Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on
a Lifetime in Architecture and Design
By Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith
Princeton Architectural Press, £21.99 (paperback, 224pp)
Designed by Paul Wagner
Written for Eye Magazine, 2017
You want inspiration? Buy this book! It’s as simple as that. This entire review could be taken up with vivid and quotable insights from any one of the interviews that Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith have put together here, cleverly visiting a demographic often sidelined – asking twenty giants in the fields of design and architecture for their wisdom as they look back from the perspective of spending eight decades on the planet.
These are people who have been, in different ways, totally devoted to their work – it’s inseparable from their lives. From textiles to furniture, graphics and illustration to architecture, their age unshackles them from being polite or politic. Starting with the ninety-one-year-old writer and educator, Ralph Caplin, who came to design via a humour magazine, it finishes with eighty-eight-year-old architectural planner and all-round mover and shaker Beverly Willis, who wrote and directed her first film, about women architects, in 2009 at the age of eighty.
The authors set out this elegantly-designed book as a series of conversations, some in person, some via email exchanges. As young design writers, they worried that it would be impossible to “capture the essence of twenty legends… for a conversation worth their time, and yours.” However, with astute questioning and careful editing, they turn the varied responses into a satisfyingly fluent and coherent read.
And – not to put too fine a point on it – the project is timely. Here’s a chance to catch up with people who were influential at one time, but who have somewhat fallen off the radar – the late architect Michael Graves, left partially paralysed by illness, tries to “redesign the healthcare experience… from the unique viewpoint of a patient” which leaves him splenetic about firms who do a lot of work in that field, as they’ve “never been in a wheelchair – what they’re doing is making interiors, like a hotel. Interiors.”
Or the riveting story of Charles Harrison, from post-war US Army cartographer to the first African American executive at Sears, designing thousands of user-friendly products, including the moulded plastic garbage bin that probably sits outside your house – essentially identical to that invented by Harrison in 1966.
Milton Glaser is, as always, outrageously quotable… “Nobody tells you you’re an artist. ‘I’m an artist.’ There it is, and nobody can take it away from you. Isn’t it remarkable? You couldn’t do that if you were a brain surgeon.” “I believe that art and design are like sex and love. They are fine independently… and every once in a while you get both at once. But not often.” “My essential mantra in professional life is: do no harm. Which is very complicated…”
And there’s much about the centrality of good teaching, whether in the classroom or studio. Here’s Bob Gill: “These people in my class haven’t originated anything, they’ve been told what to do. So the first thing I tell them is, I will hate everything you do, but I love you, so that’ll make it easier. And I really do like them, and I really do hate everything they ever do.” The brilliant Denise Scott Brown, one of the authors of Learning from Las Vegas, insists that what designers and architects “really badly need is a School for Clients!”
Phyllis Lambert, who lobbied her father in 1954 to hire Mies van der Rohe to design the Seagram building – writing him an eight-page, single-spaced screed – is asked, “When did you first become curious about art and architecture?” and replies, “As a child. Children are pretty smart; they don’t go around with nothing in their heads.”
Michael Carabetta, who commissioned the book, feels that all of the interviewees “prove Newton’s Law – a body in motion tends to stay in motion. There’s little that surprises them. They’ve seen it all, or enough to know what makes the world tick. That’s knowledge. And once they have that knowledge, they learn there is always more to learn.” Indeed, a common thread running through the book is of looking forward to “the next job,” and there’s a shared sense of not looking back or resting on their laurels.
Ricardo Scofidio (81), whose recent projects include the overhaul of Lincoln Centre in New York in 2013 and the creation of that city’s High Line, says that, for him, “the most difficult thing has been to live in the present, and to resist thinking about what the future will look like.”
Much of their work still seems, if not futuristic, relatively untouched by time. Kettles, lights, buildings, logos, posters, theories and more – if you want to know what twenty lifetimes of excellent work in the visual/spatial field looks like, and what those lifetimes have taught the practitioners, this book is for you.
There’s a nice Vimeo flick through the book here. If you’re interested in the longevity of creativity, I’d recommend this book as an essential purchase.