October 20th, 2022

David Stairs

I was in Detroit last weekend.

Of all the cities in the realm, Detroit has the best claim of “first in freeways.” The first mile of paved road was laid in Detroit in 1909, just in time for the revolution in transport Henry Ford was planning to visit on the nation. This was before a transcontinental highway existed. Four years later the Lincoln Highway became the first coast-to-coast auto road in America. Dedicated in 1913, it ran from New York to San Francisco passing through 14 states.

The US highway system, first legislated as the Federal Aid Road Act of 1916, became the numbered system in 1926. By the late 1930s it was becoming apparent that the system would not be adequate much longer. The Interstate system was legislated during the Second World War, but little happened with the proposal until Eisenhower became president and made it a priority. He’d been impressed with the German autobahns that had sped his armies across Germany in the final days of the war.

The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 established the means for financing a largely brand new series of 40,000 miles of limited access freeways across America. They would be maintained by the states, but the 114-billion-dollar cost was largely paid for by the federal government through a tax on fuel.

While the Interstate system increased both nationwide access to tourism as well as urban flight to suburbia, in some areas interchanges built directly through downtown areas eliminated whole neighborhoods. Other places experienced demonstrations opposing urban freeways that resulted in construction cancellations.

In Seattle I-5 through downtown resulted in the 1976 addition of a built-over Freeway Park. But all too often, as in Portland, Oregon, St. Louis, and Oklahoma City the interstate barged right through prime downtown neighborhoods. My hometown of Syracuse was a classic case in point of poor urban road design. Sixty years on the elevated Onondaga Interchange, heavily criticized for being built through a historically black neighborhood, is being redesigned as a grade-level road, with arterial traffic detoured onto a ring road around the city center.


Construction of the I-81 Onondaga Interchange through downtown Syracuse, late 1960s. Courtesy Onondaga Historical Association

My recent experience in Detroit, which is criss-crossed by freeways, revealed another problem with our urban roads: deferred maintenance. Care of the roadways is the responsibility of the states, but I-94, the heavily traveled east-west route through Detroit, is a welter of unavailable lanes and closed on-ramps, making for constant slow-downs and workarounds. I’d like to say this is inevitable in a place prone to road salt for bad winter weather, but it’s as much a matter of huge traffic volume, and heavy truck usage. And this latter is strictly a result of the shift from rail to road transport brought about by the Interstate system itself!

I have driven into or passed through at least a dozen large American cities on interstates in my life as a driver. In spite of generally reduced speeds through these interchanges, it always feels like a life-risking experience due to the enormous volumes of short-range urban traffic. I’ve nearly been involved in multi-car accidents in Chicago and Minneapolis— not an experience I will soon forget. And driving the freeways of LA is, well, a thing one could easily live a lifetime without.

For the most part, the US Interstate system, despite occasional re-designed improvements, feels increasingly like a mid-20th century utopian idea that was only partly successful. The long overland stretches linking the far-western states are useful since the wide-open spaces are vast. But in general the urban interchanges have only added to rather than reduced traffic growth, making them a hell-on-earth to drive.

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

September 21st, 2022

David Stairs

Did you ever have to “brown bag” your lunch? If so, you know about the things that can go wrong, from torn bag to sogged-out paper from a leaky drink container.

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August 21st, 2022

David Stairs


Sigmund Freud in the parallel universe that is America (Photo credit: Library of Congress/Corbis Historical Collection)

Amid all the loose talk about lost American greatness, there seem to be many people worrying about just what has gone so terribly wrong, as if last year’s withdrawal from the quagmire of Afghanistan was evidence of American weakness, and we really ought to go back to war in Ukraine. I’d like to propose that things have not so much changed as that they have just become “more American.”

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July 19th, 2022

David Stairs

Title wall of the exhibition 5°F

Gordon Lightfoot had a song on Summer Side of Life entitled “10 Degrees and Getting Colder.” That record is now over 50 years old, and things have changed dramatically since it was released. Primarily, everything on Earth is getting much warmer, even winter.

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June 21st, 2022

David Stairs


The only guns this cowboy ever owned

What could be more dimwitted, un-insightful, or self-serving than a strict interpretation of the Second Amendment?

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May 25th, 2022

David Stairs


Load your Potato Guns boys ’n girls!

Yogi Berra once said, “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Back in the days when Trump was the undisputed Twitter Queen, I never thought we’d be free of his unhinged rantings. It was a surprising relief when he was finally dethroned. But, as in a beehive, when one queen dies another arises in her place, and it didn’t take long for a replacement to come along. Elon Musk was determined to out do Trump. He would not only take over as Queen of Tweets, he would also take financial control of the platform.

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April 20th, 2022

David Stairs


Courtesy of Lucien Stairs

You don’t have to look very far these days to see designers talking about the brave new world of Design AI. Helen Armstrong is out stumping her AI monograph, Big Data, Big Design. Mariana Amatullo is referencing it in the summer 2019 issue of Dialectic. And designers everywhere have become addicted to the Cloud, those banks of energy gulping servers housed in over-cooled desert complexes by Alphabet and Amazon. But what does AI really mean to the future of design?

