Chairs, Rag Mags, Indian Wars

By Benjamin Schwarz

July/August Atlantic

Not since the early 1960s—when a Noguchi Akari lamp, a George Nelson platform bench, and a wooden Danish Modern salad bowl were emblems of the Tasteful and Sophisticated—has good design been so much the thing as it is in our age of Dwell magazine and that soon-to-be-ubiquitous chain boutique Design Within Reach. So this publishing feat and masterpiece of the bookmaker’s art—a gorgeous three-volume, 3,000-plus-page, eighteen-pound (!) work that catalogs and elucidates 999 industrially made objects of classic design—taps into the zeitgeist, even if its spring publication date means it may sadly fail to tap into the holiday gift market (though at $175, it’s a present only for someone you really, really like). Arranged chronologically (the first entry is a pair of Chinese scissors designed in the 1600s and still manufactured today), it embraces all manner of products, from the Spitfire fighter and the Brompton folding bicycle to computers, egg cups, and door handles (no fewer than six, including one that Wittgenstein designed). It also marries consistently zippy, exceptionally precise, artfully compressed text—which explicates each object’s historical context and aesthetic and functional significance, and often the materials and processes of its manufacture—with imaginatively selected images (about 4,000 in all), including plans, old advertisements, and vivid photographs.

Those familiar with the history of design will find the obvious, iconic stuff—Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House Ladder Back, Marcel Breuer’s Wassily, Mies’s Barcelona, Richard Neutra’s Boomerang, Harry Bertoia’s Diamond, Charles and Ray Eames’s DAR, and Hans Wegner’s “PP501” and “Y” (I’m talking chairs, which have more entries than any other product). But the anthology is at its most charming when it is at its most quirky. Its expositions on, say, packages (the Heinz ketchup bottle, the Marmite jar, the Toblerone box, the Kikkoman soy-sauce table bottle, the Kiwi shoe-polish tin) and quotidian objects (the clothes peg, the sugar dispenser, the paper clip, the toast rack, the Dixie cup, the measuring tape, the egg carton) reveal the evolution of industrial production and consumption and amount to a primer on what makes great design. Inevitably with this sort of project, one quibbles. Why, for instance, include that epitome of late-hippie clunky, Frank Gehry’s hideous Wiggle Chair, but not Heywood-Wakefield’s comfortable, affordable, and supremely stylish Dog Biscuit Chair? (The Poulsen pendant lamp they laud may be beloved by architects and designers, but, as I know from bitter experience, changing its lightbulb is an exercise of military complexity.)

The collection’s somewhat fuzzy selection criteria (the decision, for instance, to exclude garments and fashion accessories is at once understandable and5984643251_399e112719_m inconsistent with its definition of a “design classic”), the contradictory emphasis on both the “timeless” and the “innovative,” and the mystery surrounding how, exactly, the anointed objects were chosen and who did the choosing (“a wide range of international design-world insiders” were consulted, but who were the gatekeepers?) exacerbates the carping. A worse decision, though, is the choice to devote the final volume—one-third of the anthology—to products designed since 1966, and fully half of that book to objects designed since 1982. Many of these may indeed prove enduring, but really, it’s far too soon to tell.

It’s a shame the books can’t be bought individually; I’d get the first two, which are a brilliantly curated collection of true design classics, and forget the third, which is essentially devoted either to objects from the 1970s (aesthetically, probably the ugliest era in human history) or to fads—some great, some not. Alas, the volumes are sold only in a set, with a snazzy carrying case—which I had to break to get the books out. Perhaps not design at its best. Still, great design ennobles daily life, and reading these handsome, well-made books, which illuminate hundreds of exquisitely functioning, beautiful products, is also an elevating experience.

