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In New Book, Roman Mars Celebrates Little Bits Of Design That Are Left Unnoticed


Roman Mars has made a career out of noticing things other people might not. On his podcast, "99% Invisible," he investigates the bits of design that are all around us if we take the time to look. Take the average city street.

ROMAN MARS: One of the first things I love are sidewalk stamps, which are put there by construction companies that lay down the sidewalk. I love taking pictures of those. I love the street graffiti, colorful marks that are put down there by the utility companies to make sure that they don't bust some petroleum line open and cause a fire. I see curb cuts, and I think about all the history that went into making it so that the city was a little bit more accessible for people. I see stories everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Roman Mars has collected some of those stories in a new book. It's called "The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide To The Hidden World Of Everyday Design." It celebrates the functional, serendipitous and often beautiful ways that humans have shaped their surroundings.

MARS: I have to admit I'm not, like, wired to be a really optimistic person by nature. And so, really, something changed in me when I started doing the show. I really do see a lot of designers and people thinking about the well-being of the populace in the built world. And it's kind of a lovely thing to be turned on to. You know, mostly, like, we tend to notice the design that fails. We notice the oven that we have and the knob that we don't know which burner it goes to, and we have to look it up every time, even though...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Right.

MARS: ...We've been living in the house for 10 years, or we can never remember what light switch goes to which socket. But good design is kind of invisible, which is, like, the source of the show. And when I notice those things, not only do I appreciate them; I really appreciate the people who made them, even if I don't know who they are.

SHAPIRO: Some of the entries in this book are top-down designs, like things that have been created by architects or urban planners, and then others are bottom-up, things that local people in a community might demand or create themselves. And those two occasionally come into conflict. Like, tell us about guerrilla grafters.

MARS: Yeah. This conversation between the people in a city and a city is one of my favorite things to talk about. And so one of the things that people can do is because plants are so phenotypically and genetically pliable, you can cut off a piece of a branch and graft another branch onto it, and the tree will grow that other species of tree on it.

So there are these ornamental trees that are around in all kinds of neighborhoods that are next to sidewalks, that are just part of the municipality. And some guerrilla grafters - these are, you know, people interested in botany - will want to put a fruit-bearing limb on those ornamental trees so that the neighborhood could also have some apples or (laughter) some peaches or something. And so it's totally fascinating to sort of take that canvas of vegetation that's everywhere and turn it into something useful for people, especially in places where there's food deserts and there's a lack of fresh food.

SHAPIRO: But the city doesn't like it. Why not?

MARS: Well, because - and there's a good reason for it. I mean, a lot of ornamental trees are chosen because they don't cause a lot of mess. And fruit, by definition, does. So if people don't pick it up or if animals don't eat it, then they get squashed and they get - you know, they're on the sidewalk, and someone has to clean it up. So it's something to keep in mind. But I think it's mostly harmless.

SHAPIRO: This book is so full of interesting and odd facts. I would love to do a lightning round if you're game for it.

MARS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: You ready?

MARS: (Laughter) I'm ready. I'm ready. I'll do my best.

SHAPIRO: OK. Who was Audrey Munson?

MARS: Audrey Munson was the model for a huge number of statues all around New York and San Francisco at the early 20th century.

SHAPIRO: Correct. You write that at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, three-quarters of the statues on the grounds were modeled after her.

MARS: Yeah. She was known for being able to strike a pose and hold a pose. And during that time period in the Beaux-Arts style of architecture, this ornaments of having women who represented liberty and represented truth and justice was really common. And Audrey Munson was the supermodel of a ton of those statues.

SHAPIRO: OK. This next one might be a little obscure. What is Carmel, Ind.'s claim to fame?

MARS: (Laughter) I do not know this one.


SHAPIRO: This one is connected to traffic. This one has to do with traffic.

MARS: Oh, oh, oh. Do they have the most roundabouts in the U.S.?

SHAPIRO: Correct - most roundabouts of any U.S. city.

MARS: (Laughter) Yep, that's the one. OK, good. Good. I needed a hand on that one.

SHAPIRO: OK. Speaking of traffic, how long are the dashes that divide lanes in a highway? This blew my mind. I never would've noticed this.

MARS: Yeah. They're, like, 10 to 15 feet. They're much longer than you think. And they're much - they're longer than a car. But most people, when asked, they will say that those dashes are about two feet long, and it has to do with how rapidly we go down the highway. So...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. OK. What is the most common street name in the U.S.?

MARS: Second (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Correct. Why isn't it first?

MARS: Second is the first. Usually, it's because I think, often, first is - could be Main Street or...


MARS: ...Something like that. Like, it's taken over by another name. But yeah. This blew my mind.

SHAPIRO: At least according to this book by Roman Mars, that's the correct answer.


MARS: Yep, yep.

SHAPIRO: OK. Last question in the lightning round. Where is Null Island?

MARS: Null Island is at the - it doesn't actually exist. It's the zero, zero point on the map in latitude and longitude. And it ends up - when you're doing computer programming and you don't put in a latitude or longitude, it'll zero in on this point.

SHAPIRO: Well, congratulations, Roman Mars. You got a perfect score on the quiz about the book that you wrote.


MARS: That was rough. I mean, 'cause you know this as well as I do that, like, I've done, you know, 10 years of stories...


MARS: ...Four-hundred-something episodes. And remembering which one I did last week is hard enough (unintelligible).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Totally. I know that feeling well.

MARS: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: You know, so many of the entries in this book are examples of cities transforming in big or small ways to accommodate some kind of change in society or technology. And right now, we are in the middle of this pandemic that has just so quickly reshaped everyday life. And so is there anything that you're seeing now that you think is fodder for the next book?

MARS: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think being thoughtful about the design of the city and how we got to where we are really helps equip us for the rapid changes that are happening and could be happening when we're dealing with a city during a pandemic. I mean, you know, immediately, things started cropping up - this, you know, tape on the floor to get us, you know, socially distanced, Plexiglas between, you know, you as a customer and the person running the register. And then one of the big ones is, you know, a lot of U.S. cities are taking over the streets, you know, shutting them down temporarily for cafes to exist and have people socially distance and eating outside. So we can make choices that represent our values today and make different choices for what we need cities to be, especially when the conditions of life change, like when you're in a pandemic.

SHAPIRO: Roman Mars - his new book with Kurt Kohlstedt is "The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide To The Hidden World Of Everyday Design."

Thank you so much for talking with us about it.

MARS: Thank you, Ari. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOLLOWED BY GHOSTS' "NEW DAWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.