A Design Educator’s Legacy

Nuanced, elegant, almost magical—these words aptly describe the jewelry and household objects that Ted Muehling designs and sells in his Manhattan studio and showroom. Muehling has been making his nature-inspired jewelry and objects since 1976, a year after graduating from New York’s Pratt Institute. During the past three decades he has collaborated with several companies including the porcelain manufacturer Nympehnburg, the hardware producer E.R. Butler & Co., and glass and crystal makers Steuben, and has received the Chrysler Design Award, listed as a finalist for the Cooper-Hewitt’s National Design Award, among other public recognition of his work. Most recently he received the 2006 Rowena Reed Kostellow Award from Pratt Institute’s Department of Industrial Design.

Kostellow, one of Muehling’s instructors, came to Pratt in 1938, where with her husband Alexander Kostellow, Donald Dohner, and others, she helped develop the industrial design department’s foundation coursework. “She taught us how to see in a very, very subtle way,” says Muehling. Here, the designer recalls Reed Kostellow’s tireless, 50-year-long mission to define and communicate the formal principles of good three-dimensional design, discusses his other inspirations, and explains his aversion to line-in-space exercises.

Warning: Any conversation about Reed will abound with insider references about crits (“always torture,” Muehling remembers), assignments, and personalities. Consider consulting the book Elements of Design: Rowena Reed Kostellow and the Structure of Visual Relationships .

Tell me about Rowena as a teacher.
It was a big buildup when you were in industrial design. She taught in the third year, and Rowena was a goal of some sort. I had her in 1973, she was just doing just one program, but it included spatial design, line and space, it was—oh god, we had to carve these salt blocks…
Rowena was like the goddess of the Pratt design world. So you didn’t get her until you were really into industrial design, and had earned some kind of right. She was a rite of passage. Even in her mid-70s, you’d see her go by in the hall, with red hair and wearing a purple turtleneck and slacks, and some sort of modern jewelry with an amethyst.

Even before you started studying under her, did you idolize her or were you scared to death?
We were all intimidated. We’d ask each other in hushed tones, Are you taking Rowena’s class? Bill Fogler was the head of the department at the time. He was a wonderful guy, extremely smart, and he taught a lot of what Rowena taught in terms of form and space and very abstract spatial and form relationships. Bill was the step before Rowena, but his take on design was abstract and he was really interested psychology and related design to its impact on human beings.

But Rowena wasn’t interested in practicality.
No one who came out of Rowena’s class really knew what Rowena was talking about. But you got bits and pieces of it. And in the end, of course I absorbed things. I was 19 years old, discovering life. Being at Pratt was quite a wild experience at the time, sex and drugs and everything else—and there’s Rowena making you put a white foam core box together and putting planes of white foam core together and deciding what those things did to the space, making them larger or more intimate. You’re looking at air, you’re looking at ‘What would it feel like if you were that small, occupying that volume of space?’

So what bits and pieces did you pick up?
The main thing I took from playing with volumes and lines and space and looking at proportion is that I was taught there’s no real formula. But taking three rectangles and extending one or shortening another and putting them together in some way that was interesting, really made you look and concentrate and try to come up with something you hadn’t seen before, or with something satisfying.

Another important teacher of mine was Gerald Gulotta. He was working in the industry in glassware and flatware and —on the more poetic side of industrial design. He was kind of cross between Fogler and Rowena. There was the teapot project, for example. It forced you to think about whether you saw drinking tea as an aristocratic thing, a motherly thing, or a comforting thing. You really thought about the teapot before you made the teapot. You made a shape that somehow tried to impart your view to it. He was very hands-on, he was much more realistic than Rowena, and he dealt with emotion in design. Rowena did the opposite. You could make something useful or functional out of her projects, but it was much more about the relationships of the planes and spaces and how they felt and whether they were unique and fresh and something unlike things you had seen before. I really think Frank Gehry would be making much better buildings now if he had Rowena.

How so?
Genius as he is, Gehry never quite gets to the perfectionism of Rowena, where he makes the buildings look like real structure. I think Rowena was trying to make the world comforting. I think she saw design as something not to confuse people but to enlighten and heighten awareness and make you feel good.

Perhaps she was just a product of her historical moment, then? At that point, industrial design was such a fledgling industry that its mission had to be clear, not confounding.
Perhaps. She and her husband started this thing coming out of the International Style. I think she wanted to go beyond the form as determined by the function, and bring it into a more human realm. She was a girl from the Midwest, and she is what I call a “sincerist”: She was absolutely, genuinely, almost naively earnest. And she had this vision that design could improve life or enhance life, that, even at age 77 or however old she was, she was just relentlessly energetic and positive and optimistic as she tried to get us 19-year-old distracted boneheads to see this.

