Kindergarten Chatt

Yes, I'm back on a Louis Sullivan kick. God willing and the creek don't rise, I will get to visit another of his masterworks this week. Today, I will share a few quotes from a most astounding book. If you have not done so already, you owe it to yourself to read Kindergarten Chats by the great Mr. Sullivan. The book is a short collection of essays on architecture and life that is formatted as if Sullivan is in dialogue with a young design novice. It can be a difficult read, if only for the fact that it is crammed with meaning and insight that might be lost without attentive reading and rereading. 

Until next week, enjoy this short essay on value.

“How will you contrive to make your subjective my objective? How will you shape up something tangible for me? How will I get a footing in the fog?

In many ways. For the present let us take a single illustration – that of values.

Everybody knows, or thinks he does, what value means. Crudely it is expressed in Dollars and Cents: we say, such a thing is worth so many Dollars; and there, usually, the matter rests. Also, we regard other things as of value, and these values we recognize in medal, diplomas, eulogiums, or monuments. To an heroic fireman we give a medal, and thus we express the value, to the community, of his act of devotion. To the memory of a great poet we set up a monument; to this man, we give fame; to that one, reverence; to the other, love. And so it goes, through the range of values and compensations. Theoretically it is fine. In practice it is not always so fine, for some men have been crucified, others burned at the stake, for wishing well to their fellows.

Still, taking it all in, there is a general sense in the community that there are certain values which money cannot and does not measure; certain services rendered, of which money is not the impelling cause, or the mechanism of exchange, or the standard of estimate. And it is tacitly felt and recognized that such services are of great and positive value to the community: that they add to its wealth, if wealth be taken in its broad, comprehensive sense.

In its scantest sense, the value of a great painting might be compared on the cost of the canvas, the paint, and a reasonable every-day allowance for the manual labor of applying the paints to canvas. Yet everybody knows that this is not so. Everybody knows and feels that the greatest painter has imparted to the paints a value that they did not before possess. The he has transferred to them something of himself, and something of the world. That he has made subjective what was before objective.

This subjectivity is his art, By virtue of it he has sublimated the material.

This added value we call genius, talent, skill, as the case may be.

Eventually this added subjective value comes under the measure of the standard of all current values – money- but, too often, only when the author of it, the giver of it, the would-be benefactor of his race, has passed under the scrutiny of that final measurer and equalizer of all mankind – the sod.

So with the poet and his poems made of printers’ ink and paper.

So with the musician and his score.

So with the sculptor and his marble block.

So with the soul-inspiring orator, who breathes in the common, physical air and gives it forth, a new, an awakening message to man.

And so all real values are subjective: all objective values are unreal; they dissolve, under analysis, into subjective value after subjective value, and the residuum, if ever we reach it, is not what man made but what nature gave: and what nature gives is never objective – it resolves itself step by step, remove after remove, into the infinite creative mind.

Now shall a building be held to differ from these other things, my list of which is meager, to be sure? Shall this manifest rule hold for other things, and not hold for buildings? By virtue of what wrinkle in the popular mind are buildings to be held exempt? To say the least, is it not strange? There certainly is no doubt concerning the physical fact of such exemption: witness the people, witness the building.

Any good builder can tell you the value of a building in Dollars and Cents. He will figure up the cost of materials and the cost of labor, and the salary and incidental account – and give you the total. He has done his duty, you accept his statement and take it for granted that the matter is closed: and why not?- you have it in Dollars.

Now comes the critic and says: “Here, let me see those Dollar marks and let me see the building: let me take your figures, and confront the building with them. Yes, very good: this is the value of material of every kind, and labor of every kind, but where is the architect? I see no entry, except his fee. I put your cost in one scale of my balance, and the building in the other, but see – the beam is not level- something is lacking either in your accounting or in the building. Who is straddling the scales – who is pressing with his foot? It is a man. I find no man in your account, I find only a name; but I feel the man, I know he is there. Your accounts do not balance the building. Your values must be revalued – your method is crude; it is unwisely selfish. You see no further than the end of your nose. If your nose were longer, you would see that much further than the end of your nose. Have you paid your architect for destroying? Has he added, and you do not know it? Do you balance architecture with a sneer, on your accounting? What is your own value? How much are you worth a pound avoirdupois? Oh, you have a value, have you? The question is impertinent, is it? What is your value outside of your bank account? Who values you, and why? What are you good for, when you are sifted down, and your externals removed? What is your worth? What have you ever done? What can you do? Who are you? What are you? Why are you on earth? Do you think if you were an architect you would be more, or less, valuable than you are? If so, why? What are you? What is an architect? What is a building? What is a dollar? Answer me these things and let me weigh your answer in the scale I hold in my hand – a scale in which I ask only that you balance on little milligram of humanity.”

