Monday, August 17, 2015

Designing His Life and Death

I will never forget my first encounter with Steven Holt. In 1986 I moved to New York City, fresh from two exhilarating years at Domus Academy in Milan, anxious for attention to my work and eager to make a mark – the goals that proved highly evasive at first. Walking on West Broadway in Soho – it was a sunny day in spring or early summer – I heard someone calling my name. I turned and saw a blond guy of my age, who was flashing a most incredible and contagious smile: “Constantin? I know who you are!” At the time Steven was the editor of I.D. magazine: he probably received and remembered my odd mailers. Our first long conversation took place on that sunny sidewalk.

If there ever was such thing as professional love at first site, that was it. Many more talks followed, then joint projects. In design, we liked and shared many similar things: conceptual clarity, cultural sampling and pop-culture mash-ups, humor and provocation. Andrea Branzi and Ettore Sottsass were our mutual idols. Eventually Steven brought me to teach product design at Parsons, thus setting my career on the long track of research and experiment.  Then, at the height of his professional standing in the New York design scene, Steven surprised everyone by his decision to leave for post-graduate studies at Stanford. After his departure I took over his job at Parsons and his apartment in the Village. It seems, in our relationship I was always on the receiving end.

Steven’s life in San Francisco has been interesting and a little mysterious. For years he had an official title of “design visionary” at frogdesign, and only laughed when I tried to inquire about precise nature of such work. Then he taught at CCA, becoming a distinguished professor, beloved by generations of students.  In San Francisco he met his wife Mara, with whom he shared everything, from their combined name to joint efforts in writing books and curating exhibitions. Their apartment, and their life itself, was like a curated display of books, art, and design.

For as long as I can remember, Steven’s health was a problem. Occasionally, he would disappear from radar for weeks, if not months: not pick up his phone, leave
e-mails unanswered. One of these bad periods happened when I was working on my first book Curious Boym in early 2000s. I could not picture anyone but Steven writing an introduction when he was overcome by another bout of his illness. Weeks went by without any communication. The editor already gave up, yet Steven’s article arrived just on the deadline; it is a best piece of writing in the entire book. Over the years, I got to rely on him always coming back, and saving the day with his inimitable goofy smile.

When I received Steven’s good-bye call on August 11, at first I was certain in another prompt comeback. Yet this time it was different. Just like he was designing his whole life, Steven Skov Holt took pains to design his own death. With help of Mara, every detail has been worked out. His body was pledged for hospital surgeons’ training, while his brain was to go to Alzheimer’s research. He called his close friends to say farewell. They videotaped his message to the future, “a culmination of what he believes design can and should do in the world and for the world”, in Mara Holt Skov’s description. On August 13, 2015 Steven passed away in his living room, in the company of his wife, his son Larson, and his mother, surrounded by his favorite objects and books, with Jimi Hendrix playing in the background.

He said he was a happy man.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Flags to Rags

Flags to Rags are kitchen towels, which feature flags of countries that no longer exist.
“Flags are among the most immediate, primal, and communicative forms of design. They are made of icons and become icons themselves,” wrote Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior design curator. But what happens when an icon outlives its’ time and purpose? The leftover flags are sometimes venerated, and sometimes reviled – often at the same exact time. Their function is far from clear. Our project of kitchen towels plays with this historical and cultural ambiguity.

The original set included flags of the U.S.S.R. (†1991), German Democratic Republic (†1990), and Yugoslavia (†1991). Recent controversy that surrounded the display of the Confederate flag, prompted us to add it to the Flags to Rags collection (†2015).

These cotton towels are perfectly functional. The flag iconography not only endows the cloths with an additional layer of meaning, it also challenges their suggested utilitarian usage. Flags to Rags demonstrate how critical design can enrich and subvert a conventional object’s experience.

The towels are not yet in production. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

If Edward Hopper were alive

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is one of my favorite American painters. His works featured common urban and suburban landscapes: gas stations, motels, bars, office suites.  In contrast to the more upbeat and sentimental portrayal of American life in the 1940s-50s, Hopper’s work often expressed alienation, anxiety, and loneliness, prefiguring our contemporary sensibilities and interactions.

