Donald Judd: Good Intentions

By | June 20, 2014

View of 101 Spring Street from the corner of Mercer and Spring in SoHo.

Artist Donald Judd did not believe in the afterlife. But he did believe in art.

Judd’s passion for art is enshrined at 101 Spring Street where he lived and worked off and on for over 25 years. Here Judd established a space to install his own work and the work of other artists and designers that he collected.

Collections are often dismantled and dispersed. Sometimes before death a person gives objects to relatives, friends, or institutions. All too often the array is left in the hands of bewildered family members to sort through and decipher. If one is lucky, a last will and testament provides instructions for what should become of it all. Such was the case with Judd whose leave-behinds included a building full of art. In a 1987 essay Judd wrote, “The art and architecture of the past that we know is that which remains. The best is that which remains where it was painted, placed or built.” The building at 101 Spring Street and its contents have been preserved as a permanent installation according to Judd’s wishes.

The cast-iron building at 101 Spring Street was designed by Nicholas Whyte and erected in 1870 in New York’s SoHo quarter, which at the time was known as the cast-iron district. Judd purchased this five-story structure with two basements in November 1968. The cast-iron façade with classical style pediments and Greek-inspired faux columns is an apt example of historicism typical of late nineteenth-century American architecture. The columns encase near floor to ceiling windows that frame views of Spring Street to the south and Mercer Street to the west.

Judd assigned each floor a specific purpose: eating, sleeping, working. The first floor served primarily as a workspace and gallery; the second housed the kitchen and dining areas; the third was designated another working space; the fourth another eating room; and the fifth floor contained sleeping quarters.

Now open to the public, in April I had the opportunity to join a guided tour.

The transition from narrow cobblestone lane to wide-open interior space is inviting. The pressed-tin ceiling tiles and oil-stained wooden floorboards are original. A wooden armchair on casters and roll top desk offer a nod to an earlier time but Judd’s hard-edged three-dimensional works that hang on opposite walls propel one into the next century.

Judd’s presence survives through this work. The 1970 anodized aluminum piece based on the Fibonacci sequence introduces Judd’s interest in time and space through the use of mathematical progression. The 1988 series of four cubes reveals his fascination with simple geometric form and reinforces his interest in industrial materials such as galvanized steel and plexiglas. This synergy between contrasting elements of old and new sets the tone for the rest of the tour—modernism interlaced with touchstones of the past.

African masks line the walls of the stairway leading to the second floor. At the top of the landing, shelving stocked with bottles of tequila and other liquor alludes to a more communal and spirited space. A massive table with fourteen chairs dominates the room. This ensemble designed by Judd demonstrates his fascination with scale. All fourteen chairs tuck succinctly under the table disguising the fact that they are even chairs. The chair backs flush with the table’s surface forming the illusion of a single sturdy three-dimensional object. The wide table legs measure almost the same proportion as the solid planes of the backs of the chairs leaving a repeating pattern of open spaces that rhythmically circumscribes the table. While an interesting effect, I would have liked to see more detail of the chairs.

In addition to Judd’s table chairs, examples of mid-nineteenth-century bentwood chairs manufactured by Thonet Brothers of Austria include a high chair and several child-size versions of Thonet’s model No. 14, often referred to as the “chair of chairs.” This is one of the few instances where Judd’s children are acknowledged. The dialogue between old and new is also exhibited by the intimate interaction between Judd’s understated high-back pine daybed and the decorative cast-iron of the No. 22 potbelly wood-burning stove. The roughly three-foot tall sides of the daybed gently separate the kitchen and dining areas and form a cozy rectangular nook whose geometry contrasts beautifully with the bulging organic curves of the stove.

Chairs are a repeating element throughout the building. The third floor features chairs and companion pieces by Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto, who, like Judd, was a proponent of gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. The curvilinear grace of Aalto’s bent plywood offsets the rigid right angles of Larry Bell’s 1970 transparent cube mounted on a transparent pedestal. But Judd’s over-sized 1969 four-sided box, which was placed in the building in 1970 and proved too heavy to move, dwarfs everything else in sight. I so much wanted to step inside the hollow womb of this huge piece but we were not allowed to touch anything. While Judd’s drawing table and a constrained array of tools identify this as a workspace, a woven mat stretched out below a wooden Chinese headrest indicates this is also a place for contemplation.

On the fourth floor Frank Stella’s 1967 Gur II, a mesmerizing shaped-canvas painting of colorful concentric circles, overlooks the space. Five groundbreaking wooden zigzag chairs by Dutch de Stijl architect Gerrit Rietveld gather around a wooden table designed by Judd. Here too the top of the table lines up precisely with the top surface of the backs of the chairs. Another of Judd’s four-legged creations stands at the opposite end of the room. The hinged top of this table is folded back from the center revealing a hidden storage unit full of glassware and dishes. This is my favorite Judd piece, simultaneously table and cabinet, an ingenious hybrid form with function.

The original tin ceiling tiles retained on the first two floors were removed on the third floor and replaced by a white ceiling. On the fourth floor Judd explores the effect of parallel planes by applying wooden flooring to the ceiling in an identical pattern to the floor below. The resulting sensation is that of being encapsulated inside one of Judd’s three-dimensional containers.

