Gabriel Solomons


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September 28th, 2015

Object Lessons

During a recent trip to Zagreb for a conference, I finally got the chance to visit a museum that i’d read so much about and was keen to experience for myself.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, a permanent memoriam to ‘temporary union’ is a unique place. Not simply due to its collection of seemingly trivial objects, but because a museum dedicated to such a collection has become a pilgrimage site for visitors from around the world.

Set up following the real-life break-up of founders Olinka Vištica and Drazen Grubišić in 2006, the museum’s exhibition of personal objects donated by ordinary people snakes its way through six or so rooms, each loosely based on a theme. Poetic interludes by the likes of Mary Oliver are sparsely and discreetly applied on walls to remind the visitor of the importance of connection and inevitable separation.

The objects themselves are accompanied by texts in both Croatian and English that range in length from a few words to essay long diatribes – some humorous, others tragic but all are honest testament to each donor’s feeling of sadness and loss.

A stuffed animal is positioned next to a cheque book or a roll of film and all are displayed respectfully on illuminated plain white risers or wall mounted cabinets. Minimal decoration is used as a thematic device such as the discoloured tile backdrop in the “Resonance of Grief” room which includes a bottle of conditioner, heroin testing kit and an axe violently impaled into a plinth. While some donors are clearly confident with their ability to weave a well told (and written) story, I found some of the strongest pieces accompanied by fewer words. One object in particular – a fairly kitche ceramic frog ornament found in the room dedicated to family relationships – simply has the following heartbreaking caption:

‘Mom left when I was 3, this is one of the few Christmas gifts she has given me’

While some objects speak of shared interests or commemorate events such as the broken glasses used each year to celebrate a couple’s anniversary ritual, others suggest that trouble was on the horizon from the get go. The boy who mistakenly thought that his gift of a Galileo thermograph would capture his beloved heart’s affections eventually has it added to the scrapheap of doomed romance as his Taiwanese ex-lover simply states: ‘WTF! Could that be the kind of birthday gift a 20-year old girl would expect?!’

An unused stun gun given as an odd gesture of protection, a can of love incense which in the words of its doner ‘Doesn’t work’ and a wedding dress that symbolizes failed promises – all are physical testimony to relationships that fizzled, burned out or broke apart.

Speaking to someone the day after about the reasons why we both felt elated at the end of our visit rather than cynical or morose, it struck me that at the heart of the museum’s existence lies a cathartic ‘letting go’ of something meaningful and symbolic for each donor – a gesture of ending to allow for a new beginning.

While some of the stories may be depressing and, by nature of the museum’s title suggest heartbreak, the donation of each object to the museum is anything but. Rather than a selfish act of opportunism, it could be said that each donation is a selfless gesture affording the viewer a chance to connect emotionally with his or her own pain or suffering. A problem aired is a problem shared after all, and similar to the way in which Princess Diana’s death seemed to open up a public channel of grief in the UK – objects in the MoBR offer a quiet and contemplative space to mourn our own fractured past.

This quasi-religious subtext may explain why the museum, which has had a travelling element since 2008, chose as one of its venues the Oude Kerk (Old Church) right in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district in 2013. The Organisers of that particular exhibition – the workgroup “Art and Church” – went one step further by choosing objects that related in some way to stories being told in Biblical readings at the church in the run-up to Christmas.

As with other of its temporary residences around the world, the museum has a committed and active group of regional ‘ambassadors’ who curate each show based on objects collected from the local community.

This global network of passionate advocates for the museum is helping to ensure its survival and is testament to the universal appeal of a place dedicated to telling extraordinary stories by ordinary people. The unpretentious nature of their endeavor is what makes it such a success in my opinion, as museums traditionally tend to be quite alienating or stuffy by way of their ‘look but don’t touch’ policy. The MOBR also has a no touch policy, but the objects displayed are by no means precious artifacts of historical or monetary value in the traditional sense. Each object is rather a signifier of a commonplace human experience – that of the ‘death’ of love. While some would argue that this in and of itself doesn’t merit the establishing of a museum – I would counter that this is exactly the sort of thing that a modern museum should be about.

The acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk suggested as much when he opened his Museum of Innocence in 2012, as both an accompaniment to his novel of the same name (published in 2008) and as a declaration of love to his home city of Istanbul. He too believes that museums should celebrate the individual strory and feels strongly that ‘…our daily lives are honourable – the details of our gestures, our words, our smells, our sounds, our objects, are worthy of preservation.’

In an age when technology and the proliferation of ‘smart’ cities seems to be divorcing us from real human interaction, a museum such as this refocuses our attention on an essential human need – that of emotional connection through shared experiences.

Objects are inherently evocative and many of us define ourselves by the things we work, play and think with. We invest energy, time and money in choosing gifts for our loved ones and so each of these objects subsequently ‘hold’ meaning to ourselves and others. They often embody a time and place, acting as conduits of good and bad memories that help us to compose our life’s narrative.

The everyday nature of these ordinary objects are often far more meaningful that anything we may find in a traditional museum, and is therefore another reason to be thankful that the Museum of Broken Relationships exists.

The museum provides a place for anyone and everyone to share their stories of heartbreak and loss – safe in the knowledge that visitors will empathise with their grief rather than judge. Morbid curiosity may bring many punters through the door, but a profound sense of connectivity is more likely to be what is taken out – as was the case when I exited into the fading light of a breezy September evening in Zagreb.

Categories: Design Education Uncategorized

March 10th, 2015

Project Updates March 2015

In October last year I was invited to deliver a paper at The Mediated City conference at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. The paper was titled: ‘Hollywood Menace – Los Angeles Mid-Century Modern Dens of Vice’ and continues my fascination with cinetourism which I’ve been exploring through the World Film Locations book series for Intellect. The conference brought together academics, arts practitioners, architects and film-makers who’s work is related to media and place in some way. Partly a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Marshall McLuhan’s seminal book on the subject, the conference also highlighted the vast amount of work being done in this area of cross disciplinary practice – the place where film, architecture, media, travel, politics and other forms of art all converge to help us make more sense of how we live in cities today.

It was great to meet so many interesting people doing some wonderful work. A few highlights were meeting Alice Arnold who’s film ‘Electric Signs’ is a brilliant visual essay on neon signage used for advertising in key cities around the world. Much of the film focuses on the massive electric billboards which are a blight around the streets of Los Angeles and the grassroots fight that is currently going on to prevent these signs from dominating the cityscape.

I also met the cultural geographer, lecturer and author Demetrios Eames, who alongside running the Charles and Ray Eames foundation that protects their iconic case study house #8 (more commonly known as simply the ‘Eames House’) produces books and installations under the banner Kcymaerxthaere – a fascinating ongoing project that explores narrative through interactive, temporary installations around the world. Demetrios is a polymath in every sense of the word as his mind-bogglingly diverse cv shows, but he is humble and full of enthusiasm for meeting new people and experiencing new things.

I came away from the conference inspired and creatively rejuvenated – seeing where the work I’m doing connects with projects and initiatives being done by others all over the place.

One contact made at the conference has led to a nice little writing ‘gig’ for the revamped Interiors journal. The journal, which initially focused its efforts on producing architectural flat plans for chosen film scenes, has developed its remit – now functioning more like a traditional online film journal although the focus continues to be on ‘place’ and environment. My monthly feature is called ‘Screengrab’ which sees me analyze one shot from a film semi-exhaustively. The first piece was on a fairly pivotal shot from John Carpenter’s aliens-are-among-us romp They Live, that offered me the opportunity to discuss typography, advertising and contemporary art all in one go.

My next piece will be on Charles Laughton’s masterful Night of the Hunter, which aside from being one of the most haunting films of the last century, is also one of the most beautifully told modern fairy tales with big bad wolves, timid grown-ups and courageous children present and correct.

On the books front, Havana Street Style was published last August and so we held the launch event at Bristol’s ‘The Cuban’ on September 11th to celebrate with copious amounts of Mojitos and heaps of authentic snacks. The book was a thoroughly enjoyable collaboration between myself as project manager, photographer Martin Tompkins and author Conner Gorry, but a book isn’t really a book until it arrives back from the printer to be leafed through, passed around (and occasionally smelt).

Following the recent announcement in December by Barack Obama and Raul Castro that the United States and Cuba will restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than fifty years, we’re hoping the book will take on a tad more poignancy as one of the last collective portraits of life in Havana before massive cultural and economic changes change the country forever.

