March 15th, 2021

David Stairs


Tom Tierney’s Rita Hayworth paper doll published by Dover

As I sit by my Thermopane picture window reflecting on the wintry scene outdoors, I am distracted by the arrival of a mated pair of songbirds. A male cardinal hops onto my bird-feeder while his subtle mate shelters in a nearby bush.

In many species of nature males are strong, colorful, and dominant. The lion has his mane, the bull elephant his magnificent tusks, and my cardinal his outstandingly bright plumage. It is the means by which natural selection promotes the best genes while simultaneously protecting nurturing females by camouflaging them. Notably, among humans this is reversed.

Human males do not need to be either physical alphas or fashion plates to find a mate. And the burden of displaying color, flash, and sexual expression has been left to the females of our species. It is a multi-billion dollar industry called fashion.

Once upon a time human adornment was the domain of emperors and their courts. With the expansion of the middle class after the end of feudalism, couture was suddenly not only for courtiers. While most people still wore homespun, the expanding merchant class or bourgeoisie could suddenly afford to have someone else make their clothes.

This changed again after the onset on industrialization in the 18th century. As it became cheaper to weave large amounts of fabric, thanks to Jacquard’s programmable loom, a new industry of ready-to-wear, or prêt-à-porter in French, began to outfit exploding urban populations.

The modern fashion press can be dated to the founding of Vogue in New York in 1892. From the outset Vogue was published as a periodical specifically for the leisure class who, as documented by Thorstein Veblen, were conspicuously consuming during the Gilded Age. Conde Nast purchased Vogue in 1909 and expanded it overseas until today it encompasses 26 international editions.

Suffragettes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were “liberated” for their time, but conservative in dress. They might no longer have been restrained by crinolines, but they still wore girdles, full-sleeve blouses, big hats, and long skirts.

By the end of the First World War, star designers like Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, combined with the explosive popularity of cinema idols like Clara Bow and Mary Pickford, brought new emphasis to haute couture for the masses. Now we weren’t just talking about clothing and accessories, but also personal scents. But this is where things start to go awry.

The women who were the beneficiaries of the 19th Amendment, the so-called “flappers,” lived in a completely new world. New York, Paris, and Vienna of the inter-war years dramatically expanded the possibilities for women’s fashion. Babylon Berlin depicts the new world fashion order of Christopher Isherwood’s pre-Nazi German capital and the slender, louche, sometimes masculine styles of female dress then popular.

The ’30s and ’40s saw the expansion of cinema’s influence on fashion with actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Myrna Loy setting the hi-tone for upwardly mobile women. The nearest one can come to a female equivalent of Chaplin’s Little Tramp would be a child star, like Shirley Temple. Full-grown girls were generally depicted as chic and well-dressed, an aspirational style for Depression-era women.

The 1950s were dominated by screen goddesses like Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, and their look alikes such as Jayne Mansfield and Jane Russell. Wearing evening gowns and full-length gloves, the full-figured bombshell ideal offset a generation of stay-at-home Donna Reed-type post-war moms.

An exception to this rule would be the debutant-actress who married a prince, Grace Kelly. Her turn in To Catch a Thief with Cary Grant, filmed by Hitchcock on the Cote d’Azur, served as a sample of how the other half lived long before Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

The “gamine” look pioneered by Audrey Hepburn in the ’50s spilled over into the sexually liberated sixties, fueled by contraceptives and rebellion, marking yet another dramatic break with practicality. Carnaby Street’s “swinging” styles, promoted by supermodels like Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, and popular bands like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, introduced a generation to influences ranging from drug culture to Indian style. When the decade ended in the paroxysm of anti-Vietnam war protests, the stage was set for a retreat to the back-to-the-earth values and style of the flower power generation.

This boom and bust cycle of fashion is only one of the industry’s hallmarks. Lifestyle promotion has been a commonplace of consumer culture for 130 years. But the emphasis on fashion, now so prevalent that most young women are socialized to feel uncomfortable about leaving home in the morning without wearing makeup, has long since surpassed the point of desire. The addition of eating disorders to the canon of psychological illnesses, as girls purge in an effort to emulate their favorite model or pop star, is indicative of the anti-natural emphasis our society places on female appearance.

The fashion industry is also obsessive about change. Planned obsolescence, criticized in industrial design as mere styling, is a fact of life in fashion. Perhaps this is because fashion design, of all the design professions, deals with the most ephemeral end product, the one most susceptible to the whims of social hysteria and economic opportunism. Yet, the industry hails and even celebrates the ephemeral.

Is this constant change and style updating sustainable? It’s a question people in the industry sometimes ask themselves. Perhaps a better one might be “Why fashion at all?” But this can be easily rebutted by the amount of income constant shifts in outward appearance generate. The $2 trillion value of worldwide fashion retail could easily float the GDP of several developing world nations. The sheer number of humans involved in the production and distribution of fashion, from the cotton farmers of Egypt to the sweat-shop seamstresses of Bangeladesh, or the cow herders and leather tanners of India to the retail mall employees and personal stylists of Singapore speak to this. No doubt about it, money talks.

