These pieces were written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive. They are published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
The personal booth at Don Filippo Pizzeria, perhaps the only one of its kind in New York City, is nearly invisible. It’s tucked between two standard booths, beneath a small TV at ceiling height, just past the register. Large enough to fit one comfortably, with enough room for bags and coat.
Though it’s not unique to New York, the service door entrance is used in a way that is characteristically New York. New Yorkers use this space as an outlet, as a piece of municipal furniture. As a door setback from the sidewalk, it offers a place of refuge.
Like most New Yorkers, I don’t live in a doorman building. Whether I’m expecting a package or not, I answer my door buzzer, and if I hear “Amazon” or “FedEx” or “UPS” I buzz them in. By the end of every day there are at least four or five packages sitting in the downstairs hallway or at the bottom of the stairs.
It’s unmistakable that a thoughtful designer created this beauty. The elegantly scruffed, antique-looking design stands out in the power-washed painted concrete doorway. Its brown color is rich and warm like an RCA tabletop radio.
Because of extenuating circumstances (a particularly large and heavy suitcase for a two-week trip to New York), I have made a calculated decision. Navigating the subway with this bag would be a physical feat I haven’t adequately trained for, and a Lyft driver would be unlikely to help me wrest my luggage into the trunk.
On better days, excuses to visit the corner cafe can be limited. It usually falls after teeth brushing and before the first ping on Slack. But mostly as walks that converge post lunch break, just past noon, at congregations that disrupt the urban grid. On worse days, that race towards a refill is at closing time as well.
Oil-based, high gloss exterior paint over rust resistant primer, caked on decade after decade until it bubbles and cracks. A little bit of rust around the bolts. Simple brackets attached to brick facades in a way that, upon first glance, wouldn’t seem to hold up a shelf in my apartment. Fire escapes are an undeniable icon of New York City.
We’re safe because we cross together. Orderly white lines bisect our path from one curb to the next: equidistant, equal width, all the way across. If we walk as a mass across this slatted surface, then the people in the cars will see us better. If we stay together, and within the width, then we’ll be safe.
The India Street exit of the northbound Greenpoint G station has two convex mirrors mounted at the exit. Or entry, depending on your point of view. They are both around seven to ten inches in diameter, lined with a strip of black rubber around the edge. They have recently been replaced, but the dark lines of grime linger, outlines of their larger predecessors.
One of the best things about NYC is the noise. Over 8 million people just simply existing comes in more increased audible waves than you would ever imagine. But perhaps the noise which transcends all else is the manufactured sounds that come from the unmistakable JBL Flip speaker.
As early as 2002, ornithologists reported sightings of a bird hitherto unknown in New York City: Aegolius verizon. The reports swelled with each passing year, until, at last, Aegolius verizon joined the pigeon on the top shelf of the city aviary, and sightings were no longer worth seeing. Today, Aegolius verizon perches on every other rooftop, hooks its talons into the eaves, and keeps watch.
“Please curb your dog.” A plea no bigger than a postcard faces the street with a logo, “Curb Allure,” stamped in the corner. The small post sits behind a glass encased in aluminum or steel and looks welded to the fence. The fence is only a foot high and guards a tree. If you’re not familiar with Curb Allure, it’s the latest brand name in tree guards.
New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but it is also the city that never stops. With more than 731,000 vehicles entering Manhattan every day, plus, buses, taxis, and bicycles, mobility could become a challenge.
Everyone has the same card, but no two are punched alike. In New York, as in many cities, coffee has become a serious phenomenon, and over the past ten years, barista culture has proliferated. A barista’s commitment to coffee can be nothing short of extraordinary.
Despite their ubiquitous presence in everyday life, exit signs are designed for disaster, and in New York City specifically, this design has rules. While most municipalities follow the guidelines for exit signs issued by the National Electric Code (NEC), the New York City Building Authority produces their own additional requirements, rendering the majority of manufactured exit signs unusable.
In the late eighteenth century, when American colonists established detainment centers for criminals, they borrowed what they knew from Europe. Jails were disorderly, unsanitary, and lenient regarding regimen. People with means could purchase their way out of the discomforts of incarceration, buying or bartering for – among other comforts – clothing.
This is the introduction to the Class of 2019 publication, Everything That Rises: Thinking about Design in Precarious Times. The publication contains essays and excerpts from the students’ thesis research and was an accompaniment to Precarious: The 2019 Graduate Symposium held on May 13, 2019 at the SVA Theatre.
The theme of precarity brings to mind the seminal 1941 Jorge Luis Borges short story, “La Biblioteca de Babel.” Written in response to another not-so-distant foray into mutually-assured self-annihilation, his narrative fantasy offered readers a metaphor for the biblical scale of our global, cultural crisis.
Within an American penal system intending to remove individuality through the enforcement of uniformity, incarcerated individuals’ clothing in fact functions as a site of negotiation, on which articulations of identity and institution combat, push-pull, and give-take symbolic ownership of the body.