Ann Cooper – chef, school lunch activist

by admin on April 15, 2010

When Ann Cooper took a job as a breakfast cook to support her ski bum lifestyle, it was the beginning of her career as a chef and her mission to overhaul the way we feed our kids in school. She went on to write four books, including one that examines how we’ve allowed corporations to own our food supply and why our school lunch programs are so poor. With her ballsy, in-your-face style, Ann is not afraid to call out the big agribusinesses that are contributing to the problem and to push the USDA to higher standards. After overhauling the school lunch programs in Berkeley, Harlem, and now Boulder, Ann is building a platform to work at the national level and crusade for what she sees as a social justice issue.

Ann Cooper at school salad bar, photo by Craig Lee

Find an expanded interview with Ann Cooper in my new book Field Trip:Volume One, available on Amazon here! Or read more about my new book here.

This mission you’re on is rooted in what you refer to as a social justice issue. For those who don’t know your work, how would you describe this mission?

Changing the way we feed our children. It’s really about making sure every kid in every school across the country gets healthy food everyday.

The CDC [Centers for Disease Control] says that among children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African-Americans and Hispanics are going to have diabetes in their lifetime, many before they graduate high school. The result of which will be that this generation will be the first in our country’s history to die at a younger age than their parents. So this is totally a social justice issue. You know, the kids who need the help the most are getting the worst food.

There are 1.1 million hungry children in America everyday, and it really should be a birthright in our country that no child is hungry in school. And that the food that our kids eat is delicious and healthy everyday. You know, hungry kids can’t think, malnourished kids can’t learn. And in our country, that just needs to stop. Every kid, every day, should have healthy food in school.

A good school lunch

Did your interest in cooking begin as a child, and how did you get on this career path to begin with?

By accident, and not as a child. I never graduated high school, and when I thought my career choice was ski bum, I hitchhiked out to Telluride, Colorado. I didn’t have any money and needed a job, and I talked my way into a breakfast cook position and found I really loved cooking. And I eventually went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and then became a chef.

And your interest in reforming school lunch programs?

Also really by accident. I’ve written four books, and my second is Bitter Harvest. And in Bitter Harvest, I really started exploring why food makes us sick, who owns our food supplies, how food supplies can be owned. And in the late ’90s, I’d been asked to become the executive chef of the Ross School in New York, and originally I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ And eventually I thought, ‘Wow, maybe it’s a way to give back and make a change.’ So that’s how I got involved.

The cover of Bitter Harvest, by Ann Cooper

I remember very clearly as a child being told by my mother that certain things I wanted were not in season, but now we can buy anything we want year-round. How did we become so disconnected not only from the seasons but also from locally grown food?

It came about after World War II. That was the beginning of it, because it was really the green revolution. Industrial agriculture got its start in the war — nitrogen was used in bombs and eventually became fertilizers; jeeps were used in the war, and they eventually became trucks. And that’s also the first time we had refrigeration and all that stuff. And all this stuff that came into being — this big technological boom — made having food anytime we wanted it, anywhere we wanted it, possible. And America embraced it.

You’ve revamped the school lunch programs in Berkeley, Harlem and now Boulder, Colorado. Have these communities embraced these changes in the same way, and what are your top challenges?

There’s five major challenges: food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing. Food: where are you going to get it? Finances: how are you going to pay for it? Facilities: where are you going to store it and cook it? Human resources: how do you actually get people trained to actually cook it? And, finally, how do you get the kids to eat it? — the marketing component.

I think that Berkeley has totally embraced it, I think that Harlem and the New York projects have totally embraced it. Boulder is still pretty new — I’ve only been here since July.

Kids involved in gardening, image from

How are you determining which communities to go to next?

I don’t think I’m going to do another school district. I mean, never say never, but at this point I really want to work on the national level.

Do you see your website being your mechanism for doing that?

I don’t have a plan yet, and I’ve got at least a couple more years in Boulder. But I think certainly one of the plans would be, and then there would potentially be other ways I could work at the national level.

The following video clip shows Ann’s work in schools in Harlem, New York City, and her launch of her site

Promise PSA from Williams Media Group on Vimeo.

What would you like to see happen from a public policy standpoint, if you could wave a wand?

I’d like to see an extra $1.00 toward the national school lunch program, designated to fresh food, vegetables, whole grains, and with the priority on regional procurement. And I think universal meals would be amazing — that certainly should happen, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

Improving our school lunches and food culture is not just a matter of creating better habits, but also going up against big agribusinesses who are so aggressive in their tactics. How optimistic do you feel about defeating this Goliath that is so clearly part of the problem?

Part of the problem is the commodity food program, for sure. It’s going to take little wins — I don’t think there’s going to be one big win. I think it’s going to be consistent little wins. You know, I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the big guys, but I think that over time the smaller guys will have a bigger percentage of it.

How would you like to see the USDA revamp what they’re doing?

I think they need to allocate more funding, but more funding isn’t enough with the guidelines being so low — the nutritional guidelines with the transfats and the high-fructose corn syrup, the chicken nuggets, the tater tots, the chocolate milk, canned fruit cocktail, popsicles, pop tarts and corn dogs. We have to raise money, but we have to raise the guidelines, and we have to clean up the commodities program.

You also hope to make education a part of this process so that kids understand the synergy between the food they eat, their own health, and the environment. Can you give me a couple of examples of how you’re getting this message across and how the kids are responding?

