drawer luthiers I’d ever met. They seem to always have a spectacular inventory of handmade instruments, so I clicked straight through to the archtop section to see if I recognized anybody.

Well. Not only did I spot a few familiar names, but I ran across an instrument that I had actually worked on — and what an instrument!

Here’s the story:

J. R. Zeidler was one of the finest instrument makers I’ve ever met … a rough-edged Philly guy with visionary technical insights, exacting techniques, and an uncompromisingly personal aesthetic sense, he created some of the most uniquely stunning instruments that have ever graced this planet — and they sound as good as they look.

I got to meet the man only once, at the Healdsburg Guitar Festival. Zeidler came to an evening party at Ribbecke’s workshop. Whiskey was quaffed, war stories told, and I (the modest newbie) complimented him on his craft. He gave me advice about the importance of discovering your own style and sound, and then we argued about finishing techniques — “Hey Tom, your assistant is bustin’ my balls here!”

We shook hands. A great guy. Not much later J.R. got sick, and I never saw him again.

But I did get to participate in an incredible project inspired by both the man himself, and his (oh, the artisan life) lack of health insurance. That “project” is what I saw on the Mandolin Brothers website this morning.

The Zeidler Project:

Maybe I should just quote the “official” background.

“When fourteen of the world’s finest guitar makers decided to honor and support a colleague, they produced a unique and remarkable instrument — The Zeidler Project guitar. J. R. Zeidler was well known in the community of archtop makers. His instruments, and the man himself, were greatly respected by players and his peers.

When he was hospitalized with acute myelogenous leukemia, undergoing debilitating and expensive therapy, his fellow builders came together in support. They decided to make a collaborative guitar incorporating many of Zeidler’s touches and even using wood he chose.

The guitar will be sold to defray some of John’s medical expenses, and to help his family.”

The Zeidler Project was coordinated by the Canadian luthier, Linda Manzer. It was a spirited, bold project — never before had a group of so highly respected instrument makers attempted such collaboration.

Manzer said, “This was a chance for the archtop guitar building community to come together and focus all our skills on this one instrument to help our friend, John, and his family. These builders were just incredible to work with and we were all honored to be part of this truly unprecedented event. It was a very emotional and truly amazing experience. The end result is a guitar imbued with our collective spirit.”

The entire group, paying tribute to Zeidler’s style and preferences, worked out details of the design. The guitar traveled across the continent to the shop of every builder — each of them adding his or her own touch to it, then passing it to the next builder.

Ribbecke’s contribution involved the careful shaping of the gorgeously quilted maple back plate. My own was minimal, just helping to rough the thing out before Master Tom put his expert hands to work — but I felt honoured to play even the tiniest of roles in this historic project. Still do.

What the heck does any of this have to do with my current business?

Well … the success of a piece of visual work — just like a guitar — depends upon a careful accumulation of the smallest of details. Thus the importance of gently persuading every single element of a project to work together — in perfect harmony, as it were — can’t be exaggerated.

A millimeter too much or too little wood in the carved top plate of an archtop means the difference between an instrument that sings and a common plunker. Just so with a designed page or a drawing. A headline a few points too large, the wrong line weight, an ill-conceived colour choice …

Pay attention. Get it right.

And I guess it’s even more than that. My obsession with the making and playing of guitars has as much to do with my business as any of my hundreds of other interests and passions.

When an artist is confronted by the daily task of making “something out of nothing”, every experience that has ever been poured into the ol’ brain-hopper is called upon to fill that blank page or screen.Every moment becomes an ingredient in the creative stew, a whole life’s worth of experience transmuted into a pattern of ink or pixels, just like that.

Anyway.

The truth is, I was just delighted to be reminded of the existence of this wonderful guitar — and my own tiny contribution.

And as I learned just this morning, it’s actually still for sale — scroll down to the bottom of this page. For a paltry hundred grand you can take it home, but please call me if you do — I’ve still never played the thing!

zeidler project archtop back

Grandma and my ukulele

The seed was planted a few years ago, when my elderly grandmother pointed me towards her small bookshelf. “Take whatever you want”, she said, “I’m not planning on leaving anything behind when I go”.

I picked up two volumes of poetry, carefully annotated in her spidery hand. A history of the Mennonites. Then I noticed a slim book entitled, of all things, “How to play the Ukulele”.

Though a professor of sociology, Grandma had a notoriously wry sense of humour. She was infamous in our family — and this was way before my time, but I’ve seen photographic evidence — for a raucous, knee-slappin’ ukulele-flailing, vaudeville comedy routine. Whoa, Grandma!

I kissed my grandmother and tucked the books into my bag — not long afterward, she passed away.

