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Category Archives: musings

Japanese Carpenter in Retrospect

My niece just wrote to me. “You were the first female carpenter in Japan? What? Tell that story please!“ It is so strange to realize that she does not know this about me. This is the story as I wrote it to her in reply.

When I was twenty-one, I went to MIT for my first year of graduate school in the architecture program. I soon realized that I really didn’t know anything about carpentry or building and that this was a deficit to being a fine designer. I did not want to be an architect who only knew how to design on paper. My school work was super pretty and attention-getting. Maybe it was good “art”. In crits (critiques at which professors would judge and comment on the students’ work), I  would get praise for my imagination and creativity and my projects would draw people from across the room because I could manipulate visuals well. I could also argue anything, and compellingly too, I soon discovered. But the criticism that stuck was that “It is not Architecture”. I argued that I knew that it was not Architecture, but that that was not the point. I knew that it was my work on paper and in models for school. But I still felt insecure. I wanted to really be an architect, and I wanted to know more about how things were built.

I decided to work as a carpenter. In my mind, I was choosing between wood (post and lintel) or masonry (stone and/or concrete). It was a sort of starting from the beginning, self-education process as far as I was concerned. And, I really did not have an upbringing in which this sort of thing was taught to me. So, I decided to take a year off to learn carpentry. I looked at all of the possible places to study woodworking for construction and my short list was Scandinavia, Vermont, Oregon, northern Italy, or Japan. I chose Japan. I was into all things Japanese at the time. I loved Japanese film, literature, design, food… (I think that my first introduction to it was through Aunt Sandy and Uncle Ed as they had brought back items from Japan where they visited when they honeymooned. So those items were part of my early childhood and they were unique since not many other families we knew had things that looked like these.) Japan was the farthest away and most adventurous, and I was into that. I had the idea that I would take one year in school, one year away from school, one year back in school, and so on, indefinitely. It was a beautiful dream.

So, I had saved enough money for a flight to Japan and the equivalent amount for a flight home. I bought a one-way ticket for a little over seven hundred dollars and I started to spend my return ticket the moment the plane landed in Japan. But I knew that I would be okay. I had researched it and it sounded as though the worst thing that might happen was that I might be pick-pocketed in the city or that the government might deport me. I was willing to take that risk.

My first year at MIT, I had taken a Japanese Gardens course by a woman who had just returned from Japan, a “Building in East Asia” course by a German man who wore orange and had “surrendered himself” to Bawang Shree Rajnesh, and a studio course (which comprised the majority of school hours) with a Japanese instructor. Clutching a letter written in Japanese by my studio instructor (the gist of which was that I was a student at MIT and that I was interested to learn carpentry — although, of that letter, all I could read was “MIT”), I landed at Narita airport in the middle of the night. The telephone numbers I had for contacts did not work and I wound up taking a night bus into Tokyo which let me off in a dark alley where one of two homeless guys came over to “help me” and who pointed to the phrase “be careful!” in my phrase book, and then pointed to his buddy. I knew one phrase which was “Where is the police box?” since there was supposed to be one on every street corner. The helpful homeless guy grabbed my suitcase handle, and I grabbed it at the same time, and together we wheeled the thing to a police station a few blocks away. I sat next to a guy with bloodied nose and a woman who looked like a hooker and the police, who spoke not one word of English, called the number I had which was a friend of a friend who lived in the Shinjuku neighborhood not far away. He picked up the phone in the morning, then picked me up at the station, and generously hosted me for my first few days in Tokyo. I went to Kyoto from there.

I am getting off track.

I did not have time to study Japanese my first year in grad school. I tried to learn it on the plane using a phrase book. But I also found a Japanese language course for $250 and I signed up. I am generally a quick study with languages. I could sound like a one and a half year old in no time. J

Ok. I am still off track.

