Kona Lisa

Those of you familiar with the minutiae of art history may have heard of a painting called the Mona Lisa. It depicts a woman named Lisa del Giocondo staring intently at one of those posters where you have to make your eyes go blurry to see the picture. (Art historians have been trying to explain her bemused expression since Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s, but I think it’s pretty obvious.)

I first saw the actual Mona Lisa (the painting, not the person) during a high school trip to France in 1990. I remember standing in the Louvre in front of this centuries-old masterpiece that continues to capture imaginations worldwide and thinking, “That thing’s tiny.” Then, “Nobody better be messing with my Alphaville tapes on the bus.”

Some consider the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. (Dogs Playing Poker is a close second.) While I’m not sure how you quantify and rank fame, one measurement has to be how often something is parodied. If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies,” you’ll find a whole slew of images. (Note: If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies” at work, you’ll find yourself out of a job because of the nature of some of those images.)

In 1883, a counter-culture French art show called “The Incoherents” exhibited an image created by Eugène Bataille of the Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. In 1919, noted artist Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to the painting in a post card. (Note that Duchamp was 32 years old when he did this, right before he entered his much-acclaimed “Devil Horns and Glasses” phase.)

I was prompted to write about this when I received a bag of Hawaiian “Kona Lisa Coffee” as a secret Santa gift at the NAI holiday party. Because of the nature of the secret Santa program, I can’t say who gave it to me, but it’s someone who has been to Hawaii and whose name appears somewhere in the phrase “Kona Lisa Coffee.”

Two things are of note: 1. Here’s a company (slogan: “Put a smile on your face”) whose entire identity is founded on the fact that their geographical location rhymes with this famous painting on exhibit roughly 7,500 miles away, and 2. This is the second time in less than a month that a photo of my kitchen has appeared on this blog.

I’ve posted just a handful of the countless other variations on the Mona Lisa theme here: Avatar Mona Lisa from the website Fun-Gallery, Italian artist Marco Pece’s Mona Lego, and Mona Leia by artist Jim Hance.

This begs the question, what is it about the Mona Lisa that makes it so popular—so parody-able? Some argue that the popularity of the painting is related to the intrigue surrounding it—the subject (who is that woman really?), the content (what is that woman thinking?) and the physical painting itself (it was stolen in 1911 and not recovered for two years). The Mona Lisa appears in every art history textbook and has been subject to literally centuries of scrutiny and analysis. (Scholars recently used X-ray technology to determine that da Vinci used roughly 30 layers of paint to create the extraordinary skin tone in the painting.)

Interpreters talk about universal concepts (love, family, death, etc.) that are common to all people regardless of their specific culture. While there is no such thing as a universal image, the Mona Lisa is so widely known, especially in Western culture, that it can safely be used as a point of reference with the confidence that audience members will get it.

If there’s such a thing as a viral 16th-century painting, the Mona Lisa is it. To this day, she continues to pop up in contemporary art, music, literature, and every time Princess Leia is involved, Shea Lewis’s email inbox.

The NAI 2012 logo: Not literal

It’s been two weeks since the NAI National Workshop in Saint Paul ended, which means one thing: We’re counting down to next year’s workshop in Hampton, Virginia, November 13-17. (Also, we’ve almost gotten the smell of lutefisk out of our hair.)

I lived in Richmond, Virginia, an hour or two down the road from Hampton, for basically the entire 1990s, so I entered into designing the logo for NAI 2012 with a sense of the place. My first thought was that the logo should feature a steady stream of cars hurtling at 70 miles per hour along Interstate 64 and disappearing suddenly and horrifyingly into the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. This idea was borne from repeated and horrifying trips that I used to take across and/or through the 3.5-mile-long Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel between Richmond and the beach. (Thanks to the Virginia Department of Transportation for the horrifying photo I’ve used here.)

There’s a lot going on in Hampton that would make great fodder for a logo. The region is rich in Native American heritage, Colonial history, a contemporary military culture, and an abundance of natural beauty. I briefly flirted with the idea of coming up with a cartoon character like a blue crab in a three-cornered hat, but as a designer, I felt my chief responsibility in coming up with a logo for NAI 2012 was to exercise restraint. (I’ve always said that a logo is the face of an identity system, not the entire body.) It would be all too easy in trying to literally represent all of the noteworthy aspects of the Chesapeake Bay area for the logo to degenerate into a cluttered mess—or worse yet, a collage. (There’s nothing worse, in my opinion, than a collage masquerading as a logo.)

So I started with this image of the Chesapeake Bay from a site called My Desktop Wallpapers. Of all the photos I found online of the area, I chose this one because it most closely reflected my memories of the sunlit skies over the bay.

I imported the photo into one of my favorite color-palette websites, Kuler, and it generated the palette pictured above. (I wrote a post about Kuler way back in March 2009 here.)

