Stavros Karelis, Founder of Machine-A, on a Nicomede Talavera Pillow Bag

GB Tell me why you chose this.

SK I love this as an object because a pillow for me is something very personal. Everyone has one. It’s one of those essential items and you spend so much time with it. It’s not something you think about a lot but overall it symbolizes the time when you’re with your thought, whether those are happy or sad or you just want to dream. This particular pillow bag is from Nicomede Talavera’s Spring Summer 15 collection and I like it because the design is so simple but also unique. You can fold it and hold it like a clutch around your arm or hand. It’s completely unisex and a minimalistic object. There are no straps or extra pockets and the material is like a rubber and this whole collection was based on pleats. The blue is also my favourite colour. It’s a colour that goes with everything and the bag is great from day to evening.

GB And Nicomede is very cool as a designer. Does that add to the beauty?

SK One hundred percent. We only work with designers here that produce a beautiful collection  – but also they must have a vision and come to us with a whole world around them that the customer is invited to become a part of, so you want to belong to the same crowd with a specific sense of style, culture, aesthetic and even socio-political ideals. It’s a very strong connection point between people when they’re wearing a brand.

GB Do you find that can intimidate people as well?

SK No because this doesn’t happen in a provocative or aggressive way. You can just be a part of it in a very simple way. Sometimes people take vintage items from a culture that doesn’t exist any more. You can mix anything. I wouldn’t mind what anybody wore with this bag. Fashion is for everyone. Each personality puts things together in a different way and the most successful brands speak to a variety of customers. I like designers who have a strong vision that can be adopted by many different kinds of customers.

GB How do you find these designers?

SK Thankfully we’re in a city that holds so much talent, mainly because of our universities and colleges. London attracts creative people from all over the world. Nowhere else can compare. There’s almost too much talent to choose from here. So we look for things that fit with the Machine-A aesthetic.

GB Do you think that fashion design should be considered a high art like painting or poetry?

SK It’s a massive debate. Many people compare fashion to art and many artists are hostile to that. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Fashion borrows a lot from art and lends itself to collaborations easily, so brands that are successful right now are using a lot of inspiration from art. But fashion is for fast consumption. Fashion gives you a theoretical space to create discussions but art generates those debates and discussions in a very different way. There are so many collections and products a year in fashion now that consumerism takes over more. And now with social media, everyone has a shorter attention span. Art is more timeless.

GB So will you still love your bag in a few seasons?

SK Yes but for me it’s different because I see so many different products every single day that when it comes down to choosing my own wardrobe I choose things I’d like regardless of seasons. Sometimes I might have the key items of the season but I’ll only choose to own them if they speak to me in a very different way. I want things that are easy and will always make me feel good, however many seasons old they are.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

SK It’s different for everyone but in a product, I like the kind of beauty that is about functionality and quality and is an invitation to someone’s world. It has to create feelings for me when I hold it or wear it. I buy for the shop according to an instinct that’s hard to define. I see certain things and they speak directly to me. Then away from fashion, beauty for me is about personal relationships. Beyond success and money and being good at your job, the thing I consider most beautiful is a good friendship. My life always seems so busy and complicated so I crave the simple beauty of my family and friends and people who make me laugh. I want to be able to take some time every single day to enjoy nature and people and just the sunshine as I walk down the street.



If you haven’t managed to pick up a copy of Gilded Birds paper, here’s one of our articles. It’s a telephone conversation with composer, Nico Muhly, about how to listen to a piece of Contemporary music for the first time.

I guess if we start with my music, the basic currency of the music is how repetition is being used and where the emotional content is to be found. I think, in a lot of cases, there’s this hidden emotional core that exists below a lot of surface repetition. There’s a repetition game being played where it’s about things coming back but not being exactly the same or transformed slightly in some way that can mean it’s a little bit shorter or a little bit longer – or in the same way that in the calendar we have that leap year every four years, there might be something slightly off about it, some sort of corrective gesture. That’s a good itinerary through my music. The thing that’s interesting about contemporary music is that a lot of people are in some way hindered by the constant question regarding influence. It’s a bit like asking people who their parents are and insisting that everything they do has some relationship to that. It’s an obsessive genealogical way of thinking about how art is made. It’s not a bad thing but it’s a simplification and chances are if someone asks you about your influences, they’re an annoying reporter.