Returning to my original premise, that fashion is unnatural— can there be a counterargument? The industry’s promoters and apologists will obviously disagree with me, arguing that clothing has been part of society since Adam and Eve left The Garden. Obviously, I will never suggest that there is not a need for protection from the natural elements. Most creatures come co-evolved for their living environment, which is why there are polar bears at the arctic, but not giraffes. Human beings are the exception to this, having populated all locations and climates of the globe. And it stands to reason that part of the technology that has made this possible is clothing.

And yet, a better example than the tremendous gap between necessary body coverings and red carpet evening gowns cannot be found. One would be hard pressed to argue that the latter is an environmental necessity, rather than a deranged social obsession developed by a misguided species that has long since forgotten how to tell the forest or its trees. Or put another way, to understand the difference between surface and substance in fashion, one need not look very deep. Any potential relation between trend and survival is strictly a la mode.

David Stairs is the founding editor of the Design-Altruism-Project.

February 11th, 2021

David Stairs


Deep fake of the Queen’s Christmas address; courtesy Channel 4

A man walks into a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. armed with an automatic rifle determined to free children he believes are victims of a peadophilic sex trafficking “deep state.” People interviewed at a Stop the Steal rally in Atlanta tell interviewers a commission is needed to investigate the Democrat’s efforts to corrupt a widely certified election. A man in Nashville (not Robert Altman’s version) destroys a city block blowing himself up at the same time in protest of AT&T’s roll out of 5G wifi service. In another era one might be tempted to agree that “the time is out of joint,” except this bizarro world is our everyday reality.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 9th, 2021

David Stairs

Steve Zdep is dead, that much is certain. He passed away on November 6th, 2020 from causes not revealed in his obituary.


The author in more innocent times

Read the rest of this entry »

December 9th, 2020

David Stairs

With states reporting record numbers of infections, there is no doubt that this Christmas season will be one many will find hard to forget. The malls and retail centers we so precipitously abandoned way back in March do not have the same attraction of earlier years. Since Covid is THE story of 2020, even overshadowing the presidential election, we’ve scrounged up a few holiday suggestions for that extra special Christmas 2020 memento of the years’ most familiar meme.


A “Clovid” orange

Read the rest of this entry »

November 2nd, 2020

October 26th, 2020

David Stairs

Max is over, thank God.

And by Max I mean Adobe Max, that brightshiny overripe bells-and-whistles software tradeshow masquerading as an allconsuming excuse to be pretentiously jejeune.

Read the rest of this entry »

August 21st, 2020

David Stairs


A wild back yard

Except for a couple of thunderstorms, it hasn’t rained much in central Michigan this summer. It has been quite hot, and as usual, very humid. After aggressively mowing the grass in late May and June, it’s growth abates and it mostly browns off. The only way to keep grass green is by watering it, and in a world of diminishing clean fresh water, there has to be a better use for it than golf green lawn grass.

Read the rest of this entry »

July 3rd, 2020

David Stairs

America has finally caught mask fever, fifteen years later than Asian people. There are still many who refuse to “suit up” including Covid deniers, those suffering from claustrophobia, and some who claim medical excuses. But the possible reasons for not wearing a mask are narrowing, with major airlines rejecting travelers who renege.

Read the rest of this entry »

June 13th, 2020

David Stairs

I thought I was speaking truth, but now I’m not sure that it wasn’t simply “my truth” rather than something absolute. Maybe absolute truth doesn’t exist, no matter how much we’d like to believe in it. But, if this is the case, then we’re really doomed.

Read the rest of this entry »

May 14th, 2020

David Stairs

Courtesy Wikipedia

America’s got troubles. I don’t mean the song lyric kind, but, you know, serious troubles. And they’re not the soft purring type you might find on a now infamous classic sci-fi show. Those are tribbles, the sort that pundits and wags like to compare to Donald Trump’s hair.

Read the rest of this entry »

April 19th, 2020

David Stairs

Are you just about sick and tired of seeing pictures of viruses?


Courtesy NIH

Read the rest of this entry »

March 31st, 2020

David Stairs


A sign of our times

There are interesting new ways to mark the passage of time. I generally take account each week when I venture out of my home to grocery shop.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 17th, 2020

David Stairs

Informatics is enjoying a renaissance.


Courtesy LiveScience.com

If you haven’t already encountered it, this graph is bound to become the most talked about x-y axis since Al Gore’s Nobel prize-winning acceptance speech. And it represents events more immediate than climate change, if not more important.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 2nd, 2020

David Stairs

I suppose bookmarks are a personal thing. Some are woven; some are printed; some are just bits of stuff. My son uses a piece of red thread. I won’t say that I collect bookmarks either, but when I am in a bespoke store I will not leave without one. In honor of my favorite bookstores, I’d like to share their bookmarks.