The fifth floor is for sleeping—in the company of art by colleagues and fellow artists John Chamberlain, Dan Flavin, and Claes Oldenburg. Judd acknowledged their formative work, among others, and their unprecedented use of industrial materials in his 1964 essay Specific Objects: “The new work obviously resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting. …The newest thing about it is its broad scale. Its materials are somewhat more emphasized than before. …The use of three dimensions makes it possible to use all sorts of materials and colors.” Crushed automobile parts welded together constitute Chamberlain’s work. Fluorescent tubes distinguish Flavin’s site-specific “situations,” as he preferred to call them. Soft, pliable vinyl defines Oldenburg’s work.

In the center of the room two mattresses rest on a wooden platform low to the floor. A mysterious Lucas Samaras beaded box stabbed with knives rests at the head of the bed. An elegant high-back settee from the past breaks my concentration on the avant garde. Its two front legs bow gently outward as they approach the floor interrupting the otherwise vertical and horizontal structure. The upholstered seat is covered in a delicate striped silk that echoes the repeating linear pattern in Flavin’s site-specific tribute, which angles through the space on a north-south axis and extends close to seventy feet. The blue and magenta fluorescent tubes cast an ethereal haze over the room. It takes getting used to. When my eyes adapt, the room has morphed into a breathtaking rectangular form of pure light.

I share Judd’s desire to preserve historical architecture and admire his decision to convert one of the few remaining cast-iron buildings in the neighborhood into live-work space. I appreciate the preservation of the building with artwork and furniture intact, with the aim of achieving a total work of art. For all of Judd’s precision, though, I am amazed at the lesser quality of the construction of his own furniture when compared to the Aalto and Rietveld pieces. Also the lack of precision with which many of the objects relate to the architecture is puzzling. Pieces could be more carefully aligned to floorboards. The relationship of furniture to windows could have been more carefully considered.

Although 101 Spring Street provides a glimpse into Judd’s life and work, it is difficult to fully imagine Judd, his family and friends moving about from floor to floor. There is little evidence of the everyday and the Judd Foundation has limited access to some spaces, such as the intimate library, which unfortunately is book-less as most of Judd’s books have been moved off site. Photographs or videos might clarify what life was really like within those walls, but such revelations do not seem to have been Judd’s intention. The fact that Judd lived there seems incidental.

He wanted visitors to 101 Spring Street to experience his selection of art in the setting in which he had installed it as opposed to being shown out of context and isolated in a gallery or museum. In his 1977 essay In Defense of My Work, Judd said, “The installation of my work and of others is contemporary with its creation. The work is not disembodied spatially, socially, temporally, as in most museums. The space surrounding my work is crucial to it: as much thought has gone into the installation as into a piece itself. …The interrelation of the architecture of 101 Spring Street, its own and what I’ve invented, with the pieces installed there, has led to many of my newer, larger pieces, ones involving whole spaces.”

To Judd, 101 Spring Street was an experiment, a laboratory of sorts, which provided a foray into designing permanent installations. It became the point of departure for his subsequent work, particularly in Marfa, Texas, where works of art are inextricably linked to the surrounding landscape.

What one experiences at 101 Spring Street is a well-scripted narrative through an extraordinary live-work space tidied up for guests. Judd’s alterations to the space are intriguing. It is thrilling to see common objects in dialogue with notable works by highly acclaimed artists and designers with whom Judd shared common bonds. But the mess is missing. There are no signs of work in progress, no indications of the physical challenges of making and installing art, no marks of the trial and error that led to creative revelations, no evidence of the conceptual processes required to solve design dilemmas. There is so much more of Judd that could be revealed at 101 Spring Street. But maybe this was just not part of his plan.

Judd died in 1994 but his spirit lingers in this gray cast-iron building located at the corner of Spring and Mercer. Here Judd’s intentions are revealed thanks to a meticulous restoration led by his daughter Rainer and his son Flavin, which they completed following their father’s lead. As Judd originally intended, the floor plan was to remain open; the right angle of windows on the southwest corner of each floor was not to be interrupted; and all changes were to be compatible. Everything was to be thoroughly considered and permanent. “It takes a great deal of time and thought to install work carefully,” Judd wrote in the Chinati Foundation catalog. “This should not always be thrown away. Most art is fragile and some should be placed and never moved again. Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be.”

Judd’s work is sorted under the moniker minimalism, a term that Judd never endorsed. He preferred the term “three-dimensional works” as distinguished from painting and sculpture. Painting, according to Judd’s 1964 essay Specific Objects, tended to be flat, rectangular, and descriptive; and sculpture adhered to a limited palette of materials and was less extended and environmental than the new work of the period.

Judd also thought in terms of permanent artistic installations. When the work is extracted from its environment and shown in isolation the elimination of non-essential formal features becomes the focus. But when seen in context at 101 Spring Street the pieces assume new dimensions by interacting with other objects and the space that they inhabit. Together they form a consolidated environment where single objects are viewed as part of a greater whole. By insisting that the work stay together in situ Judd ignores categorization and achieves his ultimate goal. Simply put: “Very little is left in any period with the original intentions evident. I’m trying to do this.”

View of the first floor gallery through the exterior door on Spring Street.

