debbie millman

Monday, July 18, 2005

Commentary: Economy Foam

I live in New York City, more specifically on the island of Manhattan. For many of us that live in this boisterous, bossy and brustling town, we have grown to believe that we live in the finest place in the world, filled with the best of everything, the biggest opportunities and of course the idea that if you can make it here, yadda yadda yadda.

I am a Native New Yorker, and suffice it to say, after nearly 44 years here I have become used to the unusual—or what is considered rather usual here…people sleeping in the streets, amputees begging in the subways, celebrities standing at ATMs or on line for a basketball game, limousines parked in front of dive bars. Everything is acceptable in NYC and most of us like it this way.

The visual landscape in Manhattan is among the richest in the world. Whether it be the sensory overload of LED signs on 42nd street, or the simple handmade signs over family run businesses like Barber and Beauty on 9th avenue or the soft porn Calvin Klein posters towering over Houston Street or the constantly running, frightening America’s debt meter which computes the hundreds of thousands of dollars of our individual households, or the witty and now vernacular, powerful Public Theater signs we have been treated to over the last two decades.

My favorite sign is one that I have been oogling over for years—as is my habit. I will purposely take cab routes just to see some of my favorite visual landmarks: Tibor Kalman’s stupid clock atop the Red Square apartment building, Keith Haring’s Crack is Wack mural off the Harlem River Parkway or the polka-dotted cement mixers lining the East River. I love to look at the John Henry fireboat parked off of Chelsea Piers and the 70’s style rainbow decal in the window of a brownstone on 13th street. It has been there at least as long as I have and everytime I pass it I can’t help but wonder if the apartment has been inhabited by one family this whole time, or if every new tenant that has lived there has simply kept it there, because, well, it too makes them smile.

I often ritualize my viewings: every year during Gay Pride week, I make sure I get a good look at the Empire State Building graced in lavender lights. Whenever I go to Madison Square Garden I must look at the engraved tiles of anonymous sports fans dedicating the small rectangular space to loved ones or to themselves. Everyday on my walk to work I hope to see new handwritten signs from the little Church on 31 street offering hope and inspiration or an admonition to just stop being ridiculous for a day.

I haven’t told you about my favorite sign yet: it was a sign that graced the intersection of Allen Street and Houston. It was in a bold upper and lower case script, handpainted many, many years ago. The type was huge—the sign was the length of the building’s side, so you could see it all along Allen Street, and it was black on a white background. It stated simply: Economy Foam. I was obsessed with this sign for years—not only because it was simple and heartbreakingly beautiful, but because it was, well…so odd. Who knew there were grades of foam? I imagined that there was premium foam and super-premium foam and perhaps even an ultra-premium foam. Like milk or airline seats or the sizes of American Apparel tee shirts—who knew that this type of choice could exist?

About 4 or 5 months ago I was once again visiting the East Village and drove by Economy Foam, and to my horror, the sign was gone. Apparently the building was coming down and Economy Foam had vacated. I was inconsolable. I had no visual evidence of this sign other than what was etched in my mind, and now that it was gone I worried that it would fade forever from my personal visual landscape. Well, I needn’t have worried. Well, sort of. Economy Foam is now back at the intersection of Allen and Houston Streets—but in true NY fashion, it has been redesigned. The name is still Economy Foam—but everything else couldn’t be more different. It is now in a sans serif, all lowercase font—perhaps myriad or interstate, white type dropping out of a forest green background—and it is as trendy and suave looking as anything you would see in Moss or Conran’s. I was bemused and also bewildered: I mean, what could the market for Economy foam be?

I still don’t know for sure, but I can tell you this: For the last three days I have been in Appleton, Wisconsin. It is a quaint and very mid-Western town: lots of strip malls and Wal-Marts and Costco’s. It is very family oriented: moms screen the kids movies before they take their children to see them, churches are full on Sunday and nobody ever wears all black. On my sojourn to the only Starbucks in Appleton on Wednesday I took in this new visual landscape and suddenly I did a double take. There, parked in front of Jake’s Subs, right next to the Starbucks, was a commercial van. And the business it was advertising on the side of the truck was this: TAILORED FOAM. Not economy, not premium or ultra-premium, but TAILORED. It was beautifully designed, very confident and proud, obviously a successful looking business, and as I took it all in I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I realized, very happily, that no matter where you are in the world there is always something to look at that will teach you something, change the way you think, or just open your mind to lots of new possibilities of things you never considered before. Tailored Foam. Who would’ve thought?
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Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on DesignObserver.com. In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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