Interview: Nicholas Felton

"Being able to play a part in how this technology evolves is thrilling, and it's why I am working at Facebook."

 

I'm a big fan of Nicholas Felton, the man who many refer to as the inforgraphic guru.  He has managed to make data look good and I give him credit, in part, for making me a data junkie.  For a number of years, he has created his own personal annual/bi-annual reports that weave numerous measurements into a beautiful display of graphs, maps and statistics that reflect the year’s activities.  I've been checking his site often waiting for the 2012/2013 to come out.  It made me realize that I've never actually written about him here, so I decided to share one of my favorites.  There have been a slew of articles and interviews with him, particularly since he has become a part of the Facebook team and because he is responsible for Facebook's "Timeline" feature.   However, this interview Thomas Houston did last year on The Verge is one of my favorites.  Enjoy.

5 Minutes on The Verge: Nicholas Felton

Even five years ago, personal data tracking was mostly a fringe activity, something you'd read about in Wired articles profiling lifeloggers that were forever coming up with new ways to gather and analyze data about their own lives. As those sensors shrank and came together in modern smartphones and sports gadgets like Nike+ and mixed with a flood of new, easy-to-use apps, data tracking has become increasingly mainstream. You've probably seen Nicholas Felton's gorgeous Personal Annual Reports that break down a year's worth of personal data into graphs, maps, and statistics (e.g. weddings attended, movies watched, cups of coffee consumed), and he just published his 2010/2011 Biennial Report. Named one of the 50 most influential designers in America by Fast Company, Felton recently joined the Facebook team and was instrumental in building Timeline. He took some time out of his busy schedule for 5 Minutes on The Verge, and you can follow him at @feltron and feltron.com.

Mac or PC (and all-time favorite computer, make and model)?

I've been using Macs since I was in 7th grade, when my mother brought home our first computer... a Mac Plus with a 30mb external hard drive. My favorite computer is whichever model is helping me get my work done today, but this Mac Plus may survive as the one I am fondest of.

What's the story behind you getting involved in Facebook? Did you take "the walk" with Mark Zuckerberg?

I received a message from Mark at the beginning of last year and began a conversation with him. A few months later, my Daytum partner and I came out to San Francisco for a couple of meetings including a trip to Facebook. The more we talked, the more we saw that our desire to make a platform for quantitative expression was aligned with what Facebook was building, and that we could have a much greater impact by joining their efforts.

What did you learn about yourself from your Annual Reports? Have they made a difference in your daily life?

The Annual Reports teach me something new each year. I have explored my habits and routines, how I am perceived by those around me and last year I learned much more about my father than I had ever known. For the 2010/2011 Report, I have investigated my habits with new levels of detail, but ultimately the macro behaviors are what amaze me. By tracking the same metrics across two years, I was able to measure very small changes in my life. For instance, I learned that while I am spending much more time in California now, my total time with friends and family has stayed fairly constant (a complete surprise).

The Reports once inspired me to be more adventurous and to say "yes" to activities that I would naturally decline as it might make for an interesting story at the end of the year. Now that they have become so ingrained in my behavior, I am far less likely to be swayed by their influence.

In general, I think the Reports have made me a much more aware of my routines and grateful when I can break from them.

What kind of gadgets / tools / habits do you use for the tracking?

My iPhone is my best tracking tool. I relied on iCal on the phone and my Mac for recording everything over the past two years. I currently have a custom iPhone app that is helping me record the year. I also rely on my Fitbit and have been using a Wifit scale.

Where is Facebook's design most lacking? Where does it work best?

One of the most difficult things about working on Facebook is that it needs to work for so many people on such a range of devices, screens, and browsers. These requirements can restrain what is possible. Thankfully, mobile devices today are powerful (enough) and unemcumbered by legacy browsers. This has had a liberating effect on the creativity of our designers, and is allowing for imaginative new interactions like Joey Flynn's integration of a live-view camera mode within the cover photo in the iOS app.

"In 2008 I was the only person I knew wearing a pedometer. Today half my friends are wearing FitBits. "

Personal data tracking, once relegated to a fringe group of people documenting their lives, is increasingly becoming mainstream. Do you still feel like an outlier with your yearly reports?

Less and less... in 2008 I was the only person I knew wearing a pedometer. Today half my friends are wearing FitBits. Whenever I have uncovered a new metric in my life I've always wanted to be able to give it context. It tickles my curiosity to quantify a habit of mine, but I would really love to see how I differ from or resemble my friends. This wish seems to be materializing more and more quickly each day.

Do you feel a need to disconnect?

