Vibrant Vlisco

20 January 2015 by Ingrid

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This is about the part of winter where I’m just over it, and yet I realize that we’re still hardly even halfway through. Piled under all my layers (the down coat, the thick sweater, the scarf so big it’s like another sweater), I’m craving a totally different kind of aesthetic, a vibrant shock of color and pattern. Enter Vlisco.

I knew about wax prints from doing some work on a project for kids in Ghana a few years back, but I’d never heard of Vlisco until last night. I came across the Dutch textile manufacturer in a book called Color Hunting, which I’d bought over the holidays to find some new inspiration around what you may know is an evergreen topic for this blog. I was transfixed by the intensity of the colors and the boldness of the patterns. It’s like these images just radiate solar energy. I could sunbathe here all day!

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It’s no accident that the colors of these fabrics are so bright: they are designed this way because of the intensity of the African sun. As they describe in Color Hunting:

To begin with, the ever-present African sun fades virtually all colors; it shines 12 hours a day on every surface, including clothing. Because our original color chart—based on Indonesian batik colors—was unsuitable, we had to develop new colors that could withstand the West African sun. The new colors required a high concentration of dyestuff; as a result, Vlisco colors are highly saturated. The bright, full, warm colors became popular for their appearance and for their quality. Consumers say that even when a Vlisco fabric is totally worn out, the color is still intact—alive.

The reference to Indonesia is interesting, and it speaks to the fact that the wax prints we think of as African actually originated in Southeast Asia. Vlisco (then called P. Fentener van Vlissingen & Co.) figured out a way to mass produce the native Indonesian batik process, which traditionally used wax to mask the patterns before dyeing. But the Indonesian market didn’t like the too-perfect quality of the imitation textiles, and banned them, forcing Vlisco to find a new market for their goods. The Dutch already had been selling European luxury items in West Africa, so the trade lines were already established. The “Dutch wax” style of textiles became wildly successful, and adapted to the styles of the region, so it’s natural that we think of these fabrics as African now.

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Images: courtesy of Vlisco

Wonders never cease

9 January 2015 by Ingrid


Wonders never cease.

The expression itself often comes wrapped in wonder. You hear it after a Hmm… or a Whoa! Because even though it’s a practically universal truth that wonders never cease, we seem always to be astonished when we encounter one. As if wonder were scarce. As if the world’s capacity to dazzle and awe were anything other than endless.

But of course that’s the nature of wonder, to puncture our current reality, which we always think is as big as reality can be, and show us a glimpse of what lies outside our bubble. Science is doing this all the time, mostly behind the scenes. White-coated scientists eke out miracles tucked away in labs, waiting for a ray of sunshine to cast their work into its moment in the light. But I don’t think most scientists believe that creating wonder is part of their job. They find so much joy in their own searches and they dig so deep into the particulars, they often don’t notice the gulf between their own curiosity and the rest of us. Yet science needs wonder, because wonder lights the fuse that burns towards discovery.

So it’s refreshing to see these “travel posters” by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a deliberate attempt for a science pioneer to cultivate the kind of fascination that brings us all along. Branded as being from the “Exoplanet Travel Bureau,” they visualize life on new planets being discovered by Kepler, NASA’s planet-hunting telescope that seeks out other Earth-like planets in our galaxy.


There are many things to love about these, not least their charming retro design and lighthearted tone. But what I love most is that they use facts not as a way to speak to our intellect, but to our emotions. They take measures of gravity, visible light spectrum, and solar relationships, and they recontextualize them in human terms: an experience of super-gravity, a rainforest of red foliage, a land of two shadows. By co-opting that singularly contemporary language of enticement—advertising—NASA makes these places seem inviting, rather than eerie, giving us new appreciation for the staggering variety of worlds beyond our own.

At root, wonder is simply a dance between the strange and the familiar. Here, NASA creates wonder by making the strange familiar: using a known visual and verbal language (posters, destination renderings, taglines) to underscore the oddities many light years away. But it can also work the other way, by making the familiar strange, as in one of my favorite anthropological essays, Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which I won’t ruin for you if you haven’t read it by describing it here. Either way, collapsing the space between the foreign and the quotidian often yields some kind of aha!

