We love stories. We can read a book or have one read to us. Perhaps a story is online or viewable on the multiplicity of media available. Ultimately, the result of the creation of an authentic story is a treat for us all. Besides entertaining, a story can be informative. In addition, it can promote a business or a product. Whatever the purpose, the process is basically the same. In this post, the focus is on the process.
The Creation of a Story
The process of creating an authentic story requires intensive research and lots of writing. I’ve created several stories containing the required elements. In all four authentic story situations, there was access to primary sources and extensive research. Sometimes having access to primary sources is impossible. So when it does happen, it can be very special for both the writer and the reader.
Four Authentic Stories
The authentic stories here touch upon four different non-fiction topics:
• business-a multi-million dollar corporation that started in a janitor’s closet
• social issues-The Middle Class Poor Crisis, a serious situation that exists today
• creativity-a creative-organizational process called Knolling
• music-some very special musicians
Each of these stories is set up as a series of blog posts. To read each of them, click on their link. That will be the first post of the story. You will be able to read the additional posts from there.
The Story of A Corporation That Started In A Janitor’s Closet
Part Three was written by me, Alison D. Gilbert, The New York Graphic Design Examiner. It was published by the Examiner.com on February 4, 2011.
THE BIG APPLE
It was not long after its official birth in 1964 that the owners of the Charrette Corporation, a well-established New England design supply institution, realized the opportunity to spread its wings and expand. The need for their multi-dimensional approach to the sale of design supplies was not limited to architects or its Massachusetts borders. Between 1968 and 2002, Charrette opened a total of 26 locations in 16 states, as far west as Chicago and Detroit and as far south as Washington, DC. The need that co-founders, Lionel Spiro and Blair Brown, had identified as students and started in a Harvard Graduate School of Design closet, was not exclusive to architectural students but was viable for designers and students everywhere.
According to Lionel, who came to be in charge of the NY stores, “In 1967, the first NY store opened. It was located on the second and third floors of 139 East 47th Street. After a short time, the need for a better and larger location was apparent and the store moved to a brownstone building at 212 East 54th Street.
“Its showroom/store area was on the main floor and some storage was in the basement. By then, Charrette ran a truck from Boston to New York every night which enabled customer orders and store restocking to be done from its 125,000 square foot warehouse containing 36,000 different items. This enabled Charrette to accept telephone orders from customers in NYC up to 5:30 and deliver the orders with a 96% fill rate, the next morning.”
When the parcel of land containing the Charrette store on East 54th Street was demolished to make room for the ultra-modern ‘Lipstick Building’, the store had to move once again choosing a larger space at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 33rd Street.
The establishment of Charrette’s permanent New York home necessitated the skills of an architect to design their very own showplace from a barebones office space in the design district. For this task, Lionel turned to one of his Harvard Graduate School of Design classmates, New York based architect, David Paul Helpern. Mr. Helpern is still practicing and it was possible to interview him to learn more about the design and building of the showplace that was Charrette’s home for 20 years. Upcoming articles in this series will include excerpts from that interview and more about Charrette’s NY graphic standards.
LINKS TO THE CHARRETTE CORPORATION CHRONICLES: PART ONE THROUGH FIVE
Part Two was written by me, Alison D. Gilbert, The New York Graphic Design Examiner. It was published by the Examiner.com on January 14, 2011.
BORN IN A HARVARD CLOSET
Charrette did not enter the New York scene until a few years after its birth. It was actually born (although not yet named) in a closet at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The idea was to house in one location all the supplies design students would need. This eliminated the need to take the time to travel to a dozen different locations to gather all the materials required for their projects.
As strange as the name Charrette sounds, anyone who has attended design school or has worked in a design office knows what a ‘charrette’ is. When students and professionals (particularly) in architecture stay up all night to meet a deadline, they say that they are “en charrette” or they are “charretting”.
The term came from the Ecole de Beaux Arts in Paris, which in the 19th century was the leading school of architecture in the world. When deadlines arrived, a CHARRETTE, the French word for wagon, would be pushed through the building and students had to place their drawings on the “charrette” or they would not be accepted.
Many students would actually sit or straddle the wagon as they signed their work or put down the last few lines. Students came to study in Paris from all over the world. When they graduated and returned home, they used the term “en Charrette” to define the last effort to finish a design project. This description applies primarily to the architecture and planning fields.
According to Lionel Spiro, since he and Blair Brown, the founders of Charrette, only planned to supply architects, they chose the name that they felt had special significance to their targeted market. However within a short time, Charrette was discovered by a succession of design professionals who used many of the same products.
Eventually manufacturing companies such as Raytheon, Ford, GM, and Chrysler eventually turned to Charrette for the majority of their design and engineering drawing needs. In addition, Charrette was discovered by hundreds of relatively small design offices within much larger government agencies in Washington.
Also included were structural, mechanical and civil engineers and later other engineers including electrical and electronic engineers. Commercial (graphic) designers, product designers and other creative people working at ad agencies, media firms and even television shows like Saturday Night Live became regular users of Charrette products as regular New York customers.