What is it now, half a dozen years later? That seed has finally sprouted, and with a little bit of extra inspiration, I’ve become the ever-so-proud owner of an early-50’s vintage Bobby Henshaw ukulele. It’s a little beauty, ridiculously fun to play, a fabulous graphic design stress-reliever, but best of all — every time I pick it up, I remember Grandma.

Bobby Henshaw ukulele

Squid on a crosswalk

Well, exactly.

Were you reading my mind, Alberta Street stenciler, or my graffiti post from last week?

I practically hopped in excitement: a surreally non sequitur graffito, stenciled in an original location, and — in an admirable display of restraint — just the one.

And did I mention: “squid on a crosswalk“?!?

Squidney (as I have dubbed him) is even biodegradable … or just degradable … whatever.

Point is, after a few months of bicycles and bio-diesel fueled Subarus grinding over him, there won’t be anything left but a faintly tentacled memory.

Kermit the Frog and my graffiti problem

A friend and I wandered through Golden Gate Park one idyllic afternoon. The tree-shaded, tunnel-like paths were the perfect complement to our mildly altered states (this was many years ago), and we ambled along in companionable silence.

The path opened abruptly into a small clearing, and there, perched on a stump and bathed in a shaft of golden sunlight, was Kermit the Frog.

It was him all right, in all his life-sized green-felted glory. Legs dangling, lumpy head cocked to one side, ping-pong eyeballs gazing calmly back at us … we stopped in our tracks, eyes wide, mouths agape, and stared silently at the smiling apparition.

After a few moments, my friend and I caught each other’s eyes and exploded with laughter. It took a few minutes to recover, and then we went smiling on our way — but first I patted Kermit carefully on the head, silently thanking the person who’d set this little scene up for us.

In a nutty way, it was one of the most extraordinary moments of my life. For a split second the shock and delight of seeing a Muppet come to life in a forest glade was overwhelming … and similar moments of surprise and delight have come to be something I especially treasure.

When you find a tiny plastic action-figure doing a handstand on a fire hydrant mirror, I’m the one who picked her out of the gutter and put her there. A stuffed monkey hanging jauntily from your car’s aerial? I’m the one who picked just the right spot to make your day.

You’re welcome.

So why am I telling you all this?

It occurred to me that Kermit helps me solve my graffiti problem.

See, as you may have gathered from many of the photos I’ve posted on this site, I have a certain … appreciation for graffiti. That is to say, in some sense I’m publicly endorsing vandalism. Which of course I (good citizen me)disapprove of.

It’s an uncomfortable situation.

So. Though I appreciate just about every form of visual public self-expression that there is (let’s leave “tagging” out of this), for me there’s graffiti and there’s graffiti.

It’s not that I have no love for the big sprawling wall pieces, the rococo wild style of the ’80s. It just seems that working in those styles is kinda like modern painters who endlessly rework expressionist or cubist styles. I mean, I appreciate the artistry, but c’mon, people — it’s been done!

No, I’ve realized that the graffiti that really gets me, and that allows the easy forgetting about, you know, property damage, is exactly that element of delighted surprise evoked by Kermit the Frog appearing on a tree stump like a green Virgin Mary.

That’s it. Be clever, people. Be artful. Be smart, funny, and ironic. And pick your spots — just like a tattoo should enhance the body part that it adorns, a graffito should actually make the structure that bears it better.

A sudden burst of color, of humour, the appearance of a cleverly placed image can provoke a thought, alter a mood, or just make someone’s day — especially in the concrete coldness of an urban environment,

Just like this bunny I spotted on Alberta Street this morning.

Thanks.

Selma the duck for President

In these troubled times, what more perfect candidate, what finer nominee for the highest office in the land than a bright yellow non-phthalate avian bath toy?

Goose our enemies? With a bounce in her step! Use the presidency to feather her own nest? Don’t say that to her face without duc– without dodging quickly!

Selma will shed the encroaching evils of terror, stagflation and hockey moms like water off a … well, yes. Just like that. And she’s down with sending Congress the bill.

Selma the duck for President.

Download this badge — carefully crafted (in a moment of weakness) by yours truly — and add our country’s saviour to your own little piece of the interweb.

You’ll sleep peacefully tonight, fair citizen, knowing that you have done your part.

Berlin: the “Museum of Things”

My last day in Berlin for the year, so I decide to drop by a museum that don’t know thing one about, save for its intriguingly all-encompassing name: Museum der Dinge, the Museum of Things.

Well. Aren’t they all?

Ye-es, technically correct, but the categories that museums typically set for themselves are very, very narrow. Things called “art”, for example. Sometimes just paint-on-canvas sorts of things. Or carved-from-marble sorts of things. Or vacuum cleaners.