I think, as you can imagine, some kids really like it, some kids don’t. Not every kid likes everything, and nobody likes change. So there are some challenges, and I think it takes time. I think the lesson from Berkeley is that it just takes time. Once the kids really understand what’s going on, and once they have a chance to get used to it, it really works. And, really, it’s ten years to make the change. If you start with the little kids, by the time they get to high school, you’re not fighting with them all the time. In the beginning, the high school kids don’t like it, but, you know, you’ve just got to do it.

Kids involved in cooking, image from

You’re part of a larger movement — kind of a groundswell really — with others such as Alice Waters, Michael Pollan, and Jamie Oliver also involved in this cause. Is there some forum, association, or other mechanism by which you’re all able to support each other in this cause?

There really isn’t. There’s a lot of disparate noise out there in the movement at this point. Although the website I’m building I hope can be a forum for a lot of it, to try to get a place where you can get to and understand what everyone working on these issues is actually working on. But right now it’s really disparate.

You must naturally draw comparisons between U.S. food culture and that of France and other countries. Does the magnitude of the work that needs to be done here ever overwhelm you?

I don’t get overwhelmed. I think that in parts of France and in Rome specifically, they’ve done a really good job. And I’ve been over to France and to Rome to look at their programs, and they just have a really different sensibility around the food they serve kids.

The cover of Lunch Lessons by Ann Cooper

For parents who read this, what are some the biggest things they can do to help support your mission?

Well, there’s a couple of things. From a school perspective, find out what your school’s wellness policy is. Check it out, and then go eat lunch at the school. The school board holds all of the resources, so find out what the wellness policy is. And then go to the school board with like-minded parents and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t good enough.’

And from the home perspective, turn off the TV, and shop, cook, garden with your kids. And really make meals part of the family life — and that doesn’t mean driving through McDonald’s and eating in the car. Socialization is at the table — sit down at the table, turn off all the blue screens, and talk with your kids and eat with your kids and make food something important.

Who are some of your sponsors or sources of support?

We’ve had a lot of support from foundations — the Kellogg’s Foundation, the Orfalea Foundations, the Colorado Health Foundation, The Children’s Health Foundation, The Compton Family Foundation — we’ve had a lot of foundation support. But nationally we’ve also had a lot of support from Whole Foods — they’ve been really wonderful helping us do this work and helping get the word out.

When you’re not busy going balls-out on this mission, what are some of your favorite things in life?

Well, I just got back from trekking in Nepal for three weeks, and that was fun. I’m very into the outdoors and sports, which is part of the reason I live in Colorado now. I’m an avid reader. And I’ve written four books, and I’m sure there’s at least one or two more in my future!

Ann Cooper

For a more in-depth look at Ann’s work and message, here is her presentation at TED:

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Conn Brattain and John Giordani are partners in life who design an exuberant amalgam of creative projects. They worked for years in New York City — Conn for designers Gemma Kahng and Todd Oldham, and John for SPIN and Details magazines — but left the bustling city for a new life in Hawaii. Now working across a range of disciplines such as branding, interactive design, illustration, print and more, they share in this interview an indelible range of visual impressions that have shaped them since childhood. Their Cuckoo for Coconuts blog and story feel like a children’s tale: the love that traveled afar, that designed a life, that tended a bird, that planted a garden, that created the brands, that inspired the house that Conn and John built.

Aloha from Hawaii with Conn Brattain and John Giordani

I love stories of people making big life changes and taking a leap of faith, but in this case, you did it together. Whose idea was it to move to Hawaii, and what kind of impact has it had on you creatively?

Conn: We vacationed in Maui for our first trip anywhere together in August, 2001. It was love the minute my foot hit the ground. After twelve days, we returned back to New York and spent an afternoon lounging in the park under the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges, tossing around ‘what-ifs.’ We may not have known it at the time, but we had planted the seed. With a return visit to the islands every summer through 2005, we finally went on a shopping trip in 2006. I would say I was the one really pushing for the move, but I am lucky that John was willing and was equally into making the move as I was.

The move has impacted me creatively in several ways, mostly in terms of my use of color. It’s become softer and more earthy. I do love bright colors, but I find myself making them a bit lived-in rather than so new. I also enjoy working with natural imagery like palm trees, flowers and natural textures. Making things look like they are lit by the sun rather than by artificial light has also worked its way into my work.

John: We might have moved sooner, but we wanted to save up for it and pay off any outstanding debt. Since our move, I have become more aware of color due to the natural surroundings. The nuances of green in a variegated ti leaf, for example.

The island of Kauai

Plumeria blossoms in Hawaii

We often think we can only do a certain type of work in the ‘capital’ of that industry — the fashion capital, the publishing capital, etc. — but you’re proof that these days you can still do that work from anywhere and prioritize lifestyle over proximity. Any words of encouragement for those who are not yet thinking outside the box?

John: If you are not happy where you are, then you should change that if possible. Luckily, we were able to take our work with us due in large part to the internet. We try to keep close ties with our New York contacts while also pursuing local clients. It’s also very important to not only love but also to research all aspects of the place you would like to move to. For instance, our Amazon wish lists were chock full of books on the Hawaiian culture. Not just vintage Hawaiiana, but also the history of the people and the land.

Conn: Anything is possible anywhere. But you have to love what you want to do. You have to be committed to it. If the love and commitment are there, you can succeed anywhere. Just because you love great design does not necessarily mean you would make a great designer. You can’t just think something looks good — you should know how and why it looks good, or why it doesn’t. If you want to design clothing, you also need to know fashion history and, most importantly, how to make patterns and sew. I agree with John: get to know your new place of residence before you move, and keep learning about it well after.

