THE GENERAL VERNACULAR A CELEBRATION OF EVERYDAY DESIGN.
There are objects that are both anonymous and instantly recognizable. They’re the mundane pieces of urban flotsam that alone mean nothing, but together contribute to the essential milieu of a place. You may or may not know the specific origin of these things — the Anthora coffee cup, the MetroCard, “Post No Bills” stenciled on green plywood — but you absolutely recognize them. These designs don’t belong to anyone; not even the ones with a definite design lineage. They belong to and give form to the image of the city as a whole. They have graduated from the specific to the general vernacular.
This book is about one of those objects — the single-use plastic bag — that has become a canvas for a range of anonymous expressions of design. You see them hanging from the handlebars of every delivery person’s electrified bike. They’re snarled in the leafless trees. They’re wrapped around cyclists’ leather saddles. The smiley face bag, the quintuple Thank You, the purple flowers, Thank you for shopping here; these are as much a piece of the visual landscape of the city as Milton Glaser’s I♥NY or Massimo Vignelli’s subway map. And while this book is focused on New York City, cities from Tokyo to Terre Haute have their own language of mundane iconography, and we encourage you to pay attention to them, to investigate their history and discover the story they tell.
Let this book remind you that despite their role in defining the visual design of our city, the era of the single-use plastic bag is well overdue. We’re eager to see this prolific veteran of our daily design experience retire, and make room for a new surface for expression.
A NOTE ON PLASTIC
Single-use plastics are choking our planet, and especially our cities and oceans. We dream of a day when we’re finally free of any virgin, single-use plastic products. For that reason, we’re donating 100% of the proceeds — literally, every penny beyond the production cost — from this book to PARLEY and their ParleyAIR action.
We recognize that there is some irony in creating a book to memorialize objects that will linger in a landfill for thousands of years longer than the book itself. Our intent is to celebrate daily works of design, not waste. These bags were useful, and that usefulness led to their ubiquity, and they became a medium for delightful exercises in pragmatic design. We humbly offer this book as a turning point; a record that preserves a diary of daily design without placing any more stress on our planet.
I’m Sho Shibuya, founder of PLACEHOLDER, a multidisciplinary brand design studio based in Brooklyn. In 2011, I moved to New York City from Tokyo, and one of the first things I noticed were the grainy prints on thin plastic bags. They were so different from the ones that we had in Japan, where each shop has their own unique design and the bags were made from thick, durable plastic. I was struck by the ubiquity of the bags — not just the sheer number of them, but the consistency of their designs.
The difference between the bags I remembered from Tokyo and the bags I saw in New York could be attributed to a few unique beliefs common in Japanese culture. There’s a concept called “yaoyoruzu no-kami,” or “eight million gods.” It means that every single item has a god living inside: a single grain of rice, a chopstick, a drop of water, or even a plastic bag. And there’s a second concept, “mottainai,” that essentially means that we should cherish things and that even as an object ages, as long as it serves its purpose, it should be kept in use. As a kid, these values were instilled in me with stuff like hand-me-down clothing, and sticks today with my habit of hanging on to plastic bags.
This is all to say that plastic bags are not garbage to me. They are art, even though they were not originally conceived as works of art. I struggle to share this point of view, because people often react poorly, but I find joy and satisfaction any time I discover an interesting work of design. I think this is largely due to my upbringing and my belief in yaoyoruzu no-kami and mottainai, but also because of my experience as a creative director, working to create graphic brand systems. What more effective brand system is there, than one that signifies an entire city through something as simple as a print on a plastic bag?
People say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This must be true, because one of my most cherished pieces of art is a framed plastic bag. Art shouldn’t simply express the size of your checkbook or your fancy degree or your informed taste, it should express your history and personality and make you feel something — even if that’s something other people do not understand.
It is no secret that single-use plastic bags are choking our cities and our planet. This book is not an exercise to advocate for wasteful plastics; it is quite the opposite. It is an act of preservation of everyday design and a call to give greater care to the objects we use every day, to reuse them and waste less, and to find happiness and inspiration in the little acts of art and creativity we’d otherwise miss.