So, what to expect from this thing-room tucked away three stories above the hectic, graffitied streets of Berlin’s multi-kulti Kreuzberg neighborhood?

A well-lit, high-ceilinged room with beautiful wooden floors … and a whole lotta shelves.

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

This museum concerns itself with presenting a sort of mute cultural-historical narrative of Germany’s entire 20th century, from its beginning up to the present day.

The aforementioned shelves are stuffed with a stunningly diverse collection of manufactured objects. Not objets d’art, not objects ‘appropriated’ by an artist, but the kind of innocent every-day objects that you are surrounded with at this very moment.

Your computer. Your pencil. Your coffee cup. Each of these objects captures decisions made by an individual craftsman/designer, a moment in the history of human-created environment, and simultaneously expresses the essence of every “thing” designed and created before it. Ever.

That’s a lot of weight for a coffee cup to handle.

But this museum has the philosophical chops (and history of its own) to make it work.

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

The Museum der Dinge is the descendant and official archive of the Deutscher Werkbund, pr “German Work Federation”.

The Werkbund, an association of artists, architects, designers, and industrialists, was formed in 1907 with the express intent of overhauling the entire German landscape of mass-produced objects, “from sofa cushions to the building of cities”.

The fundamental plan was to rethink everything from an aesthetic viewpoint that took function, the essence of materials, and modern industrial manufacturing techniques as its muse.

You know the essential slogan of the Werkbund already: “Form follows function”. And yes, the world famous and extraordinarily influential Bauhaus design school in Weimar grew from these very roots in the early 1920s.

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

The tension between intelligent, form-follows-function design and the kitsch favoured by mass culture provides a formal structure for the museum.

It’s divided into two major sections. First, a long, high row of shelves runs along one wall, packed to bursting with items selected to reflect the manufactured world as it actually was — and you could easily spend half an hour just gazing at a single shelf! It’s a meticulously arranged riot, and the tastes, prejudices, and technological influences of the era burst from every piece.

This “world of objects” is arranged in chronological order, then further divided into subsets such as “body shapes,” “material/aluminum,” “post-War era,” and “East German household”.

The second section is composed of a series of free-standing cases running down the center of the long room. These are also arranged chronologically, but this time the objects represent opposing sides in a century-old argument.

Half of each case is filled with objects catering to contemporary popular taste, tending towards decoration and kitsch — to which the other side responds with elegantly clean-lined solutions from industrial and graphic designers sympathetic to the Werkbund‘s ideas and ambitions.

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

But the best part is that you don’t need to know a THING about design history to enjoy this exhibition; on a purely surface level it’s just the coolest, best-organized thrift store you have ever seen.

Conclusions aren’t necessarily drawn, and there’s no predetermined narrative. You can just let the colors, shapes, forms and textures wash over you … or let your brain go to work on the innumerable jarring, inspiring and thought-provoking juxtapositions.

it’s a wonderful experience.
 

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

The time-span covered by the collection runs right up to the present day, but the early half of the century attracted most of my attention — particularly the graphic design.

I was delighted to see that my hero Lucian Bernhard, ground-breaking developer of the sachplakat poster style and innovative type designer, is particularly well represented.

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

And because we’re in Berlin and talking about history, the subject of National Socialism is unavoidable … and here it is, expressed in a kind of embarrassing kitsch that apparently even made the monster on Voßstrasse squirm.

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

Berlin Museum der Dinge (Museum of Things)

 
When I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed my couple of hours there, the first thing the smiling guy behind the counter said was “Great — would you mind mentioning it to other people?”

No one I know in Berlin seems to have heard of it, and worse, my explanations of its wonderfulness just haven’t seemed to penetrate: “Uh-huh, sounds interesting …” and then a change of subject.

I hope these photos are a little more effective.

If you’re in Berlin for a day or two, do yourself a favour. They’re open Friday – Monday from 12 -7pm, and it’ll cost you 4 € to get in. Guided tours are available if you’re lucky enough to speak German, but if not — no worries. These objects speak quite clearly on their own.

Berlin: vintage metal-box neon

I’m not sure what attracts me to these metal box signs. Perhaps it’s their bulky physical presence, the seams, the dents, the peeling paint, the dirt — or the simple fact that they were crafted by hand. An internal backlash to years of staring at 2-dimensional representations of mathematical constructs?

Yeah, I think that might be it.

The stylish typefaces have a little something to do with it too, of course — but I think the bottom line is the odd klutzy gracefulness dictated by the limitations of tin and glass. These signs are firmly rooted in (to use a phrase I coined to communicate with my head-dwelling intellectual Lady Friend) “the World of Objects”.

