Puppet made of pine, awake! The gift of life is thine.*

Royal De Luxe is a marionette company based in France who do a kind of hybrid performance art/street circus festival. They use traditional techniques to build gigantic, strikingly life-like puppets wh0 are then ressurected in cities around the world. People gather in the thousands to interact with these creatures because they are, quite simply, amazing – masterfully constructed and brought to life by a team of seasoned performers.

There is surprisingly very little information about Royal De Luxe online. Apart from a short Wikipedia article, and a website about a project they did in 2006, there is nothing current. No sense of who they are today, how they build and transport their creations or, what I wonder the most, where these gigantic marionettes are kept once their performances are over.

From their outdated website:

In the past dozen years, [Royal de Luxe] have created a series of spectacular shows involving giant figures as big as 11 or 12 metres high. Shows are simple – the animal or giant arrives in town and lives its life, going about its business for a few days. Extraordinary interactions take place between passers-by and the performance; residents become enchanted with the activities of these miraculous beings and begin to follow their every move. By the end of the performance, huge crowds gather daily to watch the latest episode in the life of the visiting creature.


* The title of this post is a quote from Disney’s Pinocchio (1940). It’s a line said by the Blue Fairy, who brings the puppet to life.

A Hotel is a World


Most hotel chains are designed to look the same. Apart from the variations (one bed, or two) and difference in room sizes based on the rate, everything from the positioning of the furniture to the art on the walls is identical. The Hilton Franchise has a set of very specific guidelines for the construction and design of their hotels to enable their operators to properly and consistently communicate their brand.

Tim and Kit Kemp are building a hotel empire, but unlike the Hiltons of the world, they have a very unique perspective on what hotel guests want to experience and how that is communicated in the design of their physical spaces, including the lovely Covent Garden Hotel, Soho Hotel and now the Crosby Street Hotel in NYC (their first venture outside of the UK). Following through on their belief that “hotels should be living things, not stuffy institutions”, the hotels themselves are unique and don’t conform to an overarching Firmdale brand look, each room is specially considered and no two are alike.

In a recent interview Kit Kemp, who also acts as the interior designer for Firmdale projects, explained her aesthetic,

A lot of design now is rather serious and formulaic. There should always be that element of surprise and fun—a slight quirkiness …

A hotel is a world, and when you arrive through the front door, that in itself should be a sort of fantasy and exciting. A lot of hotels miss that—you walk through the door and it is like having a disciplinarian tell you what to do and where to do it.

Most people (myself included) can’t afford the luxuries that the Kemps offer and are stuck staying in the lackluster, beige Hiltons and Thistles. That doesn’t mean we can’t admire what the Kemps are trying to do, our noses pressed up against the glass.

Have you stayed in hotels with outstanding design? Let us know where in the comments.

Covent Garden Hotel photograph by Jeremiah Christopher.

Hold the Phone

rotary phone

I was pushing my infant through our neighbourhood the other day and noticed, out of the corner of my eye, a red phone box. I scoffed inwardly, wondering (rhetorically, you understand) whether anyone actually used phone boxes anymore.

I mean, I’m sure people still use them as a private place to relieve their post-pub bladders, or to publish indecent images of girls and their very expensive telephone numbers. Though in a day and age where we no longer wonder whether Tibetan monks on a remote Nepalese hillside have mobile phones, but rather if His Holiness the Dali Lama uses a Skype app for staying in touch with the CTA, there’s little reason to believe anyone would ever need a public phone to make a call.

Then I saw some movement behind the smeared, dirty glass of the phone box and realised that someone was actually in there, using the phone.

This got me thinking about those old rotary phones of decades past – the no-nonsense tools of early communication that have so quickly become an ironic symbol of a slower, more manual age, and so have enjoyed a tongue-in-cheek resurgence in the homes of nostalgia-tripping hipsters and dour, hip-replaced pensioners.

It saddens me to think that my son will grow up never knowing the rewards that come from diligently drawing one’s finger around the spring-loaded faceplate, ensuring that every numbered hole meets the finger stop in order to create the correct configuration of pulse signals that will culminate in an electrical connection with an actual person. And not just any person: I’m talking about the right person.

With the advent of speed dial in the newer cordless phones and, finally, the mobile phones we use today, we are deprived – nay, robbed! – of the suspense that maybe, just maybe, we are erroneously dialing up a complete stranger instead of our own mothers. My son Hartley will likely never know the mild panic of such a scenario, and subsequent awkward mumbling of the phrase: “Sorry, wrong number.”

Nor will he ever know the distinct drama of hanging up on another individual – not just cutting them off, but the satisfying clatter of the handset as it is slammed down into the cradle at the precise moment of rising tempers, and even that unintentional ‘ding’ of the phone’s inner ring mechanism that this tempestuous impact sometimes engenders.

In ever ‘evolving’ communication-based technology, we gain the illusion of omnipotence: of being everywhere at once and in touch with the world wheresoever we may be at any moment. But in that freedom lies the growing inability to properly appreciate distance, timing, and the potential beauty that exists in that very moment between one number and another, when we could steal another opportunity to think about what we actually want to say.