Are these questions fair, or are they not? Are they in order, or are they not? Are the practical, or are they not? Are they economical, or are they not? Are they social, or are they not? Are they democratic or are they not?

You may think about these things at your leisure. The buildings are there, for good or ill – they cannot run away; they cannot conveniently avoid investigation. And, if the building is there, the architect is there with it; he cannot escape either. Little by little we will ferret him out. There is no hurry.

Very good. But tell me: When you say: The value of a building, do you really lay more stress on the subjective value than on the Dollar value?

On both. For human nature determines that subjective value, sooner or later, becomes money value; and the lack of it, sooner or later, money loss. The subjective value is far higher, by far more permanent; but money value is inseparable from the affairs of life; to ignore it would be moonshine.


I Wanna Rock, pt.3

Dear Lord, please keep my friend and mentor safe during travels up north. I will miss him, but fear that the longer he is here the more golf I will play. Although I always enjoy visiting the beautiful woods that you have created, I suspect that another round will result in permanent back damage, aneurysm or conniption. Amen.

My heart was thundering as we approached the Design Within Reach warehouse sale. This was due in equal parts to the fact that I was driving a new rear-wheeled-drive car in the snow, that my blood was a bit thin from the night before, and from the anticipation of what was to be found inside the warehouse. I must say I was disappointed in the spectacle, more specifically, the lack thereof. For such an important and glorious event, surely there would be more pomp and fanfare than a few handwritten 8.5 x 11 signs pointing to the building. Where were the balloons? The lights? The helicopters? They were nowhere to be found. The end of my rainbow was a dull, grey concrete box sulking under a dull, grey Kentucky sky.

What I found inside the warehouse sapped what little enthusiasm remained. There they were, the highest expressions of human design, crammed disgracefully together under lifeless fluorescent lights. Oh, the indignity of it all, pieces that I have only seen lovingly staged in stark modern settings, crammed into indifferent piles of luxury. It was obscene. After some moments of wandering about in shock, I slowly regained my senses and began to pick through the heaps of the objects of my lust.

Even their own image of the warehouse is depressing.
from: blog.dwr.com

Despite the volume of the warehouse, the pickings were slim. A few of the big name classics were there, but the majority of offerings were second tier works that didn’t really speak to me. The objects of my desire, lounge chairs, were also in short supply. There were a couple of Saarinen womb chairs, but none of them had the ottoman, and the prices weren’t that much of a bargain. I ambled about for another twenty minutes, wondering if our journey of eight hundred miles was to end in vain in this ‘hole of a warehouse.

I was not moved by the designs,
but could have used a lie down on the couch.
from: shelterrific.com

Just before despair set in, I found them. Set slightly apart from the heaps of lesser objects, surrounded in an otherworldly halo of ambient light sat a half dozen Eames lounge chairs. The archetype of mid-century modern furniture, the Eames lounge is a study in molded plywood and luxe leather upholstery. This Chair, designed in 1956 is arguably the most famous in the world. Several iterations of the icon were there for the taking- assorted combinations of walnut, palisander and ash wood, and black and ivory leather. The chairs were pristine, and priced at less than half of retail. We conferred, discussed, considered, walked away, walked back, and decided to pull the trigger. We choose the 50th Anniversary edition in black leather and santos palisander veneer.

