Friday, March 16, 2018

International Home + Housewares show: ‘You put it online; if it sells, it sells’

Andy Berger
     The show is so vast, it can go so many ways. For a while, walking around, I thought I had nothing, just a bunch of random images and interviews. Then I decided to focus on dog devices. I only decided to bookend two interviews with 67-year-olds with very different views of the market after I sat down and started working. One funny aspect that I couldn't fit into the story had to do with Andy Berger's company, which I first heard, understandably enough, as "Max's International." After he corrected my error, I asked him if it was named for the Axis powers the United States fought in World War II. No, he said, he never thought of that—he thought his products were the hub the world turned on. He didn't consider the Germany, Japan, Italy definition until after the company was up and running and a lawyer pointed it out to him.

     The baby lay motionless on a green mat. I paused.
     "Brand new," said Andy Berger, owner of Axis International in Des Plaines, hurrying over. "It's remote control."
     The baby was a doll; the mat, designed to soothe fussy infants to sleep, though when Berger tried to demonstrate how it works, it didn't.
     "Might be out of batteries," he said. "A heartbeat sound, and it whooshes."
     Graco this was not. The International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place offers everything from huge corporations displaying products known the world over, to plucky entrepreneurs ballyhooing items that might not even be on the market yet.

    While I too scope out the latest — KitchenAid's "Color of the Year" is "Bird of Paradise," the love child of coral and peach — I prefer to excavate the deeper substrata of commerce.
     "I've been doing this 35 years," said Berger, 67. "My biggest hit is that tank-top hanger. Sell 'em by the thousands every week."
     The show, which ended Tuesday, lacked a certain hum.
     "The older I get the slower it seems to get," Berger agreed. "The whole market changed. There's less and less brick and mortars. It's all internet. We do so much business with companies like Amazon, Zulu. You don't even have to talk to them. You put it online; if it sells, it sells. If it doesn't, they don't care. I hardly have to travel anymore."
     That isn't good?
     "You lose that interpersonal touch," he said. "It's all automated. You try to deal with Amazon, they don't talk to anybody."

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Good news: Lucas museum breaks ground somewhere other than Chicago

     Those who hooted down the white carbuncle that movie mogul George Lucas wanted to erupt next to Soldier Field can take a measure of vindication from the architectural illustrations released ahead of Wednesday's groundbreaking for the Star Wars creator's new Museum of Narrative Art.
     Gone is what Chicago wits dubbed "Jabba the Hutt's Palace" or "Space Mountain" when they were sending the project packing two years ago, replaced by a pair of joined ovals that looks very much like a star cruiser designed to dock at Spaceport Soldier Field. An homage perhaps.
     So maybe the old design wasn't so avant-garde after all.   
Architect's rendering of Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles
    Not that the new design, also by Ma Yansong of MAD Architects, is much better—a bacterium caught in mid-mitosis. Inside, some vaguely familiar curving ceilings that, naturally, were praised to the skies by beneficiaries of the estimated $1 billion project.
     “The building itself will certainly be an icon of 21st century design,” said museum president Don Bacigalupi, perhaps before he got a good look at the interior, which looks more like an icon of Space Age design circa 1962, specifically, the TWA Terminal at JFK.
     This doesn't even touch upon the supposed purpose of the museum itself, the "narrative arts" an omnium gatherum category designed to enfold Lucas' vast holdings of "Star Wars" memorabilia, his Normal Rockwell and American illustration collections, and give the endeavor a sense of significance that just off-loading his keepsakes into a permanent home obviously lacked.
     And we can savor that the ground-breaking is being held in Los Angeles, in Exposition Park and not the $10, 99-year lease on Chicago's lakefront that the Park District and the City Council happily handed Lucas. The museum is a better fit for L.A., with its movie industry, and other vanity museums, like The Broad collection of contemporary art, and the Getty Museum and Villa.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Many schools support Student Walkout. And then there's Northbrook...

