Thelen: [Feedback] Now why does it doing that, is it because the mics are too close to each other? That seemed to be… Franz

Staples: Right, and we won that. Charles

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Staples: Right, and we won that.

Charles: We won that and also the visitors center at Monticello.

Staples: And he won that.

Charles: He won that, but they still were not these necessarily formal documents the way you later got…in fact those early ones, Views of Vanishing Frontier, the Lowell one, there were a couple of them where we got paid to complete. You got paid some money to develop your ideas.

Thelen: To apply…

Charles: To develop ideas.

Staples: Five thousand dollars or something.

Thelen: Preliminary stuff.

Charles: And that is nice. I do not think people should do free design, not being paid. Although we are dealing with that now in Singapore. I do not know where to quite go with this. By the eighties there were certainly a lot more design firms around. Later seventies Ralph Applebom starts and there is just more and more, maybe the West group out in California, now there is…

Thelen: People who name themselves museum exhibit designers. Not something else.

Charles: Not industrial designers doing exhibit design. Well there was DCM, there were other groups in New York who were also doing a lot of showrooms, tradeshows, things like that, that are doing museum exhibits too. The presidential libraries are beginning to happen. I think DCM did the Lyndon Johnson one. We did Ford, that was a breakthrough project for us.

Thelen: In what sense?

Charles: We did all the research and writing.

Thelen: Before that the curators would have done the research?

Charles: Well, on our earlier projects, like We the People, other projects that we had done, the curators were…

Staples: There was no organization to do that stuff. We did the exhibit and the building which was to show that stuff. There were archivists working for the National Archives, but then Barbara and two or three others were used to do the writing and the research of stuff.

Charles: It was our project in the way the Eames projects and had been the Eames office projects. Does that make sense?

Thelen: It does, but I want to probe it. How did you experience it that way?

Charles: We were making direct decisions with the client, i.e. President Ford versus working together with a curator at the museum and then presenting ideas forward that, and it some ways carrying out ideas that, had been directed by the museum.

Thelen: You had more of a sense of ownership.

Charles: Absolutely, absolutely.

Thelen: What you say is as likely to shape what gets presented as somebody else.

Charles: Exactly, that was true on Ford, its true on Coca Cola, true on SAB, Sixth Floor very much, that was with Conover. These are projects outside of the more traditional museum world.

Thelen: That is interesting. That is very interesting.

Staples: Many of these jobs were not museums, they were corporations or collections.

Charles: They are corporate museums, but they are not museums with all the hierarchical, who does what.

Thelen: It is not the field museum or the Corcoran Gallery.

Charles: With the tradition of curators do this, designers do this, et cetera.

Thelen: That’s fascinating. Museum design might have begun in these niches, these places, these new kind of sites.

Charles: I think in some ways, yes because it is coming also out of the world’s fairs. Those are much more like to be a corporation commissioning a designer to get their idea across and certainly that even goes back to the 1930s world’s fairs with Walter Darwin Teague and some of those people. As they say, Computer Perspective was an example while it was at the Smithsonian, it was commissioned to Eames, your ideas, you develop it. You are doing the intellectual design as well as the three dimensional design. You are designing the concepts and so on. That was very stimulating, is still very stimulating.

Thelen: There was a point where maybe there were some places where exciting work in design was happening and they were not necessarily the nation’s most famous museums.

Staples: Correct.

Charles: That is true, I think that is true.

Staples: Basically…

Charles: It was beginning to happen in science centers, we did not really work on those, but that was happening. Designers were taking a lot more of the lead in some of those. Children’s museums. I think all of this is happening in the seventies, early eighties. It was very exciting.

Thelen: So here is this moment, or whatever we are calling it. You are two people, how did you negotiate who would do what? Is that the right way to put it?

Staples: Hardware, software.

Charles: We just were doing the same things we did at the Eames office. It hasn’t changed essentially. Bob designs it, has to get it built. I have taken on some financial role I never had at the Eames office, but essentially it is the same.

Staples: And I do the cooking.

Thelen: And you do the what?


Staples: I do the cooking.

Charles: I pay the bills.

Thelen: And somebody writes the grant proposal, the proposals.

Staples: Well, she writes those.

Thelen: You write the proposals.

Charles: Yes, I have to do the response to the RFPs and so on.

Thelen: Do you have any role in that?

Staples: Not generally, but there will be a part in that needs some illustration for some problem that needs to be solved. A good one is that, the Yale.

