Some thoughts on Originality, Appropriation and the Origin of Teepees

I’ve been thinking a bit about the notions of ORIGINALITY and APPROPRIATION.

As you know if you’ve read my manifesto, I often use music as a model for thinking about art and design. I appreciate the relevance of the term ‘practice’ to both and I’ve always been enamored of the collaborative aspect of music making. The question of originality in music is also a very interesting one. I started thinking about this when considering the notion of ‘covers’ in music – especially popular music (from folk through rock to rap). The cover is a tribute, a test of one’s own ability and sometimes a kind of one-upmanship. A way to acknowledge your forebears and to strut your own stuff at the same time.

But in the fine arts this could be considered simply copying. Its been impossible to carve a version of Michelangelo’s David as part of an art practice for over a 100 years? For most of the 20th Century the avante-garde position has been to reject and deny the work of our forbears – not incorporate it. But since the 1970’s appropriation and sampling have become part of post-modern practice. I’m sure there’s some excellent analysis of the connections between originality, covers, sampling and appropriation with respect to music – I need Don Miller Jr.’s input here!

Perhaps in the worlds of craft and design the notion of ‘cover’ has been there all along. Lately I’ve been teaching one of my favorite classes at CCa – The History and Theory of 20th Century Furniture. It’s interesting the way some ideas keep reappearing and being reinterpreted in the recent history of furniture design. For example, studio furniture designers and makers post WW2 have had this thing about designing and making music stands – perhaps this reflects the parallels between music and craftsmanship.

Through looking at so many designers in the History and Theory class I’ve noticed another strange trope or design ‘meme’. So many 20thC furniture designers have embraced the vernacular be designing their own ‘cover’ of the three-legged milking stool. Here are some nice examples –

Aalto's Stool 60 - an 'original take' from the 30's

Charlotte Perriand came back again and again to this form in the 50's and 60's after abandoning chrome and bent steel.

Tage Frid's 'cover' from the 70's

Tom Dixon's 'Offcut' from 2009

Richard Hutten's one man improv - Stool Pants from the 90's

All this was floating around in my noggin’ when I listened to a great Radiolab show last week – the piece entitled ‘Patient Zero’. It was about tracing the source of things to their ORIGIN – they looked at the AIDS virus, Typhoid Mary, the High Five, and the Cowboy Hat. The last piece featured Jonnie Hughes who has written a new book entitled “On the Origin of Teepees: the Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves).” Get the pun!

In it the author expands on Dawkins’ concept of the ‘meme’. Dawkins believed that a meme was perpetuated by it being copied, duplicated and appropriated. Hughes hypothesizes another mechanism for the survival and, more radically, EVOLUTION of ideas through environmental, social and historical factors. In the example of the cowboy hat he proves that no-one invented it – despite Stetson’s reputation for having done so. Actually, it evolved to satisfy a very particular set of human needs determined by cultural and environmental factors – powered by the selection pressure of the cowboy’s choice. The cowboy hat wasn’t invented it evolved on the prairie – like buffalo!

So now I’m wondering if ‘originality’ is in any way a valid or useful concept in such a rich field of cultural appropriation and ‘memetic evolution’. I’ve always found it a very problematic concept and a futile goal. The scientific model as aphorized by Newton in 1676 has always held more appeal – “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” We can only make an (original? evolving?) contribution to a field by recognizing and working with all that has gone before.

I think it’s time I designed a three legged stool – though I know its not original!!!

The Color of the Sky

Lately, I’ve been enjoying reading Victoria Finlay’s wonderful cultural history of color – Color; A Natural History of the Palette. She takes the rainbow and teases it apart through a series of delightful stories of her own travels in search of pigment interspersed with rich tales of the history of our use of, creation of, and trading in color. Highly recommended!

Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite.