The purchase transaction was, however, as seedy as the warehouse. This sordid little affair was no place for Visa or American Express. In the immortal words of Randy Moss, it was “straight cash, homie”. No returns, no refunds. After making the purchase we were told to head to the other side of the warehouse to talk shipping with the third-party delivery company. For reasons that are unclear to this day, the shipping company would not ship beyond the borders of Kentucky or Ohio. Had our quest had come to a disastrous end? We were stuck in the shithole sub-urbs of Cincinnati with a chair that we could not ship home and could not return?

Our last ditch option was to see if we could somehow shoehorn the behemoth of a chair and its ottoman into my impulse-buy of a new car. Years of paying Tetris finally paid off, as I was able to get both chair and ottoman crammed into the 300. The whole scene was a bit of a blur as I was still drunk from the night before and in the red haze of anger at the worthless “shipping” company. I don’t recall how my wife got home. I can only assume that she struck a contortionist's pose in the back seat for the five-hour drive (plus time to stop for a 5-way at Skyline) home.

The chair was perfect and I loved it. As the newness wore off, however, I found that I rarely sat in it. The grip of the La-Z-Boy was that strong. In the year that followed I started designing a new home that was more in line with my philosophies on design and sustainability. One of those philosophies is to live with less by occupying a minimal physical footprint. While the house was generous enough to accommodate the two chairs, I didn’t need to have two chairs. Despite the fact that I was rocking daily in the La-Z-Boy, it became clear that there was no place for it in the new house. I know that the chair would be out of place, but hoping against hope, I moved the chair to the Southside in a vain effort to find a nook that would work.

For a time it was merely an expensive toddler's seat.

I knew the La-Z-Boy was lost and I searched for something to fill void. That something was more modern furniture. As I was spending thousands on the construction of a new home, a few grand on furniture here and there was easy to hide. Having an aversion to retail I first resorted to eBay for our dining room chairs- the J.L. Moeller Model #77. In depths of my depravity, I then resorted to scouring Craigslist for modern classics. As fate would have it, a dealer in Atlanta was looking to peddle a couple of LC3 loungers. I didn’t want and couldn’t afford two, so I drug a friend into my sordid world and we split the cost.

LC3 and SCR

Within a two-week period we moved into our new house, and welcomed another baby boy to family. The next time the chair broke was the last. With as much dignity as I could muster, I placed it on the curb and called 311. This was a sad and ignominious end to my relationship with that chair, and it was the end of a thirty-six year rocking addiction. With no rocker around, the Eames lounger is now The Chair. It is a timeless and elegant piece, but it doesn’t fit quite me right (I’m two inches too long). Would that the story would end with a bang rather than a whimper, but such is life. I still think about rocking from time to time, but I think I'm over it. That is a place to which I can not return...except when I go to my in-laws house...where there is…a La-Z-Boy.

The End?


I Wanna Rock, pt. 2

There is no avenue of human endeavor that can induce the same level of intensity of feeling and emotion than sport (perhaps music). I pity the person who has never experienced the utter joy of their team overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds to triumph at the death. I experienced just such a moment this weekend. My beloved Birmingham City have had a tough few years. We were relegated from the Premier League, our owner was arrested and convicted, we've had no money to invest in the team, and as a result were in a dog fight to avoid relegation again this year. Relegation to the third tier of the league would be absolutely disastrous- to the point of endangering the future existence of the club. We started the last day of the season in the relegation zone, but due to other results all we had to was earn a draw at Bolton. Unfortunately, we were two-nil down with 12 minutes left in the season. Death was nigh upon us. We got one goal back quickly, but we needed another one to stay up. Four minutes into added time, just when things seemed their darkest, this happened (if you've got time, you must watch the first two minutes). Now back to our story...

In the Year of Our Lord 3 B.K. (before kids), I moved to a small bungalow in a lovely little corner of North Chattanooga. Life was great, the wife and I both had fulfilling careers that allowed us to squirrel away a few farthings and that afforded us ample time for recreation She worked for a marketing firm whose clients were primarily in the commercial interiors world, and I was working for the Design Studio. Given my problems with furniture, this close association with the design world was a dangerous combination.

