Trading fours

My friend Frank Chimero has started a new “occasional back-and-forth blog” called The Mavenist, and I am so pleased to be part of the first post, “Permutations & Loops.” The format of The Mavenist is simple, but also a welcome departure from the standard blog format. Rather than regular posts, The Mavenist will post occasionally. (This blog was founded with a similar attitude.) And rather than a single editor’s point of view, or even an interviewer/interviewee dynamic, The Mavenist will allow two people to take part in an equal exchange—or, rather, five equal exchanges, for a total of 10 parts.

Frank has done a lovely job introducing the project on his blog through the lens of gift exchange, which readers of this blog will know is a favorite topic of mine as well. There were so many parts of his introductory post that I liked that it was hard to choose just one, but I’m a sucker for a good West Wing reference:

There’s a scene in an episode of The West Wing where President Bartlet has his personal aide Charlie go on the hunt to purchase a new carving knife for the holidays. With each knife Charlie brings to the Oval Office, Bartlet shoots down his selection, citing the details he finds important. This happens several times, and finally Charlie brings the best possible knife he can find in Washington. President Bartlet inspects the knife closely while Charlie describes the finer details of what makes this knife the finest knife available. And with that, President Bartlet refuses the knife, much to Charlie’s exasperation. But then, Bartlet produces an heirloom knife of his own, apparently made by Paul Revere and in his family for generations, and gives it to Charlie as his Christmas gift.

This is what good gifts feel like.

Reading this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Michael Bierut’s reaction to Tibor Kalman’s incredible $26 book project, one of M&Co’s annual holiday gifts. Bierut writes of receiving the book,

It was transcendent: not just a gift but an experience, combining surprise, humor, pathos, and guilt in an astonishingly controlled sequence. Everyone who received it was invited to feel not just the joy of getting but the joy of giving.

What Bierut’s observation suggests is that it is not just the exchange that makes the gift meaningful—it is also the structure surrounding and framing the exchange, as well as the careful control and use of time to allow emtions to unfold. This is why we wrap gifts, and why we unwrap them. It’s why we offer them on special occasions, and hide them at the end of treasure hunts. In shaping time with tradition in this way, the process is reminiscent of a poetic form, which both structures the verse and frees the poet to improvise within it. In this way, a poet’s creativity plays both with and against the constraints of the formal tradition. When composing a poem, the poet is in dialogue with the form itself—and the process of exchanging posts with Frank for The Mavenist didn’t feel all that different from the process of composing a poem in that sense.

Or, better still, it was a bit like the old jazz technique of “trading fours,” in which two musicians build on a melody with short four-bar improvised passages, listening and responding to one another instead of taking their solos individually. You can see Dr. Charles Limb discuss the process from a medical perspective on this TED Talk, or you can see Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette go at it at around the 8:00 minute mark on this version of Sonny Rollins’s “Oleo.”

However I try to explain it, it sure was fun, and quite a gift to boot. Here’s hoping the occasion arises again soon.

Being available in response

Frank Chimero, a man full of good ideas, shared another one recently: a text playlist. Basically, it’s a selection of readings that he revisits on a regular basis, “almost a pep talk in text form,” as he describes it. Frank’s list included a ton of good stuff (I’ve done some thinking about “stock and flow" myself), and the wonderful Liz Danzico responded in kind with a great list of her own.

I’m still working on my list, but while I’m in the process of pulling it together I decided I had to share one reading that I’ve been revisiting a lot over the last few days. It’s from Lawrence Weschler’s incredible book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is about the artist Robert Irwin. Chapter 15 is called “Being Available in Response,” which is also the name of a project initiated by Irwin.

The first time I read this chapter I nearly lept out of my chair — I got so excited I reread it three or four times right away.

Rather than trying to explain the project too much, though, I’ll let Irwin (and Weschler) tell you about it as they do in the book. Here’s Irwin:

"I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.’ And that’s what I’d do. Or, ‘We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.’ And I would just come up and do that.

"There’s an important distinction to be made here," [Irwin] continued, "between organizing and proselytizing, on the one hand, and responding to interest, on the other. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half-hour answer.’”

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Because there’s nothing to sell

Michael Pollan’s talk at The Long Now Foundation includes a glimpse of the gift economy at work in the business of agriculture:

A lot of it depends on redefining our sense of what a clever technology is. And what I suggest is that a really smart rotation — like that eight-year rotation in Argentina— is as clever and as powerful a technology as the latest genetically-modified seed. And we need to look at it that way. The question is why don’t we look at it that way? Well by in large because there’s nothing to sell, in the case of the rotation. And what makes agriculture really work in a sustainable direction are processes more than products, which is why there’s very little R&D that goes into developing these technologies.