We think that mobile technology saves us precious seconds of our lives, and this is true, but it also slightly impedes our ability to be present in ourselves, and in the foundations of communication itself.

Just think of those iconic films that made integral use of the phone as not only a prop but a symbol of societal alienation. Many of these nominal classics could not have even been made were it not for the rotary phone. If the realtors of Glengarry Glen Ross had worked from home rather than been ensnared in a claustrophobic maze of public and desktop rotary phones, for instance, the intense interplay of dialogue, major plot points and indeed very essence of the film would have been lost.

And you must admit: Tap ‘M’ For Murder just doesn’t have the same ring.

rotary phone photograph by macinate

The Wind Resistant Umbrella


Statistics vary slightly, but most weather sites agree that the median number of rain days in London, UK sits somewhere between 140 and 150 days annually. This translates into big business for the umbrella manufacturers of the world. In the United States alone, it is estimated that over 33 million are sold annually and that the average household owns 3.8 umbrellas. Those stats would likely be much higher in a country like the United Kingdom that is notorious for having a damp climate.

Despite this demand, umbrella design hasn’t changed much in the last thousand years. Materials have evolved (most umbrellas are no longer made of paper) and more compact, purse-friendly designs have been introduced. Still, there has been very little innovation in terms of making the umbrella impervious to its biggest foe, the wind.

In 2007, “out of pure frustration with traditional umbrellas”, a university student named Gerwin Hoogendoorn was studying industrial design in the Netherlands when he invented the Senz. This new umbrella is similar in shape to a bike racing helmet and is meant to be flexible and adapt and shift in the wind. According to the website is can withstand gales of up to 100 km per hour, which seems to be backed up by the ridiculous number of awards they’ve won including the 2008 International Design of Excellence, Times Best Innovation of 2007 and the Red Dot Design Award 2007. They also reinforce their claims up with some ridiculous videos of people testing out the Senz by doing things like wake boarding while holding onto one.

The Senz isn’t available in UK shops but can be purchased online from the Senz site for almost €50 each plus about ten extra for shipping and handling – very high considering that a cheap umbrella can be bought on nearly every corner in London for under £5. The price is obviously justified by the higher quality and durability, but does it come with a tracking device in case I leave it on the Tube?

Umbrella Day photograph by Gregory Bastien

Public Image Ltd's Metal Box, Reconsidered

Public Image Limited: Metal Box

John Lydon recently announced the return of his post-punk band Public Image Ltd.

It’s a good opportunity to reappraise the band’s seminal 1979 album Metal Box. It’s a landmark record for all kinds of reasons.

Obviously there’s the music itself. It puts the disco into discontent.

Like anything described as “ahead of its time” it is, in truth, a direct influence for later artists. It’s the source of a throb and pulse which goes through a surprising amount of music which follows it. (For instance, listen to the tune Death Disco with bands such as LCD Soundsystem in mind, or for that matter certain other bands on DFA Records.) I’d hesitate to call it “experimental”, that might put you off. Let’s just say that, unlike most things which carry that word, it’s in no way an artistic dead-end.

Metal Box dates from a time when ALL recorded music had tangible packaging. And wow, what packaging.

Even though these were the days when physical media had a hope of being sustainable, this was a brave move. Virgin Records (at that time a maverick independent label) released it in the UK as three separate vinyl records in a metal film canister, hence the title. The whole thing has a heightened sound quality. Six sides in total playing at 45rpm certainly did justice to Jah Wobble’s cavernous basslines, as well as each scraping guitar sound and every shriek and wail from Lydon.

Once you managed to prise the thing open, that is.

Metal Box, in its original form, celebrates the awkwardness and clumsiness of the vinyl format. You can’t listen to it on your morning jog, nor your daily commute on the train.

Listening to it is a fully engaged activity. You can’t even do things around the house because the need to flip it over or change the record will keep interrupting you.

Although not too difficult to track down, it’s a cherished item for record collectors. (Overheard: “I just scored an original Metal Box on eBay!”, “Cool. How oxidised is yours?”)

Since the original, there have been several ways to listen to Metal Box.

For the USA version, the track list was rearranged and remastered it on to just two records in a cardboard sleeve. This made it look like any other album. Sound quality also suffered.

Then in the compact disc era, we were treated to a single CD housed in a little version of the metal box. Cute. But that’s not really a word you use when discussing anything associated with John Lydon.

At some point in recent years it made an appearance on iTunes. (And DRM was probably not the kind of contempt-for-audience the band originally had in mind.)

Now we can dip into it on Spotify, the licensed free music streaming service, adverts and all.

Often the music formats debate can come down to which is the more convenient. CD or vinyl? Or digital files? No question, digital is ALWAYS more convenient. But so is looking at the Wikipedia page for any given work of art, when compared to actually visiting a gallery.

The original version of Metal Box is a perfect marriage of content and packaging.

And who said content and packaging were even separate things?

Metal Box image by kenficara