I don’t know whose idea it was at NASA to create these posters, but we need more of this kind of clever. We may never get to see our two shadows on Kepler-16b, or see Kepler-186f’s jungles blush red like Vermont in October, but just knowing they exist makes us able to see our own green, regular gravity, single-sun planet with new eyes. It’s nice to be reminded that wonders never cease in the universe. But just as delightful is to realize our own world is a wonder too.


Download the posters in high-res here.
h/t Ben Swire

Aloha 2015!

7 January 2015 by Ingrid

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This new year opened for me in Hawaii, a place I’ve only recently discovered but have come to love over the past year or so. It is the Rainbow State, so of course it makes sense that it is kind of a spiritual home for this blog. And in fact, it’s unusual to spend a week in Hawaii and not see a rainbow. This one appeared as I reached the top of a walk near the Makapu’u Lighthouse on Oahu, a light drizzle falling over a crowd holding up their selfie-sticks to get rainbow selfies for their Instagram feeds.

While I was in Hawaii this time, I learned about something locals call aloha spirit. It came up in conversation with our waitress over dinner one night, about the differences between Hawaii and her native Austin, Texas. “The aloha spirit they talk about is real,” she said. Her hometown she described as “cool”—people there aspired to being cool, to keeping more of a distance. But in Hawaii, the culture is to be warm, caring, generous—“and if you don’t share that, you’re not in the flow of things,” she said.

This reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago, about how cool is the enemy of joy. It’s not cool to be so open and trusting, but it is joyful. And the joy you feel in Hawaii is not just the sunshine or the big skies or the rainbows. It’s the people. Everywhere you go, you end up in conversation. Don’t plan to rush out of the coffee shop or the yoga studio or the supermarket without sharing where you’re from and what you’re up to while you’re here. And if something happens to you, like your car battery dies in the middle of a parking lot, a stranger will come out of nowhere and empty the substantial contents of his trunk onto the floor looking for jumper cables (thanks, Hector!). He will probably offer to take you hiking too.

I’d heard that the word aloha means more than just hello, so I searched for a full definition.

alo: 1. sharing 2. in the present; oha: joyous affection, joy; ha: life energy, life, breath

Using Hawaiian language grammatical rules, we will translate this literally as “The joyful sharing of life energy in the present” or simply “Joyfully sharing life”.

I’ve been dancing around the idea that there is some kind of connection between the aloha spirit I heard about and felt, and the feeling of joy—and there it is, embedded in the definition. Aloha is a joyful way of being, a greeting that is also a philosophy about how to increase joy in the world around us. By being open, by sharing, and by focusing on the positive, we cultivate a more joyful dialogue with others.

It stuck with me when the woman I met described being “in the flow of things,” because it begs the question as to whether one can practice aloha spirit on one’s own. Maybe aloha spirit is an impossible notion in a city like New York, where the flow of things is hectic, rushed, and anonymous. Perhaps that kind of herky-jerky “flow” makes aloha’s other-directed sweetness unsustainable, in the same way that Hawaii’s climate and pace of life foster it. But I do think we can start to make our own flow based on our interactions with the world, and that whether you call it aloha spirit, or generosity, or “go ahead, why don’t you take that seat on the subway,” it can start to ripple outwards.

So, aloha 2015! And here’s to each of us finding our own way of bringing joy to this new year!

{aesthetic of joy} Yellow

8 December 2014 by Ingrid

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{aesthetic of joy} is a new series I’m trying out that goes to the heart of what this blog is about. The idea is for each post to zoom in on a specific element (a color, pattern, or shape) and explore how it can be used to create a sense of joy. I’d love to know what you think of this idea.

A few years back, a researcher named Orlagh O’Brien did a study where she asked people to name the colors they associate with different emotions. Joy was overwhelmingly yellow. Yet only 5% of people choose yellow as their favorite color, making it the world’s least-liked hue.

I’ve always found this tension is interesting—how can the most joyful color also be the least-liked?

The reality may have something to do with the way we see yellow. Our eyes contain three light-sensing pigments corresponding to different wavelengths of light. One responds to the long wavelengths in the red range, one to the medium green wavelengths, and one to the short wavelengths that we see as blue. When we see different colors, they excite different pigments to varying degrees. But you’ll notice that even though yellow is considered a “primary” color, there’s no specific pigment activated by it. To see yellow, not one but two pigments need to be activated to nearly their full capacity: yellow occurs when both red and green pigments are highly excited. In addition, the yellow range is located in the brightest part of the visible spectrum, right near the middle. Put these two facts together, and yellow is the lightest and most vibrant color our eyes perceive, apart from pure white.

