serveimageMy first car was a Volkswagen. It was a 1960 model bought in Hamburg in 1967, and it carried me without a hitch as far as Valencia (which is where it was stolen, but that’s another story). I’d never driven a VW before, but the simple controls required no advance knowledge. The only gauge was a large speedometer that included an odometer, turn indicators, and two (unidentified) warning lights, one for oil pressure and one for the alternator/generator. A third warning light lit up when the gas tank was empty, which required flipping a switch to access the reserve tank (about a gallon, or 40 miles)—there was no gas gauge. In addition, the dashboard included two white pull-knobs; the left was for lights and the right for the windshield wiper. I think there was also a choke knob somewhere.

I was reminded of my VW the other day when a friend offered my a ride in his new Prius. The digital read-outs of what Toyota calls the Multi-Information Display, covered a range of technical information such as low tire pressure and fuel consumption, and included such extraneous information as which door was open. Basically, the traditional gauges were replaced by a small computer screen, and like most personal computer screens, it was awash in icons, numbers, and information. Since the marginal cost of adding more information is minimal, I got the sense that the designers had simply piled on the bells and whistles.  No doubt one gets used to it in time, but I would miss the minimalist elegance of my old VW.


Sholes & Glidden, 1873

Sholes & Glidden, 1873

Smart phones, iPads, and laptops are recent innovations, but their human interface is a Victorian technology that is almost 150 years-old. The QWERTY keyboard appeared first in an 1868 typewriter patent granted to Christopher Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soule. The patent was acquired by E. Remington and Sons, a firearms and sewing machine manufacturer, and 5 years later, the so-called Sholes & Glidden, also known as the Remington 1, appeared. The machine was not perfect—it typed exclusively in caps, and the typist worked “blind,” that is, she could not see what she was typing since the keys struck the underside of the platen). Nevertheless it was a commercial success—Mark Twain was an early adopter and Life on the Mississippi became the first typewritten manuscript ever summited to a publisher.

Later typewriters added a shift lever that allowed upper and lower case typing, and solved the typing blind problem, but the QWERTY keyboard, said to be invented by Sholes, a Wisconsin  newspaperman, remained (and remains today, slightly modified to meet the needs of different languages—QWERTZ in Polish). According to Martin Howard, whose collection of antique typewriters can be viewed on his website, the odd arrangement separated letters that were frequently typed together to avoid clashing of type bars. Thanks to the  Remington 2, called the Model T of typewriters, the QWERTY keyboard, enjoying the first-mover advantage, became the de facto standard and resisted all efforts to replace it with alternative arrangements. Like the musical keyboard, which dates back to at least the fourteenth century, the QWERTY keyboard seems destined to endure.


image007Isabella Lobkowicz kindly sent me a copy of her recent book, Almost 100 Chairs for 100 People. “It’s curious how many designers design chairs,” she writes in the Foreword, “but nobody seems to think about the characters who are going to use them.” Princess Isabella (she is married to a Bohemian prince) rectifies this situation with a delightful sketchbook—published by Moleskine—of imaginary chairs. The first, “a chair for the explorer,” is an extremely tall chair with a built-in ladder that allows the occupant to scan the vicinity with his ever-present binoculars. This chair reminds me of the tall chairs made by the pioneering balloonist and aviation pioneer, Alberto Santos-Dumont (1873-1932). Santos-Dumont held what he called “aerial dinner parties,” and the chairs were intended to give his guests the experience of flying, that is, seeing the world from above. He made the chairs himself, being a skilled craftsman (he built his own flying machines). Santos-Dumont was an unusually innovative character. Finding checking his pocket watch awkward while flying, he asked his friend Louis Cartier to make him a more convenient timepiece—the result was the first wristwatch.


18-hepplewhiteIn connection with the publication of Now I Sit Me Down I’ve been touring around giving talks and readings. A common question from the audience is “What is your favorite chair?” I think that the implied question is often “What is your favorite chair design?” but I prefer to answer it literally. I believe that what makes a chair a “favorite” is not the way it looks, or the notoriety of its designer, but rather what it is used for. For me, and I suspect for many people, a favorite chair is the one you sit in to relax at the end of the day. In my case it’s my reading chair. When writing is done, it’s where I read for pleasure, or sometimes re-read what I’ve written that day. Sitting in my chair I gain a different perspective from when I’m working at my desk. What is my reading chair? It’s a wing chair. Not an antique, but manufactured maybe thirty years ago by Hickory Chair, based on an eighteenth-century model from Tidewater Virginia. It’s not much different than the chair that George Hepplewhite included in his Cabinet-maker and Upholsterer’s Guide (above). That was published in 1788. It’s hard to improve on a good thing.


small_RYBCZY_SKI__Dom_-_ok_adka_96_dpiThe Cracow publisher, Karakter, has re-issued a Polish translation of Home. This is the thirteenth foreign edition of the book, which originally appeared in 1986. The Polish translation was the work of my late aunt, Krystyna Husarska.