I met a cute guy in a café. I was writing fast and he came over to tell me that he was amazed at how fast I was writing. I told him what I was doing in Japan. He took me to a party at the home of an architect. I dressed up in a white satin dress, with my hair up in a high “do”, and lots of makeup. I was told that people really dressed up in Japan. The house turned out to be a unique building that was inhabited by an architect (whose name literally translated means “Dragon One”) and his family but also by a carpenter who helped design and build the house. There is a long story about the history of Japanese architecture and society that goes with this that substantiates my claim about how rare or even totally avant-garde this living arrangement was. But I will refrain from telling it right now.

The carpenter, whose name is Hasegawa, came up to the architect’s house during the party. He was wearing pants, no shirt, an impenetrable expression, and he was barefoot. Furthermore, he was still chewing his dinner. (It turned out, as I realized when I go to know him, that he was the SLOWEST eater I have EVER met.) We talked for a long time. He listened as I ardently affirmed that I wanted to be a carpenter, and I admitted that I had no experience. The boy who brought me to the party finally got angry since he thought that Hasegawa was only humoring me. But, Hasegawa told me that he was working on a shop only a few blocks from where I was living and that I was welcome to stop by.

Now, I had already gotten introduction somehow to a group of carpenters who were working on a temple, and I had given them a copy of my letter. They took the letter to the government somehow (their job was a government job). They asked me to wait. They had me wait for weeks. They eventually agreed that I could come to work on their temple job but that I should bring a book to read since there may not be much I would be given to do. I think that one of them smile/laughed, but I might be making that up. I didn’t think that they understood, and I thought that they would treat me at best as a scholar and not a carpenter, and I chose to work with Hasegawa instead. (Years later, when Hasegawa visited me in San Francisco, he apologized for treating me like a male, Japanese apprentice carpenter and not realizing the culture shock I was experiencing. I tried to assure him that the way he treated me as my boss/mentor was exactly what I was seeking.)

It is worth mentioning that Hasegawa could only become a Master Carpenter by being the foreman on a temple job prior to opening his own shop/kobu. He had the knowhow and creds from this venerable experience. But, when I knew him, he wore a full leather suit and rode a 750 cc Honda motorcycle. He was unconventional.

I am getting off track again.

I visited the okonomiyakia that Hasegawa and his crew were building. It was a small shop that was going to sell what amounts to pizza-pancakes. I hung out and eventually, after days, he gave me a broom and let me clean. One day, he went away on an errand, and his apprentice, Kai, gave me a chisel to use. Hasegawa came back, saw me trying to use the chisel, and chewed out Kai for doing that. He said that I was not ready. But, he did give me more challenging things to do after that. Hasegawa had me use an electric planer at his shop, an ad-hoc open-air portico next to his house. I was to take eight-foot long, eight inch square pieces of lumber, and run them through a planer, holding them down to keep them level as they went through the machine. After a day or so of this heavy work, my right wrist swelled up like a tennis ball, and Hasegawa tried to fire me. I reminded him that he had told me that the same thing had happened to him when he was an apprentice. So he relented, and instead, he gave me a few days off. I took that time to nurse my hands that were covered in blisters while the wrist swelling subsided. Somewhere, I think that there is a photo of this.

I went back to work after a few days. There was another incident and I am unclear about the chronology of it now, though it may have been the same time when he was trying to fire me. That was when I asked Hasegawa “why” once too many times. He lost it. He said “WHY? WHY? WHY??????? If I tell you to shine my shoes or take my kids to school, YOU DO IT and you DO NOT ASK WHY! After you do things MY WAY at least three times, then you can suggest trying it YOUR way. But first, you DO IT MY WAY and do NOT ASK WHY!!!!!!!”

After two months, the okinomiyakia was complete. Hasegawa invited met to attend the opening. There, he handed me an envelope that contained two hundred dollars and told me that he thought that I was serious and he offered to have me join his “shop” (his crew, his team”, the kobu).  I was so flattered. Hasegawa was taking an unconventional step to accept a foreigner, a female, a novice on to his team. It just was not done. And so it goes.

