“Weekend With” is a new series that explores the world of design through the eyes of a designer on their days off. First up is designer, author, and critic Steve Heller.
On most weekends I usually wake up to chirping finches and screeching crows in the bucolic surround of my northwest Connecticut mountain home where, from the bedroom window in the bottom of a 35-foot high corrugated metal tower, I see cute little chipmunks eating from the bird feeder, green feathered humming birds hovering over the fragrant flowers, and the local black bear, who I call Winnie the Poop, traipsing through the apple orchard on his feeding rounds. This weekend, however, I stayed in New York City.
That meant on Friday night I watched Bill Maher’s weekly Dante-Virgil tour of the 12 circles of Trump-hell. It was difficult to fall asleep afterward, so to calm my nerves I started reading a chapter of They Once Were Brothers, a novel about a Nazi war criminal who is discovered living the life of philanthropist in Chicago by one of his Jewish victims, who when they were children were best friends. Written by a lawyer, it reads in parts like a legal brief that put me right to sleep.
Saturday at 6 a.m. I awoke from a dream about designing a book cover with a friend who I’d just seen the day before—for some inexplicable reason we were arguing about whether or not to add vegetables to the design or leave the cover plain. I don’t bother to analyze these dreams any more and cannot remember the other parts anyway. Once my eyes are open, my brain goes into overdrive and I can no longer lie still.
The Blink gym is directly across the street at eye level with my apartment windows allowing unfettered views of the energetic early-birds working out (you might say it’s an urban version of my north country bird watching). Just looking at them pump and jump was enough exercise for me.
For some inexplicable reason we were arguing about whether or not to add vegetables to the design or leave the cover plain
The main reason for staying in Manhattan this weekend was to go to the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair, which meant journeying to Brooklyn, a far-off land. To get there required walking from my home in what’s called North Chelsea to the far east side to catch a water taxi to Greenpoint. I’d never taken the ferry before, nor had I walked that far across 34th Street in years; it was like traveling to another world. The choppy East River crossing was kind of exciting. I hadn’t noticed how developed Long Island City has become (as a kid I worked at one of the old factories along the river). Even more of a thrill, I was so close to the famous Pepsi Cola sign that I could almost touch it. That remnant of ’50s commercial design culture was an icon of my childhood—I had grown up across the river from it.
Disembarking on India Street in Greenpoint was entering unexplored territory. The book fair was four or five blocks south, parallel to the river and directly across from my Stuyvesant Town birthplace. I walked briskly knowing that if I didn’t get to the fair early all the good stuff would be snatched up.
The amount of riches at book fairs can be overwhelming, and this fair is one of the best. I abruptly separated from my fellow fair companions (my wife, Louise Fili, included) and jumped into the fray of hungry collectors. I saw many people I knew, and as politely as possible told them I had limited time: “Nice to see ya. Can’t talk. Goodbye and good luck.” Surprisingly, I didn’t find much.
In a few booths I saw vintage periodicals I worked on in my youth, which is always a hoot. But otherwise, many of the rarities I already owned or were too highly priced. I’m willing to spend a large sum, if necessary, but it must be something I cannot live without. One of those things—an expensive, chromolithographic vintage Art Nouveau type catalog/portfolio—had come down in price from the previous year’s fair, but during the intervening year (for a small fortune) I had bought a different yet equally rare volume from the same series.
Attending a book fair like this is a stressful experience that measures one’s endurance against the keen ability to find treasures for a good price. Inevitably, there are people looking anxious and disturbed because they haven’t found something to buy. Their distinctive body language and facial twitches give them away. So do the words, “We m-m-must buy something.” I empathize, for I am one of them. I call it competitive consumption: will I locate that unforeseen treasure or come up empty-handed or worse, with something mediocre? Worse yet, will I buy something I already own but forgot about? Will I gloat about my treasure or be gloated at by a luckier “competitor?”
It is, however, possible to feel neither satisfied or dissatisfied. In fact, that was my experience this time. I did buy some things that I can use for future design research (did I mention that my justification for spending all this time and money on design stuff is for actual research not simply obsessive and compulsive reasons?). But nothing I found made me feel I had really scored big. In fact, what joy I did find was a small collection of vintage tea bag tags. Until I saw them I didn’t realize I wanted them. Had I found the big score, I may not have even noticed them. They won’t make the world a better place or add much to the history of graphic design. Still, finding them made going all the way out to Brooklyn and spending the weekend in Manhattan not a total loss.
What about Sunday? I went to the movies.