Paul Lukas is the kind of guy that pays attention to detail. From Beer Frame, his zine in the 1990s that examined consumer culture, to Uni Watch, the only site devoted exclusively to uniform and logo design, Lukas has a keen eye for the things that most people miss. Paul is appearing at Housing Works this Wednesday at 7 p.m. to discuss the old discarded report cards he found and documented on Permanent Record. He also hosts a monthly storytelling series for his Show & Tell project at Freddy's Bar (except this month).
You have several websites that, in your words, involve "minutiae fetishism" object-based storytelling and high regard for the inconspicuous. How did you get so interested in these things?
It's hard for someone to explain why their sensibility is what it is. I guess I've always been interested in obscurities and making a big fuss out of small details, and I've been lucky enough to have been able to harness that and make a living out of it.
With Beer Frame, the zine I did in the 90s, the subtitle was "the journal of inconspicuous consumption" and that notion of the inconspicuous is really the driving sensibility that informs most of my work. Back in the nineties, I was sort of using that lens to look at the world of consumer culture. I was lucky enough to realize I could use the same sensibility and use it in different subject areas.
In 1999, I started Uni Watch, which was the first sports column devoted exclusively to uniform and logo design. It's looking at the small details of the visual aspects of sports, or, 'athletics aesthetics' as I call it. And deconstructing those details in sort of excruciating detail. Much like I did with consumer culture in the nineties. It's proven to be a surprisingly durable project. When I started Uni Watch in 1999, it ran as a small column in the Village Voice. It didn't occur to me that it would still be a project 13 years later. Now I write it as a column for ESPN.com, and I supplement the column with a daily blog that I write myself.
Marie Garaventa's report card courtesy Paul Lukas/Permanent Record
And then, the other projects I have: one is called Permanent Record, which started around these discarded report cards that I found in an old file cabinet in 1996 and sat on for like a dozen years, while not knowing what to do with other than pull them out every now and then and say "hey aren't these cool" and show them to friends. Then, I decided I wanted to find out what had happened to the students. So I spent some time investigating and tracking the families of the students, because the students are all dead now, except for one student. One student was still living and was 95 years old. That's been a really rewarding project. There have been so many details, small details, in the report cards that I've been able to follow up on, and what happened as a result of this notation and see what happened there.
Photo of Lukas' varsity-style jacket from Ohio. (Courtesy Paul Lukas/Permanent Record)
Permanent Record has expanded into a larger examination of found objects with stories to tell, not just report cards. One example: I really like varsity jackets, so I buy vintage varsity jackets on eBay sometimes. A few years ago I bought a jacket from the 1970s. It was a speed skating jacket, and it had a name very crudely stitched into the inner label, and it made me curious. With some research, and the help of a reader, I was able to track down the original owner, or rather the son of the original owner. Turns out the original owner of the jacket is now deceased, but I spoke with his son. And I was also able to speak with the great-grandson of a person that was related to the sporting good store where the jacket was made, where all the patches were put on. So, I'm hoping to go out to Ohio and create a reunion around the jacket. But I like the idea that objects have stories to tell, and the idea of the different hands that objects have passed through on their way to my hands. So that's an example of how Permanent Record has developed.
And I have this other project, Show & Tell, which is just like show and tell was in second grade, where you bring an object and talk about it. I've been doing that as a live story-telling event for two years now. I currently do that in the back room of Freddy's Bar in South Slope on the second Wednesday of every month [except this December]. And that also is obviously object-based story telling and involves small details. In my mind—all these projects kind of fit together in some way. They might seem disparate to someone else, to me they all make a logical sense, obviously since they are coming from my mind, but I'm not sure it would necessarily look that way to somebody else.
How did you come up with the name Beer Frame for your zine?
You know if I had known that my zine was going to turn out to be popular, I would have chosen a different name. Beer Frame is a bowling term, and I really like bowling. And the fifth frame, the midway point, is called the beer frame, because whoever's winning at that point has to buy a round for everybody. But it's not a term that's used a lot anymore, so I spent a better part of the nineties explaining to people what a beer frame is or explaining that my zine had nothing to do with beer.
