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The Tale of the ScaleAn Odyssey of Invention$

Solly Angel

Print publication date: 2004

Print ISBN-13: 9780195158687

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195158687.001.0001

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Arriving at the Square

Arriving at the Square

(p.69) 9 Arriving at the Square
The Tale of the Scale

Solly Angel

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores Solly Angel's own aesthetic convictions. It also looks at simple prototypes that veteran designers and ordinary people could handle and comment on, and develops a deeper awareness of the sheer beauty of the many designed objects that Solly saw as he began to search the novelty shops, the museums, and the bookstores of New York City. Without a workshop and with no tools to his name except a pair of metal shears, he proceeded to build two show-and-tell prototypes. Solly already felt uncomfortable and mildly anxious about the prospect of having to confront manufacturers who embraced a different design aesthetic, and who had strong ideas about what their customers wanted or what corporate image they wanted to convey in their products. But he was running ahead of himself again. After all, he did not yet have any manufacturer interested in his invention.

Keywords:   prototype design, sandwich plate, New York, manufacturers, Solly Angel

February 1988–May 1988

William Goldman, who wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President's Men, and The Princess Bride, among others, describes how it felt to hand in a screenplay he had just completed:

And then comes the moment of mourning. Because the relay race must go on and my lap is ending: I must pass the baton to the other technicians. And when you give it away, the loss, of course, is the end of your imagination. The movie in my head is going to leave me. Other people's fantasies are going to take over. … At the time of his greatest usefulness, the screenwriter is cast aside. That's the way movies are made.

Goldman understood that he had to let go and was never involved in the transformation of his screenplays, his inventions if you will, into films. Was I only interested in inventing the thin scale, floating my scale patent into the world, and then leaving its realization to others? Or was I interested in actually making it happen, in making sure that the thin-scale design I had envisioned was transformed from a concept into a real object? There was never a doubt in my mind that I, for one, opted to strive for the actual realization of a new form of personal scale. It was the thin-scale design that was driving the invention in the first place, and there was a lot still to be discovered along the way.

My patent would never define an actual form for a personal scale anyway. I already knew that I could not patent the dimensions, the shape, the details, or the texture of the scale, for example. At any rate, having a patent for the sandwich-plate principle underlying the construction of thin and lightweight scales and moving on to bigger and better things was never a real option for me.

So, while it was not yet clear to me how to transform the scale I had in mind into an actual artifact that would grace the shelves of stores, I knew that there was a lot more work to do beyond getting that patent, a patent that solved only one of the three problems I had posed, anyway. I now had to move on several parallel tracks. One of those tracks involved the determination of the appearance of the thin scale in more complete detail.

This entailed shifting my focus from the scale's internal workings to its look (p.70) and feel, at least in a preliminary sort of way. The final act of design—involving the elevated craft of bringing all the parts into a harmonious whole—would have to wait until all the parts had acquired their essential forms. Only then would I be able to join them seamlessly with one another.

For now, however, I posed myself a more general question: What would a beautiful personal scale look like? With this question in mind, I proceeded to explore my own aesthetic convictions, to build simple prototypes that veteran designers and ordinary people could fondle and comment on, and to develop a deeper awareness of the sheer beauty of the many designed objects that I saw as I began to explore the novelty shops, the museums, and the bookstores of New York City.

                   Arriving at the Square

My reconnection with the issue of aesthetics in design—after so many years of wrestling with the nonvisual aspects of the housing problem—should be traced to those long lunch conversations with Lucinda at the Bridge Café, when we would easily polish off a bottle of Freemark Abbey Cabernet between us before she would courageously get up and I would walk her back to her office, a few blocks to the south.

The Bridge Café was a small and noisy restaurant-slash-bar in downtown Manhattan that, except for its creative American menu, had no visible intention of catching up with the times. It occupied the ground floor of a low wooden building at the end of Water Street, right where the Brooklyn Bridge starts crossing the East River. A modest and unassuming place built in 1794, it held the unbroken record of serving liquor since 1847 (occasionally—it must be admitted—in conjunction with raunchy brothels on its upper floors), making it the oldest drinking establishment in New York City. Its present décor was still 1920s, its walls were only suggestively vertical, and its old ceiling of embossed sheet-metal squares had been painted over so many times that one could barely distinguish its ornamental pattern. At lunchtime it was usually full of laid back regulars who gladly welcomed newly committed regulars—like the two of us—into their midst.

Who was Lucinda? At that point in my story, she was an architect working full-time on the design of office interiors—more specifically, trading floors—in a large office downtown. With her short black skirt, her flowing black hair, and her black everything else—except for her light skin and green eyes lined with a shade of blue mascara—she was beautiful, very beautiful, in fact. And she knew it too.

At the time, she was still married to a talented Israeli sculptor of South African origin, and they had two small children, had been living in New York for a dozen years or so. They inhabited a loft in SoHo that they had bought for a pittance a few years after arriving in the city, after their landlord raised their rent yet again. They remodeled that high-ceilinged loft—formerly occupied by an industrial workshop, possibly a printing establishment—in a minimal, uncluttered (p.71) way, retaining its original open loftness, yet imbuing it with a noble, gentle, and serene elegance that it surely did not have before. It had Luanda's signature writ large over it, an unabashed commitment to the “less is more” philosophy of modern design.

Her artist husband was among the few leading figures in the Israeli art establishment of the 1970s, and was modestly successful in New York too. He devoted himself entirely to his abstract sculptures and drawings, which he sold from time to time, edging closer and closer toward that elusive New York dream—the big break. Lucinda, on her part, worked away to make ends meet and then came home via the supermarket to cook dinner and take over from the nanny. It was her way of “supporting the arts,” she used to say jokingly.

