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MATTHEW HOLLISTER

The History of Paint-by-Numbers

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MATTHEW HOLLISTER

In March 1951, shoppers of all ages descended on Macy’s in New York City’s Herald Square. Though the holidays were long over, eager customers packed in for a glimpse of the first in-store demonstration of a new craft project called paint-by-number. They swarmed the demonstrators and bought multiple sets without hesitation. Anyone present could see that the kit had mass appeal. As word of the frenzy reached the annual New York City Toy Fair taking place a few blocks away, orders began pouring in from retailers around the country.

There was just one problem: The customers were fake. Or mostly fake. The creators of the phenomenon would never know for sure. The rush on Macy’s was part of one of the most brilliant publicity stunts in the history of art or business. But the product itself was inspired by a different genius— Leonardo da Vinci.

When Dan Robbins, the 13th employee of Detroit-based Palmer Paint Co., read that da Vinci taught his apprentices the basics of painting by using numbered patterns on a canvas, he suspected the idea might have wider appeal. So he worked to put out a new product that would delight aspiring artists of all ages.

Unfortunately, no one wanted his Craft Master paint-by-number kits. Most retailers feared customers wouldn’t get the concept or wouldn’t want such a remedial art project. Finally, S.S. Kresge (later Kmart) took a chance and placed a big order. But due to a packaging snafu, the paints for two kits got swapped: Colors intended for “The Fishermen” ended up in boxes for “The Bullfighter.” Hobbyists stared at the blue-caped matadors battling green bulls, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Hit with demands for refunds, Kresge canceled all future orders.

Desperate to get its product back on shelves, Palmer Paint knew it had to act fast. Max Klein, the company’s founder, had an idea. Klein and Robbins started by asking the Macy’s toy buyer to let them demonstrate their kits in-store, promising that any unsold merchandise could be returned free of charge. Macy’s had nothing to lose by signing on. Then, Klein hired two reps to grease a few palms. In his 1998 memoir, Whatever Happened to Paint-By-Numbers?, Robbins recalls, “Max gave each of the reps $250, telling them to hand it out to friends, relatives, neighbors, anyone that would be willing to go to Macy’s and buy one of our Craft Master sets for $2.50.” That was $500—more than enough money to buy all the kits in the store.

Sure enough, the trick worked and “customers” flooded in. But Klein and Robbins forgot one detail: They didn’t keep track of who’d been given cash. In fact, they had no idea how many of the sets had been sold to their own plants and how many went to real customers caught up in the hysteria. Regardless, news of the sellout spread to buyers at the fair, and orders skyrocketed. Fake sales begat real ones, and paint-by-numbers turned into a full-blown fad.

Critics and serious artists scoffed at the idea that you didn’t need talent or training to make something worth hanging on a wall. But the rest of the country? It couldn’t get enough. Before long, paint-by-number landscapes and puppies had invaded the nation’s living rooms. Fan mail from adults and kids poured in; one housewife from Maryland wrote: “My home is disgraceful, and I sit here all day and paint. I’m spending my husband’s money, which I ought to be saving. Please send me a list of any new subjects you have.” By 1954, Palmer Paint boasted $20 million in sales of its Craft Master kits, 1,200 employees, and dozens of competitors. But the company did more than profit from a novelty; it showed that even if you paint yourself into a corner, there’s always a way to market your way out.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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Design
This Amazing Clock Has a Different Hand for Every Minute of the Day
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iStock

In the video below, you can watch Japanese ad agency Dentsu transform passing time into art. According to Adweek, the project was commissioned by Japanese stationery brand Hitotoki, which produces crafting materials. To celebrate the value of handmade items in an increasingly fast-paced world, Dentsu created a film advertisement for their client depicting their goods as a stop-motion clock.

The timepiece ticks off all 1440 minutes in the day, and was assembled in real-time against a colored backdrop during a single 24-hour take. Its "hands" were crafted from different combinations of some 30,000 disparate small items, including confetti, cream puffs, tiny toys, silk leaves, and sunglasses.

"In a world where everything is so hectic and efficient, we wanted to bring the value of 'handmade' to life," explains Dentsu art director Ryosuke Miyashita in a press statement quoted by Stash Media. "We created different combinations of small Hitotoki brand items to express each and every minute."

You can check out a promotional video for the project below, which details the arduous crafting process, or view a real-time version of the clock here.

[h/t Adweek]

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architecture
Take a Look at These Tiny, Futuristic Homes From the 1960s
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If you find yourself in Friche de l’Escalette, a sculpture park in Marseille, France, this year, you may feel like there’s been some kind of alien invasion among the industrial ruins scattered throughout the park. The institution’s latest exhibition, Utopie Plastic, features three retro-futuristic houses from the 1960s that look straight out of The Jetsons.

As Curbed reports, the prefabricated houses are stocked with mid-century plastic furniture like Quasar Khahn’s inflatable chair.

The rounded interior of a Futuro home with two experimental retro chairs inside.

The show includes one of the Futuro homes, spaceship-like tiny houses originally designed as ski chalets by architect Matti Suuronen. At the time, they cost only $12,000 to $14,000, and could be built on any terrain because of their stilt legs.

A Maison Bulle à Six Coques home lights up with a blue glow at night in the sculpture park.

You can also view Maison Bulle à Six Coques, a flower-shaped hut (its name means Six-Shell Bubble House) by French architect Jean Maneval. The prototype design was first introduced at an art fair in 1956, and went into production in 1968. It came in green, white, or brown, and later inspired an entire vacation village in the Pyrenees, where developers built 20 Bubble Houses.

A modular Hexacube house is lit up at twilight.

And then there’s Georges Candilis and Anja Blamsfeld's 1972 Hexacube design, a modular polyester and fiberglass hut that looked kind of like a giant Port-a-Potty. Multiple Hexacubes could be combined together to make a larger house, and they ushered in a new era of modular, expandable construction.

The era of plastic tiny houses like these came to an end during the 1970s, when the oil crisis in the U.S. made plastic prohibitively expensive—at least for people who were looking for prefab houses on the cheap.

The exhibit is open by appointment until October 1, 2017.

[h/t Curbed]

All images © C. Baraja, courtesy Friche de l’Escalette

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