After that, we worked on the renovation of a country home (one room) but not much else. I think that I mostly worked at ruining Hasegawa’s tools as I tried to sharpen them in the mud from seven thirty in the morning to seven thirty in the evening, six days a week (I taught English in Osaka the other day and, whereas I made $6/day as a carpenter, I made $17 an hour teaching English. So teaching subsidized my carpentry “career”.) I remember crying in the rain as I crouched on my knees and from the window I could hear the client’s radio playing “Country Home” by John Denver (“take me hooooome… country road… to the plaaaaaace I beloooooong….”). At another time, there was an elderly gardener who liked me and who said “Why don’t you go back to America and be a woman?”

I learned a lot. About myself. About Japan. About carpentry and building. I say that I was “the first female carpenter in Japan” and I believe that is true, although, I never “became a carpenter”. I have friends who are or were carpenters, with the scars and lost fingers to prove it. I am intimidated by carpentry tools.

I forgot to mention that after my six-month student visa ran out, a kind, gentle, soft-spoken, elderly Landscape Architect who was the host of the teacher of the Japanese Garden Design course I had taken at MIT, agreed to officially support an extension of my visa for another six months. I met his family on New Year’s Day when I had completely lost my voice and had to whisper the few words I thought I knew in the only language he and all but one son of his family spoke.

I lived and worked in Japan from July 4, 1978 (Independent’s Day) until April 10, 1979. It was a total of nine months and six days, I realize that now, although I sometimes say “about a year”. I was 22 when I left (Olivia’s age now) and 23 when I returned and went back to impatiently complete my time at MIT and receive my “Master’s” degree as fast as I could. I lectured a bit about Japanese design and so on. That was a long time ago.

In Japan, I wrote to a friend every day and would send off letters in packets of five. He saved them and returned them to me – all but one. I still have them. I think that they may be more raw and juicy than this retelling. Maybe I will write a novel with them someday. Life goes on.

Love, Your Aunt Miiiiiindy (a.k.a. Mindysan)

 

 

Essays on Art, Culture, and Design #1- Exhibition Design

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Well, it is almost my birthday — an inconvenient two days after Christmas — and I did promise myself that I would post in my new blog. I also promised that I would write about art, design, and culture.

Still, all I have written about lately is politics. I am a Facebook addict and I yell into that wind constantly, preaching to the small circle that some distant algorithm determined would be my closest friends. These friends do already agree with me for the most part. On the rare occasion that I “speak” with someone who doesn’t, I get both thrilled and somewhat scared and I tend to write so copiously in response that they are either put off or do not know where to begin to reference my tangents. I think that I come off as though I were heeding advice I read when I was in my teens about how to act crazy if you think that some guy is following you.

I do not mean for these Facebook people to steer clear and walk to the other side of the road. I mean to meet them in the middle …and then grab their arm and pull them to my side. Ok. It is true. I think that I am correct on many issues and points. Yet, I do think that we probably share values (about compassion and caring, and so on) and that there is a place in the middle and that, being convincing and charming, and with well cited sources of information, I will ease them into a semblance of, or at least momentary self-knowledge and sense that will change their ways and their voting inclinations. Admittedly (and I like admitting this), I too can be given new information that might change my mind. I realize that, if I expect someone else to shake off their own mental shackles, I must be ready to do some shaking myself. I try to remain open to this. And I know that there are things I do not know. So, at least I am not victimized by the Dunning-Kruger effect …though, how would I know? (That makes me laugh.)

Back to the point. I launched my website weeks ago with a section for news and blog, and a new post is getting to the point of overdue. Even though all I can think about is that the soon-to-be-loser-in-chief might slip us into a military winter or a climate catastrophe from which we will never emerge… I will focus. I will exercise my disciplined mind. And, here at least, I will get back to Culture. It is possible anyway that art will save the world. Let’s be reasonable. No. No. No. Let’s NOT be reasonable. But, let’s focus.