She loved visual art; she felt comfortable among artists; and she felt nourished, sometimes even elated, by the new art she feasted her eyes on in the many galleries that sprang up in her SoHo neighborhood. No matter how enigmatic or perplexing, what she saw was speaking to her. She listened, she understood, and she reacted—always in a passionate yet thoughtful way. A note she left me at the time in her squarish, back-slanted designer handwriting said: “Beauty means clarity and honesty. An object can be really beautiful only when it avoids the issue of aesthetics—when it tells you the truth about itself, when its purpose is clear. When its inner soul is revealed, you see it, you know how to use it. An object is really ugly when it lies, evades, or distorts the truth about its real nature.”

My brother Joe saw them from time to time. In fact, Lucinda's husband had a pretty younger sister in Israel who was Joe's high-school sweetheart—a kind-hearted dancer whom Joe did not marry but did not exactly let go of either. It was mutual. Now he was married and she was married and it was all too late anyway. But they kept in touch. And so it was that through Joe I met Lucinda, or rather, to be more precise, met her again.

                   Arriving at the Square

The first time I met Lucinda was some 15 years earlier, before I left for Bangkok. I was a fresh Ph. D. from Berkeley, newly recruited to teach architecture and town planning at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. We stood side by side, almost touching, on the first day of classes, strangers to each other in a room crowded with students assembled to hear their professors market their courses. I made my pitch, promising to actually teach design in a fourth-year architectural design studio. Sensing a breath of fresh air, she and a dozen of her classmates signed on.

It was difficult to deliver on my promise. The students were more or less disaffected. No building ever built before was good enough for them. Nothing they saw in the glossy journals turned them on. Nothing their fellow students came to class with mattered to them in the least, because, as far as they were concerned, it was empty of novel content. No instructor had anything of consequence to say (p.72) to them. They had taken upon themselves the task of creating new architecture from scratch, but, without any building blocks, that proved impossible.

I took it upon myself to get them to fall in love with small parts of conventional, nameless buildings—not whole buildings—that would be asking too much too soon—but maybe an occasional detail, a sunny clearing, a shaded seat, an inviting gateway. I took them on long walks along old residential streets on the slopes of Mount Carmel, pointing to places that seemed to be alive—a corner here, a verandah there, a window here, and a tended garden there that I found to be special and attractive.

I wanted them to see the beauty inherent in the simple manifestations of built form, and to develop personal connections with the places they found enchanting or, at the very least, sensible. I wanted them to start gathering personal collections of forms that appealed to them or moved them in some way because the forms worked, whatever that meant to them. From these building blocks, I believed, they could assemble a language, a pattern language if you will, that they could use in putting together their own building designs. To quote Robert Venturi:

The architect should accept the methods and elements he already has. … Present-day architects, in their visionary compulsion to invent new techniques, have neglected their obligation to be experts in existing conventions. … The architect's main work is the organization of a unique whole through conventional parts and the judicious introduction of new parts when the old won't do. … Through unconventional organization of conventional parts he is able to create new meanings within the whole. … Familiar things seen in unfamiliar contexts become perceptually new as well as old.

When the students brought their first design sketches to class, I let it be known that I expected everyone to comment on everyone else's work, but I insisted on two separate rounds of comments—first, only the positive ones, and then, once the positive comments were exhausted, the negative ones. I then stopped anyone who tried to cheat with a comment such as “I liked the skylight in the corridor, but …,” and once it was clear that only purely positive comments were admissible, an oppressive silence descended on the room.

There was a frown on everyone's face. Who was I to trample on their freedom of speech? I looked into the void and started counting my breaths, letting it be known that I considered silence meditative. Slowly but surely, as the silence became unbearable, positive comments started flowing haltingly from mouths of people who seemed surprised to hear their own voices. Once it became clear that seeing something of value in someone else's work and acknowledging it did not diminish one's own standing in the community, positive comments came forth with more and more conviction. Not surprisingly, by the time the positive round of remarks was over, the negative aspects of the designs were there for all to see and did not really merit any additional commentary.

(p.73) At the root of architecture, in other words, there was a love affair with special places one discovered, with alluring details one eyed in passing, with streets and enchanted squares one fell upon, and with cities one was purposefully lost in. It was sensual, to be sure, but Platonic all the same.

                   Arriving at the Square

My love affair with Lucinda had to wait until a year later, when she was no longer a student and I no longer a teacher. One starry night in the summer of 1973, we drove down from Jerusalem through the Judean Desert, via Jericho, to the shores of the Dead Sea, and fell head over heels over each other. From that day on, we could not let go of one another. Come fall, we parted with a promise to live together, at least for a while, the next time we met, which was to be in Bangkok. I had just accepted a teaching job there. Lucinda planned to visit her father at her birthplace in Argentina and, from there, to come directly to Bangkok.

But that was not to be. The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 shredded our little blueprint into small pieces and cast them to the cold, desert wind. About a week after the beginning of the war, I was called out of the classroom and told that there was an urgent phone call for me. It was the secretary of the military attaché at the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok.

“I am afraid you will have to go back,” she said. “We got a cable today that asked for all officers in the armored corps to go back. Apparently too many were lost during the first few days of the war and they need reinforcements.” As a personal invitation to war, it was the best she could do.

