Our first-ever From the Archives post, which looked back at William Sklaroff's mid-century desk accessory set Radius One, dates back to November 10, 2009 — the very first day of Sight Unseen's existence. But after that, the column pretty much petered out, partly because we didn't have the time to research it properly and partly because, with millions upon millions of wonderful old things to potentially highlight, how could we ever choose just one? We've officially solved that problem today with the launch of our new and improved From the Archives series, in which designers and artists will do all the work for us: Each edition will invite a talent we admire to give a little history lesson on someone from the past who's had a strong impact on their work. Our first subject is Brooklyn glassmaker Andrew O. Hughes, speaking about the California Light and Space sculptor DeWain Valentine (no holiday-themed pun intended).
If you have a particularly sprawling design-book library, or if you religiously follow things like Mondo Blogo or Herman Miller editorial director Sam Grawe's Instagram feed, you may be relatively familiar with the heaps of amazingly designed archival ephemera that original modern furniture brands tend to generate over the decades. But the rest of us still get giddy when we come upon a gem like Vitsoe's brand-new Tumblr, which the 53-year-old German stalwart launched last month to show off rarely seen bits and bobs pulled from its company files. Every couple of days, staffers dig up old invitations, promo items, photographs, and catalogs and post them alongside a snippet of information about their origins; with Dieter Rams as Vitsoe's lead designer and Wolfgang Schmidt behind its graphic identity, there's been no shortage of eye candy on the site so far. A few of our favorite examples are shown here, but we advise you to bookmark the site and visit it often — we have a feeling the Vitsoe folks are just getting started, and there's no telling what they might turn up once they really dig in.
Two hundred years ago, when American pioneers were streaming across the country making homes for themselves in the uncharted wilderness, anyone who needed a corn grater or a mouse trap had to knuckle down and make one. “Everyone was a designer,” says Paul Loebach, who’s long been fascinated by such primitive, purpose-built objects, typically hand-carved in wood or crudely forged in metal. “Whereas Europe had a network of goods trading, for the settlers it was like, we’re limited to these five square acres. They had to be really clever to make the most out of what they had, and that kind of ingenuity is inspiring to me.” Already knowing this about the Brooklyn designer after interviewing him last November, Sight Unseen invited him to choose his favorite objects from the 1972 book American Primitives, which we found at an Ohio flea market for $2 and which contains several dozen annotated selections from Norris, Tennessee’s Museum of Appalachia.
For centuries, Swiss design was synonymous with watches, army knives, sewing machines, and other precision utilitarian objects. Then came the rise of Swiss graphics and typography in the 20th century, when the grids and sans serifs of talents like Josef Müller-Brockmann and Jan Tschichold created a legacy that dominates the tiny country's design reputation even today. But inside the 10,000-square-foot universe of the Museum Für Gestaltung Zurich’s collection archives — behind whose doors normally only curators and students are allowed — every chair, teapot, and cigarette lighter is either a product of or an influence on Switzerland’s industrial design history, which the museum strives to promote through the five to seven temporary exhibitions it produces each year.
Andy Beach had quite a few strange, obscure books from his personal collection for sale at the Apartamento pop-up store in Milan last April. But America's Favorites kept us captivated for hours: A 1980 anthology of junk food that treated each item like some kind of museum specimen, listing its package dimensions, date of origin, ingredients, and backstory — from macaroni and cheese to Cheez Doodles. The best part was that there seemed to be not a trace of irony behind the presentation, a fact I confirmed by painstakingly tracking down and then interviewing its authors, Kay and Marshall Lee. They simply wanted to present food as art, and the 75 choices in the book happened to be Americans' most beloved.
There are more than 20,000 instances of great graphic design housed in the AIGA’s online archives, but for every Pushpin or Chiat\Day, there’s a Swatek Romanoff — a firm that churned out loads of wonderful work in its ’70s/’80s heyday but that isn’t the subject of much chatter among today’s design circles. When we were first putting together ideas for this site, it was Randall Swatek and David Romanoff’s whimsical 1979 “In a Box” series that inspired this column.
When I was 19 and my family was moving out of my childhood home, my best friend and I hosted a joint garage sale. I dragged out all the crap the house had accumulated in the 50 years since my grandparents had built it, and she brought over a car’s worth of items her parents no longer had space for. Rummaging through her things, I rescued a Louis Vuitton bag from the '80s, the classic children's book The Lonely Doll, and an ashtray with rounded corners that spoke to my then-fledgling love for mid-century design. The box it came in said "Radius One."