Yellow is the most attention-getting color, but also the most fatiguing for the eye to look at for long periods of time. Thus yellow mirrors the nature of joy. To be in a state of joy every moment of the day would be exhausting, but to have a few moments of joy punctuating a day feels wonderful. Likewise, a yellow world is too much, but small pops of yellow catch the eye and brighten our mood, so to speak. To choose yellow as a favorite color implies monogamy, and yellow is too intense a color to settle down with. It’s a sometimes-playmate, a cheerful visitor, like a friend from out of town who only visits once a year and always wants to go dancing.

So yellow is best used in pops, like a doorway or a small car, or a jacket. In this way, yellow can be surprising, a beacon to come nearer and check something out. In Dublin a few years ago there was a city-sponsored initiative called the “yellow bench project,” which scattered vivid yellow park benches around the city imprinted with the words: “By sitting on this bench I’m open to conversation with a complete stranger.” The boldness of yellow suggests something different is going to happen, perhaps something unexpected.

Mostly, yellow is the color of moments. But occasionally someone dares to use yellow at scale, as in image 06, below, and the result is awe-inspiring. In 2013, Wolfgang Laib created Pollen from Hazelnut, an installation that filled the atrium at New York’s MoMA. I like this because it feels so unnatural to experience that much vibrancy at once, and yet the source is natural. Scattered, these small grains of pollen are joyful only to bees, but in bringing them together, we are able to comprehend the scale of a joy unnoticed in our midst. So the work is the act of concentration rather than fabrication, revealing the hidden color that surrounds us.

Yellow is too much, and that’s its beauty. There are moments in life that should feel abundant, and yellow offers that abundance, that generosity of light reflecting back at us. Perhaps my favorite use of yellow is when it spills outside the lines, as in the playful installation by Spanish design studio (fos) in image 01, threatening to brim over. It feels much bigger than it is. Even a small bit of yellow can be a ballast for a much larger expanse of grey. New York’s taxicabs are just the right dose for a city of steel and cement. On bad-weather days, I wear yellow rain boots as a kind of counterweight. Yellow has more energy than it needs: plenty for us, and plenty to go around.

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Images: 01. (fos) 02. door 03. Delpozo 04. car 05. Josef Albers 06. Wolfgang Laib 07. grapefruit tart 08. Ellsworth Kelly 09. Marni

Field trip: Matisse’s Cutouts at MoMA

24 November 2014 by Ingrid


I took off a few days last week for a writing holiday, but I couldn’t go back to work without taking a little inspiration jaunt to this exhibit of Henri Matisse’s cutouts at MoMA. Has there ever been a more exuberantly joyful artist than Matisse? I find my whole energy seems to change when I walk into a gallery of his vibrant, animated work.


The cutouts are especially joyful because they pare back the elements involved. With paintings, there’s perspective and light, texture and narrative. But with the cutouts, it’s a pure, liberating experience of just form and color. They are bold and immediate, as if because they are simpler, they take a more direct route to the unconscious. In fact, they seem to be the culmination of a lifelong quest to bring together color and contour. From the curators:

Throughout his career, Matisse searched for a way to unite the formal elements of color and line. On the one hand, he was known as a master colorist: from the non-realistic palette that earned him the designation of a fauve or “wild beast” in the first decade of the twentieth century, to the light-infused interiors of his so-called “Nice period” of the 1920s, he followed a course of what he described as “construction by means of color.” On the other hand, he was a master draftsman, celebrated for drawings and prints that describe a figure in fluid arabesque lines; “my line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion,” he once said. Through the cut-outs, he was finally able to unite these two branches of his practice.

I resonate to this: sometimes a simple line, which emerges as an extension of the whole body, can have more feeling than a complete composition.

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Sometimes when I visit an exhibit, I find myself zooming in on one feature. I become almost obsessed—I tune out many gorgeous works because I’m captivated by one particular element. Last week, my fixation landed on this wonderful leaf form that recurs over and over in Matisse’s cutouts. The shape has a few different variations. There is a pinnate form that looks like an exaggerated white oak leaf, and a more palmate shape that resembles a stag horn fern. Others look looser, like the wavy blades of sea kelp.

