The World’s Best Surfer

The best surfer I ever met was a guy who is about ten years my senior. About a decade ago I started going to Long Beach, Long Island to surf on the weekends at dawn. I had developed a very big fear of the water and an even bigger fear of the crowd. And there was this gentle giant, Don Oswald with his wife Margie, preachers, spreading the word of fun, befriending beginners, telling you what board you should be using, and offering words of encouragement every step of the way. Don and Marge probably converted more joyous acolytes every Sunday than any reverend in the neighborhood.

Don, 6’4 and muscular, exerted his authority and never allowed bad behavior while the beach was under his supervision. The fact that he was so successful was a tribute to the respect he was given: he was an accomplished surfer, swimmer, former lifeguard and amateur comedian. Every time he was worked by a wave, he laughed so loud you could hear him 50 feet away.

Don and Marge would give up waves to coach others; their objective was for everyone to have fun and not get hurt. It was infectious; some of the nasty gnarly guys started to encourage us, even me! I still remember a six foot wave rolling in and Don shouted to me that it was my wave. I went for it and rode it to the next jetty, legs shaking. I paddled back out and some of the previously nasty guys, ten, twenty years older were cheering me, telling me they gave up waves to watch me on mine. What a glorious day!

The moral of the story: People do set examples and the unselfish act of one person can affect the behavior of others.

The Dark Side of Surfing

The dark side of surfing

Montauk, end of Summer 2011

Much talk in surfing is given to the phrase “Aloha Spirit” without the behavior to back it up. I’ve been debating about whether to post about surfing’s dark side. It is aggressive, violent and downright nasty. This “face” can be as benign as a comment or as premeditated and nasty as deliberately injuring another person. I’ve seen it all. And I’ve seen people whom I once thought were “nice” justify their bad behavior because of where they live (local), their level of experience or self perceived talent at the sport.

I have long been convinced that the true measure of a person is tested by surfing. It is a sport that has continually shifting conditions with waves that are considered to be a limited resource. I’ve seen experienced surfers literally run over a novice, gleefully. And, if you are a woman in the water, odds are you will be bullied. Two days ago, here in Montauk, a female friend was taken down by a stand up paddle boarder. Then the same guy went after a young teenage girl. Since he was an outsider whom no one had seen before, a few of the more seasoned guys decided to have a word with this man to no avail. Only in surfing.

My point is that the standards for good and bad behavior don’t change based on venue. Serious injuries can happen in the water; we, as a society don’t tolerate reckless driving with a vehicle and we shouldn’t tolerate reckless behavior in sports.


Why Surfing?

Montauk is the east coast surf Mecca. If you need further proof of this, take a look at the New York Times article about the founder of an ad agency called Chandelier. Richard Christiansen has designed every inch of the house he rented this year with a surfer theme.

On one level it astounds me how a sport that was the province of rebels, loners, outsiders and drug-addled miscreants has been co-opted and appropriated by corporate America. On another level, I guess it is entirely logical.

Surfing is an incredibly difficult sport. As a surfer, I have heard it has the highest learning curve and I believe it. Not only are there multiple skill sets of swimming, paddling and balance, one must begin to understand the ever-changing playing field: the ocean.

Surfers often develop incredible physiques (at least the guys do), and the effects of sun and salt water look good on a young person. (But kind of craggy on the elders.) Can we talk about the clothes? Board shorts and bikinis are adorable. And a wetsuit? The superhero look never goes out of style.

So, ok, surfing has nicer duds than, let’s say golf. But why is it so culturally sticky? I have a few theories.

Theory number 1: Summer

Surfing is associated with summer. Although many surfers do surf in the winter, no one is about to mythologize a guy with icicles hanging from his eyebrows. Part of the romanticism comes out of our childhood memories of summer; languid days on the beach and cool nights and maybe a campfire. It is the feeling of endlessness and freedom from obligations that enchants us.