Full view of 101 Spring Street from the southwest corner of Mercer and Spring.

Learn more:


Architecture Research Office (ARO) website

Chinati/“Mission and History,”

Dehn, Georgia. “Rainer Judd interview: a childhood frozen in time,” The Telegraph. 7:00AM BST 14 Jun 2013.

Gregory, Hannah, Domus, “101 Spring Street,” July 18, 2013.

Hamilton, Adrian. “Space odyssey: Donald Judd—space, light and sculptures that take on a life of their own,” The Independent. Sunday 18 August 2013.–space-light-and-sculptures-that-take-on-a-life-of-their-own-8773262.html

Judd, Donald. “101 Spring Street,” Architektur, 1989. Posted on Design Observer, May 5, 2011.

Judd, Donald. “In Defense of My Work,” Complete Writings 1975–1977, Van Abbe Museum, December 1977.

Judd, Donald. “Specific Objects,” Arts Yearbook 8, 1965.

Kellein, Thomas, Donald Judd. Early Work 1955–1968. D.A.P. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York, 2002.

Lange, Alexandra, “Donald Judd’s House,” The New Yorker. May 13, 2013.

Michel, Karen. NPR Transcript. “For Judd Family, Home Is Where The (Rectilinear) Art Is,” July 21, 2013, 4:59 PM ET.

Raskin, David. Donald Judd, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2010.

Smith, Roberta. “Donald Judd, Leading Minimalist Sculptor, Dies at 65,” The New York Times, February 13, 1994.

Smith, Roberta. “The Artist’s Force Field Frozen in Time,” The New York Times, May 30, 2013.

Vanhemert, Kyle. “Look Inside Donald Judd’s Home, Studio, and Muse,” Fast Company, June 6, 2013.

Photos by Susan Merritt

Lever House, the Not for Nothing Trendsetter

By | June 19, 2014

With all due respect to the other 14 specimens of modernist architecture on Ada Louise Huxtable’s Park Avenue tour, none of them outshines Lever House, designed in 1952 by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM). In “Park Avenue School of Architecture,” Huxtable praises Lever House as a pacesetter of the new curtain wall construction, a post-World War II technique that involves applying a thin skin, such as glass, to a steel frame. She concludes that SOM met its responsibilities by realizing the promise of the new construction. Bunshaft addresses the subject that same year in Architectural Review, “To a much greater degree than any other country, the United States is a steel and production-line economy. It follows logically that its architecture has become industrialized; the basic materials in which it works—steel, aluminum, glass, plastics—all come from the production line.… It is to SOM’s credit that we have taken prefabrication and made a design asset of it.”

Andres Lepik in Skyscrapers attributes additional trendsetting to Lever House. It was the first skyscraper to be fully air-conditioned and a special window-washing cabin, now standard in the industry, was invented to clean the sealed glass façade. The device was designed to be lowered from the roof and glide on tracks behind the parapet. In addition, Lever House was the first New York building to take advantage of a zoning provision that allowed a building to rise with no setbacks. Bunshaft explains in a 1989 interview, “The first thing you do on a site is find out the zoning limitations, the air space you can’t intrude on, and how big a building you could build on that site. The tower allowance in those days meant that you could go up only 85 feet on the side streets. On an avenue, you could go up to the equivalent of about ten or twelve floors, and then set back. If you wanted a tower above that, it could only be 25 percent of the site. Lever was the first really contemporary building,” adds Bunshaft, “the first major one.”

Huxtable credits a building as being only as good as its designer, or artist-architect, and acknowledges that a building’s success is also dependent upon an enlightened or open-minded client. “Hiring an architect,” says Bunshaft, “is like getting married for four years without sex.… It’s a close relationship. When the chemistry works between people, it’s a marvelous experience.” Charles Luckman, head of the Lever Company at the time, hired SOM to design what he referred to as a “distinguished office building for a thousand people.” Bunshaft says, “They were not interested in making bucks out of stores or renting extra space.… Luckman wanted a building to identify Lever.” A building, Lepik adds, that would “project an innovative and ‘clean’ image” for the detergent company.

“We wanted to build a glass building,” explains Bunshaft. “We wanted to be as avant-garde as possible.…we wanted something new, so we put it on stilts. Now, the location of the tower from left to right, as you face it from Park Avenue, is set by the zoning. We couldn’t have moved it farther north aesthetically because of the envelope. We could have moved it maybe to the middle, but we wanted to have asymmetry.”

“We showed Luckman the model and he liked it,” said Bunshaft.

Prior to the next meeting, Louis Skidmore told Bunshaft, “You’ll never get away without stores. It’s crazy.”

Bunshaft said, “Well, it’s the whole goddamn design.”

“You’ve got to put in stores,” said Skidmore. So Bunshaft put them in.

When Luckman came back a few days later, he said, “What happened to it? What’s that stuff in the bottom, Skidmore?”

“Stores,” replied Skidmore, “You’ve got to have them.”

Luckman said, “You’ve ruined the whole design.”

If Luckman had gone along with the stores, Bunschaft said, “the building would have been nothing.”