It should be said that his urban settings now belong in the past. Today, an average city restaurant, hotel, or office building represents a vastly different picture, a scene which is more crowded, hip, and hyperactive. Yet recently, during my evening walks through the streets of Chinatown, I have discovered spaces, which would likely be an inspiration for Edward Hopper if he were alive and working today.

These are waiting areas for Chinatown intercity buses. People who travel on these usually cannot afford going by plane or even by Amtrak, nor do they own a car. The waiting rooms are open late into the night. They are strangely modern and generic, and exceedingly brightly lit. The loneliness and boredom of the waiting passengers is nearly palpable. The only communication that exists in these impersonal spaces is between the people and their cellphones.

“The spare bands of color and sharp electric shadows create a concise and intense drama in the night”, these words of one of the Hopper’s scholars could well apply here. Fifty years after Edward Hopper’s death, his timeless paintings still resonate.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Free Grass

Final years of the Bloomberg administration saw the beginning of an ambitious and much advertised campaign called Million Trees NYC, aimed at greening of New York City’s urban environment. The considerable cost of this program was something not often mentioned in the press. Yet much of green infrastructure of the city happens naturally, all by itself, and at no cost at all. 

Beat-up Lower East Side streets have grass that spontaneously grows in cracks of the pavement, between a street curb and sidewalk, or around concrete and brick walls. These strips of grass remain unnoticed – and sometimes they even get eliminated. But what if we spread and cultivated these “cracks” until they transform the sidewalks of the city into a pattern of decorative and friendly green surfaces? Introduction of special metal channels will control the growth, preventing any further deterioration.  Once put in place, these grass strips, like all weeds, will go on forever.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015


My new book Keepsakes: A Design Memoir, published by Pointed Leaf Press, is scheduled to launch in May 2015. The objects, discussed in the book, bring up stories about my life and work, my parents, friends, and design colleagues with whom I was lucky to study and work in Russia, Italy, and America. In anticipation of the book, here is one of those stories...

For me, Domus Academy was a life-changing experience, in the most literal sense of the word. I arrived there as a Russian architect from Boston, and by the time of my departure in 1985 I became a designer, and headed for New York. Somewhere along the way, my Russian-American wife Svetlana and I had separated. In spite of the hardships of yet another start in America, I felt strangely liberated. The vast world of objects has opened up for me, as if I learned how to speak their language.

To own anything designed by Ettore Sottsass, was a longing shared by many young designers at the time. Yet his objects, no matter how democratic in spirit, were inevitably expensive and mostly out of reach. With much anticipation, I followed the development of the telephone set Enorme, which Sottsass designed in collaboration with David Kelly from California. An amalgam of Memphis style and Silicon Valley technology, the new phone was supposed to be colorful, functional, and affordable—in other words, perfect. I bought the phone as soon as it became available. The set’s monumental receiver could stand vertically, like a skyscraper, in a phallic gesture frequent in Sotssass’ work.  This erect monolith loomed larger than life in the tiny studio in which I was living. The heavy earpiece seemed to give substance to even the most trivial conversations.

By 1987 I started teaching at the Parsons School of Design in New York. In one of my evening furniture classes there was a student named Laurene Leon, a young art school graduate, who loved everything about Italian design. Obviously, we had much to talk about. By the end of the semester we were going out. I proudly demonstrated my Sottsass phone to my new girlfriend, but was taken aback when she soon got an identical one in her own place uptown.  In response to my inquiries, she told me a slightly incredible story about her co-workers pitching in to get her this “great present” for the holidays. Eventually, the truth came out. The phone was a gift, all right, but it came from Laurene’s old boyfriend, a French dude who was well versed about her design tastes.

The battle of the two Enorme phones continued for a while. Needless to say, I won. Soon, Laurene and I moved in together, and after the completion of her graduate design program at Pratt, we started to work together. Throughout the years, Laurene has been my indispensable guide through the intricacies of the American cultural landscape. With me, she went through the ups and downs of our studio, sharing everything, including most of the projects in this book. Twenty years later, our collaboration goes on.

We still have both of our Sottsass phones. Laurene’s was barely taken out of the box. Mine has been used well and happily, until new technologies gradually rendered it outdated. We no longer need landline telephone service, but who cares? Product obsolescence does not apply to keepsakes.