Market | A. M. Ideas & the Craft of Rush Grass Weaving

I’m always interested in products made using traditional craft skills, and recently learned about a small line of handwoven rush grass accessories through my friend Kathy’s blog, Tricky Taipei. The women who weave these products are in their 60’s; I wonder if their children or grandchildren have also acquired these skills or will this be a craft tradition that fades away with the “Grandma” generation?

Fortunately for us, the design firm A.M. Ideas is showing how traditional craft can be paired with products designed for the modern world. Thanks to Kathy Cheng for allowing me to share her original post below.


The Taiwanese Craft of Rush Grass Weaving

My friends Helen Chen and Wanshan Lin run a Taipei-based design studio, A.M. Ideas. In addition to taking freelance product design projects for local clients, they produce a small line of lifestyle products that incorporate the traditional craft of rush grass weaving.

Being an ignoramus, I didn’t know about rush grass weaving until I learned about it from them. It’s an interesting part of Taiwanese craft culture that’s in danger of extinction, so it’s admirable that Helen and Wanshan are shining the spotlight on rush grass weaving through their products. Let’s learn about rush grass weaving, shall we…


What’s rush grass weaving?

The artisanal craft of rush grass weaving was first recorded in Taiwan 300 years ago. It experienced its heyday in the 1930s, during which rush grass products were the third most exported item (after rice and sugar). Most rush grass products were exported to Japan.

Who’s still doing it today?

The lovely little town of Yuan Li (苑里), in the middle of Taiwan, is where the grass is grown and woven. This cultural heritage has been passed down from mothers to daughters through the generations.

Currently there are no machines capable of replicating the sophisticated gestures of a skilled artisan. Today it is processed and woven purely by hand using simple tools — by highly skilled grandmothers — just as it’s always been for 300 years.


What products can be made from rush grass?

Helen and Wanshan’s products use rush grass in clean, modern applications — bringing this old craft into the modern era and introducing it to a new generation. Their line focuses on lifestyle and fashion accessories, plus homewares. You can visit their online store here.


Photo Credit: A.M. Ideas

Visit | The Philip Johnson Glass House

The Glass House property is a perfect example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. The house is famous for its architectural innovations, but the most striking aspect of the site is its role as canvas for Philip Johnson’s ever-evolving design explorations. Built by Johnson in 1944, the Glass House and its 47 acres of land functioned as a country getaway-cum-experimental lab for his architectural practice over six decades.

Johnson was in his late thirties when the house was built, having just begun his architectural practice. It’s probably safe to assume that fledgling architects were paid no better in the 1940’s than they are today. So how could he afford to buy land and build a house? Luck. Johnson’s father made gifts to each of his three children: the two Johnson daughters received land and Philip, his only son, received stock in a promising young company called Alcoa*. Johnson graduated from college a millionaire. With no immediate need to earn a salary, he pursued his interests in art and design and took on significant projects such as founding the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1932.

Throughout this time the Glass House was taking shape. Johnson designed 24 versions of the house before discovering the land in New Canaan, CT. The site was ideal: down a slope, on a promontory, with vistas in every direction over acreage dotted with classic New England stone walls. This small, historic town might not seem an obvious choice for such a radical architectural experiment, but in fact it quickly became a showcase for modern architecture at mid-century, and today 90 modernist homes in New Canaan have been documented by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The House
The Glass House was an architectural marvel when built, its construction only possible due to technology advancements that allowed for production of such large sheets of glass. The steel beams framing the house and the formica cladding the freestanding kitchen countertops are early examples of these materials being used in a residential setting. What’s surprising about the house is its livability: once inside, it’s easy to envision how comfortable it would be for one person alone and also how perfectly it would accommodate a large party.

There were a lot of parties in Johnson’s day, and one of the looming conservation conundrums when the ceiling is restored is whether or not to replicate the smoke stains from Johnson’s years of entertaining that are visible today.

