Saturday 4 May 2024 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 4/5/2024

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

Driving forces

It’s all go in this week’s dispatch as we hit the road in Mongolia for a whirlwind tour of Ulaanbaatar and prepare for the wilds in some new shades courtesy of our sartorial edit. Keeping us company along the way is American singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers’s new roadtrip-inspired record and a selection of our readers’ favourite books. In the driving seat is our editor in chief, Andrew Tuck, who takes us back to school…

Illustration: Mathieu De Muizon

The Opener / Andrew Tuck

Top of the class

We organised a sort of school trip on Tuesday. Sadly, there was no coach hired for the day and we didn’t ask people to bring packed lunches with them. The plan was simple: anyone was welcome and all you had to do was get yourself to the Design Museum in Kensington for the opening at 10.00 and we would purchase the required tickets to see the Enzo Mari exhibition. It has been a choppy weather week in London, including a thunderbolts and lightning storm, but Tuesday morning was all spring promise and sunshine. I took the Underground and walked through Holland Park, a world of elegant houses and groomed pooches.

We weren’t a huge crew – perhaps a dozen – but our team included interns and editors. Everyone was free to wander on their own and meet back at the office but seemed to prefer walking around together, reading about the life of the maverick Italian designer who railed against consumerism while making some very covetable products, from toys and furniture to books and art. But there were some incidental things that also stuck with me.

Mari worked with the Japanese furniture company Hida Sangyo and there was a wonderful photo of all its employees. It was shot in the factory and staged with rising tiers of people so that everyone could be seen, even if some of the younger men were holding on to the roof supports to get in the shot. Anyway, it got me thinking that an annual company photograph would be a rather splendid thing – and an easy way of recalling who was here when. Perhaps a pre-Christmas party moment? Just as school trips are so evocative, it’s funny how many homes you go to and see a panoramic photograph of all the pupils in someone’s old school displayed in the loo.

My other incidental takeaway was the decline of the poster. For just about every furniture release back in the 1970s and 1980s, the big Italian brands would commission a poster. Talks and shows all merited a piece of beautiful print. The poster, even if destined for a meeting with some Blu Tack and a bedroom wall, needs preserving. And, of course, no school trip then would have been complete without a poster and some postcards.

The Design Museum is housed in what was once the Commonwealth Institute, built in the 1960s as a place to celebrate the diversity of the independent nations that had once been part of the British Empire. I am sure that its displays would be given short shrift today but, aged about 10, I went on a school trip to the institute, and I still remember seeing the dioramas, which included enough stuffed animals to maintain a child’s interest. Many decades later, it was kind of wonderful being back on a school trip to the same location. Now we are planning more outings and perhaps this time we’ll get people to walk in pairs and even provide them with egg sandwich packed lunches.

Finally, thank you to everyone who responded to last week’s call-out. Inspired by a feature in the new May issue in which we ask 50 people to select one book that they love – new, old, in-print, out-of-print, fiction or factual – we wanted to know what would be your choice. The book that you think everyone should know about. We received wonderful suggestions and are printing some of the first responses below. We will run more next week and I am thinking of compiling the best – no pressure – for a summer feature. Email us here. Keep it concise! Now back on the bus please, you’ve got homework to finish.

Image: Ombraz

The Look / Vintage spring shades

Timeless classics

The days are long and getting longer in the Northern Hemisphere, so what’s shielding you from the blinding sun? (asks Gregory Scruggs). For the sporty set who seize on the extended daylight to unfurl a sail or hit the trail, the unfortunate trend this season is for comically oversized, neon-tinted wraparound shades. They might prevent wrinkles but they won’t win you any style points at the victory drinks post-sailing race or beers in the alpine hut at the end of a trek. Thankfully, a clutch of eyewear brands are embracing vintage looks by coupling timeless appeal with the latest in sunglasses innovation.

For a day on the water, Florida-based Costa has just reintroduced its 1980s icon the Grand Catalina, which has a fetching white frame and blue, mirrored lenses. The retro look features modern, polarised-lens technology for maximum eye protection. Seattle-based Ombraz (pictured), a newer kid on the block, dispenses with arms entirely, relying on a custom-woven Japanese nylon cord to cinch in the stylish, German-engineered frames that hark back to the early days of climbing in the Dolomites and the Tetons.

