Tag Archives: Design

The Nigerian, Feminist Designer who Flouts Convention

For The New YorkerAlexis Okeowo profiles Nigerian fashion designer Amaka Osakwe, whose delicate yet adventurous creations from the line Maki Oh have been worn by Michelle Obama, Solange, and Lupita Nyong’o. Nigeria, a massive country with bustling metropolises, an expanding middle class, and a fashion-forward cadre of cosmopolitan “repats,” is still conservative about sexuality and female agency. Osakwe’s work pushes hard against those old mores while still embracing some of the country’s traditions in textiles and dressmaking.

Her first collection, that same year, was inspired by a coming-of-age ceremony called dipo, undertaken by girls of the Krobo ethnic group in Ghana. In the ceremony, girls are sent to the house of a chief priest, where they undress, have their heads shaved, and are given cloths to wear around their waists; strips of raffia are tied around their necks. During the next few days, older women teach them the skills of seduction, housekeeping, and child rearing. The girls wade into the river with sponges and calabashes for a communal bath, and sit on a sacred stone that affirms their virginity. At the culmination of the rite, they dress in bright kente cloth, adorn their bodies with beads, and dance before the community.

Osakwe, beginning her adult life in Lagos, was drawn to the ritual. “I thought it was fitting at the time,” she said. She broke calabashes into pieces, burned them in an oven to various shades of brown to match Nigerian skin tones, and drilled holes in them so that she could sew them onto blouses. “It was exhausting and exciting,” she said. She made gauzy tops with circles painted on them to accentuate the wearers’ breasts, a reference to the bare-chested girls of the rite. On a low-cut silk jumpsuit, she used an adire motif of a shekere, a dried-gourd instrument covered with beads, which conveys a wish for good times.

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To Be an Instagram-Ready Restaurant, Don’t Forget Your Selfie-Optimized Lamps

Back in the 1970s, memorabilia-heavy restaurants became popular as they facilitated the loosening-up of sexual mores. These days, colorful tiles, bold wallpaper, and the occasional (ironic?) taxidermy piece can all trace their origins to our need to capture and broadcast our well-curated pleasures. As Casey Newton shows at The Verge, Instagram is the driving force behind the current vogue for easily reproduced, sleek-kitschy idiosyncrasy — including adjustable lighting that allows diners to take the most flattering selfie possible.

Few restaurants have taken photo-friendliness as seriously as Bellota, a Spanish restaurant that opened in San Francisco last year. The entryway is enclosed, creating a pleasing shadowbox effect as you look into the dining room. The kitchen is open, and encourages patrons to take 360-degree videos of the space. Many Instagram posts feature pictures of “the ham wall,” which is just what it sounds like: a window that looks into the temperature-controlled room where Bellota stores $50,000 worth of Spanish jamón ibérico.

The most striking thing about Bellota may be the custom lamps at its 25-seat bar, which let patrons adjust the lighting in order to get the perfect shot. “I’m probably the most avid Instagram user of the group, so I kept bringing it up,” says Ryan McIlwraith, Bellota’s chef. He wanted the lighting to do justice to the restaurant’s tapas plates and signature paellas. “It turned out these lamps we got were just perfect for it,” he says. The lamps can be tilted or turned 180 degrees, and the light’s intensity can be adjusted up and down. An “advanced feature” allows patrons to rest their phones on the lamp’s neck so as to take a selfie. (I did, and must admit the lighting was lovely.)

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How Do You Name a Not-Quite-Fat Ken Doll?

The new lineup of Ken Dolls — seeking to represent a more multicultural, physically diverse populace (read: client base) — landed earlier this week to much fanfare. Some of the reactions were laudatory; some were less so (who can resist a man-bun joke, after all?). Caity Weaver, writing at GQ, got to follow the creative process leading to the new dolls’ release. Through her eyes, we learn how even an attempt to “celebrate diversity” often requires so much semantic and design acrobatics that it’s not very clear who the celebration is for, and who might still be excluded from it. Case in point: the tortured internal discussions at Mattel around what to call the “heavier” version of Barbie’s companion — after they’d already decided not to make him fat (“You don’t want to go too much,” as Ray Cavalluzzi, a Mattel sculptor, put it).