I’ve been working with colleagues at Intellect on a new book series called Crime Uncovered, which explores the ever increasing popularity of crime in all of its manifestations, from literature and film to television and videogames.

Each title is devoted to a particular character type such as ‘The Detective’ or  ‘The Anti-Hero’ and contains protagonist case studies, interviews with crime writers and longer essays on the wider background and perception of these fascinating – and much loved – characters in crime.

I opted for a minimalist but playful approach for the covers – using type and monotone only to convey a mood and which can be used for future titles in the series. The challenge here is to modify only one letter on each cover, turning the type into a ‘character’ which alludes to the whole basis of the series. The temptation with these covers was to use imagery, but as there are so many case studies of well known protagonists in each book, choosing one figure to represent the whole bunch just didn’t seem like a good idea. I also wanted to avoid falling into clichéd territory with shadowy (often male) characters donning stereotypical garb, concealed by plumes of smoke ala Raymond Chandler.

We’re hoping the accessible, reader-friendly approach we’ve taken to the books content and layout will connect with general enthusiasts of crime fiction, students and scholars – but as with all publishing ideas, only time will tell.

More about the series and the first two titles scheduled for release (Antihero and Detective) can be found here.

Categories: Architecture Design Education Film

August 12th, 2014

Capitolized / Typecon 2014 Washington D.C.

It was an honour to present at this year’s Typecon in Washington D.C. as part of their annual Education Forum. This was my first visit to the conference run by SOTA (the Society for Typographic Aficionados) so having my esteemed colleague John Paul Dowling, a past presenter, to accompany me on the podium made the experience that little less daunting.

Our presentation was entitled ‘If at first you don’t succeed… : Affecting a Change in the Referral Process of Design Education’ and looked at how adjusting the graphic design course curriculum in respect of the referral process can foster a learning environment that embraces the notions of ‘trial & error’ and learning from mistakes both for students and staff.

The 25 minute presentation went well with some great feedback at the Q&A session, particularly from educators in the US who teach in institutions that rarely allow for module or project ‘retakes’. I think the positive response was also due in part to our emphasis on the student as an individual – each of whom enters a university course with a whole set of inherited or learned character strengths and weaknesses. Teachers, like parents (or even psychiatrists) need to have an understanding of these issues in order to help support students ideally before, but certainly at, the point of ‘failure’.

From left: Juliet Shen, Gerry Leonidis, me and John Paul Dowling. Photo by Helen Lysen

The common misconception that failure is primarily due to laziness disregards the fact that all learners – like all children (for those parents out there) are different. Some seemingly know what they want and how to express it from an early age, while others have great difficultly articulating what they want or need.

Motivations differ too for each student, so attempting to understand these motivations can help to steer them away from disaster toward self awareness.

We delivered our presentation on the first day of the conference which meant we could relax and enjoy other speakers waxing lyrical about such things as Cyrillic scripts, hand lettering, (not so) new Swiss design, Symbology from Victorian-Era Calling Cards and historical type revivals.

Keynote speaker was Tobias Frere-Jones (he of celebrated and recently split type duo – Hoefler & Frere-Jones) who managed to make what could have been a yawn inducing near-two-hour presentation on the design of US currency immensely watchable and relatable. Also good to see him receive such a rapturous welcome considering the recent brooha surrounding the duo’s acrimonious split and he seemed visibly moved by the audience’s show of genuine support and affection.

Tobias Frere-Jones. Photo by Helen Lysen

It’s fair to say we were both pretty ‘typed out’ come Sunday afternoon and saw the closing night’s bowling party as a welcome relief, even though some still couldn’t resist the urge to analyze the font adorning the venue’s neon signage.

I can’t say we saw much of  D.C. beyond the usual tourist spots (Capitol Hill, Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Smithsonian museums) but a few jaunts to the outer rim locales of Georgetown and Arlington at least gave us a sense of the city’s geographic identity.

Overall, the experience was a good one. I got to rub shoulders with some pretty high profile font nerds (Matthew Carter, Frere-Jones, John Downer), ate some famed D.C. chinese food, Mexican waved my way through a Nationals baseball game and finally managed to stand in Abe Lincoln’s imposing shadow.

Until next year Typecon. It was fun.

Categories: Design Education

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