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Because laws are more malleable than people, what you are
legally entitled to do has always depended on when and where you
live. Since our most important rights are subject to time and
place, our laws have shifted to cover the age at which you can
drink; the age, speed, and sobriety level at which you can drive;
and the circumstances under which you can marry. The passage of
California's Proposition 8, with the help of a cash infusion
from another state, is a case in point. Marriage has at various
times and places been authorized for one man and one woman only if
of the same race, and less widely for two men or two women. Laws
are designed to protect the vulnerable. The ostensibly heterosexual
adherent's of Prop 8 see homosexual marriage as a threat to the
sanctity of marriage itself, presumably including their own
marriages—although they can't say how.
To be sure, the institution is threatened wherever you look.
Ashton Applewhite was a superb editor who put together a small book
of jokes that became a best-selling series. On that basis, she and
her husband quit their jobs, and formed a book business together.
In the process, she divorced him for reasons described in her 1997
Loose. Happily married, with a wife who claims that she is
too, I had reservations about the book, supposing that the
subtitle, Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well,
presaged a promotional manual for divorce. But, emboldened by my
admiration for the author, I read it. Based on her own experience
plus interviews with 50 other women who initiated divorces and
lived to tell a brighter tale than might have been expected,
Applewhite lays out the inequalities of marriage in a more
convincing way than I have found in most feminist writing.
I suspect that the book may also illuminate some aspects of the
shared life and work experience of many designing couples. For I
wonder whether the success of such unions reflect the fact that
design is perceived as less likely than most fields to discriminate
against women. Genesis 2:18 tells us God promised Adam “an help
meet.” This led to the coinage of “helpmate” as a spouse. But in
both Biblical lore and secular interpretation, there was from the
beginning no ambiguity about which spouse it was. The workplace has
generally found the situation congenial.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,”
Shakespeare cautioned. But isn't work an impediment if pursued
jointly by both of the true minds?
With that question in mind I once organized a panel discussion
flippantly entitled “Designers Who Work Together and Sleep
Together.” I do not remember all the couples that participated, but
they included the architect Ben Thompson and urban planner Jane
Thompson, and the principals of the Los Angeles environmental
design firm Sussman/Prejza. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It wasn't. The panel was entertaining enough, because the panelists
were, but nothing was said or learned that isn't pretty clearly
true of design and cohabitation generally. And the title was too
cute for the subject to be taken seriously.
But does it deserve to be taken seriously under any name?
Perhaps not; yet the issue invites speculation, if not research.
The design professions have been loaded with couples who have
achieved eminence as working partners. William Drenttel and Jessica
Helfand, for example, are partners in a design practice,
co-publishers of the Design
Observer blog, and deservedly celebrated as leading citizens in
the design community. But although they seem and are unique, their
uniqueness is oxymoronically ubiquitous. One thinks of Charles and
Ray Eames, Josef and Anni Albers, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien,
Michael Donovan and Nancye Green, Forrest and Valerie Richardson,
Lella Vignelli, Michael and Kathy McCoy, Deborah Sussman and Paul
Prejza, Ayse Birsel and Bibi Seck, Will Burtin and Cipe Pineles, John Plunkett
and Barbara Kuhr, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Lazlo and
Lucia—followed by Sibyl—Moholy-Nagy.
Are such unions of life and work peculiar to design?
One suggested reason is that design is so complex that it
invariably demands collaboration. Unlike, say, writing, which is
more often a solitary act. At least most traditional writing is,
even when the writers are members of famously close marriages. Like
Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Ted Hughes and
Sylvia Plath were poets who were married to each other, but they
did not write their poems together. In writing for film or theater,
on the other hand, collaborations are common. John Gregory Dunne
and Joan Didion wrote novels separately but film scripts jointly.
Frances Goodrich and Alfred Hackett were a playwriting team. The
world of musical comedy would not have been the same without the
writing team of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, who, as it happens,
were not married to each other, but were commonly assumed to
Theater itself, not just the scripting of it, has been enriched
by such actor-couples as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, George
Burns and Gracie Allen, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Ossie
Davis and Ruby Dee. And working/loving partnerships have been the
story material of a great many films: Being Julia, starring
Annette Bening and Jeremy Irons; Madame Curie, with Greer
Garson and Walter Pidgeon; Bonnie and Clyde, with Warren
Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
As for designing couples, whether married or single, straight or
gay, designers who live together and work together manage to become
the not-so-secret sharers of almost everything. It is true that
contemporary design requires collaboration, but that doesn't
account for it. Design has always been collaborative, is in
fact inherently collaborative. I suspect the secret lies in
the intrinsicness of collaboration in the design process, even if
there is no single design process or such a word as
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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