With any piece of contemporary music you can ask if you’re dealing with a narrative structure or a cyclical structure, or is it the kind of music where you can turn it off and turn it on again and it would always be the same. Or is it something that’s more structured, or an interplay between narrative and cyclical ideas. That’s one way to orient it. There’s also music that’s obsessive and music that’s not obsessive. Some music starts with a tiny germ and then it’s rub, rub, rub, rub, rub into a larger structure. I feel like Thomas Adès’ music is like that. Each piece has a kind of central nugget of information with this molecular tension that almost starts to spiral out of control. There’s other music like John Luther Adams where it’s an atmosphere and the drama of it is, you get the sense that if you weren’t there it would still happen. It’s like some gigantic natural thing that’s just hanging out like a big mountain. Then I think there’s music where you can always think about colour as a good path through, especially when there’s more than one instrument. You can ask if we’re in a monochromatic universe or a psychedelic universe where everything shifts very quickly.

I don’t think you need to know much about a piece in advance. I’m a big fan of printing the length of things in the programme. In contemporary orchestra music they sometimes list all the instruments in it, so you feel like you’re peeking behind the scenes for a second. But some people don’t like that. They’d rather be carried away into the ocean of the unknown. In the UK you can go to an opera and not have any printed information in front of you unless you pay for it. I feel strongly about this. I would love to have just a half sheet of A4 with the names of the singers on it and a quick reminder of what’s about to happen. There’s no shame in letting people know that it’s 90 minutes with no interval.

Some composers are interested in constant reinvention of their material. A great example is John Adams. If you listen to his music from the 80s and then his music now, it’s a really radical transformation. With Steve Reich there’s a transformation but it’s not a 180. It’s a development. It’s farther down the hole. It’s a deepening of what was once a certain kind of material and has now been turned into a master stock for sauce making. It gets more and more specific. Other people are interested in doing something a million different things so you can run into trouble with that genealogical anxiety. It’s the whole question of style and whether you choose it or you’re born with it, if it’s innate or affected. Those are good things to think about when you’re listening to new music.

You can tell people what music you like the way in which you are influenced by things but you really can’t control the way people see you or expect people to agree with your self-assessment, musically, artistically, interpersonally, in any of these things. Sometimes if I’m having a moment of low self esteem I count on people having a better image of me than I do of myself. I feel like the best thing to do is always to be completely honest or completely lie about it. Stravinsky was such a liar about his own music. He’d be asked if he used Russian folk sources in the Rite of Spring – which obviously he did – but he’d insist he didn’t, that he made it all up. There are other composers who insist that there’s no emotional content to their music, that it’s all mathematical, but then you listen to it and it sounds pretty emotional. That’s all fine. I think one of the things that made Stravinsky so fun was that he was constantly lying to biographers. He’d constantly say the exact opposite of what was actually happening. I admire that but I can’t quite get away with it. Some composers speak in such large generalities that you can’t remember what they think. I have friends who either can’t stand Strauss or Strauss is the only composer they like, so I just know that there’s some strongly held belief about Strauss but I’m not quite sure what that might be. You forget what the actual opinion is, you just remember that there is one and I think that’s a great thing to do.

When composers say they never listen to pop music, I think either they’ve never been in a car before or they’re wilfully doing it as an affectation. I find that because of where I live, how my universe is structured and who I know, it would take a lot of effort to not listen to popular music. There a high/low division that’s useful historically but not really in practice. I think it exists in as much as people give it power. It’s interesting to look at the context in which things are made. Take Bjork’s output as an example. That’s music that can exist in a lot of different contexts. If you wanted to say that it’s concert music with a lot of electronica you could totally do that. You could be sitting down, having paid hundreds of dollars to go see it, treat it like a concert where there’s no talking or clapping in between things. Or you could go to a club somewhere and hear it and be into it too. I think the sweet spot for her was Vespertine, which would work literally anywhere. It’s not about boundaries breaking down. It’s about our willingness to contextualise things more generously and say that you’re allowed to be an observer of the world around you without compromising your vision as an artist. By the way, I think all that’s fine for artists to worry about. It’s not a cute look for the listener, because it would take so much effort to not pay attention to the world around you. It’s not an argument that’s worth having with yourself. When I was an undergraduate I’d meet these pretentious boys who affected that they’d only listen to complicated Jazz. That’s such a hideous life!

As far as my music goes, I think a good starting point is the piece, “Seeing is Believing.” It has electronic elements and liturgical overtones and it’s severe and it’s twenty minutes long.



Timberlake Wertenbaker, playwright, on an iris

GB Tell me why you chose an iris.