As I left the class, Brito Mutanayagam, a student from Kerala in Southern India, gave me a small and shiny red seed tied to a thin cotton string. “This seed contains 100 miniature ivory elephants,” he explained. “Wear it around your neck. It will protect you.” I obliged.

The telephone service between Bangkok and Buenos Aires left much to be desired. There was no direct line. The connection involved several unhelpful operators who spoke Thai or Spanish, and long, frustrating waits that ended in unexplained silences. I had to leave Bangkok without getting through to Lucinda to tell her not to come, I could not get through to her while I was on my way, and I arrived in the Sinai desert without having spoken to her at all.

I found my little unit—the artillery command unit of a tank brigade—in the middle of the night. A few hours later, we crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt on our old M3 half-track—an open-top World War II-issue personnel carrier—to a loud welcome of unfriendly Egyptian artillery fire that rained shells all around us. From then on it was war, mostly a desert war fought at great distances between tank forces that could only see each other through binoculars.

I shall pass on the war stories. It suffices to say that I felt safe surrounded by the open, empty desert, much safer that I would have felt had I had to do battle in a densely populated city. Much to my surprise, I moved about as though I were protected by an invisible shield, and never for a moment did I experience (p.74) real, gripping fear. In contrast, half the people on our half-track sat silently along its walls, hunkered down with fear. Miffed by the very idea that they could get themselves killed, they hid their sad faces under their helmets and waited for the whole sorry affair to finish; the sooner the better.

In a few days of intense fighting, our tank division completed the encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army that had crossed into the Sinai in the first days of the war. Then, rather abruptly, we were commanded to stop right there. Why stop, just when we were getting the upper hand?

Nixon and Kissinger—we were eventually told—in response to a vague Russian ultimatum, issued a strongly worded ultimatum of their own. They did not want the Egyptians humiliated, and they preferred an ambiguous outcome to the war, in which each side could claim victory. In their thinking, it would be a good basis for peace talks, and they were certainly proved right—a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt was signed three years later. And so, while the two sides started talking haltingly, we were encamped in the desert with nothing much to do, besieging the now deeply entrenched Third Army and rehearsing a deadly offensive we would mount against it—code-named Knights of the Heart—should negotiations break down. Weeks went by and then months.

Every two weeks or so, I went on a rest-and-recreation leave to Israel proper, where I found morale much lower than “back home” in the tent in the empty desert. The surprise Egyptian and Syrian attack on Yom Kippur shattered the country's confidence in the invincibility of its army and in the good judgment of its government. The people I knew were, on the whole, deeply depressed, and did not provide me with the nourishment and the support I needed to carry on with that interminable siege.

I kept calling Lucinda in Argentina and asking her to come to Israel to be with me. I told her I needed her close to me. She promised to come soon but she took her time. I felt more and more heartbroken, abandoned, so to speak, in my hour of need. I started to think that maybe she did not care for me enough, or that maybe she was just dishing out the proverbial Latin mañana without any real intention of coming. These thoughts were amplified into something resembling “betrayal” during the long nights in the flat, cold, starlit desert, when there was not much else to think about.

Lucinda finally came, but only after three long months. It was good to be with her again, even though we could only manage a couple of days here and a couple of days there. We wanted things between us to be as they were before, but they weren't. We could not talk it out either. We were both awed by the long silences that engulfed us; they were bigger than us, and our timid voices could not penetrate them.

My days in the desert became longer and longer, and there was no end in sight. One early morning, I was awakened by a telephone call from brigade headquarters. “Knights of the Heart,” a voice said, “have your unit ready to move in 30 minutes.” When I put the receiver of that field telephone back into its cradle, I (p.75) discovered I could hardly breath. As far as I was concerned, this war was over and our little unit was lucky to escape it unscathed. In my agitated state, I was unsure that I could stand yet another battle. Now, for the first time in this campaign, I was scared, really scared.

But there was nothing to say. So we lumbered out, packed our half-track with rarely a word exchanged between us, and joined the assembling convoy, only to be told that it was just a drill and we could go back to sleep. The air escaped from my lungs as I dropped like a sack of potatoes on my disheveled bed. Not more than a day or two later, rummaging through the many zipped pockets of my khaki overall, I found that red seed that Brito Mutanayagam gave me. I opened it and spilled out the miniature ivory elephants. Out of the original hundred, there were only three left.

Eventually, after four months of active duty, I was discharged and told I could return to Bangkok. I asked Lucinda if she wanted to come with me. She said no, and we left it at that. That no was only explained in New York, many years later. A lame invitation that consisted only of asking her whether she wanted to come was not enough of an invitation, she felt, and rightly so—it neglected to mention whether I wanted her to come. Expressive we were not during those tense last days. I never told her how much I missed her, and she never explained what kept her away. And so, we parted our ways. She married a year or so later. I was there at her wedding, yet another invited guest, plainly disconnected from any real feeling I may have harbored. That was the last we saw of each other for some time. We lost touch and we lost each other.

Fifteen years went by, and then, while searching for the thin scale, I came upon the lost Lucinda. We were older now, more grounded, and definitely more articulate, and we now found time for each other, time to make up for all the lost time.

But we kept a respectful distance between us, moving around each other in wide invisible orbits, attracted to each other yet not knowing exactly whether it was safe to get closer. She, on her part, was estranged from her husband yet still married, and I, on my part, had vowed long ago to refrain from having affairs with married women. Plato would have been proud of us. And now—as for the choice of a base of operations for the scale venture—New York, with Lucinda there, made infinitely more sense than Los Angeles, for example, without her there. Cities, I discovered, have this quality—their fortunes rise and fall with the company you keep, especially the company of women.

