Commencement Speech at UCSC 6-12-16
I was invited, and honored, to give this year's commencement speech in June at the University of California at Santa Cruz, my alma mater. Preparing the talk got me to think seriously about what mattered to me in my twenties and what matters to me today. I took the speaking assignment seriously enough to write down the speech.
Trying to be relevant to undergraduates, most of whom were neither design nor liberal arts majors was unfamiliar ground, so I focused on issues that would be relevant to anyone confronting the working world for the first time. This came down to two issues: first, finding a passion worth pursuing (Falling in Love) and second, not putting up with bad bosses (Avoiding Dickheads).
I also acknowledged that my most valuable turning points in life came from taking extended period of time off for reflection. For example, I actually dropped out of UCSC after my sophomore year, bolted off to Europe, worked for artists, dove into ceramics, and became a maker of objects. I’m going back to that obsession, setting up a ceramics studio, having some fun and playing in the mud again.
Question: Have any ceramics you love?
I’m curious if you have any functional ceramics that are either part of your everyday life, or pieces you admire aesthetically. In can come from pre-history or Picasso or IKEA. If you do have a favorite, please send a photo along to email@example.com. I’ve selected a few of my favs below.
What do a Sweet Potato and a Museum have in common?
(And a project that could use your help).
Back in October I went to see Frank Gehry interviewed for SF City Arts and Lectures. Gehry is 86, provocative, eloquent, quirky, and refreshingly vulnerable. He addressed issues of public criticism towards his work and admitted consternation over the fact that while his pal Renzo Piano has had twenty-five museum commissions he has had only one. Another of his peeves is that he has never been commissioned to do any buildings in San Francisco. After the interview I ate at an amazing new restaurant, Cala in the same neighborhood. With Gehry’s words and his work still swirling around in my head, I had a lot to chew on.
While visiting Cala, it occurred to me that, like Mr. Gehry, no one had invited or commissioned Gabriele Cámara, (the person behind Cala), to come to San Francisco. Restaurant entrepreneurs like Cámara risk their money and reputations all the time just to have an outside chance of achieving viability. Only a few become celebrities or get rich. A new restaurant is like a Silicon Valley start-up, but without the dream of an IPO down the road.
The Gehry connection arose again as I realized that restaurateurs function not just as chefs, but also as designers. They are architects of food, designers of the eating experience. The similarities between architects and chefs/restaurateurs are numerous:
- They make statements in form and function everyday.
- They deal in aesthetics and rely on the language of visual communication: texture, color, repetition, pattern, etc.
- They create both spaces and experiences that can have a profound effect on us
- We take them seriously, greatly respect them when their work is good, and discuss their work endlessly.
- They reflect the culture of the times and tell us a lot about our values and about ourselves.
- They compete everyday for public approval and are the subject of critics who can be merciless.
Visiting Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao in 2001 was one of my peak architecture experiences. Its elegant fusion of technology and art has set a high bar for modern art museums. The building helped change a city and an economy. It became iconic overnight. There is nothing quite like it.
No restaurant is likely to have quite this impact, but the Cala dining experience, and especially one dish, begged architectural comparisons and made me rethink Mexican food overnight. A board arrived at my table carrying what looked like the charred remains of a prehistoric bone or rock. It was an unusually big form, organic, with an amazing skin – provocative, innovative. (You could use those same adjectives to describe Gehry’s Bilbao). The humongous spud came with a side dish of bone marrow and a stack of fresh corn tortillas, the only element that was traditionally Mexican. It was so original, earthy, tasty, bold. (I’ve tasted nothing quite like it).
The entire Cala experience was a wake up call to excellence in design and to the value of innovation, elegance, and surprise. You sense this the moment you enter and walk by a wall of living plant life into a generous bar area. You find a calming high ceiling of painted white woodwork, greyish walls with original texture and exposed plumbing and quirky ethnic lamps. The chairs are unpretentious and there is a casual simplicity in the tableware, servers’ outfits, menu colors and typography, serving dishes, authentic mescal cups, etc. No detail is left unconsidered, yet nothing is slick or fussy. There is an uncommon freshness and friendliness about the place. Like nearby Zuni, the space and the materials and details are as original as the menu.
