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Friday, February 18, 2011

Life In What We Create by Bill Baldwin of HartmanBaldwin Design/Build

Is there an independent energy in the things that we create? How do the objects we shape, shape us and others? Can we create a certain “life” in buildings, a chair, or even a motorcycle?

For over 25 years I have participated in the creation or alteration of space. At its best the fusion of insightful architecture, masterful craftsmanship, and an inspired client is magical. Often our team will visit with past clients and listen as they recount minute details of a specific epiphany or an idea forged from relentless attention to an issue that changed their relationship to the space in which they live. This is the juice for us, an inspired creation that continues to inspire those for whom we created it.

On a few occasions I have had the chance to meet with the new owners of a past project. Their desire is usually to inquire about the maintenance of a certain feature or perhaps they have a new requirement and want advice about a change. On at least two occasions something startling transpired: The new owners would point out a certain space, transition, or detail that they were drawn to and their description would mirror the discussion and process that led to its creation…as if they had been present when we designed it.

This gave me pause. I had come to see the design process as a very individual path to the outcome of the final piece and always assumed that a rich explanation of the program and solutions would be required to fully understand the final product. Yet in these instances it appeared that much of the process simply resided in the space itself, independent of the designer and the client, as if it were a language of sorts. I began to reflect on the countless times that our team would be playing with a certain color combination, ratio, or balance of a specific detail and all would sense when it was “just right.” It was as if the strings of a musical instrument came into tune.

Poor design is inflicted on all of us and on a regular, if not daily, basis. From the momentary annoyance of packaging that is impossible to open ... to the consistent frustration of traffic-choked highways and bewildering urban centers. At these times I do not believe that it is a hyperbole to state that poor design pulls life from you. Think how quickly you will jettison a poorly-designed pen from your hand if you need to write something longer than your name on a check. Can the reverse be true as well? Is there a continuum of relative energy in creations from those where its absence depletes it from you to those that inspire and instill it in you?

If there is a “language” that speaks to the energy of a design, then perhaps there are some essential symbols one needs learn before speaking in sentences. As I write this, the shape of the computer screen, the mouse I hold in my hand, the cell phone on my desk, my wallet and the credit cards inside all relate to an essential design ratio. The “Golden Rectangle” is a rectangle in which the ratio of length to width is the golden ratio of 1.62 (if you have a 2-ft long rectangle the other side will be approximately 2 x 1.62, or 3.24).

This ratio surrounds us in everyday objects and has been a guiding design principal in art and architecture since the Renaissance as well as in use dating back to the Egyptians and Mayans. Why? It has intrinsic appeal. Something appears to simply be “true” about it. Mathematicians from Fibonacci in 1202 to Steven Hawking’s genius sidekick, Sir Roger Penrose, have been fascinated with it. But you need not be a mathematician to feel its pull anymore than past jazz greats needed to study musical theory to understand the beauty of their riffs.

I decided to try these ideas “on for size” with two functional art firms whose work I greatly admire.  Both create objects that seem to speak this language I am attempting to interpret.

Shinya Kimura founded Zero Engineering in Okazaki, Japan, in 1992. Shinya’s “Zero Style” hand-built motorcycles are minimalist sculptures that rebuke the contrived and fabricated flash of most modern choppers. The bikes combine a vintage feel with subtle and sinuous handmade parts that give his creations the sense of an “ancient future.” Shinya left Zero Engineering in 2006 to form Chabott Engineering and continue to explore his definition of the motorcycle as art. With his bikes featured in films and owned by celebrities, Shinya has gained quite a cult following.

Shinya’s shop resembles his bikes, earthy and almost primitive. We sat in a simple loft among art/bike books and two of his recent creations. Below, a dozen or more bikes were aligned like spawning fish and his current project, a café bike with a rare 70’s Italian motor as its heart, sat above its brethren on a workbench. His art translating more easily than his English, Shinya’s gracious partner Ayu Yamakita handled the English and Japanese between us. Shinya’s creations are deeply personal. Although he extensively interviews a client before he begins, he follows his own instincts to find balance and harmony… a feedback loop with his art as opposed to working out the details in advance. He starts with the motor, the reciprocating soul of the machine and then follows his intuition.

Shinya claims that if the client is not pleased with the machine he will keep the bike himself and refund the commission. One imagines this has never happened. His recent creations are almost biomechanical, insect-like in form, and the hand-wrought raw metal feel much like an exoskeleton that brings to mind the work of Swiss surrealist, H.R. Giger, of “Alien” fame. Shinya smirked at this observation, revealing some academic background in entomology.

When I pursued the concept of independent energy in his creations, at first he focused back on an essential triangle of creator, creation and client as though they each possessed a key to a lock that required all three keys to open. He spoke to his intimacy with his art, “a piece of me is in each bike,” and I was struck by the simultaneous intensity and modesty of the man. Shinya seemed to embrace the old adage “love the art in you, not the you in the art.” However specific his intentions may be to the piece and his client, Shinya acknowledged that he has reached many he has never met with the subtlety and power of his craft and after we explored this further and returned to the concept of an essential energy in his motorcycles, his smile and further words needed less and less translation from Ayu.