                   Arriving at the Square

Without a workshop and with no tools to my name except a pair of metal shears, I proceeded to build two show-and-tell prototypes. They were to be looked at, touched, and photographed, but not meant to carry any loads. The first prototype consisted of two ten-by-ten-inch aluminum sheets—rounded at the corners—with a quarter-inch panel of balsawood in between. I sprayed the aluminum (p.76) sheets in matte black, and along the entire perimeter I stretched a quarter-inch diameter O-ring of black rubber.

The second prototype was simply a matte-black, quarter-inch plastic plate of the same size with the same rounded corners. On both prototypes, on the top side near one edge, I glued a rectangular piece of gray paper with slanted electronic numbers drawn on it to simulate the readout window, and on the bottom side, near each corner, I glued a one-inch-diameter thin plastic disk to simulate the feet supporting the scale from below.

Lucinda took the two prototypes to her interior design office downtown and showed them to seven designers, jotting down their comments. All in all, they were very enthusiastic: “This thin and this light! How wonderful!” “Fabulous,” “Gorgeous,” “Revolutionary,” “A knockout,” “belongs in the MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art],” “Will make a fortune” were some of their comments.

Most preferred the square design to a rectangular one, and the plastic prototype to the metal one with the rubber O-ring. They also favored the almost vertical, boxlike edge of the plastic prototype to the rounded edge of the O-ring model. Most preferred black to any other color. Some, but not all, opted for a matte finish.

“My husband travels, watches his weight, [and is] crazy about finding a scale he could take with him,” said Kathleen. “Finish it with dots to avoid scratching,” said Joe. “It should hang on the wall; I hate things on the floor,” said Shelly. “If it has to have a rim, make the rim shiny and the rest matte,” said Nancy. “No rim,” said Lila. “It looks cheap. Let me know when it becomes available.”

Those, I felt, were very encouraging comments indeed. Some time later I went with Lucinda to visit the third floor of the Museum of Modern Art. It housed a permanent exhibit of product design—from a small helicopter to a portable typewriter. I was thrilled to see everyday objects in a museum. They were imbued with intelligence and creativity, and a few seemed to have attained a measure of nobility as well.

“Design,” wrote Peter Dormer, “has arrived as a serious cultural ‘object’ in its own right. … All manner of designerly objects … are collected, put on exhibition, curated, catalogued, classified, and eulogized. Design is not only commerce, not only about the here and now but, thanks to the museum culture, it is also culture, also timeless, also classical—the favorite word of praise.”

It seemed natural and effortless for me to add one more objective—or rather one more imperative—to the scale project right there and then: getting it into the MOMA's permanent collection. Right.

                   Arriving at the Square

Why, I must ask myself, was I committing myself to the modern agenda in 1988—having never signed on to it before—at a time when designers had already abandoned it in droves? This surely requires an explanation, one I could not offer then, but that has become quite clear to me since.

(p.77) What was the modern agenda? It surely was not simply the principle form follows function. This principle was first articulated in 1852, I found out to my surprise, by a mediocre and long-forgotten American figurative sculptor, Horatio Greenough (1805–1852), who had little to do with modernism. But in his short critical essays lamenting the absence of an American architecture, Greenough uncannily formulated most of the modern agenda, half a century ahead of his time:

If there be any principle of structure more plainly inculcated in the works of the Creator than all others, it is the principle of the unflinching adaptation of forms to functions. … If you will trace the ship through its various stages of improvement, from the dugout canoe and the old galley to the latest type of the sloop-of-war, you will remark that every advance in performance has been an advance in expression, in grace, in beauty, or grandeur, according to the functions of the craft.

While modern architects adopted form follows function as a slogan, they were not more concerned with function than the builders of old. The rediscovery of function did prove an essential element of the modern credo, however, because it called for a return to first principles, seeking a truthful expression of modern needs, and rejecting any further attempts at adaptation of old forms that no longer fit the demands of the times. Old Greenough understood that as well: “The laws of expression are such that the various combinations which have sought to lodge modern functions in buildings composed of ancient elements, developed and perfected for other objects, betray, in spite of all the skill that has been brought to bear upon them, their bastard origin.”

It was the new building technology—more specifically, the use of steel column-and-beam (as well as truss) structures and reinforced concrete floors—that freed modern architecture at the turn of the century from its earlier reliance on heavy load-bearing walls and from constraints on the spans of ceilings and roofs, rendering irrelevant much of the building traditions of earlier periods. In this sense, it did make possible a pure break with the recent past, a break that coincided with the revolutionary fervor of the times, and that led to the call for the total and radical abandonment of old forms and anything reminiscent of them.

Not only was the old architecture no longer appropriate for meeting new needs, for modern eyes it was morally corrupt as well, employing excessive ornamentation and embellishment “to disguise its incompletedness.” That was its biggest “crime,” to use the language employed by Adolf Loos (1870–1933) in his book Ornament and Crime of 1908. In Greenough's words:

The turning point was the first introduction of a fanciful, not demonstrable, embellishment, and for this simple reason, that, embellishment being arbitrary, there is no check upon it; you begin with acanthus leaves, but the appetite for sauces, or rather the need for them, increases as the palate gets jaded. … And by (p.78) degrees you find yourself in the midst of a barbaric pomp … whose enjoyment is satiety, whose result is corruption.

