Category Archives: Design

“‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Felinka Mouse 2013, Mister Finch

The sculptures of Mister Finch, a British textile artist, conjure up a mesmerizing world of sleepy dormice and March hares, magical mushrooms and mischievous fairies, of Victorians romancing fantasy and nature. One of the works in particular (pictured here) caught my eye. The mouse is titled Felinka, but unlike the mice of Fairy- and Wonderland, Mister Finch’s mouse happens to be gigantic—at least for a mouse. Rivaling the capybara, the planet’s largest rodent, Felinka measures more than three-feet across and has a tail that’s five feet long.

Often referred to under the umbrella of the cuddly-sounding art form “soft sculpture,” each of the works Finch creates are sewn from remnants of new and vintage cloths, recycled clothing and table linens. The pieces are as meticulously realistic as they are fanciful; they’re as hard as they are soft.

While articles about Finch’s work almost invariably point to the Pop artist Claes Oldenburg, considered ‘the creator of soft sculpture’ with his three-dimensional interpretations of everyday objects, the use of non-traditional, malleable materials—felt, foam and fabric and animal skins sewn and stuffed for example—can be traced back to the first half of the twentieth century and the works of the Surrealists, including Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, and Meret Oppenheim. That being said, perusing his website and the press, I get a sense that Finch (the Mister he added to reference his gender, meaningful in that he is a man who sews) is hardly the sort who is preoccupied with his place on art history’s spectrum. He seems to prefer to spend his days in his studio working late into the night, sewing his sculptures to the steady patter of the Yorkshire rain.[1]

He completed Felinka in April of 2013. In an email, he wrote, “I’m drawn to creatures with eyes closed as it has more room for interpretation,” and added, “a huge mouse was something I always wanted to make…”[2]

“Do we need [enchantment] now more than ever?” a journalist recently asked him what feels to me today like an urgent question. To which Finch replied, “I don’t believe it ever went away.”[3]



[1] Laren Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch,” The New York Observer, June 10, 2015.

[2] Email to author, December 28, 2015.

[3] Stover, “Faeryland and Toadstools Arrive in Chelsea, Courtesy of Mister Finch.”

Additional sources: Steven Kasher Gallery, NYC; “Viewfinder,” T Magazine, The New York Times, December 3, 2015.

(Image: Felinka Mouse, 2013, 
unique hand-sewn sculpture made from a mixture of fabric, paper, wire and plastic details.)

The Artist Who Came in from the Cold

James A. Houston, Mouse and Cheese, 1975Cheese is not a mouse’s favorite fare—at least from my experience. Sunflower seeds rather than slivers of cheddar are the furry fellow’s food of choice. Yet there are countless stories to the contrary—perhaps because the image of a cheese-eating mouse is simply irresistible.

James Houston, artist and writer, appears to have agreed. In 1975, he created two small decorative sculptures, each of a mouse sitting atop a wedge of cheese. Since 1962 he had been a designer with the famed Steuben Glass Works, a division of Corning Glass in Corning, New York.

Houston was American, Canadian-born and -raised. Excelling in art from an early age he found a mentor in Arthur Lismer of Canada’s storied Group of Seven [landscape painters]. He attended the Ontario College of Art, and at age twenty-six, he took off to Paris, and continued his studies at L’Académie de la Grande Chaumière for almost a year—until his mother, like a fisherman with a taut line, reeled him back to Toronto, writing that whatever he was doing “there” was “making her terribly nervous.”[1] But Toronto wasn’t Paris, and he opted for adventure; he took the Hudson’s Bay Company ship to the Arctic in September 1947, and made first Inukjuak and later Baffin Island his home. Surviving the physical hardship of his initial five-month stay—enduring sub-zero temperatures and slipping through the ice on no fewer than five different occasions—he fell in love with the indigenous people; one later told him, “We sometimes thought we’d have to give you away. We didn’t know what to do with you, you were so clumsy.” He learned the language and absorbed the way of living of the Eskimos (as he preferred to call them, that to him using the word “Inuits” was silly unless you’re speaking their language, something akin I guess to English-speakers calling Germans, die Deutschen). He drew their portraits, their birds and their fish, often gifting them with his sketches. He began collecting their soapstone carvings and sculptures, acquainted them with the printmaking process, and helped them by creating a market for their work; he became the biggest champion of contemporary Eskimo art.[2]

