Puritan Pleasure: Open houses [FT Magazine]

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Financial Times, April 1st, 2006

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If, like me, you relish taking post-prandial strolls around your neighbourhood purely so you can peer into people’s front rooms before they have shut the curtains for the night, the appeal of one of the US’s most popular Sunday pastimes will be obvious.

Open-housing is about more than keeping an eye on the property market. It provides a sheen of respectability to what is little more than glorified snooping. It’s also free and can be enjoyed by all ages.

It works this way: over coffee on Sunday morning you peruse the Open Houses pages of your local paper and map out your day. All the houses for sale are open from 2pm to 4.30pm, so other plans need to be scheduled accordingly. Many of the listings include a line- drawing of the home in question – vulgar photography is reserved for houses of the lower order.

There are different types of pleasures to be had from prying into other people’s homes. There is the bittersweet gratification of finding that the multimillion-dollar, architect-designed show stopper with its wrap-around deck and outdoor hot tub is the stuff of your dreams; and there is smug superiority, as in “I can’t believe someone with such obvious wealth has such appalling taste.”

In the part of California where I indulge this hobby the architectural styles range from modernist hill houses with great views of San Francisco, to delightful, shingled craftsman homes with their dark panelling and built-in cabinetry.

There is also fun to be had in discovering what the professional “home stagers” have been up to. Their presence is obvious in any house in the $2m-plus bracket in the Bay Area – spot the potted succulents on the porch, the tray of wine and (plastic) nibbles and the covetable linen on the plumped-up beds – I have even seen a guitarist strumming in a rose garden as the hordes poke their collective nose into the guest cottage.

What can I say? Legitimate voyeurism: it beats snoozing with the Sunday supplements.

Donald Gunn: A Need to Measure Success [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, May 11, 2004

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Never underestimate the importance of awards to the advertising industry. Anecdotes abound of the lengths agencies will go to to secure a prize. One French network promised each of its creative directors a share in a €1.5m ($1.77m) bounty if their work made it into one league table, and a Brazilian agency chief ordered his creative team to come in at the weekend “so that they could do the ads for Cannes”.

In some quarters there is a cynical belief that certain campaigns are created with a view to winning awards for agencies rather than driving sales for clients, or that competition juries favour big-budget and cutting-edge campaigns with which mainstream viewers are rarely familiar. None of which will, of course, prevent the industry’s creative tribes from descending on Cannes next month for the Golden Lion advertising awards festival, the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.

Donald Gunn knows more than most about awards. Once dubbed “the man with the best job in advertising”, Mr Gunn, who spent three decades at Leo Burnett, has latterly dedicated his career to analysing creativity and tracking the best-regarded advertising and the agencies or countries which produce it. The results appear every November in the Gunn Report, probably the most respected, and certainly the best-read, measure of excellence in an industry obsessed by rankings.

So, to what does he attribute this compulsion to be honoured? “In every field there is an appetite to be the best and for that to be celebrated,” he says. He concedes that, compared with other creative industries such as music or design, advertising has a disproportionate number of awards. But their role in powering the business is fundamental, he says.

For agencies, awards create a virtuous circle: they establish reputation, attract talent and bring in new business. Even so, Mr Gunn believes they should be seen only as the icing on the cake. “Agencies should set out to create the best advertising for their clients. Winning an award is a bonus.”

The benefits may not be so obvious for advertisers. “Awards are not a priority for advertisers, but they do want the best, most original advertising, so an award provides reassurance: they are getting good work and they have good people at their agency.”

Mr Gunn has also examined the relationship between creativity and effec tiveness and has proved to his satisfaction that award-winning advertising increases market share. A study of 400 of the most-awarded campaigns in the world between 1992 and 1995 found that 86.5 per cent of the ads were associated with market success. In other words, ads with award-winning qualities were two and a half times more likely to achieve, or surpass, clients’ objectives. Leo Burnett reprised Mr Gunn’s study in 2002 and unveiled similar results: four out of five award-winning campaigns achieved positive market results for clients.

Mr Gunn’s insights stem from his experience as an agency creative chief and from the phenomenal databank that forms the backbone of the Gunn Report, launched in 1999.

While at Leo Burnett, Mr Gunn founded two institutions that still set creative benchmarks today: the Great Commercials Library, started in 1986, and the Global Product Committee. The latter involves a commitment that many agencies would find daunting: every three months, 20 of Leo Burnett’s top creative staff from around the world meet for a week to view the entire network’s output. Ads are scored and feedback is given.

To compile his report, Mr Gunn combines the winner lists from 52 national, regional and global award schemes (32 for television, 20 for print). But, just like Coca-Cola’s secret recipe, he has never revealed which ones they are. He says this is to avoid harming the contests that are not included (though it also makes it impossible for agencies to challenge the rankings). After much data-crunching, the league tables emerge – including top commercials, top agencies, top production companies and top countries – as well as a Showreel of the Year featuring the 100 most-awarded campaigns in the world.

Given Mr Gunn’s influence in the industry, one wonders if his rankings have ever been questioned, or if he has been offered incentives to skew results. “Much to my amazement nobody has ever seriously challenged the tables,” he says, “although there have been the usual queries about methodology”. A US network once hired a headhunter to find out which awards had made it into the report; it failed.

“There was a theory at one point that if you threw money at the awards and entered the maximum number of shows, you would come out well,” he says. “In fact, the agencies that spend the most are often those who are entering mediocre work.”

He has his own view about what makes an award-winning ad. He believes an agency’s shared vision and passion for good work – as well as a willingness to take risks – are more important than incentives (such as bonuses), or even strong leadership.