Do you still bowl?
Yes, I do. I love to bowl. My ball lives in the trunk of my car so I can bowl at a moment's notice. I usually go to this place in New Jersey, actually. I'm really fussy about bowling. I really hate computerized scoring, so I go to this place in New Jersey that instead of a bowling alley with a bar, it's a bar with a back room with four beautiful 1960s lanes and as a bonus it's called Paul's Bar and Bowling, as if it was made for me, like, with my name. So, I try to go there about once a month.
Do you have any thoughts on the new alleys that have opened up recently? In Williamsburg, there's Brooklyn Bowl and The Gutter.
Well, to me, I make a broad distinction between lifestyle and life. I think most of these new places are about bowling as lifestyle, and I bowl as life. I mean, I don't bowl ironically, I don't bowl because—I'm not opposed to irony, I'm not anti-irony—but I like to bowl just because I like to bowl. I like it a certain way, and I'm willing to drive to do it. You know, where it's $2.50 a game and there's no bouncer or velvet ropes like they have at Brooklyn Bowl. That's just ridiculous to me.
I think bowling is going to be lost on a generation to come. I remember going to birthday parties at bowling alleys, like at Bowlmore Lanes.
Yeah, I know. When I moved to New York in 1987, I worked for this publishing company that doesn't exist anymore on Fifth and 18th, and I would go to Bowlmore on my lunch hour, because I really loved to bowl, and it was a total dive. I used to love going there.
You recently did this ranking of uniforms in the NHL, NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball on ESPN.
Oh yes, the Uni Watch Power Rankings.
How difficult was it to come up with that 122 team ranking?
You know the truth is that I don't really like doing ranking that much. I am often being urged to do them. And you see people that don't write about uniforms full-time doing them a lot, doing the "ten best this" and the "five worst that". It seems lazy to me, just doing rankings, I try to avoid it. But when my editor proposed this, I agreed to do it because it wasn't just any old ranking it was like the ultimate rankings of all 122 pro teams in the four major pro sports and I was like ,"eh." I thought it would be interesting to compare apples to oranges to kumquats. It's really unusual to compare these uniforms, which are really different—like how do you compare a hockey uniform that covers almost the entire body to a basketball uniform that covers almost none of the body? So, there's a lot of not-very-conventional-parallel comparisons, so that was an interesting exercise. And it forced me to reexamine some things that I'd taken for granted about certain designs that I'd taken for granted for some time, and that was interesting as well.
In general, do you consider yourself more of a uniform purist, like with the Yankees, Penn State and the Bears? Or are you a fan of the modernist uniforms like the Seahawks, Marlins, or Oregon?
I would say I'm more of a classicist more than a purist. I think the classics are the classics for a reason, whether you're talking about design or any other endeavor. Most—doesn't mean all—but most of what is thought of as classic I think about as classic as well. That doesn't mean I can't like anything new or different. But I do think a lot of the designs that we see as new are just new for the sake of being different, rather than for reasons of good design. The difference between older designs that we think of as being classic and newer designs is that older ones were designed only with the goal of looking good on the field. That was the only question that was being asked, say, when the Bears designed their uniform or when the Yankees designed theirs. Now, that's like the third or fourth thing you think about. The first question you ask is: Is this going to sell? Thirty or forty years ago there was no retail market for jerseys. Now, it's the primary consideration.
Are there some things you can't stand to see in uniforms, or some things you really like? Well, not only in uniforms, but in everything: I really can't stand purple. I really hate the color purple. I can't really explain it, but I think it's really tacky. I think there's a reason that we rarely see a purple car or a purple house. I wish we could make it so we rarely saw a purple uniform. On the other hand, I really like stripes. I'm a big fan of stripes. I think they evoke all those old regimental, long ago, centuries-old designs. Going back many centuries, stripes were signs of nobility. I think stripes look cool. Give me stripes. The Steelers have been wearing that 1930s throw-back that has been compared to a bumble bee or a prison uniform, but I love it.