“With Barbie [it was] clear what was offensive with the curvier doll versus what wasn’t,” says Michelle Chidoni, a polished, deftly amiable executive from the global brand communications department. We are sitting in a capacious conference room surrounded by Barbies in fashions so cutting-edge that to describe them would be illegal. But I will reveal to the reader that a great multitude of the outfits are both fabulous and fun. “People [in focus groups] didn’t want to be called ‘plus-size.’ ‘Curvy’ was the clear winner. [But] where ‘curvy’ in the female world of fashion has become something that’s desirable and sexy and positive, the men’s fashion world has not gone there yet.”

Mattel’s constant aim when describing body types is to unearth a marketing term with “a neutral-to-positive association.” They don’t always find it on the first try. Or second. Or third. Initially, in their attempt to recapture the proud spirit of “curvy” for a male doll, the Barbie team borrowed a word from the boys’ clothing industry: “husky.” Focus-group reactions were disastrous.

“‘Husky’ just turned off every guy we talked to,” says Chidoni, shaking her head. “A lot were really traumatized by that—as a child, shopping in a husky section.” “Athletic” was rejected on the notion that athletes can have vastly different body types. “Brawny” didn’t fare much better. And so: “broad.”

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The ‘Smashing Things Together’ Approach to Editorial Illustration

Our Art Director Kjell Reigstad recently shared his insights on editorial illustration with our company colleagues. We thought you’d enjoy it too.


In my role on the Editorial team, I end up touching a lot of different parts of Automattic. I work on learning resources, company blogs, highlighting great users, longform publishing, and brand work, with the occasional theme and conference design thrown in. This sort of variety is absolutely amazing, and one of my favorite things about working here.Of all the projects I get to work on, my favorite thing to do may be illustrations for Longreads. It’s lovely to focus on reading and reflecting on stories, and to have the freedom to explore and experiment with visual representation.I’ve done over a hundred illustrations for Longreads over the years, and I thought I’d share a few notes on the concepting process I go through for each one.


I always start by reading the story (obviously!). While reading, I take note of all the visuals that pop into my head along the way. Most of them will end up being tossed out, but usually there are a few that help build the base of the illustration.For example, we recently published an essay where Jami Attenberg describes her battle with flight anxiety. Here’s the list I jotted down while reading her piece:

  • airplanes
  • airports
  • airplane seats
  • clouds
  • books
  • pills
  • xanax
  • pill bottles

When I’m finished reading the story, I run through a series of mental exercises that I picked up years ago in my “Visual Communication” class from design school. VisCom (as we called it) was a required course for all Design, Illustration, and Advertising majors, since at their core, all of those fields center around utilizing visuals to convey or enhance an idea. We were taught about symbolism, juxtaposition, and how to use use color, shapes, and text to get a message across. Here are the questions I ask myself:

  • Are any of these items a common symbol? If so, does it represent something that relates well to the story?
  • Can one of these items be turned into a new symbol?
  • Can I smash some of these images together to make something new?
  • Is there a scene from the story that I can build using these images?

My favorite of the bunch is the “smash things together” exercise. This usually involves taking two seemingly unrelated things and combining them to create greater meaning. In the case of Jami’s essay, I smashed clouds together with Xanax pills to depict the anxiety-ridden, Xanax-fueled flights she described throughout her story.

20170606-Airplane-Anxiety

Illustration by Kjell Reigstad (Airplane photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

Another great example of this approach is the illustration I did for Alexander Chee’s piece, “Our Well-Regulated Militia.” I smashed together a map of the United States and a gun rack to echo the article’s statement about the prevalence of guns in America:

20160413-Alexander-Chee

Illustration by: Kjell Reigstad

This technique doesn’t always work, but it does help kickstart creative thinking, and can help generate other solutions. I often run through 2–3 ideas for each illustration before finding one that sticks.