He has identified 12 “master-formats” which, he says, are a good starting point for delivering a selling idea in an engaging way: “Sitting down with a blank sheet to create an ad can be a lonely, scary process.” Approaches such as the testimonial or the celebrity endorsement can dramatise a proposition. Mr Gunn will flesh out his master-formats concept at a presentation in Cannes this year.

Mr Gunn has also spotted a welcome rise in creative standards across the world. “Three years ago, there were 22 markets represented in the 100 best commercials reel. Last year there were 28. Countries such as Canada, Mexico and India are moving up,” he says. Australia, he notes, has regressed since its 1980s heyday, while China has improved as Hong Kong talent has moved into Shanghai and Beijing.

This year, Mr Gunn is handing on the bulk of the work involved in compiling the report to his sister-in-law and brother-in-law. But, before then, he must complete possibly his most ambitious project to date: an online library of award-winning advertising he has tracked since 1962. “It will deliberately be the smallest online commercials library because it will only feature the best – and all the best – ads from around the world,” he says. The Gunn Report Library will be launched by BEAM TV this summer.

Mr Gunn claims he is taking it easy, but his diary tells another story. He has just returned from an advertising conference in Argentina, and later this year will attend festivals in Asia and eastern Europe, as well as Cannes. For this “awards supremo”, it is business as usual.

Harry Potter and the Gaelic Revolution [The Guardian]

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Tuesday December 23, 2003

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Scotland’s ancient language is making a comeback,
explains Tracey Taylor

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As children, Mary Galbraith’s grandparents were belted if they were overheard speaking Gaelic in the playground, even though it was the language they spoke at home. Even as adults they never properly mastered English. Just two generations later, Galbraith’s commitment to her grandparents’ native tongue is such that although she doesn’t speak it herself she sends her two daughters, Seona and Moire, to a school where the entire curriculum is taught in Gaelic.

Glasgow Gaelic school (Bunsgoil Gáidhlig Ghlaschu) is Scotland’s only dedicated Gaelic-speaking school. Children have all their lessons in the language and only start some lessons in English after they have been there three years. However, across Scotland more than 5,000 children learn Gaelic, many of them from homes where neither parent speaks the language.

What motivates parents to have their children learn a minority language? Gaelic is in decline – 99% of Scots don’t understand a word of it and, if the number of speakers falls below 50,000 (it now stands at around 60,000), Gaelic will be officially dead. Nevertheless, the Scottish Executive invests more than £3m a year in Gaelic education. A Gaelic language bill, currently in draft stage, is due to be introduced to parliament next summer with the aim of securing the status of Gaelic in Scotland.

For Mary Galbraith the answer is straightforward: “I wanted to give my children an opportunity that wasn’t there for me. I never learned Gaelic. The girls were looked after by a Gaelic-speaking childminder so they were already bilingual. It made sense that they continued with a Gaelic-medium education.”

Reconnecting with one’s roots and cultural heritage is clearly a significant factor. Gaelic was the main language in most rural areas of Scotland until the early 17th century, but it was outlawed by the crown in 1616, and suppressed further after the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. “For hundreds of years, and until fairly recently, Gaelic was seen as a second-class language,” says Margaret Maciver, educational officer at Comunn Na Gáidhlig, a body set up to promote Gaelic.

Bringing up children to be bilingual has been shown to offer other, more general advantages including enhanced creative thinking, improved test results, higher self-esteem and greater tolerance. For this reason it is not only those with Gaelic ancestry who are rediscovering Scotland’s mother tongue. “We see families who have moved from England who are having their children taught Gaelic as it is the ‘local’ language,” says Donald John McCloud, Gaelic education advisor for the Highland council which, along with the Western Islands, embraces the Gaelic heartland.

These facts are not lost on Caroline Stewart, mother to seven-year-old Alexander, who also attends Glasgow Gaelic school. “My older daughter spent a year at school in France and has spoken French since. Children who speak more than one language have been shown to have better cognitive skills. I wanted Alexander to be bilingual so I was looking for a school that taught a second language. The fact he was learning Gaelic rather than another language was secondary at first. But now I am pleased: the more I learn about the history of the language the more important I feel it is to preserve it.”

Gaelic now features at all levels of Scottish education: pre-school, primary, secondary, further and higher education, and as part of teacher training. In 2002-2003 there were 1,928 primary-level and 375 secondary-level children in Gaelic-medium education. Another 3,000, approximately, learn Gaelic as a second language, usually in special Gaelic-language units within schools. The number of Gaelic-speaking teachers graduating in 2003 was 25 (for primary school teaching), an increase of eight on the number qualifying in 2002.

These are not big numbers and, despite the avowed support of Peter Peacock, Scotland’s minister for education and young people, who has said his aim is to ensure Gaelic “survives and thrives”, the Gaelic lobby faces a struggle. Obstacles include a lack of Gaelic-speaking teachers, a paucity of teaching materials and a drop-off in the provision of Gaelic education at secondary level. Detractors also point to the limited usefulness of Gaelic compared to, say, a modern European language in the increasingly globalised career market.

Boyd Robertson, senior lecturer in Gaelic at the University of Strathclyde, which trains Gaelic teachers, says the teacher-shortage problem needs to be solved urgently, particularly within secondary schools. “At the primary level there is something of an equilibrium between supply and demand, but the numbers of secondary school teachers are not growing in the way that is required.”

Supporters of Gaelic tend to look for inspiration to Wales, where concerted efforts since the 1930s have resulted in census figures that show that 26% of people under the age of 35 can now speak Welsh, which has been included in the national curriculum since 1988. One in five primary pupils are taught in classes where Welsh is used either as the main medium or for teaching part of the curriculum; one in seven secondary school children are taught Welsh as a first language, and four in five learn it as a second language.