The insistence on a return to function provided the moderns with a theoretical and rational base for a blanket rejection of any and all ornament, as well as all other historical references and connotations that seemed unnecessary and inessential. Shedding all obligations to the past and armed with the new technology, modern architects were now free to explore new forms. What old Gree-nough—being still locked into a figurative sculptural style—could not see yet was the introduction of the abstract into modern art at the turn of the century. And it was the introduction of the abstract that eventually provided the impetus for a new aesthetic in modern architecture and design, a truly revolutionary aesthetic that clearly distinguished it from anything done before.

An abstract form was created through a highly disciplined rejection of the particular and the unessential in order to bring out the true essence or a form. A typical example would be the 1924 Bird in Space (Fig. 24), an abstract sculpture by Constantin Brancusi (1876–1957) that tried to capture the essence of birdness, if you will, without describing a specific bird.

                   Arriving at the Square

24 Brancusi's Bird in Space, 1924

Through the systematic rejection of any function that was not deemed absolutely necessary, modern architecture became free to employ the simplest, purest, and most powerful of geometric forms, forms that embodied its abstract spirit, captured most poignantly by the dictum less is more. The ultimate accomplishment of this aesthetic was the 1958 Seagram Building on New York's Park Avenue, a pure black box designed by the architect who coined this aphorism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886–1969), together with Philip Johnson.

In truth, it was the design logic behind the minimalist black-box aesthetic that I found attractive. It provided me with a clear insight for approaching design: a small number of simple functions resulted, and should have resulted, in a simple form. As the number of functions increased and as functions became more complex, so did the resulting form. In other words, a form could and should remain simple, unless there were good reasons to make it more complex.

The simplest form—simple in the sense of requiring the least information to describe it—was the one that embodied the most symmetry. The simplest three-dimensional form was a sphere, and “thus the lowest (p.79) forms of animals, small creatures suspended in water, are more or less spherical.” As for man-made objects—a straight-edge being a simpler tool than a compass—the simplest three-dimensional form would be a cube.

In parallel, for modern architecture and sculpture, black (and, more generally, the monochromatic) was the absence of color, and its use signified the rejection of color as unnecessary and inconsistent with the purely physical nature of a three dimensional form. In the words of the minimalist sculptor Robert Morris: “The qualities of scale, proportion, shape, mass, are physical. Each of these qualities is made visible by the adjustment of an obdurate, literal mass. Color does not have this characteristic. It is additive. Obviously things exist as colored. The objection is raised against the use of color that emphasizes the optical and in so doing subverts the physical.”

It is a small leap to arrive from the cube to the thin square scale, in which the vertical dimension of the cube—because there is no longer a functional need for it—would be rendered almost unnecessary and collapsed to a minimum. In any event, thinking from first principles, it stands to reason that the shape of the scale would be symmetrical in at least one direction because of the reflective symmetry of the two feet standing on it.

The contour of a man in an upright position with his arms outstretched was found by the Renaissance scholars of the late fifteenth century to be embedded in a square, a finding immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci's famous Homo ad Circulum drawing of 1487. Similarly, the contour of two feet of an average person—with the toes slightly apart to maintain a good balance—does indeed touch the edges of a square in which it is embedded.

Insofar as the square is a sufficient, adequate, and economical platform to stand on, there is no reason to seek a more complex form—be it a rectangle or a more curvilinear form that follows the contour of the feet more closely. And there is no reason to make it in any particular color, or colors. Black, to the extent that it is the absence of color, would do. This, in short, was the reasoning behind the radical minimalist aesthetic of the moderns, the design logic that I professed to share.

                   Arriving at the Square

Not surprisingly, this reasoning proved to be the Achilles heel of modernism too. It was accused of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Paul Rudolph (1918–1997), for example, remarked: “Indeed it is characteristic of the twentieth century that architects are highly selective in determining which problems they want to solve. Mies, for instance, makes wonderful buildings only because he ignores many aspects of a building. If he solved more problems, his buildings would be far less potent.”

Writing in the same spirit, Robert Venturi finally broke the chokehold that the modernists had on architecture for the better part of the twentieth century. In his wonderful little book entitled Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, (p.80) published in 1966, he wrote: “Architects can no longer afford to be intimidated by the puritanically moral language of orthodox architecture. … The doctrine ‘less is more’ bemoans complexity and justifies exclusion for expressive purposes. … Where simplicity cannot work, simpleness results. Blatant simplification means bland architecture. Less is a bore.”

Yet the rejection of modern thinking and the modern aesthetic was never total and complete. What came after it—postmodernism in its various manifestations—was, surely enough, highly critical of the black box. Still, it incorporated a variety of modernist influences, while insisting on going beyond the black box in search of meaningful variety and a new, and more appropriate, visual aesthetic.

As I see it, the various important critiques of modernism have led to the development of four more-or-less different visual aesthetics, or styles, if you will:

  1. 1. The neotraditional style, based on the revival and conservation of the old and established forms rejected by modernism;

  2. 2. The expressive style, based on the premise that, unlike black boxes, forms should communicate their use and function, as well as their internal workings;

  3. 3. The embellished modern style, based on the creation of requisite variety by giving black boxes individual identities through the application of superficial ornaments; and

  4. 4. The sculptural style, based on a total rejection of any connection between form and utilitarian function, freeing the designer to create pure objets dʼart.

Each one of these four visual aesthetics evolved from a different critique of modernism, and each critique has different implications for the form and appearance of the scale. The question I had to ask myself was whether any one of these critiques merited abandoning or modifying the modern thin-black-square design I had in mind.