But if you really want to stretch the clock back, don a pair of mountaineering-inspired shades from Vallon, which was founded by two Swedish brothers in 2018. The Heron Glacier, now in its fourth iteration, is a pair of glacier glasses with protective leather side shields that conjure the glory days of alpine exploration. If your summer plans involve an expedition on a Swiss glacier, you’ll look sharp right up until alpenglow hour.

Culture Cuts / Books special, part 1

On the right page

We would like to thank all our readers who took the time to respond and share with us their favourite books. For the first part of our Culture Cuts books special, we have selected three of your suggestions, from simple pleasures to the importance of soft power and misadventures in the world of fashion.

1. ‘The Book of Tea’, Okakura Kakuzo.
This eloquent essay was written by Okakura Kakuzo more than a century ago. It talks about how tea fosters harmony in humanity and how its simplicity has affected the art, culture and architecture of Japan. But more importantly, this book enhances the reader’s enjoyment and understanding of seemingly simple acts such as making and drinking tea. As Kakuzo writes, “Those who cannot feel the littleness of great things in themselves are apt to overlook the greatness in small things of others.” I have been reading it over and over again.
Djoni Leo, Singapore.

2. ‘The Good Country Equation’, Simon Anholt.
“What makes a good country?” This is the central question in Simon Anholt’s latest book. It argues that, when measuring the power of nations, there is more to look out for than economic wealth and military prowess. It focuses instead on the concept of soft power, which could be employed to cure societal polarisation. As elections loom in the US – my home country – I believe that this is an essential read.
Emma Reed, Denver, Colorado.

3. ‘Bringing Home the Birkin: My Life in Hot Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Handbag’, Michael Tonello.
This might not be Pride and Prejudice but it’s a perfect summer read. The book is a fun adventure in the glossy world of luxury fashion. It follows author Michael Tonello’s escapades as he becomes an unlikely procurer of Birkin bags, navigating the tight-knit circles of Hermès enthusiasts and the secretive world of coveted accessories. Tonello shares his hilarious misadventures all in pursuit of the elusive bag, from befriending Hermès staff to outsmarting the fashion elite.
Jonathan Ducrest, Zürich.

If you want to share your favourite book with us, send us your suggestions here.

How we live / Opinion polls

Whatever it’s worth

When reputable polling organisations solicit the views of the public on a burning issue of the day, they diligently record the percentage of responders who answer “don’t know” (writes Andrew Mueller). So they should: it is a useful indicator of what further education or advocacy around the subject might be required. It is a significant dereliction, however, that pollsters do not record the size of another non-participating cohort: “don’t care”. This should be corrected. We absolutely should take into account those who, after weighing a given matter up, hearing the conflicting arguments, and assessing the available evidence, have concluded that they simply don’t give a stuff.

A huge contributing factor in the polarisation of our societies has been the impression created by conflict-promoting media – and conflict-enjoying social media – that in every debate, absolutely every citizen is in one trench or another, blazing furiously away at the fortifications opposite. Recording the non-committed or nonplussed would also promote indifference, which is not an ignoble stance; it is, in fact, the primary binding agent of civilisation. We can only live together if we agree to be unbothered by most of what our fellow citizens get up to, so long as they keep the noise down. It would have a usefully calming effect on our discourse and our politics if we, along with our newspapers and politicians, were regularly reminded that “whatever” is a valid response to controversy.

Image: Maddy Rotman

Words with… / Maggie Rogers

In the driving seat

American singer-songwriter and producer Maggie Rogers shot to fame in 2016 when she wowed Pharrell Williams with her track Alaska. With two albums under her belt, she has amassed a legion of fans and received a Grammy nomination. She recently released her third record, Don’t Forget Me, which was written and recorded in just five days. Rogers discusses the process of making the album, its roadtrip feel and the notion of genre.

What does the process of releasing records feel like?
Putting music out feels amazing but it’s also a funny thing. You only get to update your public image every two years. It’s always nice to put something out there that’s fresh. And, given that I love performing live, it’s a treat to have new songs to play on the road.