We’ve been building up our publishing pace and coverage lately at Longreads, and illustration plays a key part in making this successful. Our illustrations help attract readers, and if done well, they can amplify the message of the story itself. We’ve been bringing in some amazing freelance illustrators lately, and I want to close by showcasing some of the great work they’ve been doing too:

How ‘International Airbnb Style’ Became the Dominant Aesthetic of Our Time

You’ve seen this room before: bright walls; a coffee table or shelves made out of reclaimed wood; some fabric — a rug, curtains — featuring an abstract geometric pattern; a knockoff mid-century chair. Is it your local coffee shop or craft brewery? A co-working space? Your living room? At The Verge, Kyle Chayka looks at the recent ascendancy of “Airspace” aesthetics — a style of vaguely quirky, easily reproducible minimalism that we now find in Airbnbs across the planet.

In 2011, a New York artist and designer named Laurel Schwulst started perusing Airbnb listings across the world in part to find design inspiration for her own apartment. “I viewed it almost as Google Street View for inside homes,” she says. Schwulst began saving images that appealed to her and posting them on a Tumblr called “Modern Life Space.” But she had a creeping feeling something was happening across the platform. “The Airbnb experience is supposed to be about real people and authenticity,” Schwulst says. “But so many of them were similar,” whether in Brooklyn, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, Seoul, or Santiago.

There was the prevalence of mass-produced but tasteful furniture, for one. “It’s kind of an extension of Ikea showrooms,” she says. But the similarities went beyond mass-production. The ideal Airbnb is both unfamiliar and completely recognizable: a sprinkling of specific cultural symbols of a place mixed with comprehensible devices, furniture, and decoration. “It’s funny how you want these really generic things but also want authenticity, too,” Schwulst says.

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The Inner Tiny House Journey: Jay Shafer on Finding Meaning in Things

Mark Sundeen, writing for Outside, traveled to the National Tiny House Jamboree in Colorado Springs last summer and talked to some of the tiny house movement’s pioneers, including its “godfather” Jay Shafer. Over a cigarette break in the woods — away from all the tiny space swooners, wannabe-minimalists, and sales reps — Shafer tells him a bit about his design philosophy and the purpose of material objects.

Shafer was raised in a large suburban house in Orange County, California. “I never had a true sense of home,” he said. After attending the University of Iowa, he got a master’s in fine art in New York City. But urban life didn’t suit him. He returned to Iowa City, where he taught art, living in a pickup and later an Airstream. Although he considers himself secular, as an artist he was drawn to sacred symbols and icons. “I got tired of building shrines I couldn’t live in,” he said.

I asked him if he’d been on any of the tiny-house shows.

“I was on Oprah.”

“What was that like?”

“Like watching Oprah on television, but in 3-D.”

During a commercial, she told him that he had inspired her to get rid of one of her mansions. “I wish she would have said it on camera.”

Shafer went on to describe design in a language I had not heard at the Jamboree—or anywhere. “Integrity is my word for God,” he said. It was wrong to conceal structural elements or disguise materials, and purely ornamental features were like a comb-over. Both attempted to convince us that the homeowner (or the hair owner) felt secure but of course revealed insecurity. “My best designs come only when my ego gets out of the way, when the higher power flows through me.” He had a sense of humor about it all, too. “I spent weeks trying to design a dining table that would convert into a coffee table. Finally, I figured out that all I had to do was turn the thing on its side.”

He described himself as a “meaning addict,” always looking for higher significance in material objects. “A gate in a picket fence that opens onto a narrow path that leads through a yard to an open porch that covers a door,” he said, “is a set of symbols we recognize as signposts guiding us through increasingly private territory toward the threshold of someone’s clandestine world.”

I finally got it. I had not understood why Williams’s house felt so authentic while so many of the blocks on wheels felt awkward or false. This subculture, although it seemed to be about nifty gadgets and Murphy beds, was at its heart the expression of our longing to find our place in the universe, to become as beautiful and functional as nature itself.

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‘Not Too Much, Not Too Little’: Programming Luck Into Video Games

In fully digital video games, luck is even more deeply baked into the experience, and must be actively simulated. When the soccer ball sails past the goalkeeper in FIFA, or when, inexplicably, a herd of race cars slows down to allow you to catch up, a game designer’s hand has just acted to provide some ghostly rigging. The effect of this manipulation is to flatter you and thereby keep you engaged. But it’s a trick that must be deployed subtly. A player who senses that he’s secretly being helped by the game will feel patronized; after all, luck is only luck if it’s truly unpredictable.