Thelen: How did that happen?

Staples: Yale is Louie Con building, what is its official title.

Charles: Well it is the Yale University Art Gallery and they call it the Con building of the Yale University Art Gallery, opened in 1953.

Staples: Louie Con is a heavyweight in the world of architecture. He did the Kimble in Fort Worth, the British Library in New Haven and then this design building for the Yale art collection. There he, Louie Con, did the interior treatment initially. The pogo panels and the case work and blah blah blah. The museum had been under various leaders after Louie Con left and the whole sort of purity of his design was polluted and the current administration wanted to rebirth, rebirth of Louie Con’s building. Paulshek the architect did the building and we did the galleries in there. One of the things that we started with was they asked if there was a new and improved pogo panel. They said that was one of the problems the designer would have to solve.

Thelen: I do not know what a pogo panel is, sorry.


Charles: Okay, let me go back here.

Thelen: It is just a…

Charles: Do you remember pogo sticks. There is pressure happening. So this panel, the concept was that you would make movable panels that could go anywhere in the gallery. So you would have a free gallery space with no columns. They have a little leg at the bottom and then they have, not attachments, just pressure at the top with a spring inside.

Staples: See look.

Charles: So when they - I mean this was sort of a classic competition of what might happen today, if they called us in 2003. First they are doing what I call the beauty pageants.

Thelen: The beauty pageants, what is that?

Charles: The RFQ, request for qualifications. They are calling, they are not quite putting it on the street. They are calling lots of people and asking them to send in their portfolio. You want to do just enough work to make the cut. You do not want to overdo it at that stage. Sometimes we make the cut, sometimes we do not. In this case we made the cut to four, which was very interesting because we had not done a lot in art museums. We had been called on by art museums when it was a unique problem, whether it was puppet shows or something you could not…

Staples: Or the Joslin ones.

Charles: Or the Joslin bobners, you could not just hang them on the wall easily. When we made the cut to four, then you have to get interviewed. Nowadays people would take it as a PowerPoint. We took it as great big boards like an architect might and a booklet. Well, I spent about two weeks trying to learn about Con and everything to do this booklet. So this the booklet. First we are talking about ourselves and what we have done, what other art museums. They outlined some questions, so we are trying to answer the questions.

I think it was only about four days before we were going to present, I remember saying to Bob, “do you think you could draw up the pogo panel ?” that is clearly their biggest concern. So Bob sat down and we went into the meeting. We talked about the pogo panel, how it worked. We really tried to understand how it worked on the ceiling, but Bob went it with a drawing of the pogo panel. How it physically was going to get built. What we later learned was that the other three people said that is a really interesting problem that is going to take us a lot of work.

Thelen: Wow, great story.

Charles: So we won the job. We designed their pogo panels. The sad part is that we did not win the job to do the second half of the Yale University Art Gallery. But this was a wonderful project and I spent time then.

Staples: We were highly thought of by the staff, but the administration wanted a new….

Charles: That is not true, we were highly thought of by a lot of the staff, but….

Thelen: As opposed to who, the administration?

Charles: A new star designer, who came from the Met.

Staples: Curator.

Charles: Curator, pushed having them hire somebody from the Met.

Thelen: Star designer, what’s that?

Charles: Star curator.

Thelen: Star curator, what’s that?

Charles: He had very big name. He had been worked part-time at the Met and part at Yale and Yale convinced him to come full-time. His name’s Larry Kintur. He really wanted a guy that he was very comfortable with the Met and his galleries were going to be a major part of the new facility and so they hired the other guy.

Staples: Part of it had to do with, Barbara had to choose colors for his gallery.

Charles: We had had some run-ins.

Staples: He did not necessarily enjoy her colors.

Charles: He never went with our colors .We did not have a good relationship. On top of that I will say, they first called and said they wanted to hire us and then they called at the very last minute to do a whole presentation about how we had done contextual design at other projects. We did not have that many and we went up there, but somehow we did all kinds of other discussion but never did a formal presentation. Then they had a formal competition, we worked very hard on it, but we did not get it.

One of the interesting things that I have never written up and I do want to write up, maybe someday. We then worked on trying to talk about what Con’s aesthetic was, once we got the job, how he had used the building. We did a lot of research on where the galleries had been in the original building, how it worked, what the possibility was with the pogo panels, what angles everything would go on to show the curators. We actually went through and found examples of different galleries. I looked for type, I looked for all kinds of things. It was basically a goal and it worked to get everybody on board that the old system was good, it was a good system, it could be flexible. You could stick with the Con module and be able to do a lot with it. I think it was a very very successful reinstallation.

