June 17, 2019

10 Questions With… Richard Saul Wurman

Richard Saul Wurman just wanted to be understood. That’s tougher than it seems, though, especially today when there’s so much data around us but little communication. Wurman’s work—founding the TED conference in 1984 and running it until 2003, and later the TEDMED conference; authoring 90 books on architecture, cartography, and design; and working as an architect with everyone from Charles Eames to Louis I. Kahn, about whom Wurman literally wrote the book—has focused on reshaping the way people interact, in the service of clarity and puncturing pretension.

In conversation, Wurman is much the same way: polymathematical, discursive yet direct, free of pretense, and utterly confident. To the multiple awards he’s already won, including the gold medal from AIGA and membership in both the Alliance Graphique International and Art Director’s Hall of Fame, along with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Cooper Hewitt and a Guggenheim fellowship, Wurman on June 9 added the IIDA Star Award  for contributions that have significantly impacted the interior design profession. Here, in a conversation that has been edited and condensed, he sits down with Interior Design to discuss showing up unannounced and unbathed at the home of Charles and Ray Eames, his new book Mortality, and how he thinks Notre-Dame should be rebuilt.

Interior Design: Congratulations on the award. How does it feel to be honored for a lifetime of work?

Richard Saul Wurman: I lack skill sets, but I get things done. I still have good ideas. My ideas are clear. They’re dumb, they’re the essence of ideas. I know how braggadocio that sounds, but they are unexpectedly the opposite of the way other people think. In the end people would like to have an interesting life, but if you ask what they want, they want a happy life with a lot of money. And I would like to have an interesting life. Period. I don’t care about happiness.

ID: A happy life and an interesting life don’t go hand in hand?

RSW: No, no, no, no, no. I realize that I have no idea what you’re thinking right now. And if you have any gray matter you realize you have no idea what I’m thinking. Once you give into that, you realize how centered you are. You cross the street by yourself. The ultimate and positive words in your life are indulgence and interest. Indulgence has a bad name, and yet I feel that’s the goal: I would like to indulge my interests.

Read more: 10 Questions With… Philippe Starck

ID: Let’s talk about the many ways you’ve done that. How did you first meet Charles and Ray Eames, whom you ended up working for?

RSW: When I was 19, I bought an old Army Jeep for $100 with a friend and we went across the United States. We had a cookstove and cots, no tent. We were going to beg our way across the U.S., and we did for two months. It was one of the things that came out of the category of trying to figure out if I was a survivor or not. I didn’t come from a fancy background, but somehow I got into architectural school; we’d just finished our first year at Penn. This was 1954, and obviously I’d heard of Charles Eames. So, I found out where his house was, and we drove up the drive and looked in his windows. You’d get shot, now! But another car drove up and it was Ray. We had only the clothes on our back and had made a deal to never sleep under anything or bathe in anything that wasn’t a stream, so we were sort of in shreds. She said, ‘Go in and take a bath!’ And we said, ‘No, we can’t!’ So, she said, ‘Well, would you like something to eat?’ Charles was working but we had a nice visit with Ray. Charles was one of my heroes, Mr. Ultimate Curious. I was the fair-haired boy in architecture, but I was always curious about everything else, and finding patterns in things other than architecture.

ID: You also ended up befriending and assisting Louis I. Kahn. What was his role in your life?

RSW: You know, Louis Kahn really masterminded my career. I didn’t understand it at the time, but he wanted to sort of watch over me. And that’s how I did [The Notebooks and Drawings of Louis I. Kahn],the first book ever on him.I was 25 and I asked: Can I do a book on you? And he said yes! Many people had asked, but he’d said no. A facsimile is now being put out on Kickstarter. It was his favorite book. I have a copy which, every time he came to visit, he’d sign in a different color of ink. Later, I had an architecture practice in Philadelphia, but it went belly-up. I’m sort of abrasively charming but can’t hold a job. I will always go to the best idea and give credit for where it came from, but I don’t want to be told what to do. And that puts me outside the purview of most jobs in America.

ID: So, you went to California?

RSW: I went out West and began teaching. Two weeks before I thought I’d come home, someone invited me to Charley’s lecture at LACMA for the opening of [the exhibition the Eameses had designed], The World of Franklin and Jefferson. He looked down and said, ‘That’s Richard Saul Wurman, he’s a really great architect from Philadelphia!’ Which was very flattering. Afterwards I went up to him and told him what a good speech he gave, because that’s what people do no matter what kind of speech you give. It’s one of the consistent lies in our society. He said, ‘Why are you here?’ And I told him I’d closed the office and was living out here, and he said, ‘and you didn’t call me?’ His office was very close. I was living in a flophouse, no furnishings, I borrowed a mattress, one meal a day. I had no money. I was 45. He said you better come over and see me tomorrow. So, we talked for a while, and he asked, ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to work for everybody,’ but I was broke and having a job was of particular importance. I was planning to open a soup kitchen on Sampson Street in Philadelphia—it was a good profit margin. I could just have lunch and make a living. But I stayed and was doing his bidding for over a month. Basically, what he wanted me to do was to be the office manager and I said, ‘I can’t do that. Well I can do that, but I won’t do that.’ That was not my sociological ideal. While I was there, I was close to him. We had lunch every day in his famous little garden and met his famous guests who came in every day. It was a wonderful time in my life. But I was 45 and a jerk and had done a number of books and things. Any idea that people had of my success was totally smoke and mirrors. I was a snake oil salesman who managed to get things done.