What about purple stripes? Whoa, now you're challenging me. I think I would have to take that on a case by case basis. The original Charlotte Hornets had teal and purple pin stripes, which I thought was pretty awful. That was an important uniform. That uniform was designed by Alexander Julian, who was a menswear designer, and it was the first time that someone outside of the sports wear world had been commissioned to design a sports team uniform. His uniforms for the Hornets were purple and teal, and it was extremely influential. In the next dozen years or so, almost every new team and every new makeover that any team in the major leagues got included purple or teal or both. If you think of the teams that came into existence during that period, like the Baltimore Ravens, a lot had purple or teal, which of course was a nightmare for me, and it all started with Alexander Julian doing the Hornets uniform.
Is there a fundamental element of uniform design that is overlooked or misunderstood perhaps, maybe the leather baseball belts or the numbers on the sides of college football helmets? I would say we're at a really bad time right now—I guess they are overlooked—for socks, just about in all the sports. In baseball, you've got a majority of the players wearing their pants down to their shoe tops. And of course we have teams called the Red Sox, the White Sox—and the Cincinnati Reds were originally the Red Legs—they're teams actually named for their hosiery. It's part of the uniform and we have that being obscured by players putting their pants down to their shoe tops, with that "pajama" look. In basketball it used to be standard for players to wear their socks above the calf. That was also part of the uniform- the socks would be in team colors. Now, the vast, vast, overwhelming majority of basketball players wear crew socks that just peek out over the edge of the sneaker, just above the ankle, in either just white or just black. In football, it's required. It's been a rule since the forties in the NFL, that players have to wear socks, you know, high stockings, to cover their legs. And you don't see that in college, of course. We see a lot of bare-legged players. I'd say we have a bit of a hosiery crisis.
Why do you think that is? Do you think it's just the culture's changed? Well, I think some of it is just maintenance. It's got to be a pain in the ass to keep your socks just so. And for baseball, I think it's just easier for the players to wear the pants down to the shoe tops instead of cuffing them in a certain way, and so it's just easier. In basketball, I imagine it's just a comfort thing. Or maybe some of it's style. And I think in general, the idea of telling a player to wear his socks in a certain way is the kind of thing that doesn't fly anymore with today's athletes. You can make him wear his uniform, you can tell him to tuck his jersey in, you can tell him to do this and that, but when it comes to the level of socks? You know, I'm going to wear my socks the way I fucking well please.
In terms of nuance, one thing you see more of now is the shoelaces. You see a lot of players wearing colored shoelaces. Ronny Cedeno, who plays for the Mets, spent this whole last season wearing orange shoelaces. And you might not think that matters, but, man, even in the upper deck, it stands out. I'm serious! It definitely sticks out. I mean orange is a Mets color, at least. If you watch a Seahawks game, they use that neon green color. A lot of their players wear that as a shoe color. But some of them also wear that as a shoelace color, and it's surprising what a difference it makes. So, that's something that a lot of people, that, if they actually watched a game and looked at it, they'd say, "Oh yeah, it's kind of obvious", but it's the kind of thing people don't really think about.
It seems like teams are doing throwback uniforms more than ever now.
Yeah, teams are doing throwback uniforms a lot now. Baseball in particular is not just in a throwback cycle, but kind of in a "back-to-basics" cycle. You know the Blue Jays kind of went back to their roots last season with an updated version of their original design and the Mets got rid of all the black nonsense and baseball seems to be in a back-to-basics mode right now.
