Thursday, December 31, 2009


Photo courtesy Flickr

That’s the conservative way to pronounce the word.

A book is a low-tech recording medium that is structured to permit easy reference to the contents.

That’s all a book is.

The alphabet is phonetic. Each letter, originally an attenuated picture, conveys sound to the ear of the reader. The alphabet was a sea trader’s accounting technology. Our version comes from Tyre in Phoenicia. Interestingly, English gardeners maintain that giant mullein is a sign that Phoenicians had been in an area.

In the Western tradition, letters were originally written on scrolls, like the torah. Looking for prophecies about Jesus, Christian scribes wearied of twirling Old Testament scrolls, folded the text back and forth on itself, and formed what is known as a codex. The little mulberry paper notebooks found in Japanese stores are codices.

A codex is fragile, as anyone who has handled a Japanese notebook impatiently learns. The next development was to sew the folds of the codex together to keep the pages from tearing themselves apart. That’s a book.

A book is an amazing, simple piece of engineering. Even a sheet of the cheapest 8.5 x 11 paper folded several times onto itself, the folds opened with a dull blade like a table knife, will survive as a pocket notebook for years if the spine is sewn by hand through an odd number of holes. Three holes plus a figure-eight stitch square-knotted at the center will secure the pages through many uses. A tapestry or dulled needle is easiest to work with. Fold a slightly heavier piece of paper stock, paste up the outer pages of the pamphlet, secure and trim the cover, let it dry under a weight, and the piece will last twice as long.

All the rest is detail. Edward Johnston and Sidney Cockerell rediscovered the fundamentals of book engineering in England in the early twentieth century. William Morris, Johnston, and Edward Catich, a Chicago jazz musician of the Twenties, worked out the technology of formal alphabetic writing. St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, maintains Fr. Catich’s archive on its web site.

Imprint on Catich if you want to study letter models. An anatomist, kinesiologist, and trained in Sho-Card as a youth, Catich presented writing that is as close to pose-proof as any I have found. There’s a trade paperback collection of his work.

If you fiddle around with higher tech, the possibilities for a book are infinite. Recordists are the scribes of our time. Audio tape is the exact equivalent of a scroll. In the West, reading used to be taught as one aspect of the art of pronunciation. St. Jerome was notorious in his time for reading silently to himself. If you understand reading to be the art of actively recreating the voice of the author, the drones are silenced.

Someone asked me the other week what I thought the future of the book might be. Don’t have a clue. It’s wide open, and it’s wonderful. The digital possibilities are endless, but we sure need our editors. A small book of archival quality is a gift to the future.

The history of Roman letters is a history of diverging local forms leading to cacaphony, followed by a return to the benchmark images of the Trajan column in Rome, Edward Catich’s patch. Letters are meant to communicate, although the scribe can consciously manipulate reading speed. Our tradition of written forms is the longest unbroken one, so our recorded history is relatively easy to decipher.

Robert Bringhurst’s Elements of Typographic Style is the Joy of Cooking of digital typography. He recommends using a type face that was designed for the medium you’re working in, looks at the relationship of music and book proportions, and sets out the Western book in a nutshell: Gutenberg used one size of one face. Bringhurst recommends basing letter practice on scribal traditions. Catich said all one needs are capital letters.

Chuck Bigelow, Chris Holmes, and Sumner Stone all trained in formal handwriting, and they were pioneers of digital type design. Steve Jobs studied in the same school as they and brought the living tradition of the best of Western letters to the screen. A script is the voice of the designer, a song that can sing any word.

-30- More after the jump.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


Gutenberg's ca.1455 workshop recreated. Carlos Seo photo courtesy Flickr.

Several weeks ago two local stores closed down. Each had been in business since the Seventies, and each peddled literature.

The independent bookstore left a grim static display of shopworn broadsides and black balloons.

The record store left a window hastily cleared of years of favorite visuals and a hand-lettered sign on torn cardboard that read, “We are so outta here.”

Clerks or troopers, take your pick.


More after the jump.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Compost

Photo courtesy Flickr

The minor excesses of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day have given me a new eye for the kitchen compost bin. Generous friends filled the refrigerator with more than we could safely eat. I will be feeding part of this bounty to the worms and, ultimately, to the robins.