But it is something, something special. After 61 years the building is still youthful, and still unique. Instead of ubiquitous stores on the ground level, open space invites pedestrians to linger on geometric marble benches designed by Isamu Noguchi, wander in the rock garden, view public art, or cut a corner in the rush to be somewhere. Its transparent green and opaque blue glassy facade is elegant and refreshing in stark contrast to the dense brick and stone cladding of some of its more mature neighbors or less-than-stunning contemporaries. The spatial illusion created by the asymmetrical balance and the bold shift in scale between the 18-story vertical office tower and the horizontal second floor, which spans the entire lot and floats on stainless-steel-wrapped pilotis, is spectacular and unlike anything else in the area. Lever House is not nothing.


Blum, Betty J. “Interview with Gordon Bunshaft,” edited by Detlef Mertins.

Dupre, Judith. Skyscrapers, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 1956. pp 44–45.

Hitchcock, Henry Russell. Introduction, Architecture of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: A Five-Volume Monograph, 1950–1962, Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., Publisher, 1962.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. “Park Avenue School of Architecture,” The New York Times, December 15, 1957.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered: The Search for a Skyscraper Style, Pantheon Books, New York, 1984.

Huxtable, Ada Louise. Four Walking Tours of Modern Architecture in New York City, Municipal Art Society and Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1961.

Lepik, Andres. Skyscrapers, Prestel, 2008, pp 4–16, 65.

Mertins, Detlef. “Interview with Natalie de Blois,” originally published in SOM Journal 4, Hatje Cantz, Publisher.

Nordenson, Guy and Riley, Terence. Tall Buildings, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2003. Pp 11–31.

Overy, Paul. De Stijl, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1991. – cite_note-4

Photos by Susan Merritt


By | June 19, 2014

During the summer of 2006, I accompanied a San Diego State faculty colleague and a group of students on a study tour to Japan. The first couple of nights we stayed in a modern business hotel in Tokyo. The rooms were very compact and geared for efficiency, the norm by Japanese standards. Included among a convenient supply of amenities was a white molded plastic hairbrush with MADE IN JAPAN proudly embossed on the top surface in small, sans-serif capital letters. I continue to use this practical souvenir even though 24 of the 93 plastic bristles have broken off, one is poised to break, and another is bent to dysfunction. The brush has no sharp pieces; all edges are softly rounded, including the type. On each side of the brush seven slits about 1/8-inch wide angle upward toward the center spine, which is dotted with a row of seven circular indentations. While these dimples provide a decorative element, I assume them to be productive remnants of the manufacturing process as purpose is a hallmark of Japanese design. There are, however, two holes whose meaning eludes me. They’re located just below the last row of bristles, which are now missing from my brush. Perhaps these openings represent wabi-sabi, the Japanese notion that honors imperfection.

In spite of the smooth, shiny, seemingly slippery surface, a thumb groove and wavy finger ridge on the handle provide a strong grip. As my hand squeezes and my wrist twists, the bristles gently separate the strands and hair glides through the open-ended voids. Some hair is left behind as it’s normal to lose up to 100 strands a day. These dislodged strands wind themselves randomly around the loom of stiff plastic bristles and eventually weave an oval-shaped nest. When the nest is large enough and begins to impair the grooming process, I remove the soft clump and preserve it in a Ziplock baggie for an artist’s book about domestic rituals. It will be a companion piece to Forty Days of Lint, a one-of-a-kind book about the repetitive task of doing laundry.

When the students departed and I said goodbye to my colleague, I spent an additional week on my own in Tokyo in a ryokan, a quaint Japanese inn, the kind that has separate areas for showering and bathing, and no beds. Guests sleep on futons rolled out each night on tatami floor mats. It was in this cultural environment of tradition and efficiency that I received the call that my mother, after years of misplaced memory, was finally surrendering to the tangled filaments of Alzheimer’s. There I knelt on tatami mats behind sliding shoji doors 6000 miles away. While my younger sister held the telephone, I spoke imperfect words of love and gratitude to my unresponsive mother, whose remembrance of me had long ago been brushed aside.

Afterword: While on another study trip, this time to New York during fall 2013, I decided to allow the Japanese brush to accumulate four month’s worth of entangled strands of hair as a means to chronicle my adventure. Now this ordinary utilitarian object, once a memento of the efficiency of Tokyo, has become—with hairy mass intact—a keepsake of the gridded chaos of the great metropolis of New York.

Photo by Susan Merritt

Cuppa Comfort

By | June 19, 2014

The teakettle exhales. I toss the daily paper on the kitchen counter and rush to quiet the piercing pitch. Tilting the kettle, I flush just enough steamy water into the mossy green teapot to warm it up, then douse boiling water over three scoops of tea. I prefer loose tea to tea bags. The flavor is fuller. Sorry, Thomas Sullivan, the inventor of the tea bag. I read somewhere that a pound of loose tea yields 160 cups. Anyway, the ceremonious act of measuring is part of my morning ritual.

While the tea steeps from three to five minutes and the tightly curled leaves unfurl in the boiling water, I survey my assorted collection of mugs. Smaller mugs nest inside larger ones. Others teeter astride the rims of their peers. Handles reach in all directions. I really do need a better system. Maybe I should add an additional shelf or hooks to hang the mugs to protect them from getting chipped. If a mug gets chipped, it’s ousted.

