In 1999, I had the good fortune to work alongside Dan Licht at an NYC digital startup called SenseNet, RIP. Back then, although still in his early 20s, Dan was already an accomplished art director and digital designer. Today he’s a fantastic comics illustrator, artist, and creative director. Check his recent art on Instagram and his client work at Daniel V. Licht dot com.
Herewith, a scene from last night’s interview with legendary web & book designer (and Dean of The Cooper Union School of Art) Mike Essl, who shared his portfolio, career highlights, early web design history, and more. Fun!
If you get a chance to meet, work with, or learn from Mike, take it. He’s brilliant, hilarious, warmly human, and one of the most creative people you’ll ever have the good fortune to know.
For about a week, now, my bedroom floor has been torn up due to under-floor flooding created by a malfunctioning window air conditioning unit.
The A/C unit began leaking during the summer months when I lay in bed with COVID-19, and, in my sickness, I initially did not notice the leakage. When I did notice, I was too sick to do anything about it, other than turn off the air conditioner. Summer in New York did not make that sustainable.
Months passed, I began to recover, and repair people began to work in people’s homes again as New York flattened the curve and began carefully easing restrictions. Six weeks ago, I hired an authorized air conditioning repairman to make a house call and check the air conditioning units. (There are three window units in the apartment; one leaked and all three were radically underperforming.)
I thought the fancy repairman had stopped my bedroom unit from leaking, and apparently so did he. On that basis, I authorized a floor repairman to rip up my bedroom floor and replace all the warped floorboards. It took me three weeks to get the floor guy to come here.
He came, he pulled up some of the floorboards, and he immediately stopped working. It was impossible to continue the repairs, he explained, because the under-floor was badly flooded. He asked why I had waited to so long to get him in. I told him I’d been trying to get him to come for three weeks.
So, anyway, he ripped up more of the floor, then went away and told me to wait a few weeks for the under-floor to dry out.
A week passed. The water under the floorboards didn’t seem to be in any hurry to evaporate.
Then this morning I couldn’t open or close my bedroom door, because the floor area near the bedroom’s entranceway had suddenly begun to buckle. By pulling with all my might, I was able to open the door, and I will have to leave my bedroom open until my floor is fixed.
Why was the leak spreading, I wondered. And then I noticed that the air conditioning unit had begun leaking again. There was a fresh pool of water on the floor beneath the unit that hadn’t been there last night.
So I called upon Damir, a porter-slash-handyman who works in the building. He’s exceedingly courteous and warm-hearted, happy to take on odd jobs, and remarkably competent at diagnosing and repairing the many things that can go wrong in an apartment.
(Be thankful I’m only boring you with this tale of the flood, and not listing the many other home repairs that have become necessary since around the time the quarantine began.)
Damir elevatored up to my apartment and immediately found the twin causes of the bedroom air conditioner leak. First, there is filthy gunk in the guts of the unit that prevents the water from draining. Second, because of the way it was first installed, the unit is angled forward into the room instead of tipped slightly backward. As a result, all that icy, backed-up water leaks down into my apartment instead of spilling harmlessly out the window and into the alley behind the building.
Over the months I was sick, enough water had quietly leaked into the room for all that cold wetness to find a weakness in the flooring—a point of entry—where the water secretly settled like a doom in the darkness under the floor.
Damir brought up a hand truck to lug the A/C unit down to the building’s basement, where he will hose out the guts of the machine. Then he will reinstall the machine and build a shim under it to tip it backward so future leaks go out the window. It looks like he may get everything finished by tonight.
While Damir was making ready to cart the A/C unit away, he emptied my vacuum cleaner and vacuumed up the bedroom. Meanwhile, I moved all the stored items (boxes, drinks, rocking horse) out of the hall that leads to the bedrooms, so there would be room for Damir to cart the huge air conditioner away.
Damir and I were both wearing masks, of course, and in my post-COVID weakness, I found myself breathing heavily while I lugged the junk out of the hall.