The Painting & Sculpture Galleries
One vexing problem that comes with a house of glass is where to display art. Johnson built separate painting and sculpture galleries on the property that not only showcased his collections, but allowed him to experiment with architectural styles and innovative display mechanisms. His appreciation for the role of nature in design can be seen in the shadows cast by the ceiling in the Sculpture Gallery, and his experimental rotating gallery walls dominate the earth-berm style Painting Gallery.

The Landscape
The grounds and vistas were carefully shaped by Johnson as well. A Donald Judd sculpture, the artist’s first outdoor commission, marks the driveway’s turn towards the house. The circular form contrasts with the rectangles of the Glass and Guest houses, and echoes the martini glass-shaped pool in the distance. In this case a conservation decision was made to restore the sculpture to its original installed state, which was not the same as Judd’s original intent for the piece. Judd planned to produce the sculpture from one pour of concrete, which would set with a smooth, unbroken surface. In fact, the installation required two pours and the different setting times per pour resulted in the broken surface that we see today.

The lake, visible from the back of the house, includes a pavilion that Johnson built at two-thirds scale to appear more distant on the horizon. It is thought that the pavilion influenced Johnson’s design for the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center which opened two years later. The Kirstein Tower is also visible in the distance.

Additional stops on the grounds include the Library and the Ghost House (above) as well as Da Monsta (below), which Johnson built in 1995 (at age 89), anticipating the need for The National Trust for Historic Preservation to operate a visitor’s center once the site was opened to the public after his death. As it turned out, the town of New Canaan vetoed the building’s use as a visitor center due to traffic concerns, and today it is used to screen a short video at the end of tours.

The Visitor Experience

Accessibility: Thanks to the town’s traffic concerns the Visitor Center is a just few minutes away, directly across from the train station. This makes visiting the site incredibly easy and accessible, even without a car.

Tour/content: All visitors must sign up for a tour in advance. I took the 2-hour guided tour and it was well worth it. A media wall at the Visitor Center displays in-depth background on Johnson and the property, and there are plenty of books and objets to browse. Small tour groups are bused to the site for a guided walking tour. My guide was a font of information about the history of the house, Johnson himself, and the overall development of the site.

Website: The website goes well beyond visitor information, sharing much of the content available on the media wall at the Visitor Center as well as updates on preservation projects and extensive public programs.

Visiting Notes: The property is only open from May 1- November 30; tours fill up fast so I recommend purchasing your tickets well in advance. Also note that the Sculpture Gallery is due for restoration so may be closed temporarily.

Based on his well-known work on projects such as the Seagram Building and the AT&T Tower, it’s easy to believe that Johnson had a very rigid design aesthetic, and certainly many well-known architects have settled comfortably into careers based on a signature look. A visit to the Glass House belies this notion, showing us instead how Johnson stayed actively curious and engaged with the evolving language of design throughout his life.


*A recent Forbes article about the Mellon family fortune gives this background on Alcoa’s origins: “Andrew, the family’s true empire builder, forged his own path: He became a turn-of-the-century venture capitalist. In 1889 Andrew made a $25,000 loan to the Pittsburgh Reduction Co., an aluminum manufacturer, and subsequently purchased equity in the company. Profits rose from $87,000 in 1898 to $322,000 in 1900–then quickly crested the million-dollar mark. The company today is known as Alcoa.”

Credits: all photos my own
First photo: Veil by Fujiko Nakaya is a temporary, site-specific work commissioned in honor of The Glass House’s 65th anniversary. Read a Q & A with the artist here.

Miscellany | He Dined on Cats

It’s deep summer right now, time for vacations filled with sunlit adventures and good company in beautiful locations. Doesn’t that sound like…a photo shoot? And do you know who wants to see your vacation photos? Almost no one. It’s true. No one really wants to see your perfect view, your perfect child, your perfect flower, or any artsy low tide beauty shots from your recent trip. So dull.

Instead I share the strange tale of Elizabeth and Simeon Palmer, uncovered during a vacation stroll through the local cemetery on an overcast day.

