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.