The failure of Christopher Columbus lie not in what he found, but in what he was seeking. The success of Columbus was not in discovering new lands, but in discovering the act of discovery. Which came about by way of a simple rubric: Experience is the best teacher. His education was not intentional, but circumstantial.
Education at its best provides one thing: developing a way of thinking. That way of thinking includes defining a thought process, the process ultimately leading to a certain understanding. Select a few of the key words from those first two sentences - thinking, definition, process, understanding - and I would wager you would have an excellent outline for any kind of education. By necessity design education must include those terms, coincident with students learning of form, function and the intricacies of the many avenues and vehicles of design. When in the thrall of an educator, a student has an opportunity to leave an educational institution with more than they bargained for.
Design as both product and process was not addressed as such when I was a student. Yes, we were taught a process, but that word was not used. Instead we learned of research, iteration and reiteration, all in service toward one end, the final product. Today that final product, be it identity, environment, collateral, packaging, multimedia or other, - if it is to occupy a place of value in our society, -more often than not embraces ideas that include deeply considered experiential and cultural components.
But it can be wagered that most students do not enter educational programs - certainly at the undergraduate level - considering experiential and cultural components of any part of a project. Instead they may have at the very least, a vague enjoyment that includes the form of design or even the making of the product, and at best they have found a love for a certain aspect of the product. But it is almost always the product they are interested in, design as thing, not as process.
Yet an interesting thing happens when one starts down the path of education. Just as all paths do not lead to a final goal, so too, all paths started upon are not the ones we stay on. As one marches on, opportunities present the student with choices that include taking the path of less resistance, of following the wide-swath of others before them, or of taking that step away from the many others. A small step up provides the slight perspective that the others do not perceive. Once a student on the path of education realizes that small step may offer differing perspectives, some quickly seek the novel vantage points gained by their new-found efforts. Like anything that requires effort, energy exerted in a positive manner often rewards one, and just as often, the new-found vantage points are reward enough.
Kevin Buth no doubt entered the Portfolio Center of Atlanta with the same intent that I went back to school when I was 25 to study design at Massachusetts College of Art. I remember very clearly the day we each went up to the blackboard in Al Gowan’s research class to write in one sentence why we decided to go to MassArt. Others wrote of learning about design and aspects of it. I wrote four words: Get a hip portfolio.
At 25 I was a bit ahead of the curve and was concentrating on my end-game, my product, understanding that whatever process my teachers would instill would surely nurture my ability or lack thereof to deliver the “hip” part. I was fortunate to find faculty that not only pushed me, but encouraged me, each of equal value, though I realized neither at the time.
Twenty years later and somewhere around the same age I was when I was in school and searching , Buth has found something he didn’t know he was looking for: a different answer to a different question.
Before one travels they must have the intent of following a path elsewhere, the thought coming before the action. Unless our intrepid traveler is rudderless and blown by the wind, choosing a path of education, regardless of direction, is certain to lead one toward a new perspective. Today, even the most socially unaware often picks up a tour guide of some sort, before visiting a foreign land. Why? To more readily find what they are searching for - maybe an acclaimed sightseeing spot or shopping experience. There are sights to see, and sightseers are more often than not looking for a certain experience. In the process of traveling they may pass unawares of any number of compelling and provocative sights and experiences while focused on their goal. They will find that if they broaden their field of vision an exponential bonanza of what the world offers in new perspectives. And should our intrepid traveler venture far outside their known world, they will some across new sets of circumstances allowing them the opportunity to gain new knowledge and/or look back upon where they came from with a new insight.
Columbus was looking for something very specific. He was emphatically not in search of The New World. He was in search of the other side of the world he already knew, through centuries of travel and trade, through histories and stories. He imagined the islands of the Far East lying somewhere beyond the Azores, beyond the Canaries. He was looking for what he knew existed: India and the Indies, that multitude of islands from which all things foreign came.
On reaching landfall, he imposed upon terra firma that which his world already knew: the peoples to the East must be Indians. For more than 500 years the world has lived with that simple mistake. But along with the natural mistakes of imposing one’s known order on what one crosses paths with, Columbus ushered in an era of new realization that spread across the “known” world. Of course realization and understanding are two different things, and the latter is not easily embraced.
