What do a bottle of wine from Australia, Ham radio, a mimeograph machine, and a ceramic bowl have in common? Well, nothing readily apparent for sure but they all came together in my mind, bit by bit, after my husband pointed out the great label on this bottle of Shiraz . It’s written in Morse Code and, for me, it not only has great graphic appeal but also set me off on a trip down a design memory lane of sorts.
Morse Code always makes me think of my dad. It was also known as “Continuous Wave” or “CW”, my dad’s initials as it happens. He was an amateur radio (Ham radio) enthusiast when I was a kid and an area in the basement (the rumpus room as we called it, definitely dating myself!) was set up with his equipment . It was kind of like an early form of social networking. You would find someone out there in the ether on a radio frequency and then have a conversation using Morse Code. Afterwards, you would send them a QSL card as confirmation that you connected. Cards were as individual as the people who sent them. I love that my dad’s is really straightforward, clean and graphic.
So how did I get from that to early copy machines? I was at a graduation party for a friend not long ago and, as I imagine happens to a lot of people of similar age, we got into a chin wag about memories of school days. For some reason someone mentioned a mimeograph machine, something which I remembered being called a Gestetner machine. If you’re of a certain vintage, you’ll recall them as a device with two rollers and a rather messy indgo/purple ink with a very distinct smell. You would crank a handle and magically a wettish copy would emerge. My Grade 7 memories of the Gestener machine lodged themselves into my brain.
Being a bit of a need-to-know-the-facts-about-stuff kinda gal, especially if it’s design related, I did what all citizens of the information age do, I looked it up on the Wiki. Much to my delight and chagrin (I’ll tell you why in a sec) I found out that machine was made in England in 1881 by a Hungarian inventor named, well, yes, Gestetner, but was updated in 1929 by the brilliant French/American industrial designer, Raymond Loewy. The reason why I was chagrined to discover this is because I have a Raymond Loewy book that I keep face out on a shelf in my office ( literally right above rather than right under my nose) and for some reason I did not remember that he had a large part in the design and success of this machine. I could have impressed everyone at the party with my deep knowledge of ancient copy machines-what an opportunity lost! Thank goodness for blogs. Anyway,who needs the Wiki when you have wonderful books? Shame on me.
Raymond Loewy, if you are unfamiliar with him, was a enviably prolific designer throughout the entire span of the twentieth century. The man ( I really want to call him the Dude, I’m sure the real dude wouldn’t mind) made everything. He’s probably most famous for designing the graphics for Lucky Strike cigarettes but he designed everything from bleach bottle labels to ocean liners. He travelled the world many times over, canoodled with the rich and famous, and headed up a design empire. Loewy was the only American designer who could cross the U.S.A. in a car, train, plane, helicopter and ocean liner all of his own design. He was probably the Most Interesting Man in the World and if he were still alive, they could likely use him in the Dos Equis ads. Just look at his picture!
The ceramic bowl, which I keep in my office, was also designed by Loewy, of course. I’d like to think he threw it on the pottery wheel himself but that’s probably a bit of a stretch. When would he have the time?!
If you’re still with me, and I hope you are, you may be wondering why I’m connecting Morse Code, the Gestetner, the bowl? Well, the Loewy connection in the last two for sure. For me, they all represent old and significant design technologies that have had huge impact on the way we live our lives today. The mimeograph machine is the precursor to the photocopier, Morse Code (though you no longer need to know it to have an amateur radio license) is still used in certain applications and strikes me as an early version of the keyboard and mouse elegantly rolled into one. And the ancient art of ceramics, still practiced much the same way as it always was in many parts of the world, is now also produced in high tech facilities in myriad ways. Who doesn’t have a bowl (or 50 if you’re me)? They are utilitarian, decorative, ubiquitous, necessary.
It’s the progression of technology that connects these disparate elements for me and I like making connections between things. It makes the sometimes overwhelming amount of stuff in our world a little more relatable and meaningful to me.
By the way, the wine (another ancient technology, come to think of it) was lovely.