TW It’s a very beautiful flower but it’s also a very mysterious flower in a lot of ways. It has these connotations with Ancient Greece and even Egypt because Egyptian conquerors brought them back from Syria. Iris was the goddess of the rainbow and the daughter of Thaumas, which means marvel or wonder. She was also the messenger between gods and men and there is something about the iris that feels like a message. They were planted on the graves of women to guide the goddess to those graves, so irises are very female somehow. I love watching them grow because unlike other flowers that bud and then flower usually overnight, the iris is more like an animal. It takes a long time to flower. It starts as a cocoon and begins to have a few petals showing, then days later it stretches out to the whole flower. It’s unusual and rather wonderful to watch this happening.

GB Do you have a favourite type or colour?

TW I plant them in my garden and explore different colours. The tall bearded iris has been cultivated and they’ve developed an extraordinary range of colours. There’s no such thing as a red iris but there are flaming oranges and some that are almost black.

GB So there is something a little man-made about them?

TW Well most flowers are cultivated even though they all start in the wild. The iris has changed its shape a little but t hasn’t changed the basic six-petal form with three standards, three sepals and these beards, which come out from inside the flower like a tongue and are often a different colour. These are apparently quite useful for pollination. The Fleur de Lys is based on an iris. It was King Clovis who started that and then the French Kings from Louis VII took it up. I grew up in France so I’m very familiar with it.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

TW I do, and the iris grows almost everywhere. An iris is always an iris, unlike a rose. If you’re interested in a Platonic Ideal, this is so true of the iris. There are very few other flowers that look like it at all. Then there’s the Platonic notion of the one and the many. Most flowers look good in a group but the iris looks extraordinary if you just have one. The leaves are like fortresses with one single flower coming from between them. Painters have portrayed it that way. Some painters like Monet, did swathes, Van Gogh did vases of irises. Georgia O’Keefe did this one iris and it was described as very sexual and like a vagina, which she denied. I think that is missing the point of her painting even though they are quite feminine.

GB I interviewed John Mullan recently who said that for him to find beauty in something, even in the natural world, it has to be “percolated through the human imagination.” Is that your experience of the iris?

TW Not at all. I do think I fell in love with them gradually, as one does, but I think what’s wonderful about the iris is that it presents itself like a painting because it has these colours and shapes so it already makes a very strong statement. It has always attracted painters. They’ve appeared in Egyptian tombs and in the palace at Knossos. I think there’s a dialogue between the art and the flower itself.

GB Do you think that visual art can add anything to the beauty? Is a Van Gogh painting of one as beautiful as the real thing?

TW The Van Gogh is a beautiful painting in itself and then, as a painting does, it makes us look at things differently. You can have a sense of the iris through the painting or it can make you want to look at one again. It is always this dialogue, particularly with Georgia O’Keefe because she goes so close in. She tries to get into the mystery of it.

GB Do you think mystery is beautiful?

TW Mystery is attractive.

GB Richard Feynman famously said that an artist friend of his said that he would always find flowers more beautiful because he sees them as an artist whereas a scientist takes a flower apart to the point that it becomes dull. Feynman vehemently disagreed with this and said that knowledge could only ever add to the beauty, rather than subtract. Do you agree?

TW I think that the artist should have said that evolution is a mysterious thing, particularly the evolution of plants. The more you know, the more interesting they become and understanding the complex way in which insects pollinate them won’t stop you from looking at an iris again and finding it equally mysterious. I wrote a play about Darwin so I’m extremely interested in evolution. It’s endlessly surprising.

GB What’s your view on why we might have evolved to appreciate beauty and create art?

TW I would have to leave that to the scientists, but I think there probably is a reason that we appreciate beauty just in and of itself. It probably has to do with the fact that we’ve evolved as a civilized people, so to survive as a group we would have to have a common appreciation of things. Some people say that art is mimetic and is meant to be magical. For me, we need to have a common language .With flowers we have the smell which is our most primitive sense. Irises were considered medicinal and they also have a very fine smell so perfumes made with irises feel very light.

GB Does beauty come up in your work?

TW Yes, it comes up a lot. In one of the early plays I wrote called The Grace of Mary Traverse, there’s a moment when somebody sings that transforms the whole scene and in fact makes someone change because listening to this takes them from despair to hope. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot, partly from reading Plato in my youth and being in love with the Phaedrus and Keats’s notion of truth and beauty. I think there’s an amazing consensus on beauty. Most people find nature beautiful even if they don’t like some flowers or animals.

GB Does beauty come up much in the theatre world? Do directors ever talk about beauty?