I could choose a teacup and saucer but I prefer the informality of a mug for everyday use. Mugs hold more. Their handles are full and sturdy. Japanese teacups don’t have handles. I’ve been told that it’s a practical method of gauging the temperature of the tea. If the cup is too hot to hold, the tea is too hot to drink. With a mug you can choose to use the handle or not. I’m right handed so when I hold a mug by the handle I grip it with my right hand. Sometimes I wrap my hands around the mug and tuck my fingers under the handle. The soothing heat of the tea seeps through the mug and warms my palms.

So, which one will do the honors today?

Peering into the cupboard I consider the swollen shape of a Starbuck’s mug with a grassy green circle surrounding the trademarked siren. Or the chalky “I Love New York” mug that features Milton Glaser’s logo with the ruby-red heart instead of the word love and NY in place of New York. Or the Pantone 732C mug with the wrap-around color swatch as deep and dark as a strong black tea. Logos and other decoration are usually showcased on the two sides of the mug flanking the handle so they’re in full view of both right- and left-handed drinkers.

How about the octagonal mug with the sweet flower pattern that my son gave me as a Mother’s Day gift when he was a youngster. Or the forest-green-glazed ceramic mug with the outward curving lip, which was handcrafted by a potter in Philadelphia, and that my son and a one-time girlfriend brought home from college. I wasn’t keen on that relationship. One of the most difficult trials of parenting is when someone mistreats your child even when that child is an adult.

Then there’s that droll mug my sister Brenda gave me on my 40th birthday with the faded illustration and text that reads “Age isn’t so bad. Ugly is what you gotta watch out for.” Twenty-five years later that quip isn’t so funny. I should demote that one to the garage and repurpose it into a tool container.

I opt for the Coca-Cola-red mug with the white Swiss cross and recall the day I bought it two summers ago in Lucern. I had taken the train to Einsiedeln to visit the archive and library at the Benedictine monastery, and on the way back I got off the train at Lucern to do some sightseeing. I saw that souvenir mug in a tourist shop but I didn’t want to carry it around while I strolled the cobblestone streets and meandered in and out of historical landmarks. So, I decided to return later. Along the way I went into another gift shop that showcased the same mugs in their display window. I picked up a packaged sample and opened the box to be sure the mug was in good condition. From the top of the box I could see down into the mug. The word Switzerland was printed in red on the inside near the rim but the word was typeset in a serif typeface. In the mug I had seen earlier, the word Switzerland was typeset in sans-serif Helvetica. The mug is a souvenir of Switzerland, the homeland of Helvetica, so a serif typeface is just wrong. I retraced my steps, bought two mugs at the other shop, and arrived at the station just in time to catch the last train.

While its character may change, the form of a mug remains fairly constant—a simple cylindrical container with an open top, closed bottom, and side handle. The handle is the fulcrum, the pivotal point of balance between the hand and the container. It has to be strong, comfortable to hold, and provide enough space between one’s fingers and the hot wall of the cylinder to avoid getting burned. The lip of the mug must be smooth and slightly rounded as it meets the mouth. Yet success hinges on thermal insulation. Thick walls, like a bulky sweater, provide better insulation. But it’s the bottom of the mug that makes all the difference. A concave bottom or a raised rim around the bottom edge keeps the mug from touching the surface beneath and prevents hot liquids from cooling too quickly.

Ancient mugs were carved out of wood and bone or shaped from clay. Later bronze, silver, gold, pewter, and even lead were used but metals conduct heat and proved to be unsuitable for hot liquids. Then the Chinese invented porcelain, a strong ceramic material as white and translucent as the cowrie shell, and tough in spite of its delicacy. My octagonal mug with the sweet flower pattern that my son gave me as a Mother’s Day gift is porcelain.

And the Chinese discovered tea. At least legend has it that as far back as 2737 BCE Emperor Shen Nung recognized the potential when some leaves drifted into water that he was boiling. Really, would an emperor boil his own water?

The Chinese are also in the business of mugs. My Starbuck’s and “I Love New York” mugs are marked “Made in China,” as are many products in America. In January 2005, Sara Bongiorni, a business writer, made a New Year’s resolution not to buy anything from China for one year. In her book about the experience, A Year Without Made in China, she reveals the futility of such an endeavor. We live in a global community and rely on one another. We also have access now to consumer goods that we didn’t have in the past. I’m glad about that. Unilever, an international company co-headquartered in London, England, and Rotterdam, Netherlands produces my favorite tea, PG Tips. The tea itself, though, is imported as single estate teas from around the world and blended in the UK. I’m pretty sure some of those leaves come from China.

I pour a small amount of milk into my Swiss souvenir mug, add the piping hot tea, cover the teapot with the Victorian floral-patterned cozy topped off with a little lavender bow, stir, take a seat on a kitchen stool, spread the newspaper across the counter, lift the mug by its handle, and savor the morning.

Photos by Susan Merritt

Real Fake Food

By | June 19, 2014

I don’t speak or read Japanese, so when I traveled alone in Tokyo I was at a loss to communicate. As a result, I quickly came to appreciate the fake food displays in restaurant windows—menus presented as three-dimensional objects. Just pick and point.

