Stanford R. Ovshinski, Pioneer in Battery and Solar Technology

I just read the The New York Times obituary of Stanford R. Ovshinski, a pioneer in battery and solar technology. His many inventions included hydrogen fuel cells, the nickel-metal battery (used extensively in hybrid cars) and amorphous semiconductors, which appear in thin film solar panels (like the ones in portable calculators) and flat panel displays. He had a long career in bringing his many inventions to industry and was for this characteristic often compared to Edison.

The end of the article in particular resonated with me on account of his humble beginnings and non-traditional path through an early start in manufacturing. Ovshinski’s father, a Lithuanian immigrant ran a scrap metal business. Through one of his father’s contacts, he landed an apprenticeship as a lathe operator while still in high school. With no college education, he later founded a business around a patent for a novel lathe design. That company was bought by another machine tool maker and Ovshinski was off to further inventions, innovations, and businesses.

The resonance comes from the birth of innovation on the shop floor and the critical nature of manufacturing to those “aha!” moments. I believe that practical, hands on experience generates new ideas and further, the ability to try out ideas on the shop floor refines good notions and winnows out the practical from the impractical.

As we watch immediate profitability of American firms increase via outsourcing of factory jobs to lower wage and regulation countries, unseen is the flight of the loci of inventions and innovations of the future. Young factory workers in China, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, etc. are just as bright and hard working as Americans. Those workers in formally-American factories see as many opportunities for improvements and innovations in a workday an American worker would. The problem for the USA these days is that there are far fewer Americans exposed to that valuable opportunity.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone in any country the opportunity to work and think about innovating to commercial success, or a better world, or a better mousetrap. While we as a country decide that we value short term profit over domestic manufacturing, we shouldn’t be surprised when our commercial preeminence in world affairs is eclipsed by those who toiled in the factories that used to make things in the USA.

-David Calligeros

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Contemporary Classical: The Architecture of Andrew Skurman

When David Calligeros and I were in San Francisco around this time last year, we stopped in on our friend architect Andrew Skurman. Andy was just wrapping up work on his new book Contemporary Classical, and he shared with us some of the watercolor renderings of his projects to be included in the book. Photographs are amazing, and they richly convey the wealth of interior detail. But in the library of his office as he unrolled thick vanilla pages, the crisp lines and airy softness of the colored washes transported me to the space, conveying the feeling beyond the fact of the architecture.


I was keen to see the book realized, and so was excited to attend a signing and lecture by Andy last Tuesday down the block from the Remains showroom in Los Angeles. Sponsored by the Institute of Classical Architecture we got to chat with some of our favorite people and enjoy the cooling evening air in the courtyard at Therien (a blessing, since when the rest of the country sighs ahhh, Fall, we Angelenos steel ourselves for some of the hottest weather of the year).

Andy’s angle in his talk that night, which featured a handful of projects in the three classical styles that organize the book (Mediterranean, French and Georgian) is that architecture is a language: the more you build your vocabulary and grammar, the more eloquently and elaborately you can speak. Fittingly, the first step in his projects is in that library in his office, where he pulls images of historical precedents that capture the client’s vision and inspiration for their home.

What I found most interesting in his linguistic analogy is the notion that contemporary classicists (I humbly count myself one among this group, in lieu of a more fitting title like post-neo-traditionalist) aren’t simply duplicating canonical works of architecture but actively reinventing the language of classicism to speak to the design problems they’re solving for today. His work, much of which is in California, is inflected with his own vernacular, a regional dialect twice over, as it incorporates styles that developed in one part of the world and are employed in another. It’s a new slang, if you will.

This made so much sense to me. In Los Angeles in particular, where classicism is the underdog, traditionalists engage in a different conversation than they might elsewhere. They (we) are pushed to speak a fluid pidgin, one that respects past and precedent (the good sense of the Greek orders which translate to a comforting sense of scale when you’re in a space) and simultaneously respects and responds to the modern world (what molding would Palladio use to surround my flat screen TV?)

I’ve been poring over my copy of Contemporary Classical this week: the cool blue and white Anglo Grecian Country House set amidst deep green oaks in the rolling golden hills typical of the peninsula south of San Francisco; the swirling descent of a stairway in a Classical Revival Townhouse, each level lit by a series of barrel lanterns suspended one from the next by a length of chain; the imbricated dome of an entry portico, from which dangles a spherical light girded by age-darkened metal. (Yes, I always check out the lighting fixtures.) The watercolor renderings punctuate and add texture to the photos and text.

