An Ode To A Butcher

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.

Shhh… don’t tell: I have a crush on my butcher.

Yes, once-upon-a-time vegetarian me, I have a newfound respect for the meat slinger down the street. Avedano’s Holly Park Market (in San Francisco, California) is a butcher shop and specialty market with great food and quality service. They are true-blue devoted to the sustainability rally cry “local food for local people.” And they curate their shop with cheeky humor and panache.


Each of the owners brings her unique skills to the block. Tia, an Executive Chef, is the in-house butcher. In addition to trimming meats, she creates the rotating menu of seasonal prepared foods that are available for nightly take-out. Fellow “restaurantrice” Melanie, is responsible for procuring many of the hard-to-find items offered in the market. And entrepreneur and former cook Angela brings bookkeeping and management experience to the day-to-day operations of the business.

Cicero’s Meats formerly occupied the space itself, a family-owned market that opened in 1901 and served the neighborhood for nearly a century. Many of the antique furnishings and equipment live on and have been incorporated into the refreshed design. Even Cicero’s original neon sign glows to see another century.


And like a fulfillment of my Alice in Wonderland childhood fantasies of secret passageways, I recently discovered Avedano’s private dining space in back, The Udder Room. Available for intimate events, It’s warm and welcoming, long and narrow, paneled by wood and lit up by original mod lamps that hang just so from the ceiling.

Everything in Avedano’s is exceptional: grass-fed beef, wild-caught and responsibly farmed fish, seasonal local and organic produce, and handpicked gourmet pantry items, like first-rate olive oil, artisan cheese, homemade jams, premium coffee and to-die-for gelato.

Bonus items for sale and perusal include Meat Paper, Secret Eating Society zine, and meat jokes galore: meat-shaped throw pillows and cookie cutters, “I love you more than pork” lapel pins, and an ever-changing interior marquee that now proclaims “Praise the Lard.”

I’m blushing.


My Three Wishes

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.

I have a pattern of always being open to inspiration in the unlikeliest of places. Like when I stumble upon a sign somewhere with cleverly composed wording, or when I open a book to a random page containing apt advice for that exact moment in my life. So I’m channeling this intuitive, ad hoc methodology for this, my first post of a new year. Consider it a goodie bag of wayward “found” wishes for the year ahead.

#1 More Beauty
While living in Chicago last year on work assignment, I came upon a bold statement inscribed along a temporary plywood installation on South Wabash. The graffiti artists appropriated the bare material as writing space, and generously painted on the words “You Are Beautiful.” It’s a not uncommon phrase to hear among friends and lovers, but in three-foot-high boxy type along a bustling Midwestern shopping corridor? (Little did I know at the time, this instance was one of thousands like it around the world, inspired by a movement by the same name.)

Jenny Holzer-like, it caused me to stop in my tracks and contemplate the juxtaposition I found myself in: the urban everyday (awash in unrelenting waves of ads and corporate logos) and simple, albeit jarring, text. I stood there for a long time, watching late afternoon become sunset, and sunset become nightfall. I wanted to see the effects the words had on passersby and how they changed, if at all, with changing light. I found it hard to walk away.

The people behind this public art project believe the power of the “You Are Beautiful” statement comes from its simplicity. They say their intention is “to reach beyond ourselves as individuals to make a difference by creating moments of positive self-realization.” And, no humble feat, “We’re just attempting to make the world a little better.” Whereas advertising, they claim, elicits a response to buy, their signage elicits a response to act. In other words, they’re attempting to inspire activism instead of consumerism.

I personally don’t agree that we live in a binary world, in which we must ultimately choose between extremes. Life is full of contradictions and humans are no exception. It’s up to us individually to come into compassionate, harmonious relationship with our own contrariness; to learn to break old habits that no longer serve us and make new habits that day by day, moment by moment, not only serve ourselves but also give generously to others. Activism and consumerism can live happily ever after.

But! There is so much power and goodness in this simple message as an urban intervention. I adore it. And I agree wholeheartedly that in this world we need more beauty… and little prompts like this to remind one another of the beauty that already exists within us. (So join the movement, spread the word!)

Wish number two, fittingly, is a Jenny Holzer truism:

#2 Protect Me From What I Want (aka More Presence and Poise)
This reminds me of another one liner I read in a passage somewhere recently – “Desire is the design flaw” – which had me setting my thoughts adrift on the sea of design for a while, i.e. I wondered what this means for designers, whose job – at least, conventionally – has been to create desirable objects?