Reminds me a bit of what Lewis Hyde has to say about textbooks in The Gift:

Scientists who give their ideas to the community receive recognition and status in return […]. But there is little recognition to be earned from writing a textbook for money. As one of the scientists in [Sociologist Warren] Hagstrom’s study puts it, if someone “has written nothing at all but texts, they will have a null value or even a negative value.” Because such work brings no group reward, it makes sense that it would earn a different sort of renumeration, cash. “Unlike recognition, cash can be used outside the community of pure science,” Hagstrom points out. Cash is a medium of foreign exchange, as it were, because a unlike a gift (and unlike status) it does not lose its value when it moves beyond the boundary of the community.

Contrast the natural process Pollan describes in which the land renews itself but no value is extracted to one in which the land is managed by commercial fertilizers that are sold at a price. The cycle of nature, like the circle of gift-giving, ensures its own success, but weakens when cash value is extracted at any specific point. It’s unmonetizable, but, as Pollan points out, learning from it might be the key to healthier eating and better food.

See also: Pollan’s writing about pioneering farmer Joel Salatin in Omnivore’s Dilemma.


Launched by RISDites Melissa Small and Sarah Sandman, “The Gift Cycle is a cross country cycling project that carries works of art as gifts from local artists of one town to local artists of the next town along the route—a 3,000 mile journey uniting 12 plus communities.” Help them spread the love by donating, buying a tshirt, or joining their group on Facebook.


Great idea for keeping your music current from Kevin Kelly: “At my birthday or Christmas, I request as my only present that my kids, nieces and nephews burn me a disc of their favorite music in the last year, or so. It is an easy gift for them to make, and a great learning experience for me. The few tracks I can’t stand, I just delete. The stuff I love I seek out on iTunes to purchase more of. From this I get the fashionable tunes.”


Jayme Yen at the Walker Art Center Design Blog pointed me to yet another indespensible wing of Kenneth Goldsmith’s vast cultural archive at, the “Ethnopoetics” section. Its curator Jerome Rothenberg writes, “In the present Ubuweb collection of ethnopoetic openings, it’s our intention to build a sampler of what we take to be the second great breakthrough of the modernist poetry project. The search here is for a range of poetries outside the domain of customarily accepted literature. In particular we’re interested, in the spirit of other segments of Ubuweb, in soundings and visionings that are the traditional and often culturally acceptable counterparts to what in our own surroundings have been seen and heard as radical, even disturbing departures from conventional practice.” All of Rothenberg’s selections are compelling, but I was particularly glad to see his inclusion of Shaker gift drawings and visual poetry in the project. More of my thoughts on the Shakers’ gift drawings here.

Bad-Boy Critic Takes on Vampire Economy

Hyde Portrait

Above: The author Lewis Hyde at home.

No doubt familiar to L&UL readers by now, one of my favorite books is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. (Here are at least five posts so far: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]) Published in 1983, it is now being issued in a 25th anniversary edition by Vintage. This article by Jeffrey MacIntyre of the New York Observer, while it wanders a bit in the middle, does come to a satisfying conclusion on the book’s significance:

Though it’s always enjoyed a small cult following and word-of-mouth circulation […], The Gift was generally overlooked when it was first published. But what once puzzled critics about Mr. Hyde’s ambitious and complex thesis looks prophetic today. He shines particularly in anticipating the issues of culture in the age of the Internet. The radical democratization of access to media of all forms, from the print newsstand to blogs, from user-pay Radiohead album downloads to the long tail of Amazon’s back catalog, has irrevocably shifted our sense of the cost as well as the shelf life of art. It’s now cheaper than ever, in most cases, to produce and disseminate art—as well as to curate, discuss and appreciate it. Mr. Hyde’s central idea about art’s social function—that the consumption (and enduring value) of art ultimately transcends any commercial transaction—is looking increasingly like an idea tailor-made for our present moment.

The 25th anniversary edition’s subtitle has been changed from Hyde’s slightly awkward original “Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property” to the closer (but blander) “Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.” The cover has been changed too, redesigned here by Angus Hyland in the UK and here by Mark Abrams in the US. I admire both of these designers’ work, but unfortunately both covers lose Hannah Cohoon’s iconic apple basket in favor of clichéd graphic hearts. I fear that Hyde’s opening observation has come true:

At the corner drugstore my neighbors and I can now buy a line of romantic novels written according to a formula developed through market research. […] Even the name of the series and the design of the cover has been tailored to the demands of the market.

