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.