A few weeks ago, we hit the one-year milestone for the COVID-19 pandemic. The last twelve months have felt like a blur, both like nothing has changed and everything has changed, as if time both stopped and sped up simultaneously. It’s hard to figure out what to make of the last year: in some ways, both personally and professionally it’s been a fruitful year of new ideas, new work, new friends and collaborators, and new ways of seeing and being in the world. Yet there are also the family members no longer with me, the cancelled events, the false starts and opportunities that fell through. I’ve never longed for Spring as much as I have this year, after a winter that seemed to go on forever.
I always say Fall is my favorite season — I’ve even said it in a previous newsletter — but then Spring comes around and I think my favorite may in fact actually be Spring. After this past year, spring comes, bursting forth with new life, new energy, and new hope. Jonsi’s two albums, 2010’s Go Do and 2020’s Shiver are my ideal Spring soundtracks — that is, they are what I imagine Spring sounds like — a burst of energy, life, and happiness. Maybe you’ll find as much joy in them as I do?
Speaking of music, it might be too late in the year for it now but back in February, I released a new winter playlist called Another Kind of World. This one is the third in a now-trilogy of late-winter playlists designed for walking around the city when everything is grey and quiet. You can listen to it on Spotify here (and the other two here and here). These winter playlists are my favorite of the hundreds of playlists I’ve made over the last decade. They capture, I realized, the perfect cross-section of my musical tastes: quiet, slow, sad, and reflective.
(A reminder you can find a bunch of my playlists over on my website.
After a relatively quiet beginning of the year, heads down with remote teaching, some things are happening that I can finally start talking about. First is a big, new essay I wrote for Eye on Design about minimalism. It’s called Graphic Designers Have Always Been Obsessed With Minimalism. But At What Cost?
I’ve been thinking about this one for probably a year now but really got to work on it in earnest for the last four months. It’s sort of a revisionist history of graphic design, approaching the ideas around simplicity, less is more, and minimalism through a quasi-Marxist lens. It’s about what happens when a particular aesthetic and approach gets tied up with capitalism and becomes the dominant understanding of what makes ‘good design’ and how that defines our conceptions of taste, class, and communication. I hope you spend some time with it and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
On the subject of writing, I’ve been posting, when I can, shorter essays and ideas over on my blog, mostly related to books and pop culture. I wrote about The Mandalorian and Barack Obama’s memoir! I miss blogs and blogging and want to get back in the habit of blogging regularly
(I’m in the research phase of a new piece for Eye on Design now that I’m hoping will be published by the end of the month. It’s shorter and more straightforward than that minimalism one, but one that’s close to my heart. More soon!)
I’ve relaunched the membership program for my podcast, Scratching the Surface, on Patreon. On the new platform, patrons can continue to get the show’s monthly newsletter but I’m also now producing exclusive monthly interviews, episode transcripts, and other bonus content. I’m now offering three monthly tiers: $3 for students, $5 for patrons, and $10 for superfans. For students and superfans, I’m doing one-on-one virtual coffee chats to talk shop, which have been incredibly gratifying already. If you like the show (and my work, generally) and want to see more of it in the world, supporting Scratching the Surface on Patreon is the best way to do it. Join us?
Speaking of the podcast, I’ve released a slate of new episodes this year (for some reason, I decided to release new episodes every week until June!) including a wonderful conversation with architect Jeanne Gang about building a studio culture that fosters creativity, architect and academic Milton Curry about the intersection of critical theory and design, former MoMA photography curator and just appointed executive director of Aperture Sarah Meister about the history of photography, and an inspiring conversation with designer and curator Ashley Mendelsohn about making architecture more accessible and understandable.
I just recorded two episodes that’ll come out next month that I’m excited about — both long-time dream guests of mine — and I’m (hopefully) recording another one this week with someone who’s been a hero of mine for twenty-years. I’m nervous!
How about some cultural recommendations?
We’ve been enjoying the FX/Hulu show Breeders much more than we expected. Perhaps being newish parents, we see ourselves in the show more than we’d like? The way it shoehorns in surprisingly emotional arcs under the guise of comedy is impressive. And Martin Freeman, of course, is always a delight. The second season just started — highly recommended.
This comes after finishing the hard-to-describe Legion, Noah Hawley’s prestige-television interpretation of the Marvel character. The show veers between being incredibly brilliant and incredibly frustrating — it’s too clever for its own good sometimes and thinks its being more provocative than it really is. That said, what a singular visual experience! Increasingly, I’m drawn to singular artistic experiences that are both unlike anything else around them and feel so specific to their creator(s)’s vision. Legion is on the list but I’d also put shows like Fleabag, Watchmen, The Leftovers, Atlanta, and Twin Peaks. What should I watch next (television or movie)?
Last week I read John McPhee’s Oranges which had been on my list for years and was so worth the wait. As a long-time McPhee fan, I’m embarrassed it too me this long to get to this one. Only John McPhee can make a book-length meditation on the origins of orange juice concentrate riveting. As a writer, I always find myself returning to McPhee when I need to reinvigorate my own prose — his sense of structure and rhythm never fails to delight. (Speaking of writing, I’ve started collecting my favorite books about writing on Are.na.)
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book A Mushroom at the End of the World has been recommended to me more times than I can count and I finally read it, a little bit each morning, over the last few weeks. It’s a book that is hard to describe but one I’m sure will continue to rewire how I see the world. Here’s a sample:
What if we imagined intellectual life as a peasant woodland, a source of many useful products emerging in unintentional design? The image calls up its opposites: In assessment exercises, intellectual life is a plantation; in scholarly entrepreneurship, intellectual life is pure theft, the private appropriation of communal products. Neither is appealing. Consider, instead, the pleasures of the woodland. There are many useful products there, from berries and mushrooms to firewood, wild vegetables, medicinal herbs, and even timber. A forager can chose what to gather and can make use of the woodland’s patches of unexpected bounty. But the woodland requires continuing work, not to make it a garden but rather to keep it open and available for an array of species. Human coppicing, grazing, and fire maintain this architecture; other species gather to make it their own. For intellectual work, this seems just right. Work in common creates the possibilities of particular feats of individual scholarship. To encourage the unknown potential of scholarly advances—like the unexpected bounty of a nest of mushrooms—requires sustaining the common work of the intellectual woodland.
I mean. Come on. Next on the stack is Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible.
Playing in the headphones has been a steady rotation of new albums from Alex Somers, Middle Kids, Floating Points, Leon Vynehall, Dry Cleaning, and Abul Mogard. Oh, and Olivia Rodrigo’s Drivers License (so good — don’t @ me).
There will be more to share soon, but I’ll save that for the next issue. Wishing you all a happy move into Spring. Thank you, always, for following along. Let’s talk soon.