TW Not enough. I think the Modern world (and you can see it in contemporary painting as well), is quite skeptical about beauty. In theatre there are so many other things to think about, but in fact, the really great directors create moments of great beauty on the stage, even in a scene about war, despair or murder. Sometimes I’ll look and see that just by moving these two people here a particular director has created something that gives us great pleasure to watch. Certainly directors are unconsciously aware of beauty. Lighting is important. Scenery less so as you might have reason to make scenery that’s quite ugly. But the stage itself is an object of beauty. If I hadn’t chosen an iris, I would have chosen an empty stage. They were built to allow beauty to emerge, even if that’s not the primary reason you go to see a play.

GB Did you find beauty in the war scenes in War and Peace, when you were working on your radio adaptation?

TW Yes, because of the people in the battle scenes. Tolstoy is clearly horrified by war but there are moments of moral beauty or moral courage that he talks about. I don’t like the idea of finding a depiction of war beautiful but it’s always a question of humanity coming through the horror that they’ve created.

GB I became obsessed with the battle of Borodino in War and Peace.

TW He’s written it so well. As the battle starts, Pierre wonders at the beauty of the scene before him enhanced by the smoke of gunfire. Then, of course, it turns to horror. Later, there is this particular moment when Pierre has been made prisoner. He’s walking almost barefoot in the cold and has this sudden sense of incredible freedom when he’s able to look at the landscape around him, the forest, the stars and own their beauty. I also read recently in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning that concentration camp inmates would call each other out to admire a sunset.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

TW – I think we know what it means or at least we have a sense of it. If you deny it because of any kind of extremism you become rigid. I don’t know if a suicide bomber for instance, really can appreciate beauty. I think it takes us to a place within ourselves which is bigger than ourselves. You can’t look at beauty and still be self-obsessed. Whether it’s beauty that’s evolved or been painted by someone, it takes us beyond our little selves. It’s very important to have an antidote to rigidity.


Micah 2, Verse 3 from The English Bible, Doves Press, London, 1903-05. From Robert Green's collection."

Micah 2, Verse 3 from The English Bible, Doves Press, London, 1903-05. From Robert Green’s collection.”

Robert Green, graphic and type designer, on the Doves Type

GB Tell me why you chose this.

RG I’ve spent five years trying to capture its essence digitally. And then I actually found the physical object.

GB When did you first see the font?

RG When I was at college. We studied typography and had to learn letter-press printing, composing and printing using metal type. It’s quite a well-known font but I didn’t really know the story behind it. I’ve since discovered that it’s a fantastically important typeface.

GB How did it strike you the first time you saw it?

RG I can’t remember the first time I ever saw it but about five years ago I was thinking of starting a private press and I was looking for a typeface to use as a signature font. I really wanted to use it but there was no digital version so I decided to revive it myself. Everything else has made the jump from metal through film setting into digital but this one hadn’t.

GB Can you always tell the difference immediately between the original and the digital version of a font?

RG Oh yes. You can always tell a letterpress print from a digital font that’s been litho-printed. You can see that there’s a lot more ink spread, that there’s a deeper impression so the type comes through the back of the paper. There are other clues like the paper and the date it was printed.

GB So what drew you to this one?

RG This one has elegance and struck me as being quite severe. All typefaces have voices and this one has a particularly stentorian voice. A lot of other Venetian types are quite flamboyant.

GB What do you mean by Venetian types?

RG The first alphabets that we would understand today — as opposed to the gothic alphabet — were created by printers in Venice in the late 1400s. There’s more of the hand in Venetian types, they’re slightly more calligraphic than later ones. Many people think the Doves type is based on Nicolas Jenson’s Venetian from 1476, but actually only the upper case is. The lower case is based on type by Rubeus from Venice in the same year. The Doves type pares it down a lot. It still has this beautiful gestural quality in the curves even though the stems are very stiff and mechanical. Turn of the century printers considered early Venetian print over-inked so they took away some of the ink spread. It was commissioned by Thomas James Cobden-Sanderson, with Emery Walker’s know-how, in 1899. One of Walker’s employees, a guy called Percy Tiffin, did the preparatory drawings. You can tell that he had no experience of calligraphy because he doesn’t quite understand gestural strokes. Punches for the metal type itself were cut by Edward Prince, a punchcutter working freelance for type foundries and most of the Private Press movement at the time. It was Prince who really interpreted Cobden-Sanderson’s ideas and brought them to life. Cobden-Sanderson was also reacting to William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. He considered the Golden Type — Morris’s slightly earlier version of “Jenson” which Walker had also facilitated — distracting and overdone. Morris was obsessed by the Medieval period and added a lot of gothic elements to it, whereas Cobden-Sanderson’s type is humanism modernised. Cobden-Sanderson said that “men of to-day, who affect the forms of the past, have their eyes wholly or partially closed.” That’s obviously aimed at his friend Morris.