Conn Brattain's graphic identity/website

John Giordani's graphic identity/website

Working from Hawaii

Conn, I know you worked for Todd Oldham for many years in New York and continue to work with him from Hawaii. How did this relationship shape your own style and sense of confidence?

I wouldn’t say that my years at Todd Oldham shaped my sense of confidence any more than it had already been shaped. What it did do was allow me to experience different types of work outside of what I moved to New York to do, which was to work in fashion. My first job was part-time for Gemma Kahng. I got a full-time job at a bedazzled sweater company that nearly took all of my confidence away before going back to work for Gemma full-time for six years. That being my first real job in fashion is where I discovered the art of keeping your personal style separate from the style you create for someone else.

Fashion illustrations for Gemma Kahng by Conn Brattain

When you work for someone, you need to adapt your style for their projects. I think it is ok to be influenced by their style and bring elements into your own work, so long as you have your own sense of style to start out with. I love the work I did for both Gemma Kahng and Todd Oldham, but I try not to bring it into my work, and vice versa. I learned more from Gemma Kahng about sewing, patterns, fabric and how to put together collections than I ever did from school. What I learned from Todd was that it’s ok to break the rules and to try things you normally wouldn’t try — like polka dots with plaid.

Star tile pattern by Conn Brattain

Fashion illustrations for Todd Oldham by Conn Brattain

Water lily pattern by Conn Brattain

Illustrations by Conn Brattain for book by Amy Sedaris

I always said that my schooling prepared me more for working with Todd. I attended The School of the Arts Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and studied Fashion Design, but I also had to take classes that had nothing to do with fashion, per se. They were all on the creative side, but not in the realm of fashion. Subjects like Death and the Hereafter in which I had to design my own tombstone — something I loved because of my fascination with graveyards.

There was another that was the History of Park Design, from Central park to Coney Island and everything in between. Others devoted their learnings to Perspective Drawing, Paper Making, Performance Art, Painting. The only thing missing was business classes, which I am sure were there, but I must have purposefully overlooked those. Now I wish I had taken one or two. Taking all of these classes inspired me in ways that I might not have been had I gone to a school that was strictly devoted to Fashion Design. I started out as Todd’s Public Relations Director in 1995. By 1998, Todd decided he wanted to move away from fashion, and I made the move with him. The studio started working on projects ranging from book design, interior design, textile design and photography. It was natural for me to move from one area of creativity to another just as I had at SAIC. I was allowed to throw my creativity into the ring on any and every project, with photography and textile design being my favorites. I was also allowed to build the studio’s first website, something I had never done or attempted before — I didn’t even know how. I was allowed to learn and produce it on the job. I was the in-house retoucher for all of Todd’s photography — again something I had never done, but something that came naturally to me from painting.

Tables designed by Conn Brattain for Todd Oldham for La-Z-Boy, faceted to look like jewels

Print design for Todd Oldham by Conn Brattain

John, I understand your creative interests originally started with music, but you turned to graphic and interactive design in a way that has kept you close to that world. What have been some key turning points for you along that way?

(1986) Third year of high school, when I discovered I had a knack for drawing and was encouraged by my teachers to pursue it. I wanted to be a chef or a private investigator up until that point.

(1988) Realizing that the album covers I loved were considered art, which led me to enroll as a Graphic Design major in college.

(1991) My internship at SPIN magazine was key because it got my foot in magazine design. I eventually ended up as a Senior Designer there out of college. Up until that point, I thought I was going to work at a fancy design studio.

(1999) Feeling like I was stuck in a rut of the magazine design world and seeing an emerging new visual media take hold, I took a risk and pay cut and joined a design studio specializing in web and interactive design called Funny Garbage. The pay cut was in order to enter in the studio at a lower level to learn the ins and outs of designing for the screen. This led to forays in animation art direction and book design as well.

(2006) Moving to Maui. Fueled by many reasons, most importantly the need to explore new territory in every aspect and to challenge myself to take another risk to see if I could make it work.

Holiday greeting card illustration by John Giordani

Feature design for Details Magazine by John Giordani

Book design for Naomi Campbell by John Giordani

DVD menu proposal for Justin Timberlake by John Giordani

Lil' Monkey illustration by John Giordani

You both have a fondness for vintage patterns, color combinations, forms, and so forth. What were some of your early visual impressions, and how have those influenced your work now?

John: Growing up, I had a poster of the flags of the world on the back of my bedroom door that I would look at almost every day and try to memorize. I loved how some flags were just stripes and others were more ornate. All very bold colors. This is one of my earliest design memories.

Flags of the World poster

I was obsessed with the opening titles for Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels and all the Bond films’ opening titles by Maurice Binder, which led me to be interested in opening titles in general. Loved the comic-book-come-to-life aspect of the Wonder Woman title, also those shooting stars and the colors — so patriotic and trippy. Charlie’s Angels had a graphic quality with the iconic silhouette, and I loved the contrast of the clean-lined silo with the fiery explosion. And the Bond titles are legendary. I remember trying to photograph the screen! That led me to look into Maurice Binder’s work later on in my life. He did beautifully evocative titles for a lot of Stanley Doner films like Charade and Two For The Road. And the album cover design for Duran Duran’s RIO by Malcolm Garrett and New Order’s CORRUPTION AND LIES by Peter Saville. This was major for me. It marked a turning point where I was making my own music choices. Not based on things my parents or older brother and sister listened to — ’80s New Wave was the music for my generation. These two designers made not only interesting and bold covers, but the whole package was complete — inner sleeve, back cover, record label. All of it was a designed graphic identity for the album and the band itself. I was obsessed with band logos and recreating them on my school notebooks. I learned a lot about typography by copying what I saw.