Snap the Whip, by Winslow Homer (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully,” Dr. Johnson once quipped.
     This can happen even when the person is not quite a man, or woman, but a teenager. A high school student, say, and the threat isn't the certainty of being strung up in two weeks but the possibility of being gunned down in the indeterminate future.
     Never underestimate the motivational power of the prospect of being killed. Or of having your friends killed.
     We saw it in the Vietnam era, when college students set down their bongo drums and picked up protest signs.
     We saw it this past month — in just 30 days — as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School did not merely mourn 17 slain classmates, nor limit themselves to piling teddy bears. Instead they pushed past their inert elders and took on our country's insane gun culture and the National Rifle Association.
     And we'll see it Wednesday, with the National Student Walkout, when students at thousands of schools leave class for 17 minutes, one minute for every murdered Parkland student. It a litmus test of the mental agility of school administrators whether they embraced this rare moment of youthful solidarity or fought it.
     As my colleague Lauren FitzPatrick reported, Chicago Public Schools gave tacit approval. “I want to make sure our students have an opportunity to express themselves and engage thoughtfully in this national dialogue," CPS CEO Janice Jackson said.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Toast Bags and Garbage Pantz

2018 Home + Housewares Show

     This year I almost skipped the Home + Housewares Show, despairing at ever topping last year's riff off Pablo Neruda's "Ode to Common Things." But that seemed the coward's way. So I spent a long, footsore day there Monday, and came home too pooped to do anything other than cast around into the past and dredge up this look at the 2012 show, published six years ago today. Not my most compelling work, I know, but not without interest—particularly since every trend I noticed has sputtered out, as far as I can tell. Seeing the flatness of this fires me up to try to come up with something better for Wednesday.

     Perhaps you have been vexed by slices of bread leaving crumbs in your toaster and frustrated by the appliance's inability to make toasted cheese sandwiches.
     Or, more likely, you haven't.
     Either way, those days are over, thanks to the boldly named "Toast Bag," an envelope that encases bread before it is inserted into a slot in a toaster, one of tens of thousands of products both ordinary and exceptional showcased this weekend at the enormous 2012 International Home + Housewares Show at McCormick Place.
     "Your toaster remains clean," the package trumpets.
     "These are 100 percent Teflon," said Tom Geyskens, an account manager at ICB, the Belgium company selling Toast Bags. "This is our design. We invented this."
     Which was news, and not welcome news, three booths over, at Planit Products, which offered "toastabags" ("American Style Grilled Cheese in Your Toaster").
     "They copied ours," said Caroline Kavanagh, director of Planit, located in Malvern, England, "the bastards."
     Spend five hours marching through the Housewares show—not nearly enough time to begin to cover its vastness—and you will notice how ideas echo through the industry.
     A dozen different collapsible water bottles, such as Vapur, "the original foldable water bottle." Most are flattish, but the Viv, from France's Charles Viancin, is an attractive soft round bottle whose band fastener holds the rolled-up bottle in a tight bundle.
     Meanwhile, other manufacturers tack in the opposite direction - Copco offers a sturdier, hard-plastic version of brand-name water bottles, and Japan's Takeya is selling the Classic Glass Water Bottle "inspired by the iconic American milk bottle" though no dairy would have dreamed it might someday retail empty milk bottles for $24.99.
     Several manufacturers are rolling out segmented bowls designed to separate cereal from milk. "Never eat soggy cereal again," promises the Obol, sold at Brookstone.
     While most products are familiar—booth after booth of fine knives, regular bowls, plates and pitchers—the new always stand out. A pet bowl with three squat round posts, designed to make dogs eat slower. Perhaps the boldest new product in the show, which you may file under Solutions to Problems You Never Knew You Had: "Garbage Pantz"—bright fabric sleeves designed to wrap around outdoor trash cans.
     "Where do you keep your garbage cans?" challenged Ana Meyer, president of the New Jersey company, who demonstrated her commitment to her product by wearing it as a dress. Garbage Pantz designs range from blue jeans to team logos to a scratching dog saying, "I'm itching to recycle."
     Not knocking things over seems important. "Never spill again," the Mighty Mug promises. Bibo is "a wide-based universal stabilizer" designed to keep you from crying over spilled milk. Colleen Costello invented "Flippt," a collapsible rubber ziggurat that holds shampoo or condiment bottles upside down so the product will collect by the spout. Is she worried about ketchup bottles already being designed to stand top down?
     "Not everyone's going in that direction," said Costello, of Dayton, Ohio, tying herself with other hometown inventors such as the Wright Brothers and Charles Kettering, who invented the electric car starter. "In Dayton, Ohio, inventing is in our DNA."
     "Can I be honored to show you my product?" said Lisa Blackburn, a Dallas attorney who invented the bagFormR, an oval container with a notched lip designed to hold plastic bags open, so they can be filled or serve as a "disposable kitchen bowl."
     Now "bagFormR" is not the most elegant name. More established companies try to inject pizzazz into their products by borrowing pizzazz's plentiful z's: Homz (ironing supplies); Blitz (cleaning supplies); Zing (colorful kitchen utensils) and Twiztt, a line of cookware with distinctive features, like measurements printed inside a pot.
     Some names clunked. "My Drap" is a line of fancy cotton napkins that come serrated on rolls. "It's Catalonian," said Allen Uhler, My Drap's American importer. "We thought about changing the name."
     When I came across "ToastaBags" at a booth run by Boska of Holland, I knew it was time to leave the show, which runs through Tuesday but is open only to its 60,000 registered attendees and not the public. To its credit, press material for the Dutch company—which is licensing the product—reads, "ToastaBags zijn in 2008 in Engeland uitgevonden" which, translated, is: "ToastaBags were invented in England in 2008."
                   —Originally published in the Sun-Times, March 12, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2018