Happily, the 25th anniversary edition also includes an expanded prologue and afterword by Hyde, both of which are valuable. (A PDF of the afterword is on Hyde’s own website here.) Like his introduction to the book, Hyde’s prologue deals with the marketing of books themselves, and particularly how it was difficult in the beginning for The Gift to find support from book merchants because its contents couldn’t be summed up in, as Hyde writes, “ten words or less.” By the end of the prologue he proposes a ten-word summary line anyway, which I think is fantastic: “Bad-boy critic takes on vampire economy.” The poetry of Hyde’s tagline reminds me of this little book by Eva Weinmayr of headline placards written for the Evening Standard. It’s another book that’s full of poetry and well worth picking up.

Pamphlets for Friends

Beal 1

Above: Justin Beal, “RE: The Un/happy Ending of Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway.

Last summer I contacted a bunch of friends and asked them to give me the materials for a 16-page pamphlet. The pamphlet could be about anything they wanted, and I would design it for them. In my email introducing the project, I wrote,

The content for these pamphlets will be provided by you, edited by me, and about anything you would like. You can use these 16 black-and-white pages to promote a polical platform or republish your favorite short story. You can showcase your portfolio or the photos from your vacation. The pamphlet may be thematic and unified or intuitive and random. I will take whatever you decide give me.

In exchange for your participation, each of you will get a complete set of the 10 pamphlets I create, along with 10 additional copies of your own pamphlet to share with your friends and family. It would be impossible to replace any one of you in the group, so I hope you all decide to take part.

The idea for the project came out of my reading of Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, and much of this thinking was channeled into a subsequent article I wrote called "Form-giving." But I also wanted there to be some kind of creative expression beyond that essay, a reaction I’d make to Hyde’s book as a working designer. A project with friends seemed like the thing to do here, both because friends are people we enjoy giving gifts to, and because as a designer my friends sometimes hit me up for things I don’t particularly want to do—business cards, etc.—and this seemed like a more even exchange, a way for me to enjoy their talents just as much as they were hopefully enjoying mine.

The project wasn’t entirely successful, however. The open-endedness of my request threw some folks, others just had trouble pulling their thoughts together by the deadline I’d given at the end of the summer. Of course, I got busy, too, and despite my best hopes to crank out 10 stellar pamphlets, so far I have only had time to crank out one.

I’m quite happy with that one pamphlet, though, for my friend Justin Beal, an artist living in Los Angeles. Justin had the idea of simply documenting a body of his work: several recent sculptures that engage ideas about furniture, fruit, industrial building materials, and much, much more. He presented me with a fascinating array of materials to draw from, and it’s a great start to what I hope will be a series that includes a few more pamphlets for friends.

More images from the pamphlet and a PDF are below.

Beal 2

Beal 3

Beal 4

Beal 5

Beal 6

Beal 7

Beal 8

Beal 9

Beal 10

Beal 11

Download a high-resolution PDF of Justin’s pamphlet here.

For some other great small-scale pamphlet projects of late, check out Harsh Patel’s portfolio and Nieves for starters.


New Yorker card

The Gift came, as gifts often do, without my asking for it. Its cover flashed up on my computer screen by way of an server that drew upon a collective memory of what customers like me had already purchased when I logged in one afternoon looking for a particular book on Shaker design. The cover, probably designed in part by The Gift’s author, Lewis Hyde, caught my eye because it featured a drawing that Hyde, who is an English professor at Kenyon College, credits inside as “Basket of Apples.” The drawing, however, is more properly credited as “A Little Basket Full of Beautiful Apples” and was made 150 years ago by a self-taught Shaker woman named Hannah Cohoon, who would have called it a “gift drawing.” I had first seen it several days before, in an article from The New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on the Shakers titled "Shining Tree of Life," where he describes both the drawing and the circumstances of its making:

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Gift Assignment

Above: Huy Vu’s response to the assignment, which includes the hamburger recipe he used to cook for his group and the decorative bags he designed to present the meal. Spread from “This Is Not a Manifesto.”

Form four small groups and spend time together this week. For next week’s class, give a gift that will evoke an emotional response when given.

This assignment is from the class Graphic Design & Critical Thinking.