I finally landed on the realization that this and Holzer’s truism comment on the unappeasable human desire for ever more, and that this pattern of incessant wanting is our own undoing. And this is why meditative traditions, such as yoga, Tai Chi, and Ki Gong, are so beneficial. They all work uniquely towards helping us get out of our own needy ways and into “the flow” of unpredictable, wonderful life. By bringing ourselves to the surface of our own beingness and awareness, they help untangle, calm and release the avid yearnings, restless impulses and repetitive thoughts that hula-hoop through our minds.

Similar to the “You Are Beautiful” message, contemplative mind-body activities remind us of who we are without the superficial trappings of consumer culture. And again, it’s not one or the other for me. My point is that from time to time, and even better when practiced regularly, it’s helpful to slow down, be present, and re-member who we are… before we can even begin to know what it is we want.

Rather than endlessly brood about the past or forever worry about the future, it’s high time we step inside ourselves to find presence and poise. Imagine if we all did this on a regular basis! (World leaders included.)

#3 More Wild Cards
Finally, I wish my next year to be one of celebrating wild cards. More creative activism. More irreverence. More political art. More refusal to sit idly by.

I’ve been drawn of late to punk rock history. More specifically, I’ve been smitten with the front men from The Clash and The Sex Pistols/PiL: Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten (né Lydon), respectively. These guys valued clarity of intention and precision of execution in a way that was often abrasive, but always admirable. Like others before and after them, they used music as a medium through which to express activism. They used interviews with media (and live shows) as dynamic platforms on which to express unabashed truths.

I’m attracted to this. And I have faith that this tradition lives on across all disciplines the world over. What saddens me, however, is that we don’t see enough of it. And we don’t hear enough of it. It’s as though we need some sort of punk rock truth serum to contaminate and positively transform the dreck that currently chugs its way through the globally distributed pipelines of mass-mediated reality today.

That, and take-no-prisoners gurus!

In The New York Times bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, author Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about a guru named Swamiji (who I’d happily invite to a dinner party along with the late Strummer and the very alive and kicking Lydon). Swamiji demanded enthusiasm, commitment, and self-control. He was always scolding people for being jad, the Hindi word for “inert.” He brought ancient concepts of discipline to the lives of his often-rebellious young Western followers, commanding them to stop wasting their own (and everyone else’s) time and energy with their freewheeling hippie nonsense. He would throw his walking stick at you one minute, she says, and hug you the next. He was complicated, often controversial, but truly world-changing.

It’s not complication and controversy we want to quell, you see. It’s complacency and conformity. Another round of Strummers, Rottens and Swamijis, please!

Photos: Block 37 Scaffolding Structure for Department of Cultural Affairs, Chicago, IL, 2005-2008, collaboration with Chris Silva, Michael Genovese, & 100 Chicago artists, by Jen Leonard.


Sustainability: More Than A Nice Word

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.


Rebounding back from jetlag and a jam-packed trip to Hong Kong – for InnoAsia 2007, a conference about “innovating for sustainability” – I have happily landed in the pages of The New York Times Magazine pouring over the words of food guru Michael Pollan. This time, he writes about “Our Decrepit Food Factories” and questions the worked-over word “sustainability” in the contexts of factory pig farming and honeybee migration. He gives these two specific case studies because, according to Confucius (his reference), if we’re going to have any hope of repairing what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of names,” i.e. calling things by their proper names and reattaching words to real things and precise concepts.

I couldn’t agree more. And this is what motivated me, before I spoke at Hong Kong’s Science Park about the social piece of sustainability, to do a bit of definitional work. I focused on sustainability first: an outcome, in effect, of meeting the needs of today without compromising future needs. Then I expanded on design: it’s a verb (a la Bucky Fuller), it’s an open invitation (as in, everyone’s a designer), and it’s about people (per Jane Jacob’s one-liner). Then I shared real-world examples.

As the day carried on, we heard from people in policy, the sciences, invention, architecture and design. Each with his or her take on sustainability. Dr. Sarah Liao, former Secretary for Environment, Transport & Works (HKSAR) spoke about biomimetics, symbiosis and global warming. In transportation, Peter Hughes, from the Vectrix corporation, talked about his two-wheeled electric scooter and Dan Sturges, of Intrago, shared his views on micro-rental systems, or mobility ecosystems. Material Connexion’s Dr. Andrew Dent gave us an historical review of materials, focusing on the healthiness, or wellness, of our built environment today. And Ted Howes (formerly) of IDEO and Mike LaVigne of Frog Design individually infused product design convention with refreshing outlooks on design-plus-business, and tips on how to do it for the greater good.