Here are the headstones of Elizabeth and Lidia Palmer, side by side. Lidia, identified as “Wife of Simeon Palmer”, died in 1753. Elizabeth, who died in 1776, is remembered with the more ambiguous inscription “In memory of Elizabeth, who should have been the wife of Mr. Simeon Palmer.” What could this mean? Had Simeon pined so for the one that got away that he erected this memorial to her memory? Or could this be an instance of “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” preserved for eternity by her loyal friends? As you can imagine, I was excited to find out all I could about this circa 1760 soap opera. The curtain was finally being raised on our flinty New England forebears!

In fact, Elizabeth really was Simeon’s wife. The two married in 1753 after Lidia’s death, and soon had a child. Just one little hiccup in their young relationship: Simeon began eating cats. He is said to have suffered sunstroke sometime around 1750 “which left him mildly insane and he adopted the views of his minister on cats and insisted on his family using them for food.” The minister in question is the influential Rev. Richard Billings, leader of the first church in Little Compton, RI, who “had one idiosyncrasy…; he firmly believed in cats as an article of diet, and fatted them for the purpose.”

So, to recap: Simeon lost it, started eating cats, and made everyone around him eat cats too. Is it any wonder that Elizabeth decided to live separately from her betrothed? They remained married, and one account reports that Elizabeth visited her husband once a week to collect, wash, and return his laundry for the remainder of her life – twenty three long years. Her thanks for this loyalty? A permanent, public declaration that she had failed him as a wife.

I think there’s a lesson in this for all of us.

Bon vacances!

Vast Public Indifference
Sakonnet Historical
Boston 1775

Photos: my own


Closing Soon | Three Art Shows to See Now

Visiting New York City this August? Escape the heat by visiting one or all of these shows, each due to close this month. The links will take you to my previously posted reviews.

1. Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum
Closes: August 17th, 2014
Where: American Folk Art Museum

2. Italian Futurism, 1909-1944: Reconstructing the Universe
Closes: September 1, 2014
Where: Guggenheim Museum

3. Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany
Closes: September 1, 2014
Where: Neue Galerie (plan to stay for lunch; this small museum is a peaceful oasis in the big city)

But still, it is summer so you really should be outside at some point. Catch the water breezes with a visit to:

4. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park
Closes: Closed on Tuesdays, otherwise open year-round.
Where: Roosevelt Island (easier to reach than you might think, as I learned on my visit)




Online Art Encounters | BGC Craft, Art & Design Oral History Project

Career paths are not always straightforward, and creative careers even less so. So it is inspiring to learn how others have successfully paired their personal interests and talents with the need to earn a living. The BGC Craft, Art & Design Oral History Project is an online resource of interviews with a range of craftspeople and designers: studio potters, architects, rug hookers, industrial designers, and more.

Here are three that caught my interest:

Ignacio Ciocchini is an Industrial Designer working in New York City; his designs include the award-winning CityBench. In this interview he touches on design considerations for public urban spaces, and also talks about the challenges of integrating design teams into a corporate structure, an enduring issue I remember well from my days working at a design consultancy.


Stephanie Allen-Krauss is a fourth-generation Rug Hooker from Vermont. This interview covers her personal history in the craft along with technique, the selection and preparation of fabrics and dyes, and the business in general. I have a soft spot for textile arts, and am really tempted to enroll in the Green Mountain Rug School. Read the personal story behind the Bottom Star Big Dipper rug here.


Finally, Philippe Apeloig is a Graphic Designer based in Paris who is known for his typography. But he was no match for author Philip Roth, who requested that his portrait be the basis for a new poster commissioned for the Fête du Livre. That tale and its creative result tell the story of how Apeloig approaches design and interprets subject matter in visually rich ways, successfully blending his trademark style with client requirements.

With 13 interviews posted so far, the project is a valuable resource for future scholarship. But non-scholars be warned: these oral histories are presented as written transcripts and do take some time to read. Fortunately the interviews were digitally recorded so more plentiful video clips may be added in the future. All of the interviews are available on the BGC Craft, Art & Design Oral History Project website.