Cámara, is something of a rock star in culinary circles for her Mexico City restaurant Contramar, and the professional critics have been touting Cala since before it opened. Our local food critic, with others, others raves about it. The menu has surprises like tamales with embedded mussels, light colored beans served with mustard greens and vinaigrette, a range of mescals probably not seen before by most mortals. I’ve now eaten there numerous times and can vouch for the consistency of the experience. If you don’t have the budget for dinner try their $3.50 lunch tacos served out the back door and see how perfectly a soft boiled egg goes with rice, beans and tortillas.
Your help: one restaurant lead from you.
That Gehry and Cala evening sparked my interest in the intersection of architecture and design with the social activity of eating and the talented people who bring them together. So I’m working up a roster (with some editorial comments) of the more interesting venues around the globe – and could use your help. It will be anything but a Michelin Guide to “dining” or reviews of “designer restaurants”. Rather it should be the discovery and celebration of unusually brilliant, unpretentious venues – diamonds in the rough, like that crusty sweet potato. Maybe it can become something like a Trip Advisor for the rest of us.
I’m starting this with a list of places from chefs recommendations. (Cámara gave me her ten picks in San Francisco). Could you please send your choice of the one eating place that you would single out as noteworthy and soulful (a picture would be great). Send to firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll take it from there and get back to you.
Thanks and Happy New Year
Most of us don’t get to Nassau. It’s mostly a destination port for cruise ships and a layover spot for fisherman and travelers headed to secluded beach resorts. I’m guessing than no one has ever gone there for a study of good design. But I ended up doing just that, by accident. I was in Nassau for a morning and walked up the shore checking out a stretch of rambling colorful wood framed beach kiosks that lead up to a food destination known as Fish Fry (the place you want to eat if you ever find yourself in Nassau.)
The beach kiosks (examples above) are a series of quirky, random, hand crafted, naïve, colorful, display of human enterprise, and a pure expression of local culture. The structures and signage give you the same feeling as kid’s lemonade stands, they lack guile and artifice, and don't demand to be taken too seriously. So what makes it good design? They serve a purpose, improve the environment, and connect you with local culture. This stretch was one of the only places where you could come in contact with the locals in a non-contrived manner. It’s authentic expression- and authenticity has the power to make modest quirky stuff like this beautiful. And the place makes you smile, a major criteria of good design.
This stretch of beach is the antidote to overbearing commercial brand approach to retailing that defines most of our modern world. Normally we shun logos and branding, but here was a clinic on how to make them palatable - they should be genuinely personal, non-repetitive, and subordinated to the other visual messages.
Consider these formal visual elements at play (noted above):
ECONOMY: No frills construction
PROPORTIONS: Human-scale form of pleasing dimensions
SIMPLICITY: No frou-frou copy – just the facts
UTILITY: Even the decorative elements serve a purpose
FORM: Classic simple shapes and surfaces
COLOR: Like a kids drawings, there are no holds barred.
CONTRASTS: No two building or signs or offerings are the same.
HUMOR: Can you view these hanging chips and not smile?
SYMMETRY: The visual balance makes these shacks easy on the eyes
Beauty and the Book - Holiday Gift Idea
Just like on this walk on the Nassau Beach, you’ll find plenty of beautiful, quirky stuff in my book, a decent holiday gift for anyone wishing to walk a little farther and look a little more closely at the amazing world in which we find ourselves.
Signed copies are available at lower than Amazon prices at PUBLIC $16.00.