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

Berlin metal box neon sign

I see them all over Berlin. Bookstores, flower shops, camera stores — they all seem to have been installed in the middle part of the last century, and since they appear on East and West sides of the city, perhaps they predate the Wall. Whether they’re a German or even European phenomenon I can’t say — being in a foreign country cranks up the brain’s Noticing Engine, so perhaps they’re all over the US, too.

Whatever. I’m enjoying it for its own sake … typography not only made flesh, but glowing!

Berlin, East: graffiti walls #2

Another generous helping from Berlin’s graffiti/street art scene, a kaleidoscope of ornamented walls from (at least) three eastern ‘hoods — Prenzlauerberg, Freidrichshain and Kreuzberg. The first Berlin graffiti post befindet sich hier.

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Prenzlauerberg Kreuzberg Berlin

Berlin, Kreuzberg: cemetery at Hallesches Tor

One of my private Berlin pleasures … a quick currywurst at Curry 36 on Mehringdamm, and then a stroll through the graveyard at Hallesches Tor.

The contrast between the non-stop noise and action of the Kreuzberg street and the instant blanket of verdant silence that prevails in the cemetery could not be more vivid. Mature trees, marble crosses, gothic script … it’s a typical old northern European cemetery, I guess — established in 1735, in a spot just outside Berlin’s old city walls.

I just happen to like walking there more than most. Felix Mendelssohn is buried there, for one thing — I visited his grave today and softly whistled the theme to the Italian Symphony. The other thing I love is the number of grave markers from the early 1900s, many featuring the flowing visual elegance of the then au courant Jugendstil (think Art Nouveau).

The photos below show a couple of the loveliest pieces — at least, of those that are still in place. In recent years the cemetery has repeatedly been struck by art thieves, who’ve pried up, broken off, and carted away some of the most beautiful marble busts and medallions. *sigh*

Berlin, Kreuzberg cemetery jugendstil sculptures

Berlin, Kreuzberg cemetery jugendstil sculptures

Berlin, Kreuzberg cemetery jugendstil sculptures

Berlin, Kreuzberg cemetery jugendstil sculptures

Berlin, Kreuzberg cemetery jugendstil sculptures

Berlin, Friedrichshain: graffiti walls

Berlin is plastered with graffiti. And I love it.

Despite a recent crackdown, a decades-long history of (ahem) ‘public self-expression’ can be be read on walls all over the city, from ’80s wild-style to left-wing squatter provocations to the artsy paste-ups of the newly bohemian-chic Prenzlauerberg and Friedrichshain.

Though some of it would have been better off left inside the spray can, a few pieces are amazing — and the atmosphere created by the chaotic visual density of it all is (to me, anyway) extremely inspiring. I honestly can’t imagine a Berlin without it.

I’ll toss up a few snapshots in the coming week or two, and to start it off, here are a couple of beautifully textured samples from somewhere in the vicinity of the Simon-Dach-Strasse.

graffiti Friedrichshain Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Berlin

graffiti Friedrichshain Berlin

And there’s more … check out the second installment.

Berlin, Moabit: ’50s signage + glass mosaic wall

Spotted in a working-class neighborhood in a northern part of Berlin — the storefront of a ’50s-era architectural glass workshop, sheathed in gloriously ’50s style tiny glass mosaics.

The signage is even more beautiful … yeesh, need I write anything at all? Those colors, that texture, the Bauhaus-meets-the-Fifties vernacular letterforms … Just. So. Cool.

mosaic architectural glass Berlin

mosaic architectural glass Berlin

mosaic architectural glass Berlin

Berlin, Mitte: handpainted sign from the 1930s

I spotted this sign on the side of a recently renovated building in Berlin’s hipster-cum-yuppie neighborhood “Mitte“. Every year more and more money pours into this area, and more of the gorgeous multi-story turn-of-the-century buildings here — fallen into terrible disrepair during the 60-odd years of Communist rule — are brought back to life.

Because Berlin’s consciousness of its history is a bit on the hit-or-miss side, I’m ambivalent about this. Through ignorance or with deliberate intent, some of this renovation serves to erase the past, both the parts the city ought to be proud of and the more, well, “problematic” bits.

This sign for Holz Kohlen (Charcoal) is an example of the former; the owners of the building deliberately allowed this small patch of ancient paint to remain undisturbed while the remainder of the facade was completely updated. It’s a small gesture of appreciation and respect for those who lived here before.

Two-bit philosophizing aside, the real reason I snapped this shot was the rough charm of the ca. 1930s letterforms, and the contrast with the stunning texture of the wall. The sturdy weight of the verticals, the sprightly capital K, that jaunty little Z with just the suggestion of a crossbar … ain’t typography wonderful?

The Calyx Design blog – an online journal of creative inspiration, design experience, and the pouncing upon of bright and shiny things.