August 27th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I like to go to a café in the morning to read the paper before I start work. I also enjoy meeting friends and colleagues in cafes. For some time, the Starbucks in my Chicago neighborhood was my choice for reading the paper and a Caribou Coffee a few blocks north of my home was the place where I chose to meet colleagues and friends. The reason for the distinction is that the Starbucks is designated as a high volume take out store with minimal seating, while the Caribou Coffee, now closed and soon to reopen as Peet’s Coffee, had better seating options for meeting others.

For several years the seating arrangements in both stores, (perhaps coffee dispensaries is a better term), was adequate for multiple purposes. At Starbucks, I could sit at one of the four available tables or in one of the two booths to meet someone if need be and at Caribou, I could sit in one of the four comfortable leather armchairs and read the paper if I chose to. The trouble started when the manager of the Caribou Coffee decided to rearrange the furniture. There was a lovely corner of the store where four leather armchairs were located. To add to the sense of homeyness, there was a fireplace, although no fire ever burned in it. Well, the manager decided to remove two of the armchairs and replace them with tables, thus discouraging the newspaper readers from settling in too comfortably and therefore providing more seating space for larger groups. She also chose to rearrange the other section of the space, consequently reducing the number of tables for two.

I complained vigorously, arguing that she had made a mistake to disrupt a furniture arrangement that worked quite well. I presented my credentials as a design historian and thereby someone who knew a little about design. For several months, my proposals to restore the furniture fell on deaf ears but one day a miracle happened. The manager had been mulling over my argument and decided to change the furniture arrangement back to what it had originally been. I was overjoyed and began to enjoy the cozy armchair section again.

Things were fine for a while until that manager was transferred to another store and a new one took over. This woman was keen to make her mark as the doyenne of a store that could move coffee at a high volume clip. She removed two of the easy chairs and replaced them with tables for four that jutted well into the armchair space and all but wedged an armchair sitter in. She also removed some of the regular tables and chairs and replaced them with high tables and stools, which were less comfortable and consequently less inviting for extended sitting. I remonstrated with this new manager as I had with her predecessor but I was dealing with a different sort. Hell bent on selling beverages and food at all costs, the manager would have none of my arguments that the new arrangement was incommodious and uninviting for convivial conversations or tranquil newspaper perusal. In retaliation, I reduced my Caribou visits significantly and chose instead to concentrate on the Starbucks, which in any case was closer to my home. For a while I was able to make Starbucks acceptable for meeting others as well as reading the paper. The row of four tables lined up along a padded bench was adequate for conversing as well as perusing the paper. As a backup, there were two booths, which were occasionally vacant, although the high volume of customers at this particular Starbucks made securing a booth dicey.

One day I arrived at Starbucks, only to find that one of the four tables was gone. “What happened to the table?,” I asked a barrista. “It broke,” she said, “and we are waiting for a replacement.” Well, needless to say, the replacement never came and I began to suspect that her response was Chicagoese for “The table is gone because we need more space for the long lines of take-out customers.” I decided that I could live with three tables but several months later, another one disappeared, leaving only two. “What happened to that table?,” I asked another barrista and received the same answer, “It broke.” By this time, it was the Christmas holiday season and the table for four in the corner that had hosted so many job interviews and family get-togethers was also gone. What replaced it was a display of holiday coffee gifts. This was simply too much and I abandoned Starbucks for a local café just a few blocks away that was not beset by long take-out lines or district managers sweeping in to figure out how that particular outpost of their empire could sell more coffee.

I still go back reluctantly to Starbucks when I have other business nearby and noticed recently that one of the two tables that had disappeared was back. I guess the long expanse of padded seating with so few tables looked too conspicuous. I have no hope however, that the fourth table will ever return and I observed that after the Christmas holidays, the corner display was replaced by another one with specialty coffees. I knew that the large table would never come back.

As if this was not enough, at yet another Starbucks, which I visit on Saturday mornings before I attend religious services, the furniture was changed as well. The tables for two in one section of the store was replaced by a long table which offers no opportunity for quiet reading or private conversation. It is good for laptop people with earplugs who are oblivious to anyone but themselves, their computer screens, and their music but terrible for anyone who wants to have a conversation with another person or read the paper in peace. What was gained by this change? A few more seats but along with it came a loss of privacy.

