The Shape of the World

Perspective

10th September 2014
by Max Phillips

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When I was 19 and studying art in Ithaca, New York, I rented an apartment with two friends on a short, looping side street called Highland Place. They were on the first floor, and I was upstairs under the roof. My room made a big impression on me. It was an attic room, and when I lay in bed, the ceiling sloped down to within a few inches of my face. I was aware of a big sky full of stars, just on the other side of it. In daylight hours, I still had a sense of those stars. When I wanted to avoid my work, I climbed out one of my dormer windows, sat on the roof, and watched the streets meander down East Hill toward Cayuga Lake, which in its turn wound between a series of other hills and over the horizon into Canada. Through the trees at my shoulder, I’d hear the stream running over the stones in Cascadilla Gorge. The gorge was about ninety feet deep at that point, and every year a few unhappy students jumped into it. During the year I lived in that apartment, I felt the presence of a big, precarious world all around me, brimming at my windows, barely restrained by the plaster walls and ceiling, and I drank a lot of coffee and wrote a lot of poetry. The next year I moved around the corner to a room on East Buffalo. It had an ordinary flat ceiling and three plain sash windows. It was too far away to hear the creek. I threw out most of the poems and most of my paintings, and began to get serious about graphic design. The world seemed to be a slightly different shape, and I found myself wanting to do different work in it.

I was born in Manhattan and lived there for thirty-odd years. Manhattan is a thirteen-mile-long machine. It hums and gives off heat and light, twenty-four hours a day. What seems like the ground under your feet is often not ground at all, but a concrete slab over a labyrinth of pipes and tunnels. The dirt is way below that. You’ll never see it. In Manhattan, the creek doesn’t run past your windows. Manhattan is The Works of Man. Packed tight around you are eight million people, living in a world completely reshaped by humankind and trying to reshape a bit more of it for themselves. This makes it a natural place to do design. My New York work was very orderly. I laid out a page or a screen like someone used to making every square inch count, and I liked to fit a lot of stuff into it, because there seemed to be a lot of great stuff lying around. You had to squeeze your way between stacks of it wherever you went. When I look at my old samples now, they seem like New York City: a lot of stuff, some of it great, and a lot of hard work.

Eleven years ago I paid my first visit to Dublin with my new Irish wife. I didn’t see the Ha’penny Bridge or Christ Church. Except for a quick trip to Kehoe’s, I didn’t spend much time in pubs. What I remember was the DART. It trundled along the edge of a flat gray sea from which someone seemed to have removed most of the water. Beside it, a few tiny figures wandered over a vast expanse of clinker-colored sand. They looked lost. Behind them, to make the scene a perfect de Chirico, loomed a pair of striped towers, the chimneys of a decommissioned power plant, silent and waiting to be torn down. You could see those striped towers wherever you went in town. They seemed to say that The Works of Man weren’t all that, to admit, without embarrassment, that in a fight between the Poolbeg chimneys and Sandymount Strand, the strand would win. Was winning. I like industrial architecture, and philosophical resignation, and red stripes. I thought the chimneys were beautiful. When I moved here last year, I was glad to settle down beside them.

There’s a book to be written about environment’s effect on thought, and while I don’t intend to write it, it’s something I think about. When I was creative director at a New York hedge fund, my group worked in a big corner office on the 39th floor. We had charcoal gray Herman Miler chairs, pale gray cubicle walls with acoustic cladding, and white acoustic tiles and strip lighting overhead, the good kind, that never flickers. Out the windows was a sleek midtown skyline. It looked like the set for a TV drama about a New York hedge fund. Managers would come by to check on their projects. They were always very friendly. Everything I did there wound up having a faint air of PowerPoint. Then I’d go home to my apartment in the East Village, in a crumbling tenement next to a community garden, and do freelance jobs on a splintered wooden worktable. Out the window were other tenements, storefront galleries, bodegas, bars, and the odd crack house. I was on my own, in a small room with uneven walls and floors, and the work I did there had a little more texture. It was still New York, and I was still trying to shape a bit of world to my will, but the choices I made weren’t quite as businesslike.

Now I’m in Ireland, near enough to the DART that I can hear the clunk of the wheels. They remind me, a few times an hour, of the abandoned power plant and the gray sea and the big forces, quite nearby, that actually do shape the world after you’ve had your little go at it, and undo most of what you thought was such a hot idea. I haven’t been in Dublin that long. But I’ve noticed I have a bit more respect for a plain white page, and that I spend a bit less time trying to pack it with hot ideas. I spend more time looking out the window. No shiny blue lake, and you don’t see the stars as much here. But on the corner there’s a little fountain that sounds like Cascadilla Creek. As far as I know, nobody’s jumped into it yet.

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