Remember, several weeks ago, I paid several hundred dollars to an authorized air conditioner repairman who didn’t do any of the work Damir is doing and didn’t even notice the cause of the flooding or recognize that the flooding would continue. Damir, a building porter, would seem to be a better air conditioning repairman than the authorized air conditioning repairman was.
If the work Damir does today finally stops the A/C from leaking into the apartment, then the next step, after the under-floor dries out, will be for the floor guy to finish pulling up all the floorboards, replacing them with new ones, and buffing and enameling everything to turn those planks into a floor.
The hardwood floors are one of the most beautiful things about this apartment; I hope, some months from now, some semblance of what they used to be will be restored. Although at this point, I’d probably settle for ugly linoleum and the ability to shut and open my bedroom door.
Update: 60 minutes later…
Damir cleaned and reinstalled the bedroom A/C, mopped up a lot of the flood water on my bedroom floor, built a shim to tilt back the window unit after installing it, and checked 60 minutes later to be sure it wasn’t leaking. (It isn’t.)
He also cleaned the filters in the living room unit and Ava’s bedroom. I thought I had cleaned them but I did a poor job. Two words: cat hair. It gets stuck in all the units, causing them to malfunction. Basically, Snow White + my poor home upkeep skills + five months with COVID-19, not really paying attention to what was happening in my apartment, led to all this.
Thank goodness for Damir.
(I tipped him very well; that’s my job.)
The chiming of my iPhone woke me from an afternoon of profound sleep marked by a long, unsettling dream involving basements. I’d taken to bed out of equal parts respect for my own exhaustion and the desire to escape a particularly pungent headache. Both are symptoms of my endless post-COVID-19 “recovery” period. It’s a virus that hangs on like an unrequited lover, and a disease that can leave you weak and debilitated for months—or longer. But we don’t think about “longer” yet, as I’ve only been sick for three and a half months.
Before the afternoon sick bed, I’d been working quite happily and even productively, until—wham!—a wall of symptoms smacked me in the head, and I had no choice but to listen and obey. On my way to bed, I just managed to feed my COVID-sick child, who is bound to her bed all day every day except for the early afternoon brunch and early evening dinner.
After the afternoon sleep—after the phone ripped me from the sinister architecture and unworthy companions of my dream, and while my heart was still pounding from a shocking sudden change of realities—I hurriedly tugged on gloves and a paper face mask, shoved my feet into still-tied shoes, threw open the door and hurried down the hall to the elevator bank, to meet a rolling hotel cart filled with newly delivered groceries that was on its way up to me.
(Bledar, the doorman on duty in my apartment building, had kindly accepted a Fresh Direct delivery on my behalf, stacked the bags on the building’s hotel cart, phoned me, waited 60 seconds ((to give me time to mask up and scramble down the hall)), and then rolled the cart into an elevator into which he’d punched my floor number. This is how we do it in this building.)
I rolled the packages to my door, packed them into the apartment, sent the cart downstairs again, unmasked, fed Snow White her afternoon meal, washed my hands, and put the groceries away. Then I had to sit down. What time is it? What day is it? When will I be well again? When will my child be well?
Photo by Malik Shibly on Unsplash
May 9. Snowing in New York. Wearing face masks, two men stand on a balcony of the Chinese Mission to the UN, photographing the snowfall with their phones. I try to photograph them and the snow, but they are already leaving the balcony, and my phone autofocuses on the window screen.
I’ve had Coronavirus for five weeks. My daughter has it, now, too. Her mom’s had it for weeks, but only recently recognized it for what it is. It sneaks up on you, disguised as a persistent headache, a seasonal allergy, some other unpleasant but harmless annoyance—until you can’t stand at the sink washing dishes for five minutes without immediately needing to lie down and catch your breath. Then you know.
It’s not just here in New York. A dear family member who lives far away (and who also has an underlying health condition) has come down with it. I think of them with hope, terror, denial, panic. We ping each other. You still there?
Some things are getting better.
For four weeks I could not get a grocery delivery slot from Fresh Direct, no matter what time of day or night I tried. This week I finally secured one. Four weeks ago I could not get Tylenol for love of money. This week I was finally able to order some—and it arrived today.