Calls to denounce Farrakhan are yesterday's news in Chicago

Jews in a Synagogue, by Rembrandt (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

      You must always check the date on news stories popping up on Facebook. It’s embarrassing to register shock — James Garner dead? Oh no! — only to be informed that he passed away in 2014.
     So a week ago, when I noticed a CNN report headlined “Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan delivers anti-Semitic speech,” the first thing I did was see whether he delivered the speech in 2012 or 2002. I mean, talk about an evergreen headline, right?
     Feb. 25, 2018. Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day. In Chicago. Prompting me to then wonder if the local papers covered it. Nope. Which makes sense. A big city, this, statewide elections looming, plus the continual drip-drip-drip of corrosive national news, like acid leaking out of a car battery. Where on the list of priorities would you put an 84-year-old cult leader saying what he always says?
     Not that any reporter worth his salt wouldn’t leap to attend a Farrakhan rally. I highly recommend the experience, having drawn that short straw years ago. I’m glad I did. Louis Farrakhan is a powerful speaker, in the classic Fidel Castro model: carrying on for hours and hours, puffing and preening. He holds his audience rapt, with occasional trips to the sales tables to fortify themselves with bean cakes.
     It’s quite a show. You can say a lot in three hours, and Farrakhan does: about dignity and self-reliance and power, heavily spiced with a farrago of conspiracy theories. Eventually, he reaches for the Jews like a man scratching a rash. The latest instance classic third-person Farrakhan:

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

There's more to Irish Chicago than turning the river green

                               Hazel Lavery living and dying, that tale
                               As though 
some ballad-singer had sung it all; 
                                                                        —W.B. Yeats
     Green beer and leprechauns, step-dancing and corned beef. Who decided that St. Patrick’s Day always has to be the same?
     Not to take anything away from Bushmills, soda bread and “Danny Boy.” Fine in small doses once a year.
     But there’s so much more to Irish history in general and Chicago Irish history in particular, wonders that never get hinted at, even leading up to the day when big buttons proclaim everybody is Irish.
     Such as? For instance? We could mention … oh, to pick one example … the Chicago woman whose acclaimed beauty landed her face on Irish banknotes for half a century.  