Out west, in Portland there’s Powell’s City of Books. This venerable warehouse on West Burnside Street is always crowded and, while I’d like to say you can find anything there, the greater liklihood is that you will get lost looking. For those who like to get lost, this will not be a problem.

Read the rest of this entry »

January 19th, 2020

David Stairs


Paramount

“We Are the Borg.”

With these words, Maurice Hurley, writing for the Star Trek TNG episode Q Who?, unleashed one of television’s most implacable adversaries on the world. But, as with much speculative fiction, Hurley and his co-writers were only mining the literature of science and engineering probability.

Read the rest of this entry »

December 15th, 2019

David Stairs

Who doesn’t love a podcast?

Some weird personality or obscure ideology you need to catch up on on that long commute to work in the morning? Needing to block out ambient noise in your open space office cubicle? What better way for a busy person to stay both informed and amused?

Read the rest of this entry »

November 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Have you ever been in a super loud environment? I don’t mean the usual sort, like a kindergarten classroom or a football stadium on an autumn weekend— a scene of audio cacaphony— I mean a visually loud room. The Victorians were sometimes guilty of visual clutter, with their knick-knack trophies and flowered wallpaper, but they had nothing on modern commercial interiors.

Read the rest of this entry »

September 14th, 2019

David Stairs


Illustration by Chris Stairs, age 9

I often think about stubbornness. My son Chris is a Leo, and he can be one of the most stubborn people I know. This is not to criticize my son, or to implicate all Leos, but it is a character trait they are somewhat known for.

Read the rest of this entry »

August 6th, 2019

David Stairs

Affluence isn’t free.


Giraffes at a gallop on the Serengeti, Tanzania

In May 2019 the UN released a report about the state of the natural world. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services reported that species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, and that the rate is accelerating.

Read the rest of this entry »

July 1st, 2019

David Stairs

Since when did coding corner the market on the definition of “smart”?

I recently attended a UCDA design conference where Helen Armstrong was one of the keynoters. Ms. Armstrong, a multiply-credentialled academic with deep ties to the AIGA, talked about Big Data, and how designers can/should employ it to their benefit.

Yellow-cyan-indigo paint scheme non-algorithmicly determined

Read the rest of this entry »

May 24th, 2019

David Stairs

While most people these days don’t think much about cattle when they discuss branding, they also probably don’t focus on Apple’s iconic 1984 Superbowl ad as the catalyst for a whole new generation of brand differentiation. Yet, the upsurge of interest in brand fascination is traceable to the 1980s and its emphasis on supply-side economics.


CMU’s Centennial Sculpture, by Charles McGee (installed 1992; relocated 1999; birds voluntary)

Read the rest of this entry »

April 13th, 2019

David Stairs

The editors of MIT Press and Design Observer have compiled a collection of essays to celebrate that weblog’s 15th anniversary. Culture Is Not Always Popular sports the same title as the presentation Jessica Helfand and William Drenttel made at the 2003 AIGA Power of Design conference in Vancouver B.C., which was delivered the very week the Design Observer website launched, at the time a marketing slam dunk that quickly garnered a captive audience for the new site. Yet, despite the title’s heady aspirations, this anthology reveals DO not for what it has aspired to be— avant garde, but what it actually is: largely bourgeois.

Read the rest of this entry »

March 11th, 2019

David Stairs

In 2014 my program hosted a campus visit by the popular and likeable Stefan Sagmeister. Since I made the arrangements for his talk, and chauffered him from and back to the airport, we had plenty of time to visit. I told him his royalty for the visit was payback for the Sappi grant he helped adjudicate for me and my partner in 2003 and, despite the fact he did not know me at the time, I considered it a debt repaid.

Read the rest of this entry »

February 18th, 2019

David Stairs

On Christmas Day one year we visited our friend Kasule Kizito, who was staying at his home in Masaka. We traveled to Bukalavu taxi stage by matatu, where Kizito met us and took us to his home. Kizito was then attempting to repurchase land subdivided from his grandfather’s estate by his 70-odd descendents. On December 26th Kizito broke ground on the new brick house he was building for his eighty-year-old mother.


Stucco-covered brick house with corrugated steel roof

Read the rest of this entry »

January 8th, 2019

David Stairs

It’s seemingly on every designer’s mind these days. No, not sex (although that might be a close second) but social design. How did a matter of collective conscience come to rival primordial drives?

Not long ago only cranks and fuzzy-headed idealists were talking about social design. To perform a service “pro bono” was to earn a little social capital in an otherwise expensive and ultimately self-destructive manner. Working for free was akin to what slaves did. Design professionals in the great consumer economy deserved better.

Read the rest of this entry »