GB What were they printing at the Doves Press?

RG They wanted to print “great literary achievements”. Cobden-Sanderson had a whole manifesto for typography and existence in general and got quite caught up in printing broadsides of his own ideas. But the Doves Press is mainly known for its King James Bible and Milton, Goethe, Tacitus, Shakespeare, Browning, Shelley, Tennyson and Keats.

GB So everything was restricted to this one font size? It’s quite big.

RG Yes, it’s 16 point. But of course with my digital version you can change the size. They also had very definite ideas about leading — it’s all set solid in the original. There is no leading except occasionally in the poetry or plays they printed. For the most part the type is just laid on top of itself without leads. Also, unlike now, the kerning (or morticing) couldn’t change without chipping at the type by hand, to alter the spaces between the letters. Because a lot of their spacing would be unacceptable in digital type now I had to make concessions. The “y” was very controversial because some people thought it was too aggressive. It gave me a lot of problems because the right stroke that goes down to the tail is quite thick compared to the similar stroke in the “v”. That would be unacceptable nowadays. When you make it perfectly even, the negative space starts to look wrong, so there’s a fine balance to find. The serifs give you a sense of direction of where the characters go so if you’re looking at something quickly it’s easier to read, you’re not just looking at a load of geometry. But the Doves type is very severe and there are few flourishes or decoration in Doves’ presswork, it’s limited to sparing use of calligraphic initials & headlines by Edward Johnston. Johnston went on to devise the London Underground type.

GB How did it end?

RG Walker and Cobden-Sanderson fell out and a lot of subscribers melted away with Walker so the Press was always in trouble. The partnership was dissolved in 1909. Cobden-Sanderson ended up throwing all the metal type into the Thames in 1916-17. Walker is a towering figure in typography and it was Walker who had reignited William Morris’s interest in printing. His ideas about typographic history are probably responsible for a lot of the type revivals that we’re all familiar with now. One concern in the 19th century was to fit as much type into a small space as possible. Type had become more mutated — with highly contrasted strokes and proportions changing over years it got uglier. That’s why old types were revived. Before the Kelmscott Press the only really effective revival was of Caslon, which wasn’t initially modernised — in the 1840s the Chiswick Press just took the original punches and recast it. The foundries followed the fashion for Caslon and devised a sort of exaggerated Victorian version, known as Old Style. Then after the Golden Type in the 1890s a lot of foundries copy William Morris’s “Jenson”. Everything gets thick and chunky and slightly Medieval. The Doves Press comes along in 1900 and a flood of revivals follow, all pared down and modernised as Cobden-Sanderson had prescribed for Doves. The ink spread is taken out and everything becomes sharp but subtle. The Doves type is the first one to consciously do this with a classic form. It’s Cobden-Sanderson’s final creative enterprise but Walker goes on to advise figures like Bruce Rogers, T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and Monotype’s Stanley Morison, the man responsible for Times New Roman and revivals of Baskerville, Bembo and Garamond.

GB What makes a typeface beautiful to you? Is it legibility or closeness to handwriting?

RG For me, it’s completely visceral and any intellectual idea about it comes after. If I’m drawn to something I’ll work out why. Doves type has mechanical as well as gestural elements. But who can say why it’s beautiful when you see it? It does have a kind of spirit, even though I don’t believe in that stuff. There’s some kind of background hum going on with the story and the history and its fate. It has an incredible charisma.

GB Is the digital version your default font?

RG No, I hardly use it. I don’t have a default font any more than I have a default aesthetic. One guy who bought it told me he wrote a letter to his bank manager in 16 point Doves. That’s not really what it’s for. Fonts like Helvetica are adaptable to many uses. I don’t think this one is. It was invented with a rationale behind it to present great achievements in Western literature. Any type works on a lot of levels. It has a personality and the application of it should be a consideration. You can’t use Comic Sans to write a letter to a bereaved person. The form is essentially jaunty. I think Helvetica is fine for emails but if you’re writing a letter to someone, it should really be in a serif typeface. I’d probably go for Garamond for a letter.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

RG Things that are beautiful in art and craft and literature on “first read” somehow convey all the work and thought that have gone into them subconsciously. I don’t think you can create something beautiful without working quite hard, even if that’s all at the front end – taking a life’s experience and spending ten minutes on doing something. That comes through in this typeface. Because it’s so accomplished you can’t even see the work that’s gone into it. When I started working on it I found that there are no simple components to it, but hundreds of bits of invisible geometry. That’s why it took years to complete.



