For the People, By The People

9 Sep

We like to think that we have refined taste, whether we’re talking food, hobbies, or art. But if you actually track what average people do on a day-to-day basis, you’re more likely to see them watching reality TV and eating Cheerios than going to the opera and cooking foie gras.

Back in the 90s, a Russian artist pair called Komar and Melamid wanted to explore what the average, everyday man was looking for in art. They realized that the tastes of the art elite were likely a poor indicator of what most people would want to see in a painting. Playing off the prevalence of opinion polls and market research in consumer culture, the artists hired a polling firm to help dissect what people living in different countries find visually appealing. Through a series of polls and focus groups, the artists were able to chart out what different kinds of people preferred in their paintings. For example, in the US, 44% of people said blue was their preferred color. 88% of Americans preferred to see a landscape in their paintings. Respondents liked seeing people, and wanted the painting to be as realistic as possible. Results were surprisingly consistent across countries and demographics, with some variations here or there.

The whole project had an edge of social commentary, as the artists were making a point about making decisions based on polls, about average taste, and about consumerism in general. Once Komar and Melamid had their data in hand, they set out to make what they called the “Most Wanted” and “Least Wanted” paintings. They incorporated the colors, styles and subjects that floated to the tops or bottoms of the polls. The resulting American painting is a landscape in soft colors with a portrait of George Washington in the mix. The “Least Wanted” painting, on the other hand, is tiny and full of harsh edges and geometric shapes.

America’s “Most Wanted” painting, according to the artists’ poll.

The “Least Wanted” painting for Americans. Quite different!

Komar and Melamid also created paintings for the other countries, then released all of the paintings along with the actual data on what people liked. They held a series of town halls and roundtables about the paintings, too. Some were with “average citizens,” and some were with people from the art world. The art world rejected the “Most Wanted” paintings, unsurprisingly. But what’s even more interesting is that “average citizens” didn’t immediately relate to them, either. When asked outright what their dream painting would be, most people had much more imaginative answers than what you see in the “Most Wanted” painting. So how do we explain the gap between what people came up with as their “dream painting” and what people replied to in the polls?

Well, for starters, asking someone an open-ended question is much different than giving people a list of possible replies. Second, few people would probably come up with the idea of a blue-tinted landscape painting as their dream painting, even if it is what they find most pleasing, overall. Asking people about which individual elements they prefer, and making something composite that speaks to their emotions, are two different things. But whether or not these paintings are really the most or least wanted, or somewhere in between, Komar and Melamid’s project raised a lot of interesting questions about art, its purpose, and its target. Should there be different approaches to making art for the masses, and art for the elite? Should art for the masses even exist?

I’m curious how this project would differ if the artists did it today. Would there be references to technology? Would people still prefer historical figures, or would they want to see more modern celebrities? Would most people still say that painting just needs to be nice to look at, versus having an explicit goal?

You can check out all the data from their project here, and the resulting paintings here. Which painting best represents what you think you want from art?

A Tale of Two Cakes

4 Sep

It was the summer of 2008 and I was on a bus to Burgos, Spain. I’d taken many trips around Spain during my semester in Madrid, but this particular trip was special: I was going to visit my friend Natalia’s hometown. She’d wanted me to visit for months, and we’d finally found a weekend that worked for both of us. Natalia was one of my closest Spanish friends during my time abroad and she was thrilled to show me around, introduce me to her family and friends and teach me all about Burgos’ centuries of history.

The minute we got to Natalia’s family home, her mom insisted on feeding us. Sure, Burgos had a lot of historical sites and beautiful vistas. But first… Won’t you just have a slice of cake?

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Tarta de Queso de Burgos (Natalia’s mom’s version)

That cake was sweet, with a nutty finish. It was the kind of cake that inspires people to have a sweet tooth. Easy to eat, and easy to eat a lot in one sitting. Natalia called it “tarta de queso,” or cheesecake, but it wasn’t quite like the cheesecake we have in the U.S. It had a golden, brûléed top and a custardy middle. Natalia’s mom explained that it was made with Queso de Burgos, a local fresh cheese. I made a mental note of that, and took another slice.