                   Arriving at the Square

A scale in the neotraditional style: I, for one, having been educated in architecture in the ʼ60s, was never comfortable with the abstract geometrical forms of modernism. My first design exercises in architecture school were indeed boring compositions of small boxes, looking as tired and repetitive as all my other classmates' boring compositions of small boxes. My later years with Christopher Alexander at Berkeley entailed a total rejection of the black box aesthetic—a rejection with which I felt entirely at ease—and it should come as no surprise, therefore, that among the many hundreds of illustrations of good architectural practice in A Pattern Language, there is not one single example of a modern building.

The rationale for such a rejectionist attitude was, first and foremost, the realization that the puritanical modern agenda suppressed an entire spectrum of (p.81) human needs. Instead of searching for the minimal functional essence of a building, our work moved in the opposite direction—toward identifying and exploring the effects on built form of as many functional needs as possible, including a variety of psychological, social, and cultural ones.

Still, we were searching for order, a more complex and less geometrical one, to be sure, but still an order. While broadening the form-follows-function agenda, we were looking for invariant arrangements of the built environment that had stood the trials of time and acquired the patina of timelessness. We wanted to codify the underlying principles of spatial organization that could regenerate the beautiful unity in diversity of the towns and villages of old.

To confess, we ended up rejecting modern forms not to create a new formal order, but rather to reopen the door for the earlier built forms—forbidden by the modern aesthetic—and allow them to reemerge as legitimate and viable answers to present-day design problems. In this sense, A Pattern Language was a manifesto for a conservative, conservationist, and what I would call neotraditional movement, reconnecting with the past and reaching back to the familiar forms, the folk traditions, and the symbolic languages of long-gone days.

In 1985, for example, Alexander and a new group of collaborators designed the Eishin School in Japan (Fig. 25), a clear expression of this neotraditional style. As a style, I found it appealing, I must say. It was warmer, richer, and more attentive to real human needs than modernism. I could even see it as an appropriate

                   Arriving at the Square

25 The Eishin School in Japan, Alexander and Associates, 1985

(p.82) style for furniture, pottery, and various containers, but certainly not for instruments and electronic appliances.

The Pattern Language critique of modernism—the critique that rejected its reductionist and minimalist approach to functional essence in favor of a broader list of what should pass as function—should also apply to artifacts that have a specific single function, such as the personal scale. Like the pocket calculator, for example, the personal scale had one single use—to tell the weight of a person standing on it, day in and day out, in any and all places.

Were there additional, more subtle, functions that the scale or the calculator should incorporate into its design in order to fulfill its basic single function? None that I was aware of (except for the need to be more expressive of function, discussed below), and if that was true, then the thin square shape of the scale could remain a simple shape. The scale, therefore, disregarding this first critique, could still be a black box.

To the extent that this critique degenerated into a simple preference for a revivalist neotraditional style, however, it would call for the rejection of the black box scale design in favor of a more traditional and more familiar design. The upright doctor's scale—with its eye-level horizontal bar and the small poise moving across it to balance it—was one such design, still actively and successfully marketed with minimal improvements on its original form. As for my own preferences and my own scale agenda, I had no difficulty in ignoring this particular aesthetic in favor of the simple square.

                   Arriving at the Square

A scale in the expressive style: a second critique of modernism—still in the form-follows-function tradition—was the objection to the black box itself because of its failure to communicate adequately, to tell us about its function and use, or about its internal workings. Black boxes, it was argued, no matter how beautifully poised, hid much more that they revealed, leaving us guessing, confused, and ill at ease, because they no longer talked to us in a familiar language we could all understand. In short, they were mute and inexpressive. Contemporary espresso-making machines designed for home use, for example, were beautifully streamlined, but they were much less expressive of the process of preparing a cup of espresso than the older La Pavoni machine (Fig. 26).

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26 The La Pavoni espresso-making machine

Some artifacts, argued Peter Dormer, were by their nature more expressive than others: “An old-fashioned set of kitchen scales expresses the act of weighing a quantity whose weightis unknown (p.83) against a set of standard weights. It is as expressive as trying to weigh two things relative to one another using just one's hands. With the old machine one knew what weighing felt like.” A platform scale, he suggested, was much more vague about its function. It did not tell us a story about itself, about what it did, or about how it was operated. This may be true, I admit, but only in relative historical terms. Initially, of course, even the most open-minded public would be “unready to accept the unfamiliar.” But as users of new artifacts gradually became more familiar with them over time, they became more willing to accept them into their midst.

Surely, the balancing of the horizontal bar on the upright doctor's scale by moving a small poise across it is still suggestive of the ancient steelyard Roman scale. The steelyard scales found in Pompeii, for example, with their small sculptured poises in the shape of heads, were still very expressive of the way they measured weight (Fig. 27).

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27 A steelyard scale found in Pompeii, first century A. D .

But by now, I would argue, a thin square box standing on the floor—probably in the bathroom or in the bedroom—with slightly rounded corners (to prevent stubbing one's toe); with a nonskid, floorlike top surface (to stand on); and with a display window in its middle (to glance at one's weight) was recognized almost everywhere (in the industrialized part of the world) as a personal scale. This fact was demonstrated, conclusively in my opinion, by the appearance of simple line drawings of bathroom scales in a large number of cartoons (Fig. 28). The extreme thinness of my design should not have rendered it unrecognizable as a personal scale. Whether it answered the important questions “How do I use it? Can the product walk you through its use?” was another, more complicated, matter, to be discussed in a later chapter. It was certainly a central question for those committed to the expressive style. “Posted signs,” says Donald Norman, “are an indicator of bad design.”