And some teams are paying tribute to uniforms they used to wear, but others are going back to uniforms of teams that didn't even exist like the Tampa Bay Rays. Yeah, I think that was kinda clever actually. Some people, some of my readers, were really up in arms about that, saying "What the hell were they doing? They can't do that!" You know the Rays had already done a lot of throwback uniforms for teams that played in those years for other teams that played in Tampa, minor league teams like the Tampa Tarpons and the Tampa Smokers, that was the Negro-league team. Their logo was a cigar because Tampa had been a big cigar rolling town. So they had run through the gamut of local teams, since the team itself doesn't have a deep enough history to draw upon, since it's a new team. But they had drawn upon the city's history by doing various throwback uniforms. And I thought it was kinda cool that they said, "If we had existed in the '70s, what would we have looked like?" I thought it was a clever idea actually.
Usually, when a team has a new uniform, they'll have their two best players dress up in that uniform. But when the Rays did that promotion, they sent out a photo of Joe Maddon, their manager, wearing that uniform. And Joe Maddon, there's something about him. He seems to just have a playful and humorous sensibility that's kind of unique among baseball managers. And it seemed perfectly fitting that the Rays did not put BJ Upton or Evan Longoria or any of their best players in their uniform for the photos with their press release. They put Joe Maddon there with this big goofy smile, in this goofy 1970s uniform that nobody had ever worn, because it was a fictitious design, and somehow it just totally made sense. It made me love Joe Maddon more; it made me feel like someone at the Rays understands what they have there. They have this fun loving guy, this interesting guy, and they're doing interesting promotions around him. I think that was really cool.
He was probably the only guy in the organization that was actually alive in the '70s, and actually remembers it. Right. For him, it actually was a throwback. "I remember when we wore stuff like this!"
Do you think other teams should do something similar to what the Cardinals have done with their "throwback-like" uniform? Well, that design is drawing upon something they did eighty years ago, that's the main influence of it, so not every team can do that. I think every team has to kind of find their place in what makes sense for them. The Mets for example, their uniforms haven't actually changed that much over the years. It's always been the same script on the jersey all this time. And the Yankees, their uniform hasn't changed in generations, so they can't do very much. It depends upon what you have to draw upon and how you want to present your team. I hesitate to say, when someone says do you think all teams should do this or that. I think that all teams should do what makes sense for them. But what makes sense for one team doesn't necessarily make sense for another.
Do you think they should go back to their pinstripe uniform as their primary jersey? I wish that was their primary jersey, yeah. The main thing, for me, is that they wear blue. They have to wear blue sleeves and a blue cap, and for players that choose to expose them, blue socks. That's the most important for me. There was a period when they were wearing black sleeves, and that to me is not the Mets. I want them wearing blue sleeves. And last year they did. And damn, it looked good.
Isaac Redman in the 1934 Steelers Uniform. (Image courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers)
Well, I think I mentioned that Steelers one earlier. I really like that one a lot. I always enjoy the one game a year when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bring out their creamsicle uniforms. That's always nice. I love the Minnesota Twins' Harmon Killbrew-era throwbacks. Last year for Sunday home games, the Chicago White Socks wore 1972 throwbacks with red letters with giant, like BIG ASS numbers on the back. I grew up in the '70s, so that was a nice nostalgia trip for me. In general, throwbacks are always interesting, just to sort of see and remind yourself what used to be.
Are there any that have stood out as being bad? Not off the top of my head. A lot of throwbacks don't really look right. You do a lot of the ones from the wool and flannel era—they don't really look right when rendered in today's fabrics. Today's uniforms are made from this light-weight polyester and the players don't wear it the same way. It doesn't drape the same way. They don't get it cut or tailored the same way to begin with, and so the effect can be lost a lot of times. But it's only for one day or once a week. So a lot of times even something hideous can be interesting for one day. Something that was particularly interesting was last year, for the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, the Yankees and Red Sox wore the centennial throwbacks, which actually didn't have uniform numbers.
I remember being astonished that they actually had the balls to go through with it. Or that they got permission to do it. It was probably a big pain in the ass for the announcers and probably a bit for the fans too. But again, one thing about the throwbacks is that they're supposed to be educational. They're supposed to teach you, remind you, about this period of the team you didn't know about. And that's how it used to be for fans. It's interesting to imagine how fans followed the game back then and how radio broadcasters did it.