He had been living in the Arctic for almost twelve years when he met Corning Glass’s president, Arthur Houghton, who had arrived on Baffin Island as a member of the very first tourist group to the eastern Canadian Arctic. Instantly captivated by Houston’s drawings, impressed by his artistic skill, Houghton offered him, open-ended, a design job. Three years later, Houston, realizing that it was time for him to come in from the cold, finally accepted the offer, and became Steuben’s leading designer. Houghton said that Houston was “the most prolific and the most successful designer that Steuben ha[d] ever had.”

Houston’s specialty was “Major Ornamentals,” in which he often merged crystal with precious metal in his designs. The majority of his works feature either Eskimos or wildlife of the Arctic region—polar bears, salmon and seals, for example. He said that at times his ideas came in an instant from recognizing a particular animal’s shape in the molten glass on the end of the blowing iron. Perhaps it was in 1975 when he saw in a hot glob of crystal with tiny air bubbles, a piece of Swiss cheese—the perfect partner for a small 18k gold mouse.




[1] Quotes and primary source: see Mary D. Kierstead’s excellent profile of Houston, “The Man,” The New Yorker, August 29, 1988,

[2] Margalit Fox, “James A. Houston,” The New York Times, April 22, 2005.

(Image: Mouse and Cheese, designed by James Houston, 1975; Colorless lead glass, 18k gold,
4 x 3 13/16 x 3 1/4 inches. Made by Steuben Glass, of Corning Glass Works. Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


unSwept Away

Detail of Heraclitus's MosaicBones of fish and fowl and stones of fruit, shells of crustaceans and oysters and a walnut or two, as well as capers and olives—these, the remnants of a very large Mediterranean meal. As for the cleanup it was all the more onerous—at least for the minions if not for the mice—since the guests had cavalierly tossed the leavings on the floor. How barbaric! Yet this was not the aftermath of a feast of a band of hungry Neanderthals some sixty thousand years ago but that of a banquet of the powerful and wealthy and educated in Ancient Rome. Perhaps their actions boiled down to what the philosopher Epictetus had to say back then in the first century, essentially that feeding the stomach should be secondary to feeding the mind.[1] If food had to take a backseat to discourse and Homeric declamations then it only stood to reason that keeping your place at the table neat would have been a triviality considered best ignored. Or perhaps the Roman elite were entitled slobs. In any case, the leftovers strewn across the floors of formal dining rooms inspired mosaic artists; they turned them into a trick-of-the-eye motif, using tiny tiles of colored marble and glass, specially cut and arranged.

Aptly called asàrotos òikos, or “unswept room,” it became a genre of its own. The earliest example, according to Pliny the Elder’s oft-cited mention in his Natural History appeared in the 2nd century BCE—about the time wealthy Greeks took a shine to mosaic ornamentation, which superseded decoratively painted wood in their villas. “[T]he most famous exponent [of the style] was Sosus, who at Pergamum laid the floor, [and] represented refuse from the dinner table and other sweepings, making them appear as if they had been left there,” Pliny wrote, identifying the only mosaicist from the cradle of Western civilization known by name.[2]

Three centuries later, the Romans copied the Greeks, filling their residences with mosaic wall and floor decorations. Asàrotos òikos was in demand. They cropped up in posh, private homes in Tunisia and in Pompeii, and in Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli. And in another villa atop Aventine Hill in Rome—that one signed by Heraclitus and said to be a replica of Sosus’s. Like Sosus, Heraclitus saw to include both a mouse and his shadow as he nibbles on a walnut shell.