Margot Bowman, artist, on Sarah Sze’s installation at the 2015 Venice Biennale

GB Tell me why you chose this.

MB I chose it because of everything about it. I came across it at the end of a really beautiful experience and I think what is so poignant about it is the way that it’s shocking: it’s so delicate and challenging and toys with your expectations. Once you’re over the shock it’s awe-inspiring. I was very lucky to be shown around the Biennale by David Adjaye who designed the Arsenale buildings.  He’s so passionate about art. If you ever want someone to show you around an exhibition, it’s him. He worked very closely with Okwui Enwezor, the Biennale’s curator, so he knew a great deal about the work and curatorial vision behind it and we had a great, intense, super-cerebral afternoon debating everything. The Sarah Sze was the last thing we saw and what I loved about it was that we’d seen all these powerful statement pieces of really intense expressions, declaration and feelings. The theme is the World’s Future so a lot of it is artwork that denotes a presence or a voice that isn’t part of the ‘traditional’ art dialogue. It was a beautiful day, 25 degrees, the air there is so clean and nice and we walked into this garden and stumbled across these pieces that take you so much by surprise. You see string and plastic water bottles but you look at what she’s done with them and realise that she’s framing nature in a subtle but extremely powerful way. She shows you that there’s beauty in everything and it just depends on how you look at it. The hammock piece is like a dream catcher but it catches petals. It’s like a space to lie down except it’s for leaves or ideas, even. Beauty is transient so it reminds us of death and therefore the need to make every moment precious while we’re alive. But she also uses elements that are eternal like light, air and water to explore how we exist in our ecosystem. Venice is such an interesting city because it’s a speck of human energy that’s up against a tide of natural power. Every stone is a challenge. It’s tragic and beautiful at the same time.

GB I think the Biennale emphasizes that because there’s so much art exhibited in run down palazzos. Contemporary art looks so good in that setting.

MB Exactly. But we must all remember that it won’t be there forever. I love that Sarah Sze weaves her man made materials into nature to see how they interact because we’re all part of the same ecosystem. Your mobile phone and that peach and the seaweed, it’s all the same. It’s all connected.

GB It feels very feminine somehow.

MB Yes, I love the female energy about it. And I love that the work gets stronger as the trees get bigger and more petals fall onto the hammock. She’s drawing our attention to an energy and an activity that exist, like drawing a little circle around a portal. There’s a piece inside a well that you can only see in a mirror suspended above it and that’s so poetic, it’s like a dream. We’re all constantly searching for beauty, looking in mirrors at our own appearance, but she presents us with this mirage. I saw her show in London at Victoria Miro, with these delicately balanced sculptures of wood and stone. But the Biennale is so noisy and there’s so much happening it’s quite brave to create this delicate work.

GB So the context changed the way you saw it?

MB Well I was lucky enough to have a guide who explained the whole curatorial narrative.

GB Did the fact that it was in the Biennale help to validate it? What would you think if you wandered into it in London Fields?

MB I’d think it was some random hippy art! What’s important about art spaces is that they put a box around something. It doesn’t have to be a Biennale. It can be a gallery or you can even just make a declaration, but it helps you to remove your standardized judgements when you cross that threshold. You’re ready to look at stuff in a different way. What Sarah Sze does, is empowers you to see everyday things in a more beautiful or artistic way. I admire that she has the confidence to make something that simple. It takes balls. She has so much conviction.

 GB Do you find beauty in the mystery of it? That it’s like traces left behind and you don’t know the full story?

MB Definitely. It’s like end-of-the-world DIY, like the remains of some ceremonial camp.

GB Is it one of those things where you’re looking at a plastic bottle trying to work out if it’s a piece of trash or part of the installation?

MB Yes and that’s such an amazing thing to think. It makes you question everything and that’s what art is good at, encouraging you to be in the present.

GB So it is quite intellectual for you, the beauty in this?

MB Yes but then I did find it visceral. I really felt the beauty when I was there and thought more about it later. Venice is a bubble where you can explore new things. It’s not the real world but that’s okay.

GB Is a beauty a self-conscious part of your own work?