One technique used to accelerate the take-up of Welsh has been “immersion education”, a concept that is now being put into practice in Scotland. The idea is for children as young as nursery school age to “plunge” into a language completely speaking, reading and writing it all day.

In order for Gaelic to have a good chance of reproducing itself, at least a third of under-25-year-olds need to speak the language. Scotland is a long way off achieving this. The Scottish Executive, which earlier this year set up Bórd na Gáidhlig, a development body to promote Gaelic, has given itself a target of a 5% annual increase in the number of Gaelic medium-educated primary school children. Privately, however, civil servants admit they would like to see a much higher take-up. “To be truthful, we are very jealous of Wales,” says one.

The pupils at Glasgow Gaelic school can take credit for a small victory in the crusade. Fed-up that they couldn’t read about their favourite fictional character in Gaelic, this summer they sent dozens of letters to Bloomsbury, publishers of Harry Potter. As a result, a Gaelic edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone looks set to appear next year.

Online Support: Berkeley Parents Network [The Guardian]

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The Guardian, March 30th, 2005

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Tracey Taylor was blown away by a Californian online network for mums. But is there anything like it here?

Earlier this month, Maria was feeling desperate: alone at home with two young children and a husband who worked all hours, she was sleep-deprived and depressed. She submitted a posting about being at the end of her tether to an online parenting network. Within two days she received 27 email replies from mothers in her neighbourhood. They offered practical advice on good therapists and playgroups that would give her a break from the children, as well as many sympathetic reassurances of the “You are not alone” variety.

This was Berkeley Parents Network, a US service I discovered when preparing for my family’s move this summer from London to California. Since subscribing to the free network, I have received an overwhelming amount of information about this leafy suburb of San Francisco.

While worrying about how I could avoid becoming either a “soccer mom” or a Desperate Housewife, I also needed practical information such as: which neighbourhoods were the most desirable and/or affordable, how to find a house for rent and schools to shortlist. I now know which paediatrician my two boys “must” sign up with and where to find a babysitting cooperative, as well as a multimedia summer camp (whatever that is).

Angela, who recommended her paediatrician, has been a regular correspondent. She has already done extensive – bordering on obsessive – research on schools for her offspring and, although my views do not always correspond with hers, her advice has been welcome.

Berkeley Parents Network was started by Ginger Ogle in 1993 – before the worldwide web in its current form even existed. Ogle was a computer science graduate student at Berkeley with two school-age children. Originally a list of 14 student parents campaigning for improved parental leave, the database grew to encompass all parents on the campus, then, eventually, was made open to all parents in the community.

Today, this non-profit-making, parent-run email forum has a subscriber base of more than 10,000, most of whom are parents or carers who look after young children and who live in Berkeley, with its population of around 100,000.

BPN works entirely online, predominantly by email. Busy parents post questions about child-rearing, local resources and community events, look for childcare and sell household items. Newsletter digests with dozens of parents’ questions and the responses they generate are emailed to subscribers eight-10 times a week. As Ogle puts it: “Our success is a combination of an early start, my technical background and an unending supply of smart and altruistic parents.”

What is surprising is that such patently useful grassroots services have been relatively slow to take off, even in tech-savvy America. “I hear about other lists for parents but they are much smaller – at the level of a neighbourhood or a school,” says Ogle. “There are for-profit efforts too that have mostly not worked out, although I continue to hear about these.”

So, does the UK offer anything as useful and well-run as Berkeley Parents Network? No – but there are encouraging signs. Netmums.com, for instance, bills itself as a “local network by mums for mums” and hosts local sites around the country that include forums such as Meet a Mum and Buy and Sell. Some are more trafficked than others. When I looked up my area in south-east London it had only one posting listed under Childcare, two items for sale in the Nearly New listing and a mere handful of email exchanges from mothers wanting to meet up. However, the Bristol section is very active. And the Harrow and Hillingdon section, where the site has its roots, has 5,000 members and its discussion boards are buzzing.

BPN demonstrates how “nappy valley” neighbourhoods can exploit the web to help create dynamic and mutually supportive communities. Clearly these online tribes can go some way to replacing the extended families of past generations. When I move to the west coast and am looking for a soccer club for my football-mad nine-year-old, I’ll know who to call.

Tea with the FT: Barbara Ehrenreich [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, February 18th, 2006

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First it was blue-collar misery in America – now the writer has exposed the lot of its corporate workers, writes Tracey Taylor

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As soon as I meet Barbara Ehrenreich, renowned chronicler of America’s working class, we are thrown into an awkward social moment. Our plan is have tea somewhere inside the swanky Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. We wander into a restaurant off the hotel’s lobby that looks appropriate but a woman behind a desk stops us and says we need to be club members to eat or drink there. As we turn on our heels, Ehrenreich mutters: “You see, you come somewhere as upscale as this – which I’m not used to at all by the way – and you think you have reached the top. Then you realise there is a whole other level.”

The incident doesn’t phase Ehrenreich. You sense that there isn’t much that would. This is a writer who chose to work as a waitress, stack shelves at Wal-Mart and clean “three different kinds of shit stains” from toilets as a housekeeper to gather material for her best-known book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. And this at an age when most people would be comfortably retired.

Ehrenreich, who is 64, has a brisk manner and a practical appearance: her hair is cut in a bob and she is wearing black trousers, a coral shirt and what she describes as “slouchy” flat sandals. She assumed a new identity to see at first hand how the other half live for Nickel and Dimed, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years after it was published in 2001.

The “immersion” style of writing is in the tradition of George Orwell, whose descriptions of coal miners in The Road to Wigan Pier aimed to shock middle-class readers out of their complacency. Ehrenreich herself has spawned imitators in the UK and Australia. Her new book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, (which comes out in paperback in the UK in March) takes the same approach but this time her focus is on the white-collar world – the middle managers and account executives who toil at the corporate coalface.