All of them are wonderful because of their curved surfaces and the interaction they create between the forms and the white space around them. They corrugate the space, aerating it and giving it movement and energy. This effect is even more dramatic when the color contrasts are so pronounced, as with this Violet Leaf on an Orange Background, below.

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Matisse produced the cutouts late in life, and I love this image of him with all of the clippings at his feet. He often worked on compositions large-scale across the walls of his studio, literally surrounding himself with these vibrant forms. As his mobility was decreasing, it seemed to give him a way to stretch out. He built The Swimming Pool after a day spent watching divers at a nearby pool, to bring the water into his studio. He said, “I will make myself my own pool,” and ringed an entire room at the Hotel Regina in Nice with splashing, paddling forms. When building The Parakeet and The Mermaid, he worked across two walls of his Nice studio. The curators note:

Spreading from left to right, without regard for the presence of a radiator, the vibrantly colored forms created an immersive environment. “I have made a little garden all around me where I can walk,” Matisse noted, “There are leaves, fruits, a bird.”

What I love most about the story of this work is that as he neared death, Matisse reached out and brought the joys of life closer to him. And in such a beautiful way. If you’ll be in New York before February 8th, I highly recommend a field trip to see it in person. If not, definitely check out the well-done microsite for the exhibit, and let me know what you think about the cutouts in the comments!

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Link: “Henri Matisse: The Cutouts” at MoMA until February 8th, 2015.
Images (top to bottom): The Parakeet and the Mermaid, 1952, via. A view of the exhibit when it showed at the Tate Modern, via the MoMA exhibit microsite. Composition Green Background (Composition fond vert), 1947, via.Violet Leaf on an Orange Background (Palmette) 1947. Two Masks (The Tomato), 1947, via. The Sheaf, 1953, via. Henri Matisse in his studio, photographed by Lydia Delectorskaya, via. The development of the Parakeet and the Mermaid in Matisse’s Nice studio, via the MoMA exhibit microsite.

All images credit Succession Henri Matisse / Artist’s Rights Society, New York, except those sourced from MoMA.

The hidden surprise inside Norway’s new passports

20 November 2014 by Ingrid

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Check out Norway’s beautiful new passports. First, how sleek are the covers? So simple and beautiful. But what’s really amazing is inside.

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Designed by Neue Design Studio, the pages feature abstract graphics highlighting the country’s natural wonders. They’re lovely in their own right, but place them under UV light, and the scene turns to night. The sun becomes the moon, and a pattern reminiscent of the aurora borealis becomes visible.

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The intent of the design is as a security feature, but what joyful security! So many times you see elements like seals or holograms slapped on top of a design; it’s so rare to see them actually considered and integrated into the thing itself. And in a way that brings such a sense of delight. Definitely makes me wish the U.S. would hire some similarly clever designers to rethink our passports!

Source: Slate

Via: @njokigitahi

Object of affection: Jun Kaneko plate

12 November 2014 by Ingrid

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Two joyful worlds collide in one plane. Soft polka dots, the kind that would be at home on the back of Dalmatian, met by three pure color fields, on loan from a De Stijl painting.

It’s deceptively simple, in the Japanese way. Polka dots and primary colors: the kinds of things a random aesthetics-of-joy-generator might put together. But look for awhile and let your eyes adjust. You see the spots, not mechanized nor arbitrary, but each unique and carefully placed. Following them from one to the next, they describe gentle curves. And they respect the colors, lining up at their edges like an audience at a chamber music concert, rising up for the soft wave of a standing ovation at their seats but crossing no significant boundaries. And then the colors, primary but not. Poppy red, Aegean blue, and a yellow just slightly bleached by sunshine: a sweeter, better-tempered palette than the standard one.

When I saw this plate in my Pinterest feed, it stopped me in my tracks. It seemed such a perfectly joyful object. There is so much sensory overload these days, it’s rare that one object can be so captivating, but that’s what this “objects of affection” series is all about: those few things that are really worth our attention. Naturally I had to spend some time trying to understand why I fell so hard for this ceramic oval. I realize that when an object really speaks to us, there’s often a thoughtfulness hidden under a layer of ease. And upon uncovering it, it becomes even more dear to us.

Link: Jun Kaneko
Image: Untitled, Ovals, 2011. Photo by Colin Conces.