Sampuru, or food samples as they’re known in the restaurant business, are true to life and beautiful in an uncanny sort of way. Fascinated by the contradiction between real food and forgery I tracked down fake food shops in Kappabashi-dori, Tokyo’s restaurant supply district. In one small shop after another on both sides of a bustling narrow lane every imaginable food item was exhibited in brightly lit windows and display cases. I found individual pieces, like a fillet of grilled fish, complete meals presented in bowls and on plates, and glassware filled with mock drinks. In one example a fork wrapped with spaghetti was frozen in mid air to demonstrate how to eat the starchy tendrils.

After wandering in and out in awe of the array, I singled out two ice cream cones that I wanted to buy: a rounded scoop of dark chocolate atop a patterned sugar cone and a strawberry soft ice cream swirl rising from the fluted edge of a more decorative waffle cone. The pink spiral ends in a wispy curlicue, reminiscent of a graceful stroke of a calligraphic brush.

An assortment of nigiri-zushi also came home with me: flat pieces of shrimp, tuna, salmon, and octopus resting atop oblong mounds of vinegared sushi rice. In some samples thin strips of black nori seaweed tether the fish and rice and in others wider sheets of nori encase the mound of rice and hold smaller ingredients in place, like the tiny yolk of a quail’s egg that sits atop an orangish bed of translucent spheres of fish roe. The collection of sushi samples reminds me of the challenge of finding my way in this foreign land. I showcase these fake food treasures in my dining room in an ebony lacquerware bento box decorated in the Japanese tradition with red and gold fans interspersed with stylized leafy branches.

Food replicas are as unique to Japan as its language and writing system and have been produced in Japan for almost one hundred years as a means to showcase items on the menu and stimulate the appetite through visual suggestion. Takizo Iwasaki is said to have introduced the first samples in 1917 and in 1932 established Iwasaki Company, which continues to dominate the market. But the trend really took off after World War II as a way to introduce Western foods, such as the omelette, to the Japanese public.

Iwasaki sculpted the original samples out of wax, which was prone to fading and melting. Then came molds made of seaweed jelly. Now the actual food item is used to create a silicone mold, which is filled with liquid vinyl chloride and heated until it hardens. Sometimes the material is tinted to match the color of the food, as in the case of the ice cream. However, master craftsmen still apply the finishing touches by hand. Details are painstakingly rendered with brushes and airbrushes using oil- or water-based paints. For accuracy the artisans continually reference the original food and photographs of prepared dishes provided by the individual restaurant.

My ice cream cones are so convincing in color and detail that I still find myself staring at them in amazement. Each is propped up in a stainless steel stand and displayed on my kitchen counter. Unlike in Japan where reassuring sampuru come to the aid of helpless tourists, this enduring pair of frozen delights stands ready to unnerve the next unsuspecting visitor to my kitchen.

Learn more:

Photos by Susan Merritt

Darkie to Darlie

By | February 3, 2013

Darkie to Darlie

Three stages of packaging design as the Darkie brand transitioned to Darlie.

Geoff Schwartz, one of my more adventurous students from San Diego State University, headed out on a global trek after he graduated. His journey included western and eastern Europe and a trans-Siberian train trip from Budapest to Beijing. Geoff kept in touch through postcards, letters, and a carefully hand-lettered annual report that recounted with a profound sense of humor his experiences along the way.

Dada-inspired cow tee shirt

Dada-inspired cow tee shirt by Geoff Schwartz.

To cover living expenses while he was underway, Geoff designed and screen printed tee shirts. He sent our son one of his tee shirts with the image of a Dada-inspired cow, which I gladly inherited when my son outgrew it. The Trend Eagle label is long faded but the outlined image of the cow with brimming udder has endured years of wash and spin cycles. Even the colorful split fountain that fills the cow’s black-outlined body has held strong.

Geoff was aware of my interest in international consumer packaging and cross-cultural design that resulted from my having lived in Switzerland for six years, five of those years as a post-graduate student at the Basel School of Design. One of my most prized tokens of Geoff’s friendship is the set of three packages shown above that he collected in Asia. These chronicle the transition of Darkie brand toothpaste from the original label to an interim package and then to the final redesign. The United Press International newspaper article transcribed below was clipped by Geoff and included with the three boxes, which also contained actual tubes of toothpaste. The article describes the context in which this shift in branding and consumer packaging design took place.

Thank you, Geoff, wherever in the world you may be…

Photos by Susan Merritt

September 1989
United Press International

Outrage taking ‘Darkie’ off label

Singapore—Asians have been happily buying Darkie Tooth Paste for 60 years, unaware the name or logo of a black man in a top hat with a grin revealing dazzling white teeth was offending anyone.

But outrage in the United States and elsewhere at the label has prompted its maker to change the name and image and mount a massive campaign aimed at retaining the loyalty of confused consumers.

“We look at it this way,” said Eddie Niem, managing director of the Hong Kong-based manufacturer Hawley and Hazel. “We want the toothpaste to be internationally acceptable.”

Although the product is not sold in the United States, Niem said, “We do not wish to offend anyone unnecessarily. It wouldn’t be right to retain a name and package objectionable to North American blacks.”