I recently visited the historic bull-fighting ring in Ronda, Spain. It’s more a modernist shrine than a sporting arena. It got me musing about the design of sports stadiums, in general, their elements of barbarism and beauty going back to the Roman Coliseum with its gladiator battles and the Greek Olympic games. The drama and fighting going on today over the proposed Zaha Hadid Olympic stadium in Japan is a less bloody conflict, but equally contentious. Ditto for the violence created in Brazil recently, where the World Cup drew millions of people to the streets and prevented new stadium designs from being considered. In my backyard in San Francisco conflicts over a new Warriors basketball stadium on the Bay are deemed New York Times worthy.
It’s easy to see how sports stadiums and professional sports can be lightning rods for public opinion. The economic and political stakes are as huge as the egos involved. It is very much a modern design challenge, balancing commercial interests with civic needs and tribal interests. Slapping logos on stadiums, using the space to promote private businesses, staggering ticket prices, and the inevitable traffic snarls fly in the face of civic decency. Are we to accept these for the sake of a local sports team?
The Plaza de Toros in Ronda, in contrast, is an elegant stadium, a pure piece of design.
The city of Ronda is perched on a dramatic gorge and seems to have been a magnet for visitors since neo-lithic times. Just a short drive from the Alhambra, it has charmed the likes of Hemingway, Armani, Rilke, Orson Welles and others. Little is written about the ring itself. Way beyond its significance as the original bullfighting ring, it is one of the simplest and most elegant architectural structures I have ever experienced.
If a building’s circular form works well architecturally it joins the select company of the Guggenheim Museum in New York or the Coliseum in Rome. The circle has a satisfaction of its own with its simplicity and gestalt, but there are reasons why it is an ungainly form to construct in our modern world. It takes a guy like Bucky Fuller to make it work. This bullfighting arena does the circle justice and also has character akin to a Japanese shrine, some Amish outbuilding, a sanctuary, or something Donald Judd would have sanctioned in Marfa. The compelling fact that it is used for a blood sport is what makes the irony complete. (Today it is used more for concerts than bullfights.)
You might not notice it as you walk around Ronda. Its unassuming curvaceous exterior shape blends modestly with the character of the town. Unlike stadiums today, there are neither banners nor signage nor parking lots. When you get inside you see elegant, classic architectural proportions, unadorned columns, simple details, and an overarching purity. Light enters through the central ring but also through open windows in the interior walkways where rustic wood ceilings, soft plaster walls and local clay tiles create a feeling of calm. The seating is spartan and entirely democratic with no luxury boxes. The muted pastel color palette takes its cue from the ochre colored sand in the ring, which is earthy, friendly and natural. All this creates a harmony with its natural surroundings that (like the ivy on the bricks of Wrigley Field in Chicago) pleases redneck and highbrow alike.
All the design elements in the ring serve a function. There is neither artifice nor decorative embellishments. Basic numbers identifying the seats are the only signage to be seen. Even the pens where the bulls and horses are staged look like a Bauhaus minimalist designed them. It’s as if some silent hand of design had been at work here and some master architect made sure that nothing was dumbed down, that every detail was consistent. Everything serves as a backdrop to the theatre.
The integrity, simplicity and quietness of the design is its defining character. But what truly sets this place apart from all other sports stadiums is the fact that there are no commercial messages, distractions, or promotions to be seen. The peace created is like that which we experience being in a cell-free zone. The mind quiets. It dredges one out of oneself in an almost spiritual way, which is not surprising, I guess, given that churches and shrines are some of the only modern places where we can have this same experience.
Can we take a design lesson from Ronda for the US today? Probably not. Sports are commercial businesses of an extreme order and made possible by beer, auto, and fried food messaging. It is more likely that we would see bullfighting established as a new spectator sport in Marin County. But the lesson for modern stadium architects might be that designing something huge and out of sync with local sensibilities can be like waving a red flag in front of the public.