photo-by-louise-dahl-wolfe-harpers-bazaar-1950sA Dash of Daring, by Penelope Rowlands (Atria). On a bleak October day in 1933, Martin Munkacsi, a prestigious Hungarian photojournalist who’d never before taken a fashion picture, was on Long Island’s Piping Rock Beach with a socialite model and Carmel Snow, the new fashion editrix of Harper’s Bazaar, who had hired him to shoot a feature for the magazine’s “Palm Beach” issue. Munkacsi, who would become one of the most successful photographers of his generation, ordered the shivering model in bathing suit and cloak to run toward the camera. The resulting snap revolutionized fashion photography. Until then, models were all but mannequins, elaborately and statically posed in the studios; from the Palm Beach issue forward, Bazaar had them diving, scaling sand dunes, jumping over puddles, scampering (naked) around swimming pools, and perched on camels. This was a new approach to fashion (one saw the clothes in action, as much as the models), and, in its effervescence and emphasis on physicality, it was a new approach to femininity.

Snow—warm but steely, blue-rinsed, with a weakness for martinis (a weakness that in the end proved tragic)—orchestrated this and the other transformations that made “the Bazaar” (as she called it) under her tenure, from 1933 through 1957, into what is widely considered the finest and most innovative fashion magazine in history. Snow had a genius for spotting genius. She famously proclaimed Christian Dior’s spring 1947 collection the “New Look”; with her photographic eye for the details of tailoring, she recognized and tirelessly endorsed the austere, precisely cut creations of the retiring Cristóbal Balenciaga (“He knows a woman’s body better than any living dressmaker,” she declared). Above all, she applied that talent-spotting genius to remaking her magazine—and, in the process, fashion journalism. She brought on and served as mentor to Diana Vreeland, the future editor of Vogue and the prototypical flamboyant, dictatorial fashion diva, whose loopy Bazaar column in the 1930s, “Why Don’t You?” (“Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in Champagne, as the French do?”; “Why don’t you wear bare knees and long white knitted socks, as Unity Mitford does when she takes tea with Hitler at the Carlton in Munich?”), was, owing to its apparent lack of irony, either charming or distasteful, depending on one’s point of view. She signed up and enjoyed an intense, lasting collaboration with the now legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch, who, in turn, brought Man Ray on as an exclusive photographer for the magazine and who, in constructivist-inspired layouts, wrenched the photos out of their neat boxes and splayed them across the pages, thus bringing to Bazaar a stylized visual dynamism hitherto foreign to mass-circulation magazines. The Snow-Vreeland-Brodovitch editorial triumvirate was one of the most harmonious and fruitful partnerships in magazine history.

A periodical of extraordinary visual and graphic variety and distinction, Snow’s Bazaar discovered and nurtured not only Munkacsi but also Richard Louise_Dahl-Wolfe_Paris_1940_-_DiorAvedon (who pronounced Snow “the only editor whose judgment I could ever rely on”), Andy Warhol, and the pioneering color photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe. (The photographs of Cecil Beaton and Henri Cartier-Bresson and the drawings of Jean Cocteau regularly enlivened the magazine as well.) Yet Snow also created a magazine for “well-dressed women with well-dressed minds,” as she liked to say, and so she recruited Kenneth Tynan as a monthly profiler (“To be given virtual carte blanche to run riot across the pages of Harper’s Bazaarwas about the most encouraging thing that ever happened to me as a young writer,” he recalled), and in her pages helped launch the careers of Carson McCullers and Truman Capote (he became among her closest friends). It’s an utterly glamorous story: the all-night shoots after the showings of the Paris collections; the junior editrixes—“tall, cool Vassar graduates,” as S. J. Perelman described them—in their pillbox hats and white gloves; the languid lunches at Le Pavillion and the Colony; and the long, lovely afternoon that was Manhattan in the 1950s.

In her largely unnoticed and now forgotten 1962 memoirs, Snow told much of the tale of her career with nostalgic glee, including her notorious jump from deputy at Vogue to Bazaar, and her tough if convivial relationship with Bazaars proprietor, “The Chief,” William Randolph Hearst. But Rowlands’s far fuller and more detailed chronicle—conveyed in this 500-page, beautifully designed (so much white space!) book—is exhilarating, at least for those with an interest in fashion and in what that former Vogue staffer Joan Didion called the “effortlessly glossy” look and tone of the bygone rag mags.