Early design inspirations for John Giordani

The House Book by Terence Conran:
I would go to the local library in the back woods of the Catskills and pour over the Arts and Architecture section. I have wonderful memories of hunkering down in the stacks and discovering the works of Aubrey Beardsley and pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. But the interior design section is where I got the biggest thrill. The House Book by Terence Conran left the biggest impression on me.

Art and films of Andy Warhol:
I found out about Andy Warhol’s film from an old pic of Duran Duran. Nick Rhodes was wearing a “Bad” t-shirt. So I found it at the local video rental and it literally changed my life. It introduced me to avant garde film and that whole crazy New York scene. I’m inspired by everything involving Andy Warhol. His philosophy and technique was so forward-thinking and modern.

Old Magazines from the ’50s and ’60s – Esquire, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Fortune, Holiday:
My mom is a self-professed magazine junkie, so I grew up with a lot of old magazines around the house. I love them for their throw-away aspect. They weren’t meant to be masterpieces, yet they tell us so much about our culture at any given time. The ads alone are little testaments to our consumption. To me they’re priceless. I started collecting them in college, and they gave me new fuel for my design engine at a time when I was running low.

Fortune magazine cover from June, 1953

Conn: I find that I am drawn to the clean lines and color combos of mid-century design more than anything else, but baroque, arts + crafts, and deco are also favorite influences. Finding ways to combine those elements is when it gets exciting. A perfect example is the Louis XIV chair series in 1990 by Rei Kawakubo for Comme des Garçons. A series of Louis XIV style chairs void of all opulence with a seat and back braces made from brass slats. The only thing missing from these chairs was comfort.

Louis XIV chairs by Rei Kawakubo

Some of my earliest influences came from watching TV as a kid. Standout movies that caught my attention early in terms of visuals were Pillow Talk, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Mon Oncle, The Pink Panther, and What’s Up, Doc? As I got older, I discovered more movies like What A Way To Go and Sweet Charity. Pretty much anything that had Shirley MacClaine in it seemed to be highly stylized and a great source of inspiration.

Photo from Rear Window movie set

Another big influence was going to the airport with my grandmother to watch the planes take off and land. This was the early- to mid-70’s, and the interior of the airport was clean, sleek and modern. I always felt like I was somewhere much more exotic than Indianapolis, Indiana. There was a special observation deck where you could go back then to watch the planes, and I was never happy until I got to see an Eastern Airlines jet go soaring into the sky. I got an Eastern model plane for my birthday one year that I coveted. The combo of the two blues and the font were, in my young mind, perfection. I would later go on to paint a version of these stripes all over my bedroom walls.

Eastern Airlines plane circa 1971

I had never actually flown anywhere, but from time to time they gave tours of new planes introduced to the fleet. This is when I got the chance to see my first stewardess, as they were called back then, in uniform. It was my first taste of seeing a logo printed all over a fabric. I was also intrigued by the way the outfits had been put together and how they matched the interior of the planes. Crisp, clean, and somewhat futuristic. They were far better than the uniforms I saw at Dairy Queen or Burger King!

Then I discovered illustration in the form of posters, printed fabrics and patterns on dishes. We had the classic Corelle Dinnerware with the gold butterfly and flower border. We also had a set that had a thin gold line painted around the edge, which was my favorite. I had an early knowledge that I liked my food to be presented on a plain white plate, but a small outer pattern or stripe was fine! Today my favorite dinnerware is our white Paul McCobb Contempri with a 1/4″ red line.

Paul McCobb dish with red stripe

You do a great job in your Cuckoo for Coconuts blog of documenting your new life, your home remodel, decorating, cooking, and gardening. Did you begin this blog as a way of keeping friends and family updated or was it more just a natural tendency on your part to create something?

Conn: The blog began in July of 2006, right after we decided to make the move to Hawaii. I would say that it started out as a way to show things that we loved and found interesting, but we knew it would turn into a way for family and close friends to keep up with us and our new adventure. We had no idea we would meet so many new people through it. We have readers from all over the world that send us email with questions about Hawaii and what to do here. It really took off when we “rescued” a baby ring-neck pheasant that we named Kekoa. He won the hearts of many readers over the course of a year and was by far our biggest attraction. The cooking/food/garden posts also seem to resonate well with our readers.

Cuckoo for Coconuts blog by Conn and John

Little Kekoa

Kekoa all grown up

Guava cheesecake featured on Cuckoo for Coconuts

What was your vision for your new home, and what are some of your best tips for redoing your home inexpensively?

Conn: I’m not sure we really had a vision when we bought it, except to just enjoy and be surrounded by nature. Of course, being designers we just couldn’t resist a few good remodels and upgrades to the house. In the first year, we completely redid the kitchen and bath. We also knew that we would want a studio where we could work, so two years after arriving we tackled that project and are just now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on that. Cost-cutting advice would be to hire people to do the big jobs like framing or drywall. It will cost you less to hire professionals to do the big jobs right the first time and in a timely manner. Then do the smaller projects like tiling a shower, installing a new lanai, painting or hanging light fixtures yourself on weekends or evenings. Do research on the best way to tackle these projects before beginning to save time and money and to avoid frustration.

