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Anamosa Archive 1: Cubes

2013 May 30

As noted, I was back in Iowa last week on a client visit. On the way back to Ohio I stopped at mother’s house to visit—and to clean out my remaining crap. Ma mere has decided to move, and has declined the opportunity to drag her adult children’s leftover belongings with her.

On balance I was fairly fortunate, here. This current house only dates back 14 years, so there was at least some winnowing carried out previously rather than a complete archive dating back to my childhood; I’ve been nibbling away at this task over the years already; and on balance I think I would much rather do this now than 30-some years from now.

Still, I was surprised by how much was still stuffed back in the closet, etc. A good example of the most surprising items is one of two cube-based college art projects:

Typography cubes from Iowa State University

ArtGR Two… something-or-other…

I was absolutely stunned to discover this thing wrapped up inside a plastic bag. I remembered it instantly—unlike some other items I unearthed later—but I don’t think I’ve seen it since 1999 and at all events until last week I was certain it had long ago gone to the landfill. Nope.

This was a class project from my first year, and I believe my first semester, of graphic design (i.e. my sophomore year of college, after the year of fine arts coursework on which my application for graphic design was based). Our specific assignment was to create nine cubes, using only letterforms from one or two classic typefaces, that would work together as a visual system; ideally, you can place them in the box in any configuration and none will look out of place. The primary teaching purpose was, officially, basically practice achieving aesthetic goals with typography. We did two or three such projects before getting into any kind of practical, pseudo-real-world design applications.

And that’s fine. But this was also an example of a streak of atavistic craft-skill sadism among our faculty. What you see in the above photo? The first time it came into contact with a computer was when I downloaded the photo from my digital camera today. Every single letter on every one of those fricken’ cubes was hand-drawn onto colored paper and then cut out using an x-acto knife. Every. Single. Shape. Then laboriously pasted down onto patterns and photocopied to produce the final surface wrapped around each cube.

Why? Not because more-appropriate technology didn’t exist! This was 1997; the Macs were relatively pokey, yes, but even Illustrator 6 on a Performa could have made quick work of this. Could have, and would have, had our professors not expressly forbidden it.

Most of 16 years later, my opinion of this edict is a leetle bit mixed. On the one hand, I appreciate that computer software is only one route to graphic design; often it’s the best route but there’s something to be said for working with other tools. I actually savor (kind of) self-assigned opportunities to do so, now, and I’m supportive of the idea of exposing students to more basic methods. On the other hand, it’s still difficult to avoid seeing a degree of plain sadism in this project all the same, as well as an unfortunate manifestation of my professors’ constantly voiced reactionary distrust of “the computer.” Lord, the way they would talk about “the computer” as this strange, dangerous new fad. I’m honestly a little curious to know whether they (most of them are still on the faculty) ever got over that. I do know that they did at least give way (to what I imagine were increasingly stubborn protests) and permit computer typography on this project just a few years after I produced the above work, while I was still at ISU…

Meanwhile, upon rediscovering this project I was genuinely tempted to keep it; having not seen it in so long it was essentially fresh to me and kind of intriguing; I thought hm, this could make an interesting conversation piece… Sanity reasserted itself and it went to the landfill.

In a sense, though, I kind of “bargained” internally between my instinct to hold onto things and my skepticism about what in gods name do you think you need to drag this 600 miles back to your apartment for when you haven’t even looked at it in 14 years. The above cubes went away; this one has stayed, for now.

Balsa-wood cube

Art… I don’t even remember. Probably spring 1997?

This was a freshman-year project, part of the aforementioned pre-graphic-design coursework. And I have to admit, I’m not totally ashamed of dragging it back here. For one thing, it actually won some kind of minor award, or at any rate was displayed in the college gallery for a while. I think it is pretty cool. I didn’t have any great plan, and its success is probably as much a product of luck as anything else; luck, plus intense neon orange paint, but if that was a cheap trick I think it was at least well-used.

So I’ve brought it back here, and may display it somewhere. The main thing bothering me is that it’s really kind of gross, at this point; 16 years worth of dust have settled onto it and whether it’s the acrylic paint or what, I don’t know, but the dust has become a kind of gummy grime. I haven’t figured out any way to get it off, yet; the problem is complicated by the fact that this is just flimsy, semi-rough balsa wood so any cleaning cloth tends to catch on the texture of the wood… If anyone has suggestions, let me know.

(Suggestions other than “kindling,” I mean; it may come to that, of course, but I can think of that one on my own.)

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