I love a good break from the internet, but checking out from my data collection has not been the sort of break that I have wanted to take. Fortunately, I have found a way this year to significantly reduce my manual tracking, while maintaining a satisfactory degree of data-completeness.

What's the best book you've read lately?

I enjoyed "The Information" by James Gleick, but the last book I couldn't put down was "Blind Descent" by James M. Tabor about exploring the world's deepest cave systems.

What was the last time you were really stunned by a development in technology (e.g. launching Spotify for the first time, using the original iPhone, seeing sports in HD)?

I completely take it for granted now, but the screen on the iPhone 4 remains phenomenal. It was a given that over time our displays would approach the resolution of paper, but I never expected to see resolution quadruple overnight for the same price.

Who (or what) are you most excited about on the web these days?

I am truly excited about the Facebook Open Graph... this is the system by which song listens (and any other action) can be recorded, aggregated and shared. Being able to play a part in how this technology evolves is thrilling, and it's why I am working at Facebook.

Who's doing the most interesting work in the mobile app space?

The apps that interest me most are repurposing the hardware of mobile devices to make them work in ways that were never intended. I am thinking about the heartrate monitor app that uses the camera and flash to read the pulse in my finger or the wikisense app that uses the camera to measure radiation after you've covered the lens.

What were some of the biggest design hurdles with creating Timeline, a product for nearly a billion users across a huge range of languages and ages?

The most contested and complicated dimension of Timeline's design was determining how time compression would work. Understanding the distinctions between various models of expansion on posts, aggregates and highlights took an enormous amount of concentration. At one point we designed a prototype that could mimic all 16 options we were considering. This exercise helped to remove many options, but the mechanics remained in flux until we could get real data into our models.

Similarly, what kind of design concerns start to appear at that kind of scale and user involvement?

Yes, the scale is enormous, but I believe that designing a successful product for an audience this size is very similar to designing a successful product at any scale. Our goals include clarity, performance, and ease of use. These goals will help a new product be adopted by a broader audience and serve our existing users well.

What's your primary browser?

Safari.

How do you stay focused?

Music, caffeine, anxiety and an ability to find places and times to work when no one is around.

What movie are you most looking forward to in 2012?

I have a poor sense of what is being released, but if there's a Batman movie coming out, I will be there.

Interview: Maria Cornejo

I've been a fan of Carol Han's blog Milk & Mode for a while now.  She has found the intersection of fashion and food--what could be better?  I'm also a big fan of Maria Cornejo.  So when I came across this article on Bon Appetit, I got excited.  I was fortunate to work with Maria at a storytelling workshop led by one of my clients Karen Harvey.  After spending two days together in the workshop, I came away inspired by Maria's natural ease and her incredible design talent.  In my eyes, she embodies the word goddess and this interview only affirms my feelings.

 

Kitchen Couture: Designer Maria Cornejo's Ceviche

By Carol Han

A few days ago, Chilean-born fashion designer Maria Cornejo had the best meal of her life: homemade gnocchi, made by her husband, photographer Mark Borthwick, and served with fresh basil pesto and lasagna with bacon and vegetables. They ate by candlelight in the garden of their Brooklyn brownstone. And she was wearing (we had to ask) the Long Sarah Dress in Tribal linen from her spring/summer collection.

To us, the dinner sounds just as sophisticated and lovely as her garments. An award-winning designer who counts Tilda Swinton, Cindy Sherman, and Michelle Obama among her customers, Cornejo makes clothes for the thinking woman--simple lines that curve and swoop along the body, and prints that hold attention.

Here she takes a quick pause from fashion week prep to talk food and cooking, which she happens to love, and shares a ceviche recipe she learned to make while growing up in Chile.

What's your go-to snack after a long day of fittings? Roasted seaweed

What do you eat to celebrate a new line? Tacos and margaritas

How often do you cook? My husband Mark Borthwick does most of the cooking at our house. I usually cook when he is traveling or for our picky teenage son, Joey.