The instability of the furniture arrangements in these stores suggests that they are still trying to figure out what they are. The brand rhetoric of Starbucks and Caribou is that they are café’s – third spaces, as Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, likes to call his stores. Granted that some Starbucks still maintain the atmosphere of a living room with enough armchairs and tables to go around but at bottom these so called cafés are really focused on moving food and drinks, while maintaining a veneer of genteel hospitality. To liken them to European cafes would be a mistake. The instability of their furniture arrangements says everything. When they can figure out ways to boost sales without fully revealing themselves as fast food emporia, they will do so. In the meantime, I will have to take my chances with seating. This is hardly a problem at Les Deux Magots in Paris or Café Diemel in Vienna, where I know that the seating won’t change every few months. A real café knows what it is. A fast food emporium with aspirations to be a café will always have an unstable décor as it fluctuates between gentility and sales volume.

Victor Margolin is Professor Emeritus of Design History at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is currently working on a World History of Design to be published by Berg in London.

July 22nd, 2014

The following is excerpted from Jesse McClain’s 2014 Master’s thesis—Ed.

Jesse McClain

Figure 1: Images from top to bottom: Top two images – Anawalt strip mining site in Southern West Virginia. Bottom image: Town of Keystone, West Virginia, near the city of Welch, WV. Photos: Jesse McClain.

SITE CONTEXT AND DOCUMENTATION

Southern West Virginia and Western North Dakota were both visited as part of the research process. These sites were chosen due to their similar connections with the energy industry and also their polar opposites in terms of economic prosperity. Welch, West Virginia is a small town which used to be called “Little New York” in the early 1900s. It was the city at the hub of the world’s first “billion dollar coalfield” and provided many of the area’s residents with a healthy and even prosperous income. Now it is deteriorating as the powerful strip-mining companies replace humans with machines and blow the tops off nearby mountains. Long-time Welch resident, Hilda Mitros, details accounts of personal and environmental violence experienced under the influence of the coal companies. She talks about gas and water explosions in and near her home as the earth becomes unstable with directional drilling and diverted water flow. Floods and sinkholes are commonplace in an area which is sacrificed for it’s fossil fuels. Hilda also reports that the decline in the economic and environmental health of the region has been accompanied by an influx of drugs and political buy-offs. She offers stories of attempts by community members to stand against the development of a major dumping site for disposal of out of state waste. The community was initially able to rally and protest this intervention but eventually, leaders were swayed through high pressure negotiation and shadowy bribery tactics. Hilda used to run a kitchen and bar and she remembers when the times were good and people prospered in a healthy community. I asked her if anything good was occuring in Welch and she said, “no, there is nothing good happening here.” A place that was once full of vitality and optimism is struggling to see a future that holds a promise of anything other than more destruction and abuse.

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June 30th, 2014

David Stairs

There is a concept in science, known as publication bias, that suggests editors of scientific journals prefer to publish positive test results over the results of failed, or negative tests. It’s human nature, one supposes, to prefer good news to no news, and it certainly is better for circulation. The only problem is, it makes for bad science. When a profession, take medicine for instance, is denied the knowledge that certain drugs did not perform the way their manufacturers claimed they would, doctors are less able to act in the best interests of their patients.

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June 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

If you are a white-collar worker making a decent salary, chances are that your paycheck will go directly to your bank so you can access it with a check or a withdrawal slip or draw on it with a credit card or mobile phone payment. There are banks that charge for such accounts, but only usually if the customer’s balance drops below a given amount. In many banks you will get the checking account free, while in some you will even earn a modicum of interest on it.

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May 10th, 2014

Daniel Drennan


“Believe in stone and survive.”

Framework

From the Declaration of the Palestinian People during the first intifada in 1987:

We will no longer be a subject people. If you order us to our camps, we will roam the countryside. Dig up our soil and bury us alive in it if you will. If you direct us to work in your factories, we will confine ourselves to our homes. Herd us into concentration camps if you will. If you instruct us to buy your produce and your products, we will grow and make our own.

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April 19th, 2014

David Stairs

At 10:02am on Saturday, February 23, 2014 I officially became old.


X-ray of surgical plate to correct a comminuted fracture of my right distal radius

As I left my house to take my dog Asali for a walk I noted that the front steps were blocked by snow. I’d been working hard throughout an unusually harsh winter to keep them clear, but a recent thaw— it had been 48°F the previous day— had caused snow to slide off the porch roof and pile on the steps.

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March 28th, 2014

Victor Margolin

I once thought that the greatest obstacle to reflective thought was the endless haptic texting that occupies the mental space of so many people but now I have a new culprit, data. Devices that have dissected our bodily functions into tiny shards flood the market, enabling us to either confirm the smooth functioning of our multiple organs, energy flows, and synapse synergies or else to detect glitches that merit our attention. Never have people had such an opportunity to be so aware of their bodies and take control of even the most minute irregularities in their physical performance.