Which is where the problems begin.

— At Nautilis, Simon Parkin examines the responsibilities and challenges of engineering luck into video games.

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When a YouTube Video Almost Made the Modular Smartphone Happen

Failure stories come in two distinct flavors: “We almost had it all!” and schadenfreude. At VentureBeat, Harrison Weber’s tale of Google’s suspended project to build a modular smartphone is distinctly of the first type. It channels the excitement of the people who tried to make it happen — and the wistfulness of those who find it hard to let go. More than anything else, though, it shows how hard it to translate a cool, lightbulb-moment idea into a viable product.

“I had an old camera that I broke and I couldn’t really fix it. So I took it apart and I noticed all the components were still pretty good, except for one thing.”

“I thought: Isn’t that weird that we throw everything away just because one part is broken?” said Hakkens.

“At first, I wanted to make a phone that lasts 100 years. But then I realized, I kind of like technology — that it evolves, that it gets better. The only downside is that after it gets better, we throw everything away. I started looking into it, and it generates a lot of e-waste… I mean now we have some devices, but in the future it’s thermostats, fridges, microwaves — everything will be connected. So what if a chip breaks in your fridge? Do you just throw the entire thing away?”

The Phonebloks story spread like wildfire. Gadget blogs covered it en masse, hordes of supporters signed up to support, tweet, and share the idea with a viral marketing tool called Thunderclap, and developers fired back, saying it couldn’t be done — that it was impossible to build. Perhaps they had a point.

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The Slow Death of Restaurant Kitsch

Tiffany-style lamps. Candy-striped uniforms and/or candy-striped tablecloths. And tchotchkes: tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. The 20th-century chain-restaurant aesthetic is immediately recognizable — but where did it come from? At Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix digs into the history of restaurant kitsch right at the moment where its earliest proponent, T.G.I. Friday’s, is beginning to impose a minimalist, clutter-free look on its locations. Along the way, she unearths the surprising origins of Friday’s as a hip singles’ bar chain, closely aligned with ’70s sexual liberation movements and a new taste for cocktails:

The Commercial Appeal newspaper called it “a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in.” Again, 20-somethings lined up for a table, and patrons mobbed the bar. This Friday’s became a hotspot for the Memphis counterculture, known for its boozy adventures, drug experimentation, and sexual subversion—including an underground queer scene. Bands played on a stage in back, while local rock stars like Big Star lingered at candy-striped tables under leaded-glass lamps.

“Friday’s was the first place in Memphis where you could actually go in and buy a mixed drink,” Rush Bowman, who took a job there as a bar-back before becoming a bartender, tells me over the phone from his home in the Dallas metro. “Before that, you’d had to take your own bottle to a bar, and the bar would hold on to it for you. They’d make your drinks with your own bottle and charge you a setup fee. Friday’s was first real bar in town, and the employees were young people with long hair, so they looked like the customers they were trying to attract.”

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The ‘Stunt’ That Helped Pass a Barrier-Breaking Law

In 1990, a group of activists and legislators fighting for the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) gathered on the steps of the Capitol to make a statement. Writing for Curbed about the act’s 1990 passage and its impacts over the last quarter century, Patrick Sisson details how the group dramatized the difficulties faced by people with disabilities using the 82 stone steps that lead to the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.:

On March 12, the Capitol Crawl, organized by ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit), gathered a crowd of hundreds of chanting supporters at the entrance of the country’s legislature. They watched 60 activists drop their canes or leave their wheelchairs and pull themselves up each of those steps. Dozens strained at the task, as friends and family offered them water and encouragement. Cameras focused on eight-year-old Jennifer Keelan, who had cerebral palsy. She made her way up, hands-to-knees. At one point, she told the dozens of reporters focused on her that “I’ll take all night if I have to!”

***

The “stunt,” as a handful of annoyed senators called it, proved to be an important turning point in the battle for the ADA. But more importantly, it dramatized the difficulties that the built environment poses for people with disabilities, who make up nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. Wright, who herself was blind, wanted others to see how much design can change a person’s everyday actions and level of independence, and how poor design can create a form of what she called “second-class citizenship.”

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