Design Blogs: The New Museums

By Steven Heller

Lacking the burdens of tradition, bloggers are increasingly functioning as collectors and curators of design. A close look at a good example, 50 Watts.

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So you never had the time to study exhibition curation or library science, but nonetheless would love to practice these arts and sciences? Now, thanks to the geeks who devised programs like WordPress and TypePad, uploading a veritable museum, gallery, or library to the Internet is as easy as remembering your login—and considerably more fun.

Many blogs are indeed galleries in the cloud, extending interest with artifacts where traditional museums and libraries will not venture. These blogs are exhibition spaces for pop cultural objects that conventional venues usually keep in uncatalogued storage, like imprisoned feral children, hidden from view to all but persistent doctoral students. Of course, not all these online reliquaries—few, in fact—are as curatorially well-endowed as the brick and mortar museums, but many do provide raw riches from which curators and scholars can study unknown rarities. The rest of us, who stumble upon the sites, can simply enjoy them as eye candy.

I've admired a few of these troves, and the most engaging, for its obsession with bibliographic graphics—book covers, jackets, and illustrations—is called 50 Watts and curated by Will Schofield, a 34-year-old bibliomaniac. He says that as a high schooler from the cultural wasteland of northwest Philly, he just wanted to sit in front of a wall of books "and fritter my life away. I managed to find my way to mind-blowing writers like Beckett and Lautréamont when I wasn't getting in trouble or working at Franklin Mills Mall (home of Milton Glaser's mechanical-Ben-Franklin)." While Schofield was working at an independent bookstore, the Pennsylvania Book Center, the manager, an ex-Marine, admired his "quiet desperation and hopelessness and turned me on to Thomas Bernhard and Cioran and most of my favorite writers. After a few years of back-breaking catering jobs and poverty I landed a job at a small independent publisher where I've now worked for 10+ years as the sole paid employee. I like to call my position 'Editor/Mailboy.' Philly has cheap rent and I don't drive, hence I've been able to afford to amass books all this time."

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Originally called Journey Around My Skull, the site started as an old-fashioned book blog, what Schofield calls an "I like this book and you should read it" blog. From the beginning he included the book covers, so it had a visual component. "Sometime in 2008 I trash-picked Biology Today, an early-1970s textbook with fantastically strange illustrations," he says. "I featured the book and got a lot of positive feedback. Soon I started to collect illustrated books and to contact artists about showcasing their work, and the blog morphed into its graphic-intensive state."

There is no organizing principle, though the posts tend to group themselves together: book covers, ephemera, weird kids' books, features on forgotten writers, artists' books, contemporary drawing.

For want of money, Schofield notes that he always bought cheap used copies and mass-market editions of the books he actually read. "So before I ever thought about design history, I had stacks of books from New Directions, Grove, Calder, Doubleday Anchor, Ace, and the Time Reading Program. Once I learned the names, I realized I had been long been admiring the work of designers like Paul Rand, Alvin Lustig, George Salter, Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, George Giusti, and Roy Kuhlman and illustrators like Edward Gorey and the Dillons."

Despite these American names, 50 Watts (the name he says "has something to do with Charlie Watts, Beckett's Watt, Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, dim light bulbs, riots, cheap amps, and chaos theory) showcases extremely rare and decidedly fascinating European and Eastern European specimens. "For whatever reason I started reading modern European fiction in high school and never stopped," he adds. "Reading that stuff you can't help but learn about the corresponding artists, and I guess that's how I learned about the Symbolists and Expressionists and Surrealists. I've never taken an art history class. I trace the Eastern European interest to stumbling into Svankmajer's animated Faust—at Philly's lone repertory theater—as an impressionable teenager. To this day I can't think of a more disturbing or stimulating movie, and I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out the history and influences leading up to it." An interest in Polish design stems from seeing the movie posters for many years. He recently launched a Polish book cover competition asking entrants to design their own Polish book covers. Verrry interesting?

Schofield claims he has around 100,000 "unique visitors" per month. "I didn't have much traffic until early 2009 when bigger sites started to regularly link to me. Because of the obscurity of the books I feature, I find the number of visitors surprising—a book that sells 400 copies gets 40,000 hits, or whatever." Now, 50 Watts demands from two to six hours a day of his time. The rest of his non-working day, he reads or watches really bad TV. "It's either Proust or Hoarders."

He started in August 2007 and has no plans to stop. "I'd be collecting and reading the books with or without the blog, but with the blog I have a good excuse to talk to the artists and writers." Happily he notes that because of the blog he meets a lot of interesting people who turn him on to interesting things. "Secretly I hope all the inspiration will rub off on me." As a wellspring of inspiration, 50 Watts is certainly having that impact on others.

Images: Courtesy of 50 Watts

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/05/design-blogs-the-new-museums/239157/