Welcome to Agincourt, Iowa



As in “snatching victory from the jaws of….”

After several failed attempts, I admit complete inability to design The Square, companion to The Commons at the heart of Agincourt. Together, they’re the community’s yin-yang (which in Chinese means “dark-bright”) and I suppose, in some respects, representative of male and female, but also more representative of the distinction between formal and casual; rigid or flexible. In such a binary universe, my loyalties are clear.

Yin 陰 or 阴 Noun: negative/passive/female principle in nature; the moon; shaded orientation; covert; concealed; hidden; negative; north side of a hill; south bank of a river; reverse side of a stele; overcast; sinister; treacherous

Yang 陽 or 阳 Bound morpheme: positive/active/male principle in nature; the sun; open; overt; belonging to this world; [linguistics] masculine; south side of a hill; north bank of a river

In light of the present discussion, there is also the pairing of Victory with Defeat, I suppose. But it’s too simple to equate them with the notions of winning and losing, and I’m not wired to think that way.


The block in question—Block A-2 in the original townsite—is typical, 300 ft by 300 ft but flat and featureless. Wouldn’t it had been a stroke of good fortune to have found archaeological evidence of Native American occupancy, a camp ground, like Gnostic Grove, for example. So physically we’re given nothing to grasp as a basis for design. Even the points of the compass are unremarkable: nothing but the cardinal points of the Jeffersonian Grid. So for any abstract inspiration there is little beyond mathematics of the square, a masculine shape at least. Or is it the right angle that suggests masculinity? The upright? The erect?

If the Square had been designed all at once, the product of a single mind, the task might be marginally easier. But I’d hoped to watch the space evolve during a hundred and fifty years; experience the open-ended process of accumulation.

Attitudes toward War differ from time to time and place to place. As a product of the 1960s and the Vietnam era, I’m disinclined to find any glory in war, so Maya Lin’s eloquent statement of loss—of our humanity, not of face—represents something quite different from the WWII memorial recently dedicated east of the Capitol in Washington. Words like bloviating and pompous spring to mind. But that’s just me.

So I’m back at the beginning, or nearly there, identifying the sequence of memorials and trying to understand the cultural context for each of those wars and sublimating my own views—which is, after all, what designers do.

E. van der Willige (19th century)

[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]

van der WILLIGE, E. (19th century, second half)

“Zandschuiten” / “Sand Barges”

circa 1880

oil on board / 6 inches by 9 inches

Van der Willige’s painting came to American in the trunk of Dutch immigrant Maurits Braaksma, one of the original colonists of the agricultural settlement at Grou in the late 1880s. Its origins prior to that date are unknown, except that similar work by an artist of the same name appears on some on-line art auction sites. “Zandschuiten” was given by the family to commemorate the Village of Grou centennial.

Flat-bottomed sand barges were used in Dutch flood control projects and were a common sight in the canals and rivers of Friesland.

Graphic Design

“To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse. To design is to transform prose into poetry.” —Paul Rand

By invitation, I once brought Agincourt to a group of graphic designers—emphasis on the word “invitation”, because I try to not stuff the Agincourt Project down the world’s collective gullet. You also know full well how unsuccessful I’ve been; if I had been, you’d see evidence here. I was unable to persuade anyone in the aforementioned group to participate in the project.¹ [Ordinarily I’d ask a rhetorical question at this point, except you might actually answer.]

Graphic style—the ways we shape out letters and configure our words on the page; the number and placement of non-verbal material; the palette of colors and textures— all of these give graphic images their unique character. And that uniquity (I just invented a word, on purpose) helps to establish a sense of time and place. Certain advertising pieces have become iconic, representative of moments in history. I think of British railway posters, from a time before the nationalization of their system when competition was a factor, and the artists who created them.

Frank Brangwyn, for example (Belgian-British artist who I think of working in oil-on-canvas, etchings, and lithographs, as well as ceramics and carpets) was enticed to prepare this powerful image for what I’m guessing may have been the fastest route for travel from London to Scotland. It would be interesting to do a forensic analysis of Brangwyn’s poster, which is rich with imagery that references multiple aspects of British history, well beyond a “simple” message to “take the train to Scotland”.

But Brangwyn was not the most prolific contributor to the genre of advertising art. Another popular graphic artist was Fred Taylor, “whose work … features block colours, thick black lines and a strong focus on shadow and light.” For a selection of his work, visit this Pinterest page.

Consider also A. M. Cassandre’s Jazz-era advert for Dubonnet, a French aperitif. Any of these three components might stand alone, but together they make a three-second movie suggesting the effect Dubonnet will have on your body, not to mention your outlook.

Cassandre was the pseudonym of Adolphe Jean-Marie Mouron, born in Ukraine of French parents and a prolific designer of advertising pieces such as this.

Another graphic-in-motion is the opening credits of Otto Preminger’s 1965 film “Bunny Lake is Missing” by graphic designer Saul Bass. This is still one of my all-time favorite films and I think part of its success for me is the integration of this wonderful introduction, pairing the graphics of Bass and the musical score of Paul Glass. [A remarkable rhyming pair, don’t you think?]

Agincourt only succeeds to the extant that others come to play in the sandbox of history.

“Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.” —Joe Sparano

¹ Indeed, from where I was standing, I’d never experienced a response so underwhelming. Very discouraging—but not enough to stop me.


Protected: HFRN Conference Paper: Part One

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Protected: HFRN Conference Paper: Part Two

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Protected: HFRN Conference Paper: Part Three

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When is an art a knack?

There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. … Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that presents the difficulties.”—The Hitchhiker’s Guide

On the Art of Writing

I think there may be a metaphor in Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide for the knack of writing, at least as I practice it.

The Agincourt blog is proof positive that I insist on writing (albeit in 600 to 700 word chunks, my limit, apparently) and fail miserably; at least I do it with a high degree of consistency. I throw my self at the ground again and again and have yet to achieve flight.

Then I recall the old adage: “If at first you don’t succeed, you’re likely to get a lot of unsolicited advice.” Still waiting.