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Design History

A New Book Chronicles the 125-Year History of the Button, Its Design, and Its Role in Cultural Change

September 10, 2020

Grace Ebert

The cover of Button Power. All images © Christen Carter and Ted Hake, shared with permission

If something is “fit for the back of a postage stamp,” it’s generally understood as lacking depth and nuance. A similarly sized object, however, has been upending that saying for 125 years. From political campaigns to punch lines to keepsakes, the button has packed bits of incredibly rich history into just a few inches. “It seems like a niche little object, but it really tells a very general American history,” collector and manufacturer Christen Carter tells Colossal. The wearable item is, in fact, an entry point into the complexities of the past.

Carter recently co-authored the forthcoming book Button Power—which is available for pre-order on Bookshop—with notable dealer Ted Hake, who’s been collecting the objects for around 60 years. Through composed displays and black-and-white photos, the tome delves into the item’s history, spanning its invention in 1896 to contemporary usages. “Early on people were wearing buttons, and mostly it’s a temporary thing. It’s a moment in time,” Carter says. “They connected you to something else. One-hundred-twenty-five years ago, images weren’t as prevalent as they are now.” Button Power compiles a diverse array of notable figures, from Shirley Chisholm and the Ramones to Rube Goldberg and Muhammad Ali, each represented through the wearable item.

 

From the Obama Inauguration 2012

Originally a casual collector, Carter now is responsible for the world’s only museum dedicated to the medium, which is housed in the Chicago-based manufacturer Busy Beaver Button Co. The institution currently boasts more than 40,000 buttons and is accepting donations. Currently, it’s closed because of COVID-19, although a virtual archive of about 9,000 is available to scroll through on its site.

A medium with popularity perpetually in flux, the button has risen and fallen since its creation and notably surged in the 1960s and 1980s as it was used more widely for countercultural movements and protests. Of course, mainstream efforts from political campaigns, public figures, and large-scale events generally still sought out buttons to share their visions. Many of the slogans and broader undertakings of alternative movements that may have evaded popular narratives, however, also are preserved by the object. “It’s a people’s history, too. There are so many things I learned,” Carter notes. One example involved a series centered on transportation. “What is this ‘good road’ stuff about?” she wondered. “I learned that before there was income tax, there was a movement to have infrastructure built.” Telling a story she didn’t learn in school, the buttons offered a glimpse into the advocacy of previous decades.

 

While the manufacturing process and function hasn’t evolved much, the objects’ value has. Carter notes that when they first emerged, people regarded them as collectibles that were prized as a piece of printed matter. Today, they remain a symbol of the wearer’s political affiliations and interests.

Even social media hasn’t eclipsed the ephemeral object. Although the pithy messages and quips prevalent on sites like Twitter function similarly to the sayings of the button, they lack a material presence and are subject to being deleted or lost when a platform folds. The physical item, on the other hand, has a lasting effect. “It creates a momento,” she says. “It’s not something you can as easily forget about like a Tweet or something like that because you’ll come across it in your sock drawer.” They’re also a more intentional medium, Carter notes, due to the design, manufacturing, and distribution processes and the effort those require.

 

From 1981

Overall, buttons are overwhelmingly uplifting, inspiring, or humorous in messaging, even when centered on serious topics or issues. One tells people to “hang in there” while displaying a rendering of a cat clinging to a rope nearby, while another (shown below) simply is emblazoned with the words “I Love Ringo.”  The optimism helps to start the inevitable conversations from a constructive point. “More positive buttons make them more wearable,” she says. “A button you have to stand behind. Where online stuff can be pretty anonymous, there’s something about having some skin in the game.”

Despite the mediums’ changes during the last 125 years, the ability to provoke conversation and inspire change is constant.  “The person-to-person stuff is just so important, and I think it’s something we’re missing. I would love for buttons to help bridge gaps between human beings because I think in the end, we all want a lot of the same things,” Carter adds.

 

From 1964

 

 

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Animation

Towels: An Animated Battle for Beach Real Estate Serves as a Metaphor for Rising Global Tension

August 27, 2020

Christopher Jobson

In her animated short “Towels,” Prawta Annez explores her frustration and concern with global tensions as a rollicking ocean-side battle for prime towel space. While fairly light-hearted and comedic, the film was conceived during the political climate of 2017 and might as well use Ghandi’s famous quote “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” as a thesis. “I hope this short can be 4 minutes of fun and escapism for anyone who watches it, no matter where they may be or whatever they may be going through,” Annez shares. If you like this, also check out Norman McLaren’s famous 1952 Academy Award-winning short “Neighbours” that evokes parallels with the Cold War crisis. (via Short of the Week)

 

 

 



Design

Put Words into Action with ‘Gerry’, a New Font Created From the Silhouettes of Gerrymandered Electoral Districts

August 13, 2019

Laura Staugaitis

Apologies to anyone who shares the name, but two designers in Chicago are taking on electoral gerrymandering in a new font called Gerry. The font, created by Ben Doessel and James Lee, is composed of 26 districts whose absurd boundaries resemble alphabet letters much more than they resemble logical, cohesive population groupings. Alabama’s pronged 1st District bears a striking resemblance to the letter K, while New York’s 8th District looks like an M with its tall legs connected by a curved middle.