What are a few of your favorite restaurants? 5 Burros in Queens for fish tacos; Il Buco and Frankies 457 for fresh, quality Italian; Hibino in Cobble Hill for sushi.What is your favorite city and can you tell us what your top 5 favorite places are in that city? Los Angeles: Animal Restaurant, Lucques, MOCA, Getty Museum, The Botanical Gardens at the Huntington LibraryWhat are your top three tips for entertaining? Cook with togetherness and with love, candles set the ambience, and make sure you are able to enjoy the time with your guests.What is the one kitchen accessory or tool you couldn't live without? A blenderWhere are some of your go-to tableware items and where did you buy them? Our wooden serving spoons we collect from world travels and Lebanese Silverware from Liwan in Paris.Maria Cornejo's Ceviche

INGREDIENTS 1 1/4 pounds fresh red snapper (or similar firm white fish), rinsed, patted dry, and cut into 1-inch cubes Juice of 15 limes (enough to cover the fish) 1 red onion, thinly sliced lengthwise 1 garlic clove, minced 1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped 3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped Salt and pepper

PROCEDURE In a large bowl, combine fish chunks, red onion, garlic, jalapeno, cilantro, and salt and pepper. Cover with lime juice. Refrigerate and let marinate for 3 hours. Serve chilled.

An Interview: Jonathan Safran Foer

"There comes a point when we have to decide what’s right and wrong." -Jonathan Safran Foer

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Photography by Gianluca Gentilini

Shortly before Thanksgiving last year, I took a deep breath and called my mother and sister in successive order to tell them that I would not be eating turkey for the holiday. “Or any other meat for that matter,” I declared. “Ever.” I had just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s new book, Eating Animals, and it cinched my decision to go veggie.

My sister’s first reaction was to say that she could not cheat her 3-year old son out of the tradition of having a roast beast on the table. My mother, playing Switzerland, announced that everyone was entitled to their own opinion. I think my announcement surprised them. My subsequent conversations with family, friends, and co-workers certainly surprised me. With so much cultural attention paid over the past several years to slow food and eating locally, I could not get over how little most people knew (myself included) about the factory farm system in the United States.

Choosing not to eat meat is a surprisingly impactful decision. Before reading Foer’s book — his first nonfiction work since writing the novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — I’d been a self-proclaimed “part-time vegetarian,” mostly because of stomach issues. I was unaware of the facts that factory-farmed meat is the leading cause of global warming in the world and that these places are incubators for some of the planet’s most potent and potentially disastrous diseases, such as the H1N1 virus. I did not realize that small family farms, the self-sustaining kind with chickens and goats and pigs and tractors‚ are nearly extinct. I certainly did not consider how horribly the animals are treated.

For me, and many people like me, I believed those concerns were reserved for the fringes of society. I was wrong, and the facts prove it out. There is no greater mainstream issue than what we eat and where our food comes from. Right now, our current system is an environmental, biological, and ethical disaster. I recently asked Foer what, if anything, we can do about it.

SAM MARTIN: Not everyone is going to pick up a book called Eating Animals. What’s the best way to let people know about the damaging effects of factory farms without scaring them off?

JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER: It’s difficult. We’re so used to thinking of this as a divisive, accusatory, fight-inspiring conversation. And it’s a shame. Because I really do think that, if we had full access to what’s going on in factory farms, everyone would agree — and by agree, I don't mean that we all become vegetarians — that factory farming is a broken system that doesn't reflect our values. Who would want a farm system that is the leading cause of global warming? Or one of the two or three most damaging things to the environment? And who would want to treat animals in this way?

So the problem has been that it’s all been framed as this divisive, black-and-white issue. You’re either a vegetarian or you’re not. You either care or don’t. And that can put people who care in an exasperating place. I hope this book will allow us to think about food in the way we think about the environment. We can do things better than we’ve done them in the past.

MARTIN: After reading about how entrenched, widespread, and damaging U.S. factory farming is — to the health of humans, animals, and the planet — changing the system seems like an insurmountable goal. Is it?

FOER: No. First of all, there are a number of things to remember. One is, it’s new. It’s only 50 years old. People have been farming in a different way for the past 10,000 years. The fact that it rose this quickly almost holds the promise that it can be dismantled just as quickly. Consumers have so much power in this situation. It’s rare that consumers have this much power. Farmers grow and produce what people ask for. As we ask for different things, they will farm different things. Finally, the demographics are compelling and promising in terms of who cares and who doesn’t. Eighteen percent of university students are now vegetarian. When that 18 percent starts to become the next generation of writers and doctors and farmers and other professionals, the conversation will feel very different than it might feel now.

MARTIN: Eating locally farmed meat seems to be attracting a growing number of people. Is this a good alternative to eating factory farmed animals, or is it still a questionable practice?

