Unsecret Sharers

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 book Cutting 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, Massimo and 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 be.

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 intrinsicness.

About the Author:

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.