What a wonderful weekend in Burgos. We toured a local monastery, spent time with Natalia’s childhood friends, explored the ruins of Burgos’ 9th Century castle, ambled along the river. I happened to be there during the town’s annual festival, so we also got to see traditions that stretch back centuries. Natalia’s family treated me with the sweetest, greatest kind of hospitality you could imagine. When it came time to return to Madrid, I was sad to go. Natalia’s mom sent me off with the last slice of that scrumptious cake.


A look at the volleyball scene

A couple months earlier, I’d had the chance to visit some dear friends in France. These were friends I’d made while studying in France and they told me I had to come visit since I was so much closer than usual. Of course I agreed, and I bought tickets to visit during the area’s annual Volleyball Tournament. The Tournament takes over a campground near Amboise, and participants set up tents all over the site. They play volleyball during the day and essentially host giant parties at night. In other words, it’s a fabulous time. I stayed in a tent with my friends, cheered them on as they played volleyball, participated in singalongs, and brushed off my French after months of thinking in Spanish. I also got to see my host family from my study abroad program.  They swung by to grab me from the volleyball tournament and took me around town for nostalgia’s sake, then brought me to their house for a delicious meal. I can’t remember much about what we ate – but I do remember the cake my former host mom served at the end. It was moist, flavorful, punctuated by bits of fruit. It was the perfect dose of sweetness, balanced by a rich base. I’m sure I asked for another slice.

I’ve long thought about both those cakes. Back in 2008 I wasn’t as much of a baker, and I didn’t think to ask for the recipes. But those cakes have stayed in my thoughts over the years. You know when foods just stick out in your memory, and you really want another bite? Part of it is how delicious those foods were, but I know part of it is nostalgia, too. Those days in Burgos with Natalia were some of my best from the entire 6 months I spent in Spain – her enthusiasm in showing me around, her family’s hospitality, the fun of exploring her hometown. And seeing my friends and host family again in France just made me so incredibly happy – that same sense of hospitality, the genuine interest in making sure I enjoyed myself, the joy of being with people who are just so good, so deep down.

I recently asked Natalia for the cake recipe and finally tried my hand at it earlier this week. My version was certainly delicious, but I think Natalia’s mom’s cake was better. I couldn’t find Queso de Burgos here so I substituted in cream cheese, which lent the right texture, but not quite the same flavor. Perhaps I’ll need to try it again with a variety of queso fresco that has a closer taste profile to Queso de Burgos. Here’s a recipe I found on the web that looks really similar to the one Natalia sent me, if you’re interested.


My take on the Beaumes de Venise muscat cake

As for the cake I had in France- I’ve yet to ask for that recipe, though I still could. But I did see this recipe for a Beaumes-de-Venise cake on a friend’s cooking blog a couple years ago, and decided it seemed similar to that cake I’d had back in France. So I made it last year, for my birthday potluck. Rejoice! I don’t know if it was exactly the same, but it definitely hit the right texture and the right balance of heartiness paired with sweet, plump fruit.

Even if I manage to perfect these recipes, eating them in SF will never be the same as eating them with the people who made them for me the first time. Hopefully someday I can return their hospitality, and I’ll start the visit by cutting them a nice, big slice of cake. Perhaps that’d be the perfect time to share the yellow cake my mom makes us for every birthday? Or maybe a thick slice of gooey butter cake?

Just for fun: here are some photos of my trips to Burgos and the Amboise Volleyball Tournament.

Such A Facade

28 Aug

20140826_174507As I strolled San Francisco last week I passed a giant building under construction. The building takes up almost an entire block with a uniform facade painted an odd shade of brown. To its right is another new building, this one gray, but with an equally bland facade. My first question was what the buildings were going to be used for. My second was why they made the buildings so uniform and boring. It’s not just about aesthetics: research shows that when a street has large, uniform facades, people walk through the street much quicker, and enjoy the walk much less. Streets with smaller facades and more functions per block inspire people to linger, gather and enjoy the scene.