These days, at least once a week, I see a live performance. I read novels. I watch, and even binge watch clever shows on non-broadcast non-stations. I meet friends to discuss art. I visit museums. I come up long lists of art pieces and projects that I would like to propose to people with money and influence. When old friends ask what I am doing, I say that I am turning down the volume on my design business and its work and turning up the volume on the solo studio stuff. People ask what intention I have for the new website and I am not sure, though I know that it is more to get a new level of recognition and a footing of authority than it is to get new work. I have no end of work. I work all of the time. I have a non-ending list of projects I do and am doing. I am lucky. And life is good. Therefore, the website is more portfolio and retrospective than it is application or supplication for a new job. As always, I wake up with a vague sense of guilt that I am not doing enough. But I do agree with Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s work in that I think that one must understand one’s past in order to go healthfully into the future.

And, so I will begin with a reflection on the business of exhibition design. Here is the first installment of reflections and essays on art, design, culture, and the work about it. Hope you enjoy.

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Exhibition Design 101

I have worked as an Exhibition Designer for about thirty years. Do you want to know everything I know as an exhibition designer? Here is what I have learned, along with some of the instructions I have given myself and the LCS staff about this type of work.

On an interpretive sign, in order to be legible and make the most impact, the main area of text (the body text) will mostly want to be between two feet and five feet above the finished floor. Titles can be above that. Odd miscellaneous text, such as captions, copyrights, and other acknowledgements, can be below. Use hierarchy in font size. Probably, you do not want text to be less than 14 points, unless it is for captions and other, rare miscellany. The area above five feet can be used for titles, but in larger font, or else it will not be readable enough, especially from afar. Pay attention to the contrast, spacing, and font style choices for legibility. You probably want about 75 words per sign but you can go to as many as 150. Over that quantity, it may as well be a newspaper or magazine – and you might as well just forget making an exhibit. However, it is generally a great challenge to get a client to agree to fewer words. To make the process most efficient and least frustrating, ask the client to have only one representative combine all of their review comments (and still you will be lucky if the client gives you reviews of your text with no contradictory remarks). The writing aspect of exhibit design takes much longer than you might expect. Everyone who writes thinks that they can write exhibit text, but there are rules about characters per line, lines per paragraph, paragraph per sign, and how all of this relates to the designs; how big, how far, who is reading… After initial writing, there are always words that may be edited out without losing meaning. Now you know this too.

Exhibition design is like architecture and takes all of the abilities of an architectural endeavor. It also goes through the same processes: Programming, Schematics, Design Development, Contract Documents, Construction Administration. It also has a parallel track of literal design aspects that result in Graphic Design, aspects that are essential to the work. While you are putting the three-dimensional process through its hoops, you are simultaneously working on two-dimension aspects including Research, Writing, Photos and Illustrations, and then the same process of Schematics, Design Development, Contract Documents, and Construction Administration (or Fabrication Administration, if you prefer) for this aspect of the work too. Contract Documents include Working Drawings and also gruelingly time-consuming, eye-crossingly complicated, and often boring-to-write, though necessary Specifications (which are the detailed written instructions that accompany the Drawings).

Exhibition design is a Renaissance Man’s endeavor (or, if the term “Man” offends you, a polymath’s endeavor). Depending upon the project, you may work with structural engineers, landscape designers, architects, lighting designers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, AV and multi-media experts, civil engineers, illustrators, photographers, writers, researchers, scientists, artists, teachers, administrators, politicians, metal workers, glass workers, woodworkers, animators, sign makers, and others. And you will have to know more than a little about each and all of their fields to work intelligently with them. You will be responsible to oversee Shop Drawings, Samples, and Prototypes. You will have to know where the materials and items you plan to use in your designs come from, how they age, what they cost, if and/or how they can be replaced over time. You will want to know everything you can about sustainability and environmentally-conscientious design — otherwise, why design at all? You will have to understand materials, lighting, composition, color, and have an impeccable business acumen. In Exhibition Design you really have to understand how people/visitors experience space, and exhibits in particular, which is also about the psychology of learning. The visitor experience is the point. You will have to be cognizant of curricula and the most current thinking in the field of Education. You will work, on average, one and a half to two years on any particular project, although often longer.