No one complained prior to 1985 when Colgate-Palmolive, the U.S.-based home products company, purchased half ownership of Hawley and Hazel. Since then, the giant firm has been accused of promoting racial stereotypes through its marketing of the toothpaste.

A coalition of black clergymen complained Darkie was a derogatory description of North Americans of African origin. They said the logo, which stemmed from the minstrel act made famous by entertainer Al Jolson, conjured up images of a fawning inferior eager to please his master.

It’s not the first time a U.S. corporation has abandoned a well-established image under accusations of racism. The Quaker Oats Co. changed its Aunt Jemima picture on pancake mix packages in the 1960s to one that did not resemble a black plantation worker.

During May, Colgate-Palmolive are launching a year-long drive to introduce consumers to Darlie Tooth Paste, complete with a new logo of a face so shadowed that it could represent any race. The bright white teeth remain.

Targeting Singapore, where Darkie has a 50 percent market share, Niem said the challenge was to make the switch while retaining the loyalty of current users.

The marketing avalanche then spreads to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand, where Darkie commands between 20 and 75 percent of the market.

With Colgate paying for the redesign and repackaging plus reimbursement for any loss in profits, Niem said researchers went through many variations on the name Darkie to find one similar but not potentially objectionable.

The first suggestion, Dakkie, didn’t make it.

Dara Demmings, a spokeswoman for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in the United States, informed Colgate that Dakkie was unacceptable “because it was still pronounced the same as Darkie in several East Asian languages.”

“We finally came up with Darlie,” Niem said, “an invented word” made up by replacing the “k” with an “l.”

Full-page newspaper advertisements proclaiming “Darkie Is Now Darlie” generated so much commotion in Singapore that special telephone lines were set up to cope with the barrage of questions.

“Most people ask why we’re doing this and if the toothpaste is different,” said Tan May Lin, one of a team explaining the reason in as much detail as the caller wants and assuring that the product has not changed.

To ease the transition, Mien said packages of family-sized Darkie and Darlie will initially be sold together at a special discount price. Television commercials will focus on the name change with the emphasis on acceptability “all over the world,” Niem said.

“In a 40-second spot, we can’t elaborate on the complaints” that sparked the switch, said Niem, who is Chinese. “In Asian minds there’s no problem with Darkie. It doesn’t have any negative racial connotation.”

Once the manufacturers are convinced that customers have accepted Darlie, they then will introduce the new package, replacing the familiar black face with an anonymous one. “That may take 12 months,” Niem said.

“Intensive consumer research shows that the new name will be well-liked and we expect the majority of our users will accept the changes,” Niem said. “However we will invest as much as is needed to ensure that loyalty is not adversely affected.”

No matter how long it takes for Darlie sales to match those of Darkie, Niem is convinced of the justification of the name change.

“What we’re doing is right. We won’t even entertain the suggestion of trying to keep the package the way it was.”


By | November 24, 2012

Caroline Tiger coined the term objectorialist, “a design writer who is interested in objects and their meanings and in how design shapes a region and vice versa.” She looks at Philadelphia via its objects, which she categorizes as found in Philadelphia, made in Philadelphia, esteemed (high design), and mundane (ranging from subterranean to low design).

Caroline and I met in New York in the summer of 2012 during the Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). We spent two inspiring weeks in the SVA D-Crit studio under the tutelage of accomplished professionals who guided and critiqued our work.

Caroline and I thought it would be interesting to expand the objectorialist concept to other cities. So, I look forward to examining San Diego through the eyes of high and low design, and sharing the significance of goods manufactured here as well as worthy objects from elsewhere that I discover throughout the city. In addition, from time to time I’ll introduce pieces from my own collection as objects of my desire since they don’t necessarily fit into any of the established categories.

Letter Openers

By | November 12, 2012

Display of letter openers from our collection.

Letter openers are useful objects that can be found in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, materials, and themes. Collectible examples are more readily available now since email and text messaging are taking precedence over letter writing. During the eighteenth century, letter openers made of ivory and silver were favored by the well-to-do. In the late nineteenth century, the letter opener became a popular advertising giveaway and many were made of newer materials such as metal or celluloid, like the Fuller Brush letter openers shown below.

Fuller Brush letter opener showing front and back of the same design.

I found this pair when I was shopping for a gift for my husband at the Antique Mall on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, California, a small beach community a few miles northwest of downtown San Diego. I had been scouting for hours and was ready to give up when I thought I spotted a letter opener among a disorganized pile in a curio cabinet. The door was locked. I hunted down the shopkeeper with the key. She unlocked the cabinet and handed me what was indeed a slender plastic letter opener. I immediately recognized the raised image as the Fuller Brush man in his one-button suit wearing a hat and carrying a case. The company’s logo confirmed that it was a promotional item from Fuller Brush Company. Then I turned the letter opener over and found the image of a teased-haired woman wearing a knee-length dress with gloved hands carrying a similar case. Fuller Brush woman? When did women join the Fuller workforce? On the one hand I was delighted at the equal rights aspect and at the same time astonished.