In a way that’s one of the biggest lessons I learned, this earnest sincerity and search for beauty. There was no irony. People seem to have the notion that intelligent design has to be somewhat ironic. There was none of that.

She was trying to codify intuition. There’s nothing ironic about that.
I think she was trying to make a formula, but I don’t think she succeeded.

You can tell she wasn’t completely successful since some of the work featured in Elements of Design looks kind of dated.
You’re right, it kind of reflects the period. She had something in her head that she was trying to transpose or maybe even understand herself, but she was completely open to any mutation that might happen within the scheme of what she was talking about.

But I have to say that while these things perhaps look dated, they’re really not all style. She was not about Raymond Loewy, she was not about George Nelson. She was much more Charles and Ray Eames, working with materials and bending planes in beautiful ways. She didn’t leave any work behind, it was all so cerebral, but style was absolutely the opposite of what she was getting across.

What Rowena experience seared itself in your memory and will never let go?
The one thing I never got was the line-in-space exercise. I thought I really understood that, but Rowena would say, “It’s not dynamic over here, this curve is repeating that curve.” So many things. I just abandoned my line. I don’t deserve the Rowena Award because I didn’t finish my line-in-space.

There were also guys who shouldn’t have been in her class, these were the guys who wanted to do automobiles. One of these car guys was in our class, and he would come in and never have his box. Once, Rowena was asking him questions and she just turned to my friend and me and said, “What’s the matter with him? You boys are men.” We repeated that. She wasn’t trying to be funny. She was uniquely herself.

Is there an analog for Rowena nowadays, or are we all just trying to be hip and ironic?
Michelle Oka Doner is absolutely trying to make beautiful things. And Ingo Maurer—I think he’s a really interesting character, and has stayed very true to himself and juggles new technologies and materials and makes remarkable things. When I look at other designers, it looks like a rehash of the 50’s or 60’s to me. It may be chic or fashionable, but it’s not really interesting to me. Just more plastic, amoebic forms in the world.

What about yourself? Let’s take language: You work with employees—or, more accurately, they work for you.
It works both ways.

No doubt. But still, you must find yourself in a position where you have to tell someone why something isn’t ‘it’ or why it’s spot on. Do you find yourself channeling her in those cases?
Not in specific ways. But in a general way, this is my little world I rule here, and I teach them what I think looks right. Everyone has a different way of making things, and over the years I’ve realized I can’t control the way employees make things. I can show them how I would make it but often they invent their own way and often it’s better. And sometimes their personalities are reflected a little bit in how they would hammer something into a more voluptuous shape than I would. There’s room for that to exist. Variations are lovely, it’s handmade work. There’s leeway.

While we’re drawing comparisons between you and Rowena—since Rowena dealt solely in abstraction, are you anti-Rowena in that your work can so explicitly reference the natural world?
Everything’s based on nature, whether it’s geometric, molecular, biological, floral or animal. I try not to make my pieces too literal. If I do a seashell pin, it’s really about the spiral, the simplification of the seashell. I never look at a shell and make a pin. But I try to get the essence, the voluptuous quality of the shell form, whether it’s a clam shell with its flat delicacy or the spiral of a cone shell. I think I’m trying to abstract things to a degree.

What inspires this world? How did you come upon abstractions of nature?
A lot of it is obsessive-compulsive behavior and how I end up resolving my ideas is a mystery. I can’t answer your question, but I do think I’m a little bit nuts, and compelled in a strange way by the ‘I make, therefore I am’ mantra. I grew up in suburban New Jersey and I used to go down to my father’s basement workbench and make things. I went to the Guggenheim in the 60’s when there was a Calder show. I was 10 years old and it was all coat hangers and pieces of cut metal for six months, completely copying this stuff. I was enchanted.

My father was an influence. He liked antiques and he liked to paint. And I think he really just loved nature. My mother was a Catholic who played by the rules, and my father was what he called a “black Protestant.” When she was in church he would take a walk at the beach. It wasn’t worship, but it was to appreciate creation in almost a more profound way. When I was 15 I decided that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to be more like that.

How do you feel about receiving the Rowena Reed Kostellow Award?
For me it’s kind of sweet. I sound so ungrateful, but awards can be exploitation—for fundraising or because it lends prestige. Because I loved Pratt, loved Bill Fogler, Gerry Gulotta, and it was so meaningful to me, this was more touching. Basically at the ceremony, it was mostly students and people who had gone to Pratt, and it felt very genuine, and there were people who had gotten the award who I really respect. So of all the awards I’ve gotten it’s probably one of the more meaningful.

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