Collect Perspectives by Design

Frank Maugeri, co-creative director of Chicago's Redmoon Theater, talked to Andrew Benedict-Nelson of Insight Labs about how designers collect objects and ideas from everything they experience.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Tell me if this seems right. You go to the workspace of a designer — their office, their studio — and you see some odd thing. It might be a poster. It might be an old tool. You ask why they have it and they say, “I don’t know, just thinking about it.” Then three months later you see some aspect of that thing show up in their work. Do you see this tendency among designers? What do you make of it?

Frank Maugeri: I’m thinking about all the designers and creators I work with. I’m privileged to work with artists from all sorts of levels of skill and all sorts of backgrounds. What they all have in common is relentless curiosity. So some of them collect names. Some of them collect images. Some of them collect information. Some of them collect human beings. But we all collect stuff. It’s never a single object or a single thing. That was actually the only thing that bugged me about what you said — you said “a poster, a tool.” In my experience, there’s never just one thing. They’ve always collected multiple, different elements as a result of their relentless curiosity about the world.

So there’s a relentless drive to understand other people and their interpretations of the world. How you teach that to someone is not clear to me.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: There’s something sort of mystical about it, isn’t there?

Frank Maugeri: There is a great book about the spiritual life of the artist Joseph Cornell. And it concerned what he collected, why he collected it, how he collected it, the way he arranged items in his work. The theme of the writer was the spiritual order Cornell brought to “stuff.” I also read an extremely intriguing book on puppetry and mysticism. It was about the history of all these animated objects, from giant automata to the first coin-operated devices to androids from early cinema. It shows how things that aren’t living have a spirit and motivate a sensual experience.

I believe this about things. I collect broken pictures and relics and artifacts and “stuff.” Stuff carries with it its own order and logic and mystery and source.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you tell me about a time when that kind of collecting activity informed your work?

Frank Maugeri: It always informs my work.

One of the ways that I start building an experience is to organize things. That’s how I made Lunatique, the giant party that we held for a thousand people this year. I started out by looking at carousels and parks and different types of vehicles. I collected pictures of rickshaws and odd carnival rides. All that rubble and discard and stuff informed the experience of the party, where we had a giant interactive swingset and a crazy-ass motorcycle carousel. We had a rickshaw to take people to the bathroom. All those things had their own sources of inspiration.

An even better example is when we did our All Hallows Eve celebrations years ago. I spent a lot of time in alleys trying to find the most commonly discarded object in the City of Chicago. I wanted to transform whatever it was that people discarded the most into an everyday shrine. I began to find hundreds and hundreds of chairs — turns out that’s the most common thing people throw away. So I began to think about chairs, how they function in the world, how they’re interpreted historically, how people use them, why some people don’t use them. I began to collect all those chairs, then we shared them with community members to make their own shrines. Then we moved several hundred of those chair shrines to an open street and we invited the thousands of people who came to the event to add even more things. Soon they were covered in thousands of pieces of jewelry and photos and artifacts from people’s lives. They became weird little museums of the dead.

That was a super powerful experience for me. And it all began by asking, “What do people put out in the alley the most?”

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Okay, I think every type of creative person has some version of this collecting process going on. I think it’s a material acknowledgement of the fact that ideas come from all over the place.

Frank Maugeri: Yes, absolutely.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But I want to push this a little further and figure out if there is an even more specific version that’s particular to design. I have a hypothesis. I think there is something significant about the fact that your creative process began with an inquiry about the world, this question about the alleys. That seems like a moment when you enter the realm of design. What do you think about that?

Frank Maugeri: Interesting question. It’s tough for me, because design is all I do. My life is design-based. It’s hard to say where it starts or stops. But I do think the design process can start with some broad question about human experience. When I create a show, one of the main questions in my mind is what elements I’ll need for people to feel the narrative instead of just see and hear the narrative. That makes me different from a lot of set designers. I’m not trying to replicate something from the world — I’m trying to create a new space with its own logic. Trying to figure out that logic is what begins the design process.

I do think people who aren’t artists or designers collect, though. I think they even collect in the same way we collect. They collect artifacts that they feel bring out the best in them. It may be photos of their family, awards, trophies of some kind. It’s just that they stay relatively insular, whereas I look for sources from outside of my life. I’m always asking a questions about what’s happening in the bigger culture, not just my world. My world is very, very small.