So is there a team that has the most to gain by a uniform refresh? Oh, well the teams at the bottom of my rankings, like the Sacramento Kings and the Carolina Panthers.
Get rid of the purples and the teals? Yeah, that would be a good start, but there are some teams that just seem really dated. Like the Carolina Panthers just scream 1990. Like a really dated look that has not aged well and I think needs to be redone. I think baseball is actually in the best position right now for uniforms, at least in the four major leagues.
Nike's new look for the 2012-13 Seattle Seahawks.
The real question everyone wants to know is what is going to happen in the NFL because now Nike has the NFL uniform contract. People were expecting Nike to do this big makeover. But of course Nike, Reebok, Adidas or any of these companies, can't do anything unilaterally. Nike is a vendor working for a client, and the client is the NFL, and the NFL is run by some of the most conservative men in America. People were sort of surprised that everything looked the same as last year (except for the Seahawks, the Seahawks got a huge makeover).
I wasn't that surprised. It was actually what I was predicting. I don't say that just to be "I was right, told you so." But I am trying to point out a fundamental misunderstanding among people about what a vendor is capable of doing. I'm sure Nike would like to do makeovers for many of the teams, and I'm sure they're proposing to do that and throwing proposals at various teams, saying, "Hey what if we did this?" But the Packers, the Steelers, the Bears—those teams aren't going to go for it. I can see a handful of teams doing it, but a handful of teams have always gone for makeovers. In 1997, the Denver Broncos went for a radical makeover to look like what they look like now, and it didn't change anything around the rest of the league. It was just what the Broncos did. And seven years later, the Buffalo Bills did a fairly radical makeover. They went with that kind of scuba suit that they had for a long time, that was just awful, and that didn't change anything either. There have always been teams that have done makeovers. This year it was the Seahawks. I'm sure next year there'll be a couple of teams that do makeovers too. But I think the NFL will still look recognizably like the NFL.
Is there, perhaps, in each league—or in one major league in the United States—one rule that you would impose for uniforms across the league? Yeah, no more purple.
Or no more pajama pants or more stirrups in baseball? In baseball, I would definitely impose a rule to go high-cuff. You'd have to show your socks. And I would prefer to see more stirrups rather than just solid socks. But the main thing to me is no pajama pants. But in general no more purple. I mean I wouldn't take purple away from the teams that have it. You can't tell the Minnesota Vikings they can't wear purple. It's their color. It's what they do. They'd be grandfathered in on a moratorium on purple moving forward.
Would you ever consider doing a ranking on college uniforms? That would be hard. We talked about doing that at ESPN. But first of all, there are so many teams. Division 1, or FBS, is like 120 something teams, and they're changing every year. It used to be a team would keep a uniform for a generation, then a decade, then for five years. Now, it seems like they keep a uniform for one year, or sometimes one week. So number one, it's hard to keep up, but number two, it's hard to really assess the value or where something stacks up when it's so new, when it hasn't had a chance to establish itself in the public mind, or in your mind. It's very difficult to rank things that don't have any kind of back story or history.
Speaking of something that doesn't really have a history: the Brooklyn Nets. They ranked, on your list, based on the New Jersey uniforms they had last year.
Yeah, yeah, they ranked the bottom.
This could use some improvement, says Lukas.
I kind of like it, actually. I don't like their logo, you know, the circular logo with the B. I think the B looks too plain. I think the Nets lettering and the shield logo lettering is too light, and not bold enough. I think it looks too much like an Old Navy or an Abercrombie knock-off logo. But I think the uniforms are kinda nice. They're surprisingly minimalist, which is definitely against the trend in the NBA where most of the uniforms have a lot of bells and whistles. I don't think they're the cream of the crop or anything, but I think they would rank in the middle of the pack.