We lost Sam Maloof last year and local prejudice aside; I believe that he was the most famous woodworker in America. A MacArthur Genius Award winner, with his work showcased in the collections of the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum of Art and others, Sam’s signature rocking chairs were both collected by former presidents of the United States and crafted to meet the timing of local expectant mothers. I have the honor of owning one of the rockers and every child that visits my home heads for our rocker with glee as its archetypal shape seems to embrace every age and size.

Sam Maloof working on one of his signature rocking chairs. The celebrated furniture maker died on May 21 at his home near Los Angeles.

Though Sam is gone, the Sam and Alfreda Maloof Foundation still flourishes in its new location and his shop is still quite busy. I stopped by and spoke with two of his master woodworkers, Larry White and David Wade. Larry, David and fellow woodworker, Mike Johnson are multitalented artists in their own right. Together they form a trio that Sam affectionately referred to as “The Boys". They have been the backbone of the shop with their unrelenting attention to every detail. In addition to the incredible craftsmanship their furniture design finds that elusive balance of organic and intentional. As though the guiding hands had “grown” the chair and it were being crafted much like a bonsai tree.

The concept of energy in their creations found a quick home with both David and Larry. David had returned from a show in Chicago and remarked how Sam’s furniture had elicited a common reaction from the show’s attendees – that his pieces had “soul”. Larry investigated the question directly from the “energy” position and said, “If there is an energy to creativity, Sam had his finger in the socket of it.”
What is this energy? Is it simply a matter of personal taste? Or is there an underlying form to harmonious design, and in this sense, is the world as much discovered as it is invented?

Perhaps there is a commonality between Shinya Kimura’s motorcycles, Sam Maloof’s furniture, and humbly …the moments when I see our design/build team find that “just right” balance.

I would suggest that in our finest moments we discover a small slice of truth. I would go even further to suggest that when we can reconcile the ambiguity of our individual reality with the mysterious lure of the infinite, there is magic afoot. This is magic only in the fact that it unveils a common connection in what appears at times a chaotic world. As Plato said, “From the gods a gift to the human race: Thus I reckon the gift of seeing the One in many and the many in the One.”

As a last offering of this assertion, I ask a small favor: If you do not already own it, go to iTunes and download Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major-Prelude.

Most, if not all have heard this before. Is there a note that could be changed? Is its beauty a matter of opinion? Or is there something that fuses the hearts and minds of anyone who will give it its due?

You tell me…


  1. Hi Bill,

    I enjoyed reading your visionary comments on design. You and your staff work effectively in elevating the living standards for your clients with elegant home design. We enjoy what Hartman Baldwin has done for us. Thanks for the inspiration.

    On a personal note, please visit website This living philosophy is intended to be inspiring, as well.

    All the Best !!!

    Audrey & Jack

  2. Very insightful. I'd love to hear how you think this 'energy' grows from not just a creation by an individual but the creation of a design/build team.

  3. Bill,

    First, let me say that I love your writing. I admire and am inspired by people who write with such ease and beauty.

    Second, I think you’re on to something very profound in your exploration of the link between created objects and the created energy that they possess. A rabbi once taught me that this link is fundamental in understanding the Jewish view of man and G-d. As evidence of this, he says that the first chapter of Genesis is all about the human desire to be god-like in our ability to create ex-nihilo.

    The opening words of the bible are roughly translated as “In the beginning of G-d’s creating the heaven and the earth……” So G-d's primary description of himself is as a creative agent.

    Later Genesis describes how G-d makes man in his likeness. Since G-d is not a physical being, the only way a physical being (man) can be like G-d is to be able to create things from nothing.

    Genesis goes on to describe how the universe is essentially holy energy manifested in physical objects. Indeed, Kabbalah is the study of how that spiritual energy is harnessed and utilized in the physical world.

    G-d’s creation of the heavens and earth are not physical creations, but rather spoken creations. The Talmud says that words are the bridge between thoughts and deeds. G-d’s creation of the universe then was a two-step process: thinking and saying. Humans, being partially physical have to add the third step – the actual physical action of doing.

    Working in reverse, then, we know that any object is derived from G-d-like spiritual energy which has then been spoken and acted upon. The physical event is really an artifact of great spiritual energy or the confluence of multiple streams of spiritual energy.

    A chair, a motorcycle, a home not only has energy, IT IS energy. It is like a hunk of positive Kryptonite that radiates a shadow of the fingerprints of the maker.

    Our desire to be creative, our sense of fulfillment as a project comes to a close, our sense of loss when we transfer ownership of our piece of art are all evidence of our desire to be G-d-like; to connect to the infinite, and to make perfect things as well as to make things perfect with others.

    Creative people invest in their art spiritual energy that is reminiscent of Genesis. When done right, the result is a finished product from which one can deduce the creator and his/her spirit.

    This is the heavenly part of us. The animal part of us roams the earth looking for the next good meal and a comfortable place to lay our heads down at night. But that is best left to another discussion.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking and fascinating words. I look forward to the next post.