Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The MIT Chapel (1955)

The MIT Chapel, design by Eero Saarinen 1953-1956, photo by editor 2013

When one speaks of mid-century modern, I suppose one could not get any more mid than the year 1950. And it was in that year that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), engaged Finnish-Amerian architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen to design a chapel and auditorium on the grounds its campus located in Cambridge just across the Charles River from Boston. The Boston area is rarely thought of as a haven for modernism in the design sense: it is a North American city with deep and significant historical roots stretching back long before the American Revolution and much of the urban renewal that brought about New Boston occurred long-after the modernist ideal had been supplanted by later notions. But MIT was progressive in this sense, the legacy of which can still be seen  on its campus today.

Eero Saarinen, 1950

Saarinen at mid-century had a string of notable achievements and was a known quantity within the design community. His collaboration with Charles Eames resulted in recognition by the MOMA in New York City as well as their participation in the Case Study House program in California (Number 9 to be exact). Eero had spent a good portion of the 1940s working in his father's architecture firm but after the death of the elder Saarinen in July of 1950, the younger launched a shop of his own. At just 85 years old in that same year, MIT was something of a young university - particular compared to its many esteemed and much longer in the tooth neighbors. In some ways, it lacked the traditions that a school such as Harvard had by that time, which may account for it's more forward-thinking artistic engagements.

Interior, The MIT Chapel, photo by editor 2013

The Saarinen MIT commission spanned a period of approximately 6 years. After his selection by the university, Eero shifted his focus on a similar commission for Brandeis University in neighboring Waltham. The Saarinen chapel at Brandeis was eventually scrapped by the planning board as they could not come to an agreement on some of the basic details with the architect. Their loss was certainly MIT's gain, as Eero infused his next project with many of the more interesting and innovation design ideas that he had proposed for the larger structure at Brandeis. He also drew upon his travels in the mid-1930s through the ancient world, particularly Greece and specifically Sparta, which directly influenced his skylight design. Construction began in 1953 and was for the most part completed by 1955, although the roof sculpture was not added until the following year.

Podium sculpture, Harry Bertoia, The MIT Chapel, photo by editor 2013

The resulting building remains as stunning today as I expect it was on it's dedication day. Saarinen created a haven: a place of remarkable peace and tranquility. The brick, wood, and marble evokes the  pre-Christian world refashioned into something modern yet timeless. His use of light - both natural and artificial - is masterful.  The final touches are both contributions from other artists. Harry Bertoia, who like Eames had first met Eero at Cranbrook University, provided the metal sculpture which descends from the ceiling to the base of the podium/altar. Other writers have focused on the speculative literal meaning of the piece, but it is simply a beautiful accent that deflects the incoming light in a hundred different direction. Interpret it as you wish. Theodore Roszak designed the abstract bell tower or spire which was added to the building in 1956.

The MIT Chapel is a singular structure: devoid of any denomination, yet vibrantly spiritual and a shrine to solace. I would expect - if not hope - that its chairs have been full these past couple of weeks. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Great Gatsby (1945)

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925, first edition, cover by Francis Cugat * (see note below)

88 years ago, on April 10, 1925, Charles Schribner's Sons first published F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The novel was met with mixed critical reaction upon it's release and only moderate popular success. In fact, the first edition sold a mere 24,000 copies over the course of it's initial run. By the time Fitzgerald died on December 21, 1944 at the age of 44, the book had been out of print for several years.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1937, photo by Carl Van Vechten

Eight years prior, a second-year Harvard undergrad by the name of James Laughlin published the first New Directions anthology. The roll call of authors New Directions published in the subsequent few years is astounding, particularly as many were being introduced to the general public for the first time: Tennessee Williams, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Saroyan, Wallace Stevens, to name just four. In addition to spotlighting then-contemporary modernist literature, New Directions began reprinting many authors (such as Henry James and Evelyn Waugh) whose works had never been re-printed after their initial publishing runs had ended. 

The Wisdom of the Heart, Henry Miller, 1941, jacket by Alvin Lustig

Part of the spirit of New Directions was reflected in its strikingly modern dust jackets. In 1940, Laughlin was introduced to graphic artist, designer, and ex-Frank Lloyd Wright acolyte Alvin Lustig by bookseller and literary scene-maker Jacob Zeitlin in Lustig's Brentwood, California studio. Laughlin later said that he only needed to spend an hour with the artist before he knew he was in the presence of what he called "authentic creative genius". A commission for the jacket of the New Directions 1941 editions of Henry Miller's The Wisdom of the Heart and Carl Rakosi's Selected Poems soon followed. But while these works reflected the style Lustig had developed up until that time: his next series of work for New Directions, twenty-five books in the publisher's New Classics series, came to represent an iconic style for which Lustig (and to a lesser extent New Directions) is most well-known.