I learned of this phenomenon in a wonderful book called Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design. As the title suggests, the book talks about different ways that urban design can impact quality of life and emotional well-being. The book is full of interesting nuggets, from research on the proper distance between your house and your bus stop, to an entire section on piazzas. This facade research stood out to me, though, because it’s such a common trait of modern architecture. Think of all the blocks now dominated by gigantic, big box stores that stretch and stretch and stretch. Think of all the huge apartment buildings that take up entire blocks. Think of the cold, empty spaces that you encounter as you walk through a modern city.

551764_865618047362_70379446_nMuch of the research on facades comes from Jan Gehl, a Danish urban design consultant and architect. Her studies show that people find it much more uplifting to walk through streets with variety in their facades. Compare the picture above to this other picture from San Francisco, this time from the Castro neighborhood. Which street would you rather walk down? Which would you rather explore? Where would you rather sit and talk to your friends?

Studies like Gehl’s can really impact how cities shape their world. For example, Denmark now regulates where banks open their new branches, to make sure they don’t affect a main city street that thrives off a flurry of activity and movement. New York City has limited the amount of ground floor space for new stores on the Upper West Side, ensuring that streets maintain a variety of shapes, openings and varieties. Vancouver regulates its big box stores to make sure that their design fits with how the city wants its inhabitants to experience their surroundings.

As our cities continue to evolve, we’ll need to keep an eye on the way that our architectural and design choices can impact the quality of lives. Bigger isn’t always better. Taller isn’t always smarter. And even as big box retail and chain restaurants continue to grow, we must think of ways to make big business act small.

Look Into A Mirror

19 Aug

In consumer research, we often use a technique called ethnographies. Ethnographies are essentially in-home interviews, and they’re just as it sounds: we go to people’s houses, and talk to them in their “natural habitat.” We ask questions about their lives, their hobbies, their relationships. We dig into their perceptions of specific brands and types of products. For a beer interview, for example, we’d ask all about the types of beer they like, when they drink it, where they buy it, etc. We use these interviews to help clients better understand their consumer targets – their lives, their interests, their concerns. It’s a rich way to gather insights, and a fascinating one, too.

One of the best parts of in-home interviews is that there’s a lot of showing, on top of the telling. We always ask for a house tour. Every part of the house is fair game, from bedrooms to bathrooms. If it’s a food or beverage-focused project, we go through their cabinets and their fridge, taking note of what they eat, how they store it, how they serve it. Though sometimes respondents feel a bit embarrassed to show us their messy lives, that’s sort of the point: few of us have homes that are as organized and beautiful as what we see in magazines, and to truly understand “real people,” we have to see life at its realest.

I recently was thinking about what would happen if a researcher entered my own apartment and did an in-home interview about me. How would she describe my perspective on life? My thoughts on relationships? The way I organize my living space and belonging? I looked around my apartment, trying to size up what my room says about me. My bedroom is full of mementos and curios. Books, pictures, souvenirs, art. There are a couple pieces of World’s Fair memorabilia floating around. A tray gifted to me by one of my favorite college professors. A ceramic bowl that my brother made me. Artwork I bought on a bridge in Prague. And then, of course, the overflow storage, organized with a steel bookshelf and fabric cubes. Would the researcher comment on my love of travel, perhaps? On the multitude of pictures of family and friends? My collection of foreign language dictionaries and thesauruses? On the sheer quantity of things “on display” in my room?

I like to think that the researcher would scribble notes down about my outgoing spirit, my inquisitive mind, my breadth of hobbies. I’d hope they say that I seem to have it together. I’d hope they’d say I’m a savvy consumer who makes rational choices. I’d hope they’d say I’m interesting.

If a researcher entered your home: what would she think? What would she deem important to you? How would she describe your perspective on your life? What do you think would go in the report?