John: In regard to saving money, a lot is our willingness and know-how to do things ourselves. Also, resources like Craigslist and Restore (or any used building material seller) are great. We bought insulation on Craigslist for half the price and white globe hanging lights at Restore for 50 cents. If you see your local home improvement store having a sale on something you might not need right now but could see needing three months down the road, then place your order. Keep your receipts — places like Home Depot and Lowe’s take merchandise back, no questions asked — sometimes even if a package has been opened. Conn’s always insisting we buy more than we need, which saves us from making last-minute trips into town and makes for a smoother project. Then we just return any unused items. Finally, we aren’t ones to encourage gifts from family and friends, but just before we left the mainland, it was Christmastime, so we asked folks if they had planned on giving us anything to make it gift cards from Home Depot, Sears or Lowe’s. This had a big impact and help out a lot.

"Before" shot of Conn and John's house in Hawaii

"After" shot of Conn and John's house in Hawaii

The living room at Conn and John's house

The kitchen at Conn and John's house

What’s next on the horizon for you two?

Conn: I would love to get a plant nursery up and running soon. I have a good start, but it is a lot of work. Starting out small is ok. I really want to divide my time between design and being in nature equally, if possible.

John: When we tore down an old shed in order to build the office on the existing footprint, we saved all of the framed walls, siding, windows and roofing, and we’re gearing up for building a 180 sq. ft. garden/tractor shed out of those materials this summer.

Part of Conn and John's garden

Growing avocados at Conn and John's house

What kind of advice would you offer to others just getting started in a creative field?

Conn: Love what you do and learn the history of the field. Follow rules when needed and break them any time you can to create something new. Be willing to do work for free from time to time, especially for non-profits — they can be some of the most rewarding jobs you’ll work on. Be flexible to a point but not so flexible that you are taken advantage of.

John: This is going to sound cheesy, but follow your heart and your gut. Also, it’s important to take criticism with a grain of salt — what you do with it is solely your decision. If you’re uncomfortable, it means you’re learning.

What are some of your favorite things, whether they impact your work directly or just make you happy?

Conn: Birds, absolute silence, rain moving across the ocean, comedy, anything with or by Amy and David Sedaris, our vintage Charley Harper prints, black and white photography, the smell of fresh cut grass, the smell of tomatoes on the vine, humpback whale season in Hawaii, the sound of water filling up our catchment tanks, hiking the jungles and mountains of Hawaii, our royal poinciana in full bloom, sunsets from our front yard, baking, a finished project, surinam cherries and, as corny as it sounds, daily rainbows.

Bird photographed by Conn Brattain

Surinam cherries

Rainbow in Hawaii

Charley Harper bird prints in Conn and John's bedroom

John: Our Charley Harper prints and books. Our photos from our trips to Hawaii. My old magazine collection. Our garden when it’s fruiting and pest-free. Roselani ice cream. My design book collection. Our endless blooming flowers throughout the yard. A nice long hike. Catching a good old movie on TCM. How the full moon here makes all the foliage turn silver. The sounds of the ocean from our house. Our photovoltaic panels that make our electricity. The feeling that you get at the end of the day when you’ve done what you planned to do (very rare!).

John and Conn on their lanai

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Live music – various (Part 2)

by admin on April 1, 2010

I’m mixing things up this week with some great live musical performances. The collection below is sure to take you on a journey through genres and through time! Thanks to those of you who have posted comments about making big life changes in a more creative direction — I’ve got some inspiring interviews coming soon plus a new book in the works that will keep encouraging you to grab the bull by the horns. In the meantime, enjoy this little musical romp.


Here’s the amazingly talented Pink performing the Janis Joplin classic Me and Bobby McGee on the Today show.

The Cure

I’d been obsessing over The Cure‘s In Between Days for a couple of months and then was so happy to see that Apple picked this tune for one of their launch ads for the new iPad! Such a great mix of electric and acoustic and an incredibly infectious energy. Here is a classic 1986 performance at the Théatre Antique d’Orange in France. (Sorry about the subtitles, but I went with the best sound and video.)

Ricky Martin

In honor of his recent web statement, here’s my little homage to the very sexy Ricky Martin, performing Livin’ La Vida Loca live in 1999 in very sexy Italy. This man is totally free now, so watch out world!


Here’s a live performance by Keane of the beautiful Somewhere Only We Know at the Live 8 concert in London. The audience sounds great too.


Darren Foreman, aka Beardyman, is a world-renowned beatboxer from London with incredible improvisational skills and the ability to mimic just about any instrument, singer, or other sound. This 10+ minute tour-de-force solo performance at Camp Bestival 2009 includes a tribute to the late Michael Jackson.

Annie Lennox

Here’s the incomparable Annie Lennox at the American Idol Gives Back concert in 2008 singing Many Rivers to Cross and giving it her trademark soul.

Cat Stevens / Yusuf Islam

I couldn’t resist pairing two live recordings of Peace Train by the same man, the first by Cat Stevens during his 1976 Earth Tour and the second as his adopted identity of Yusuf  Islam at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2003. Both performances are well worth the listen!


Not too many songs can boost your spirit like Beautiful Day by U2, so we’re ending on this note. This is one of the truly great bands of all time, live at Slane Castle.

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Allison Arieff – design thinker, writer

by admin on March 24, 2010

Allison Arieff spends her days thinking about design and writing about its impact on our daily lives. Best known as the former editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine, Allison has also worked as an editor for Sunset magazine and senior content lead for IDEO, is a published author, and writes the By Design column for the New York Times. She sees the interconnectedness of all design, and through her writing sparks thoughtful discussion about its impact on areas such as urban planning, the economy, public health, food production, and education. Now serving as the food and shelter ambassador for the Pepsi Refresh Project and a contributor to GOOD, Allison aims to bring smart design and rich connections back to our local communities and world.