“What did I learn at art school? I learned that art is painting, not painted.” Harvey Fierstein. (p.11)

“We sat in the half dark drinking salty tea, and he talked about how a deity appeared to a boy in a dream. ” I can tell you,” the deity said, “how to find everything you want in the world: riches, friends, power. Even wisdom.” “How can I do that?” asked the boy eagerly. It is easy, he was told. All you need to do is close your eyes and not think about the color sea green. The boy confidently closed his eyes, but his thoughts were full of waves and jade and the sky on a misty morning. He tried to think of red, or of trumpets, or the wind in the trees, but the sea kept flowing into his mind like a tide. Over the years, remembering his dream, he would often sit quietly and try not to think of green. But he never quite succeeded. And then one day, when he was an old man, he did it: he sat for a long time without even a flicker of color in his thoughts. and he opened his eyes and smiled – and when my monk friend got to this point, he opened his own eyes and smiled. “He smiled,” said the monk, “because he realized he already had everything he wanted in the world.” (p.256)


The nineteenth century  British scientist and motivator John Tyndall always said that he did his best thinking about the nature of light and colors while he was walking in the mountains. He took his holidays in the Alps. It was a place where his mind could be clear, he said, and it was also a place where, on sunny days, the sky was clear enough to think about. He was an educator and one of the best. He would stand in front of audiences at the School of Mines, and he would teach people how to use their imagination to understand science. To explain the color of the sky, he would use an image of the sea.

Think of an ocean, he would say, and think of the waves crashing against the land. If they came across a huge cliff then all the waves would stop; if they met a rock, then only the smaller waves would be affected; while a pebble would change the course of only the tiniest waves washing against the beach. This is what happens with light from the sun. Going through the atmosphere the biggest wavelengths – the red ones – are usually unaffected, and it is only the smallest ones – the blue and violet ones – which are scattered by the tiny pebble-like molecules in the sky, giving the human eye the sensation of blue.

Tyndall thought it was particles of dust which did it; Einstein later proved that even molecules of oxygen and hydrogen are big enough to scatter the blue rays and leave the red alone. But the effect of both theories is the same. And at sunset, when the air is polluted with molecules of dust – or, over the sea, little salt particles – both of which act as “rocks” rather than “pebbles” in disturbing the wavelengths of light, the sky will seem orange or even red. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, shooting jets of volcanic dust into the sky and killing three hundred people, the sunsets throughout South Asia were crimson. I remember smiling, ignorant of the reason, thinking how beautiful they were. (pp. 304-5)

West Oakland Soul Food Cook Book

My friend and neighbor Katy Polony discovered this awesome mid 60’s community cookbook from here in West Oakland and kindly agreed to let me scan and distribute it.

Don’t miss the home remedies on the final two pages!

To read or print, click on the following link! It might take a little while as it is fairly hi-res.

West Oakland Soul Food Cook Book

Lines – A Brief History by Tim Ingold

I read an eye opening book over the last few days thanks to the recommendation of Helen Carnac.

Lines - A Brief History by Tim Ingold

Its rare for me to describe a book of theory as a ‘page turner’. Very rare! But this is one.

Professor Ingold, Scottish professor of social anthropology, takes us on an anything but brief journey through the cultural history of humankind exploring ‘the interface between anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture’. Arguing along the way for the centrality of the line in human culture; as the wellspring of drawing, writing, music and wayfaring. He refines some widely used but until now poorly defined terms such as trace and thread – making the wonderfully esoteric but clearly argued assertion that ‘Threads may be transformed into traces, and traces into threads. It is through the transformation of threads into traces … that surfaces are bought into being. And conversely, it is through the transformation of traces into threads that surfaces are dissolved.’

He also coins the useful term ‘meshwork’ in contrast to ‘network’ – a web of interconnected pathways as opposed to a series of links connecting distinct hubs.