Still, although Rowlands writes discerningly on the haut monde and on haute couture (I was gratified by her sophisticated appreciation of Edward Molyneux’s at once winsome and supremely elegant designs from the thirties), she’s unable or unwilling to summon a complete portrait of Snow, about whom there’s clearly a complex story to tell. Snow was a liberated career woman, and she was also a purposeful social climber and a far-less-than-devoted mother. She started as a fashion editor in her thirties. She then married a high-born dullard (it was by all appearances a passionless match) and had three daughters, whom she literally seldom saw, and the last of whom Snow bore when she was forty-five. But Rowlands, whose mother married Snow’s nephew, somewhat understandably fails to probe all this. Nevertheless, I found this energetic but deeply elegiac book, despite its occasional breathlessness and sloppy writing, endlessly absorbing, because it’s among the most detailed, precise, and hence evocative accounts of a notoriously rarefied world.

miles_1876Yellowstone Command, by Jerome A. Greene (Oklahoma). On June 25, 1876, at the Little Bighorn, 2,000 Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors won the most stunning victory in the history of the American Indians’ struggle with whites. But by the following spring, the U.S. Army had broken the Sioux and Cheyenne, and the twenty-six-year contest for the northern plains had ended, as thousands of Indians streamed into the reservations and surrendered. Although this outcome was foreordained, few had anticipated the rapidity or totality of the Indian defeat. More than anyone else, General Nelson A. Miles was responsible for crushing the tribes.

A hero of the battles at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Appomattox, Miles had two years earlier conclusively defeated the Comanche, the Kiowa, and the Southern Cheyenne in the Red River War. The most successful Indian fighter in American history (after a century of relative scholarly neglect, he was from 1989 to 1998 the subject of no fewer than three academic biographies, which is really two too many), he would later beat Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé and Geronimo of the Apache; he would also put down the Pullman strike and serve as commanding general of the Army during the Spanish-American War. Miles was a courageous, energetic, highly competent, aggressive, and hard-driving field commander; he was also a world-class self-promoter and a jealous and petty infighter, all of which made him less than popular with his fellow officers, a group with whom he was competitive to the point of paranoia.

When Miles, with the Fifth Infantry under his command, entered the Sioux country following Custer’s defeat, his charge was to maintain an Army presence deep in the hostiles’ territory throughout the winter—itself a difficult and unprecedented endeavor. But rather than remain in their cantonment on a tributary of the Yellowstone River, Miles and his troops relentlessly pursued the Sioux and Cheyenne through the blizzards and sub-zero temperatures of the northern plains. Thrown off balance, warriors were transformed from feared fighters into hunted fugitives. Women, children, and ponies weakened as food and provender dwindled. These conditions intensified the endemic factionalism that beset the tribes; they were soon fatally enfeebled from without and from within. In a series of engagements, Miles bested his opponents (most significantly at the battle of the Wolf Mountains, which, though indecisive, shook the resolve of Crazy Horse’s and Sitting Bull’s forces), but it was his dogged pressure, not his victories on the battlefield, that defeated the Indians.

Unglamorously methodical, Miles’s campaign is among the most successful feats of unconventional warfare in the history of the U.S. military (it was so described by a fellow lecturer at a course on counterinsurgency I helped teach at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School years ago), but until recently historians have devoted little attention to it, compared with, say, Custer’s hardly victorious but far more romantic efforts. This book, first published in 1991 and just re-released in paperback, is a model of military history. A historian with the National Park Service, Greene judiciously and inventively weighs his evidence (many of his sources were previously unexamined), elucidates Miles’s campaign strategy, and meticulously reconstructs the grueling marches and battles of the winter of 1876–77. His efforts are informed throughout by an exquisite sensitivity to the topography and climate of southeastern Montana. This is among the most realistic books on war that I’ve read: it explicates not the horror and drama of battle but the hard slog, the brutal single-mindedness of winning commanders, the blunt facts of logistics and supply, and the slow but inexorable unraveling of morale.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s