The audience went on a winding journey through these topics and more, past flashing signposts pointing to hot new trends in technology. But ultimately, happy to say, the conversation boomeranged back to people. We collectively, reflectively, understood that innovation is driven by human choices, across all fields of endeavor. And, despite technological capacity (which the world is swimming in), innovating for sustainability can’t be achieved unless we’re conscious of the choices we make and curious about the consequences in the long run. Sustainability needs to be “more than a nice word” we banter around (or use to hype products). Sustainability needs to mean something tangible that we measure, over time.

In this regard, it’s an exciting time in human history, with so many changes underway, and so many people proactively coming together to share stories and strategies. As long as we keep remembering to clarify, contextualize, and look back together, so that we may look forward for centuries to come, the future will surely be bright.


Sustainable Design(boost)

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.

Designers, theorists, students and strategists gathered in Malmö, Sweden October 17-19 for an annual event called Designboost. Our mandate was to discuss sustainable design, a topic so broad and behemoth that it’s borderline absurd. But with gusto, wide-eyed curiosity and heartfelt sincerity, event organizers David Carlson and Peer Eriksson embraced its absurdity and used it to their (and our) advantage by weaving together two full-day agendas that supported meaningful exchange and relationship-building in a variety of stimulating milieu – from the top two floors of Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso to the ceremonial dining hall of the city’s Rådhuset (Court House) and, later, booming Etage Nakktclub.

On Day 1, from on high, we were assigned three different discussion groups, each with a provocation, e.g. “How might we extend the notion of sustainable design beyond the limits of products and materials?” The technique of curating intimate conversations straight away was helpful in breaking the ice that typically coats first encounters, as well as opening our minds to points of view that aligned with a range of disciplines and cultural interpretations.

In my first session, a half-dozen of us discussed the similarities between human relationships and our relationships with “stuff.” We wondered aloud, “What makes relationships endure? What’s the glue that binds? How do bonds become valuable over time? What about attachment? Non-attachment? Is less more? Does quality always usurp quantity?” No conclusions were made – maybe it was the altitude, the strong Swedish coffee, or simply the nature of the debate – but the essential ingredients were assembled and the pot was set to stir.

In my second session, with a new assembly of folks, we were introduced to the notion of “undressed” products (thanks, Kristina Börjesson!) and wondered if quality helps make things sustain(able). Most interesting to me was the existential discussion around our concept of time: with enthusiasm, many of us considered the notion that perhaps it’s linear thinking that drives the sort of consumer need that can never be satiated, and that non-linear thinking, or cyclical thinking, which more closely models the rhythms of life, has the power to prod us back in step with our own (human) nature and the natural systems we inhabit.

In my third and final session of the day, I was assigned a group whose mission was to consider the value of human-centered research in the design process. Does it in fact produce “better artifacts?” Of all the sessions, here’s where disparate views were strongest. Some felt good design comes from the bottom-up, that it’s the result of close examination of human behavior. Some felt good design comes exclusively from the top, that it’s entirely due to the brilliance of a design visionary, or creative genius. So we hotly debated the question of who knows best. Users? Designers? (Aren’t designers users too?) Ultimately, my personal stance was/is that good design is a balancing act reflective of context and responsive to human needs, design visionaries included.

Day 2 was full of solo presentations, by myself and the likes of “cultural nomad” Satyendra Pakhale, who asserted, “We can’t afford to buy cheap things”; Jens Martin Skibsted, who decreed, “Our fears of inadequacy and not being loved overwhelm our fear of global warming”; Mathilda Tham, who differentiated clothes (material) from fashion (symbolic) and offered up a handy matrix to measure a brand’s identity and integrity; Jonas Bylund, who spoke convincingly about the power of brand stories and how to tell them through design so that advertising no longer becomes necessary; Stephen Burks, who shared video clips from his adventures in the developing world, working with local craftspeople to help them turn one-offs into mass-produced items; and Brent Richards, director of the Design Laboratory at Central Saint Martins, who compared sustainable design to good sex: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you think about it…and you’ve got to do it slowly.”