Allison Arieff at Urban Re:Vision event

You’re someone who looks at design in all its forms — from architecture to urban planning to food production to household objects and beyond. I wanted to start by asking what you would say to someone just getting started in a creative field about the importance of good design in our lives.

I think design was always kind of in my life, and I was lucky enough to have parents who had all Scandinavian modern stuff and just kind of bought well-made, well-designed stuff — not so much as a status thing but just because it was sort of the affordable, nice-looking option. So I was just sort of surrounded by all this stuff growing up, and it wasn’t until I was much, much older that it was all kind of collectible. So I was kind of oblivious to the idea of much of the stuff that I ended up writing about just because so many of these things just happened — I lived in a walkable neighborhood, and people didn’t have to write about them in quite the same way they do now.

I actually studied art and history in college and not design per se, and I definitely had some great professors who talked a lot about things in terms of how everything was related to one another. And that was always really interesting to me. Not history as facts, but history as the food part and the economics part and the war part, all kind of mixed in and sort of a picture of society. So I think I’ve always sort of approached design as just sort of one facet of that, sort of focusing on the larger picture. What I don’t like is when it gets so separated out that it becomes sort of formalist art history or something. That’s not the sort of analysis that I’m interested in doing. So I would say, especially now, the more that one can realize that everything is connected, the better — infrastructure is connected to health, safety, economics, architecture, design, etc. — that all these things kind of feed into one another. And I feel that most people look at all of these things in isolation — a bridge is a bridge, and that’s all. But you can begin to look at any aspect of anything that you’re interested in in terms of how it relates to other things and how your thinking might improve those relationships — systems thinking, call it what you will. The fact that doing X affects Y, and how can these things work in concert with one another. I think our thought processes are kind of woefully absent of that.

I ended up doing interdisciplinary work in grad school and realized that it was getting harder and harder — ‘Oh, if I finished my PhD, I couldn’t ever find anyone to hire me to teach this kind of multidisciplinary approach.’ You sort of had to have an appointment within one department of a university. I guess I feel that that’s a little bit outliving its usefulness, and I think that’s true for so many disciplines. It’s not enough to know about one thing, you have to be able to see how they connect.

I think it’s a tricky time for design right now. You know, people went to design school even five years ago — and, frankly, even now because it takes a while for curriculum to kind of catch up — and it used to be you go to design school to learn how to make things. And there’s always going to be a market for making things, but far less than there was. And the things you’re making are different and have to be changing, have to be responding to many, many different concerns — supply chains and obsolescence and all of that stuff. So much of what a lot of designers I know are doing is designing experiences or ideas or organizational structures, so I think the field is changing so dramatically. I think for people just starting out right now, it’s equally part of what you need to figure out how to do right now. A willingness to be flexible and kind of look over the horizon at the next thing coming is kind of the best skill you can have right now.

Strada 533 folding bike by Mark Sanders for Strida

You’ve emphasized something every good designer knows, to quote Eames, that good design comes from constraints. Is this the silver lining of the recent global economic downturn?

I do believe that good design comes from constraints, and yes, I believe that the recession has inspired many to be more inventive, more resourceful. This can be seen as a silver lining, but it’s more complicated than that: there are some real challenges around the economics not just of design but of creative output in general. People are creating wonderful things with less — will they ever be able to make even a modest amount of money for their efforts? I don’t long for a return to starchitect excesses or a surplus of product, but it is important that design is supported culturally and financially.

At the core of our thought process about real estate and development is this notion of ‘highest and best use,’ which rarely if ever takes into account the context of the neighborhood or larger community. Looking across a range of urban issues, from those wonderful, multi-generational hutongs in Beijing being taken over by skyscrapers, to a city like Detroit looking at urban farming as a way to revitalize itself, do you think we’ll make any meaningful progress in how we evolve urban environments until we rethink this fundamental notion?

Well, highest and best use assumes that everyone has the same interests in a particular building. So for a developer, the highest and best use is the greatest ROI, right? So I can put this many people in this big of a space and get this much money for it. And I’m making a gross generalization, but their highest and best use is high occupancy and great rate of return. And that could be diametrically opposed to the people in that building. So I think that kind of continues to be the basis for so much of what is built in this country: it’s all about cost per square foot and resale value, and very little about sustainability and functionality and livability. And that definitely has to change, but it’s really hard for that to change! Even the inhabitant of that building might not totally understand that that’s wrong.

I spent a year working for a master-planned community developer as a consultant and did a lot of interviewing with potential home-buyers and was kind of unnerved by what a premium everyone put on resale value at the expense of a lot of other things. You know, even if they were going to live in this house for some time, they were far more concerned with what they were going to get for it in the very end. And I like to think that what’s gone on in real estate the last few years is that people will step back a little bit and say, ‘Well, all these guarantees that I thought I had about increasing real estate values aren’t necessarily true.’ But — and I’m talking about residential real estate now — things that are added, put in, sizes that are mandated, etc., are not so much for the actual benefit of the people living in there but because of the perception that this is what people want and this is what people will pay for. And I kind of equate it to you write a paragraph, and then someone rewrites it a little bit — like the mission statement of an organization — and then everyone keeps taking it and editing it just slightly for their own purposes. And then you look at it a year later and say, ‘This makes absolutely no sense!’ So many people have tweaked it, and no one actually went back and thought the thing through!