These are the people “who did everything right”. They earned degrees, postponed child-bearing and dedicated themselves to climbing the career ladder. But now, as Ehrenreich describes it, they are in trouble. Setting out to find a job as a PR director or speechwriter, Ehrenreich found a white-collar netherworld full of people who have been downsized or outsourced or were still employed but heard “the drumbeats of lay- offs”; or had survived cuts but were burning out doing the jobs of two people.

Ehrenreich found the project hard-going, she tells me, as we settle at a table in a rather soulless dining area where we have been assured we will be served tea. “It was more enjoyable with Nickel and Dimed,” she says. “I liked the camaraderie of the workplace. There might have been similar camaraderie in some white-collar places but I got the feeling that it is very different, that people are more anxious and mutually distrustful in the white-collar world. A lot of people described the workplace to me as cold and unwelcoming. “I don’t mind manual labour,” she continues. “And I like the straightforwardness of the blue-collar world in that there is a job, youdo it and you get paid fo rthe job. There is not all this . . . ” – she pauses before choosing a word that she thinks can be printed in the Financial Times – ” . . . this manipulation about attitude and personality.”

Ehrenreich, who has been gesticulating to make her point, stops talking and looks flustered. She explains she is concerned that our waiter, who is standing some feet away, may have interpreted her hand movements as a rather cavalier summons. She mouths apologies to him. Maybe her experience as a waitress explains why Ehrenreich is going out of her way to be nice to the waiter. (I, on the other hand, am feeling less sympathetic and would be happy if this particular one did his job: we have been in the deserted restaurant for more than 10 minutes and he has not yet taken our order.)

The manipulation Ehrenreich refers to is most apparent in what she discovers is called the “transition industry” – the career coaches who help reveal one’s “true occupational passion”. What Ehrenreich finds galling, rather than amusing, however is the message the coaches invariably impart to their vulnerable, often depressed audience, about blame. “I could see this philosophy being dumped on people – this new-age idea that it is really your fault because you control everything with your attitude,” she says.

The job-seekers Ehrenreich meets in the book seem prepared to take this analysis at face value. I ask her why she thinks that is. “I think this mind-over- matter idea is quite deep-seated in American culture. In fact, I encountered it and wrote about it when I was being treated for breast cancer five years ago. There is this strong ideology that it is all in your attitude whether you recover or not. It creeped me right out. You find it in the 19th century with Mary Baker Eddy, in the mid-20th century with Norman Vincent Peale and with EST (Erhard Seminar Training) in the 1970s.”

The waiter arrives to take our order and Ehrenreich again apologises to him for what he may have interpreted as her “uppity” behaviour earlier. She orders an iced latte – decaf, one shot, with 2 per cent fat milk. The waiter mishears and assumes she wants iced tea so she reiterates the minutiae of her order. She collects her thoughts and sighs. “I really don’t know what to make of the corporate world after all this. A great deal is being demanded of white-collar workers that has nothing to do with getting the job done. There seems to be so much emphasis on relationships: do you get along with people? They say 90 per cent of hiring decisions are based on an emotional response to you. I am so amazed by this world where decisions are so irrational, where there is a lot of delusional thinking going on – controlling the universe with your thought forms, for example. It makes me wonder how anything gets done.” She laughs: “Then I suddenly realised: this is the culture that leads to Michael D. Brown heading up Fema. I’m sure he’s likeable and he knew all the right people – dresses nicely, good-looking fellow. Probably a lot of fun to have a Margarita with.” [Brown was the Bush-nominated head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who lost his job after what critics saw as a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.]

Despite almost 10 months of searching and an investment of more than $5,000, Ehrenreich failed to find a job. She had honed her CV to perfection, had a makeover, networked frantically, and displayed admirable flexibility, “applying at one point for a job as PR director of the American Diabetes Association and then switching sides and offering myself to Hershey’s”.

“I now realise that it was a kind of hubris to imagine I could find a job in half a year or so,” she says. “As I got into it and began to meet all these seemingly terrifically well-qualified people who had been searchingfor well over a year, I thought, ‘this is what it is really about, the white-collar underworld’.”

So the book ends up being a call to arms. Ever the activist, Ehrenreich urges the unemployed, and the anxiously employed, to exploit the endless networking events they attend. “If people had been allowed to, say, share their stories, that would have broken through some of the feelings of isolation and worthlessness.”

She says she wants those that read the book to realise that it’s not their fault if they are being badly treated by companies. “I see it as a possible antidote to [the business tome] Who Moved my Cheese? which says, ‘You’re going to get jerked around, get used to it.’ I would like people to read Bait and Switch and think, ‘Yeah that was ridiculous’ – to feel free to have such a subversive thought.”

Ehrenreich advocates fundamental change at policy level, too: “There is a simple agenda: one, let’s get going on universal health insurance: having it attached to your job is ridiculous. Two, let’s have a more secure and adequate unemployment compensation. And third, let’s stop tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are made in the name of job creation but actually have nothing to do with it.”

At this point Ehrenreich’s mobile phone rings and she excuses herself to see who the call is from. “I just want to check whether it is one of my children or someone else,” she says squinting at the phone’s small screen. “No it is a publisher,” she snarls, “To hell with you.” Her phone rings again and she frowns, making clear it is her publisher again. “I see that 212 area code [her US publishers are in New York], then my cellphone died as far as I’m concerned.”

So what does she see as the way forward for corporations? “We have to find ways to make corporations more accountable to the people they serve. I don’t think they just serve the shareholders – there should be a broader vision of stakeholders, which includes consumers, communities and employees.”