Most middle class individuals do not want the real life of a dedicated surfer (poverty), they just like to adopt the parts they like (freedom, rock star looks).

Theory number 2: Degree of difficulty

When a sport is very difficult, as surfing is, it is easier to buy the outfit, the uniform rather than actually master the sport. By the way, the best surfers have the worst clothes. You could have guessed that.

Theory number 3: It is a beautiful sport

What other sport involves walking on water? Consider the setting: a beach, the ocean and a board. The equipment is minimal and the action is an incredible combination of strength and grace. It is mythical.

Theory number 4: Accessories

Surfing associated fabrics draw from the aesthetics of Polynesia and Hawaii. Surfboards are often decorated with designs that are derivative of this aesthetic that consists of lots of flowers. The hibiscus is a popular motif. It’s fun and makes you feel like you are on vacation.

So there you have it. Four reasons why surfing has permeated the aesthetic of summer: the sense of freedom, admiration for the difficulty and beauty and last but not least endless fashion possibilities.

DIY Branding

When the concept of the branded environment arrives at your local nail salon, you’ve got to think for just a moment, that maybe the average person does care about design.

Here we are on a hot steamy Tuesday night in Manhattan. I look at my sandaled feet and I am appalled. I need a pedicure and I need it now. I am on Third Avenue. The choices, abound. Should I go to Dashing Diva, all swathed in pink, the former Nancy Nail that looks like I might pick up a fungus, the perfunctory Iris or the sparkling white Cleo?

Can you guess? The winner was Cleo and for a DIY branded environment it was brilliant. Everything involved with services was white. And super clean. The ladies were dressed in neatly pressed pink uniforms—you could tell there was a dress code, for only black sweaters were allowed with the pink outfits. The towels had the logo woven and even the bathroom carried the logo motif of leaves.

It was a simple but disciplined program that enhanced my experience. As Virginia Postrel has said many times, “We should not discount the pleasures of aesthetics.”

Surfin’ USA

I am a surfer. Upon learning of my crazy hobby, Alice Twemlow, the indefatigable head of the SVA D-Crit program, told me of Akiko Busch’s book, Nine Ways to Cross a River: Midstream Reflections on Swimming and Getting There from Here. The book is a lovely, lyrical account of her journey to swim, and experience of the water of nine rivers.

A friend and I once opined that there are water people and there are land people; ocean people and mountain people. The ocean draws me in, for I am simultaneously seduced by it and terrified of it.

Surfing, like swimming is meditative and solitary; only one surfer per wave is the rule. Surfing, however, unlike swimming, is unlike any sport; it has permeated our national spirit. Although invented by the Polynesians, it is quintessentially American. We romanticize the idea of summer: the rugged young man with a crazy nickname, the blonde California beach girl, the playful woodie station wagon and of course the freedom. We never want to grow up. Surf culture has influenced music, art, fashion, couture, advertising, film and television.

Since it is summer, it is entirely appropriate to post about surfing’s influence on culture, why the sport is so addictive and surfing’s dark side.

Montauk, NY


Making Pictures

I was having a conversation with a friend who is a professional photographer. He was complaining about how he feels photography has been devalued; everyone has a cellphone or digital camera and they are always taking pictures.

He finds this annoying.

Since photography became affordable to the masses thanks to Kodak and the talents of Walter Dorwin Teague (the Brownie was introduced in 1938), it has been used to document special occasions, milestones and such.

We take photos to remember and share our memories. Now it seems that everything is worthy of documentation. With digital photography there is no cost associate with a bad photo, there are no botched rolls of film. Isn’t that great? Only a few years ago you might be experiencing something with a friend or family member and say, ‘I wish I had my camera’, and now you simply pull to your iPhone.

Taking pictures is easy; taking good pictures is hard and taking professional level photos, is, well suffice to say, you need a professional. Yet most of us are content to not meet the highest standards; we simply like the smile of a loved one.