MB Yes, I make my work quite decorative as a way of engaging with people. When I was at college I felt a bit ashamed of that but I read an essay in a book by Max Bill, called Form, Function, Beauty = Gestalt. It’s all about the functionality of beauty. It’s so much easier to assess functionality than beauty. “Does it work?” is an easier question than “Is it beautiful”?

GB What is beauty’s function?

MB It’s to get you, to reach your soul, like being in love or being in the sun.

GB Tell me more about your work.

MB Technology and sustainability are things that make our age interesting to me, but they’re not always nice things to talk about so I use aesthetics as an access point to get people to talk about them. I use fun, play and beauty to draw people in. Now I think I’m doing that in a more subtle way. I’m working on a project called WET, which is an emotional response to climate change. It’s a research-based project with a questionnaire at the heart of it, asking questions about what living on the water in the future will be like. I think we’re going to be living in a very different way by the time I’m old. Climate change is very real. I feel like I’m going to be living on the water. Aesthetics is always used to tell a story. Christian art was just graphic design for God. Now we’re in a situation where visual communication is for getting people ready for a huge shift in the way they live and give them space to imagine what that will be like. So I make animations based on the answers to the questionnaires. It’s all online so you can play and explore and be stimulated in a virtual space. I had a show of this in Venice in May where they really do have a water-based future but it’s all decided on by a male, white, educated elite, so I wanted to widen the number of voices engaged in this. There are some really poetic answers so beauty is important in the work I create in response to those.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

MB I think it can be anything as long as it’s true. It’s a mixture of powerful and delicate.



John Mullan, author and Professor of English, on the Alps.

GB Why did you choose the Alps?

JM Because they’re the thing that gobsmacks me. I remember the first time I saw them. It was from an aeroplane when I was 21. I think it was the first time I’d ever been on a plane. My children have been everywhere and they moan that they’ve never been to Egypt or Peru, but I didn’t go abroad at all until I was 19 and I didn’t go on a plane until I was 21. I remember flying over the Alps and thinking that they looked like a cake, then a few years later seeing them in what I think is the best way, driving from London to Rome with some friends. We drove through the Alps and it was the first time I’d seen proper mountains. I’ve been in love with mountains ever since. I mean, proper mountains, not like the ones in Scotland. Lots of people have spent their time analyzing why human beings love mountains but I don’t know what it is. I like to walk in them rather than climb them. So I chose the Alps because I find them beautiful and I don’t know why, but also because to me, things are only beautiful if they have some kind of human component. That may sound odd but by the time I saw them I’d read lots about them. It’s like the first time you visit New York. You’re seeing something you’ve seen before. You’ve seen it painted and described. Especially for me, the Alps are there in poetry.

GB Whose eyes do you see them through the most?

JM There’s quite a lot of Wordsworth, a bit of Shelley, a little bit of DH Lawrence. The Alps were already culturally formed and shaped to me and that’s why they can be beautiful. I don’t think anything can be beautiful to me if it doesn’t get percolated through the shaping power of human imagination.

GB Are there also physical signs that make them feel European to you – or different from other mountain ranges?

JM I’ve walked in the Alps in the summer and skied in the Alps in the winter. To 18th and 19th century travellers there were overwhelming and terrifying and sublime, but to me the peculiarity of the Alps is that they’re pastoral peaks. All that Sound of Music stuff is actually true. There are all these meadows and cows. You drive up a road to where it ends and start walking through meadows with these icing sugar peaks above you.

GB So you’re swinging between Wordsworth and Doh a Deer!

JM Yes and it’s sensual too because if you go in the summer it smells fantastic. One of the things I hadn’t realize about mountains, which wouldn’t have mattered to Wordsworth as much as it matters to us, is you go up into them and it’s completely quiet. When I first went skiing I couldn’t believe that you go up these lifts and at the top it’s totally silent.

GB Your love for Jane Austen is so much about minutiae and yet you’ve chosen this enormous mountain range! I would have imagined you’d choose a rare wild flower on the side of a mountain.

JM Well I know that a lot of people have chosen little objects and I thought about choosing a painting because beauty is a work I associate with paintings and sculptures, but in a way that would be slightly disingenuous. There’s a Turner painting I find incredibly beautiful but how often do I actually see that? I’ve probably seen it in reality twice in my life.

GB Which one is it?

JM It’s at Pepworth. It’s one of those glowing landscapes where there’s so much light in it that you can hardly see anything.

GB So you’ve gone from the picturesque to the sublime?

