Eric Heiman on Richard Schoenwald
“Eric, is there a God?”
“Uh...it depends on your beliefs?”
“Eric, there's no God!”
This was my first interaction with Carnegie Mellon University History Professor Richard Schoenwald in his course, Society and the Arts. I was a 21 year-old, 4th year architecture student and my concerns up to this point were strictly parochial: build models, draw, drink wine, spin records, chase women, soak, rinse, repeat. Then this short, bearded nebbish of a man asks me if there is a God!
Whether I believed in the Almighty wasn't Schoenwald's point, but instead to consider what prompts people to believe in God in the first place. He expanded on this notion in the course description: “Human existence means finding ways to symbolize what is going on inside human beings. 'Art' refers to some of these ways. In this course we want to gain both some general understanding of human symbolizing, and a more specialized grasp of how art works.”
Schoenwald never lectured; discussion was his modus operandi as a teacher. We always started with the assigned readings but inevitably spun the conversation into wider orbits like the impact of photography on art, current political events, or comparing Frank Sinatra to Public Enemy. He took us to the Carnegie Art Museum and through its holdings illustrated the historical continuum of painting and sculpture from the Renaissance to the Modern Age. He had the music students play Chopin, Schubert and Mozart to us in class; he encouraged attending the university-sponsored classical concerts, and required us to view our fellow classmates' art exhibitions. Schoenwald then assigned papers that required us to link our own experiences to the authors we were reading and the art we were witnessing. A typical assignment was “write a play where you, author A, and artist B meet and discuss your life.” No meaningful artwork was passive in its delivery, and it was our responsibility, as thinkers, to actively decode it beyond its immediate appeal and surface beauty. This was “leading a life of the mind.”
I was fortunate enough, also, to cultivate a friendship with the Professor. I took his fall semester class, and visited him often to discuss Beethoven's 7th symphony, Max Beckmann, poetry, and being Jewish in the late 20th century. After graduation, I abandoned Pittsburgh and a career as an architect for the uncertain glow of the West Coast. My eagerness to break with the past, though focused, left me rudderless, and while elated in my freedom, I was also bitter that my education had not afforded me more immediate opportunities. So I wrote to Professor Schoenwald about my frustration.
His response was wise and comforting: “Looking back with some bitterness gets you nowhere. I think of you endlessly smart and inquiring, so full of possibility, and now you're off on another road. You have been simply a great joy, and one way or another, that is what you are bound to keep on being. It doesn't mean without regrets and mistakes and uncertainties and ambivalences. Thoughtful people especially in the difficult world of today are bound to experience frustration and disappointment and regret. Yet some people have a spark and can keep that spark glowing. I bet on you.”
It might be overdramatic to say this single paragraph changed the course of my life, but when we are young, we gravitate towards the poetic, and our momentous turns often spring from the minutiae in life—pop songs, a flirtatious gaze, or personal correspondence that, to our surprise, bears the fruit of wisdom. For the following three years we corresponded by mail frequently, and on my trips back to Pittsburgh I would stop by Schoenwald's office to say hello. He would always exclaim, “Oh my God!” and quickly shuttle out the student with whom he was meeting. He would then sit me down, and inquire about my current endeavors and talk about his courses, recent travels, and any art he had seen.
He died suddenly in 1995, and to add insult to injury, I received a postcard from him immediately afterwards, dated a day before his death. In it he spoke of illness (I had recently been laid up with a broken collarbone) and how we rarely remember it as an incentive to enjoy life. “Maybe we just go on, which is OK, too,” he wrote. “There is so much to do and enjoy.”
I've never thought of graphic design as an end in itself, but rather a vehicle to hopefully engage, enlighten, educate, or enrage people. Effective communication cannot happen without an understanding of the world beyond surface layers. This requires us to be sponges, and it requires concentrated thought about what we absorb and then spit back out. We don't exist in vacuums; context is everything as everything is connected. If the study and teaching of history is, as Schoenwald wrote, “examining the record of human consciousness,” then we as graphic designers ignore this study, and the other worlds outside design, at our own peril.
I'm a professor myself now, and alongside critiques of concept and form, I regularly engage my students in discussions of readings, cultural events, and other design examples they see outside the classroom. These discussions do not directly improve their form making or problem-solving skills. Instead, they encourage the students to think about design in the context of their entire lives, rather than just their immediate work area. I use the term, “Citizen Designer,” to describe the obligation we have to our society at large, if not all of humanity, which comes before our urge to create design.
I also use the phrase, “Human first, design second,” not as a call for using more recycled paper necessarily, but to emphasize that the road to successful, beneficial design starts with a degree of humanity—towards your client, your collaborators, and the work itself. Professor Schoenwald was no doubt a brilliant man who was meant to teach others. But what endeared him to so many was the willingness to display his humanity and to think of us not as just names on a roster, but as an extended family. This is the trait I do best to emulate in my own teaching.
As he said in one of his rare lectures I was lucky to attend, “I am the creation, I am the gift of creativeness, of the drive and urge and need to share what's in my head and in my heart, and sometimes even to put into print, and sometimes, now, here, to put it into these words that I offer you. I can't lead the life of the mind in solitude, and neither can you, and together we defy the tyranny of change, and we escape being imprisoned by falseness and triviality, and we jointly venture onward.”
We miss you, Professor.
Principal, Volume Design
Assistant Professor of Design, California College of the Arts (CCA)
San Francisco, CA