Along the way there are some wonderful yarns, propositions and perspectives. Such as, ‘old Khanty stoytellers would keep going in the evenings until everyone else was asleep, so that no one would ever know how their stories really finished’ – sounds like one of my classes at CCA! Quoting Bayarea icon and theorist of wandering Rebecca Solnit ‘To write is to carve a new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as a guide … I have often wished that my sentences could be written out as a single line running into the distance so that it would be clear that the sentence is likewise a road and reading is travelling.’

It is this vibrant, hand drawn, visceral and physical line that Ingold argues has provided and marked our pathway through existence. The line that, as Kandinsy said, ‘goes for a walk’.

The final chapter is entitled ‘How the line became straight’ – love the double meaning. Ingold argues that by constraining and restricting the line from the hand drawn trace to the straightly ruled (and ruled over) connector we lose something essential, something existential.

Highly recommended if you are interested in language, writing, calligraphy, music, singing, map making, pathfinding, drawing, weaving, reading or wandering. That sounds like everyone I know!

San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam

I’ve spent the last few days relaxing at my friend Scott Constable’s rural retreat in Sebastapol. Scott and Ene are in Sheboygan working on their residency at Kohler and kindly invited us to chook-sit and enjoy their wonderful house and garden.

San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam

I’ve spent a chunk of my time reading San Francisco Bay by Harold Gilliam. Gilliam was a journalist with the SF Chronicle and published this fascinating piece of what would now be called Environmental Journalism in 1957 (the year of my birth). He has an illustrious career of journalism and authorship and the Bay Institute named their “Harold Gilliam Award for Excellence in Environmental Reporting” in his honor.

Gilliam’s book is a incisive snapshot of Bayarea mid-last century. A potent mix of factual reporting and poetic writing with just a pinch of coldwar jingoism for flavor.

I was particularly drawn to his chapter on the age of ferries on the Bay.

“For more than three generations bay are residents by the tens of thousands sailed across the bay to work in San Francisco every morning and back again at night. But the ferry ride was far more than a means of getting to the job. It was a twice-daily social period, a convivial gathering, a respite in the day’s routine only remotely approximated by the modern coffee break or cocktail hour. In more than a figurative sense the passenger ferries were floating clubhouses. The regular commuters were members of well-defined in-groups with long established totems, taboos and folkways.

The Daily Voyage

Each scheduled sailing had its own clan of passengers who caught the same boat at the same time, observing the same rituals, every working day in the year… They rushed down the loading ramps a few minutes before sailing time and some habitually went into the dining room for breakfast or to the lunch counter for coffee, others to the main cabin of the boat. Each had his regular seat, reserved for him not by any legal right but by immemorial custom – a tradition violated by a newcomer only at the risk of ostracism. The supreme offense was to take a seat left vacant by a commuter who recently had made his last long journey into the fog.” 


“They ought to bring back the ferries” is an inevitable observation whenever the traffic congestion on the bridges is discussed… Officials claim that the return of the commuter ferries would be uneconomical. They assert that the demand to bring back the boats – like the fight to preserve San Francisco’s cable cars – is motivated more by sentiment than hard-headed analysis of the economics of transportation. In this respect they may be right. But it is understandable that sentiment plays a part in the attitude of bay area residents towards the  ferries. for the boats were a unique social institution. Admittedly they lacked speed and efficiency, but they also lacked some other elements of more modern transportation – the high-tension frenzy of rush-hour car commuting, the nerve-fraying lane-to-lane-infighting among drivers who know each other not as human beings but only by make and model…

The intimate experience of the boat ride, of the bay and its changing beauty created a mood of easygoing friendliness, geniality and camaraderie which undoubtedly helped mold the character of the community. Quite possibly San Francisco’s reputation as a city of serenity and vision is due inn some degree to the effect on three generations of that twice daily journey across the waters.”

This description of congested bridge traffic is from more than 50 YEARS AGO!!

All in all its a great read from front to cover. I recommend picking up a copy!

Thanks Scott. And thank you Mr. Gilliam.  91 this year!!

Harold Gilliam