I’ve found myself often referencing both the glossary that Andy so thoughtfully includes and, minding my poché spaces and quoins. Is there some connection between a broken pediment and this broken contemporary English of the built environment? I’m nowhere near mastery of this evolving language, but it’s a wonderful conversation in which to participate.

-Valerie Thomas


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Emerging Leaders: Trends and Culture Shifts of a New Generation at the Go Green Conference NYC

Next Wednesday September 19th, I’m heading to the GoGreen NYC conference at The (New York) Times Center. I was asked to speak about green business with a panel of other business leaders.

The conference is a gathering of environmental advocates, green business leaders, journalists, and academic and government  voices on issues around sustainability. There’s a full day of programs, speakers, and networking capped with a party in the evening. The topics range from branding to transportation to zero-waste strategies and benchmarking.

My panel starts at 3:15 and I’ll be talking about our hybrid of old school and high tech manufacturing and the political and economic hurdles, as well as opportunities, that attend it in New York City, in the 21st century.

David Calligeros

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The Electric Light at the Intersection of Modern Art and Industrial Production

MOMA has an exhibition closing at the end of September of visual art organized around the theme of advertising the new mass availability of electricity. The exhibition “Electric Currents 1900-1940” is a group of poster art, two short films, and one painting made in the US and Europe.

Though there are other subjects in this small exhibit, the iconic emblem of that change here is the light bulb. The light bulb was easily represented, obvious in purpose, and often the first “appliance” adopted, following the reach of electrical infrastructure. I imagine it would be a tougher task to represent radio or refrigeration or the work of a motor, especially in two dimensions. Indeed, in the examples of those attempts the artists had to refer to text explanations to augment the graphics.

The posters are the most arresting aspect of the show. I am particularly taken with the dark, brooding Jupp Wiertz ad for the AEG draht lampe (wire lamp).

The basic innovation in electric light was the shift from arc light to metal filament lights. The filaments were variously platinum, iridium, or other metals before settling on tungsten. You will notice a number of the works incorporating reference to this innovation or to the metal’s name. My other favorite is Lucian Bernhard’s ad for Osram Azo. Both of them are examples of dense, saturated color and a painterly handling of edges.

Having recently been hooked (not literally) on scythes and their peculiar sharpening requirements, I was happy to see this otherwise humdrum offering.

Lastly, my heart went pitter-patter when I saw The United States Fuel Administration’s poster urging energy conservation. Turn off that light!

 -David Calligeros

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EPA Panel at Brooklyn Navy Yard

I had an interesting discussion with the EPA, yes, that EPA. Amy Anderson from The New York Industrial Retention Network, a local nonprofit that advocates for local and sustainable manufacturing, invited me to a panel with Andrew Kimball, President and CEO, Brooklyn Navy Yard; Adam Friedman head of Pratt’s Center for Community Development; Judith Enck, Regional Administrator, US EPA; Barbara Bennett, Chief Financial Officer, US EPA and several local manufacturers.

They didn’t have anything particular to trumpet. It seemed like a legitimate “listening tour” on the EPA’s part. They talked about what they are doing, what they think is relevant to us, and asked us to share our concerns about anything EPA related.

The EPA is a very big agency, with about 17,000 employees and an agenda fought out between their own scientists, the US Congress, the White House, Environmentalists, Polluters, and a host of other interested parties. Unwieldy as they may seem they do a huge service for our country in moving the targets for efficiency and admissible pollutants in a tighter and cleaner direction.

We debated what I see as their potential role in taking the lead to establish meaningful standards and labels for consumer education and choice. Just as everyone knows what MPG numbers mean on a new car sticker, I feel like most consumers know that an “energy star” label means “more efficient” on a home product, like a washing machine. The axe I was grinding is that energy star does not sufficiently take manufacturing method, process, nor locale into its calculations. Certainly we want equipment that performs efficiently, like a high efficiency light-bulb. But we also ought to value the efforts that a light-bulb manufacturer takes towards greening their factory (whether that’s by using renewable power, by recycling water, by eliminating pollution, or by other innovative means). Most importantly I think that the EPA should take a leading role in developing the rating system and rolling it out under their very strong, trusted name. The current state of affairs is such that absolutely anyone can call their product or process “green- eco- bio- sustainable- etc.” and make any argument, or none at all, for the veracity or even the meaning of that claim; many do just that. This greenwashing is a disincentive for further truly sustainable efforts as it undercuts whatever market distinction and advantage might accrue to a truly green business.