The third and final day offered an exhibition opening inside the old cinema space at Fridhemstorget, where artifacts on display included Pakhale’s stunning radiator design, Burks’ wire-frame tables, the Biomega glow-in-the-dark bike by Marc Newson, Tom Dixon’s biodegradable tableware, Iittala carafes and cooking pots, and HC Ericson’s three-dimensional typography called ABCHCE.

Reflecting back, Designboost was a stimulating mix of perspectives and projects; sights and sounds; cultures and conversations. I left feeling inspired to return next year – to sustain, so to speak, the sustainable – and to continue, personally, to make connections each and everyday with people and ideas that uplift, push, surprise and keep me engaged with the “stuff” that really matters, immaterial and otherwise.


Art for Our Sake

From the now defunct DESIGN 21: Social Design Network, an online community that explored the connection between design and society. It was a joint venture between UNESCO and Felissimo. I was the resident blogger.

It’s popular today to talk about the power of design, and the responsibility of design, and its potential to spur social innovation. This post, for a change, gives design a time-out and calls upon the transformative power of art.

I do so because I’ve recently come from a free 12-hour contemporary art party in Toronto called Nuit Blanche. It was the second annual, inspired by the Parisian precedent, and it succeeded in bringing out hordes of people from sunset to sunrise: young, old, goth, punk, scenesters, rockers, tourists, locals. I’ve never seen anything quite like it!

The downtown core was divided into three zones. Each carried a theme. The themes were brought to life through more than 190 site-specific exhibitions, independent projects and resident galleries whose doors remained open long-after-hours. (Mass transit and local bars adapted too, extending the hours of their service.) All in the name of art.


I set out to photograph my journey through the zones (from B to A to C – just because it worked out that way), with comfortable shoes, layered clothing, and plenty of water. After five-and-a-half hours of powering through performance art, video projections and interactive installations, I was invigorated, but realized my goal to see it all was overly ambitious. (Some of my friends knew better and selected only a few stops, staying long enough at each to more deeply appreciate the effects). Consequently, my third zone experience was tempered, as my tired feet gave way, and comfortable hotel bed beckoned. So I missed out on the pom-pom exchange, chocolate stag in the park, and 34-meter-long locust installation by Noburu Tsubaki and Hishashi Muroi. Drat! But what I was able to stick around long enough for was plenty rousing. Some highlights:

  • Noite de São Joãó (Night of St. John), by Brazilian installation artist Laura Belém, who imported a tropical street festival along one of Toronto’s ritzy shopping corridors;
  • Ground Loop Alibi, by superstar DVJ Charles Kriel, who mixed sound while projecting imagery onto the Royal Ontario Museum’s Michael Lee-Chin’s crystal;
  • Watcher, by multimedia artist Millie Chen, who choreographed 10 video vignettes inside three separate residences, which appeared as silhouettes across colorfully-lit windows;
  • ThunderEgg Alley, by po-mo artist Swintak, who turned an alleyway dumpster into a high-end micro hotel and spa for the night;
  • Everybody Loves You 2, by Japanese artist Daisuke Takeya, who invited 100 people to declare their love to the camera as neutrally as possible;
  • Midnight Mirage, by Vessna Perunovitch, who served Serbian food to an audience of 12;
  • City Glow, by Chiho Aoshima, who created a mesmerizing anime-inspired film of anthropomorphized urban life;
  • Incursion 43:38:36.19 N / 79:25:19.89 W°, by Craig Walsh, who installed a storefront video to outstanding effect: a window became a prehistoric aquarium, drip by drip; and
  • Magical World, by Johanna Billing, who filmed children at a cultural center outside Zagreb, Croatia, rehearsing the lyrics of the same-titled song.
  • And that’s just the short list of art I came to love at first sight. Some made me laugh. Some made me cry. Yet, beyond the art, there was something else clamoring to get my attention. Something that felt a lot like social innovation. Although some of the works on display were clearly “art for art’s sake” the cumulative effect of the exhibitions was transformational.

    Each of the thousands of us in attendance was at once observing the art and making the art. Alone, or with friends, knowing or unknowing, we became one giant art beat. Nuit Blanche succeeded because its effect was more powerful than the sum of its parts. Together, we shared a social slice of time. As individuals, we left positively changed.

    Art is not dead, folks. It’s as important as ever. As imperative as design. For, if design is about coming up with the right answers to our shared problems today, art is about raising the right questions and motivating us to celebrate colorfully, loudly, and all through the night.