LINKS TO THE CHARRETTE CORPORATION CHRONICLES: PART ONE THROUGH FIVE
These chronicles of The Charrette Corporation first appeared on the Examiner.com, written by me, Alison D. Gilbert as the New York Graphic Design Examiner. This story includes primary research, most importantly interviews with the founders, Lionel Spiro and the late Blair Brown. In addition, many former corporate staff members, store employees and even customers all graciously gave their time to tell me their experiences and so many wonderful stories.
Examiner.com ceases to exist this month, July of 2016, five and a half years after I started writing for them. The Charrette Chronicles and other posts would perish without transferring them to my own blog. The Charrette Chronicles appears here as a series of five posts. This introduction, Part One, was originally published on December 10, 2010.
No story about Graphic Design in NY would be complete without at least mention of the establishments, new, old, and gone that have supplied the design industry with the many, unique tools it required primarily BC (before computers) and through the transition to AD (age of digital). In compiling a list of them, one store stood out so distinctly that it deserves an entire article, if not series of articles about it, Charrette.
So much research for this designer supplies institution has been accumulated that there is an entire ‘back story’ to this examiner.com series. It details the process of using the Internet to unearth materials and people. Many of them have been extremely generous in coming forward to share their experience and memories about this wonderful but extinct designers supply company that was founded in Cambridge Mass in the mid 1960’s.
This story is an attempt to go back in time and capture the years of glory Charrette held in the industry, in general, and in NY, in particular. It will include facts about its lifespan of several decades and some of the key players involved. It is a very moving story and one that any author can only hope to be worthy of writing.
Since the materials that have been so generously donated, lent and found on-line are still accumulating, this piece will serve simply as an invitation to the graphic memoir of Charrette, It had stores at three NYC locations. First it was on 47th Street, then on East 54th Street (before the brownstone building it was housed in was torn down to make room for the ‘Lipstick’ Building, Finally it was relocated to its homage to modern design, a frontage of glass and red metal in the design district, the East 30rds. How fitting a stage upon which to continue this story.
LINKS TO THE CHARRETTE CORPORATION CHRONICLES: PART ONE THROUGH FIVE
This series of blog posts about KNOLLING is dedicated to Andrew Kromelow who coined the term ‘knolling’ in 1987 and to Tom Sachs who expanded on the concept of knolling to ‘Always Be Knolling’.
Knolling is defined in Wikipedia as “the process of arranging related objects in parallel or 90-degree angles as a method of organization”. The original phrase, knolling, was coined in 1987 by Andrew Kromelow, a janitor in the furniture fabrication shop of Frank Gehry. Gehry was designing chairs for the legendary, Knoll Furniture Company. Kromelow was particularly impressed with the furniture designed by Florence Knoll.
HISTORY OF KNOLL FURNITURE
Andrew Kromelow especially liked the clean, angular lines of Florence Knoll’s designs which can be seen above. As a result, at the end of the workday, Kromelow would collect all the tools that had been left out in the work studio and organized them in a similar geometric manner then photograph them from the top. No photographs of Kromelow’s work seem to have survived, publically.
The above image from Tom Sach’s, Ten Bullets, #8: “ALWAYS BE KNOLLING’ suggests what a Kromelow ‘flat lay-overhead photo’ might have looked like.”The result was an organized surface that allowed the user to see all objects at once”. Kromelow referred to this as ‘knolling’ due to the idea’s inspiration from Florence Knoll’s design sensibility. The term, the concept and the ‘flat lay photography’ Kromelow made of his arrangements caught on thanks to another person in Gehry’s employment.
“ALWAYS BE KNOLLING”
Tom Sachs, an artist and sculptor who also worked in Gehry’s studio, popularized Kromelow’s knolling and his ‘flat lay photography’ process. According to the blog post in CreativeDesignMagazine.com, Sachs created a piece about knolling and adopted the phrase, “Always be Knolling” (or ABK for short) as a motto for his work. By 1987, knolling had officially become a trend. But what transpired between 1987 and 2009?
One wonders because nothing more seems to be available about it again until the 2009 blog post on CreativeMarket.com, ‘What Is Knolling? The Overhead Photography Trend Explained’. Supposedly, this style of organizational layout has been used for over three decades to shape brands and sell products. No examples were available. Instead, decades before the social media venue, Instagram, had the popular account, ‘The Flat Lays’, before the existence of social media at all, and separate from Kromelow’s organizing technique, knolling existed as a graphic design layout and branding inspiration. But it was not known as knolling and it was before 1987.
WHEN ‘KNOLLING’ WAS JUST A CHARRETTE CORPORATION LAYOUT AND BRANDING TECHNIQUE
The process of ‘knolling’ existed independent of Knoll and apparently previous to Andrew Kromelow’s coining a phrase for it. It was a prominent style designing with type, graphic design layout, architectural presentation and products branding including overhead or flat lay photography. One company that prominently exemplified this pre-knolling sensibility was the Charrette Corporation. The architect David Paul Helpern, designer of the NYC Charrette Corporation flagship store and the graphic design/branding designer, Johanna Bohoy, the Art Director at Charette’s Headquarters in Woburn, Massachusetts were responsible for its conception. This can be traced back to the early 1980’s rather than the late 1980’s when the term knolling was coined.
