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Exploring the art of craft

An Art Center College of Design symposium traces the power of creativity in science and song, cars and cartoons.

March 22, 2006|Scott Timberg | Times Staff Writer

It could almost be the premise of a three-guys-walk-into-a-bar joke: What did the magician say to the country singer and the hip experimental writer?

But the gathering of intellectual celebrities and maverick thinkers at Art Center College of Design's South Campus this weekend is no joke: "Stories From the Source: Radical Craft" is the second installment of the school's biennial design conference, and this one has a motley collection of guests -- not just Ricky Jay, Tift Merritt and Dave Eggers, but fashion guru Isaac Mizrahi, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff and Coop Himmelb(l)au founder Wolf Prix.

If Art Center's organizers aimed to assemble as disparate a collection of the semi-famous as possible, they've succeeded: The conference may have the highest percentage of any group of guest speakers who thought the calls from organizers were a wrong number. Some deal with design -- in architecture, technology and graphic arts -- as we traditionally understand it. But what do the rest have in common?

Erica Clark, the Art Center senior vice president who helped put the conference together, says they're all craftspeople and "exemplars of extreme accomplishment." She was trying to show how broad "craft" can be. "We're going beyond macrame."

She wants to expand the definition of design as well. "Design is much larger than designing a cup or a chair," she says. "It has to be fully informed by the larger world." Hence guest speakers from all over the place. (Information about the conference, which will accept walk-up enrollment starting Thursday, is available at www.artcenter.edu.)

Some of these guests use craft in the art of storytelling. "We're all making things," says Merritt, a North Carolina singer-songwriter whose roots are in Emmylou Harris and Van Morrison. "Crossing things out, pulling our hair out and going back to the drawing board."

Merritt sees songwriting as a very slow, very deliberate balancing act that begins with a couple of words and a few piano chords. "If you can't add music, you can go back to the words. And I try not to let them get too separate." She compares a successful song to a collage with a narrative, melody and rhythm that all serve the same purpose.

Although she can discuss it all quite cogently, Merritt is glad her role at the conference will involve singing and answering interview questions instead of giving a speech on "radical craft" -- the conference's title -- or the nature of creativity: "I really drew a good card on that one."

Jane Olson, chair of the board of trustees of Human Rights Watch, also concentrates on the craft of storytelling. But when she got her first call from Art Center, she was puzzled.

As Olson discussed her work with organizers, she realized that she was a craftsperson as well. She spends her time dropping into godforsaken regions that have experienced pillaging, war and genocide -- she's made almost a dozen trips to the former Yugoslavia since 1992 -- but that's only part of her job.

"What I do when I come back is tell stories, with all the history and religious and cultural factors. But it's really stories that inspire people to care and do something. I found people would gloss over if I said, 'Half a million were killed.... ' But if I tell one person's story well, people would say, 'We have to do something about that.' "

Other times, craft takes people into even farther-flung spots. Constance Adams, an architectural consultant to NASA, designs spacecraft and extraterrestrial environments.

But that's not the hardest part: Being a lone designer in a world of aerospace engineers, which she describes as a brilliant but deeply isolated subculture, sometimes makes her a stranger in a strange land.

"When I first came in," she says of her earliest work for NASA a decade ago, "I was hired to design the interior outfitting of a module meant to simulate a Mars habitat." In this environment, where people would be living for several months, she needed to tackle important sociological issues such as structuring private and public space, and keeping the type-A personalities, who typically volunteer for projects like this, from killing one another.

But the engineers, she says, assumed that "design" just meant aesthetics. "There were folks who made comments like, 'So you're going to what, pick the colors?' " Well, not exactly.

Still, even Adams, who is verifiably brainy and very close to being a proverbial "rocket scientist," is a bit baffled when asked how she fits into the college's idea of radical craft.

"I was expecting to learn how Art Center is defining radical craft," Adams says, "at the symposium."

John Hockenberry, a veteran news correspondent, who will serve as master of ceremonies, has the challenge of tying all these wide-ranging people and ideas together. "Design is a mysterious discipline," he says. "It exists in an abstract and concrete zone, and the abstract doesn't relate to the concrete."

Design can be as tangible as planning tract housing in Orange County, he says. But it's also about a culture's relationship to objects. It's a relationship, he says, that is changing from the homogenized mass production of Henry Ford's day, when people had little input in the finished product and how it was used, to more consumer-friendly items such as the iPod, which can be easily customized.

Either way, he says, the concept of "design" is so vague its meaning can be hard to put into words. His secret weapon? In his years as a war correspondent, radio interviewer and author, he has developed a knack for opening up "brilliant, arcane people who are off in their own worlds."

Also, he admits, "as a journalist, you're a net for junk knowledge."

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