So we all collect. But you have to ask what we collect and why. And the answer to that “why” may lead you to design.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: In several other conversations I’ve had with them, designers have observed that more than other people, they are sensitive to the fact that everything around them — a bench, a bus — was designed at some point in history by somebody. This seems like a complementary idea. All of these things are worth collecting because there are all of these potential logics waiting to be released from all of them. Does that sound like what you’re doing?

Frank Maugeri: Yeah, it does. But I would express it a little bit differently. I’m looking for meaning. That’s all I’m doing. Every living being is looking for meaning. I’m also interested in expressing and sharing the meanings that I find. I’m a little bit of an archeologist. I want to ask questions and collect things, then put them back in the world in a way that people can experience those questions and those things in a new way.

I think great art is only about expressing a great set of questions, not answers. Design that gives answers is tyrannical. It’s called Hollywood. It’s called theater. It’s called magazines. That’s not my interest. So I’m always looking for objects that will helps me think about things in a way that I’ve never thought about before.

That’s also the soul of collaboration. It’s the excitement of saying to someone, “Hey, have you ever thought of X?” And they say, “Wow, that makes me think of Y.” And another person says, “Wow, what if those things were combined?” I think that stuff does that. I don’t think that ideas do that as often on their own.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Many designers also talk about the power of empathy. It seems like trying to understand the world through an object that belonged to someone else is a pretty radical form of empathy.

Frank Maugeri: A key element for me is nostalgia.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: What do you mean?

Frank Maugeri: That’s always the feeling. A photo reminds me of something. The way someone has graffitied a space reminds me of something. That’s what happens to me. That’s what’s going on with me when I experience the radical empathy of stuff. It’s a good term. It’s an interesting term. I am looking for things that express emotion. For me, things do that. An old typewriter has a story to tell, even if I don’t know what it is yet. It helps me construct a different world to live in and walk around in. That world may have a different history and a different smell.

For about twenty years now, I’ve always had at least one working model of an old, cranky, gramophone. I’m fairly infatuated with these arcane, unnecessary, stupid things. But I’m interested in the fact that it tells my seven-year-old twins that there was a world long, long, long before CDs. There was a time when you cranked the machine yourself and made the motor go and listened to a piece of wax that sounded like shit. Mysterious, ethereal shit.

So any old object, any old weird piece of sculpture, carries with it a legend. It’s that legend that I’m using in my mission to gather people together in ways that are driven by curiosity and human experience. Nostalgia and memory and family and artifacts help me make that experience.

There’s something else about empathy. The hundreds of artists and designers I work with have two things in common. I’ve thought about this a lot. They all have some sort of social agenda — they believe the world can be a better place. We can find ways to work together and make the world more democratic and fair. The second thing is that they’re collaborators. They believe, “My idea will be better after you’ve changed it. Our idea will be better after someone else has changed it again.” So I always try to push and pull and give and take with everybody I work with.

I’ve noticed that many non-design people want to start an idea, finish that idea, and then be done with it. They don’t want to open their collections to other people’s judgment and critical thoughts. That’s a scary thing for a lot of people.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I remember I once was going through a box of books and picked up a yearbook for my sister’s high school thinking it was my own. I started flipping through it looking for something and ended up with this really disconcerting, lost feeling before I realized that it wasn’t my book at all. I think it must be even more disconcerting to root around in someone else’s mental collection of stuff or let them root around in yours.

Frank Maugeri: But I’m interested in disorientation. Disorientation is a necessary element of design.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Why?

Frank Maugeri: It’s the thing that forces you to look many different ways. It’s the thing that challenges your systematic reality that you live with every day. Disruption is healthy in that it forces us to see many different points of view and deal with those points of view. Everyone has a different point of view, and none of us is completely right. Disorientation shakes up those points of view and reminds us of that. It makes us think about what we believe and how we behave, which are exactly the two things I’m interested in challenging.

So if you’re not collecting things, you’re not constructing a real world that other people can move around in. That’s what good design should be, whether it’s graphic design or architecture or an interactive experience. It’s supposed to be a universe that someone else can move around in and feel differently.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: Can you think of a time when something you designed or created was influenced by someone else’s “collection”?