As we get up to leave, Ehrenreich points to the pretty three-tier cake stand on the table next to ours. It is filled with delicate sandwiches and petits-fours in pastel hues. “Look what we missed,” she says, grinning. But somehow the image of Ehrenreich sipping Earl Grey tea from a bone-china cup and nibbling on miniature cakes doesn’t quite cut it. The immaculately groomed ladies of leisure who are doing so are enjoying the fruits of capitalism. Ehrenreich is too busy fighting its flaws.

California Dreams: Norah and Norman Stone [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, May 27th 2006

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Six of the eight bedrooms in Norah and Norman Stone’s mansion have been given over to art. But the San Francisco power couple assure me that the encroaching collection has required no real sacrifice on their part and no significant alterations to their beautiful Arthur Brown-designed house.

“I was actually pleased to have the housekeeper move out and be replaced by Jason Rhoades and Matthew Barney,” says Norah, referring to the top floor where they now keep several pieces by the two artists.

A tour of Stones’ home, which has views from Presidio Heights over the city and the bay, reveals just how inventive they have been when it comes to sharing their living space with their art. What is particularly striking is the juxtaposition of the many uncompromisingly modern pieces with the more traditional, elegant surroundings, originally created by the renowned interior designer Frances Elkins.

In the entrance hall, against a background of sumptuous antique Chinese wallpaper, hangs “La Poupée” (1938) by Hans Bellmer. One of Joseph Beuys’ ”vitrine” works, housed in a rectangular glass case on legs, stands nearby. “You don’t see many of those in people’s hallways,” quips Norman. Tucked into a closet – the Stones admit they struggled to find the right place – is a sound piece by Stephen Vitiello that includes recordings made in the World Trade Center in 1999.

In the relatively small, formal dining room two giant wall pieces by Jeff Koons, “Balloon Dog” (1996) and “Cheeky” (2000) face off against a large Andy Warhol self-portrait, “Fright Wig” (1986). Strolling through the living room you spot a familiar image of the Mona Lisa complete with moustache and goatee – Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.” (1940).

The Stones like to contextualise their collection by including pieces by a previous generation of avant-garde artists that influenced many of the younger names in their collection. Thus, on an upper floor, Robert Gober’s “Pair of Urinals” (1987) echoes Duchamp’s succès de scandale, “Fontaine” (1917).

Norman, who is president of his family’s foundation, explains the rationale behind their acquisitions: “The wisest thing to do is to know your end-game,” he says. “We collect museum-quality pieces so that in the end they will go to museums.” (The Stones have ties to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Tate Modern, among others.) “Our mission is to act differently.”

Some of the work is highly provocative. But, says Norman, who is a psychologist by training, and who works regularly as a psychological counsellor with young people at a local community centre: “Our art addresses upsetting issues and I don’t feel good about them but they exist and should not be shirked.”

As one explores the house, it’s clear that every possible nook and cranny has been exploited as space to show art. In a labyrinthine series of rooms in the basement one happens across Keith Tyson’s 2002 Turner Prize-winning “Bubble Chambers”. Also below ground-level, a long whitewashed room acts as a minimalist gallery with works by Donald Judd and Richard Serra as well as one of Andy Warhol’s Rorschach paintings.

Even the garage, which houses his ‘n’ hers Porsches, has been put to use. When Norman decided to buy “Electric Earth”, a video piece by Doug Aitken, he realised the five screens and 1,200 ft of space it required would pose something of a challenge. The solution was a linear version of the piece, created by the artist, with just one screen which drops down for viewing once the cars have been relegated to the street.

Maintenance issues inevitably arise with such an eclectic collection. A Jeff Koons work, “Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank” (1985), which consists of two Spalding basketballs in a tank of distilled water, requires a regular water change. Unfortunately the person who had been performing this task for the Stones – and was familiar with the 13-page manual explaining the necessary procedure – recently left town. Norman shrugs this off as a minor inconvenience. “We’ll find someone else,” he says.

In any case, the couple have bigger issues on their mind. At their Napa Valley estate, where they also manage a vineyard, they are drilling below ground into the limestone to create a 5,000 sq ft cave of exhibition space. Also in the planning stages is a James Turrell skyspace which is being built into the swimming pool. Norah says when it is completed LED lighting will allow you to change the colour of the sky.

The Stones insist they always find solutions when they want to install a new work of art. Still, the “art cave” is perhaps an admission that their city home has finally reached full capacity.

A Frame and 240 Volts: Living with "Difficult" Art [Financial Times]

Financial Times, May 27, 2006

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From sharks to video installations, some
work is harder to own than others.
Tracey Taylor finds out how to
display “difficult” art

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Four years ago a story about a melting human blood sculpture surfaced in the media. The slightly sniggering undertone was hard to miss. It was reported that a work owned by Charles Saatchi – a cast of a head made of nine pints of frozen, congealed blood – had been accidentally destroyed when the freezer in which it was being stored was disconnected by builders refitting the art collector’s kitchen.

The rumour was denied by Saatchi who, one could argue, had the last laugh last year, when he sold the piece – “Self” by Marc Quinn – for $1.5m, a tidy return on the $13,000 investment he had reputedly made to acquire it in 1991.

Still, the melting story raises a serious question about the challenges of displaying contemporary art, much of which does not come conveniently framed or in sizes appropriate to the average domestic interior. Even Jay Jopling, the dealer who sold Saatchi the Quinn piece – and who is presumably unfazed by works involving pickled sharks (Damien Hirst) and rumpled beds (Tracey Emin) – acknowledged that “Self” requires “a bit of commitment on the part of the collector”.