I realized last night that a compost container holding only vegetable and fruit peels, coffee grounds, and the odd eggshell is a lovely, sweet-smelling thing.

Food that’s ready for the table is such a concentrated source of nutrients that it breaks down quickly into a rank mess, as good an argument against waste as any I have heard.


More after the jump.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Looking Ahead

Photo courtesy Flickr

Yesterday I asked an acquaintance about his holiday plans. His face lit up when he described the regular New Year gathering he shares with a group of old friends: “We report on what we did this year and talk about what we hope to accomplish the next year.”

That’s the best alternative to getting drunk I have ever heard. I’m very happy to have learned it from a man who manages his staff of one hundred twenty from a bicycle and a laptop.

-30- More after the jump.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Living in Three Dimensions

Soulellis photo George Nakashima studio courtesy Flickr
Texture enriches a simple interior.

Find lumber like this near the Pike Place Market on First Avenue in Seattle.

-30- More after the jump.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Ten Commandments of the Field

Photo courtesy Flickr

Climbers organize their lives around an emergency kit known as the ten essentials. My outdoor experience is limited, but I accompanied climbers to base camps on my first hikes. Those early days in the field formed my sense of household, and the climbers’ core collection remains the heart of inventory.

Gear falls under one of ten categories: tool, fire, water, food, clothing, shelter, medical, navigation, communication, and transportation. Do not underestimate the value of these headings: they are the key to thinking straight about what to own and what to buy.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I joined a friend at our favorite dive to drink breakfast and pray for the city. Katie, who had lived there twelve years, said that the people of New Orleans had no field skills and no place to learn them. For that morning, my friend put aside her running joke about how every native Seattle woman has her own chain saw.

Specific items for the field change with technology and the mission. The following is a list of featherweight accessories to carry any time you’re beyond walking distance of home base. They are very good for morale.

Tool: a Swiss Army penknife with tweezers. Airport security makes this expendable. You can improvise a cutting tool by breaking a glass bottle and taping one edge for a handle. Use your head-play safe. Wrap a length of gaffer’s or duct tape around a butane lighter.

Fire: a half-empty butane lighter and a birthday candle.

Water: the bottle is now ubiquitous. Add a small bottle of water purification tablets.

Food: an energy bar or any little something, even a sugar packet or a cellophane packet of crackers.

Clothing: a disposable plastic poncho or plastic garbage bag. Improvise a jacket by cutting arm and neck holes in the bag. Line shoes with produce bags if you get caught in foul weather.

Shelter: a mylar survival blanket, sunscreen, and dark glasses. Carry cash, traveler’s checks, credit card, and spare batteries to use as currency.

Medical: hand sanitizer, a couple of bandages, a needle, pocket tissues, and extra meds.

Navigation: a pinch light with extra battery, spare glasses, and local map.

Communication: a whistle painfully loud in sound and color, a one-inch length of black wax lumber crayon, change for a pay phone with out-of-state contact numbers taped to the back of your principal ID. Lie down to wave at a plane.

Transportation: first-rate foot gear with good insoles and socks for the weather plus the right side bag for daily necessities.

More after the jump.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Eye of the Dragon

Photo courtesy Flickr

As I recall art history, an emperor asked a famous Chinese painter to make an image of a dragon. The painter practiced hundreds of times over several years, and one day the emperor showed up to collect his job.

The painter knocked out a sumi dragon, and the emperor asked, “Where’s the eye?” The painter said, “I don't want to paint one.” The emperor insisted, so the fellow dipped a brush in vermilion and added an eye. The dragon sprang off the paper and was gone.

So, I learned that the eye of the dragon is the last touch that brings a project to life.

An improvised interior starts with a good cleaning, perhaps some paint, and hard-working furnishings that are already on hand. It comes to life when a dragon’s eye is added. The final touch can be an artful can of dried weeds, an interesting hubcap, or a useful decorative textile like a throw for naps or a tablecloth.