JM I wouldn’t say the Alps are sublime. I’d say the Dolomites are sublime. They’re on the South side of the Alps. They’re really part of the same mountain chain but they’re so different. They’re like columns that go straight up and they’re scary. They don’t look as if you can walk up them. They’re wonderful but not beautiful. I lived in Munich for a few months and you can see the Alps in the background. You can drive there in an hour and the Bavarian Alps are beautiful because there are lakes.  A lake in mountains is a very beautiful thing.

GB What’s your favourite work of literature associated with the Alps?

JM Wordsworth’s Prelude. The Prelude is very weird because although it has some fantastic descriptive passages about mountains, the passage about the Alps that’s really wonderful is about what a let-down they are. It’s very characteristic of Wordsworth. Just as you think you know what he’s going to give you, he gives you something that you didn’t expect. He walks across the Alps with a friend, on a walking tour as a student. It’s a brilliant idea for the long vacation from Cambridge, to go walking in the Alps. He describes this part of the walk when they meet some travellers. Wordsworth asks which path they should take to cross over into Italy and they tell him that they’ve already crossed. He hasn’t noticed and he expected some amazing crest. The Alps are like that because there are these saddles between the peaks so you get to the top of a crest and go, “WOW!” You suddenly see for 50 miles and there’s Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn or some incredible view. So Wordsworth has walked all the way across France expecting this epiphany and he hasn’t got it. He’s already walking downhill into Italy. It sends him off on a recollection, an apostrophe to the imagination about how he realizes that the excitements of the imagination are greater than he’s going to get just seeing anything.

GB Tell me how the experience of this kind of beauty differs from the beauty you find in a work of literature.

JM When I read a work of literature I enjoy it the most when I can see how it’s been put together. To me, the very best literature is always carefully formed. You can’t just splurge it out, even if you’re a genius. Maybe Shakespeare and Jane Austen weren’t entirely conscious of what they were doing but they were still doing it. So when I read literature I can’t separate the pleasure of seeing how it’s done. Even when I read a Keats poem, it might thrum with what appears to be the spontaneous passion of the moment but actually it’s not. It’s got some incredible rhyme scheme and the intricacy of that design is always part of the pleasure for me.

GB So when you look at the Alps it’s freer in a way?

JM Well it’s also a physical thing. It overwhelms you.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

JM I’m not sure I’ve got one universal description. I don’t think that saying the Alps are beautiful and saying a poem by John Donne is beautiful are the same. For something that human beings have created, I have a rather starry-eyed view of beauty, which is that it’s an intimation of something better than ourselves. I think that, generally speaking, beautiful things are made by people with some special gift.

GB Do you think we can make anything that’s as beautiful as the Alps?

JM It’s different. A Turner painting of the Alps is beautiful and true to the beauty of what he sees.

GB You used the word gobsmacked. Is that a part of beauty for you?

JM Not necessarily. I like beauty that’s very manicured, like 18th century landscape gardens.

GB So when it comes to the Alps, what is it that makes them worthy of the word beauty?

JM I think it’s connected to what I said about things that are made by people. It’s something bigger than ourselves. Something pristine. It’s so elemental that I don’t think anybody’s ever been able to explain it. People haven’t always thought mountains were beautiful. I’m not sure Dr Johnson thought mountains were beautiful. I think he thought they were a waste of space because human beings couldn’t cultivate them. It’s not necessarily a natural thing to find them beautiful.

GB So you think we all see them through romantic eyes?

JM Definitely. Those are our eyes.


FullSizeRenderFullSizeRender copyIMG_4158 The new issue of Gilded Birds paper is out. It includes interviews with Miles Aldridge, Nico Muhly, Semir Zeki, Rebecca Louise Law, Brix Smith Start, Ross Andersen, Azzi Glasser and Tom Dixon – as well as features on new feminist magazine, Ladybeard, Tom Sach’s ceramics collective, Satan Ceramics, and Nico Muhly’s tips for how to listen to Contemporary music for the first time. There’s an Aries poster included, designed exclusively for us by Fergadelic. The cover design is by the fabulous Gary Card. You can also read his thoughts on life, art and the Lincoln Centre’s Elie Nadelman sculpture. The art direction is by Nathalie Fowler of Parapluie. Londoners can find the paper in shops and galleries all over London that include Present (Shoreditch), Material Books (Shoreditch), the ICA, the Photographer’s Gallery, Clare De Rouen Books, the London Review Bookshop, Donlon Books, Salako London, Darkroom. Or you can write to us here and we’ll send you a copy. With huge thanks to our sponsor SOME IDEAS.