And then there's the Barclays Center, which isn't far from your home in Park Slope. Have your feelings about the Barclays Center evolved at all? I've been to one game. I was impressed by the degree by which it did not seem like a mob scene in regards to traffic or human traffic. It was very orderly. So, I would say, I was pleasantly surprised by how little it affected the immediate neighborhood. Of course, the main effects have already happened, they can't be undone. But, I think it would be fair to say, I have complicated feelings about it.
Do you think teams with Native American names deserve protests that they get or the criticisms they get? I am opposed to the use of Native American imagery in team names, not so much because all such uses are offensive—although some of them are offensive—but more from an intellectual property standpoint. I think that if you are not Native American yourself, and if the team is not a Native American owned team, or a Native American run team, this imagery is not yours to use. If you are a Native American school and you want to name your team the Braves, or the Chippawas, or whatever, yes, you can use those names. But the rest of us should not be using those names. That's how I see it.
So, do you think those teams should phase them out or change entirely? Yeah, I do. And that's what we've seen happen in the NCAA, except for teams that have a special permission. Florida State has an agreement with the Seminole tribe and the University of Utah, which has an agreement with the Ute tribe, and I think that is good. I think that asking permission and having it granted is good. I think that shows respect for the owner of the intellectual property. Personally I'd like to see a royalty or a licensing fee or something like that as well, but, at the very least I think you need to ask permission. And if the permission is not granted, as was the case in North Dakota, you have to say, okay, this isn't ours to use anymore, we're not going to use it anymore. Although, a lot of people in North Dakota aren't happy about it, I kind of think that's tough shit.
I've been told that you're a serious collector of "odd things." Is there a strangest item that you have in your collection or one that you cherish the most? I really like this copy I have of Martha Stewart Living in braille that somebody gave to me. It's really beautiful! It's very tactile, which, of course, it has to be> And this particular issue of Martha Stewart Living is done on this very thick sort of craft paper. It's just this very satisfying object. It's big. It has heft. It's very pleasant, the impressions, just to touch the dots, the impressions of the braille. But, what's so awesome is, it could be any magazine. It could be Time or Newsweek or whatever, but Martha Stewart Living! What blind person is going to read about some 17 step recipe or making an elaborate centerpiece for your dinner table? It just seems like the most unlikely magazine to be rendered in braille. That's what I initially thought. And then I thought, well most of the sighted people that read this magazine, they don't do the 17 step recipe either. They just read about it. It's basically lifestyle porn. If they could get this lifestyle porn buzz out of it, why couldn't a blind person? The more I thought about it the more it made sense. And I kinda got a kick out of that.
Paul Lukas and his braille copy of Martha Stewart Living (Photo by Cameron Blaylock).
There are so many! People have brought in so many good things. You know, it's usually not about the item. It's about the story behind it. Sometimes people do bring in really unusual items, like one time one guy brought in an electro-shock therapy device that he had salvaged from an abandoned mental hospital. One woman brought in a little vile of 40 dead bedbugs suspended in alcohol. One woman brought in a little container of fingernail clippings that her five year old niece had given to her; her niece had said to her "you can use them for projects." For some reason I just love that—"for projects." I love that quote. So those are unusual objects.
But then some people bring in really ordinary things. Like one guy talked about the pair of jeans he was wearing, which were acquired through some unusual barter at a market in Egypt. Someone else brought a piece of candy that had some particular significance relating to a Chinese funeral. And so a lot of times it's not about the object it's about the story. If you go to the website you'll see a picture of this guy with Mardi Gras beads. I thought it was just an amazing Sandy-related story. Not only because it's very poignant, but also because it shows the connection between New York as a hurricane-affected city and New Orleans as a hurricane-affected city. I also thought the photo was really good. I thought that was one of the best show and tells we've had.
Sometimes, it is about the object. Some of the objects have been remarkable, but more often it's about the story and the telling of the story behind the object. That's usually what I'm trying to get at. People tell me they want to participate, but they don't know what to bring. And I say it's not about the object, just look in your pocket, or your purse. Almost everybody has show and tell fodder in their pocket or bag without even realizing it. Just the stuff around you, on your keychain, that's part of your everyday life that has a story behind it.