The grocery delivery slot means more workers are available, fewer are out sick. The arrival of the Tylenol (actually a generic Acetaminophen—you still can’t get branded Tylenol) suggests that supply chains and delivery chains may be doing a little better than they were during the first four weeks of the crisis. (By which I mean the first four weeks of March, even though the crisis was actually upon us in January—but we civilians didn’t know it.)
It’s a rotten disease.
This morning I woke at 5:00 AM. Ingested two espressos and a bowl of cereal and immediately went back to sleep. My daughter woke me at 11:00. She was sick but sort of hungry, so I got up and threw together a breakfast. We watched TV. I worked for an hour while she slept. Then I went back to sleep. That one hour of work took everything out of me.
It’s a rotten disease. You’re well enough not to need hospitalization, but too weak to do anything useful.
At 6:30 PM the kid woke me again. She was weak and exhausted and craving a sweet.
I got out of bed, threw on mask and gloves, and ventured out of my apartment for the first time in about a week. Picked up Oreos for the kid at the little deli across the street.
Then I visited my postal mailbox for the first time in over a week. It was flooded with junk. Nothing stops junk mail. Not signing “do not deliver” lists and opt-out lists (but of course junk mailers ignore those). And apparently not even Coronavirus can stem the junk-mail tide. The mechanisms of our dysfunction outlive us. Somewhere, surely, there’s a postal worker who contracted a fatal case of the virus while delivering junk mail to a dead woman.
Forgive me, I came hoping to spread cheer. Oh, well.
I’m grateful. Most people who die of this thing die right away. We lucky ones who survive just feel rotten for weeks. Rotten beats dead. The longer my kid feels sick, the safer I’ll feel about about her prognosis.
Rotten beats dead, but it’s still rotten. I wish those for whom this whole thing is an abstraction could see what I see and feel what I feel. The tragic unthinkable horror in the newspaper is the tip of this iceberg. Recovery is going to be long and hard and sad. The world we return to will be different.
Finishing Week 4 with Coronavirus, heading into Week 5. I’m home—haven’t needed to go to the hospital, thank God—and my fever petered out last week. So all that’s left are cold and cough symptoms and a totally debilitating complete lack of energy. Oh, and lower back pain: a bad cough threw one side of my back out, and lying in bed 18 hours a day somehow hasn’t unkinked it. Go figure.
I’m recovering. Slowly and unmeasurably but pretty definitely. Sitting at a desk to type these thoughts is something I can do today. Last week, not so much.
So lucky. My daughter is with me and, for the first time in over ten years, I have family in the building. We have enough food. Sure, it’s mostly lentils and pasta, but I know at least two delicious ways of serving those staples. And despite low energy, I still cook. It’s what I do now: sleep and cook.
The doctor who diagnosed me couldn’t test me.
There aren’t enough tests, but you read the papers, you know that. But my symptoms told the tale. I don’t know if he reported me as a case. So much data that could save lives isn’t being recorded because, well, you know why.
I reported myself to my company and our team (who are incredibly, brilliantly supportive), and to the MFA program where I teach one day a week, and, of course, to my wonderfully stalwart conference team. So many cases will not be diagnosed or reported. So many will spread the disease without knowing. So many will die and we (as a people) won’t be sure what took them.
I live in a hospital zone in Manhattan.
There have been morgue trucks on my block for weeks. I don’t look out that window much.
I’m lucky. I’m insured. I live in a safe neighborhood. And…
Not everybody thinks so, and it’s not a club I’m particularly proud to belong to anyway, but it’s still conferred massive privileges on me all my life. Some of which I recognized as a child. Some of which I’m still blind to. The point is, the people the virus is hurting the most are not white. Which is one reason the white people in charge have been slow to take it seriously.
But I get to stay home. I’ll get to work remotely, when I’m well enough to start working again. Privilege and dumb luck. Life and death.