Today, you can take a photo, post it on Facebook and share it with the world. You could write a story, send it off to LuLu or Apple and have a book in about a week. I would argue that the accessibility of image making has increased the value of aesthetics in our culture. Our memories are no longer tossed in an old shoebox, but lovingly designed (with the help of templates) and displayed with the same joy a five year old has when completing a picture “Hey Mom, look what I did!”

The democratization of aesthetics simultaneously sharpens and blurs the contrast between amateur and professional. The amateur’s work is slick but lacks the finesse and sophistication of the professional image-maker. It is simply not the same. But to dismiss the pleasure of the amateur is to dismiss the pleasure aesthetics brings to our lives. Perhaps as we experience the advances of technology, we are drawn to the simple pleasure of making things.



Beep Beep. Roadhog!

Automotive design. It’s the ultimate boys club, and the dream assignment for every red-blooded male industrial designer.  There is a plethora of books and information on cars and the history of automotive design.

I’m just not into them.

While playing into the American myth of unfettered freedom, the automobile is responsible in large part for many of our current problems with climate change. How about safety? In spite of efforts by consumer activists such as Ralph Nader, and others, over 43,000 people are killed and almost 3 million people are injured every year according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Why must the academic design community celebrate this object? A car, when functioning exactly as it should, pollutes the environment, and is in essence, a killing machine. Been on a highway lately? Does anyone drive the speed limit?

Greater demand for cars, means greater demand for highways, the destruction of neighborhoods and as Jane Jacobs vividly illustrated, breaks down the life of a city.

As a student of design history, and an observer of how design impacts ordinary people I pose that the “academy” is simply wrong in the way it tends to honor and study certain objects, specifically the automobile. The automobile represents so much of what is wrong societally and economically in the US in 2011: planned obsolesce of manufacturers feeds the disposable attitudes and habits of contemporary consumers. I would pose that the study of the automobile should be relegated to a cautionary tale to encourage the creation of an activist design community that benefits human needs.

Today’s New York Times website has a fascinating discussion about how Europeans are discouraging drivers from cities. Tom Vanderbilt who writes for Slate states:

“The car, with its exponentially diminishing collective returns — for example, traffic — is not the solution to mobility in the increasingly crowded cities of the 21st century. The sooner we put this flat-earth belief behind us, the faster we can get along with ideas for more efficient forms of mobility.”

Advocates for autos are focused on their personal autonomy. Designers are seduced by the romance and power of the object and the academy is obsessed with form and historical context. Myopia abounds. The auto is a relic of the industrial revolution and it is time to get academia focused molding innovative design minds that will create the transportation solutions needed for the 21st Century.


High Line Part II

North View of the High Line at 20th Street


The second part of the High Line has opened.

I wanted to like it…

The Highline is an innovative park designed by James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. This public space began its existence as a railroad built as a state and city funded infrastructure project in the 1930’s. The elevated rail bed was designed to go through the centers of blocks and through buildings to facilitate shipping and avoid the negative impact of the elevated rail on the neighborhood. As interstate trucking became a preferred method of delivery, rail traffic subsequently decreased and the last train ran on the High Line in 1980 (delivering frozen turkeys).

By the mid 1980’s there were calls for demolition and counterarguments for preservation. Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded The Friends of the High Line and in an amazing achievement, brought local citizens, celebrities, The Design Trust for Public Spaces, the New York City Council, members of various city administrations, CSX Transportation (the original owners), together to make this park happen.

The High Line, Part I, charms you. Its rugged plants and architectural nuance unveils surprises at each turn. It’s young, energetic and an evening walk feels like a grand parade. I hesitate to call it a park; it is not pastoral and does not provide the serenity and the respite from city life that Olmstead’s Central Park does.

I love its quirky creativity; the concrete slabs referencing rail ties, undulating up to create a bench and undulating down back to the path. The wading pool, the spectacular views and the art installation on the side of the former Nabisco building, all contribute to the crackle of creativity and the energy of the urban environment.

