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Category Archives: Review

Book Review: Stacked Decks

Stacked Decks - coverI’m ashamed to admit it, but reading Stacked Decks: The Art and History of Erotic Playing Cards is something akin to browsing through your dad’s secret stash of Playboys.

In this nicely appointed book, vintage erotica collector Mark Rotenberg guides us through his playing card collection — with examples ranging in date from the quaint, ample-thighed ladies pictured on 19th century tobacco cards to the hardcore 1970s. It’s no surprise that the coolest cards come from the ’50s and ’60s: apparently the Greatest Generation was also the horniest. The classic pin-up gal get a lot of exposure here, a playful and irresistible vision of female sexuality which continues in the hyper-saturated color photography from that same period. Those are the best, but there are also a lot more varied (and smuttier) cards on display — which are eye-opening, to say the least. If you thought amateur porn started in the Internet era, for example, you’re wrong, buddy.

Stacked Decks is available now from Quirk. Buy at Amazon here.

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Book Review: Charley Harper

Charley Harper book coverAbout five or six years ago, me and my partner stumbled across some excellent framed prints of stylized birds in a dusty antique store. They looked to be from the ’50s, but the prints’ appealing freshness and simplicity had a timeless quality. The birds literally appeared to fly off the paper they were printed on. Naturally, we took them home. After some research, we discovered these serigraphs were handmade by a man named Charles Harper as mail-in premiums for a now-defunct magazine geared towards Ford auto owners. Amazingly, one could buy these gorgeous nature prints very cheaply back in the ’50s. Immediately we became fascinated with Harper and tried to find out everything we could about him.

It surprised me to find out that celebrity designer Todd Oldham shared a similar introduction to Harper’s work, a story that he tells in the foreword to his monograph Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life. In fact, just about everybody I know who’s come into contact with his art becomes an instant fan — he’s that special.

As for the book, it’s encyclopedic. Beautiful to look at, sure, but more importantly you get a tangible sense of the man behind the art. It includes just about eveything he’s done over the last half-century. Much of the classic Ford Times stuff is here, along with his eye-popping illustrations for the Betty Crocker Dinner for Two Cook Book (1958), The Giant Golden Book of Biology (1961), and The Animal Kingdom (1968). In addition, the book showcases the many poster and mural designs he’s done throughout the years. Although I haven’t yet seen the book proper (just an early online version), the tome is neatly organized and gorgeously designed with a streamlined look appropriate to the subject. It appears that they photographed the artwork directly from Harper’s original art and not a secondary printed source. Harper is still alive and active, although recently I’ve heard that he’s been having health problems. He couldn’t have asked for a more perfect tribute within these pages. This brick of a book sports a retail price of $200 (discounted to $126 at Amazon), but I just might have to skip a few lunches to nab a copy.

Ammo also has a nifty limited edition slipcovered version of the book with a signed print, produced in four different styles, for (cough) $400. For a cheaper C.H. experience, visit the flickr group devoted to him.

Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life will be available later this month from Ammo Books. Pre-order at Amazon here.

Charley Harper book spread

Book Review: Fly Now!

Fly Now! coverConsumer note: although
Fly Now!: The Poster Collection of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum is published by National Geographic, it doesn’t contain a single nature photograph (the closest might be a ’70s poster showing a flock of flamingos). What it does have are dozens of gorgeous American and European poster designs from the glory years of air travel in the early- to mid-20th century.

The concept behind this book is simple: posters are presented chronologically alongside a brief history of where the aviation industry was at the time the poster was made. Early chapters on ballooning don’t quite jibe with the rest of the book (which primarily focuses on passenger-based air travel), but otherwise it’s a smooth ride. Joanne Gernstein London’s accompanying text is dry but very informative, giving historical context and commenting directly on the posters on display. It’s a relief that the words don’t exist on a separate plane, so to speak, from the corresponding posters.

