The Saturday Class
At the request of several former students, she began holding tutorials in the loft. “The Saturday Class” attracted working designers and architects seeking the abstract experiences and rigorous critique that only she provided. In her part-time teaching at Pratt she focused on some new “experiences” she had begun to develop during her final years as a full-time teacher. These were the Space Analysis exercises. (Students called them “space boxes.”) They were an extension of an early foundation problem in architectonics, an ambitious exploration of negative and positive space and the fulfillment of her deepest interest. “ Personally, I respond to the whole concept of space so strongly,” she said. “I’ve seen people who are very sensitive to form or organic volume but are practically blind when it comes to space. I want to make them more aware.” She became engrossed in expanding her own understanding of spatial relationships and raising her students’ level of sensitivity to them.
There are those, like ceramist Eva Zeisel, who taught with Reed in the early Pratt days, who believe that she was responsible for creating a “style” in design. “She influenced generations of students,” Zeisel says “and asymmetry was one of her main ways of expressing her ideas. The fact that it had to be asymmetrical was a style. I don’t know where it came from—this antagonism to classical organization. But through her teaching it became the prevalent aspect of thousands of objects and buildings.”
Gerry Gulotta believes it came from her own need to explore and discover. “Symmetry is a beautiful concept, but what is symmetrical is seen instantly,” he explains. “There’s no adventure. No investigation. For her it was just never part of the deal.”
Reed herself justified the focus on asymmetry in her teaching as a pedagogical strategy. “Symmetry can be beautiful, but symmetry is easy,” she told her students. “Any dancer can stand straight on two feet. It’s assuming a dynamic posture with one leg in the air that’s difficult. We demand the dynamic axis because most people can’t handle it. You strengthen your design muscles by becoming disciplined, by learning to do the most difficult things. That will allow you to express yourself more clearly and strongly because you are able to control exactly what you want to say.”
Lucia DeRespinis, a designer and teacher who studied with Reed and Kostellow in the early 1950s, explains. “Rowena did influence her students’ designs by her enthusiasm for dynamic movement. She didn’t get as excited about quiet, static design.” But there’s strong resistance to the idea that she fostered a “style.” “There was no more of a “style” being taught in Miss Reed’s class than in a strictly regimented ballet class,” Gina Caspi insists. “The exercises are specific and pointed to strengthening weaknesses in given areas. But just as each dancer uses that discipline for his or her own expression, so have each of Miss Reed’s students.”
“Rowena maintained a focus on the process,” explains environment/exhibit designer Ralph Applebaum. “Not on product. She didn’t lead students to forms that diaglog with style because she kept the focus on the eyes and on feelings.”
She was less concerned with any particular formal solution than she was in the use of the cultivated intuition that made beautiful formal solutions possible. “She was intuitive and analytical,” says George Schmidt, an industrial designer and teacher who studied with Rowena in the 1960s. “Her contribution was helping her students acquire an intuitive understanding of form and space. There aren’t the same kind of rules there are in physics or math, but there are rules you can work by. It’s a matter of understanding relationships - and that is more of an intuitive experience than a practical one.”
Rowena Reed influenced her students as much through her presence in the classroom as by her principles. She was quiet and imposing. She spoke softly and authoritatively in complete, precise sentences. She used physical gesture with conscious deliberation and to great advantage. (Once, looking at a snapshot of herself taken by a student, she exclaimed, “Notice how three-dimensionally I’m sitting!”)
She could be alternately subtle and disarming. And she had a relentless sense of purpose. A typical Rowena class consisted of a brief lecture followed by hours and hours of excruciatingly minute critique. “Frail, intense and all business, she would perch on the corner of a desk and literally preach design,” recalls Gene Grossman, founder and principal of Anspach Grossman Enterprise.
Then, one project at a time, she focused on her students’ work. She would stare for a very long time, turning the exercise around and around, talking to what she saw from every angle. She’d comment on organization and balance and, using a pointer, suggest trimming an eighth inch here or adding a sixteenth there. She demanded that all the students in the class focus on each individual’s effort with her. She believed that students learned from other’s successes and failures, as well as their own. It was a singular experience for students to have someone look at their work that long and hard. Her powers of discrimination were uncanny. Her demands on students to create solution after solution for every problem could be exhausting. She’d stay until the last student exercise had been dissected.
“I still remember how she looked at a design,” recalls Frank Grunwald, who studied with Rowena in the late’50s and is today Manager of Global Design and Research at Thomson Consumer Electronics. “How closely she scrutinized it. From all angles. From close-up and from a distance. How her eyes analyzed each line, the movement of each plane. She was so intense. Nothing could distract her. She was always searching, looking for answers, trying to understand the form. Not just the surface of the form, but also the inner structure.”
“There was something very pure about her communication,” says Pamela Waters, a designer who studied with Rowena in the early 1960s. “It wasn’t about you. It was always about the work.”
Not every student could endure the scrutiny. But the ones who did relished the experience. Debera Johnson, current chair of Pratt’s industrial design department, recalls as a student “twelve people trying to get as close as possible to Rowena’s head to stare into these boxes. We’d be there for six hours doing it until, at the end of the day, we lost the light.”
“Teaching for her was a ritual,” Bill Katavolos explains. “She went into a crit so completely empty it was almost painful to watch. She had no preconceived notions whatsoever. She would just look at the work, turn it around, warm up and go on for hours. I always admired that quality of going in with an open mind. It’s the sign of a great teacher.”