This was a perfect find. My husband actually uses letter openers to neatly slice envelopes along the scored edge of the flap. It drives him crazy when I use my index finger and rip a messy path on my way to the contents. It was also a sentimental object for me as it sparked childhood memories when the Fuller Brush man would visit our home and open his case to reveal an array of brand new brushes. The fact that it was a promotional piece was perfect too since both my husband and I are graphic designers and can appreciate the object’s purposefulness to increase sales and promote public awareness. This turned out to be my lucky day; there was a second letter opener—identical to the first except for the color. I eagerly bought both so Fuller man and Fuller woman could stride side by side in our display.

The object inspired follow-up research with a particular goal to learn more about the letter opener as well as the company’s female sales force. In 1906, Alfred Carl Fuller founded Capitol Brush Company. That year he hired two employees, a brush maker and a salesman, and by the end of the year he had hired two dozen men as door-to-door dealers. In 1908, the first female was employed—Fuller’s wife Evelyn—and in 1968, the company established a sales team of women to sell a new line of cosmetics and hairstyling products. They were designated the Fullerettes. During the 1960s more women joined the general workforce to supplement family incomes and, likewise, the number of female Fuller representatives increased.

The letter opener was developed as a promotional gift to be slipped into a die-cut card that was left behind by the salesperson. In addition to promotional text, the following message expressed gratitude: “We are pleased to offer you this Fuller Brush Nostalgic Letter Opener as a Thank You for welcoming us into your home.”

A description of “The Fuller Brush Nostalgic Letter Opener” followed:
This letter opener with its unique design originates from the late 1950s. We continue molding these letter openers today…using the same die cast mold as used over 40 years ago.

You will note a “Fuller Brush Man” depicted on one side…with a “Fuller Brush Fullerette” depicted on the other. Since 1906, tens of thousands of men and women have carried the Fuller Brush Story to millions of homes in America.

You may even “know of” someone…a friend, Mother, Father, grandparent, brother, sister, uncle or aunt…who either shared the Fuller Brush Story with others or enjoyed using Fuller Brush products.

In a way, this letter opener is a tribute to these many friends of Fuller Brush. We hope you enjoy this Nostalgic Letter Opener…much as a friend enjoyed it as a token of appreciation over forty years ago.

According to a representative at The Fuller Brush Company, sales people still give out letter openers with the Fuller Brush man depicted on one side. Unfortunately, the Fuller Brush woman no longer resides on the other side.


Kovel, Ralph and Terry. Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price List 2008. Black Fog & Leventhal Publishers, New York, 2007. 411.

Letter from The Fuller Brush Company

Paris—DesignPack Gallery

By | October 12, 2012

Interior DesignPack Gallery, books

Interior DesignPack Gallery, books on packaging and packaging design


June 17, 2010

Unlike other cities, such as New York, which is laid out on a grid, Paris, at least for the most part, is not. One misguided turn and you’re headed in the wrong direction, or just not in the right direction, the one intended to lead you to your destination. Sometimes it works out, though, like today, and you discover something unexpected.

I set out on foot for the Bibliothèque Nationale located at #58 Rue de Richelieu. My brain failed to translate the map accurately and I suddenly found myself in the midst of a dense protest march surrounded by uniformed police and undercover security near the Bank of France in the neighborhood of the Palais Royal. The Palais was the childhood home of Louis XIV and now houses the Council of State and the Constitutional Council, as well as the Ministry of Culture.

At #1 Rue de Richelieu I turned to work my way through the chaos of the protest back up the congested narrow street to #58. En route I passed a shop at #24 whose window display enticed me to go inside, where I experienced a temporary reprieve from the noise and exhaust of the crowded street and discovered a wide array of products made from recycled materials, as well as books on packaging and packaging design. I wandered through the shop to the back of the first floor where a slide show with English subtitles chronicled the history of Samsonite luggage, a unique form for packaging clothes and travel items. A series of company advertisements showed how the styles have changed over the years. The newest Samsonite line, sturdy and lightweight Cosmolite, was included in the small exhibition and also available for purchase.

According to the young man at the front desk, the gallery and shop are part of a packaging design company called DesignPack, which is located upstairs. The gallery, founded in September 2008 by Fabrice Peltier, is dedicated to the art of packaging design including the recycling of packaging into new products and art objects. I showed the attendant my San Diego State University business card and he allowed me take photographs. He also kindly pointed me in the direction of the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Learn more about DesignPack at

DesignPack Gallery
24, rue de Richelieu
75001 Paris

Telephone: +33(0)1 44 85 86 00
FAX +33(0)1 44 85 86 44

Interior DesignPack Gallery, recycled products.
Interior of DesignPack Gallery, recycled products.

Interior DesignPack Gallery.
Interior of the DesignPack Gallery, looking back towards the gallery.

Entrance to DesignPack Gallery Paris
Entrance to DesignPack Gallery Paris. The red lamps above the doorway are made from recycled plastic bottles.

Antwerp Sales

By | September 23, 2012

I was in Antwerp in July 2010 primarily to visit the Plantin-Moretus Museum. On my walk from the hotel to the museum I found myself in the middle of the summer sales season. It was fascinating to see all the ways in which department stores and boutique shops competed for the attention of customers through their window displays. Here are some of the examples I photographed.

Miss 50%

Terre Bleue bag skirtSolden TOT 30% 40% 50%% tags around mannikin necksType on spineSalt and Pepper