So I think you can kind of look at residential real estate this way and say, ‘Well, everyone needs a Viking range!’, ‘Everyone has to have three bedrooms!’, ‘Everyone has to have this room and this much square footage and whatever else.’ And never kind of stepping back to reevaluate these things and say, ‘This is what people want, and this is what they’ll pay for.’ And as a result you get this kind of mish-mash of features as opposed to something kind of holistically conceived. So we’ve gotta get out of that.

Fortune magazine covers the potential of urban farming to revitalize Detroit

Cornfield in downtown Detroit

A hutong community in Beijing, image from Wikimedia Commons

I’m just wondering how we get out of that — as you say, it may have to start with consumer demand.

I think there’s fairly compelling evidence that not everybody wants the sort of standard, cookie-cutter subdivision house. But there’s so much reticence to change. And I’m not even talking about radical architecture, I’m talking about more flexible floorplans and living scenarios, and, like you said, the multi-generational neighborhood and really kind of designing for that. I live in a neighborhood in San Francisco that sort of as a fluke has ended up being this completely multi-generational, economically diverse neighborhood. Everyone walks everywhere, we only have one car, there’s a little sort of European shopping street — I call it ‘downtown’ — and I really don’t have to leave my little three-block radius because I have everything I need. But no one seems to ever be able to design deliberately for that. There was a series of happy accidents and arguments and long battles and all kinds of aggravation and strife to get to this point, but it’s kind of a perfect neighborhood now. And my whole thing is: how do you get there, how do you design for that? I haven’t seen much of it, to be honest. That’s kind of a big goal and hope of mine to do that.

You’ve expressed your frustration that we haven’t made much progress in addressing the problem outlined in Buckminster Fuller’s 40-year old quote below. Do you have a sort of utopian vision for how you wish we were living? And what are some of the best ideas you’ve seen for reimagining the sprawl we’ve let happen for so long?

“Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time.
Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time.
Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time.
It’s time we gave this some thought.”

— R. Buckminster Fuller

I don’t have visions of Utopia. I’m too pragmatic for that, and I’ve seen too much fail. But I certainly believe things can be better — there is so much that could be done smarter. Fuller’s observation is one great example — in essence, real estate is designed and built for boom times. There is a persistent denial that we also go through of periods of bust. The cycle continues, and all the energy goes toward designing for the good half of it. But there are ways to design for both. This could mean more flexible building designs or form-based code (where the same structure can be used for multiple uses: bank, market, housing, school). Something as simple as Room Wizard (an online platform that lets you schedule room use remotely) allows for better efficiency of space in, say, an office or university building. I’m seeing building tenants share use: one restaurant operates lunch, the other dinner, or an antique store divided itself in half and now leases the other side to an urban garden store. Air B&B facilitates the renting of apartments for short term stays.

There is lots of good thinking around reimagining sprawl — most of it remains in the re-imagination stage, however. I’ve just finished an article for GOOD magazine on how agriculture might help save/redefine suburbia. Galina Tachieva of Duany Plater Zyberk is finishing up a book called the Sprawl Repair Kit that features pragmatic solutions for things like transforming McMansions into senior housing facilities or apartments. I hope that people will continue to get creative — I’ve heard so many developers say, for example, that subdivisions can’t support a café. Why not let an enterprising individual run one out their garage a few hours a day? People in cities do this all the time. I am confident people will walk if you give them something to walk to. None of this transformation will be inexpensive, but without doing it, so many things (resource use, pollution, obesity) will continue to get worse.

Aerial view of suburban development

The term sustainability is used across every discipline now, but Rob Hopkins, the founder of the worldwide Transition movement, talks about the importance of ‘resilience’ over ‘sustainability’ and asks, as one example, how we got to a place where food is grown so far from where we consume it. How big a push are you seeing to return to growing food locally in urban centers, and what are you most excited about in this realm?

There is an ENORMOUS push. I have a 500-square foot farm in my backyard in San Francisco where I grow beets, carrots, kale, lettuces, fava beans, snap peas. There are few things as satisfying. I could attend a panel on urban farming every other evening here in San Francisco. The University of San Francisco has an urban agriculture minor. There are more and more farmers markets, more and more community and school gardens, and even the typically conservative garden show will have a demonstration vegetable garden this year. It’s become an accepted part of landscape architecture. Detroit is poised to have the country’s largest urban farm. Vancouver just passed a resolution requiring developers to have edible landscapes as part of their projects. San Francisco is giving over vacant lots to urban agriculture. Things are really happening.

It’s at the top of the list for suburban improvement as well. That article for GOOD I mentioned looks at agricultural solutions as part of suburban retrofits. There are many obstacles, to be sure, but I love the idea of designing around an edible landscape. It could strengthen community, improve the health of residents, get kids outside and moving around, reduce population, and help insure food safety.

The revitalization of neighborhoods

Vertical farming as one example of urban agriculture

There seem to be a lot of little revolutions taking place — such as Park(ing) Day — to create a tangible example of what is possible, even if just for a short while, and push public policy faster than it would ordinarily go. I wonder if you’ve considered the role of government and how it should be adapting to our lives?

PARKing Day and its cousin, Pavement to Parks, show how grassroots efforts can really push public policy. Both programs were designed to be temporary; both were so well-received, the spaces so well-utilized, that the city took notice and has moved to make official versions. It’s a great strategy. If someone had proposed PARKing Day as a permanent installation, people would be up in arms over losing a single precious parking space. But REBAR had proof of concept — the commandeering of the parking space put smiles on people’s faces, brought more customers into local business, didn’t hamper traffic — so few could find reason to object to making it happen in a more permanent way. With budgets where they are and with levels of tension and disagreement where they are right now, this sort of grass roots activism used to initiate meaningful change seems to be the smartest way to go.

