Happy New Year!
I spent the last few weeks of 2019 and the first week of 2020 unplugged but am back and ready to kick off the year. I hope your holidays were as relaxing as mine. In case you’ve forgotten, I’m Jarrett Fuller, a designer, writer, teacher, podcast guy, or who knows what anymore, and you’re getting this email because you signed up to get updates from me and my work. If it turns out that’s not your thing, feel free to unsubscribe at the link below. If it is, cool! I’m so glad you are here! Thanks for sticking around!
For the last few years, I’ve begun the year doing what I call “maintenance work” but is really simple organization — putting the structures in place for the year ahead. This includes organizing files on my computer, archiving old work, checking on backups, setting up file systems for the new year. I’m obsessive about file structures and organization on my computer and every year I try to clean out the cruft, starting fresh for each new year. This year, for example, I’ve been relabeling and organizing my massive PDF library. It’s boring and completely uninteresting but strangely…meditative? I don’t know, maybe there’s an essay in here about digital organization as self care.
The other, arguably more exciting thing, we did over the holidays was rewatch all the Star Wars films, in order, leading up to J.J. Abrams’s new (and supposedly final) The Rise of Skywalker. Both my wife and I had watched them before and I was a semi-fan in middle school when the second trilogy (first, chronologically) but would not consider myself an obsessive. Here’s my hot take after watching them anew this year: none of them are that good! Not even the originals! A.O Scott got it right in his review of The Rise of Skywalker: “If I had to come up with a definitive ranking of all the Star Wars episodes, the result could only be a nine-way tie for fourth place.” Abrams latest, however, is easily the worst and made me appreciate Rian Johnson’s subversive The Last Jedi even more; the installment I’d already considered the best. Don’t @ me.
On Scratching the Surface, my podcast about design criticism, writing, and practice, I had some fascinating conversations over the last few months. Just this morning, I posted my interview with Rosanne Somerson, the president of RISD, about running a school like a designer, her vision for her presidency, and the future of design education. Keeping in that vein, the last episode 2019 was with Reed Kroloff, the dead of IIT’s school of architecture about his career as a writer, editor, teacher, and now administrator. It was one of my favorite conversations of the last few months. Finally, I talked with design educator Mary Banas about setting up better classroom critiques and the value of an expanded practice.
I have a few projects lined up for the first half of the year — essays to write, new classes to develop, client work, and a few personal projects to kickstart — but I’m always interested in new collaborations, clients, and projects. If you’re looking for design, content, production, strategy, branding, whatever, we should talk. Recent work is on my studio site and a more complete archive of all the weird stuff I do is on my personal site. I’d love to find some new folks to work with this year.
I’ve made it a tradition the last few semesters to leave my last class and head to a museum to catch a show for a few hours of reflection to transition from the busyness of the school year to the (hopefully) quiet break. I’d been itching to see the Vija Celmins show at the Met Breuer since it opened so following my last class, I headed uptown to spend some time with one of my very favorite artists. (FWIW, the Met Breuer building — the old Whitney — is still possibly my favorite museum architecture of all time.)
I put Alex Somers’s soundtrack for Honey Boy in the headphones and his ambient sounds provided a perfect soundtrack to Celmins’s sublime textural drawings. As someone who obsessively photographs water, I’m obviously most drawn to her ocean drawings and spent quite a bit of time in front of those but I’d never seen her night sky drawings in person before and found them surprisingly powerful in the flesh. Graphite drawings are not my usual interest in art — perhaps because I was never good at it and I’m jealous of those who are? — but the simplicity and specificity of Celmins work continues to amaze me.
Susan Tallman wrote about the show in the New York Review of Books, Alex Kitnick wrote about it for 4Columns (one of my favorite sites for art criticism, btw), and you really must read Calvin Tomkins’s profile of Celmins in The New Yorker from back in August.
This Longform Podcast interview with the New York Times book critic Parul Sagal is so, so good. The great John Baldessari died earlier this week and I can’t help but think of the influence his work has had on my own creative process. Melissa Clark’s tips for eating less meat has become my guide for this year.
I realized many of you might subscribe to this thinking you’ll get design content and I don’t think I’ve linked to anything design yet in any previous issues. So much of my design reading is for teaching, research, or writing projects that I feel like I’ve fallen out of the #designcontent game. (Apparently Design Twitter is a thing and I don’t even know what that means!) I have been reading a lot though so here are a few favorites: Prem Krishnamurthy — a designer I’ve admired for a decade now and who I think is doing his most interesting work ever — gave a great talk at the 2019 Nordic Design Conference on “bumpy design.” Steven Johnson wrote about the evolution of the Stanford dSchool and the limits of design thinking. Kris Sowersby’s blog post on the design of Klim’s new typeface, Sohne, is a smart piece of design writing and history. And perhaps my favorite piece of design writing of the last few months is this excellent essay by Nikil Saval on the US government’s influence on modern design. (I’m currently reading this new book on Gyorgy Kepes that fits right in to this story.)
As I do at the beginning of every year, I posted the complete lists of everything I watched and read from the previous year. I didn’t watch as many movies this year — and only got out to theater once! — but I did read more in 2019 than I did in 2018. I wasn’t a reader as a child; didn’t become a reader until halfway through high school. I still haven’t read a lot of classics and always feel like I’m catching up, always more to read. (I also posted my favorite albums and essays of 2019, if you are interested in the shortlists!)
For most of my life as a reader, I’ve been a nonfiction reader. Books, for me as a high school kid, were a way to learn about the world: about design, about art, about history, about movies, about all the things I was interested in and felt like no one else was. I’d read a few novels each year, usually books recommended to me or mentioned in a non-fiction book I was reading, but they were always in the minority. But something happened in 2019. It started near the end of 2018, slowly I think, but my reading habits have completely flipped. In 2019, I primarily read fiction, with a few nonfiction books thrown in, mostly essay collections by some of my favorite writers. (I wrote about this a bit halfway through the year, but it’s only continued in the second half of 2019).
I can’t pinpoint a book that turned it and I’m not sure why but my primary interest in reading now is novels. I like novels that stretch the idea of what a novel even is. I like a novel that makes me think, that I can’t put down, that I will talk about to anyone who will listen. I mentioned Fleishman is in Trouble in the last newsletter. I also loved Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise, R.O. Kwon’s The Incindiaries, and Kurt Andersen’s True Believers.
Anyway. I’m interested in more novels like those. You can see the entire list of books I’ve read in 2019 here and I keep a list of books to read on Goodreads. Do you have recommendations? What should I be reading? Favorite novels I’m missing?
Speaking of reading, I’ve been thinking of this quote from Teju Cole again recently:
I have not read most of the big 19th-century novels that people consider “essential,” nor most of the 20th-century ones for that matter. But this does not embarrass me. There are many films to see, many friends to visit, many walks to take, many playlists to assemble and many favorite books to reread. Life’s too short for anxious score-keeping. Also, my grandmother is illiterate, and she’s one of the best people I know. Reading is a deep personal consolation for me, but other things console, too.
Seems as good a motto for 2020 as any I can think of. Here’s to a year filled with the books and songs and films and people you love the most.