FOER: I think there are two questions: “Is it good?” and “Is it perfect?” Local farming isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than what’s available in the mainstream. And it’s better in every single way — for humans, animals, the environment, global warming, and so on. Is it the answer? It’s part of the answer. Personally, I don’t get terribly excited about [locally farmed meat]. And I don’t eat it. I don’t believe it can be scaled. So to endorse it would be for personal reasons only. But most Americans fundamentally agree on the goals, which is to have farms that are better for human health. Some people have this belief that people are never going to move away from meat so they say, “Let’s have a decent farm system.” Other people say, “Let’s stop eating meat because we’re never going to have a good farming system.” I’m more in the second category. I think there are things we ought to agree on. We have to stop giving antibiotics to farm animals. We have to stop fishing the way we’re fishing. It won’t last. And I think we can all agree we shouldn’t keep pregnant pigs in cages so small they can’t turn around in them. That’s wrong. You don’t have to like pigs at all to know that. There comes a point when we have to decide what’s right and wrong.

MARTIN: Even using the most humane animal slaughtering practices, farmers are still, in the end, killing. Can you explain why we ought to consider animal welfare in this debate?

FOER: I think we can’t help but consider it. If you saw someone kicking a dog, you might not intervene, but can you say you would be indifferent to it? Caring is a human instinct, and it goes against our nature not to care. I don’t love animals. I don’t think they should be treated as humans. There are irrational places that one can take one’s concern for animals, and I won’t go there. But it defies our human instincts to treat them as if they had no feeling‚ or as if that feeling had no effect. Killing animals is, in a way, the least bad thing that we do to them. If you ask the American public if it’s okay to kill animals for food, most would say yes. But if you ask them if it’s okay to remove appendages from an animal while it’s still alive or keep a pregnant pig in a cage that it can’t turn around in — are there really people who think that’s okay?

MARTIN: One recurring subject in Eating Animals is the notion that people are nostalgic for food traditions (the Thanksgiving turkey is the most obvious example). This seems to be a big reason why many people are reluctant to give these foods up, even to the detriment of their health and the health of the planet. Why is it that virtually everything about storybook farms and the production of traditional foods has changed, yet the sentiment attached in consuming these foods has remained, even when people are educated about the horrors of modern animal agriculture? Why is there a disconnect?

FOER: I don’t think it’s a disconnect. Let’s give people the benefit of the doubt. They’re making a rational decision. They’re saying, “I know the process is not good, but I don’t care.” I would say, “Fine. Keep your barbecue on the Fourth of July, your Christmas ham, and your Thanksgiving turkey. But get rid of the meat that you don’t care about — the fast-food hamburger or the Chinese restaurant chicken." Nine-tenths of meat consumed is meat we don’t care about. What happens is that people take the exceptions to get them off the hook for the everyday. That’s where these conversations get skewed. When people talk about these exceptional uses of food, that’s right. They are exceptions. Let’s talk about the normal.

MARTIN: You write a lot about traditions surrounding food in your own family. Since simultaneously becoming a father and a vegetarian, are there any new or modified food traditions you have started?

FOER: The only tradition we’ve started, I would say, is having a conversation around food. We hadn’t been doing that. We hadn’t been thinking about it. The fact that food now has a story served with it is different and good. It enhances the cultural value of food. All the good things we would miss [by not eating meat], we more than make up for with stories about why and what we don’t eat.

MARTIN: For someone just being introduced to the factory-farm system in the U.S., it can be hard to feel any hope that things will change. What are you excited about, and where do you find hope? What keeps you going?

FOER: I just read a recent poll that 70 percent of Americans are willing to spend more money for more ethically produced food. This isn’t San Francisco or New York; it’s the whole country. That’s an amazing number. People care about this stuff. Even if you don’t care, you have to care, because you have these annoying instincts. I think as our lines of sight are opened up, more people will think, “Hey, this is something we really want to know about.” And behavior changes will follow. And the 18 percent [in college right now] are tastemakers. As they get older, we will see vegetarianism in a new light..

Sam Martin is the senior editor at frog design and the editor-in-chief of design mind. He’s based in frog’s Austin studio.

*Via Frog Design

An Interview: Andy Spade

"I think the myth in marketing is that consistency is the answer"  --Andy Spade

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Michael Williams, the force behind one of my new favorite blogs, A Continuous Lean, has recently collaborated with David Coggins to create the series, At the Bar.  At the Bar features interviews with people that have a stake in the design world.  His most recent interview features Andy Spade, one of my favorite creatives.  There is a practicality in the way that Andy Spade sees the world that I admire and appreciate.  We need more people that are as thoughtful about their impact and contribution as this man is.   Enjoy!

Andy Spade’s arc of success is well-documented and yet it remains a cause for satisfaction. The simple, utilitarian design exemplified by Jack Spade seems straightforward, but like a good bistro or garage band, the key is the execution. It turns out that’s not so easy after all. Jack Spade also worked because it was at home in any neighborhood, dressed up or down. And yet it never took itself so seriously it couldn’t release a frog dissection kit.  The case of Andy Spade is a reminder that just because something feels inevitable doesn’t mean it isn’t visionary.