It had also been argued that black boxes failed to inform us about their internal workings. “That building will generally be noblest,” remarked John Ruskin in 1849, “which to an intelligent eye discovers the great secrets of its structure, as an animal form does, although from a careless observer they may be concealed.” But noble as this precept may have been in the past, so many contemporary artifacts (p.84)

                   Arriving at the Square

28 “Rose is Rose” comic strip by Pat Brady, 1986 (reprinted by permission of United Feature Syndicate Inc.)

now incorporated miniature electronic components into which their functions were embedded, that they left nothing of their internal structure for their designers to bring out. The shift from mechanical technology to electronic technology at the end of the twentieth century had vastly reduced the possibilities for functional expressiveness, the kind of expressiveness that would have revealed how things work.

It is true that there were still mechanical elements in personal scales—the load cells, for example, in our case—that sensed one's weight (by bending imperceptibly) before transforming it into an electronic signal. And it is true that the thin square platform could have been made of transparent Lexan plastic, through which one could see the load cells, the wiring, the printed circuit board with the miniature electronic components mounted on it, and the batteries powering it. That would have been a cute novelty maybe, but it would not have explained anything. Rather it would have retained much of the mystery of the black box. If so, why abandon the black box?

                   Arriving at the Square

A scale in the embellished modern style: a third critique of modernism (and specifically of modern architecture) faulted it for its embrace of industrial mass production of machines for living, to use a favorite expression of Le Corbusier. These machines for living were designed with average people in mind, ignoring the peculiar needs—not to mention the tastes and preferences—of the boundless variety of ordinary individuals, groups, and organizations, and preventing them from expressing their unique identities in their habitations, places of work, or gadgets.

This critique was particularly vocal in the case of the unadorned and nearly indistinguishable apartment blocks that made up the ubiquitous housing projects, nearly all of them built in the international style favored by the moderns. The Unité dʼHabitation housing project, for example—designed by Le Corbusier and built in Marseille shortly after the end of World War II—was the archetype and precursor of this new housing form, although it was far from being mass (p.85) produced. Public housing projects everywhere emulated it for several decades, but most of them were poor imitations that lacked the panache and the sense of proportion of the master.

In retrospect, the mass production of apartment blocks on a grand scale, using industrial prefabrication methods, was taken seriously only in the centrally planned economies of the communist countries—where it generally proved to be an expensive failure—and never took hold in democratic countries. Fortunately, the failure to introduce mass production into housing went hand-in-hand with the creation of a splendid variety of housing solutions, enabling families to choose a home to their liking, and then to modify it so that it responded to their own needs and preferences. In so doing, they exercised the power to establish, declare, and celebrate their identity.

The postmodern concern for giving buildings identities—be they individual identities in the case of private homes, or corporate identities in the case of organizations and firms—required distinguishing them from one another. Given that the modern boxes were, after all, the most efficient and cost-effective way to build, especially in denser cities, the simplest way of distinguishing one building from another would be through the embellishment of their façades. The embellished modern style thus called for the reintroduction of ornament and color—so despised by the moderns—into architecture.

Following this logic to its ultimate conclusion, we should expect to see entire façades of office buildings made up of video walls displaying advertisements that can keep changing forever; a rather frightening, yet predictable, prospect given the subjugation of corporate architecture to corporate marketing. For office buildings to still have windows, however, this futuristic scenario would require the invention of a see-through video wall, but—given the windfall profits in sight—that would not prove impossible.

Surely enough, catering to individual preferences for objects imbued with a personal identity eventually penetrated the design philosophy of mass-produced smaller objects as well. In the early days of mass production, Henry Ford could roll out identical Model T cars from his factories and still boast “you can paint it any color, so long as it's black” (Fig. 29). In his time, the universal need for an affordable car overshadowed any personal preferences consumers may have had regarding its design.

But once basic needs were satisfied, more refined and more differentiated preferences came into light. Moreover, once users and consumers became more powerful and found their voice, and once they became more discriminating, their concerns had to be incorporated into product design.

This could be accomplished in one of several ways: by involving users and consumers directly in the design of products or built environments; by pretesting new products with selected users and consumers before bringing them to market; or by offering consumers a large variety of products from which they could choose the one that suited them best. There was no doubt, however, that (p.86)

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29 The 1926 Model T Ford

no matter which venue was chosen, once consumer preferences were seriously taken into account, product design would move away from production for the mass market into niche markets, and eventually into highly personalized custom-made designs.

In doing so, it also moved away from the essential and common functional needs and into the more nonfunctional and ephemeral considerations. “Thinking of life as a whole, what is the purpose of a watch?” asks John Christopher Jones, the author of Design Methods. “Not only to let you know the time … but also to enjoy buying the object, wearing it, matching it to whatever else you choose to wear today, to be the figure that you like to think you are.” This, no doubt, is the underlying philosophy behind the Swatch—the watch as a fashion accessory—and it is spreading.

For example, the highly successful Classic model of the Nokia mobile phone, introduced in 1998, incorporated a great variety of removable faceplates, allowing people not only to personalize their phones by choosing a faceplate to their liking, but to change the looks of their phones depending on their mood, their clothes, or the occasion. Its designer, Frank Nuovo, is convinced that “within a few years having just one phone will seem as odd to most people as owning a single pair of shoes.”