If you vote for tablecloths, the dining table can have a rough top and double as a workbench, as long as you avoid toxins. A stable, well-designed table with a distressed top is a good bargain and not hard to find. Everyday tablecloths can be gently amusing. Geeks like a simple length of butcher paper for making notes. In the Fifties, the ballpoint pen drove white cloths out of restaurants, because the ink is permanent. Before then, diners had used fountain pen to make notes on the linen.

I enjoy playing with lengths of yardage hemmed with iron-on tape. An English friend told me that after World War Two, people were so poor they set their tables on newspaper. My perennial favorite is the hand-printed cotton cloth that comes from India, home of ancient textile motifs thought to be the oldest cultural images we have. European printed cottons bit East Indian patterns, as did crewel embroidery and native American beadwork. These patterns are period for any place up to and including the Cape Cod tract house that blanketed the country after WWII.

More after the jump.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Photo courtesy
That’s 6W up there, dear readers, and a few ounces. It’s built on a wreath armature suspended from three hooks. The green things are called zip ties. If you’re careful, with a small tool you can hold back the internal latch on one and reuse it. Use nail clippers to modify the ties and round the sharp trimmed edges over an open flame.

My friendly local Righteous Value hardware store sells an Edison base light socket that has been modified to accept the smaller 6W bulb, which I think is sold for car headlights.

Early electrified halls were lighted with fifteen-watt bulbs, which must have contributed in later, over-illuminated decades to the sense of Victorian houses being dismal relics. Nineteenth century houses are meant to be a symphony of shadows inside and out. In the Fifties, two films laid out the dark and light sides of Victorian culture. Joseph Cotton’s Magnificent Ambersons shows a family in decay. Hayley Mills’ Pollyanna, with sets by Seattle painter Franz Gerstl, is altogether positive.

More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

2009.08.25 Sergeant Cauthorn’s War

Welcome to Deft's second most popular post. Photo courtesy Flickr

Jess Cauthorn ran the Burnley School of Professional Art in Seattle. It was an unaccredited feeder school for the local advertising community, founded by “Old Man Burnley” after World War Two to train veterans courtesy of their GI Bill tuition benefits. When I studied there in the early Seventies, it was a node of photographically realistic illustrators that later become the Seattle branch of the Kansas City Art Institute.

Jess and another faculty member, Jim Peck, had been combat artists in the Pacific during World War Two. Most of the students were fresh from Nam, and other instructors free-lanced for the military.

It was not until Mr. Cauthorn toted in his famous wartime portfolio on a day when he was subbing that I was able to appreciate his impatience with hippies, self-indulgent behavior, and irresponsibility. (See the movie Art School Confidential and Chip Kidd’s novel Cheese Monkeys.)

Jess laid out row after row of pen and ink renderings that looked just like documentary footage of island warfare-except he had drawn the work on the spot, when people were shooting at him. I gained a new appreciation of the term deadline and a new understanding of skill. And perhaps, finally, now, an appreciation of the power of a brush line to communicate feeling.

-30- More after the jump.

Monday, August 10, 2009

2009.08.10 I Hate Dressers

Really, I do.

There are more elegant ways to use hard-earned interior cubic inches than to stumble over a dresser. This is deep wisdom, refined over forty-three years and seventeen domiciles

I find it best to stow small clothes and minor knits in hanging nylon shoe bags. The bags work for shoes, too. This arrangement makes it easy to dress fast.

Saturday morning I set out the next week’s street wear. Live inventory fills just a couple of feet of pole. Dormant inventory lives in zip-top nylon packing cubes in a blanket chest.

In a medieval household, the dominant couple lined their chamber with storage chests and slept in a four-poster in the middle of the room, like dragons sleeping over a hoard. It’s a bother to root through a chest to find one particular thing, so carpenters, the hardware geniuses of their time, eventually set a chest on short legs and put a pull-out drawer in the bottom. Thus, later, the chest of drawers. The original trunk was an actual tree trunk hollowed out, hence the rounded top. Packing cubes and envelopes turn a chest into active storage that furnishes a room with double-duty seating or a triple-duty coffee table.

If you keep a lean inventory in the closet, there will be room to stow the odd small piece of furniture, such as a director’s chair or bedside tea table on wheels, making it possible to keep the room clear, slick, flexible, and easy to maintain.
More after the jump.