We set up a whole system of casework for them. A modular system that they are now using in a lot a places, not just the galleries we worked on. It is a project we are immensely proud of. It is sort of our art museum period because right after that Detroit called. Before Yale called in 2002, we had one tiny job. Again it was kind of like, well maybe the industry is telling you something.

Thelen: Had you tried to get other art jobs? Or did you stick with what you knew?

Charles: We have never been very aggressive.

Thelen: In what sense?

Charles: People came to us. We never quite have learned.

Staples: There are publications of business daily, something like that where they list all the jobs that are available and you can apply for them.

Charles: Immensely unrewarding.

Thelen: You tried it?

Charles: Once or twice I responded to things. During this last downturn I tried again a little bit.

Staples: One thing we discovered is that it is not very pleasant to work for the government.

Thelen: Why is that?

Staples: Just the mentality of the people. Once they get in, many of them just suffer from boredom and do as little as they can do.

Charles: I would not say that. I think that this whole contracting system becomes difficult.

Thelen: How so?

Charles: I do not want this to be a whine session, but…

Thelen: Why not? You get a chance. You know, you reflect on this stuff, you have experience.

Staples: I mean he is got to take the sour with the good.

Charles: You… First of all to get through the process of a very very formal RFP, particularly for a government agency, it is just volumes of stuff you are filling out. You are saying how many hours you are putting down and this many meetings.

Staples: Rights employers, whatever.

Charles: On and on and on. Unless we think…

Staples: Tell him the several categories that you believe you do a job for.

Thelen: There was that. Go ahead and refer to it, I did see it. The listener to this may not have it in front of them.

Charles: I should go find my copy, I will find it.

Thelen: I have got one, I have got it here somewhere. [pages rustling] it is very distilled, the voice of great experience. Here it is, I have found it. You want to see it?

Staples: It is her…

Thelen: It is your list, I have found it. It is already ratty with wear.

Charles: First of all, we have always stayed very small.

Thelen: And we need to talk about why that is or how that is.

Charles: We like to be hands-on. I do not want to be an administrator.

Staples: We do not delegate well.

Thelen: You like to work on the whole project.

Charles: I like the intellectual challenge of talking with the curators or the scientists.

Staples: She doesn’t trust anybody. [laughter]

Charles: I do not know that that is true.

Thelen: Well, one person at least.

Staples: She does not trust me either.

Charles: I think you also really like to do the design. We have stayed very involved in every project. Even though we have had people working for us doing things, we like to be very involved. So this little list, I do not know why I first did it. There is been a number of variations of it, but essentially it is the same. You really want to work on some interesting subjects.

Thelen: Interesting to you?

Charles: Yes, why not. We are not starving, we have not starved.

Staples: Not yet.

Charles: So we have…I think we did not respond to the Wrestling Hall of Fame. I think my favorite one that we did not response to was the Catfish Hall of Fame.

Thelen: The Catfish Hall of Fame. What’s wrong with catfish?

Staples: You had to provide your own catfish.

Charles: I had never eaten catfish, I did not know anything about the lore of catfish. Maybe I made a mistake not to respond.

Staples: There are just some things that shouldn’t be museums.

Charles: You beginning to get…

Staples: We have said that any number of times.

Charles: If something comes through that sounds maybe interesting. You try to talk to the people, get a sense that they are together enough on this. That is it is not just some wishful thinking, oh would not be fun to build a museum, particularly if it is not a major institution. That it is interesting is really important. We are going to spend a lot of time on it, so it ought to be something interesting.

Thelen: That is number one.

Charles: Well, yes, some of these are almost equal.

Thelen: I am looking at a list of six here.

Charles: Six or seven.

Thelen: Seven, sorry, I cannot even read.

Charles: The people you are going to work with ought to be really interesting. Now that is hard to figure out in advance. Smart, interesting. Bill Fitzhue, who is the artic scholar we worked with on Crossroads, he is a fascinating guy.

Staples: Marica Gallagher.