This much-hailed development in design thinking does have serious implications for the form of the thin scale, implications that I am not so sure I want to contemplate. It rejects the black box design aesthetic altogether, reintroducing (p.87) color and ornament as the central elements of a personalize-and-customize approach to design. It implies, in the case of the thin scale, that the preferred design would be a sandwich plate with a flat top, on which a large variety of nonskid rubber decals, in hundreds of colorful designs, would be glued. They could be removable too, with new designs made available regularly.

The scale could surely retain the shape of a thin square with rounded corners, but embellished modern would call for generating lines of fashionable decals in glowing colors, year in and year out. This kind of fashion design, I confess, is entirely out of my ambit—I was diagnosed as color-blind when I was 18, and my understanding of color combinations had never advanced beyond the elementary.

                   Arriving at the Square

A scale in the sculptural style: Finally, while the Swatch, the mobile phone, and the thin scale still retained an important aspect of the modernist “less is more” agenda by their highly efficient use of materials, there was a further development in postmodern design thinking that sought to abandon that remaining minimalism altogether. This further development—exemplified by Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain—moved design into the realm of sculpture in the spirit of “Why Not?” Often with a “money-is-no-object” license, talented designers sought to turn utilitarian objects into exquisite one-of-a-kind objets dʼart meant, first and foremost, to create a moving aesthetic experience. Fulfilling their function was almost an afterthought.

With a money-is-no-object agenda, the only limit to sculptural scales was one's imagination. Any abstract form that one could stand on, sit on, recline in, lie in, or hang from could serve as a scale. In fact, anything that could be mounted in any manner that ensured that all of one's weight was bearing on it could be turned into a scale. All it involved was incorporating some load cells in strategic locations and then transferring the weight readings (with or without wires) to a remote display or directly to one's computer.

If one preferred scales made out of found objects or replicas rather than abstract sculptures, I would suggest Cinderella's glass slippers; a hemp hammock from the South Seas; an antique merry-go-round horse bouncing up and down on a pole; an old barber's chair; a tire swing hanging from the ceiling; or (if you can find it) the podium from which Einstein delivered his physics lectures at Princeton. One could also turn any number of useful objects into scales—a toilet seat, a tile on the bathroom floor, a treadmill, a bar stool, or the driver's seat in one's car.

But all of those elaborate fantasies were really of no interest to me. I was interested in going in the opposite direction, finding the minimal form that would function as a scale. The “anything goes” sculptural approach to design left me cold.

                   Arriving at the Square

(p.88) It was easy—it always was—for Lucinda and me to see eye to eye when it came to questions of design. We easily arrived at the square. And having arrived at the square, I already felt uncomfortable and mildly anxious about the prospect of having to confront manufacturers who embraced a different design aesthetic, and who had strong ideas about what their customers wanted or what corporate image they wanted to convey in their products. But I was running ahead of myself again. After all, I did not yet have any manufacturer interested in my invention, let alone in my design, did I?


(69) And then … made: Goldman, William, 1983, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, New York: Warner Books, 401.

(70) A modest … City: New York Times, 1995, “The Oldest Drinking Establishment in New York”, November 19, online at www.bridgecafe.citysearch.com/.

(72) The architect … old: Venturi, Robert, 1966, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 43.

(76) Design … praise: Dormer, Peter, 1990, The Meanings of Modern Design: Towards the Twenty-First Century, London: Thames and Hudson, 134.

(77) If there … craft: Greenough, Horatio, [1852] 1947, Form and Function: Remarks on Art by Horatio Greenough, edited by Harold A. Small, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 118–121.

(77) The laws … origin: Greenough, 1947, 116.

(77) Not only … incompletedness: Greenough, 1947, 74.

(77) That was … 1908: Loos, Adolf, [1908] 1998. Ornament and Crime: Selected Essays, Riverside, Calif.: Ariadne Press.

(77) The turning point … corruption: Greenough, 1947, 125–126.

(78) The simplest … spherical: Weyl, Herman, 1952, Symmetry, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 27.

(79) The qualities … physical: Morris, Robert, 1968, “Notes on Sculpture”, in Battock, Gregory, editor, Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology, New York: E. P. Dutton, 225.

(79) Indeed … potent: Rudolph, Paul, 1961, Perspecta: the Yale Architectural Journal, 7, vol. 51, quoted in Venturi, 1966, 17.

(p.286) (80) Architects … bore: Venturi, 1966, 17.

(82) An old … felt like: Dormer, 1990, 21–22.

(83) Initially … unfamiliar: Caplan, Ralph, 1982, By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons, New York: McGraw Hill, 116.

(83) A steelyard … first century A. D.: Ciarallo, Annamaria, and Ernesto de Carolis, editors, 1999, Pompeii: Life in a Roman Town, Milan: Electa, Fig. 369, 299.

(83) How … its use: Mitchell, C. Thomas, 1996, “Michael McCoy: Interpretive Design”, an interview with Michael McCoy, in New Thinking in Design: Conversations on Theory and Practice, New York: Von Nostrand Reinhold, 6.

(83) Posted … design: Mitchell, 1996, “Donald Norman: Cognitive Engineering”, an interview with Donald Norman, 99.

(83) That building … concealed: Ruskin, John, [1849] 1989, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, New York: Dover, 35.

(86) Its designer … shoes: Quoted in Specter, Michael, 2001, “The Phone Guy: How Nokia Designed What May Be the Best-Selling Cellular Products on Earth”, New Yorker, November 26, 67.

(86) Thinking … you are: Mitchell, 1996, “John Chris Jones: Of All So Many of Us”, an interview with John Christopher Jones, 152.