Sometimes just the effort required to accommodate a piece – because it is unwieldy or just plain enormous (say a Louise Bourgeois bronze spider or a work by French conceptual artist Daniel Buren whose signature painted stripes might take over several walls) testifies to the purchaser’s devotion.

As an international art consultant based in Brussels, Oliver Toegemann has seen his fair share of art works that require commitment. His company Slegten & Toegemann has helped many private clients integrate unconventional pieces into their homes by reinforcing floors for heavy items or removing balustrades and railings to facilitate installation.

Toegemann also knows about bringing controversial subjects out of the gallery and into the domestic realm. “With contemporary art, the feeling quite often is the more provocative the better. Take Jeff Koons’ pornographic series ‘Made in Heaven’, or Christian Boltanski’s installations with their images of Holocaust victims. These are aesthetically difficult, yet they are iconic pieces that find their way into collectors’ homes,” he says.

Anyone who hangs them in a living room or foyer must be brazen enough to withstand criticism and even expressions of disgust. This advice comes from personal experience. Toegemann himself lives with “The Healing of St Thomas” by Anish Kapoor, which consists of a deep cut in a wall filled with red pigment. “It looks like an open wound and we get many comments [since it] has a very strong presence,” he says.

He also owns a piece by Carl Andre, the American artist best known for his controversial “pile of bricks” work, “Equivalent VIII”, owned by the Tate Modern. Toegemann’s Andre piece “Valver” is made up of a number of thin, flat metal tiles, which he initially chose to display on the floor in front an ornate marble fireplace. “The piece always provokes the same reaction – ‘This is art?’ – and then nobody dares to step on it, although Andre’s whole idea was to liberate sculpture from its pedestal and to encourage people to walk on it.”

If someone did damage the work by stepping on it, there would be no gnashing of teeth. The work comes with a signed artist’s certificate, Toegemann explains, and, as long as replacement tiles are made according to the specifications on it, the art work remains authentic.

The idea that an artist’s input is not always necessary to the work raises interesting issues when it comes to the ownership and display of works. Lawrence Weiner, a sculptor whose medium is language, first settled on the idea that the original construction of a piece was not critical to its existence in 1968 after one of his outdoor installations was damaged. He concluded that a work such as his “A Stake Set”, which in one variation might be those three words spelled out in capital letters on a wall, could equally well be read in a book or even uttered aloud.

Other art works that might pose challenges – but at the very least will make for stimulating dinner conversation – are those made from perishable materials. German artist Dieter Roth relished working with materials such as rabbit excrement, salami and chocolate. He liked to make time visible by allowing organic objects to decompose. Similarly one can literally watch an artwork vanish with a canvas created with disappearing paint by the American Richard Prince.

Richard and Pamela Kramlich understand well the demands contemporary art can make on owners. The San Francisco couple, beneficiaries of Silicon Valley’s gold-rush years, have what is widely agreed to be the world’s pre-eminent private collection of new-media and electronic art. The pieces by artists such as Matthew Barney, Bruce Nauman, Doug Aitken and Bill Viola they’ve collected since the early 1990s all require varying amounts of technological equipment – DVD monitors, computers, projectors, as well as intricate webs of electronic cables.

The Kramlichs have chosen to live with this jabbering, noisy, visually stimulating, sometimes jarring ensemble in what their curator, Christopher Eamon, describes as their “1929 Tudor neo-neo-Gothic” home in the desirable neighbourhood of Presidio Heights. As Eamon describes it, a guest at the Kramlich residence might wake up to a partial projection of Rheinhard Mucha’s “Auto-Reverse” on the wall behind his bed. Sitting in one of the living areas, he might find Gilbert and George chattering away in their “Portrait of the Artists as Young Men” on a television next to the sofa.

One of the first works the Kramlichs acquired, and one that set the tone for future acquisitions, is Dara Birnbaum’s “Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission (1990)”, which examines the role of the media in the Chinese student uprising and which the artist installed herself in the couple’s grand stairwell. Physically, the piece consists of a cascade of four laser displayers, four sets of directional speakers, four monitors and one large monitor.

The Kramlichs have said they enjoy sharing home with what amounts to around 12 installations and 30 media works, depending on what is out on loan to museums at any one time. It’s rather remarkable considering the fact that even some new-media artists admit they can’t spend prolonged time with their difficult-to-ignore art. As Birnbaum told Wired magazine in 1999: “I’d go crazy if I lived with my own work all the time.”

Apart from the difficulty of going about one’s daily business surrounded by such serious distractions, the Kramlichs must also address issues particular to electronic art. There is the impermanence of the technology, for instance, which raises questions about future value. And there is the fact that, unlike a painting or sculpture, their art can be “switched off”.

For some, the solution to accommodating challenging art is to reject the very notion and come up with a new idea altogether. Tired of what he saw as the trend to treat art as a commodity in the mid 1980s, Steven Oliver, a prominent West Coast businessman and board chair at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, decided to commission artists to create site- specific sculptures at his ranch in Alexander Valley, California. He now has a series of exceptional, outsize pieces by artists including Richard Serra, Nauman, Martin Puryear and Ann Hamilton spread out over the wild, open landscape. Not for him the worries of integration, disintegration or valuation. As he says: “This is art in its process form – I can’t sell it. I can’t give it away. I can only enjoy the experience of its creation and existence.”

Artist Deborah Oropallo's Home [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, May 27, 2006

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There’s nothing understated
about the home this California
artist shares with her children
and architect husband,
says Tracey Taylor

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When artist Deborah Oropallo used to drive past the austere building she now calls home, she saw in her mind’s eye a huge, inviting studio with maybe a bed at the back, but nothing more.

Sixteen years later, the 4,000 sq ft former machine shop in a light- industrial area of West Berkeley, California, is not only a workspace but also a family residence accommodating Oropallo, her architect husband Michael Goldin and their two children, Leo and Gina.