Tell us about your latest record, does it feel different to the others?
This is the first record that I have made since the coronavirus pandemic. Everyone spent so much time diving into their own head during that time. My previous records have taken a while to produce but I made this one in five days. If anyone would have told me that I would be able to do this a couple of years ago, I would have thought that they were on drugs. I was grounded and relaxed because there wasn’t any pressure to record something new. The resulting music is full of unguarded emotion, character and life.

Let’s talk about the roadtrip aspects of the record.
There’s definitely a Thelma & Louise feel to the landscape of this record. But this wasn’t a conscious choice when I wrote it. A character and narrative appeared when I started writing and it felt as though I was creating scenes from a film. Figuring out where to go, from one scene in my mind to the next, was a way of keeping me moving. This record was all about momentum – and keeping gas in the car.

For our full interview with Maggie Rogers, tune in to our dedicated episode of Monocle on Culture on Monocle Radio.

The Monocle Concierge / Mongolia

Steppe change

The Monocle Concierge is our purveyor of top tips and delectable recommendations for your next trip. If you’re planning to go somewhere nice and would like some advice, click here. We will answer one question a week.

Image: Christoffer Rudquist
Image: Christoffer Rudquist

Dear Concierge,

I am heading to Ulaanbaatar in early July. Any off-the-beaten-path cultural or historical highlights that I should explore? Or any food ideas?

Paul Thissen

Dear Paul,

We must admit that your question raised a bit of an eyebrow; many would consider Ulaanbaatar sufficiently off the beaten path without the need to get more esoteric. But perhaps it is a sign of Mongolia’s increasing popularity as a tourist destination, not to mention your own intrepidness, that you come to The Monocle Concierge seeking further information. We have spent time in “UB” (as it’s known to locals) and can attest to the warm welcome of its citizens, if not the entirely salubrious nature of its traffic-choked streets, which are still struggling to cope with a rapidly expanding population.

If you are visiting in July, we imagine that you will be attending Naadam, an annual sporting jamboree, so we won’t delve into that programme. In terms of cultural or historical highlights, Chinggis Khan (as Genghis Khan is known in his native land) is unavoidable. The new museum built in his honour, which is just off UB’s central Sükhbaatar Square, is as comprehensive a look at his fascinating life as you will find.

Also worth a visit are the State Department Store – one of the few places where Mongolians could buy and sell goods during the communist era – and the National Art Gallery of Mongolia, which has a brilliant collection of fine Mongolian pastoral paintings, a highly edifying genre, if you ask us. Of course, none of the above would be exactly considered off the beaten path, at least in Ulaanbaatar terms, but should definitely be on your list.

Perhaps we can impress you more with our food recommendations. Mongolia has a traditional nomadic-herder culture and very cold winters, so its people’s diet is heavily meat-based – vegans, be warned. For traditional food with a modern twist, head to Mongolian’s Restaurant in the Shangri-La Mall, which also has a pretty good cocktail bar downstairs called Bitsy & Co. After dinner, take in some jazz at the Fat Cat Jazz Club, where more cocktails can be imbibed; Mongolians have a particular fondness for vodka. Have a great trip!

Image: 100 Hands

Wardrobe update / 100 Hands

Made to measure

As spring skips on, you might find yourself coveting thinner layers. When it comes to shirts, Amsterdam-based 100 Hands is on a mission to showcase the finest Indian craftsmanship. Akshat and Varvara Jain, the husband-and-wife team behind the label, drew inspiration from Akshat’s family textile heritage. The company started with a small team of 20 artisans in a manufacturing atelier in Amritsar but works with more than 300.

While expansion is in motion, the brand’s original dedication to craft and focus on classic tailoring remains unchanged. The label produces one of the widest-ranging collections of shirts on the market, using materials such as linen, poplin and cashmere-cotton. Every piece takes between 16 and 34 hours to make and is completed entirely by hand. Monocle plans to replenish its wardrobe with the ice-washed Japanese chambray shirt (pictured) from the label’s new spring collection.

For more fine fashion and stories from our network of global reporters, pick up the latest copy of Monocle today. Or subscribe so that you never miss an issue.


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