Monday, November 22, 2010

Tom Lamb and John Vassos

I've never associated storybook illustration with industrial design, but the 20th century had two individuals who were great successes in both fields.

Tom Lamb (1896-1988) was a children's book illustrator who illustrated for books, Good Housekeeping and did a line of children's illustrations called Kiddyland that was put on textiles.  And he was also an industrial designer who specialized in handles.  Yes, handles -- he was very into making handles functional, and worked on everything from luggage to cutlery.  But my favorite Tom Lamb creation is the whimsical book "Bing-O" that was published by Volland.  Bing-O was a swastika-wearing monkey who goes on a journey of discovery and returns home a hero.  

Bing-O, wearing his swastika
 "Bing-O" was printed prior to the rise of the Nazi empire, although Hitler had already co-opted the ancient and sacred symbol of the swastika.  But I like to think that Lamb, being a brilliant and erudite man, somehow ran across a story of the monkey-headed Hindu god Hanuman and it provoked an idea for a book.  In India, the swastika is an auspicious symbol of good fortune that represents the wheel of life.


 Yeah, I know it's a stretch, but I like it as a theory.

The other industrial designer/illustrator was a genius.  Not that Tom Lamb wasn't extraordinary, but he wasn't John Vassos (1898-1985.)   Vassos designed everything from subway turnstiles to accordions, cutlery, microscopes and probably most noteworthy, TV/radio/record player cabinetry.  His work was very art deco
in nature -- spare, graphic and beautiful. 

Vassos-designed radio

Vassos most certainly didn't do graphic arts for children's books -- he did illustrations for his own books like "Contempo" and "Phobia" that were dark and a bit chilling, yet visually stunning.  Some of his most famous work is for Oscar Wilde works like "Harlot's House," "The Ballad of Reading Gaol, " and "Salome."  His work from "Salome" is perhaps his best-known.  Aubrey Beardsely did some pretty kick-ass illustrators for that play, but I honestly like what Vassos did better. 

Vassos illustration for Oscar Wilde's "Salome"

Perhaps Lamb and Vassos are proof that over-specializing is overrated.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Dugald Stewart Walker

Dugald Stewart Walker (1883-1937) was an art nouveau era illustrator whose work was largely published in children's books.  The man's style was very singular and when left to his own devices, a bit close to obsessive-compulsive.  As artists like to say, he could "make a lot of marks on the page."  Those drawings were fun to look at, albeit a bit overwhelming to the eye.  I mean, holy crap:

That's a lot to look at.  I had to size it up just so you could look at it adequately and it's still not big enough.  But when someone (like an editor or an author) got him to chill out and not be so ornate, he could also do stunning work.  Such as: 

I think some of his nicest works are for Padraic Colum's books, such as this work for The Boy Who Knew What Birds Said:

Dugie (as I like to call him) was bit of a strange dude.  Here's something he wrote for the introduction to a book that he illustrated:

I have never been anywhere except Richmond, Virginia, and New York, because I have always been told that only grown-up people were allowed to travel. But the good East Wind and the kindly Moon have taken me on rapturous journeys high above the world to get an enchanted view of things. In this book I have put some of my discoveries, but if you are looking here for real likeness of the things that any one could see if he were grown up, you had better close the covers now. You cannot expect me to draw an exact picture of the North Pole or of a Chinese lady's feet or of a sea-cucumber. But if you are interested in what the East Wind or the Father Stork or the Moon told me, then look with my eyes and you will not mind very much if the courtiers in the ogre's court, or the dock leaves in the Garden of Paradise, are not just as a grown-up person thinks they should be. After all is said and done, what the young ones say about it is the all-important matter.

He must have been a rather eccentric Southern gentleman.  And it's probably not cool to speculate about the sexual orientation of the dead, but people do it about Abe Lincoln all the time, so I guess I'll say something about Dugald Stewart Walker.  And I was rather amazed to see that a vintage illustration expert had the same notion as I do:   a lot of his illustrations seem to say "gay" to me.  He liked to work naked male butts into the act whenever he could:

I would venture that Hermes should go to the gym and do some lunges and squats to lift his butt.

To say I'm gay-friendly is an understatement, so this observation is hardly pejorative.  In fact, I'm sure the life of a gay gentleman in Virginia in the early 20th century was less than easy to live, and it leads me to understand how the flights of fancy that he described above may have come about.  When the only choice was to be in the closet and you're a creative, imaginative soul, you might stay at home and imagine what the East Wind is saying to you.  It's quite poignant when you consider it in that manner.  But who knows if that is true -- it's some of my historical fiction.

In the next day or two I'll put up some photos of my prized Dugald Stewart Walker possessions that are very special to me and talk about him a bit more.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dora Maar

My avatar on both Etsy and Blogspot is not me, it is Dora Maar.  Dora was an artist and photographer and Picasso's girlfriend and muse.  I think Dora was stunning; I've read a couple of bios of Picasso (great artist, total ass!) and I always rather liked poor beautiful tortured Dora.  She was in her late 20's and he was in his mid-50's when they met.  As the story goes, she was in a bar/cafe late at night, playing a very odd game with herself and was trying to rapidly stab a knife between her spread-out fingers.  She was wearing lightweight gloves, but of course missed now and then, and was bleeding on the table.  Old Pablo found this 1930's version of self-mutilation to be a real turn-on, plus Dora was pretty hot, so he asked for one of her bloody gloves as a keepsake (how perfectly darling of him.)  That did not bode well for the happiness of the relationship, you know.   He drove her crazy (although she well was on her way to crazy all on her own,) but their relationship is what really broke her. 

But she was gorgeous, and a brilliant photographer in her own right, and I love the iconic photographs that Man Ray took of her.   She was also Picasso's muse and favorite subject for the five or so years that they were a couple.
A Portrait of Dora Maar, by Picasso

A noob blog

I decided to fire up a chatty Etsy shop blog over here on Blogspot, because my shop blog on Tumblr is all about visuals.  And I love that about Tumblr, but I also like to write -- as anyone who looks at my item descriptions well knows.  The downside to having more items in my Etsy shop is that I don't take the time to be goofy and creative in my item descriptions the way I did a year or so ago.    Here is a listing where I was having big giant fun, and here is another one that is a nod to David Sedaris.  That crazy little man makes me laugh really hard. 

I have no idea how I became so obsessed with illustrated books from the early-to-mid 20th century.  They just found me.  I have my favorites and I have my own collection, but because I'm always looking for and finding great books, I buy them and end up selling them.  I consider vintage book collecting to be a form of historic preservation; they are rare little things because children loved them to death, threw them around and destroyed them, scrawled all over them, or they just got tossed out with Granny's other belongings. 

They feel like magic to me when I hold them in my hand, and I have an Etsy shop so they can find their way into the hands of people who want a little magic in their lives.  I'm going to do posts in the next few days about some of my favorite illustrators, why I love them, and expound upon my weird little theories (all entirely unsubstantiated) about them.  It will be a little bit like reading historical fiction.