Frank Maugeri: Oh, all the time. One of the things that people like about me as an artist is that I don’t just have one aesthetic. I have a style that I repeat, but the aesthetic is always in motion. I’m constantly letting other people’s aesthetics seep into my world.

I made a show called “The Cabinet.” This was a little puppet show that took the city by storm. People loved it and still love it — they are always asking me when I’m going to re-mount it. I tell them I actually want to make some new shows.

Anyway, I made this show. All I really wanted to do in it was create an intimate, puppet version of the classic German film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” I had looked at a lot of other German expressionism. I also became obsessed with the Wunderkammer or “cabinet of curiosities,” which were these little museums in people’s homes. Sometimes they were totally historical and sometimes they were entirely false. People would say, “That’s the tooth of Jesus” or “That’s the ram’s horn of Moses” or whatever. But they were all gorgeous collections of things.

So I became obsessed with these collections. They were tiny little worlds of their own. I was also inspired by this place in California called “The Museum of Jurassic Technology.” It’s a museum that is both real and false. It never tells the audience what is real and what is not real. It is this unbelievably beautiful place. Everything is made of oak and the objects sit on beautiful pedestals. It has real historical objects combined with things like “original drawings” of Noah’s Ark. But all of them are presented as real artifacts from human history.

That collection was what made me realize how I would do “The Cabinet.” The original “cabinet” in the film was the coffin in which Dr. Caligari stored the sleepwalker that would attack people. I decided instead to do the entire show inside this beautiful, 24-foot-tall crafted piece of furniture with doors and shelves and little windows that opened to reveal the sleepwalker’s memories of the murderous tyranny of Dr. Caligari. Well, people lost their shit, and it was largely because of that design.

But that design didn’t come from being some sort of genius trying to freak people out. The idea was born by collecting hundreds of unassociated ideas that collided to create this experience that those people found transcendent.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I love it. You were building a new collection by picking through an entirely different culture’s way of collecting.

So I want you to imagine that you have a sort of boring white-collar professional second cousin. And you start talking and get on this subject of collections and he says, “Frank, let me show you my great collection.” And he takes you into a room and shows you some baseball cards or family photos or something. Then one day he finds out what you do, and that you’ve been collecting all these fantastic things for shows. He says to you, “This is amazing — I want to think like you. I want my collection to be like yours.” What would you say to that?

Frank Maugeri: I would say, “Don’t.” You don’t need to think like me. You need to think like you. You need to start with what you’re already drawn to. If it’s family photos or trophies and plaques that once amped up your sense of being, find what was essential about those and expand on it. For someone to come in and try to imitate my collection would be like if I tried to be a lawyer by putting together an office with a bunch of plaques and photos with famous clients. But my body would be repulsed by the idea. I’m disgusted by plaques — they’re regal emptiness. So that would not be of value to me.

So I think it’s false when someone tries to trace what someone else is doing to get somewhere. They need to start where they already were, then see where that takes them. So maybe it is family photos. Maybe you need 100 years of family photos. Maybe you need other people’s family photos. Maybe you need to ask everyone in your office for a photo of the most important person to them, then find the person who is most important to that person, and so on. But you’ve got to take your own trip.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: But what I hear you saying is that if you do take that trip, you’ll end up at a place of authentic design.

Frank Maugeri: That’s what I’m saying. You don’t want to replicate my design process. It’s mine. Maybe there are pieces of it that work for you. I don’t care. Great. Who am I to say? But do it as a part of amplifying what already revs you up.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: And everyone has a collection to start with, even if they think of themselves as the most boring person in the world. Anyone can use that collection to jump-start the design process.

Frank Maugeri: I think so. I think anyone can do it if they also ask the question, “What was it about this collection of things that inspired me? What does it say about how I see the world?” Design begins in asking those questions and understanding the world with them. It’s learning how to look.

Andrew Benedict-Nelson: I find that very empowering, the idea that you can start anywhere.

Frank Maugeri: Oh, you have to start anywhere. Because people are designing everywhere. They’re designing in Thailand and Russia and the Bronx. The poor design and the rich design. People are designing everywhere and all have different resources, different collections. It’s not like you need the crazy Luddite garbage that Redmoon guy collects to do it right.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. It is attributed to Insight Labs, and the original version can be found here.