Video Sundays: Design Line Phones

Am I the only person who has a problem with post WWII consumer objects? When it comes to phones I think they should be black, all the same and weigh 10 pounds. I think the cringe-worthy phones in this film from the fascinating AT&T history channel, prove my point. Some background:

For much of the company’s history, AT&T rented phones to users. But in the 1970s, the company tried a novelty line of phones that customers could actually buy, in stores. For these “Design Line” phones, the users were essentially buying just the housing — the working guts of the phones were still under the Bell System maintenance and ownership contracts.

These phones were not cheap — prices in 1976 for these phones ranged from $39.95 for the basic Exeter to a whopping $109.95 for the rococo Antique Gold model. That’s about $150 to over $400 today. Not that much more than a smartphone, but, of course, no touchscreen. No ringtones.

My mini-rant on the tyranny of choice aside, that “Telstar” model is pretty cool. Add a cat, a swiveling modernist chair and you’re a James Bond villain.

Harry Partch: Woodworker and Composer

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Back in the 1990s, in a cramped out of the way basement deep in the bowels of San Diego State University, I got to hear a pure, mathematically perfect musical interval for the first time. The sound came from a pump organ, modified by musical heretic Harry Partch. The organ was under the care of Danlee Mitchell, who kept Partch’s idiosyncratic legacy alive after Partch died in 1974. Once you hear just intonation you can’t un-hear the compromise that is modern “equal” tempered tuning (for an in depth explanation of the difference between just and equal temperament, this documentary explains it all). Let’s just say that hearing that “perfect” perfect fifth, was one of those moments that caused me to question everything I thought I knew about music.

But Partch pushed beyond just tuning. Why do we have only 12 notes in a scale? Why not 43? Here’s Partch explaining and demonstrating his 43 tone scale:

Since you can’t go down to your local music shop and buy 43 tone musical instruments, Partch had to get crafty. He described himself as “a philosophic music-man seduced into carpentry.” And, over the years, he built many beautiful musical instruments:

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

The Quadrangularis Reversum.

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Gourd Tree and Gongs

Partch was a master of up-cycling, making use of military and industrial surplus. Below, his “cloud chamber bowls” made from the tops and bottoms of 12-gallon Pyrex carboys found in a UC Berkeley radiation lab.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Cloud chamber bowls.

Here’s Partch talking about the cloud chamber bowls and playing them:

You can see all of Partch’s instruments here.

Partch’s music can be jarring at first. Then it grows on you. I think my favorite Partch composition is Daphne of the Dunes. It sounds like an artifact of an ancient culture that never (but should have) existed:

Partch pushed the cultural envelope so far that he’s often labeled (I think, disrespectfully) as an “outsider”. We should instead see him, both as carpenter and composer, as a visionary.

So to the person who suggested we do a music post, this one’s for you!

Islamic Geometric Patterns

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I’m making an effort (not always successful) to avoid falling down the Google/Facebook/Youtube hole vortex in the evening. The siren song of internet distraction rarely leads anywhere useful and I’ve never regretted turning the damn thing off and taking up pencil and paper.

Through some library serendipity, I discovered Islamic Geometric Patterns by Eric Broug. It’s a book of step by step drawing instructions. All you need is a ruler, compass, pencil and pen. While the geometry behind theses patterns is enormously sophisticated, actually drawing out the shapes is surprisingly easy and relaxing. It’s also a fun and painless lesson in geometry, especially for those of us not inclined towards math.

The first chapter breaks down the basis of all the patterns–squares, hexagons and pentagons–and how to generate these shapes with just a compass and ruler. Here’s the square and hexagon:

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Starting with these basic shapes, you then do further subdivisions. Once the pattern is penciled out you start using ink to make the final design. Add color and texture and these basic patterns can become enormously complex, what David Wade calls “windows into the infinite”:

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So what can you do with this arcane exercise in geometry? Just look at some of the amazing things Broug has done with these patterns on his website. I’m particularly fond of simple applications for patterns such as the way he painted his garage door. If only my school geometry was as much fun as spending an evening drawing these patterns.

078 Mark Lakeman on City Repair

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Is your neighborhood not all it could be? Do people drive too fast? Does it feel lonely and anonymous? Is there no safe place for your kids to play? Mark Lakeman has some ideas for how all of us can transform the communities we live in. Hint: it starts with a potluck! Mark is the co-founder of the non-profit placemaking organization The City Repair Project, and principal of the community architecture and planning firm Communitecture. He is also an urban place-maker, permaculture designer and community design facilitator.

And if you’re on the West Coast of the US, you have a chance to participate in a series of workshops this month. For more information visit marklakeman.net. To find out about events in Los Angeles visit change-making.com.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Mosaic Artist Jeffrey Bale

Jeffrey Bale is one of my gardening heroes and this video is, in my opinion, mandatory viewing. Bale’s artistic medium is the pebble mosaic and he’s taken his craft to levels not seen since the ancients. Bale spends three months every year traveling the world and searching for inspiration for his work. His astonishingly beautiful and insightful blog chronicles his travels and work.

Bale captures what I think is missing in a lot of contemporary art and landscape design, a sense of the transcendent and the search for what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “fullness”. Our gardens and cities could benefit from many more spaces like the labyrinth portrayed in this short mini-doc. Best of all, in the video, Bale demonstrates how he makes his mosaics. Bale has no trade secrets. He wants us all to participate in creating a more beautiful world.