For those of us with this weakness, the Design With Reach catalogue is nothing less than pornography. The glossy pages of polished designs by the likes of Eames, Corbusier, Van der Rohe, Poulsen, Aalto, and Saarinen provide lurid imagery for furniture fetishists. The name of the company is a misnomer, however, as most of the retail prices are beyond any reach of the masses. While sexual pornography objectifies people and sells fantasy, the DWR catalogue lends personality to objects and provides a mechanism to live out fantasies. If your kink is relaxing with a book and a bourbon on a chrome and luxe leather chaise lounge resting on a cowhide rug in a warmly lit, polished concrete room with a floor to ceiling window view of a bamboo forest, it’s yours for the low, low cost of $4,050 (bourbon not included). Being a fiscal conservative, if not downright cheap, there was no way I was paying retail for any of those fantasies. I was, for the time being, content to flip through the pages of the catalogue from the comfort of my decidedly unfashionable La-Z-Boy.

In time, we were blessed with a bouncing baby boy. One of my great joys was rocking the little guy in the now well-worn La-Z-Boy. Having left the Design Studio two weeks after his birth, I was free to rock twenty-four hours a day. And I did. Having a child brought some things into perspective. I knew that I couldn’t continue with the La-Z-Boy. Rocking all day is no way for a grown man to live. The truth was that I was ashamed of the chair- instead of keeping it in the living room for visitors to see, I moved the chair to the bedroom and populated the more public rooms of the house with respectable and slightly modern pieces. It was during this period that the La-Z-Boy started the slow but inevitable decline that ultimately lead to its demise.

With the 10-day old boy in the chair.
That may have been the most comfortable moment of my life.

The force of my constant rocking stressed the metal spring brackets to failure. Being cheap and handy, I bought some hardware and fashioned a makeshift solution. After the brackets failed, the springs were next. Again, I crafted a fix as best I could. I refused to let my chair die, and for the next four years I cobbled together a variety of solutions to keep it arockin’. My repairs were ingenious, but only delayed the inevitable. Toward the end I was partially disassembling and fixing the chair at least three times a week. My wife started to nag. She pleaded with me to let the chair go, and to buy a new one. She went so far as to suggest that I take this opportunity to kick and consider buying a chair that didn’t rock.

It becomes a problem when it effects the children.

About that time, whilst perusing the monthly DWR furniture porn offering, I saw an announcement for their semi-annual warehouse sale in Cincinnati. The warehouse sales were mythic events where one could supposedly snag amazing deals on the master works of modern furniture. Some of the work was discounted due to blemish or malfunction, and others reduced due to the vagaries of stock and supply economics. The causes, however, were less important to me than the effect, and it occurred that this might be the chance to finally get a “real chair”.

I am not usually prone to impulse buys, but when it happens it is always a function of design lust. This can be illustrated by my biggest ever impulse buy- a 2005 Chrysler 300. I was in the market for a car the first time I saw a 300. The silver-grey beauty was navigating the S-curves and I fell in love. Within two weeks I had one of my very own. Within a year of ownership I realized that I was no longer in love and began the countdown to the day it made sense to buy something else (some eight years later). Despite this history, I was confident that my knowledge of the DWR product range would preclude the possibility of a rash decision at the sale. I didn’t really have a particular chair in mind, and in fact there was no guarantee that the sale would feature any lounge chairs at all. I lived in hope, however, that they would have a selection and that I would be able to stomach the sales prices.

Having decided to make a weekend of it, we booked into the Cincinnatian- a landmark hotel in their downtown. After arriving and checking in, we went out on the town and skipped around to a couple of martini bars before heading over to Jeff Ruby’s for a steak the size of a small ottoman. It was definitely a spendy night out, but considering that this was our first outing in 30 months it was worth a splurge. I suspect that the debauchery of cocktails, chilled crustaceans, cocktails, dry-aged beef and cocktails was driven by excitement and anticipation of what was to transpire at the warehouse the next day.

Those shenanigans proved costly. Without our alarm clock of a son, and feeling a bit fragile from the spirits, we slept in. I woke with a start to the sudden terror that we would not be the first ones in the warehouse door and might possibly lose out on the perfect chair. Also, it was snowing. This would, of course, prove to be a problem for the real wheel drive 300. We grabbed our things, hopped in the car, and did our best to safely scuttle over the border to Covington, KY and…the warehouse.

Next week, the final chapter...