ID: When did you start focusing more on information design as a practice, as opposed to architecture?

RSW: Everything I did was about information. I always knew how stupid I was, and if I couldn’t find a book that answered my queries, I had to do it myself. My curiosity controls my being. I have a subject I don’t know about, so I figure out good questions, then I record those questions in a book, or a conference, or a friendship. I started TED, so I could invite anyone I want and talk with them. I was selling the fact that people who are really wonderful people would like to have a conversation with somebody who told the truth. It’s not like TED now, they didn’t rehearse, there was no censorship or sponsorships, except for lunches. Today it’s a series of pearls, and there are some nice pearls, some irregular pearls, some shitty pearls. What I did was a necklace, a four-day event that held together. There wasn’t a theme, but there were patterns. In anything is everything. My last book was called Understanding Understanding, and if you don’t have it, it’s hard to explain and you should buy it. I don’t have a PR person or a distributor or a publisher, and don’t be so sure I could get an agent or a book deal or any of those things! And why would I want somebody, because they were my agent, who could tell me what to do? Why would I proactively want that? It would be like driving a car with somebody else’s foot on the accelerator. I know that I’ve had an effect. But I don’t tryto have an effect. I try to finish the fucking book and get on to the next one. To solve the puzzle. I invented the term information architectand now there’s an international organization of 70,000 that has a meeting called Information Architecture. I invented a way of organization with the LATCH theory [location, alphabet, time, category, hierarchy]. It’s just things I think up. 

“I will always go to the best idea and give credit for where it came from, but I don’t want to be told what to do. And that puts me outside the purview of most jobs in America.”

Understanding Understanding, a book by Richard Saul Wurman. Image courtesy of Richard Saul Wurman.

ID: In your 1989 book Information Anxiety you diagnose a very common modern ailment. Do you think we’ve gotten better at dealing with it?

RSW: The idea was that everybody—I take that word back, I don’t believe in everybody—the great proportion of people think everything they read is information. If they see something and they don’t understand it, they still identify it as information. If they don’t understand it, they feel it’s their fault. But it isn’t their fault, it’s the fault of how it was presented, because nothing is presented in an understandable format. So, we have anxiety between what we think we should understand and what we do. It’s not about big data, it’s about big understanding. The book I’m coming out with in July is called Mortality and it’s a book about death. Well, it’s a club we all join and it’s so basic, and yet I couldn’t find out anything about death in a form I could understand. It’s such a strange book, 112 pages but the feeling is like it’s 400 pages because you spend so much time on each page. There’s a spread that’s almost identical, one side of the page and the other, on the various rituals that go with death if you’re Muslim and the various rituals that go with death if you’re Jewish. There are only maps and diagrams, very little text. Bar charts are maps, the fundamental graphic tool that, if it doesn’t work, it’s not good. I don’t care how beautiful it is because the measure of it is whether it works. 

ID: How do you know if it works?

RSW: Because I understand it. The only tool I have is my own head. Do you understand it enough to tell a literate 12-year-old? All the rest is college courses. What was your expectation of this conversation?

ID: Well, I was very interested in…

RSW: By the way, if you don’t use the word ‘very’ your speech will be clearer. If you just say ‘I was interested’ it means more than I was very interested, it’s a more powerful statement. Good is a thought. Very good is lace.

ID: Which brings us back to design—what’s the role of physical architecture now?

 RSW: One of the reasons [my firm] went out of business was the ideal piece of architecture at that time was a Michael Graves building and he ruined architecture. I know he’s dead, but when he was alive he was smart and drew well and was a nice person, but he ruined architecture because all the critics made him the king architect doing these decorative buildings that won’t even be a footnote in 20 years. I’m putting this in context. Architects are as good as their clients and what they’re demanding. So, they are doing bling buildings. Look at what just got put up by thoughtful, bright architects—I’ve met every single one of them—in Hudson Yards. The idea of Hudson Yards is that it looks good from a helicopter and New Jersey. Walking around is the opposite of Piazza San Marco. It just isn’t interesting. It’s a fiction that all the architects during the Renaissance were great. What has held up is buildings that people want to occupy. 

ID: Speaking of the future, what do you think should be done with Notre-Dame?

RSW: There’s no one choice. Viollet-le-Duc’s work, I love but it’s the Disney version of a castle. He was a talented man, if you see his unbuilt works, they are great. Very imaginative. Louis loved le-Duc. But it’s all just made-up stuff. But Macron has a lot of other problems. He doesn’t have to go into a national referendum over whether he puts a greenhouse up there or just builds it the hell the way it was. With sprinklers.

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