We met at Bemelman’s Bar at the Carlyle Hotel.

David Coggins: You live up here by Bemelman’s?

Andy Spade: Right, just around the corner.

DC: And you’re drinking a Vodka Southside.

AS: Right.  It’s a southern summer drink with vodka, simple syrup, a little lime juice and soda water.  Usually it’s made with gin.  That’s my favorite light drink.  This is what I order in a bar, at home we drink wine.  We spend our summers in California, so we drink a lot of wine, mostly red.  I love this Alexis cabernet is by the Swanson family, who are friends of ours.

DC: This is a great bar to have down the street.

AS: When my wife and I first moved to New York it was our treat to come up here and listen to music.  I’d lived downtown my whole time in New York.  When I moved up here 10 years ago people said, ‘You’re selling out.’  I said ‘New York’s a mile long, if you go up 50 blocks you haven’t changed your entire life.’  I want to have a tree on my block.  Andy Warhol lived on the Upper East Side, Woody Allen lives up here.

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DC: You’re associated with Greene Street and Warren Street.

AS: Now Great Jones.  I love good New York City streets.  We started out on Renwick Street and then to Prince and then to Crosby—this is all in the 80’s and early 90’s.  Then we moved to Warren Street.  Our building, like a lot of buildings in Tribeca, was sold.

DC: Were those raw spaces?

AS: Totally raw.  We had a top floor and the roof.  And a lot of degenerates sleeping in the hall.  Then finally my wife said ‘You’ve dragged me around downtown for 15 years, it’s my turn.’  So we found this cool old place up here.

DC: Partners & Spade does a lot of different projects—it’s everything under one roof.

AS: There are two parts to it: there’s the storefront part which we wanted because we loved the idea of being on street level and being in touch with the city.  We wanted to have a space that allowed us to put together all the things we love: advertising, art, design, films, writing, objects. And the back of the space is the studio—all we need is two turntables and a microphone.  We can work the Bowery Hotel if we need more room.  We’re open by appointment or if you knock really loudly.  And I like putting together shows and giving people a chance to show their work.

DC: It seems like you’re attracted to objects that have a some function that isn’t necessarily related to art—something designed with a primary purpose that still looks great.

AS: Exactly.  So much depends on the context and if something is presented in the right way.  The first person we hired at Jack Spade was Mike Abelson who now owns Postal Co.  He came out of Art Center in LA and he studied fine art and industrial design.  I was introduced by to him by my friend James Spindler who I knew from advertising.  He was offered a job designing cars, I said why don’t we create this thing together—he’s like a scientist.  He looks at bridges and how they’re supported when he’s designing a bag.  I wanted him to provide the technical expertise.  And the challenge was just to make a great bag.

You can read the interview in its entirety here

An Interview: Alex Calderwood

PSFK Talks To Alex Calderwood Of Ace Hotel PSFK recently sat down with Alex Calderwood, founder of the Ace Hotel chain to talk about collaboration, inspiration and intuition.

Piers Fawkes: Alex, I wonder if you can talk to about the collaborations you do. It seems like there’s a kind of fantastic leverage which seems to be very on the pulse of what’s going on in terms of the culture and everything else. Why do you do these collaborations? What’s in it for you?

Alex: It’s a good question. I think in general that the company’s very much rooted in a very collaborative spirit in just the way we work. So in terms of how we create the properties, we try to involve amazing artisans or craftsman or design professionals as much as possible in their respective sort of expertise or art. And so it’s kind of in the DNA at the plan in a sense.

Piers: Why is that?

Alex: I think I’ve always been drawn to the sense of community that develops around the project. So, for example, if you come to a new city. We started in Seattle and then we went to Portland and a couple of other cities, New York and Palm Springs.

But you’re coming to a new city and so you want to create a sense of kind of emotional involvement and creative involvement from different people who are in the community. For example, like we went to New York, we felt it was very important for us to collaborate with a New York firm or New York entity that would help us develop the hotel or design the hotel for a couple of different reasons.

One, that the scale of it, it was a large scale. We just needed to have that, without us having to recreate a whole staff in New York and create a whole design office here. We felt it was more beneficial to collaborate with a firm here as well as just from a timing and logistic standpoint it made more sense just to not recreate the wheel ourselves.