Understanding only comes from actively engaging. Engaging is what happens when you find yourself in new surroundings, with new ideas, and interacting with that newness. Engaging with new cultures is the surest way of testing those ideas and values which you have acquired over the years. We can recognize the commonalities we share as people and celebrate the differences that make us unique. There is literally a world of difference between Indians and Indians, or better said, between those people who live between the Indus and Bramaputra Rivers in India, and those who inhabited the lands between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Like most students at the Portfolio Center, Buth came searching for something very specific, but in the course of his studies - in the path of this one course - he found what could be argued as a higher purpose. If the best kind of teaching is the kind that by teaching one, effects a benefit to others, Hank Richardson’s chair class allowed Buth to find a vehicle that serves not only the form and content that all design projects must serve, but also allowed Buth to find the personal story that, in being specific, becomes universal, or as the designer himself says, the “successful journey inward then leads to an ability to change things outside [oneself].”
This broader purpose, harkens back to the writings of 18th-century German philosopher/historian/poet. Friedrick von Schiller, who suggested that an Aesthetic Education was paramount in building an ethical and moral society. That said education could bridge the world of mere survival and the mundanities of day-to-day living and crest a summit of ethical certitude by understanding, of all things, beauty. That by looking within and without all that is created and how it is created, one can appreciate all that is nature, and in its inclusion, humanity.
By examining the relationship between himself and his adopted brother Cortez, who came into his life from a vastly different cultural and socio-economic background, Buth has created a vehicle - a chair - that allows users to at once sit together, but separately. The user may choose to face the direction in which they are seated - 180° apart - or they may choose to turn to face, and interact, with whomever they sit beside.
My guess is Buth did not see the love-seat connotations, in his encompassing and embracing form. The anti-love seat would be constructed the same way, yet with a higher back, separating the seated. Yet following the maxim that good fences make good neighbors, only a small barrier separates, allowing interaction, should one choose. In a society where neighborhoods readily include neighbors that do not know one another, the chair allows that though the seated are by proximity together, they may share neither outlook nor anything but that proximity. So is the course of human nature.
Theoretically Buth’s chair is based in part on understanding patterned energy, of realizing consistent efforts. His project, his product, serves as microcosm, as a fractal for the whole of society as he sees it and how he wishes it. His delving into theory - specifically Vorticism.- is the kind of stuff that can leave any project with the pallor and stiffness of Pure Academia. But Buth draws from the narrative of personal experience to put his literal spin on his chair. As with all things private made public, more often than not the public is unaware of neither the theory nor personal inspiration that goes into the act of creation. In truth, for work that is made public to succeed, it shouldn’t need explanation, succeeding on it’s own, imbued with value by the user.
This is where Buth’s Vortex chair works best: to the uninitiated. He provides the framework, we have to do the rest. In a written statement Buth suggests that the user be able to look down on his seat from above, that they may see the “new perspective”
Davy Crockett, the Tennessee frontiersman and Congressmen, who died in Texas as part of an ill-fated plan that served at catalyst for many other changes, once said “Know you are right, and then go ahead.” It is that kind of rightness, or righteousness in its finest sense that imbues Buth’s chair. One can argue about choice of materials, about cuts and curves, but one cannot argue with his engaging, his understanding, his perspective,
Educators are links between worlds. Between Old Worlds and New Worlds. They illuminate paths never before considered, and urge caution and encouragement on those they know best. Education serves the role of growing generations of thoughtful citizens, for education should ultimately be about teaching one how to think, before that thought process is attached to any rigid or determined direction. Paths may change, and by necessity, by circumstances, by any number of forces, may lead us from our goals. But with an education that encourages examination of all kinds, both of self and the world around us, we would all be served.
Buth’s point of view came to him through education at its best. His chair literally offers that view by suggesting one sit a moment, find a moment of respite from our daily work, and with another, share our very real stories, our failures and fortunes, our loves and our losses, and with a look to the horizon, our dreams of what may come.