The EPA Green Power Partnership, in which we are partners, is a good example of their ability to succinctly telegraph a concept. Most people would recognize the EPA “brand,” believe in its veracity, and get the basic idea that any business bearing this logo is using green power. We had to submit the specifications of our 16KW photovoltaic array and our wind power purchase agreements to the EPA for verification before they certified us.

Sustainable business practices mean a lot to Remains. They are a lifelong commitment for this company, backed up by many years of thought, action, and significant investments. We invest in green initiatives foremost, for their own merits. Because our country does not assess a price for pollution or the use of common goods like water and air, green initiatives are expensive to those who implement them, even though they benefit people globally. And at least in the short term, they are difficult to justify at the bottom line. However, if the EPA would lend its trusted imprimatur to a graded (how about gold/silver/bronze?) EPA-Sustainable-Business-or-somesuch seal, the public could have confidence that the extra expense such labeled products carry is backed up by defined, valued, graded actions. Any additional market share that qualifying businesses gain by such labeling could serve to tip the scales toward correcting the imbalance in the current pollution-biased manufacturing sector.

-David Calligeros

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Chrysler Building Sconce

“I want you to have this thing, you’ll do something fun with it.”

So far I’ve disappointed my friend Jo, who got this relic when she designed and ran the controversial and celebrated restoration of the Chrysler building lobby in 1978.  I haven’t done much beyond ogling and photographing this sconce, one of the original elevator indicators in the lobby. Maybe one day I’ll be inspired to build something recalling its opalescent glass or art deco shape.  Josephine Sokolski and her firm JCS Associates won the honor of peeling back the layers of cost cutting and tacky additions when a new owner took control of the landmarked office tower. She also won the booby prize of arguing with the NYC landmarks commission and the architectural press for nearly two years. Ultimately she prevailed and the city and Josephine came out the better for it.

A few days ago, she made us smoothies for lunch and let me into her archives (Sokolski closed the doors of her firm in 2006 after a 40+ year career) for a look at some of the details, reproduced here in blur-o-vision phone-tographics.

Have you been lately?

I met Josephine for the first time when she walked out of the elevator into my antique shop (on the 2nd floor) holding a lit cigarette. She asked for an ashtray and observed “You’re in a “____” building, naming my loathsome landlord who was a large midtown property owner. His dad sent him to Dale Carnegie, but he flunked out.”  Love.

Years later I saw this piece in the Times in which she talks about the joys of informal living on Park Avenue and the benefits of flecked black and white floors.


David Calligeros

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Lure Atlanta

My friend Bill Peace and I had a tasty lunch at Atlanta’s South City Kitchen. When we were done, Peace took me for a preview of Lure, just down the block, a new restaurant he designed which was opening that night. The seafood theme was only once literally flagged. I appreciate not being assaulted with lobster traps, fish nets, and rope ladders…

There is an antique fly-rod with a curious reel mounted high on a ceiling beam; a reasonably subtle gesture. Looking up you can check out surprising, incongruous views (not captured by my pictures) of the nearby skyscrapers projecting through the windowed sides of the A-frame roof.

Near to my heart, Peace sourced antique and odd items for use as lighting, including ceramic cones, searchlights, and my favorite, a nosecone from an airplane.

Here’s Bill, standing next to a length of gargantuan chain made of wood (I searched the internet for a good while for an original purpose for wooden chain and am still empty handed) I still like the wood chain, even though it seems like an odd item… primitive life-saving device? floats?

-David Calligeros

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Career Day

I accompanied David recently to his most challenging public speaking engagement yet – career day at our son’s elementary school.

The comely and efficient greeting committee gave David his name tag and escorted him to the “lecture hall.”

First David explained this history of the company and his origins as a dumpster diver…

One is never too young to develop an appreciation of Caldwell

Moving on to the factory operations and the building efficiency measures, it was easy to win the kids attention, especially when the low-flow toilet and its flush options were discussed . . .

No matter how arresting a speaker is, kids always seem to prefer looking at a computer screen to a real person!

-Alix Calligeros


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