And so we teamed up with this firm, Roman and Williams, and it was a very, very synergistic and very satisfying working relationship with those guys. And we felt like they really were rooted in New York and really represented what our take would be on this particular building we were working with and in this particular context.

And in the same way, when we went out to California, we chose some friends of ours and some people in Los Angeles who we felt really represented that sort of California experience.

And so anyway, to get back to your original question, for me I think that it really engenders this sense of community and kind of, again, emotional investment or emotional involvement in the project. I think that’s kind of where it starts.

And then I think that also a lot of good ideas come from various places. We’re very much a company based on the value that good ideas can come from really anybody.

Piers: Could you tell me a little more about the generation of good ideas in your company? How do you know that the relationship with Stumptown or Opening Ceremony or an artist is a good idea? What gives you that sort of sense?

Alex: Oh, sure. That. Well I think two things. For us, A) it comes down to a little bit of instinct. We’re big believers if something feels right, you at least pursue the conversation and see if it fits. And a lot of times in these things when something feels right the kind of pieces to the puzzle will start to fall into place.

Like for example, Opening Ceremony or Project No. eight or Stumptown. First of all we have a space. We reach out to them. They know what we’re doing. We know what they’re doing. You can start a dialogue. You can kind of get a sense in the beginning of the dialogue if a lot of the positive buttons are starting to kind of be pushed or starting to respond.

So part of it is interesting. But I think the more important part of it is it really comes down to people. So, really getting a sense of all of those examples, as I just mentioned, it really was the kind of direct action between our crew and them and getting the sense that the people felt right. You get a sense of where someone’s intention is coming from.

For us, if it feels like there’s a very genuine intention behind what they’re doing, and a genuine intention for us to work together, then usually kind of all the right answers will show up to have a sense, does the puzzle fall into place.

Piers: I do want to get a sense of where did you focus before that conversation happens? How do you even get the sense of who the right people are to talk to?

Alex: Right. That actually comes through a variety of different channels. Sometimes people reach out to us, and they’ll just say like, “Hey, we heard you’re doing a project, and we’re interested to be involved.”

I think, for example, with Stumptown, when we started the hotel project in Portland, kind of word got out on the street. And I can’t remember if Duane called us first — Duane’s the owner of Stumptown — or whether we called him. But basically, Stumptown is very much kind of hometown favorite in Portland, and we knew we had space, and we liked the idea of a coffee shop. So I believe in that particular instance, he had kind of contacted us first.

Sometimes it comes through other channels. For example, with Project No. eight and Opening Ceremony, there is a gentleman who’s involved in our company, named Michael Bisordi, and he also happens to own a retail brokerage firm.

So he and his staff did a really, really good job of kind of scouring through a lot of different possibilities in Manhattan that could be candidates for the various retail spaces that we had, and distilled it down to kind of like the ones that we thought were the most aligned and sort of the best fit, and really shepherded those conversations through to open up a dialog. So I, in those particular two cases, have to really try to even do a great, great job.

It’s not an easy challenge. So he and his staff did a great job of kind of going through and just really sort of handpicking various different candidates that would be good possibilities.

Piers: I imagine, you don’t suddenly then go into a round of market research to make sure it’s the right sort of company. You use some of that intuition…

Alex: Yeah, for us… I mean, let’s see here. I don’t know if we do, necessarily, a lot of deep analysis or market research, per se. We certainly do a certain level of research. But again, it is so nuanced and comes back to having your ear to the ground, and having a sense of kind of the ebb and flow of what’s going on out there, at least in terms of retail or restaurants or coffee, or whatever the particular area is. So it’s kind of a combination of, like I said, having your ear to the ground, instinct, and a certain level of research.

So it’s not like we went to a traditional retail-marketing firm and said like, “This is our demographic, and please come up with a list of [laughs] candidates that fit that.” It’s really so much more of a psychographic. It’s more nuanced than that.

An Interview: Spike Jonze

Where-The-Wild-Things-Are

I have to admit, I'm caught up in the flurry of excitement surrounding the release of Where the Wild Things Are.  I grew up having the book read to me and then read it to my little sister years later.  It is the first book I can remember that took me through a range of emotions.   I would squeal when Max first arrived in the land of the Wild Things,  pop my head in and out of the covers in terror when the fearsome looking monsters emerged and then would cheer when Max danced with them as he is crowned king.  While the book only has nine sentences, the drawings led me into a world that was both real and surreal. I can't think of a better director than Spike Jonze to bring the story to life.

