Monthly Illuminations

Our new column by renowned broadcast journalist and design guru John Hockenberry

(page 1 of 2)

"My focus for this column is how design always has unanticipated consequences."

Illustrations by Mitch Blunt

For the longest time, I have had this problem: I am capable of buying ballpoint ink pens only at art-supply stores. It’s where they look most at home. Not like in the impulse-buy checkout line where all the ballpoints seem to be desperate and willing to take any writing job whatsoever. This Calcutta of alms-seeking Bics and Parkers—next to the candy, diet aids, and glossy tabloid photos of Kanye, Justin, and Miley—begs for me to take one of them home to sign checks and bills, put Xs in boxes, or just scribble the occasional phone number. Thankfully, that’s something we haven’t needed to do much these days. Who scribbles down numbers anymore when mobile apps capture every bit of communications data we emit or absorb? In this regard, phones seem to have become mightier than the pen. 

So for me, the pen can recapture its lost might by being displayed in a store along with shelves of exotic art supplies, where every object is associated with some creative task. The art-supply store in this conception becomes a room-size Swiss Army knife of creative possibilities—the pen grows mighty, just as the archaic little magnifying glass and toothpick on the largest Swiss Army knife gain stature by being in the same package as the scissors, saw, and blades. I wander the aisles of such stores and covet paint sets, brushes, knives, sketch pads, and blocks of clay. I breathe deeply all the toxic smells of paint and solvents and invent projects in my own mind that might justify filling a shopping cart with such fantasy tools. I have no artistic talent whatsoever but, in my mind, tool and action are nearly the same. Reality is something different. My cluttered home attests to a number of fantasy impulse buys that fell short of any real consistent “creative” action. I have a beautiful set of sushi knives that have not touched yellowtail flesh in more than a year and I am filled with horrible guilt over this. It is probably why I am scared to purchase anything but ballpoint pens at an art-supply store. Going beyond that would be dangerous. The pen is safe, but it is by no means the limit of my creative fantasies. So I buy my ballpoints at the art store, and that’s as far as it goes. 

For the past seven years I have literally donned a headlamp each morning in the dark to prepare for the day.

Is there room in a design magazine for someone whose chief motivation to make visual art is that it would provide him an excuse to go shopping in art-supply stores? It is this momentous question that I present for all you sincere and virtuous readers of Metropolis at the beginning of our journey together. I am something of a chimera in your midst part curious spectator, part practitioner. And art stores, as you may have gathered, are just the beginning. 

I have always loved any kind of specialized tool and gadget for enthusiasts. Metal lathe? I’ve got to have one of those, or one of those massive Breitling watches with a half dozen dials that turn your wrist into a billboard for the present moment. Here is a watch that will be there for all of my adventures. Even if they can’t match my remains with dental records in the Formula One crash, that watch with a few scratches and smudges will still be working flawlessly (talk about going out on top). I also love the idea of wearing a device that tells you the precise air pressure and altitude at any moment. I am the kind of person who would take up skydiving just to wear that cool wrist altimeter. Put me in front of a glass case of scuba-diving gauges and sports meters and my mind races with reasons to own one—or five. 

I am Walter Mitty in love with the Makita 18 volt LXT Lithium-Ion 15-piece power tool set. Why? If you have to ask, consider how empty your soul must be. I would write sonnets for the Industrial Grade 6500 power stand mixer from KitchenAid. It’s great for cakes and soufflés but, just in case, has plenty of power to turn bags of Quikrete into a lovely cat swimming pool in the front yard. But I come back to the guilt over the sushi knives, and there’s a whole other story about musical instruments that I won’t even get into. That said, today—in my late 50s—I am restrained, if not neutered, of this impulse. I do love to dream and, for me, that is where my notion of design resides.

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