With its vast spaces, eclectic art works and outsize fixtures, it is hardly a typical living space. But closer scrutiny reveals that much thought has been given to the routines and rituals of daily life. And it is not a home masquerading as an exhibition space. Every painting, every photograph has been created by friends or relatives and each one tells a story. Memory and family play a significant role in Oropallo’s work and it’s no surprise that the same themes echo through her house.

I visit on an overcast day in April. Built in the 1960s, the grey building is distinctive for wraparound glass-brick windows that follow its curved contours. It is one of many former factories and warehouses in this part of Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. Walk one block west and you reach the choppy waters. Hugging it are the tracks on which giant Pacific Union freight trains make their ponderous way upstate emitting their characteristic mournful whistle.

Step into the house and the first thing you see is the tail wing of a “Shooting Star” T33 aeroplane hung on the hallway’s back wall. Attached to it are dog tags that belonged to Oropallo’s father who was a pilot in the second world war. Through a doorway to the right is a long study, which leads into the artist’s beautiful, light-filled studio. The rest of the house is living space: a huge, open-plan kitchen and eating area, a bathroom, and bedrooms, two of which, on an upper mezzanine, make use of the building’s 15ft ceilings.

Oropallo points to the advantage of starting with a great big box. “One of the beauties of having a space like this is that it is easy to create new rooms or add elements on a whim,” she says. Thus, after several years of her using the shop only for work, when she and Goldin realised the house where they had been living was too small for their growing family, they simply went to the studio, got out sledgehammer and broke through a dividing wall.

Form followed function. They carved out a slender gap in the wall between their bedroom and the children’s sleeping area on the upstairs level so they could reach them easily at night when they were younger. Similarly, a tall window was inserted between the kitchen and Oropallo’s studio so that the children could see her at work while staying protected from the toxic fumes of her paints.

Many of the images in Oropallo’s work, which is in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum in New York, use doll furniture and miniature toys as their starting point; she says they prompt her to contemplate her own childhood. Thus, she paid careful attention to her own children’s bedrooms. “I thought, this is going to be their memory,” she says.

For each, she chose a work of art. Leo’s, a large image of a cowboy by Jason Byers, wasn’t an immediate hit; the children found the stark, imposing figure towering over them frightening so it was put away. But a trip to the rodeo piqued their interest in the wild west and it was reinstalled.

Much of the furniture in the house – including storage units, gym lockers and shelves – have been sourced from commercial catalogues and many are fitted with wheels and casters. “I like the versatility of being able to use something to store paints and then put it in a bedroom when it’s needed there,” Oropallo says. Some pieces, such as the sleek desk in the study and the large tables in the studio are designed by Goldin and manufactured by his furniture design company Swerve.

Other areas of the house have his stamp on them, too. “Michael . . . had worked as a cook and [his] family has always been passionate about cooking . . .  [so] when he moved in . . .  [he] asked me where the pastry counter was,” Oropallo says. “I told him I never made pastries. I just don’t cook. He said we had to have one – and a freezer for all the home-made stocks and Bolognese sauces he would make.”

So the kitchen became Goldin’s domain. You only have to look at the scale of the space and its components to understand why Oropallo teases him for having a “size disorder”. The double catering range, bought at a culinary institute, is so vast they had to move Leo’s bedroom into another part of the house to make room for it. A pair of vintage laundry sinks equipped with medical-style, foot-pedal-operated taps (a nod to Goldin’s father, a retired doctor) abuts a hulking, poured-concrete countertop. A massive baking table reminds Oropallo of her father’s second career as a baker, while a robust butcher’s block was found at a French kitchen antiques dealer in San Francisco.

The dining table, which easily and often sits 12, was also Goldin’s idea. “For him life is an enormous table with people coming and staying, and sharing food,” Oropallo says. The light fixture over the table is by Amsterdam’s Droog Design. On the wall behind it is “Yellow Liner”, a Richard Misrach photograph of the Bonneville salt flats in Utah. Across the room are pair of photographs by Goldin’s mother Joann, one featuring a decapitated chicken’s head.

It is not just Oropallo’s home that has undergone change with the arrival of children. Her art has evolved. After 20 years of painting she began, six years ago, to focus on photography-based pieces. A current exhibition of her work at the Boise Art Museum in Idaho (which runs until June 18) includes enlarged computer montages of manipulated images – including figurines, glossy leaves and pillows – mounted on to canvas and coated with layers of matte acrylic. “Painting involves long stretches of time, whereas with my current art I can work in increments – such as when the children are at school or asleep,” she explains. She also admits to hitting something of a wall with painting and thinks the new medium has opened up new possibilities and a fresh perspective.

The next progression may be into a new home. Oropallo and Goldin are planning to build it on a plot of land across the road, adjacent to his architectural practice and design studio. And this one will be designed for the next stage in the family’s life, with space for parents and teenagers to keep their distance, for instance, and an autonomous apartment to welcome relatives. Goldin, a keen hunter, also wants a walk-in refrigerator so he can hang the meat he brings home from their ranch in Mendocino. And he is even designing a customised living space for the the family’s pet birds, two cockatoos and a parakeet – a long interior room with an integrated drain and hose, a tree and enough space for them to take flight.

San Francisco: Braced for the Big One [Financial Times]

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Financial Times, June 24 2006

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Tracey Taylor talks to San Franciscans
about day to day living on two
earthquake fault lines

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Scanning the newspaper on Friday to find out how your weekend plans will be affected by the weather is a common ritual wherever you live. If your home is in certain parts of California, you will also learn how many earthquakes occurred around you in the previous seven days. In the San Francisco Bay Area, in the week ending June 9, there were 69, the largest being one with a magnitude of 3.3 located near Talmage in Mendocino county. Any relatively strong one (above 3) would have caused residents to feel a sudden sharp jolt to their houses or an intense shudder in the ground beneath their feet.