Part II is oppressive. The buildings are close, the pathway narrow. It was incredibly crowded the evening I chose to explore the newly opened section; the effect was as claustrophobic as a subway platform at rush hour.

In spite of this, there is lots of creativity at play; the architects clearly recognize that the most popular activity on the High Line is people watching. Stadium seating built out of teak slabs reference rail ties and provide a high level of visibility as they lead to the grass field. (One of the complaints of Part I was the lack of a grassy area. The grass, only open or about a week was already showing signs of wear and tear on my visit.)

Stadium Seating

The Falcone Flyover is a new feature and is an interesting experience. The material gives the pedestrian a sense of flotation and helps to offset the claustrophobia to a degree. But the pathways are so narrow that sweat transfers from person to person on a warm night creating a ‘yuck’ factor.

The Falcone Flyover


Need to get your car inspected?

What are some of the other significant features? There is a window cut out of the wall overlooking West 24th Street, its view is the car mechanic shop. I guess it is an ironic juxtaposition of the leisure class and the working class. For me the glorious moment was reaching the northern point of termination at West 30th Street where I could see the Hudson and the sun setting on the horizon. Architects often design spaces with compression and release to heighten the sensation of movement. My issue with the High Line Part II is that the sense of compression is so great I wanted to run.

While I can appreciate the achievement of the High Line, it is not a park, but a boulevard. Call me old fashioned, but I ascribe to the philosophy of Fredrick Law Olmstead who believed that an immersion in a natural landscape would provide an antidote to the stress of urban life and restore tranquility to the soul. And that my friends, is a park.


Spiderman, Spiderman

If you are an aficionado of critical writing, take a look at Ben Brantley’s review of Spiderman, Turn off the Dark in today’s New York Times. Brantley’s review is one of those that makes you laugh at his analogies and envious at his ability to weave phrases:

“So is this ascent from jaw-dropping badness to mere mediocrity a step upward? Well, until last weekend, when I caught a performance of this show’s latest incarnation, I would have recommended “Spider-Man” only to carrion-feasting theater vultures. Now, if I knew a less-than-precocious child of 10 or so, and had several hundred dollars to throw away, I would consider taking him or her to the new and improved “Spider-Man.”

Damning with faint praise, as my mother would say. Read the entire review. While I won’t be attending Spiderman any time soon, I reveled in Brantley’s wit and envied his talent. Also check out the slide show, the photos are magnificent.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times


E. B. White’s New York

I am a native New Yorker. And yet, I am always see my city anew when I read essays about my beloved city.

In 1948, E. B. White returned to the city from Maine one summer and subsequently wrote, “Here is New York.” With elegant prose (I feel like I should hang up my keyboard) he describes a New York that has at once all but disappeared and one that is eternal.

He opens the essay, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” Wow. His words are terse and eloquent at the same time. How many individuals have come to this city as outcasts in their hometowns craving these very qualities?

Last evening we had dinner with my boyfriend’s daughter, who is fresh out of college. I listened to her enthusiasm about a subway ride, a walk on Fifth Avenue and the anticipation of the life ahead of her. I couldn’t help but think of White and pulled the small volume out of my bag to show her.

White speaks of the thrill of the young: “I remember what it felt like to live in the same town with giants. When I first arrived in New York, my personal giants were a dozen or so columnists and critics and poets whose names appeared regularly in the papers.” Who hasn’t felt that way?

He relates summer in the city as the time to reexamine New York for only “diehards and authentic characters are here.” A summer Saturday in the office is described as “the pit of loneliness.”

New York is still my magical city, and while there are references in White’s essay that are anachronistic, so much of it remains true. “The city at last perfectly illustrates both the universal dilemma and the general solution, this riddle in steel and stone is at once the perfect target and the perfect demonstration of nonviolence, of racial brotherhood, this lofty target scraping the skies…home of all people and all nations, capital of everything…