If you run your own business, the work of everyone who works for you — a staff of people you manage and for whose happiness you feel partially responsible — will ultimately be your responsibility and, at the same time, you will try to give them the recognition that they deserve, sometimes going overboard in this empathetic compensation and relinquishing your own reward. And you will be a therapist to your clients who are frequently comprised of multiple people who do not necessarily agree and sometimes would like to kill each other.

You will have to compete for almost every job you get. Clients will say that they want you to go all out and as far out as possible, and when you do, they will forcibly snap you back to their comfort zone. No one, not even your loving family, will understand what you do. Journalists will not mention you and might, in canonizing the hero architect, even give that architect credit for your work. It is likely that you will not have time to engage much in marketing efforts, unless you are willing to relinquish being involved in the work for which you have a passion and which brought you to where you are in the first place. You will spend hours upon hours managing your business and understanding the tax structure. You may try to raise your fees but project proposals will almost always be for fixed fees so that, once you get a project, you will work three to five hours for every one hour you are paid. Sometimes, you may have to buttress your firm and keep it afloat with your own savings. There will be no job security. Insurance costs are yours to pay, for you and your staff, and they will continue to precipitously rise. You will sometimes blurt out how you feel about all of this, with the risk that some people might think you are egoistical, obsessive, bitter (and, in my case, maybe a little neurotic)… and they may be right. Even in today’s world of rampant Hero Worshipping, it is hard to worship, or even recognize an Exhibition Designer, especially if she’s female and not very tall. And yet, you will often get into the Flow of it and feel a surge of happiness as good as life gets. You will often go home and feel as though you have done something worthwhile and you will have the satisfaction of often using so many of your talents. You will be one of the lucky few who enjoy their work more often than they dread it. You will feel satisfied and proud.

The point of Exhibition Design is, as far as I am concerned, to inspire positive change and action. The field of Exhibition Design is as complicated, important, and challenging as Architecture. And, even if I can tell you everything I know and you can follow every step, you still may not become a great designer. Because, beyond it all, there is that magical element. Intuition and character and persistence and wit, and maybe luck… whatever the brew is that, in your personal way, brings it all together.

What ya don’t know. Now you know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Have You Been?

This is the first entry in the “Talk” section of my new website. I  intend to compose and share essays about culture, design, art, architecture, and my personal experiences, hopefully on a regular basis from now on.

 

This is a story about Lehrman Cameron Studio’s recent whereabouts. It is mostly about place. But, as LCS News has been dormant for four years, it is also about time (wouldn’t ya say?).

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Lehrman Cameron Studio began in my one-bedroom basement apartment in Brooklyn, New York, in 1988, immediately after I received my architectural registration. It was also after I was just awarded my first major job – to develop and design a garbage museum in Connecticut. The project entailed a great deal of research about garbage, and all of the heavy lifting of designing in both two and three dimensions, with both literal and figurative outcomes. For this project, I worked from home, with one part-time design assistant, and I held a design/build contract, so that I also directed a dedicated and experienced fabrication crew. I loved the subject matter, and the process, and it felt as though it was telling a worthwhile story in a good way, moving people toward positive change. It was grueling and it was fun, and I got hooked on interpretive design from that time forward.

When the Garbage Museum project was complete, it won a design award. My firm was off and running, and I never looked back. Since that time, I have designed and/or been Lead Designer for nearly one hundred projects and have managed thirty five staff members as well as hundreds of consultants, contractors, and collaborators. The complicated projects have employed my architectural training, my artistic abilities, my graphic design sense, my (perhaps limited, although you decide) ability to write, my love of conversation, my interest in education, and my willingness to learn. The work has been challenging, and, for the most part, the teams of collaborators have been a joy to work with. I have been quite happy and in the flow.