Unfortunately, unlike forecasting the weather, predicting earthquakes is an inexact science, so your Friday paper will have no useful information about how many quakes to expect in the coming week. There will be many, but where, how large or how they may affect you is anyone’s guess. Welcome to life on the fault line.

San Francisco and its suburbs are situated on the San Andreas fault and its tributary the Hayward fault, which geological maps helpfully show running within half a mile of my home. My neighbours and I are literally living life on the edge and lately it’s been hard to forget it.

April 18 marked the 100th anniversary of the “Big One”, the 1906 earthquake that, combined with the fire that raged in its wake, all but destroyed San Francisco and left at least 3,000 dead. In the run-up to the centennial, the media ran stories for weeks. There were numerous commemorative exhibitions and events and, on the day itself, a reported 10,000 people, many dressed up in bonnets and breeches, converged in the city centre at 5.12am to remember the moment the earthquake struck.

Considered one of the US’s worst natural disasters, the 1906 quake had a magnitude of 7.9. Its epicentre was two miles offshore but its impact was much more far-ranging as it ripped the earth’s surface for 300 miles along the San Andreas fault at speeds of up to 13,000mph. In that year’s May 5 edition of Collier’s, Jack London wrote: “Not in history has a modern imperial city been so completely destroyed. San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts. Its industrial section is wiped out. Its business section is wiped out. Its social and residential section is wiped out. The factories and warehouses, the great stores and newspaper buildings, the hotels and the palaces of the nabobs, are all gone.”

Response to the ”big one” was swift, however. Reconstruction was largely completed by 1915, in time for the Panama-Pacific Exposition, which celebrated the city’s “rise from the ashes”.

The next big quake in the Bay Area was in 1989. The 7.1-magnitude Loma Prieta killed 66 people, injured more than 3,700 and caused extensive destruction. Forty-two of the deaths occurred when a double-decker portion of a freeway “pancaked” and crushed several cars on the lower deck. A section of the Bay Bridge, the main artery between the East Bay and San Francisco, also collapsed.

As for the next one, the US Geological Survey says there is a 62 per cent chance of a damaging earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or higher striking the Bay Area within the next 30 years. The Hayward fault is most likely to snap. Severe quakes have happened on this fault every 151 years, give or take 23 years, meaning it is now into the danger zone. As USGS seismologist Tom Brocher has said: “It is locked and loaded and ready to fire at any time.”

So how prepared is the Bay Area and the people who live in it? Officially the region is as ready as it ever has been. Billions of dollars have been spent over the past decade to upgrade water, transportation, communications and emergency response systems. But there are still deficiencies. Since Loma Prieta, all the Bay Area’s freeway overpasses have been seismically hardened and all but two of its eight major bridges have been sufficiently upgraded, including the Golden Gate. Yet the Bay Bridge, the most crucial span of all, has not been protected, nor have parts of the area’s main public transit system, the BART Transbay system.

Guidance on “earthquake preparedness” for the local population is readily available, if not always adhered to. Most homes, unless they were built in the past 20 years or so, need to be seismically retrofitted, a three-step process which has the effect of “tying the house together”: you bolt the house to the foundation, add plywood to brace the walls, then use special hardware to attach those walls to the floor framing above them. Retrofitting costs range from $3,000 to $30,000 according to the vulnerability of the home.

People are urged to have a disaster plan that includes agreeing where to meet family members after an earthquake. And everyone is advised to be ready to survive on their own without power, water and food for three days. This means keeping full emergency supplies in your home: water, food, first-aid kit, tools, blankets and important family documents. Yet a poll in March this year showed that, although seven out of 10 Californians believed a big earthquake would strike the state and affect them, only 22 per cent felt they were well prepared for an such an event.

People’s attitudes to living in earthquake country vary widely. Some, such as Oakland Hills resident Preston Parsons, live in a permanent state of mild anxiety. “I think about the possibility several times a day,” she says. But, like many of the area’s residents, she doesn’t have earthquake insurance because it’s too expensive. She was given a quote of $5,000 a year. Others, such as Berkeley resident Steve Lomprey, say they don’t give earthquakes a second thought; he cheerfully admits to being “in total denial”.

Mark Burget, whose job as the director a large charity brought him from Colorado to San Francisco a year ago, is less sanguine: “You are more aware than the average person of the possibility of dying unexpectedly at any given moment,” he says. Burget thinks about an earthquake striking when he’s sitting in traffic under a big bridge span or when his family is split up in different parts of the area. He also has a theory that the underlying threat explains the reputation San Franciscans have for being so fun-loving. “It’s why San Francisco is such a vibrant city,” he says. “People are more inclined to live life with abandon.”

Ralph Keyes, author of Chancing It: Why We Take Risks , goes as far as to say that some people positively enjoy living with risk: “There is definitely a thrill to living in earthquake country – as well as hurricane country, flood country, brushfire country and tornado country,” he says

As for me, I’m following in the footsteps of a friend, Mike Wilson, who, after more than 20 years of feeling anxious about how much better prepared he and his family should be for an earthquake, finally took a four-hour window of opportunity from work last month to go to a discount store and buy every disaster supply he could get his hands on. “It’s a huge weight of my mind. Like buying life insurance. I feel better every day,” he says. This month my sons’ school held a silent auction and I had my eye on just one prize: the fully stocked emergency supplies kit. I was prepared to bid high, as high as it took, to buy this potential peace of mind. And, I’m pleased to say, I won it.