I’m undeservedly fortunate and I’m thankful. To my colleagues, doing my work while I rest. To the medical professionals who live in this building and work in the hospitals around the corner. To the workers who toil in this building and haven’t the luxury to shelter in place. And to you who’ve been texting and emailing and DMing well wishes. Thank you. It helps.
Stay safe, stay strong, and be kind.
We’ve got some exciting news to share. Web and interaction design studio.zeldman is moving, from our digs at 148 Madison Avenue to a new location on Fifth Avenue. As of June 1, we’ll be designing, creating, and consulting out of our beautiful new studio space at The Yard: Flatiron North.
Closing our co-working design studio
This means we’re closing A Space Apart, the Madison Avenue co-working design studio we opened in January, 2012. A Space Apart was a fun experiment, and we loved learning from the design studios, product companies, publications and startups with whom we shared it. Companies like Font Bureau, Monkey Do, Shopify Partners, Danilo Black, Been (RIP), Promedia, Byte Dept, Nick Sherman, Fred Gates Design, Wayward Wild and The Great Discontent and have all shared our water cooler at one time or another during the whirligig of the past five years. Creatively, it’s been amazing.
But we’re tired of playing landlord. Instead of debugging the internet router, tending to the recycling, hiring HVAC repair people, and seeking suitable replacement studio mates when a company moves out, we’d rather spend our time solving our clients’ design problems and making cool stuff like A List Apart, A Book Apart, The Big Web Show, and An Event Apart. And The Yard’s the perfect place for us to ply our trade and make our goods. (Plus we still get to rub shoulders with other creative business folk.)
We can’t take it with us: furnish your office with our stuff!
Running a co-working studio space meant buying a lot of furniture and equipment. Beautiful stuff, still in great condition. Elegant stuff, because we’re designers. Stuff we won’t need any more, now that we’re moving to new digs where somebody else does landlord duty. So we’re selling it, for a lot less than we paid. And that’s where (maybe) you come in.
Most everything must go, including our famous Eero Aarnio (style) ball chair (if its red cushions could talk!), custom Bo Concept shelving, Eames Desk Units from Design Within Reach, Herman Miller Aeron chairs (ditto), midcentury tulip table and side chairs, black glass desks, Nespresso espresso maker, file cabinets, icemaker, microwave oven, see-through glass mini-fridge, and more. These are beautiful things that inspire good design, and they deserve good homes.
View all our goods and prices—and even order the ones you want!—via this lovely WebVR Walk-through prepared by our own Roland Dubois. (If you’re not into the whole WebVR thing, you can also just browse our store at Apartment Therapy. The VR experience also links directly to the store items, so you’re good either way.)
We leave May 31, and these goods are first-come, first-served, so don’t wait too long. Grab your piece of web and interaction design history today.
THE INTERNET, as we all know, makes it possible to work from anywhere. Back in 1999, I started Happy Cog studio from a desk in my bedroom. I shouldn’t even call it a desk. It was a door on top of two filing cabinets. But that, a Mac, and an internet connection were enough to launch my web design business.
But creative people thrive by rubbing shoulders with other creative people, which is why I opened a studio as soon as the business I was doing justified the expense.
It’s no secret that coworking spaces have exploded in the past five to ten years, and the communal setting they offer helps freelancers, remote workers, and other independent professionals work better and more happily. But, as good as coworking spaces are, I believe designers and developers do even better in a shared studio where the same talented folks come in day after day, sitting at the same desks every day. That’s why I opened A Space Apart in 2012, and it’s why I’m delighted to open my studio to the Shopify Partner Studio Program.
If you’re a qualifying designer or developer just starting your career, we want you here. Besides rubbing shoulders with each other, and with some of the smartest designers and developers I know, you’ll gain mentorship experience from Shopify execs, web design/development industry icons, and me. (Never fear, I’ll learn more from you than you will from me.)
So kickstart your freelance business with free office space and mentorship from Shopify and me. If you haven’t already done so, apply now!
IT WAS the early 2000s. The smoke from 9/11 was still poisoning my New York.