[1] Epictetus, Enchiridon, 41.

[2] Pliny, Natural History, xxxvi, 184, translated by D. E. Eichholz, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, reprint, 2001.

Additional sources: Niki Holmes Kantzios, “Edible Imagery in Roman Dining Room Floor Mosaics”; A Companion to Greek Art, Tyler Jo Smith and Dimitris Plantzos, eds; Roger Ling, Ancient Mosaics, Princeton University Press, 1998.

(Image: Heraclitus, Unswept Room, detail, Gregoriano Profano Museum, Vatican Museums)


Misericords Love Company

Robert Thompson, on furniture made for Leeds Girls' High School Library, 1933A wooden bookend or a bowl or a cheese board that features a carved mouse sounds like a mere novelty, yet there are warnings on, of all places, eBay, cautioning potential bidders against frauds, fakes and forgeries. And one begins to understand the value of the object’s possible legacy. Robert Thompson was an original, the only Mouseman, a consummate artist-craftsman of North Yorkshire, England, who came of age in the last decade of the nineteenth century, who snubbed the machine-age in favor of the arts-and-crafts movement, who decided to make the mouse his logo by carving him onto almost every piece of his furniture.

Thompson’s mouse debuted sometime around 1920. “I and another carver were carving a huge cornice for a screen,” Thompson would later write, “and he happened to say something about being as poor as a church mouse. I said I’ll carve a mouse here and did so, then it struck me what a lovely trade mark.”[1] And thus the first of Thompson’s mice was born, the genesis of his moniker “the Mouseman of Kilburn.” His work was of the ecclesiastical nature, woodwork for humble churches and noble cathedrals, across the towns and villages of northern England.

At age fifteen he apprenticed to an engineer about sixty miles southeast of Kilburn, the country village where he was born and raised and where he would return after five years to join his father’s joinery shop. According to Patricia Lennon—author of a small, quirky book that is at once a short biography of Thompson and a travel guide with driving tours to see Thompson’s mice—his trips to and fro during his apprenticeship took him through Ripon and he would frequently stop and admire its cathedral’s 15th century misericords—carvings, often fanciful, found on the underside Robert Mouseman Thompsonof the seats in the choir stall—exquisitely produced by William Bromflet. It was Bromflet’s work that helped Thompson to see how woodworking could be turned into art. Following in the footsteps of his medieval forebears, Kilburn’s Mouseman worked solely with English oak, cured it naturally not in a kiln, and colored the wood with the fuming process—the honeyed tint that is achieved when ammonia interacts with the wood’s tannin. He snubbed nails and screws, eschewed the clackety-clack of mechanized lathes for the opportunity to work his knuckles to the bone. He chose the adze to define his craftsmanship in the soft ripples the shaping tool made in the wood, resulting in furniture that was in equal parts graceful and rustic. By 1930 his small shop was filled with ten apprentices of his own. He considered each one “to be fully trained once they could carve the mouse to his exacting standards.”[2]


[1] Patricia Lennon, The Tale of the Mouse: The Life and work of Robert Thompson the Mouseman of Kilburn, Great Northern Books, 2001, p. 13.

[2] Ibid., p. 15.

Also, see Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen.

Images: Photograph of Robert Thompson at work; Mouse on one of the pieces of furniture that he made for the Leeds Girls’ High School library, 1933.

When a mouse is not a mouse.

Engelbart's Mouse, Prototype (replica), ca. 1964The body was a wooden case, topped with a tiny red button; a cord ran out of its boxy back, and with a flick of a hand, the palm-size device scurried horizontally or vertically across a flat surface on two wheels set perpendicularly underneath. Someone said, oh, look, it’s a mouse. And thus the prototype, the “X-Y position indicator for a display system,” had just been re-christened, the first computer rodent born.

