Sunday, 28 July 2013

Mister Mailman

If these images are anything to go by, there was no higher calling in mid-century America than that of custodian and distributor of the nation’s mail. Teams of craggy faced functionaries held communities together with benevolence, integrity and kindly wisdom. No mail carrier was too busy to spare the time to engage with the public, offering sympathy, encouragement and bonhomie with every delivery. In today’s world of neo-liberal economic orthodoxy none of this is remotely affordable and if the U.S. Postal Service gets its way the mail carrier’s duties will soon be limited to a high speed drive-by with correspondence stuffed into “curbside mailboxes”. When these images were published the postal service was still the gateway to romance and tragedy, to opportunity and penury and our final illustration shows a hapless recipient of bad news, stunned by what he has just read. 

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Solvay SA

This is the Baronet Works in Warrington on the bank of the Manchester Ship Canal. Belgian multi-national chemical company, Solvay is the operator and manufactures industrial polymers on the site. Since the foundation of the business in 1863 it has grown into a company employing 29,000 people in 55 countries. Despite the affinity between Solvay and solvent, the name derives from the founder, Ernest Solvay. Which opens up an unlikely connection between the complex utilitarian manufacturing structures on the canal-side and the refined Art Nouveau aesthetic to be found in the buildings of Avenue Louise in Brussels. Ernest Solvay’s son, Armand is the link – in 1894 he commissioned Belgian architect, Victor Horta to design a large Art Nouveau town house on the fashionable Avenue Louise. No expense was spared in terms of construction materials and interior decoration and after two years of building work it was completed as Hôtel Solvay in 1900. Generally regarded as one of the great exemplars of Art Nouveau architecture at its short-lived zenith, Hôtel Solvay has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It could be argued that the exquisite refinement of Horta’s design practice which extended into every aspect of the furnishings, fixtures and fittings has its equivalent in the elaborate computations and formulations that dictate the extraordinary complexity of shapes, forms and volumes required to serve the chemical industry. While environmental concerns proliferate around the production of volatile chemical substances, there is no escaping their ubiquity in our lives as consumers and in the absence of a clear path to an additive-free existence most of us make compromises. Which leaves space to admire the design ingenuity embodied in the industrial process without becoming a cheer-leader for environmentally unsustainable activities. In the same way, an admiration for the beautifully finished craftwork in rare tropical hardwoods in Horta’s interior is not an endorsement of the unregulated exploitation of finite natural resources.