Freddie’s head

Freddie feature

Knit.1 magazine commissi0ned me to write a profile of textile artist Freddie Robins – the blackly witty creator of impossible jumpers, absurdist knitted sculpture, and the magnificent series Knitted Homes Of Crime, which reproduces in cuddly yarn the homes of notorious female killers. But as well as being astonishingly talented, it turns out that Robins is a thoughtful and generous interview, making time to chat with me even though she was in the middle of moving studios.

The finished feature is in the issue that goes on sale 5 May – and if I wasn’t pleased enough with the piece itself, the layout is smashing, and it’s keeping company with some really lovely patterns (I’m especially taken with the lace top they’re highlighting on the magazine homepage).

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Paperhouse reads: The Language Of Things

The Language Of Things

Earlier this week, I wrote about Karen magazine and Karen’s question, “Why do people buy unnecessary things?” Deyan Sudjic’s book, The Language Of Things, has a pretty good answer:

It is a curious paradox that even the most materialist of us tend to value what might be called the useless above the useful. Useless not in the sense of being without purpose, but without utility, or not much of it. […] Usefulness is inversely proportional to status. The more useless an object is, the more highly valued it will be. High-status utility is confined to such baroque elaborations of conspicuously redundant utility capacity as the wristwatch supposedly designed for use by divers […] or the grossly overspecified SUV.

The Language Of Things, pp. 167-8

This description is shamingly acute. My favourite handbag is a wee pretty one that only holds a key and a lipstick, and has to be constantly clutched by the tiny handle. My best watch doesn’t have any numbers on its miniature face. I have a terrible addiction to copies of McSweeney’s which spread out in unwieldy directions, spill mini-mags everywhere, and are actually pretty hard to read. Luckily, Sudjic is just as susceptible to the wiles of objects, and tells a reassuring story of his seduction by a MacBook near the start of The Language Of Things. Playfulness and ingenuity in objects aren’t universally bad – my handbag, my watch and my McSweeney’s are all witty and lovely things. But it’s curious that I’m not equally impressed by sturdy and capacious bags, watches with digits or the basic marvel of the paperback.

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Design – the polish that convinces you to buy one thing rather than another, the copyright-protected detail that identifies a desirable brand – is critical to consumer culture. But good design – the “brilliant synthesis of structure and mechanism” which Sudjic identifies in the anglepoise lamp and the French wine bottle – is less so. A well-designed product will last, will replace similar products, and exempt the purchaser from being a consumer for the life of the object.

And it’s the useless that gets treasured. The examples of design which make it into the Museum Of Modern Art in New York are divorced from the context of their function: “whether consciously or not”, says Sudjic, “[MOMA] is doing its best to suggest that design is just as useless as art, and therefore almost as valuable.” In the end, Sudjic argues that the artistic aspirations of designers is changing the ideology of design, and will “fuel what may be a short lived explosion of flamboyant new work.” It’s clear that he doesn’t think this will be especially good for design or for consumers.

Paperhouse goes to see: © Murakami

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Eyes right: Paperhouse just got a copyright notice. It’s all part of the steely new work ethic around here, and it’s there out of necessity (if I write for a living, I need to make at least a token effort to hold on to my assets) rather than desire. I’m not, in general, all that keen on copyright as it’s currently enforced. The laws on intellectual property feel badly out of kilter with the instant, no-cost systems of distribution available to every internet user. I don’t expect to be able to control how my words get shared – the most I hope for is that I’ll get credit where my work appears and a reasonable share of any profits deriving from those appearances. And as the interest in and profit deriving from old reviews of provincial theatre are pretty minimal, I don’t spend that much time fretting over my literary estate.

So last year when I went to see © Murakami at the Brooklyn Museum, I went as a bit of a © apostate. Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami’s Murakami’s big idea is the ‘Super Flat’ aesthetic. His work goes across the distinctions between high and low culture, turning anime figures into gallery pieces and gallery pieces into mass-produced products. The idea has a democratic ring to it at first, founded on the idea that Japan has no hierarchy of high and low culture: the romantic insistence that art be shielded from commerce is alien.

Murakami’s work is gaudy, exhuberant, polished, piss-taking. The retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum dedicated the best part of an entire floor to him, whole rooms dedicated to the playing out of one theme of his canon. The imposing, glossy fibreglass figures – mostly involved in some sort of winking eroticism. The freakishish romper-suited double act, Kaikai and Kiki. And the charismatic and adaptable Mr DOB, who appears in pastiches of pretty much every genre of art you can imagine.

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(Photo from Tingley’s flickr stream.) Murakami’s able to make a lot of art because, like any business-minded creator, he has an art factory: the Kaikai Kiki company, based in Tokyo and New York, produces, dictributes, promotes and manages the Murakami output. Which is where the © comes in to it. The work is Murakami’s, not because he made it, but because he originated it. The artistry is in the cultivation of the brand as imuch as the craftsmanship of the pieces. And that’s why it makes perfect sense that the centrepiece of the exhibition was a shop dedicated to Murakami’s LV collaboration, selling luxury handbags and silk scarves that floated over the upper reaches of affordability.

In Super Flat style, there was a second shop at the end vending the lower-order souvenirs: Mr DOB plushes, latex miniatures of the sculptures, cotton (rather than silk) scarves. Because Super Flat isn’t actually flat at all. The shock of seeing the rare rendered as ready-made and the pornographic mixing with the prestigious depends on the viewer hanging on to those distinctions in their own mind. Super Flat obviously doesn’t render all levels of culture equivalent, it delineates the markets and fits its product to the price point. The masterwork is making the reproducibility of the art part of its genius, so the hordes of clones add to the value rather than diluting it.

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Obviously, I loved it and I bought scarf.