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collecting@large

Because We Said So

For example, you might learn something about the geometry of crop circles; or about Sir Ernst Gombrich’s essay, “On Pride and Prejudice in the Arts;” or rural Australian mailboxes; or kimonos, to name the subjects of nos. 21, 26, 27, and 31 respectively.

The Pentagram Papers have more to do with the partners’ eclectic interests.

In the vast acreage of publishing, these papers reside in some indistinct territory. They’re not quite magazines, nor paperbacks nor fine books. And while they don’t really qualify as ephemera, their quixotic, improvisational character, not to mention occasional spirit of drunken ecstasy, are found more routinely on cocktail napkins.

Listen, for example, to this passage from pamphlet 23, No Waste, about the ingenious recycling of everyday objects in Cuban culture:

“Before you know it, you’ve been transformed, reinvented…. Where you were once a cafeteria tray, now you’re a TV antenna, where you were once a beer can, now you’re a mouse trap. Where once you were a telephone, now you’re a doorbell.”

If this edition speaks to the transformative capabilities of ordinary objects, sometimes a Cuban cigar paper is just a Cuban cigar paper. And yet upon consideration it also becomes an “exquisite expression [of] nobility.”

If the Pentagram papers are part cocktail napkin, they are also part academic discourse. No. 38, The Russian Garbo, documents Biber’s renovation of a Santa Monica house designed in the early 1930s by Richard Neutra for the film star Anna Sten. Included with the contemporary photographs are Neutra’s original drawings, correspondence, photographs, cost estimates, and other attendant material that all make for a layering of history, at once scholarly and lyrical. This is not your typical magazine coverage of architectural renovations. Paper stock and typography both reinforce the distinction between the original construction and the renovation.

If my own archive of Pentagram Papers has been gathered without the requisite deliberation, I believe it does qualify as a collection; it has the salient feature of most genuine collections: It is incomplete. Collections, at least in the mind of the collector, are defined not only by what is in them, but by what is missing. The first Pentagram Paper, ABC: A Dictionary of Graphic Clichés was published in 1975; the most recent, The Russian Garbo, mailed out just last year. There are 38 of them. I have in my possession only 22.

And like any collector who is aware of egregious lapses, my mind wanders to what I am missing. No. 15, Through the Window, is a Pentagram Paper that reprints woodcuts of scenes from the carriage window taken from a 1924 British travel guide of the train ride from Paddington to Penzance. It would be pleasant trip, I imagine. And I would no doubt be equally taken by No. 2, The Pessimist Utopia, a photographic archive of architectural ornamentation that Pentagram founder Theo Crosby compiled in making his case for “personalizing commercial buildings through art.”

But these gaps in my collection serve their own purpose, reminding me that vistas into the visual world are, by nature, incomplete. And any consideration of what is missing soon turns into anticipation of what’s to come. That may be the whole point. For all their subdued elegance, this stack of little black books speaks to the visual profusion that the material world delivers to us daily. Look more closely, they seem to say. Pay more attention.

And so I do.

Derek HayesAkiko Busch writes about design, culture, and the natural world. She is the author of Geography of Home: Writings on Where We Live and The Uncommon Life of Common Objects: Essays on Design and the Everyday. Her most recent book, Nine Ways to Cross a River, a collection of essays about swimming across American rivers, was published in 2007 by Bloomsbury/USA. She was a contributing editor at Metropolis magazine for 20 years, and her essays have appeared in numerous national magazines and exhibition catalogues. She has taught at the University of Hartford and Bennington College and has appeared on public radio in the U.S. and Canada. Currently she a regular contributor to the New York Times Sunday regional section and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and two sons.

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