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March 22nd, 2022

David Stairs

There are two treats I remember from childhood, and they were both manufactured by Sunshine Bakers: Cheez-Its, and Hydrox. Cheez-Its are still around in many updated variations, now a Kellogg’s brand. Hydrox dropped from sight for awhile, the result of several changes of ownership, only to reemerge in 2015.

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February 21st, 2022

David Stairs

Thomas Carlyle called economics the “dismal science” in response to Malthus’s writings about exponential population growth. Carlyle was a Victorian and did not live in an era dominated by design. It would’ve been interesting to see what he would have made of our times. Frantic? Overwrought? Or maybe just predictable?

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January 21st, 2022

David Stairs


Quannah Chasinghorse by Nathaniel Goldberg; Emily Ratajkowski from Instagram

A recent article in Elle Magazine online by Terese Marie Mailhot (Photographed by Nathaniel Goldberg and Styled By Alex White) introduces us to Quannah Chasinghorse, a nineteen-year-old native American runway model of Hän Gwich’in and Sicangu Oglala Lakota descent. (Corset, $1,295, pants, $2,295, Christopher John Rogers. Earrings, necklace, bracelets, 2021 Tiffany Blue Book Collection.)

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December 20th, 2021

David Stairs


The only good use I’ve ever found for disposable diapers, a 1976 poster. (Note the pins I added. Talk about double-entendre!)

I know I’m supposed to say that prize-winning financially successful ideas are examples of great design, and I wish it was always true but……. let’s get real. In the commercial world we’ve created, there are too many cases that contradict optimism. Take diapers, for instance.

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November 20th, 2021

David Stairs


Dick Clark at the Moulin Rouge by David Stairs

In a land governed by capital, it comes as no surprise that so much value is attached to celebrity. One of the first great modern personalities, Oscar Wilde, said, “Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.” Thus, it would seem the cult of celebrity sets us all up to fail, encouraging us to emulate the false god popularity.

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October 20th, 2021

David Stairs

Every three years I am tasked with guiding a group of senior design students through their capstone year. Once upon a time it was enough to mount a student’s portfolio for public exhibition, and this process can still be seen at end-of-year design exhibitions across the country. Design being a supposedly “problem solving” discipline, students are often coached to take on a design problem to research and develop or expand upon. Such projects address topics large and small, ranging from homeless shelters to user experience apps, and everything in between.

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September 18th, 2021

David Stairs

As the AIGA gears up for its annual conference, I find myself pondering. In a year of magical thinking, like everyone else the AIGA has reinvented its conference schedule for online delivery. If this is just a matter of the new normal, obviously this cannot be an issue. What, then, makes the organization so damned annoying? Actually, I’ve been struggling to figure this out for years.

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August 21st, 2021

David Stairs

There are a lot of people criticizing techno-capitalism these days, those so-called social pariahs demonstrating for economic “justice” and “equity.” But surely, these things are not givens in a free enterprise economy. They have generally needed the assistance of government regulation. In a system influenced by corporate lobbyists and deluded by the notion of limitless growth, even environmental degradation is not enough to staunch the lust for short-term gain. In fact, it may even accelerate it.

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July 25th, 2021

David Stairs

While China installs a nationwide video surveillance system, people in the West fret about the potential damage to their privacy by CTV cameras. But, apart from high profile failures, like Toronto’s “smart city” project, we’ve actually been normalizing surveillance for decades. Just consider reality television.

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June 25th, 2021

David Stairs

UPDATE:

As of July 23rd, 2021, following Anthony Fauci’s recent congressional testimony, this story is now being reported by the BBC.


A double arginine codon inserted at the S1/S2 furan cleavage site of the SARS CoV-2 virus’s genome

It was once the best of times……. except now we are coming to know the truth about how it became the worst of times……. and it begins with human folly compounded by deceit that results in a catastrophe.

Donald Trump was widely panned for claiming that Covid 19 was a Chinese invention, the “Kung Flu” as he often referred to it. The liberal press painted this as the worst sort of conspiracy theory, the China-bashing an embattled candidate for reelection might peddle to convince his base he was tough on foreign affairs. Only it turns out he was right, even if for the wrong reasons.

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May 26th, 2021

David Stairs

When Thomas McNeill was made pastor of St. Margaret’s parish in 1948, he inherited little more than a twenty-year-old mission church in a growing suburb north of Syracuse, New York. McNeill had been a Navy chaplain in the Pacific during the war, but his dream was to expand Catholic education, and he would devote the best years of his life to the work.

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April 24th, 2021

David Stairs

Another day, another mass shooting. We’re led to believe by television that Mayhem is a guy in a suit, played by actor Dean Winters, who causes mass upheaval wherever he goes. If only it were that simple.


Glock semi-automatic pistol designed by Gaston Glock

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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