"Indeed, you could say that Koren has spearheaded the design equivalent of the slow food movement." -The New York Times
There is a new book out by author Leonard Koren. His first book was Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, a best-seller from 1994, a classic, which was updated in 2008. It’s about “the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, a beauty of things modest and humble, and a beauty of things unconventional” in Koren’s words. But any summary descriptors are wholly inadequate. Here are a few snippets from the 77 reviews online:
This is the type of book you blaze through in about 30 minutes, but will most likely want to keep for a lifetime as inspiration. Reason? Because there simply isn't another book of it's tone or mission.
Be warned: after you read this book, everything in your rooms will "irk" you except some wildflowers in a jam jar, an unpainted wooden table and one black futon.
At first I thought the book would be about that green mustard they serve with sushi. It's much more profound than that, and was just what I needed to hit the spot.
If you have not heard of Koren, or this book, and if you like to look at stuff closely and think about what you see, get it now. Seriously. This modest publication might be the best $10.80 (current Amazon price) investment you can make in your aesthetic and spiritual education - other than sitting on the beach and watching a sunset with a tequila. And once you’ve purchased and read his first book, you’ll be in the right mindset for his new one - Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts, a thoughtful and elegantly illustrated addendum that was published in March.
I just read Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts cover to cover in one sitting. This is not particularly hard to do because it’s only 94 pages, has large type and numerous full-page illustrations. The only thing that slowed me down was the time it took to mull over the many heady ideas. Koren's approach gets to the heart of many aesthetic and philosophic ideas that challenge our assumptions about the principles of modernism, and the tenets of western art and design in general. His thinking reminds me of a conversation I had with John Maeda a few years ago when I started PUBLIC Bikes:
Rob: Give me a better example of a more beautiful design than the simple bicycle?
John: Sure, a good rock.
Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts is a helpful read for all of us who might sometimes take our ourselves and our aesthetic work too seriously. I would especially recommend anything Koren to the design aficionados who are placing bets on technology for salvation. If you truly believe that an i-pad has more potential than a notepad, or that a Mont Blanc pen is more beautiful than a simple pencil, this book is guaranteed to get you thinking. It’s equally relevant for western rationalists who hold Cartesian principles sacred and relish Pythagorean ideals of beauty. ‘Moral Precepts’ like “Get rid of anything that is unnecessary” and “Focus on the intrinsic and ignore material hierarchy” may seem preachy or naïve in our consumer culture, but they certainly have their place in design thinking. Koren’s books are simply a little treasure for anyone who likes to use his or her eyes and brains.
*The term wabi-sabi has been sullied and dumbed down almost as much as ‘sustainability’ and ‘branding’ in our modern vocabulary. So I won’t take it further down that path. I have been drawn to these principles since being a potter decades ago and studying the art and nuances of the Japanese tea ceremony and being drawn to the accidental and random effects that result from the kiln firing processes. And the obsession I have in my personal search for beauty in everyday stuff is what I try to get at in my own book, See For Yourself. But that is for another essay.
I was recently in Andalusia, Spain spending a lot of time in Sevilla (and posting images on Instagram). This region deserves as much, as it has a rich and unique design, and a visual history that dates back to the 8th century when the Moors decided to set up shop there. They brought with them advancements in medicine, technology, arts, and many of our cultural basics like coffee, sugar, paper, and coinage.
Modern Andalusia specialties range from ubiquitous super high-speed internet (renders our US services laughable), the cleanest public bathrooms I have experienced, tasty pata negra from pigs fed mostly on acorns, commitment to public art and civic amenities despite a dreadful economy and lots more to muse on and write about beyond tapas and flamenco. But because I am a ceramics and patterns geek my photo library contains more shots of tile work than anything else from this trip.