Richard Welch says “Rowena had the greatest eye in the universe. You could go back after 10 years and she’d say “Yes, but this doesn’t quite work.” Her attention and standards of judgement were the same whether she was evaluating a senior project or a modern classic. “I forget who I’m talking to and I talk to the design,” she once explained.
“You could go to a museum opening of a deconstructivist show with her and all the white-hot intellectuals would be there,” recalls Bill Katavolos. “And Rowena would examine their work as if it were 3rd- year student work.
She’d be giving a crit—out loud—to an audience in white tie and tails that thinks it’s at the leading edge of things when it’s at the tail end of what this woman had been doing for 40 years.”
The crit never ended. Bruce Hannah and Andrew Morrison, Rowena’s students in the mid 60s, went on to design furniture for Knoll International. Hannah recalls the gala celebration marking the introduction of the Morrison/Hannah office chair. “Leading designers and architects were there, the press was there and Rowena was there. A crowd gathered around as she talked about the design of the chair and showered us with compliments. The interview ended, the crowd dispersed and Rowena slipped away. About a half hour later I felt a tug on my sleeve. “Bruce,” she said very softly, “the rear curve of the arm is okay, but the front curve needs a little work.”
She remembered her students’ work better than they remembered their own. Years after the fact she’d recall, in detail, one student’s solution to the fragment problem or another’s beautiful exercise in wire. (She could not, however, remember where she put her glasses or her keys and almost everyone of her acquaintance was, at one time or another, drawn into the search. Sometimes she misplaced bigger things. Students love to tell the story of the time she drove to Boston for a design conference and traveled home with a group on the train. She was back in Brooklyn for half a day before she remembered that her car was parked on a Boston street.)
She was completely engaged in her own time and lived always in the present tense. Even those who knew her for decades didn’t know a lot about her childhood, her family or her past in general. She did not reminisce. The few stories she told about her early life were stories that established the ground for the current experiences that absorbed her interest. She had a gift for friendship and nurtured long-term, personal relationships with many of her former students. They phoned at all hours and came and went from her apartment, driving her to and from Pratt, taking her to lunch and dinner. They escorted her on her travels and slept on her couch when they came to town. They ran errands, helped her sort through piles of papers and slides, and brought her out to the country for weekends after she gave up her own country home.
She was a mentor to many students over the years, especially women. In the 1950s and 1960s she encouraged female industrial design graduates to enter industries and companies--like General Motors-- where few women had gone before. As the dominant figure in a mostly male discipline and profession her encouragement bore the force of authority. Several of the women she mentored became serious disciples for her message. “She was teaching me not just for my own education but to make me a teacher. To help me carry the torch,” Gina Caspi says. Caspi taught 3-D Foundation with absolute fidelity to Rowena’s language and method and Kate Hixon assiduously preserves Rowena’s language and curriculum in the courses in Space Analysis.
Rowena Reed was committed to the teaching of visual principles through structured experiences and was convinced that you couldn’t do your best work unless you had them. She never waivered in her absolute conviction that the experiences were essential to creating form. She liked to make the analogy with music. “Symphony musicians don’t play by ear and most artists are playing by ear. There can be a discipline of visual relationships that is comparable to the discipline of music, and it should be learned. Some students think, “This will destroy my personality, this will take something away from me. I can’t think when I feel.” But if you can’t think and feel at the same time, you’d better not try to get an education at all.”
And she was adamant that the only way to create three-dimensional form was to work three dimensionally. It was her mantra. “All three-dimensional projects should be designed three dimensionally. You can’t develop a good three-dimensional design on paper. That’s like drawing a piece of sculpture. You have to deal with negative space and you can’t do that in two dimensions.”
She waged a life-long war of words with the architecture profession over its two-dimensional approach to teaching and practice. “Are you drawing?” she demanded of a startled student in a Space Analysis class. Then, shaking her head as if to say I know what I’m going to hear, she asked “What did you study before you came to this class?” When the student innocently allowed as how it was architecture, she counted to ten, slowly and out loud. “Well, that’s the way the architectural profession works and it’s wrong,” she finally announced. “You must learn how to think directly in three dimensions. If you know how to organize in space three dimensionally you can learn how to draw three dimensionally, but it’s not the way to design.”
In fact many of the students in the Saturday class were architects seeking to compensate for their lack of three-dimensional training. And at Pratt, George Schmidt recalls, “there were a number of students who came down to foundation from the graduate program and from architecture because they had heard about this person who talked about space like no one else did.”
She never hesitated to inform a student—any student—that they didn’t understand what they were doing because they hadn’t taken foundation. Pratt foundation. “It’s like mathematics,” she’d say. “I suppose you could start with calculus if you’re really smart. But sometime, someone’s going to ask you to do a problem in long division. No matter how good you are, you’ll be better with foundation than you would be without it.”
Rowena would sometimes tell her students “You don’t feel this yet, but ten years from now you’ll hear my voice inside your head and because you can finally see it, you’ll understand it.”
For Rowena, teaching was life-long learning. “Teaching is a marvelous adventure - like having a huge laboratory in which to carry out experiments,” she explained. “I was clarifying for myself what I felt was missing in my own education. I kept on teaching the same essential things, but I was digging deeper every year, trying to make it clearer to myself and to other people.”
Rowena Reed suffered a heart attack in the fall of l988. Just as she had been surrounded by family and friends throughout her life, she was surrounded by them in her final days. Near the end, as her eyesight failed, she mourned her inability to carry on her daily, ritual reading of the New York Times. She died on September 14, l988.
She insisted always on the designer’s primary role as form giver.