R. Michael Walden's Design Story - "The Power of Graphite to Cheer"
Last Updated: May 9, 2011
Los Angeles, CA, USA
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THE POWER OF GRAPHITE TO CHEER
A short story by R. Michael Walden, Director of Design, Leo A Daly, Los Angeles
The graphite was thick. I'd say it had to be a quarter inch around. He held it loosely in his hand like a scalpel. Of course, that's the way I like to remember it. Especially on those Saturday mornings when nary a soul was around. Those were magical moments to me. When time stopped, and I was assured there was a God to be found. E. Fay Jones was a rather short, balding man, but he possessed one of the world's most winning smiles. His grin alone was contagious and, his heart, well, let's just say that no one I've met since has come close to this man's warmth, generosity and uncanny ability to charm. He's gone now, but he alone may be the least celebrated example of what I know to be the South's greatest treasures.
Fay handed me my first "real" assignment on one of those mornings. It was in early fall. A crisp Saturday morning as I now recall. The town's only druggist was building a house it seemed, and I personally knew him. He was a family friend, and it fell upon me to take one of Fay's simple graphite sketches and turn it to art. Carl and Jan Collier's new home was nearing completion, and the touch of the master was needed. That one final intimate statement. In this rare instance, he'd entrusted his fledgling draftsman with what I knew were his signature pieces. Tables, chairs, china and flatware and, most importantly, one of his handcrafted wood chandeliers. The latter, these so-called lanterns, were legend, and could have hung in galleries. They were that good. That special.
I knew the moment he laid lead to paper this would be an important assignment. Every one of Fay's homeowners received one of these fixtures. Designs Fay said were unique to their own individual personalities, "like painting their portraits," he'd once said in reflection. They were one-of-a-kind masterpieces. It was his way of giving away something of himself, a part of his soul you might say. It's something I believe to this day.
I'd only enrolled the previous semester and, in the fall of 1971, having landed a job while attending first year at university was almost unheard of. I was lucky, and it made me determined to learn as much as this man we called Architect could offer. During the previous summer I had laid the foundation, discovering a lot about the trade I so was keen to be part of. I learned how to hold a pencil. How to spin it the length of my T-square and, in the process, fashion a credible line. I learned how to produce beautiful diazo prints, and hand letter an entire sheet of velum filled with the "specs" needed to build one of those fabulous houses.
He laid out my work ahead with a few quick motions of the lead holder he carried in the vest pocket of his corduroy jacket, the one with the patches. The marks he made on the paper, as he pulled a chair close to my desk, were like brushstrokes on canvas and, to my untrained eye, they were thick, and almost impossible to decipher. Fay's sketches had a life of their own. And, they embodied his brilliance.
Weeks later I ran down the hill across campus, just like I did every Friday afternoon, then walked briskly down Dickson Street to the office. Fay rented space in a building he had earlier drawn, right after he'd left Taliesin. Of everything he had done, the Underwood Building was closest to the work of "his" master. The venerable Frank Lloyd Wright. When I climbed the stairs to enter the cramped drafting side of the office, he was already there, standing amongst more senior members of his staff. Before I sat down he approached me.
"Let's go take a look at Carl and Jan's house," he said.
"Right now?" I replied.
"Yes, the millwork crew's delivering your furniture today," he said, smiling, "and there's something I'd like you to see."
"Wow, that sounds cool," I said, a look of surprise on my face. "You're sure you want me along?"
"Let's go," he directed.
Fay was noticeably unsettled, and said little as we drove his bronze Barracuda out into the countryside to an undeveloped section of town. Then, entering the home under a low-hanging soffit, we moved quickly toward the center and, as we rounded a dark, grotto-like corner, the dining room suddenly exploded into magnificent view. There it was in all of its glory, hanging from the high-vaulted ceiling above, looking like a stalactite clinging tenuously to one of those Arkansas caverns. Unable to take my eyes off of it, I marveled in what I had drawn and, as a pair of finish carpenters eased the dining table into the room, positioning it squarely under the fixture, Fay suddenly turned to me.
"Now, let's both stand at the table," he said.
I did and, as I reached out to touch the meticulously crafted object, I realized something was wrong. Something intangible, it seemed. The two carpenters returned, both with armloads of chairs. These last few sticks of furniture had been carefully milled and pieced together from dimensional walnut, with a clear lacquer finish that permeated the handcrafted setting and, as they removed the Visqueen that protected their edges, I took intense pride in their measure. Fay and I scooted them carefully across the flagstone floor, positioning them in their rightful places under the table. Then, the two of us just stood there, admiring the work.
"Why don't we sit down?" he suggested.
"But aren't they missing their cushions?" I was quick to observe.
"That's okay," he said. "I want you to see how this works." We sat down across the table from one another on the hard plywood bottoms and, as I did so, a new sensation took hold. Sitting at the table I observed the sunlight as it streamed in through a spider-like network of tree branches just outside an expansive plate-glass window, watching as it cast long, sinewy tentacles onto the floor. As I looked around, the dining area seemed transformed, appearing to go on forever, space exploding out in all directions. This feeling embraced a symphony of rooms, all interconnected in a long lineal fashion. An enormous stone fireplace stood nearby, the only thing that anchored this reverie. Sitting there in the cool blue glow of a late fall afternoon, watching the leaves move in time with the breeze, the sun turned liquid, playing out silently across the walnut tabletop like the crystalline waters of an Ozark's spring. And, as the last rays of afternoon bathed the interior of this warm, wood-clad cocoon, it occurred to me that I had just found my place in the world. My calling. An endeavor I could do for the rest of my life, something to grow old with. And, the work I realized, unlike me, actually had a chance at surviving.
"How do you feel?" he inquired.
"What do you mean?" I asked, now brought humbly back to the planet. Fay cleared his throat, then stroked his short, stubbly beard, the way he always did when thinking.
"Does it make you uncomfortable?" he asked.
I was a bit embarrassed, what with the carpenters busy gathering the loose materials lying around at our feet, and I took a long moment to answer. It was now obvious to me what had happened.
"Yes, it does," I furtively replied.
"It's a bit out of scale, isn't it?" Fay suggested.
I immediately drew in my breath.
"Now that you mention it, it does seem sort of odd," I admitted. It's too big, right?"
"It really is that obvious, isn't it?" he replied in a question. "But, then, you had to feel it to know."
"Yes," I admitted.
"Scale is very important," he emphasized.
"I can see that now," I said.
We sat there for several more moments, feeling the weight of my work, my misinterpretation of Fay's artful drawing.
"I should have given you at least one key dimension," he offered, hoping I might feel better.
"It won't happen again," I assured him.
"It's not the end of the world, Michael... believe me."
"I still feel awful."
"But, it's such a beautiful thing, don't you agree?
"That was my first impression," I said. "It made me happy the moment I saw it."
"And, it's yours. Your creation. You have a right to feel proud." I felt a slight tingle at the back of my neck, while a warm sensation spread through my chest.
"Yes, I suppose I do," I replied.
I grinned out loud as an amused look came over his face, all of a sudden and, as he turned to me, allowing a small secretive smile, a twinkle and intense fire invaded his eyes.
"Then, there's no need to tell Carl, or Jan," he replied in a whisper.
"No sir," I said, my heart plump in my throat.
That fixture came to symbolize for me all the intangible qualities that every work of art shares with its maker. It came to symbolize the understanding of how design can impact the environment, our psyches, and how a simple sketch comprised of nothing more than a few lines on trace, can fashion such a powerful impression.
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