Decorative tile, like most wallpaper, is pretty easy to enjoy and skip by. Not at the Alcázar in Sevilla. Walking the ground floor of the Alcázar is like being bulldozed by the Gods of pattern and geometry. It’s magical, hypnotic, and overbearing. And when you drill down you learn that the Islamic patterns carry deep spiritual relevance. Just a few quotes that get at the depth of their inquiry:
The geometric patterns can be equally thought of as both art and science. However, for many Muslims there is no distinction; all forms of art, the natural world, mathematics, and science are all creations of God. -- Islamic geometric patterns
The origin of the word ‘cosmos’ is adornment (from which we derive the modern word 'cosmetics') and the adornment of sacred buildings with both floral and geometric patterns makes the viewer sensitive to the subtle harmonies uniting the natural world around us with the cosmos. -- Behance
Then you go upstairs, a floor designed and built under western Renaissance influences and you see examples of the human-centric nature of the Judeo Christian world, and some paganism. Cherubs and goats replace geometry. The pattern is integrated but not dominant. Personality, humor, eroticism are at play. Spiritual messages take a rear seat to humanism.
Across town at the Casa de Pilatos similar elements are at work in the tile from this same period where medieval themes of heraldry are literally embedded in the Islamic patterned universe. Books have been written on this work and this place, and if you go to Sevilla the Casa de Pilatos should be your first stop.
I took a brief trip to Barcelona to revisit Antonio Gaudi’s work. He is anything but Andalusian. But I had forgotten how personally and creatively he both rips apart and pays homage to these earlier tile traditions in his Guell Park.
A few shots from our modern world. As an admirer of porcelain, I keep an eye out for the finer urinals in the world, and Andalusia sets a high bar. These are from train stations and other public facilities.
Closing the loop to our modern world, I was just in LA and spotted this “decorative” bridge (CENTER SHOT). The patterns were so obviously taken from those found throughout Andalusia, like those from the Alcázar and Casa de Pilatos, just as the town I grew up next to in LA, Alhambra, takes its name from the magical city in Granada that Washington Irving (remember him?) brought attention to in the early 19th century with Tales of the Alhambra.
My book See For Yourself is coming out this year—right now actually—and this spurred me to give my Studio Forbes website a remodel and re-launch. Voilà. I’ve organized my images into categories that help me make sense and find order in the world, categories that are highly personal and subjective. Personal obsessions like Stripes, studies of signature elements of cities, e.g. House Numbers in San Francisco, surveys of broad categories like Doors, and numerous other indulgences.
Please have a romp around the site. A good way to get an overview might be to View All and take it from there. Like most of what we all do, it’s a work in progress. I’ll continue to add to these images overtime with essays. My website only contains a small portion of the images from the book, and very little of the writing, the idea is to encourage you to buy the book. Eric Heiman and his team at Volume Inc. in San Francisco designed the book. It’s a super piece of design and visual thinking on its own and well worth the price. I was lucky enough to have Chronicle Books as the publisher. You can get a signed copy from PUBLIC here.
I wrote See for Yourself with the same intent that I had in founding PUBLIC Bikes: to encourage us to be more curious and amused by things that might be lurking right outside our doors and to become more connected and engaged with our cities. The book is comprised of over 500 images that I have taken over the last ten years during walks and bike rides in cities around the world. For a full review and a number of flattering comments (from friends of mine) go here.
Just before Thanksgiving I opened a big green box that had been sitting in my storage room for years unmolested. I thought it held Christmas tree ornaments. What I found instead were over thirty “champagne chair” studies from a contest we had done maybe ten years ago at DWR. After the contest, these three-dozen chairs were featured in a show with Barcelona-based Vincon run by our close pal Fernando Amat.
The chairs also served as Thanksgiving dinner table bling at my house, where they were a big hit and the subject of much discussion. I'd forgotten how magical, creative, and quirky these little guys are, and what personality they carry. The Champagne Chair Contest dates back to the late 1990s, when my dear friend Wayne, who was hospitalized, sent me a champagne chair to congratulate us on getting DWR off the ground. The chair sat on my desk for months, where it was picked up, admired and loved by just about everyone who saw it. We launched the first DWR Champagne Chair Contest as a memorial to Wayne. The contest was a huge hit, and continue to be an annual event at DWR.
DWR has invited me to be a judge in this year’s contest. How cool is that? The contest runs from December 19 to January 12. Here are the details.