How is your heart?

10 November 2014 by Ingrid

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If you’re like me, when people ask you the question, “How are you?” sometimes you end up replying with a sigh and saying, “I’m soooooooo busy.” It may seem like an innocuous response. But “busy” does something to us that’s not actually too healthy: it makes us overly focused on what we’re doing, rather than how we’re feeling and experiencing the world. It works as an excuse for bring frantic or late or inattentive to others. And (worst of all, from this writer’s perspective), busy crowds out joy.

Think about it: when you’re busy, you don’t have time to stop and smell the roses. When you’re busy, you don’t have time to play in the park. When you’re busy, there’s no aperture in your life for spontaneity or silliness or celebration. When you’re busy, all those joyful things become work. Busy doesn’t give any pleasure and it doesn’t make any memories. It is an expenditure of energy with little apparent reward.

Busyness is easy to get under control if you know where to look. I learned a lot about this from a wise coach, and here is her excellent advice on the subject. (I don’t always get it right, but I’ve gotten better.) Today I came across a new idea for taming “busy” that I hadn’t heard before, in a piece by Islamic studies scholar Omid Safi called “The Disease of Being Busy.” To him, it comes down to the question we ask of each other in the first place.

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?

What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.

It’s not about the words themselves, though having that question baked into the language certainly helps. He’s saying: Ask about feelings, rather than doings. What a wonderful question to be asked—it signals to me that someone really cares, and isn’t just asking for courtesy. And I love this idea that we can prompt each other to shift our focus away from the errands and the inbox towards what really matters for each of us.

So, dear reader, how is your heart this morning?

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My heart would be happy, I think, if I imagined it covered in tiny flowers, like the one in this sculpture by Camila Carlow, who sculpts internal organs out of foraged vines, buds, and berries. (Though to be honest, it’s the lungs that really steal my heart.)

Link: On Being: The Disease of Busy
Images: Camila Carlow via DesignBoom. Prints available here.

Feed your inner child

6 November 2014 by Ingrid

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I’ve been having this recurring dream, and it’s just about as obvious as they come. I’m taking care of a small kitten—sometimes, it’s a puppy—and all of a sudden I realize I haven’t given it any food. In a panic, I try to put the kitten in a bag while I run to the store so I don’t have to leave it alone.

When your inner child shows up in the middle of the night demanding to be fed, is it always with such a guilt trip?

Adulthood asks so much of us, it can be easy to forget there is a childlike essence in there too. The number of moments requiring self-control seems to grow with each passing year. And while I generally think of myself as having a very active inner child, in the months without blogging I feel like maybe the opportunities for that energy to express itself were fewer. I realize now that this is the place where impulses to play and to imagine run free for me. Without the blog, I may have been inadvertently starving my inner child.

The good news is that once you realize it, it’s actually pretty easy to tap back into your inner child. If, like mine, yours is waking you up in the middle of the night, here are five ideas for reconnecting with it:

1. Do a happy dance. The beauty of a happy dance is that it’s deliberately not a “good” dance. Don’t do it in front of the mirror. Do get someone else to do it with you, as studies show joy has significantly more impact when shared.

2. Make a weekend to-do list. Only put on it things that are fun, like “Make pancakes” and “Go to the movies” and “Run around in the park.”

3. Spend an afternoon doing something no one in their right mind would pay you to do. When you were a kid, you painted or collected seashells or climbed trees for hours without noticing the time go by. But as an adult many passion projects become chores. By doing something you love that isn’t worth money, you’re more likely to be learning or exploring something.

4. Look at large-scale art. Large objects, like these balloon-shaped sculptures by Katharina Grosse, trigger a perspective shift that reminds you of what it was like to be small. Even better if the art is full of color and pattern. The swirls on the balloons remind me of the bouncy balls I used to get from the vending machines at the grocery store as a kid.

5. Go on an adventure. Remember what it was like to go on a nature walk as a kid? I used to come home with all kinds of mundane treasures foraged from the woods: pinecones, oddly shaped stones, red fall leaves, feathers. This summer I discovered trail running. I’m not much of a runner but there’s something so fun about being in the woods and jumping over rocks and roots, I never seem to notice I’m actually running.

How you know when your inner child needs attention? What do you do to get back in touch with it?

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Images: Installation by Katharina Grosse
Via: Total Inspiration