During a school trip to Amsterdam I heard the term ‘huisstijl’ or ‘house style’ (I think while visiting studio Lava or Solar Initiative). It might just be the Dutch word for visual identity but they used it in a new way, and this new understanding made me aspire to break out of a world confined by rules and grids and push to create designs based on a living, breathing system.
I’ve continued in this direction ever since, creating designs that open doors, instead of closing them. By designing systems that blossom instead of stagnating, my clients can actually grow with them after we’ve finished the project – maybe even redeveloping or improving them over time.
I was working for the city as a janitor in a neighborhood elementary school and, in summers, collecting litter in the park alongside the East River near the Williamsburg bridge. I felt no shame whatsoever in these activities, because I understand what almost no one else seemed to grasp: that there was only an infinitesimal difference, a difference so small that it barely existed except as a figment of the human imagination, between working in a tall green glass building on Park Avenue and collecting litter in a park. In fact, there may have been no difference at all.
In the end nothing matters but the work. You can’t control how it’s taken, and the act of telling a story always involves a gap. Sometimes confusion is the risk of ambiguity–I say that to students all the time. It’s true at the fireside and it’s true in the parlor, and it’s true in made-up towns and New York. Two humans face one another, words come out of one, words go into the other mind through the ears and eyes of the listener. It’s a story. It’s simple. The gap is the thing. Make sure you build the bridge.
Creative people should never explain their process to anyone except their biographers, who care, and their spouses, who have to listen. The rest of us ought to be left guessing.
It’s difficult, for instance, to give your full attention to a meal at the NoMad once you have read the interviews in which Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, its ambitious young operators, talk about modeling the restaurant on the Rolling Stones.
They went through a branding exercise, writing down words that defined the band (loose, alive, genuine, deliberate) and molding the restaurant’s identity around them. Those words hang on a kitchen wall, not far from the enormous photo of Mick Jagger onstage, one leg goose-stepped up to microphone level.
Once you know all this, you keep looking around the NoMad’s cluster of small, grandiose dining rooms thinking, “If this is supposed to be a night with Mick and Keith, why am I eating dinner at 5:30, and where are the police?”
As for my own schedule, best to call it like it is: crazy. Those who have shared my bed—when I am in it to share it, anyway—have observed my nighttime habits with reactions varying from indulgence to incredulity. (Almost all of them have been stellar sleepers: not something I actively look for in a partner, but, given my lifestyle, terrifically convenient.) It starts, as I said, around 10 p.m., when something ticks over in my mind, as if someone had walked into a shuttered cabin and flipped all the switches in the fuse box to “on.” For the first time all day, I get interested in writing. As a corollary, I get a lot less interested in everything else. My normal indiscipline, the ADHD-ish inability to keep my head inside my work, finally drops away. For the next few hours, I write steadily, cleanly. If my body is producing a drug during that time, it is a natural methylphenidate—a dose of pure focus, side-effect-free and sweet.
Then, around one in the morning, something shifts. My brain gets funnier, in both senses, and much more associative, and about a hundred million light-years from sleepy. If the 10 p.m. shift is a trip to the wilderness—quiet, expansive, a solo hike with mountain views—the 1 a.m. shift is Six Flags. I get loopy and voluble, like a kid mid-birthday-party, hopped up on sugar and something like glee. It lasts about two hours, this new drug—crack to the quieter shift’s Ritalin—and then it dips, just slightly, sometime after 3 a.m., and that’s the Rubicon. If I put my work away and go to bed, I will fall asleep almost instantly, and can be up and functional again at nine. If, instead, I cross the 3:30 a.m. threshold, I will write all night. Eventually I will start to hear birds and the whistle of trains coming down from the north. The sun will fill my bedroom, and I will close my laptop and cover my eyes, and sleep maybe two hours, from six to eight or eight to ten—I have lost, alas, my childhood ability to sleep till noon—or sometimes not sleep at all. Either way, I will be awake the rest of the day, and utterly destroyed.
Lin challenged the audience to get in over your head and take on more than you can handle. While at 2x4, he took on way more than he could handle, by totally jumping into projects and working long hours and weekends.
Leaving aside the need to earn money, the thing about being a writer or artist is that you can do what you want, when you want, all day every day. There is no difference between work and holiday. You’re always on holiday and you’re always working. Give or take a vowel, vocation and vacation are synonyms. This seems an extremely desirable state of affairs, but it is also extremely anxiety-inducing.
All of this might sound hopelessly indulgent to those slaving away in paid employment, but the volcanic hiatus afforded a glimpse of the agonies of having nothing to do except what you want to do, only to discover that when you’re confronted with a lack of obstacles, the desire to do things mysteriously evaporates.
Reading this at the age of 40, I began to picture myself as Wile E. Coyote still running after he’s off the cliff. The decline seems inevitable. But is it? From in-depth quantitative studies, University of Chicago economist David Galenson has proposed two kinds of artist greatness. One he calls Young Geniuses (conceptualists who do their best work early in their careers). The other group he calls Old Masters (those who work by trial and error and improve with age). According to Galenson, Picasso (Young Genius) peaked at age 26 whereas Cezanne (Old Master) peaked at 67.
When we started the studio, we always looked to the first wave of modern design in the 40s and 50s for cues. Especially Eames. They did all kinds of work. They ran everything through the lens of their values / process but they wandered a lot. We want to do that. When we move towards areas that are new, we learn. When we learn, we become better at everything, our work and our lives. As scary as it is on one level, it also feels really great that I don’t know the answer to this question.
The process of returning home revealed quite a lot about Le Corbusier’s character. If the work went well, if he enjoyed his own sketching and was sure of what he intended to do, then he forgot about the hour and might be home late for dinner. But if things did not go too well, if he felt uncertain of his ideas and unhappy with his drawings, then Corbu became jittery. He would fumble with his wristwatch – a small, oddly feminine contraption, far too small for his big paw – and finally say, grudgingly, “C’est difficile, l’architecture,” toss the pencil or charcoal stub on the drawing, and slink out, as if ashamed to abandon the project and me — and us — in a predicament.