       What, you don’t know the story? Well, pour yourself a Jameson, laddie, pull up a stool, lass, because Hazel Lavery, as Yeats observed in verse, is the stuff of legend, only it’s true.
     The currency is not the half of it. She was friends with George Bernard Shaw and neighbors with Winston Churchill, whom she taught to paint, a lifelong comfort against his “black dog” of depression. She was rumored to be the lover of both freedom-fighter Michael Collins and Kevin O’Higgins, leader of the Irish Free State, which some believe she had a direct hand in creating.

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Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Era of Contempt

     People try to soften the sting of whatever humiliation Donald Trump is inflicting upon the nation today by pronouncing it "the bottom," but that is based on the giddiest kind of optimism, the faulty logic that just because our leadership has sunk to a startling new low, it can't get worse. 
     When in fact, if a stone is sinking, experience tells us it'll keep going deeper and deeper. Yes, there's a hoped-for bottom, somewhere, in theory. But merely being deep underwater doesn't mean we're there. Stones don't bob back up to the surface just because they've sunk a long way.
     With a new low every day, or nearly, there is no reason to even suspect that today's depth will not be exceeded by worse tomorrow. I would be sincerely delighted if I believed this is as bad as it is going to get.
    But I don't. Rather, it will go on for years and years and get worse and worse and this country will be severely damaged. We're damaged already, in ways we haven't begun to consider.
     That said, I am human too, and like to comfort myself, when I can. Not by saying that today is as bad as it'll get, but by remembering that it must end. It has to. Not now, alas, not even soon, but someday. 
     Someday it'll be over and we'll have the luxury of looking back and wondering what it meant. Someday there will be history books, I hope, and one chapter in those as-yet-unlived histories will be about now. And as is common with such texts, the chapter will begin with a descriptive phrase. "A Nation Sundered" for the Civil War, and such.
     For our current betrayal of American values and norms, I'd like to nominate "The Era of Contempt." Because that is the basic operating principle here: yes, there is ignorance, and vanity, and greed. But those are specifics, related to a particular situation or three. Contempt — visceral disregard and scorn—is the overarching principle, the general theme. It's what Donald Trump appeals to and has always appealed to. It's why he was elected. He touched Americans in a certain spot and they reacted with a purr. He stroked the meanest, basest, most scornful and scoffing core of many Americans, and told them it was okay be like that. In fact, it was great.
     And they believed him. Believe him. Always will believe him. Why would they not?
     His followers manifest this sneering disdain like tuning forks. It's really all they ever say. I hear it every day. They do not write to argue, or observe, or reflect. They write to mock, to ridicule, not realizing that, to an outside observer, since the ridicule is coming from a person such as themselves, really, how much weight can their thoughts be given? Not only don't I write back, but I'm not even tempted to write back anymore. And say what? "You know, the low opinion of someone going hog wild for a bully, fraud, liar and most likely traitor just doesn't carry the heft you seem to think it does."
     In their defense, their opinion certainly counted in November, 2016. It's counting now, on an international scale. 
     Why bother talking back? Even if you would score points—and you can't, even if you could defeat them rhetorically—and you won't—well, congratulations: you bested a moron.
     So I silently put such people in the filter, where they gibber to each other, sometimes for years. Every few days I look in the spam filter, like a man looking at eels swimming around a watery pit. Letters still arrive, and I tend to throw them away unopened if they don't have a return address, and most don't. Maybe open them and read I line or two if I'm bored.
    But this one had a pre-printed sticker, with name and street address—Alan Leonard of Tinley Park. So I started reading, maybe because the handwriting is so neat. And that purple stationery. I read to the end, and decided it is in some ways an epitome, a classic example of its genre. It should be presented for your shock and edification. I originally said, "for your entertainment" but it really isn't funny. Rather, it is funny, but it shouldn't be. That future history will not be kind to us, and this is why. Should we survive this era and anyone bother to write fact-based histories, which is not the certainty it was two years ago. 
     No comment is really necessary, though you are free to remark upon its various wonders. It wasn't the only letter he sent me this week. Once they start, they seem to have trouble stopping.