Confession, nevertheless: It was about four and a half years ago, when the drudgery of sustaining a business began to grate irreparably upon my spirit, and the pleasure of fresh realizations in exhibition design waned precipitously, that I began to turn down prospective projects. This was also in the midst of the USA’s most recent economic depression when downsizing was not uncommon. Furthermore, this timing coincided with my children’s imminent departure for college (thus opening up the prospect of more room in our house). I pulled inward, and Max (my husband/partner) and I moved the office back into our home.

Working from home was “coming home” in a real sense, since I had run my office out of my place of residence for more half of the time I had been in business. I had started Lehrman Cameron Studio in our cozy apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, kept it in our house on a hill in Mill Valley, CA, and then spent many years working on considerable projects from a single room with an expansive view of the Olympic mountain range in our home in Seattle. I continued this work-and-live-in-the-same-place trend while my babies became toddlers, and toddlers turned into adolescents around me. Eventually, I moved the office down the street and had a 42-second commute without crossing an intersection. The workload grew, Max joined the firm, and we moved the office two miles away to a larger place in another, hipper Seattle neighborhood. In 2010, I designed the renovation of our house. And then, the pull was compelling enough and I returned home. I have always taken pride in building and sustaining a thriving business with little overhead while being in close proximity to my family. Given everything, this move back was comfortable and right for me. And, now we have meetings at the dining table, looking out on the garden.

Since returning to the homestead four years ago, Lehrman Cameron Studio and I have had various projects. We designed

  • the didactic interiors and exhibitions for “The Smart Building Center” in Seattle (an organization promoting environmental innovations for architectural renovations);
  • an exhibit concept plan for Northwest Energy company in Montana;
  • an interpretive plan for a new loop trail in the Washington Park Arboretum;
  • interpretive elements for a park in honor of Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson in Everett, WA;
  • an energy exhibit for a middle/high school in Seattle; and
  • an interpretive landscape for the park where Chief Sealth lived every winter for 60 years on Kitsap Peninsula.

I also pursued a public art project, gathered a spectacular team, and submitted a distinctive plan for a playground competition that was chosen as one of five finalists out of forty-five. (I was honored, although, ultimately, my project did not win.) I was a panelist on the subject of work/life balance for a women’s architecture group. Max and I lectured about our work to design students at the Seattle Creative Academy. We worked as interpretive designers for a new park on the northern shores of Lake Union in Seattle. And we developed a concept plan for interpretation to accompany the redesign and experience of a historic carousel in Spokane, WA.

Furthermore, for a year, I was the Creative Director for my mother’s magazine, the Nob Hill Gazette, and traveled often to and from San Francisco. For the Gazette, I led a group of website students at the Art Academy in the Bay Area to redesign the publication’s sorry and neglected website (a website soon to be relaunched) and I aggressively pulled the aesthetics of the publication into the 21st Century.

During this recent era, our now grown children left for college. Simultaneously, our aging parents began to need much more of our close attention, although they live in separate and distant states. I wrote various drafts of my mother’s biography.

Most central and personal of all, I have found that the pull to return to fine art is an irresistible one for me. I have set up my fine art studio again.

Admittedly, this has not been an easy period. I have felt somewhat burnt out — not a feeling I ever expected to endure — perhaps an inevitable accompaniment to the uncomfortably quiet Empty Nest Syndrome. Also, something strange was occurring in the exhibition design field or our particular small corner of the universe. For a quarter of a century, I was able to brag that almost one hundred percent of our projects were constructed. However, in the past five + years, there have been several concept plans or even project developments that never made it to fabrication. There has been much soul searching on my part and, if I may speak for him, also on the part of my infinitely patient partner/husband.

But now, at this side of the whirlwind, I find myself with a clarity and a revived enthusiasm for it all. For Max and for me, our intentions are to continue to design and develop interpretive projects that intrigue us. At the same time, I will draw, paint, and write, everyday in my personal art studio. I also hope to teach, part time. There are projects I have dreamed of for many years, and they span fields and defy categories. My dreams are hard to pigeonhole with labels, but I plan to chase them – with as much energy, enthusiasm, and happiness as I can muster. From home. I encourage you to raise your expectations. And please join me. Here we go.