Douglas Engelbart—who at the age of eighty-eight passed away a week ago today—invented the mouse. A radar technician for the Navy during World War II, and trained electrical engineer and researcher with Stanford [University] Research Institute, director of its experimental lab, Engelbart in 1963 thought “if a computer can punch cards or print paper, it can draw anything you want on a screen.”[1] He made sketches of his imagined pointing gadget that he passed along to his colleague and chief engineer, William English, to build the preliminary model.

Five years later the mouse was ready for its debut; the tiny button controller had proliferated to three, the body a bit more rounded, more polished, but it  ran the same. At a computer conference in San Francisco in 1968 Engelbart brought his vision to life, his talk later dubbed by the Silicon Valley-ites as “the mother of all demos.” In front of one thousand leading computer scientists and for one hundred minutes he sat on stage at a computer keyboard and meticulously showed how his mouse’s movements could astonishingly be translated to a small black “bug” of a cursor on the accompanying 22 x 18-foot movie screen. He also introduced ‘shared-screen’ teleconferencing, multiple windows and text editing and what we now call hypertext. His audience was transfixed, gave him a standing ovation—one computer scientist compared the presentation to Moses parting the Red Sea. The demonstration could surely have blown Steve Jobs and all his “booms” out of the water. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, upon learning of Engelbart’s death, told ABC News, “I have admired him so much. Everything we have in computers can be traced to his thinking. To me, he is a god.”[2]

Soon after his legendary demonstration Engelbart and his team discovered a tiny flaw in their mouse’s design. Unlike that of its counterpart in the wild, the tail instead of creating balance made the computer creature a bit unruly—at least for a user to use, the cord catching around the user’s arm. So they moved the tail to the front, coming from the mouse’s face. Evolution, Darwin might say. Engelbart did say, “I don’t know why we call it a mouse. Sometimes, I apologize.”[3]


[1] Quoted from a 1997 CNN interview, “Computer mouse inventor Douglas Engelbart dies,” CNN, July 7, 2013.

[2] Joanna Stern, “Douglas Engelbart, Father of the Computer Mouse, Dies at Age 88,” ABC News, July 3, 2013.

[3] Douglas Engelbart, “Mother of All Demos,” Fall Joint Computer Conference, San Francisco, December 2009,

Additional sources: John Markoff, “Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse,” New York Times, July 3, 2013; SRI International; Doug Engelbart Institute; Computer History Museum.

(Image: Engelbart Mouse (produced commerically by SRI for Engelbart’s 1968 demo), ca. 1968, 2 3/8 x 2 3/4 x 4 in., photo credit: Robert Holmgren)

Legacy of a Mouse

Surely one of the creepiest and most intriguing works of art in which a mouse has played muse to an artist, or rather a pair of artists, was the tiny ‘leather’ jacket that grew out of the embryonic cells that the rodent had lent.

Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, a European-born duo who live and work in Australia, called their mouse-inspired work, “Victimless Leather,” part of their Tissue Culture and Art Project. The biological art piece was essentially a layer of living mouse tissue over a base made of biodegradable polymer, shaped like a coat. The ultimate aim: when the polymer degraded, the coat’s outline and integrity would remain. Sort of like, I imagine, the crafts idea of wrapping yarn with glue and water round and round an inflated balloon, and popping the balloon once the yarn had dried, leaving the balloon’s contours. The artists-scientists—who have been using various tissue technologies as their artistic media since the 1990s and are now considered trailblazers in the genre of ‘bioart’—saw in their two-inch jacket the start of a cultural discussion about the possibility of, for example, wearing ‘leather’ without killing an animal, about “curbing our destructive consumerism.”[1]

The Museum of Modern Art got wind of what Catts and Zurr were up to ‘down under’ in SymbioticA—the Art and Science Collaborative Research Laboratory at the University of Western Australia—and invited the pair to NYC to display their mouse-jacket in the museum’s 2008 show “Design and the Elastic Mind,” an exploration of “the reciprocal relationship between science and design in the contemporary world….”[2]

