Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The time I asked Jay Doblin a question.

Mr. Jay Doblin was a professor at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and served as director of the Institute of Design for many years. One of his writings can be found in Dordt’s library, a book titled Perspective: A New System for Designers, published in 1955, fifth printing 1966.

Permit me tell you about the time I had the privilege to speak briefly with renowned industrial designer Jay Doblin (1920-1989). In 1983, the Society of Typographic Arts (STA) sponsored a conference, in Chicago, for design educators at the Illinois Institute of Technology and held in S.R. Crown Hall. On a superb October Saturday the conference was like a garden party with an impressive guest list of Who’s Who in design education. Sectional facilitators included Katherine McCoy, Gordon Salchow, Victor Margolin, Patrick Whitney, Dale Fahnstrom, and Michael McCoy. Conference attendance was not large and it was a small gathering for each breakout session. Jay Doblin, a dean of design educators, was the keynote speaker.

Doblin encouraged the audience to think of design education as fostering cultural transformation. He supported his thesis with a case history and discussion of the work of architect Ben Thompson. As he spoke he seemed to assume that we all knew who Ben Thompson was. Later, I was able to meet Doblin and I asked the question, “Who is Ben Thompson?” Doblin seemed embarrassed that I asked the question and went on to describe Thompson as a friend.

Thompson passed away in 2002 at the age of 84. And as stated in his obituary:
Benjamin C. Thompson, an architect whose exuberant re-creation of Faneuil Hall in Boston inspired festival marketplaces around the country and whose Design Research International stores have influenced home furnishings to this day. Conventional boundaries were not part of Mr. Thompson’s practice, for he was just as much an advocate as an architect of vital cities, human commerce, lively design and good eating.

‘For art to be part of our life we must live with it, not just go to museums,’ Mr. Thompson said in a 1963 interview in The New Yorker. ‘In a way, things like museums and Lincoln Center kill art and music. Art is not for particular people but should be in everything you do—in cooking and, God knows, in the bread on the table, in the way everything is done.’

‘It was food, it was the culture of food, it was the design of objects that surround us in our daily lives and the buildings that sold them,’ the architect Moshe Safdie said about Mr. Thompson’s career. ‘It was an extraordinary celebration of design, life, urbanism and all the things we tend to take for granted now. He was one of the forces that changed America in that respect.’ From
In 1966 Thompson’s essay, “Visual Squalor and Social Disorder,” advocated for an urban architecture that would promote joy and social life.

Thompson’s essay made me think about urban architecture from a Christian perspective of common grace. That is to say, creative designers can be the miracle workers, finding holy-spirited solutions to societal problems. Christian graphic design students and design practitioners need to ask this question: “How does my work help grow the kingdom of God?” In response, we can begin this work by cultivating a creative attitude in the community of Jesus Christ. As philosopher, Nicholas Wolterstroff eloquently puts it:
The task in history of the people of God, the church, the followers of Jesus Christ, is, in the first place, to witness to God’s work of renewal to the coming of His Kingdom. Its task is, secondly, to work to bring about renewal by serving all people everywhere in all dimensions of their existence, working for the abolition of evil and joylessness and for the incursion into human life of righteousness and shalom. Thirdly, it is called to give evidence in its own existence of the new life, the true, authentic life—to give evidence in its own existence of what a political structure without oppression would look like, to give evidence in its own existence of what scholarship devoid of jealous competition would look like, to give evidence of what a human community that transcends while yet incorporating national diversity would be like, to give evidence in its own existence of what an art that unites rather than divides and of what surroundings of aesthetic joy rather than aesthetic squalor would be like, to give evidence in its own existence of how God is rightly worshipped. And then lastly it is called to urge all men [people] everywhere to repent and believe and join this people of God in the world.

Wolterstorff, Nicholas P. Art in Action. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980. 197.

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