While I was not trying to literally represent natural and cultural features of the area, I certainly wanted to suggest them. Guided by a theme settled on by our Workshop committee, “Chesapeake Reflections,” I used the palette above and typographic composition to mimic a sunrise over water. I chose to juxtapose a handwriting typeface and a bold, architectural-feeling sans serif to represent the diversity of cultural heritage in the area.

Based on feedback on the first draft, I darkened the colors a little (particularly the yellow-orange of “NAI 2012”) and changed the handwriting typeface to one with more of a historical feeling—as though it could be from a 17th-century explorer’s journal.

One note on the type: I felt that the zero character in this typeface (on the left) was too intrusive, so I changed it to a lower-case O (on the right), which I feel works better and is a little more visually interesting.

As the art director for an organization of individuals who interpret an incredible diversity of nature and culture, I try to strike a balance in everything I do. I try to be careful that our magazine, Legacy, does not focus too heavily on either nature or culture. When I go looking for photos or other visual elements for our publications, I try to be sure that for every photo of a stream or a mountain, that there’s an image that represents the cultural heritage that NAI members interpret. (And vice versa.)

In the end, some people liked what we ended up with for the NAI 2012 logo, and some people wanted it to say more. However, in designing the logo, I decided that trying to fairly represent all of the natural and cultural resources in the Hampton area (or even some nature and some culture) would result in a logo that was too cluttered. Ultimately, it was my responsibility to settle on abstractions rather than literal representations.

That said, I still plan to use images of the great natural and cultural heritage we’ll find in Virginia next year—just not as part of the logo. If you go to the Workshop website right now, you’ll find three photos in the banner at the top. These will change throughout the year. Right now, there are two natural features depicted (seagulls and a horseshoe crab) and one cultural (a boat), but if you keep score between now and next November, I bet you’ll find that the final tally will be pretty close to even.

And when we’re actually in Hampton, I can tell you one place I won’t be going: That scary bridge-tunnel.

The American Apparel Image

I own too many t-shirts. Recently I have been introduced to a few favorite t-shirts that are produced by American Apparel. One is a Phish concert shirt, one is from Hatch Show Print and the third is a custom 17 shirt that my wife had made for me (long story, Star Wars related, and by me typing that I just realized how lame I am). As with many of my posts, you may already be wondering where I am going with this, but hang in there. American Apparel shirts are great, and in the interest of not boring you with details of the quality of craftsmanship, softness, and fit, I will move on. If you are geek like me, they make one of the coolest t-shirts around but more on this in a minute.

American Apparel had defined itself by its products and its image. A huge part of the American Apparel image is conveyed through the typeface Helvetica. As with many of our posts, you may be thinking here we go again (Shea + Paul heart Helvetica). American Apparel’s use of Helvetica may be more tongue-in-cheek than steeped in typographic tradition.

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I recently came across one of their retail stores, and due to my compulsive need for another t-shirt, I took the opportunity to check out the store. I learned two things, that I am detached from mainstream fashion community that shops at American Apparel (no surprise) and why they use Helvetica. First things first, the majority of the clothing that they sell in the store is either really cool or makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. It is a strange juxtaposition, I know. T-shirts are great, tricot men’s swim brief, awkward; Seersucker Robert Kennedy Shorts are awesome, Shiny Suspender Swimsuit, bizarre; Calf-high Memphis Socks are sweet, Acid Wash Cotton Spandex Leggings, downright freaky.

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With such an eclectic collection of clothing, featuring wild colors, styles and fabrics, Helvetica is the perfect typeface to use for their image. When you want the focus to be on the product and want something that is simple and easy to read, Helvetica is a great choice. I’m not sure that’s why they chose it, though. Helvetica, along with the suggestive images that they use in advertising, is another cross of the classic and contemporary that creates an interesting interaction.

This rebellious combination could reveal the reason behind their choice of Helvetica. This is remarkably similar to my rebellious combination of Lipitor and gravy. Much like many pieces of their clothing collection, I find their advertisements beautifully strange. So beautifully strange that I hope my daughters never shop there unless it is, of course, for a t-shirt. The consentient use of Helvetica throughout the store and catalog is well thought out and purposeful. Regardless of their reason for choosing the typeface they are using it well.

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Okay, back to the “one of the coolest t-shirts around” that I alluded to earlier. It is the best of both worlds—an American Apparel t-shirt featuring the all of the letterforms of the typeface Helvetica. They can be viewed here. I told you it was cool. Check it out, you can order a shirt with any letter for which you have an affinity. “G” for me (again Star Wars related, still lame). It is advertised as “the softest, smoothest, best-looking T-shirt available anywhere with Helvetica writing.” Who can argue with that?

I have another t-shirt post coming soon featuring “designer-type” (pun intended) t-shirts just in time for Christmas.