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March 7th, 2014

David Stairs

Looking for love? It doesn’t matter if you have specialized tastes. Not only the “fetish-friendly” or the “transgerdered” are searching, but single moms, cancer sufferers, BBWs, middle-age widowers, cheating wives, and sugar daddies, too. The internet caters for all races, ages, and economic levels, no sexual preference too kinky or niche group too small.

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February 10th, 2014

Victor Margolin

Everyone knows that university sports have become a big business and increased access to their aura and actual content is a great way to raise money. Besides luxury stadium seats, there are the intimate dinners with star athletes, free DVDs of great games, gifts of jerseys with the numbers and names of outstanding players on them, and even an opportunity to meet with coaches pre-game to put in one’s two million dollars worth of strategy advice. These ideas are good but they miss the mark.

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January 17th, 2014

Vassiliki Giannopoulos
National Design Awards
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
2 E 91st St, New York, NY 10128

Dear Ms. Giannopoulos,

Regarding your December 23rd email notifying us that Designers Without Borders has been nominated for the 2014 National Design Awards, we have this response.

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January 1st, 2014

David Stairs

An admission of personal weakness is not always a bad way to start a new year. I’m willing to stick my neck out and tell you a secret: I’m an inveterate maker of lists.

I can’t shop for food without using a list. At night I lie in bed evaluating the past with a list of events. In the morning I often compose an informal list of the days’ forthcoming activities. So, at a time of year when many people are generating lists of resolutions, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that the idea for this post presented itself in list form.

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December 8th, 2013

Victor Margolin

In recent weeks, I have been involved in three chaotic attempts to introduce changes in services that I have come to rely on. These include banking, public transit, and healthcare. The website of Obamacare is not the only evidence of innovative change that is malfunctioning. I would venture to say that a good many if not most of the new services that are being rolled out at a dizzying pace have glitches that range from minor to catastrophic.

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November 15th, 2013

David Stairs

Ask my Indian friend: Americans are in a coma.

What would evoke such an evaluation? Last year, while I was living in Bangalore, an American friend visited and my son and I met her for lunch. While crossing a busy boulevard she grabbed my arm and said, “I’ll trust you to get me across safely. Yesterday I spent 30 minutes trying to cross MG Road.” At that point I almost became a hazard myself, I was laughing so hard.

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October 1st, 2013

Cansu Akarsu

During my short career as a designer I have been a true nerd, spending all my free time participating in every workshop and design competition I found from all fields. Life is easy when you are learning, especially when one recognition follows the other, and motivates you to work on anything you love to work on. Still, I realize now that all the competitions, exhibitions, and networking events are far from the real recognition that comes with a village mother sparing the few dollars she earns to buy the product you have designed – this is how one falls in love with social design. Designing in real life and carrying out the process in the field is, on one hand, more frustrating and challenging, and on the other hand it is more meaningful, fun, and provides a unique learning experience.

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September 1st, 2013

David Stairs

“Tool hedonism is in ascendance.” —J. Robert Oppenheimer

Imagine a world where waste is more significant than thrift, where advertising trumps taste, and where novelty is the be-all end-all of existence. Not hard, is it? You’re living the dream everyday. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman’s 1985 look at the effects of television on society, entertainment came under scrutiny as a real but questionable substitute for public discourse. Had Postman lived long enough, he might have entitled the sequel Designing Ourselves to Death.

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August 10th, 2013

David Stairs


View from atop the Middle Sister in the west central Oregon Cascades reaches 100 miles north to Mt. Hood.

On a recent drive across country I was thinking about what the land must have looked like two hundred years ago. Lewis and Clark described an “Eden” of endless vistas and limitless game, a land practically untouched by human hand since time immemorial. It must have been an amazing sight.

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July 13th, 2013

David Stairs


Luco at music camp. I kept the phone.

The campaign began about nine months ago. From the beginning I was the primary target. I never had a chance. It wasn’t even a subtle assault. Mentioned with increasing frequency, insinuated into nearly every conversation, my thirteen year-old son managed to make his desire to have an iPhone known in no uncertain terms.

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June 14th, 2013

David Stairs

What can be considered radical anymore?


In their day, Vikings were pretty radical

Used to be this was easy to answer. Back in the ’60s we had Abbie Hoffman and Students for a Democratic Society, and Angela Davis and the Black Panthers. In the ’70’s there was Russel Means and AIM under siege at Wounded Knee. In Germany from the ’70’s to the ’90’s there was the Baader-Meinhof Group. Alas, as much as I admire Glenn Greenwald’s efforts to correctly define the meaning of terrorism, they feel more like Bob Woodward than Patty Hearst. Yet, without waxing nostalgic about countercultural revolution, I can think of one amazingly apposite and lasting example.

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