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Comments (5) Posted 12.01.10 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Mark Lamster

The Ugliest Object I Have Ever Owned




Notice anything here that doesn't seem quite right? This full-pager for Buick might not be the most absurd advertisement in history, but there's certainly much that defies logic, or at least common sense. First of all, if you're going to use the Glass House for a photo shoot, it would make sense to open the sliding screens so you can actually see through the thing. Then there's the couple standing in front of the door. Who are they? They seem to be just married (she's in a wedding gown), but the only guests are two boys chasing each other around a rather phallic Lipchitz sculpture. And then there's the most blatant and egregious mark of disjunction: the leaden and stupendously butch 1966 Buick Electra 225 parked on the lawn of America's most singularly ethereal private residence. I understand the urge to class up the behemoth, but let's not get carried away. The whole thing seems like a joke. 

Which, in fact, is precisely what it was, though I wonder if the folks at GM (or their agency, McCann Erickson) were in on it. Unlikely as it may seem, Philip Johnson, architect of America's WASP elite, was at one time the (not entirely) proud owner of a very proletarian Buick sedan, which he left out for all to see before his pristine glass pavilion. “I don’t believe in garages. I leave it out in the snow,” he told an audience at the Museum of Modern Art in 1950. He also called it "the ugliest object I have ever owned," not that he was apologetic about it. “It is a magnificent car. I am not being funny." The occasion was a symposium on automotive aesthetics, and Johnson was happily upending expectation, acting the enfant terrible, as was his wont. Normally the last person to privilege function over form, he told those gathered that he chose the Buick ("no boos please!") for its comfort and effortless power ("I have been arrested three times"), and he cautioned automotive designers not to forget those critical attractions. The style of the thing was unfortunate, but he had the chrome plating removed. 

It is, perhaps, worth noting that given his personal history it would have been politically expedient for Johnson to own an American car in the immediate postwar years. By the time this ad appeared, however, he had given up on American cars for a series of Mercedes. Also worth noting: bizarrely inappropriate applications of the Glass House in advertising were something of a tradition: 



I close with a question, prompted by the above: What's the ugliest object you've ever owned (and loved despite itself)? For me, it's a beat-up old kitchen cabinet from the 1970s that I find somehow endearing. (My wife thinks I'm insane and it stays in the attic.) How about you?

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Comments (5)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

I owned a woman one time. She was from Russia and I got her through the mail. She had a mustache and warts and had hair on her back and hands. Instead of making her my girlfriend, lover, or wife, I put her to work in the garden. She is definitely one hell of a beast of burden. I remember that she used to brush her one tooth and smile at me with an empty mouth. When she spoke to me, she spat at almost every syllable. I was very upset when she died, because she stunk of sweat and rotting fish when she was alive, but when she died, it smelled even worse, like a skunk spray that had been boiled, or vomit that had been baked in a casserole dish at 450 for about a week. All of my plants in my garden died when she did. She used to fertilize them with her toe jam and the crust on the bottom of her feet. It was a disgusting site, but my garden had never looked so alive. Oh how I miss Velchka, even if she was the ugliest thing that I ever owned!
Bob Thompson
12.01.10 at 11:14

Yeah.... ummm... I'll want the number of Bob's weed connection, cuz'.......DAMN!
Ricki onoki
12.01.10 at 11:28

I own an old whiskey barrel chair that I took from my grandfather's tack store after he passed about 20 years ago. I remember as a a child walking in to my grandfather's store and being transported back in time. The whole store smelled of horse feed and leather, and wood. The store, constructed with wooden slats, was inviting and interesting, and my grandfather could always be found sitting in that whiskey barrel chair. Many years later the chair is rather worn, and no longer has legs. While it may be ugly now, it reminds me of all the things I love about my youth.
Chris Cook
12.01.10 at 06:14

Then there was the Mercury Zephyr he shipped to Europe to follow the Blitzkrieg
Phil
12.01.10 at 06:38

The Buick's perspective seems a bit off from the scene, as if it was pasted onto the glasshouse - a sense reinforced by the artfully placed leaves, which makes the ad that much more perverse (ie awesome.)

One of the ugliest objects I own is a pre-WWII book called The Races of Europe, chock full of pictures and psuedo-science and all the confidence of a Harvard eugenics-man who, in the mid-1930s, apparently had no notion of where those thoughts (and the hundereds of pictures like so many mug shots) were heading.

Its a bracing reminder of how science, technology & statistics can fall into a self-reinforcing feedback loop that becomes madness; and, on occasion, I see someone on the subway who has an uncanny resemblance to a picture from the book, and I find myself thinking I know something about them...
Mr. Downer
12.02.10 at 05:28



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Mark Lamster is the architecture critic of the Dallas Morning News and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington School of Architecture. A contributing editor to Architectural Review, he is currently at work on his third book, a biography of the late architect Philip Johnson. Follow: @marklamster.
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