Note: pictured below are Park(ing) Day examples of renting a city parking space and creating a temporary but welcoming, park-like space.

Two examples of Park(ing) Day uses: top image Philadelphia, bottom image San Francisco

Have your thoughts about what good design means changed since having your child?

It’s interesting. We bought a house and had a child within one month. We looked for a house for a year at the top of the market in San Francisco and lost house after house and had given up — and then found a house when I was super, super pregnant, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s just do it!’ Both of these enormous changes, of home ownership and parenthood, started at the same time, so I would say the combination of those things has definitely changed my ideas about design. It’s a funny thing, because as the editor of Dwell for a long time, a lot of people have this expectation of what you must live in, and I think I must sorely disappoint those people because I don’t have a Dwell house at all! I have a 100-year old house, and I have some modern stuff and we’ve done some renovations that are more on the modern side, but I don’t have some high-design architecture house, and I certainly have a far-from-minimalist house. And now that I have a child, I don’t even know what the people who had children in these houses that we shot ever did, because my daughter’s four now and she’s like leaving bread crumbs everywhere — I mean, not literally, but she comes in and there’s just a trail. And you can fight it, and I do a little bit, but I just kind of go with it at the end of the day and just sort of shove it all aside as much as I can. But I could not keep up with some sort of hyper-minimalist interior and a four year old. And not that I lived in a hyper-minimalist home before that, but I think that’s changed a little bit.

My interest in gardening and landscape architecture, and particularly edible landscapes, has absolutely blossomed. Around the same time that we acquired this giant space and had her, and we spent a ton of time in the garden and have all these vegetables growing, and it’s really become like a family room for us. She can putter outside in the dirt and be perfectly happy and has a great awareness of the science of insects and dirt, and I absolutely love that. So that’s something that wasn’t a big part of my life prior.

Allison Arieff's own garden

Allison's daughter Emilia in their garden

To keep up on such a range of issues and events and then draw themes, trends and meaning from them, what does a typical day look like for you?

I spend a lot of time reading everything from tweets to books, going to panels and lectures, and talking/emailing/meeting with people working on the issues I’m interested in. The research part is never a chore — I’m really interested in these things, so I want to learn more. I get so much from listening to someone tell the story of their effort, the two people growing all the produce for the restaurant on their corner, the woman organizing an online platform for resource-sharing, and the like. I get to meet great, inspiring people, which is important because far too much of my day is spent in front of my computer screen.

Looking back on your years of work with Dwell magazine, plus your work with Sunset, IDEO, your books, your By Design column and work with GOOD, what do you think your greatest contribution is so far? Do you have a sense of personal mission?

I feel incredibly lucky to have been involved with all of these efforts. With Dwell, the opportunity to start a magazine from scratch was incredible — now even more so as the era of the print magazine seems to have passed. We had such an incredible team and really created something unique that quickly became part of the larger conversation on design, and that’s incredibly satisfying. Prefab — the book, the design competition, the idea — seemingly the most uncool thing ever, took off in a way that was completely not anticipated. It’s amazing really; I regret that prefab didn’t live up to its potential but now I’m seeing that its best future is in multifamily and affordable/disaster-relief housing. I’m eager to see that happen.

Issue of Dwell magazine

Prefab by Allison Arieff and Bryan Burkhart

I don’t have a formal mission — I do get excited about things, and it’s not enough for me to write about them. The Times column has been great as it’s part of the Opinion section and it’s been an incredible forum for things I’m passionate about: housing, urban agriculture, systems thinking, sustainable design. If there was a mission, it would be to not just observe and comment but contribute. Writing a critique of a subdivision is one thing, but being able to improve the way of thinking about that subdivision — how to make it more walkable, more able to foster good relationships between neighbors, environmentally responsible, design it to support local merchants — enough to change the way its built, that’s the kind of work I’m hoping to do.

Besides good design, what are some of your favorite things?

I feel like all the stuff that I’m writing about now, whether it’s housing or sustainability or architecture, it’s all nominally connected to design, but it’s sort of but almost not even my work anymore. It’s just what I do all day. I just find out about all this stuff, so it’s hard to separate those things out. Plus my husband and I do very similar things, and all the various books we’ve done, we’ve done together, so it’s been part of my familial and romantic relationship doing these projects, and it’s all very integrated into what I do.

I’m a huge, huge reader, but I read novels — I don’t read about organic gardening at night! But I read probably a book a week and just love reading novels and always have. I love going to the farmers market. And cooking food is very much a part of our lives, growing it and buying it — I really love the process of food shopping! I love being part of the neighborhood and the whole experience of selecting food and cooking it.

And I think this whole local movement that’s been happening nationwide, I would kind of extend that out past food — kind of an appreciation of everything that’s around you. And I joked about not going outside my little three-block radius, but I really just love my neighborhood. We have a giant park and lots of friends close by, and I’m really enjoying that proximity. And it’s familiar, but there are new things and new people all the time too.

I feel so lucky that I get to spend all this time researching and inquiring about stuff that’s really interesting to me and just kind of meeting people and talking about these things. And really making sure I’m not doing it online all day but really getting out of the house and having face-to-face conversations. I think that’s one of the big challenges for everyone right now — remembering that, yes, you can get an amazing amount of stuff done online at your computer, but I think people are just sort of losing sight of what it’s like to sort of get out there. I just really love this mix of circumstances I find myself in right now.

Allison Arieff

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