The jacket was readied for its American debut, erected inside its glass incubation flask—a ‘bioreactor’ that acts as a ‘surrogate body,’ and hooked up to its feeding tubes of nutrients. But no sooner had the show opened than the jacket began to rebel in the most literal sense; it took on a life of its own and grew out of control, the cells multiplying so fast that the feeding lines started to clog, and one of the sleeves fell off. That, according to MoMA’s senior curator Paola Antonelli. With Catts and Zurr back in Australia, a month into the exhibition, Antonelli had to make a life-and-death decision, whether or not to pull the plug. She later told the Art Newspaper, “I’ve always been pro-choice and all of a sudden I’m here not sleeping at night about killing a coat….”[3] In the end she really had no choice; she killed the coat. The artists weren’t troubled by what Antonelli had done. To the contrary they found ‘euthanasia’ of their jacket provided a perfect ending, a perfect “reminder to people that these works are/were alive and that we have a responsibility towards the living systems that we engage in manipulating.”[4]

The cells of the mouse that Catts and Zurr used came from a single mouse who had once been alive in the 1970s.



[1] MoMA, “Victimless Leather,” Design and the Elastic Mind.

[3] Helen Stoilas, “MoMA exhibit dies five weeks into show,” The Art Newspaper, May 1, 2008.

[4] John, Schwartz, “Museum Kills Live Exhibit,” The New York Times, May 13, 2008.

Other sources: The Tissue Culture and Art Project; Lakshmi Sandhana, “Jacket Grows From Living Tissue,” Wired, October 12, 2004; Stephanie Kramer, “Interview with Oron Catts: Victimless Leather, Urban Times (on-line), April 13, 2012.

(Image: Victimless Leather by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr, first created 2004, 2 x 1.4 inches, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


Yohji Yamamoto, Kenzo [Takada], and Junya Watanabe. These are a few of the names of Japan’s leading artists, only instead of working with canvas and oils, they work with fabric and thread. From the 1960s to now these designers have made a name for themselves in the fashion world, which has embraced them for their vision and their innovation. But perhaps what they have most in common is the place that gave them their start. All three are alumni of Japan’s prestigious Bunka Fashion College.

Known as “Bunka Fukuso Gakuin” in Japanese, or “The School to Learn About Cultural Clothing,”[1] the college’s original aim had been much more modest than festooning the runways of New York, Paris, and Milan. It opened its doors in 1919, under the name Namiki Dressmaking School, to teach young women to do just that: to make dresses. At the time Japanese girls were itching to replace their kimonos with Western-style clothes that they considered to be the uniform of the elite and the enlightened, but first they needed to learn how to sew them. In the 1960s when Yamamoto attended Bunka, girls outnumbered the guys, 10,000 to 1. He told the New York Times, “Girls were everywhere on campus; they hemmed in from all sides! It was a dream come true for me, but seeing them at such close quarters dispelled any illusions I had about women. I think this disappointment was the starting point of my design career.” Some forty years later the male-female student ratio is almost one to one.

Back in the late 1960s there was another young man who went to Bunka, who made a huge splash in Tokyo and Paris in the 1980s, whose name I found and wonder if many recognize today. Tokio Kumagaï. He died in Paris in 1987 at the appalling age of forty. (Cancer had found another victim.) “Many had hopes,” it was written in his obituary, “that Kumagaï would emerge as the new leader of the next generation of Japanese designers.” In the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute collection there is a pair of shoes—alas, not on display—that he designed and hand-painted, that carries an animal face, that became his most famous design. Tokio Kumagaï called his shoes: The Mouse.

[1] Kaori Shoji, “Turning out the vanguard in Japan design,” The New York Times, August 2, 2005

Other sources: ” Tokio Kumagaï, 40,” Daily News Record, November 2, 1987.