Pitchfork did a great interview with Spike Jonze that talks about how it all came together.  I particularly like when Jonze addresses the emotions and memories of a child:   "My memory is that nothing is explained to you, you've got to try to figure it out, pick up clues from the people around you, try to figure it out from their reactions. And the things that are out of control are scary-- I mean they still are, to me. But I think even more so at that age, when you really have no sense of control of your life."

Go on, read the whole interview and gear up for the release on October 16th.

where_the_wild_things_are

by Scott Plagenhoef for Pitchfork

Creating a film adaptation of a beloved work of literature is difficult enough with a novel, even a novella or short story. But how about a 10-line children's book? Spike Jonze took on that challenge in his long battle to bring Maurice Sendak's classic Where the Wild Things Are to the screen. With Sendak's encouragement, Jonze began work on the film in the early part of this decade, with the project then attached to Universal. Many years later, the film-- eventually scripted by Jonze and author/publisher Dave Eggers-- is finally being released in the U.S. via Warner Bros. on October 16.

Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are is not a children's film, which is to say it's not pandering, or cute, or repetitive, or simplistic. This is instead an art film about childhood, about the feelings and fears and needs of being young. In Jonze's hands, the film's young protagonist, Max, is the product of a broken home, with an overstretched mother, an older sister who has her own life, and a social structure that doesn't include him. These evocative early passages hint at the restlessness, the playfulness, the fright, and the untethered anger of being a child-- the needs for safety, belonging, and community, and the consequences of not getting them.

When Max flees to where the wild things are, these sensations become manifest. Already feeling adrift and unloved, he's thrust into a world populated with wild animals, where he is expected to serve as their king. This situation-- a young person being charged with caretaking, without instruction on how to do so-- draws easy parallels to Eggers' life, as detailed in the memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The wild things themselves, rather than created with CGI, are portrayed by two sets of actors-- physical thesps in suits, and well-known actors doing voice work. As Jonze explains, this decision was to ensure that Max felt in the presence of the wild things-- "that they could hug, and yet he could be eaten at any time."

This potentially odd decision leads to a quintessential Jonze move-- Wild Things is a fantastical film shot in the director's now-familiar hyperrealist way-- even though it grew from necessity. Navigating a world in which a child needs the love and support of monsters is all too common for many kids, and Jonze's rendering of these emotional challenges and obstacles may guarantee Wild Things is neither a blockbuster nor Oscar bait but it helps retain a strong connection to Sendak's original vision. Jonze and Eggers had an almost limitless number of ways in which they could fill in this open-ended story, but rather than simply construct a narrative, they instead dig deeply into the scarred psyche of a young boy-- exploring his imagination, tapping into the heart of his anger and insecurities. It's a brave way to film a largely plot-free tale and it's also true to the spirit of the book.

After a recent screening to benefit 826 National, a collection of non-profits "dedicated to helping students, ages 6-18, with expository and creative writing," we had a brief opportunity to speak with Jonze about his new film and the long road it took to completion.

Pitchfork: I'm not sure if you were in the theater tonight. Do you enjoy watching your art with an audience?

Spike Jonze: When we put out a music video DVD [for the Director's Label series], we would do 90-minute screenings, and those were really fun. Normally when you put it out you don't get to watch different people, so that's just really fun.

Pitchfork: I was trying to think of anything in your past that had any connection to this narrative, and the one thing I could think of was your Daft Punk "Da Funk" video, because it's a mirror image opposite of Where the Wild Things Are-- one animal in a world of humans.

SJ: Yeah, I never thought about that.

Pitchfork: Obviously, the story itself comes from Maurice Sendak however: How did you end up hooking up with Maurice?

SJ: I had known him for a number of years, because he was producing another movie that didn't end up happening, but through that I got to see him as someone whose work I liked.

It was a book that he had talked to me about over the years a few times, and it was a book that I loved, and when he brought it up to me I was very excited but also very apprehensive, because it was something that I thought was so great and so perfect in its form-- What am I going to add to that? I was so apprehensive to add something just for the sake of adding it, for the sake of a movie, and not really having a reason to make it, basically. But eventually I came up with the idea that you see what you see there, and Maurice was great, he was insistent upon that taking it there.

Pitchfork: He was very generous about allowing you to create your own film?

SJ: Yeah, I really don't think we could have done it without that. I would have been too nervous to make something he wouldn't like. And I didn't want to do that.

We were really nervous with the first script, because we didn't know what he would think. He read it three times in a row. The first time he read it, he was like, "It's not like my book." And then he said, "Oh wait, I told them not to make it like my book." And then he said, "Let me read it again," and he started to be able to feel it. By the third time, he was totally detached from anything before, and was able to feel it for what it was, and he called us up and told us he wanted to do it.