Karen McGrane was a brilliant young consultant who had built the IA practice at Razorfish while still in her early 20s, and was collaborating with my (now ex-)wife on some large, exciting projects for The New York Public Library. Ethan Marcotte was a Dreadlocks-hat-sporting kid I’d met in Cambridge through Dan Cederholm, with whom he sometimes collaborated on tricky, standards-based site designs. The first edition of my Designing With Web Standards was in the can. I figured that, like my previous book, it would sell about 10,000 copies and then vanish along with all the other forgotten web design books.
Nothing happened as I expected it to. The only thing I got right besides web standards was the desire to some day work with Karen, Ethan, and Dan—three dreams that, in different ways, eventually all came true. But nothing, not even the incredible experience of working with these luminaries, could have prepared me for the effect Ethan and Karen and Dan would have on our industry. Even less could I have guessed back then the announcement it’s my pleasure to make today:
It was thrilling to bring you Ethan and Karen’s first industry-changing A Book Apart books. Being allowed to bring you a second set of absolutely essential works on responsive design from these two great minds is a gift no publisher deserves, and for which I am truly grateful.
Building on the concepts in his groundbreaking Responsive Web Design, Ethan now guides you through developing and using design patterns so you can let your responsive layout reach more devices (and people) than ever before.
Karen McGrane effortlessly defined the principles of Content Strategy for Mobile. She’s helped dozens of teams effectively navigate responsive projects, from making the case to successful launch. Now, she pulls it all together to help you go responsive—wherever you are in the process.
AVI FLOMBAUM, dean of The Flatiron School, is my guest in Big Web Show Episode No. 89. A 28-year-old Rubyist, Skillsharer, storyteller and entrepreneur, Avi founded Designer Pages and NYC on Rails before creating The Flatiron School—a 12 week, full-time program designed to turn you into a web developer.
Listen to Episode No. 89 of The Big Web Show.
URLS, URLS, URLS
Karen McGrane, designer of The New York Times website and managing parter at Bond Art + Science is our guest on Episode #25 of The Big Web Show, taped live before an internet audience at 1:00 PM ET Thursday, 28 October at live.5by5.tv.
We will discuss putting publications online (Karen has worked with The Atlantic, The Week, Fast Company, and Conde Nast, and just launched National Journal), the horrifying state of content management, careers in web design and development, running a design business, teaching UX and design, and the explosive web and interaction design scene in New York City, where Karen has long been a major player.
If the internet is more awesome than it was in 1995, Karen would like to claim a very tiny piece of the credit. For more than 15 years Karen has helped create more usable digital products through the power of user experience design and content strategy. Today, as Managing Partner at Bond Art + Science, she develops web strategies and interaction designs for publishers, financial services firms, and healthcare companies.
Prior to starting Bond, Karen built the user-centered design practice at Razorfish in her role as VP and National Lead for User Experience. Karen is also on the faculty of the MFA in Interaction Design program at SVA in New York, where she teaches Design Management, which aims to give students the tools they need to run successful projects, teams, and businesses.
The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) is recorded live in front of an internet audience every Thursday at 1:00 PM ET on live.5by5.tv. Edited episodes can be watched afterwards, often within hours of recording, via iTunes (audio feed | video feed) and the web. Subscribe and enjoy!
These and numerous other unforgettable images are available in DIRTY, DANGEROUS & DESTITUTE | NEW YORK IN THE 70s: Photos by Allen Tannenbaum at The Selvedge Yard.
Hat tip: Ara Pehlivanian
Many people still think NYC is this way. It ain’t. I visited NYC as a wide-eyed teenager during this era and met pederasts, opium dealers, and prostitutes without even trying. I visited again as a young man at the end of the decade, goggly over the music scene (which was already packaged and dying).
When I finally moved to NYC in 1988, large parts of it were still pretty ragged. You could cop dope behind The New York Public Library and get shot on Avenue B. You could also accidentally start a fire in your apartment and not get kicked out. Or so I have, uh, read.
For all the dings on his soul, Rudy G really changed this town. He made it much more expensive but also much, much safer and more livable. Today it is one of the safest and most beautiful cities in America. A lot of change in a short time.