The Shoes of San Francisco (Picture Prattle)

14 Aug


Broadway and Romolo

I’ve lived in a few cities before San Francisco, but never before have I seen so many shoes on the sidewalks. I started taking pictures of these shoes a bit ago. There’s just something about them that makes me want to know more. I’m sure some of these shoes have sad stories: perhaps a homeless person accidentally left a shoe behind and forgot where he left it.  Some are probably disappointing stories: the rollerblade that fell out of someone’s bag as he threw it in the car. Some seem pretty purposeful: the pair of tennis shoes perched on top of a trashcan, poised as an offering to a new, deserving owner.

Here are some of my favorite photos of the shoes of San Francisco. I don’t know their stories, but I sure do wonder.

What I Like About You

8 Aug

It’s really easy to ignore the people around you. After all, most people you see are people you will never meet. It’s easy to treat them like “extras” in a movie where you’re the star. While you’re busy living your life, they’re just there in the background, adding texture then fading into a blur.

At some point I developed a little game to help me hone in on the people around me. It’s called “What I Like About You,” and the only rule is that you have to think of something you like about every person who passes by. For every single person you see during the game, you have to come up with a mental compliment. It can be about their hair, their watch, their shoes – it doesn’t matter. The point is to pay enough attention to the people around you that you can recognize something about them that you sort of, kind of, maybe, relate to.

Yes, it’s nice to compliment people out loud – and I certainly recommend doing lots of that, too. But the point of this particular “game” is really to make you more aware of the people around you. Giving people compliments is a nice way to connect. Giving people mental compliments is a nice way to engage your own thinking. I realize it may sound superficial to focus on appearance and belongings rather than people’s personalities. But imagine, for example, that you’re on the bus, and a string of people is filing past you. Realistically, you are not going to talk to every single one or compliment each one out loud, at least not without sounding a little fake. This is an exercise to help remind you that there’s more to the world than you. And to remind you that while people may look different than you, there has to be something you can share in common. It helps keep you from getting trapped in your own little bubble of existence. After all: I may be the top billed star in my own personal life, but the scenes would be much less interesting and much less meaningful without all the “supporting actors” and “extras” around me.

So Yesterday

3 Aug

How many times have you heard someone say that “X” is the new cupcake? I’ve heard that phrase applied to all sorts of things over the years, from macarons to pie. Yet, despite its naysayers, the mighty cupcake has persisted. Sure, other sweets have had their moment in the spotlight: the cronut, for example, got impressive airtime and spawned tons of copycats. But none of the pretenders to the dessert throne have had quite the same impact as the glorious cupcake, both in terms of its physical availability and its imprint on the American dessert psyche. One bakery even has Cupcake ATMs!

When cupcake powerhouse Crumbs recently announced that it was shutting its doors, the “cupcakes are over” cries began anew. You know what though? I’m just not buying it. Perhaps Crumbs over expanded, but that doesn’t mean the dessert’s glory days are totally over. It just means that one well-known, pricey competitor didn’t make their business model work. And besides, Crumbs was already rescued, anyway- by the company that owns Dippin’ Dots.

Some Slate writers searched the Nexis database to find instances of the phrase “the new cupcake” and found that 57 different foods have been given that treatment over the past few years. Macarons have the most mentions, followed by pie.  I was surprised to see things like burgers and hot dogs on the list, too, but I guess that just shows how the phrase has taken on a life of its own. It’s no longer really about the cupcakes, and what’s going to replace cupcakes as America’s favorite dessert. Instead, it’s become a way to talk about trends, as a whole. Makes me think about those scenes from Josie and the Pussycats where they constantly introduce new colors as “the new black” and then “the new red,” etc.  Anyone? Alright, moving along then.

Take a look at Slate‘s handy phrase tracking chart. Any surprises in there for you? Their research uncovered that the phrase was first used in a press release about brownies. At least that makes sense- calling “empanadas” the new cupcake is much less linear!

In honor of the cupcake’s sure-to-be ongoing reign, here are some of the recipes I hope to make before 2014 is over:


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