“Gerry” is available for download on a dedicated website, UglyGerry.com, which also includes a Twitter integration allowing visitors to thank their Representatives for their contributions to the font. If you’re interested in learning more about Gerrymandering, we recommend this John Oliver segment. (via Hyperallergic)

 

 



Photography

Jarring Juxtapositions of Prosperity and Conflict by Uğur Gallenkuş

May 17, 2019

Laura Staugaitis

Bottom photograph: Paula Bronstein

Turkish artist Uğur Gallenkuş uses split images to emphasize the grave differences between war-torn countries and privileged, peaceful societies. Gallenkuş often specifically references Western visual culture in his juxtaposed images, such as Christian iconography of the Madonna and child, and the Instagram aesthetic of the ice cream cone portrait. In each composite image, the Istanbul-based artist pairs a carefully matched slice of prosperity with jarring documentation of conflict and poverty to show what occupies the attention and defines the experiences of people around the world, depending on where they live.

Gallenkuş has been creating these divided images for several years as a personal project, and has garnered global attention for his work, which he shares with nearly half a million followers on Instagram. In a recent interview with Juxtapoz, the artist explained,  “If we want to live in peace and trust, we must have healthy knowledge and empathy. Wrong and biased information and hatred make these problems even worse.”

Lefthand photograph: Abd Doumany

Lefthand photograph: Mario Tama

Lefthand photograph: Shakib Rahman / Righthand photograph: Frederic J. Brown

Righthand photograph: Yasin Akgul

Lefthand photograph: Khalid Mohammed

 

 

 



Craft Design

An Award-Winning Sand Sculpture by Damon Langlois Captures a Crumbling Abraham Lincoln

May 17, 2019

Kate Sierzputowski

All images via Damon Langlois

Since 1997, Texas SandFest has attracted thousands of visitors to Port Aransas on Mustang Island. For the 2019 iteration, the three-day-festival awarded British Columbia-based Master Solo competitor Damon Langlois first place for his illusionistic work Liberty Crumbling. The piece portrays Abraham Lincoln in the likeness of the 1920 marble statue in the Lincoln Memorial. However, this one is cracking at its foundation. With his hand to his face, Lincoln appears exasperated as he sits on his crumbling platform.

Other sculptures in the competition also had messages for the audience, although many were environmental. Todd Pangborn’s Out of Sight Out of Mind featured a giant sea turtle next to a coral reef, and Jeff Strong’s Continental Drip displayed an ice cream cone holding a melting Earth. You can see more winners and competitors from the United States’ largest native-sand sculpture competition on Texas SandFest’s website, and view more of Langlois’s sand works on his website. (via Twisted Sifter)

 

 



Art

Banksy Hits Paris with Sharp Political Criticism and Several Mischievous Rats [Updated]

June 28, 2018

Sasha Bogojev

Against the backdrop of Paris Fashion Week which introduced several collaborative projects between high fashion brands and big names from the art world (Dior partnered with KAWS and Takashi Murakami continued collaborating with Virgil Abloh, the new artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection), the French capital was hit for the first time hit by the world’s most elusive street artist—Banksy.

Without previous announcement or warning, Parisians began to discover several new street pieces that quickly materialized in the urban/street art galaxy of the social media universe and were eventually confirmed on Banksy’s official Instagram account.

The first piece was found near the Porte de la Chapelle metro station, where Paris’ refugee centre “La Bulle,” was located until August 2017. A city within a city, it was home to a makeshift camp of some 2,700 refugees and was dismantled an estimated 35 times before 2,000 migrants were bussed to temporary shelters. This was done as part of Emmanuel Macron’s wish to remove the refugees “off the streets, out of the woods,” as stated during his campaign.

With this in mind, Banksy revisited his “Go Flock Yourself” piece from 2008, and created a new version as commentary on the current political situation in France and throughout Europe. Depicting a black girl painting a Victorian wallpaper pattern over a swastika, the artist is commenting on the way politicians are concealing wrongdoing and potentially fascist policies.

 

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

The second and third pieces appeared soon thereafter. One depicts a suited man luring a three-legged dog with a bone while hiding a saw behind his back, a metaphor for politicians tricking people with promises that often have a masked, devastating agenda. The other is Banksy’s take on the iconic painting “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David, a symbol of French power and influence. By covering the rider with his own cape, the artist is commenting on the current misguided way the government is leading the country, blinding people with propaganda and false promises.

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

The last three pieces introduce Bansky’s signature rats to their genesis—Parisian artist Blek Le Rat and his rat stencils were a great influence on the Bristol-born artist, or as he stated in one of his recent IG posts: “The birthplace of modern stencil art.” Placing them around the city in ways that interact with local graffiti and building facades, it may appear as though they’re having fun blowing things up. But in reality, they are a reminder of a volatile period of civil unrest that took place in May 1968 when the government temporarily ceased to function.

In one piece a rat is propelled by a popping champagne cork. Using this symbol of affluence as their vehicle to overtake obstacles, the rodents are once again Banksy’s metaphor for working class people making significant change when they join together and fight for similar cause.

Of particular note in this Banksy “invasion” was that some of the works were miraculously revised overnight, allowing the artist to highlight one of the biggest advantages of stencil technique–its ability to be applied quickly and precisely. With this in mind, a small rat prepared to blow up a Pompidou Center sign suddenly morphed into a much larger rat with bandanna covered face. It now wields a large X-Acto knife, a common symbol of stencil cutting.

Included here are many of the works that have since emerged in Paris, but you can see several more here.

Update: This article was updated on 6/28/18 to include new images and details.

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

Photo courtesy @WhereTheresWalls, used with permission

“I had planned to paint this on a wall, but ended up thinking it was more of a cartoon. So here it is as a cartoon.” – Banksy