Alvin Lustig, 1945

Among the titles in the New Classics series was Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which was published for only the second time in 1945. A new wave of book reviews followed in the wake of the release. This time around Fitzgerald's novel was being reconsidered, not as the period piece it had been regarded as for the most part over the prior twenty years, but rather as something important and perhaps great. To the point, the New Classics edition marked the beginning of The Great Gatsby as being a true classic of modern American fiction.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, New Classics 9 / New Directions 1945 edition, jacket by Alvin Lustig

Momentum continued on both scholarly and popular fronts through the end of the decade. Somewhat ironically, Paramount Pictures in Hollywood began a film adaptation production in 1948 directed by Elliott Nugent and starring Alan Ladd which was released in July of 1949. The irony lies in the fact that Fitzgerald spent his last booze-soaked years in Los Angeles trying to eek out a living writing for films. This first film adaptation drew from both the original novel as well as Owen Davis's 1926 short-lived adaptation for the Broadway stage. Incidentally, the screenwriters were Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum, the latter being the very same Richard Maibaum who wrote the screenplays of the majority of James Bond films from 1962-1989. In the academic world, at least two books were published in 1951 concerning themselves with Fitzgerald's life and importance. This opened the floodgates to several scholarly works at the highest levels of academia, the sum total of which set The Great Gatsby on the pedestal upon which it still rests today.

Alan Ladd, 1948 Paramount Pictures promotional photo

For further reading, I highly recommend this excellent 1960 New York Times piece.

* An entire weblog entry could be devoted to Francis Cugat's somewhat controversial cover art for the original 1925 edition. Here is what purports to be the untouched original painting, although I cannot vouch for its authenticity. Fitzgerald (perhaps influenced by Ernest Hemingway) later claimed he hated the cover and went to great lengths to apologize for it. And yes, Cugat was the brother of the famous New York-based bandleader who popularized the rhumba: Xavier Cugat. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

John Simons Online (2013)

While your faithful editor spends the week back in Boston, our man in London, Jimmy Mellor, reports in with and exciting development for us Ivy enthusiasts who don't make it across the Atlantic nearly as often as we would like to...

Last month saw the launch of the long-awaited John Simons online shop: a brave new venture for John and his son Paul, as they have built their reputation on personal service and a personal relationship with their customers. You pop in for a shirt, a conversation develops, before you know it you are invited for a drink! The personal touch has always been the hallmark of shopping at  'John's' in each of his many shops over the years and so translating that same level of attention to detail has been the challenge in setting up the new online shop. Hence it being long awaited. Unless it could be done really well the feeling was why let down the customer with anything less?

The new website is still in development and growing daily - probably that will always be the case as there will always be new stock to showcase, new designs from John to debut, an dnew additions to the nature of the shop. Last time I was in, John showed me some vintage thermos flasks he'd acquired purely for the perfection of their design.

Being an independent retailer the London shop is a one-off and that has been the main reason for the move into online. Unless you could visit the shop or were happy to mail order over the telephone (a service John has always supplied) then the frustration for many was in wanting to see and get their hands on the clothes that kept on being discussed. Facebook helped to an extent in spreading the ethos and culture of the shop and Twitter provided updates on the latest, but in the computer-centric world we now all live in (for good or ill) the move to adding an online shop to what John has been doing since 1955 had to come.

And I think it's been well worth the wait. What I would have given for a service like this when I first started out as a 13 year old kid in 1978 with an instant obsession for the clothes I'd seen on my Uncle's old Modern Jazz LP sleeves. In England, unless you knew about John Simons (and I didn't back then), you simply could not get the clothes. You'd get something that came kind of close if you really hunted around but it never would be quite right. Trust me, before encountering John Simons I spent 8 years and wasted a lot of money on trying to get The Look. Now it's all there at the click of a mouse.

Already online from John you can equip yourself with an Ivy League wardrobe from head to toe. Especially of interest is the John Simons Apparel company range of John's own designs informed by his encyclopedic knowledge of menswear. All unique products that you just won't find anywhere else. The shirts due to their production runs have already attracted a 'stamp collector' mentality with John's earlier designs now changing hands for the sort of prices rare records attract. Again, trust me on this as I am putting together a John Simons archive of items from his earlier shops to date. Beyond the very generous donations from long time loyal customers there can be much haggling over all the rest - which is all great good natured fun.

Amongst the various rarities I've collected so far from The Ivy Shop, The Squire Shop, The Village Gate, J. Simons, and now John Simons Est.1955 (all the brain child of John), a Lion of Troy buttondown from The Ivy Shop purchased in 1969 by Mr. Ian Hingle especially stands out as he also enclosed a photograph of himself wearing the very same shirt from that year. So timeless is the style that it could have been taken yesterday. Ultimately the collection will be offered to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

For Ivy style fans in England things have rarely been so accessible and now also for the world due to the Internet. Which is just how the style should be.

Jimmy Frost Mellor, Ivy League Menswear Consultant and Archivist

Editor's Note: all of the items pictured are from John's current online inventory. Be sure to follow one of the links to see the full online selection.