Charles: Marica Gallagher at Joslin was great. Susan Stein at Monticello. These are really - they have got great ideas, they are very interesting to talk to, they are willing to listen to us. There is a really good shared, exciting - but we are going to learn from some stimulating people. The third one important institution. All things being equal, if the National Gallery was asking or a very tiny art gallery was asking, you would probably go with the National Gallery. There are just reasons to do that. On the other hand, the Sixth Floor was not an important institution, but the subject was very important and when we met the women organizing it, it was clear that they were going to do the project. So we kind of looked at each other and said we are probably the best people to do, even if we did not think it was such an exciting topic initially.

Staples: And some of our friends in the museum world said you should not do it.

Thelen: Well that is an interesting piece.

Staples: Because it…

Charles: Goulish, why would you do that its not…

Thelen: Goulish…

Staples: Just conspiracy theories and never really resolved.

Thelen: You are going to get beaten up for whatever you.

Charles: And just why would you spend time on that creepy subject? We quit telling people we were working on it because you did not want to have to justify it to people. But there it was really the colleagues, Lyndalyn and Conover, that were so persuasive when we met them that we took it on. Challenging, creative or intellectual problems, that is part of interesting subject I think. I guess Yale would be a very interesting creative problem.

Staples: Location.

Charles: Well, I have not gotten to location yet, that is a little further. But if there is an interesting problem that has to get solved. Total control over design solution, that is a little aggressive, but that is an issue primarily of architects.

Thelen: I do not know what you mean by that.

Staples: Architects like light. Exhibit, costumes or paper, light is not good. Control light is alright, but if you have floor to ceiling glass windows in a gallery that you are going to put stuff in, you have got a problem and the architects do not understand it. You try to tell them, like the women’s memorial over here in Arlington. We did this hemispheric al exhibition space that was excavated from behind (inaudible).

Charles: Hemicycle.

Staples: Hemicycle, they dug out earth and then they built a secondary wall and covered the top with glass so it was now an enclosed space where the women’s memorial, women in military service to America. had all of this stuff and one of the things they were going to display is costumes, uniforms from the Revolutionary War all the way up to today. The architects, who did a brilliant job I think, except for one thing is that they let all of this light in right where these costumes were going to be displayed. So the sun would come up in the morning, we took it upon ourselves to call for some help from a lighting specialists.

Charles: We did computer studies to figure out where the light was coming, that they should have done.

Staples: Then we decided, we suggested to the General Wilma Vault that there be these canopies over the cases to filter or allow the direct sunlight into this thing. Well the architects went ballistic. We cut their space right in half by this sort of line of high-tech shutters overhead.

Charles: They finally accepted it and we in fact in that case did have pretty much totally control because Wilma Vault, the general, had confidence in us. I was actually thinking about the one or two times we have been a sub to an architect has been disastrous.

Thelen: I see, I see.

Charles: Because in the end, the way the whole system is written, we are only supposed to talk to the architect and then the architect talks to the client. And the architect can veto our designs. That is a serious serious problem. I do not think we have to have total control, with the client we want to share ideas. That is what I am saying that total is a little bit extreme, but control of design solutions is out there. I jokingly say to clients, but I am serious too, if you want to have any say about the turquoise color I am going to select then I can have a lot of say about the ideas and writing that you are going to do, right? The goal is that the ideas are out here, the design is out here, that everything is out in the middle of the table and you can talk about it respectfully. You are not taking it personally, you are really trying to work together to get to the best solutions, that is that.

Thelen: Is that decisive client?

Charles: No that is a different thing, that is still on design solution.

Thelen: You want everything to be candid and open and nobody has got individual ownership.

Charles: And nobody says I have a PhD.

Thelen: Oh, I see. Now I get it.

Charles: I have a lot of inferiority because of never having a PhD.

Staples: But she has great hackles. [laughter]

Charles: I particularly do not like the “I have a PhD” if I have just had to correct the text and get it grammatically right.

Thelen: There is a few doctors that you respect except for your pediatrician or your…

Charles: No I respect a lot of people with PhD. I am laughing a little bit on that, but there have been times, I am self-conscious. The decisive client, you want somebody who you come to them and they say that is really interesting and yes we can move forward with that. It is not I have to go talk to three more people. Going back to controlling the design solution, what you want to avoid is, we are presenting to you, you are middle management at IBM, that is going to get taken to the next level and the next level and the next level. You are not even going to be in the room to defend what you are suggesting. That is important too, that you are presenting your design ideas and you can defend them and hear the complaints about them. But not have it have to go through so many filters. But a decisive client, somebody who can make decisions and has good ideas, et cetera, is important. Bruce Stark was certainly that at SAB, he was great.

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