As you might guess from the Deco-style cover, the bulk of the artwork dates from the years between World Wars I and II — a great period for both air travel and poster design. Interesting to note how the marketing on these posters changed throughout the years: early posters stressed the safety of air travel to a still uncertain public, the post-WWII era boasted about the technological advances in aircraft design, while in more recent years the destination (rather than how to get there) served as the main point. Relatively recent airline industry deregulations may have made traveling by plane a more mundane experience, but this book serves as a neatly designed reminder of a more exciting and romantic time.

Fly Now! is currently available from National Geographic Books. Order at

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Book Review: Core Memory

Core Memory - coverI have a strange affinity for wall-sized computers in old movies. Banks of blinking lights and spinning reels of magnetic tape made for nice background scenery, but they’re nothing compared to the real stories behind those early, rare and expensive computers. These pioneering machines are explored in an unexpectedly sumptuous way via Core Memory: A Visual Survey of Vintage Computers.

This kind of book is a retro-computer geek’s dream come true, but for a layman like myself John Alderman’s text fills in the details and history on each machine wonderfully well. Mark Richards’ photography gets in deep and close, bringing out intriguing abstract patterns in the masses of transistors, buttons and chips (plus he gets a lot of mileage on how the internal wiring on many old machines resemble human veins). The photos also focus on the pieces’ humble, human aspects — be it the handwritten fire and police phone numbers on 1961’s SAGE computer or the funky plywood box housing Steve Wozniak’s original Apple from 1976. The end result is that these early computers are not as imposing as previously thought, but much more impressive in terms of what they did at the time.

This book also serves as a neat browse if only to check out how each computer’s design reflects the time it was made in. For instance, the Nippon NEAC 2203 from 1960 (pictured in the spread below) has the same clean and angular “Populuxe” look shared by cars from the same era. By the time we get to Digital’s DEC PDP-8 (pictured on the cover) of a few years later, muted tones have given way to a groovy palette of oranges, yellows and browns. I never thought I’d say this about an old computer, but trés chic.

The computers covered in this book range from interesting, short-lived failures (Honeywell’s Jetsons-esque Kitchen Computer) to popular classics (the Commodore 64). The only complaint I’d have is that many of the profiled machines don’t have a single, straightforward exterior view — just details. But that’s a small blemish on an otherwise fine book.

Core Memory was just published by Chronicle. Buy at Amazon here.

Core Memory - spread

Book Review: Mingering Mike

Mingering Mike bookToday I start a new and (hopefully) continuing feature in which new books which fall under the “pop culture/art/design/retro goodness” umbrella are reviewed. Our first subject is Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar from Princeton Architectural Press.

The story behind this book really started in late 2003, when Washington D.C. deejay and record collector Dori Hadar found a cache of unusual LPs during a vinyl hunting trip. The records weren’t records at all but intricately drawn artworks representing the works of one “Mingering Mike” — a mythical Soul/R&B performer whose career encompassed dozens of works on several different made-up labels. Hadar took photos of the albums and shared them in the Soul Strut forums, and his findings became the talk of the internet. As the story spread among crate-diggers, then bloggers, then the mainstream media, everyone wanted to know the identity of the enigmatic person behind these appealingly funky folk art creations. Eventually Hadar located the man — and the whole fascinating journey of these pieces, from their creation to their rediscovery, is told in this book.

I think one of the main things that initially attracted me to these pieces is how they express the need to project oneself onto the things you enjoy. This guy found so much to identify with in his favorite musical performers that he attached this stylin’ alter ego to it, building an intricate world around him in the process (that’s the way I interpret them, anyhow). Adding to the charm is the fact that he used whatever was at hand — scraps of cardboard, children’s tempura paint, ball point pens. The pieces are clumsy and childlike, obsessively detailed and situated in a quintessential early ’70s world of afros, Nixon-era social issues, and kung-fu movies. Mike’s album art, sketches and poems are lovingly presented here in large format alongside text telling where he was at that time, and why he abruptly retired Mingering Mike in the late ’70s. It’s a fascinating story that overlaps between the worlds of music and outsider art. There’s even a nifty Mingering Mike discography in the back!

Mingering Mike: The Amazing Career of an Imaginary Soul Superstar will be released May 1st. Pre-order at here.

Mingering Mike Tuxedo cover