He had script approval, so if he didn't like it, we just wouldn't have done it. So it was a big call to get that call from him telling us that he liked it, and good luck.

Pitchfork: How long was that gap between those readings?

SJ: He read it three times in one day.

Pitchfork: So he called you after the first reading, and said--

SJ: No, luckily he didn't call us then. He went through that process on his own and called us, and then afterward he told me.

Pitchfork: When you first started to imagine it, did you do so in more cinematic terms or narrative terms? It's virtually a picture book, and some of the power of it is that it's less a book someone would read to you as it is a book that a child can get lost in.

SJ: Well, cinematic terms. I knew I wanted it to be live action; I wanted to build the wild things for real. I wanted to be on location. I wanted it to be a real boy with real creatures, in a dangerous, unpredictable environment, where you're with wild animals. But that wasn't enough to make a movie. It was more the idea that gave me confidence that there was a movie there was that the wild creatures were wild emotions, and Max was trying to understand things that were confusing and frightening, and made him anxious-- things being out of control, and him being sort of emotionally wild himself.

Pitchfork: Did you see it as a childhood thing, in terms of the emotions, or are these more just human emotions to you? The adult relationships in the film have the same needs and fears in some ways.

SJ: The emotions I felt were true to a child, were true to what it feels like to be a kid. What the world is like from a nine-year-old's point of view. Like when you're nine, you haven't figured out how to process all this.

My memory is that nothing is explained to you, you've got to try to figure it out, pick up clues from the people around you, try to figure it out from their reactions. And the things that are out of control are scary-- I mean they still are, to me. But I think even more so at that age, when you really have no sense of control of your life.

And so the things that are really out of control, and scary, are emotions-- of people around you, that are unpredictable, or those in yourself which are unpredictable. Like having a tantrum. The thing I remember most about having a tantrum is not the rage during the tantrum, but the being freaked out afterwards, and embarrassed, and guilty. It's scary, to lose control of yourself. We wanted the movie to feel like it was made by a nine-year-old, on some levels. So like you're in the headspace of a nine-year-old, and you're in the world, you're on the island with Max, trying to understand this foreign place. It kind of feels like being a kid, you've just shown up to this place, and there's no road map to it.

Pitchfork: Were there other examples of children's art that you were looking at? Things that were sort of about childhood, rather than for a child?

SJ: It wasn't so much that we looked at them; there's things that we knew did it right, but we didn't reference them, we went back and watched them. Like The Black Stallion, that I loved, in 1981, it's beautiful. My Life as a Dog. The 400 Blows. there are a couple others, just films that feel like they're from a kid's point of view looking at the world.

Pitchfork: How did you and Dave Eggers end up working together?

SJ: Because I had known him for a few years, and I love his writing, and just like him as a person. It just felt right, it was one of those intuitive things, like, "That's who I want to write this with." Just sensibility-wise, his first book, the way he wrote about a young character. I don't know, just the way he writes, and we're very similar, we're the same age, just the way we grew up influenced and in love with Maurice's work. It wasn't even too thought out, it was just like, "That's right."

Pitchfork: Talking about your ages. Do you think there is something about this story that makes it so beloved with our generation specifically?

SJ: I'm not even sure if it's just our generation. I think it might be that if you're five years old and you read that book, you're like, "I recognize that." It's in the language of a kid, of monsters and of things being giant. And it's like when you're a kid, adults really do feel giant. Monsters are a part of your subconscious. You have even less control of your emotions than you do now. I think it's all in the book. And he is really speaking the language and what it feels like at that age.

Pitchfork: So you guys had almost an open-ended structure to build a narrative. Was all that freedom helpful, or more difficult? Did you go a lot of different routes before you got the script you wanted?

SJ: Not a lot of different routes, but we definitely wrote a lot of different drafts. We shot, and then had the footage... the way I work, I like to constantly evolve, and try to find a better way to do something; searching and seeing what else can be discovered. And so yeah, there were many things where we were like "That's an amazing idea!" and that was it for a week and then "No, no this is a better idea!"

Along the way, the things that stay are the things that really deserve to stay. I love that process, of not feeling overly pressured, "this is the movie," and some people can do that, like the Coen brothers, their movies I think they write, the script they write is very, very close to the movie they put out. And they shoot exactly what they need, you know I probably shoot about four times as much film as them. They're like, "Oh, we got it." And I'm like, "Oh, what else can we do? And what if we try it this way?"

You take that leap and you don't know exactly how it's going to turn out, but you know what it is that you're aiming for. You know your goal.