There is a series of articles about the Charrette Corporation written by me, the NY Graphic Design Examiner on examiner.com. Many samples of their forward-thinking graphic design and branding style are included. Suffice to say, whether it is called knolling or attributed to the earlier Charrette Corporation methodology, the result is very calming on the brain to observe objects in an orderly rather than chaotic manner. This seems to be especially true for artistic, creative brain dominant people.
TECHNOLOGY TAKES ON KNOLLING
To add to this, technology has taken leaps, specifically with the creation of social media venues which facilitates present day knolling. But according to my research, history clearly illustrates that the clean, perpendicular and parallel lined style of graphic design layout, now known as knolling, was not a revolutionary idea and did not begin with Florence Knoll or Andrew Kromelow in 1987. This is not to deny that the advent of social media has allowed knolling to become very practical, even pedestrian in its incarnation as ‘flat lay photography’. Layout and branding are now easily and attractively showcased by Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr, pictured directly above and below.
Life has a way of providing what is needed at a particular time in history. Credit it to The Charrette Corporation, Florence Knoll, Andrew Kromelow or Tom Sachs. They have all played a part in transforming the disciplines of design layout and branding forward to another level of usefulness and appeal in the world of product marketing. But is there more to it than that?!
But it was overdue to be completed, as hard as it was to write a Charrette Corporation fond farewell. It was like a long ‘good bye’ that no one wants to make when dear friends must part. But it had to be done. Essentially, I knew what the final article would be about, the store designed by architect, David Paul Helpern, a fellow student of Charrette Corporation founders, Lionel Spiro and Blair Brown, who all attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The store, located on Manhattan’s East side on Lexington Avenue in the East 30’s, was the Crowning Jewel of the Charrette NY retail side.
Although the commercial accounts handled by a sales force that covered much of the East Coast and into the Midwest were much larger than the retail side sales, the retail side was the face of the corporation. This gave Charrette the opportunity to show the world the ‘stuff it was made of’. As the tip of the iceberg, it glistened in the sun and shone like a well-polished gem. The flagship store was the ultimate representation of the Charrette brand.
It was a company whose name was synonymous with quality. The tools and supplies manufactured for and sold by Charrette had to be of the highest quality. The pedigree that resulted from employment at the company practically guaranteed future employment anywhere when the time came for someone to move on.
The Charrette corporate culture, philosophy and brand development was such that it is possible that other retail corporations fashioned their stores after Charrette. They were clean looking with simple straight lines, well designed, displaying everyday items as if they were high end designer merchandise.
One article led to another as one primary resource introduced me to the next. Both founders eventually became available and many memorable hours were spent on the phone reminiscing about their beloved company. Supplies, catalogs, photos and other memorabilia were supplied to accompany the memories. One by one, staff, customers and HGSD alumni were located and interviewed.
The generosity of everyone was as real as the quality of the Charrette inventory. The Charrette culture had affected everyone who came in touch with it. The writing of this story took on a life of its own, a life that also had to be written in a way that gave credence to this corporate culture and all its glorious history.
So I wrote and wrote and wrote. When would it end? How would it end? Numerous months’ hiatus from the writing became awkward and the pressure to finish overcame the same lingering feeling of not wanting to say good-bye. But at the same time, it was clear that the final tribute had to be made and how to do it.
That is where The Charrette NY Crowning Jewel came into the picture. It was a store that was written up in two nationally respected professional magazines, Interiors (February 1982) and Visual Merchandising (June 1982), had a grand, grand opening and one that was built to design specifications. It was glorious. Everything about it and in it was a designer’s dream. In addition, the place, their products, and award winning packaging designs were featured in two nationally renowned design magazines, Communication Arts (March/April 1982) and Print (May/June 1982).
And then, in spite of the attempts to keep up with the times of transition from analog to digital design, it was time to let go. No more founders, some staff stayed, some staff went. The era that was the original Charrette was gone. The company was bought by a succession of other companies. It even became known by different names. But the culture and the philosophy could not be packaged, bought and sold.
How It Ended
So it was time to say good-bye, for all of us, the founders, the staff, the customers and even this author of a series of articles that became the Charrette NY Chronicle that took a year to write. It is all over. But much will live on in the minds and memories of those whose lives were touched by the experience of their involvement.
There is a Charrette Alumni Group on Linkedin. I am the only civilian to have the honor of belonging. There is also an Internet photo archive on flickr. Finally and in some small way, it is my sincere hope that the Charrette Chronicle will be part of this legacy. It is dedicated to all the wonderful people who let me into their lives and shared their stories so that I could write a series in honor of them and their Charrette experience. Thank you all. I wish you a fond farewell. You shall never be forgotten, Charrette Corporation.