A New Online Home for Design Faith Blog

I have moved the Design Faith blog to my relaunched website kennethcaldwell.com You'll be redirected there in 10 seconds.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Mid-Century Musings

Today I turn fifty, an auspicious day to launch out on a new adventure, albeit one I can start at my dining room table in my terry-cloth robe.

The half-century gives me pause. Many people I have known have already died, life's mid-point is almost certainly way behind me. What am I doing here? What about the time I have left? What will survive me?

My work has mostly been about helping architects connect with their constituencies using some form of print publicity, but with the demise of print I am feeling adrift. Just when you learn how to ride a bicycle someone invents the Matter Transportation Unit. So I gotta learn how to blog, or consign myself to the recycling pile. Because most of my work effort leaves me invisible, I just want a tiny bit of visibility. That is one of the reasons to blog, right?

Blogs have no deadline, no editor who emails for late, misplaced, or forgotten text; I just write about whatever I feel like, whenever I feel like it, finish whenever I feel like it. My friend, the design writer Andrew Blum, is more skeptical; "Why give it away for free?" Perhaps the freedom of not having to write towards any end other than my own self-expression is worth the sacrifice; here I am at my dining room table after all, in my robe, without a clock or a watch in sight.

Recently I've been thinking about the design I loved as a kid; Matchbox cars, the Nut Tree in Vacaville, Expo '67 in Montreal, the Guggenheim Museum. Early seeds may be a good place to start. When I was a kid I sat in the standard-issue Danish modern chairs at the back of our local branch library and pored over Architectural Record. I learned how to read a floor plan and found an entire new world. I was particularly fascinated by the clarity of Gordon Bunshaft's house on Georgica Pond: long, rectangular and clad in travertine (not that I knew what travertine was). It felt like an eternal design - a house that would last forever. It didn't. The house was a landmark on my personal design journey as well as a landmark for the culture of design. (www.archnewsnow.com/features/Feature176.htm)

I am not so sure whether it was architecture or design that first spoke to me - I didn't know the difference. One of my earliest memories of design is looking at a copy of House & Garden containing a feature on Mrs. Gilbert Miller's house on Mallorca, with interiors designed by Billy Baldwin (the decorator, not the celebrity!) Except here, I couldn't quite tell what was inside and what was outside. I asked my mother, but I don't think she understood. Years later when I bought Billy Baldwin Decorates I came to understand that blurring the distinction was the whole point.

These days I enjoy Elle Decor as much as Architectural Record. I am getting a little softer in my own mid-century. Some of the most innovative designs can be found in small shops like Roses and Radish in San Francisco, The Gardener in Berkeley, or Seigo in New York, and of course in cyberspace. It's not really about consumption, it's about beauty whenever you find it. That's why the Eameses endure, because they epitomize Design Faith. (www.eamesoffice.com) My favorite new hostess/"thank you!"/"I adore you!!" gift is a set of the Eames' stamps, which only cost $6.72 a sheet! (www.usps.com)

Dominique de Menil, the Houston art and architecture patron, understood that art, at its most challenging, pushes us into the unknown, and she intuited a connection between art and the divine. I feel that the two almost touch in the Rothko Chapel. (www.rothkochapel.org) The space is void of all religious symbolism, no dais, no altar, no iconography of any kind, just fourteen seemingly blank and stark and monochromatic paintings that mirror back the visitor's interior space. Two of the holiest places that I have ever been are Marfa, (www.chinati.org, www.juddfoundation.org) the town in West Texas that Donald Judd used as the backdrop for many of his installations, and that little quarter of Houston where the de Menils built their museum and chapel. (www.menil.org) It's easy to be disdainful of Texas because of its media stereotypes, but for me it holds some of the most breathtaking places where design and faith meet.

Architecture and design gave me a visceral thrill that propelled my imagination beyond our dull ranch house and our claustrophobic, fearful family life. Frank Lloyd Wright's seemingly infinite circular museum and Bunshaft's clear, light-filled travertine-covered rectangle planted the seeds of hope, and hope may be the beginning of faith.