The opener - Issue 132 - Magazine | Monocle

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Drive-through design

Iowa’s beacon to the bookish

In the 1950s public libraries in the US, not wanting to be left behind by the car-friendly plans of the cities sprawling around them, debuted a novel idea: drive-through book drop-off windows so that library members could return titles in a hurry, without crossing the threshold. Convenient? Yes. At odds with the idea that libraries are spaces in which to think and reflect and pause for a moment? Also, yes.

During a trip to Des Moines, Iowa, for the Democratic party caucuses, monocle visited the city’s sleek central library, a linear, coppery-walled delight of a building designed by UK architect David Chipperfield. Opened in 2006, it is built between two busy boulevards. This means that it is still able to offer borrowers a large, handsome drop-off window as they drive past.

But the outer walls, which are opaque in daylight, become almost translucent at night, offering a glimpse of the large, warmly lit and well-stocked reading rooms inside – and the silhouettes of the readers using them. It’s a sight that’s particularly striking from behind the wheel of a car on the boulevards outside – a subtle invitation, perhaps, to pull over, forgo the drive-through drop-off and step inside.

Puny parks

By Louis Harnett O’Meara

“Tiny Parks” have been sighted sprouting inside disused ticket booths in London tube stations. Designed by urban greeners The Edible Bus Stop, these “parks” are intended to clear the air and spruce up the urban landscape.

However, tiny as these green spaces are, they are far from the smallest and technically they aren’t listed as parks at all. In Salem, Massachusetts, the 3.6 by 6 metres Waldo Park is home to a single tree. Admittedly, this tree is a giant sequoia but it’s safe to say that there’s not much room for a picnic.

But Mill Ends Park in Portland, Oregon, takes the title of world’s smallest. Contained within a 61cm circle, the park was established by eccentric local journalist Dick Fagan in 1948 as “a colony for leprechauns and a location for snail races”. It joined Portland’s official roster in 1976, is maintained by its parks and recreation department and, in 2011, it even hosted a mini Occupy protest.

Wood you?

Attention architects, designers or anyone deft with a chisel – how does 300 hours spent making furniture deep in a Swedish forest sound? Just ask designer Johanna Ritscher, whose solid walnut, birch and veneer cabinet was (besides being 300 hours in the making) a highlight at Stockholm’s Furniture Fair.

“This is going to live forever,” she told monocle of the piece she made at Sweden’s Snickarakademin as part of obtaining a centuries-old woodworking qualification. Ritscher compares it to a master’s degree – minus the lectures. “It’s just days upon days of building beautiful stuff,” she says. Something we could all aspire to.

Dream home

London’s grandest fixer-upper

Number 14 Cavendish Square is an 18th-century London mansion that’s a short stroll from the swirl of commuters and shoppers at Oxford Circus. But push open its doors and you enter another world. The property is currently awaiting a transformation into offices under the guidance of architects William Smalley and Walker Bushe. They have lots of work to do: there are holes in floors through which you can see the room below, some naked timber rafters and walls stripped back to old plaster. But the house’s elegance is clear.

The building is being marketed in a novel way. For the next year it will serve as a gallery and showroom for Modernity, a Stockholm and London-based dealer of 20th-century Nordic furniture, ceramics and art. There in one corner is a 1958 Egg chair by Arne Jacobsen – yours for £14,000 (€16,500) – and here a 1936 Frits Henningsen sofa for £80,000 (€95,000) and a pair of armchairs by Alvar Aalto for £50,000 (€60,000). It’s all impeccable. And it helps to show off the mansion’s potential; those who buy the furniture might wish to snap up the tenancy at the same time. It’s perhaps the most poised show house you’ll ever see.

Hello stranger: connecting by post

By Tomos Lewis

“I’m Erika. I’m nine years old,” the message on the back of the postcard begins. It is written in slightly wobbly capital letters rendered in glittery purple ink. “I’m from Ljubljana. The capital city of Slovenia,” Erika adds, before referring to the photograph on the front of the card. She signs off at the end of the postcard with a final flourish next to her name: a small, hand-drawn purple flower and three sparkly stickers.

Erika’s card is just one of the 55 million postcards that have been sent via Postcrossing, a social network founded in Portugal in 2005 that allows members to connect by writing postcards to one another. It’s a gloriously analogue antidote to online social networking. Via the Postcrossing website, you register to put pen to paper and introduce yourself to someone that you will likely never meet.

The scheme’s nearly 800,000 members are scattered across more than 200 countries and are encouraged to write about anything and everything. Many muse on their families, pets, jobs, holidays, favourite foods or even recent predicaments. “On Monday, someone hit me on the freeway,” writes one member, a lawyer in California, on a postcard sent to Canada in January. “So I went to see the doctor today.”

In 2011, prompted by the popularity of the network among the Dutch, the Netherlands’ postal service issued its first official Postcrossing stamp. And in 2013, Germany’s national postal carrier vowed to make a charity donation for every Postcrossing postcard sent via a German postbox.

The project has served members such as Torsten in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg well. He was introduced to his girlfriend via Postcrossing three and a half years ago. “It is still a miracle to me,” he wrote on a postcard late last year.

So the next time you’re tempted to take a photograph of your dinner and share it with your friends online, put down your phone, pick up a pen, and send someone a postcard. It may very well make their day.

Three people youll meet this issue 

“I told Steven Spielberg that if he needed dinosaur skeletons, I could make them for him.”
Peter May, founder and president of Research Casting International on how he created a monster business.

“I’ve had families coming here in their third generation. Some people no longer call for reservations – they have a permanent table booked.”
José Fernandes, owner of Lisbon restaurant Das Flores.

“The bigger the brand is, the less human it seems. You have to show some humanity in your work.” Christian Louboutin on why he’s not sold his well-heeled brand.

Wrist watch

What your bracelet says about you

For men who have to don the corporate uniform of a dark grey suit every day, or the young designer who sits staring at a screen while wondering if another gap year would be that outrageous, there is a simple wrist move that says to all around that they are the kind of person who would be happier on a beach.

The indicator that they are made for sunnier days is a charm, a modest piece of colourful twine, or a simple bracelet (perhaps several) on their wrist. From earnest boardrooms to creative agencies, you spot these colourful bands. For past generations a daring tie might have done the trick. Or a flash of dazzling sock. But now it’s all in the wrist. And as we discover in this issue, for the likes of Togetherband, it’s also become a fleshy spot to run a campaign or two to change the world.

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