Designer and instructor John E. Walley discusses design work
BROADCAST: Apr. 22, 1959 | DURATION: 00:39:54
Institute of Design instructor John E. Walley discusses teaching techniques and design trends.
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Studs Terkel John Walley is a teacher in the richest, fullest sense of the word. John Walley, who my, perhaps, many listeners have heard about. If you haven't, you should. Mr. Walley teaches at the University of Illinois, and for a long time was associated with the American Bauhaus, known as the Institute for Design. John, this will be sort of an easy, wandering sort of exploration of your own techniques and feelings about teaching, and about fine arts and craftsmanship. You teach architects, or you teach potential architects rudiments of architecture at the University of Illinois, don't you?
John E. Walley Yes, I do. I I have a course where we introduce the structural problems and how to investigate systems. We start out with geometry as the classical geometric shapes and how they can be put into rectilinear packing, or how they can go into a spherical, or dealing with warped surfaces and how these apply to structures. We also deal with the fundamental principles of communicating strategy, because actually architecture is setting strategy for a number of highly skilled crafts. And this is the way they bring about the simple home, or the more complex factory, or even the the planning of a section of a city or a whole city. And this-these are the very, I would say, basic beginnings. It's where they begin to understand how to evolve these developments, and then how to orderly communicate them to other people.
John E. Walley Yes. You see, in our social context, especially where you you have certain objects that you render obsolete before they're really obsolete, we can't do any of these things without affecting the social behavior of the student.
John E. Walley No, that's right, I'm a product designer. Now the people have asked me why that I've been used in this capacity, and the best way I can explain it is really by interest and aptitude. I became a craftsman in many areas. I learned how to weld, to do more refined connections like silver soldering, and learned something of how to handle wood, how to laminate wood and so on. And then I've been interested, and I've been lucky, too. I've been interested in structures, and I worked at one time with Konrad Wachsmann, who was at the Institute Of Design, and when Bucky Fuller was there I was involved in this, and these men influenced me tremendously, and I I grew a great deal in my contact with them. So that this is the this ability to work in materials and and the desire to do so, and then the ability to investigate systems, is this is what has led me to this.
John E. Walley Yes,
John E. Walley That's right. As a matter of fact, the ideal situation, and that is really the the kind of involvement that Dr. Gropius was encouraging in the German Bauhaus, and that was breaking down the limitations that a craftsman had who couldn't make aesthetic judgments, or of the fine artists who could not carry out or even design for the industrial processes or for the handicrafts. This was the the split, and it was obvious in 1919 that this was a very negative thing, and in a social result, because you had people making pictures of chairs that didn't know how to put chairs together. You had people putting chairs together who should have made certain aesthetic judgments and they couldn't. It was a role. They were kind of told that they shouldn't do this. So this was a limitation of split.
John E. Walley The the credo and the, I would say, the social atmosphere that created the impact that would allow the public officials to invite a young man like Dr. Gropius at that time to consolidate the fine arts school and the craft school. In the sense it was a kind of survival because they had to really build German industry to the place where it could compete in the world markets, and they needed the most sensitive and highly skilled and with great technical information in the designers, so that he he was not making a handicraft object that would then be translated to a machine, but he was actually designing within the limitations of the machine, and he was seeking the natural elements of aesthetics that was the result of certain things you could do with a machine.
John E. Walley Yes.
John E. Walley That's right. We, for instance, in the the foundation course I used to call it a century gymnasium, because here you were activating sight and your whole visual perception process, your sense of touch. We've become pretty callous in the way we feel things. Also hearing, and the kinetic use of the body is an important part of this. And we had many problems that would keep the student from becoming blasé or or too sophisticated, where he knew exactly what any tactile experience would be, and he he could tell us that he was separating visual from tactile, so we used to think up problems that would demonstrate to him that he he really didn't separate these two. And one good example, many times chairs, handles, things of this type that really should be geared to the hand or to the body for sitting or sleeping or reclining, they're made from visual considerations, and sometimes they don't work very well. So what we did, we would buy large brown paper bags and give it to each student with a large ball of clay, and he would put the the clay in his hands in the bag, and he would work and form an object that was completely satisfactory to him. When he felt that this was the finished object, he then took it out of the bag. Now in most cases people would just say, "Ugh," because it looks so ugly to them. It was strange. And visual habits are really the outgrowth of of your cultural patterns. What we think is a beautiful shape isn't beautiful to other people. So it's very necessary for the students to become completely sensitive to when they're making visual decisions, and when they're making tactile decisions, because this is really the function of the of the creative designer.
John E. Walley No. I would say that our construction, you see, our association is the thing that that controls us. For instance, we've had tests with the color red and with certain shapes. There are certain shapes that people, they feel, are nasty shapes, you see, or someone will say, "What a beautiful red," or "This represents life," you know, and another person will say, "Awful, looks like blood." Same red, but just different reactions. Oh, Studs, along this line is an interesting thing. There was a very, very mild young man, he was very quiet and always worked in the back of the shop, and we were making an enclosed tactile chart.
John E. Walley Institute of Design. And he, very quiet young man, and we were making these tactile charts inside of a box so you couldn't associate visually with it. You had to make all your considerations just on touch. And this man had incorporated pieces of fur and paper and sponge rubber and various things, and when we were looking at these things at the end of the semester to discuss it with the students he was not present. And people went all about the shop putting their hands in, and in some cases you'd see a frown on their face and they were displeased. But everyone that went to this one tactile chart, they'd put their hand in and they'd raised their eyebrows, and then they'd start to laugh and giggle, and everybody said, "Who is this man?" Now no one had really shown much interest in him until they felt his tactile chart, and then they all went and talked to him. They had to find out how such a quiet man could do such a provocative thing. But unlike some of the others, I think this was his his way of expressing. He he just wasn't very verbal.
John E. Walley That's
John E. Walley That's
John E. Walley We ran into this a lot. It's very, very interesting the way you do, you make judgements, you think, "Well, this looks like a sharp fellow," or "That girl is, you know, a pretty neat-looking girl," or something, and you may find out that the man that doesn't look so sharp is really the sharp one.
Studs Terkel Isn't this what you mean? Earlier you spoke of, before we went on, about the involvement, man's involvement, the human being's full involvement, tactilely, visually, in every sense in what he is doing.
John E. Walley Well, this is a big problem. I talked to the students about, you know, they have to fall in love, because if you're too safe and if you're not willing to to explore and to really get involved, then all the results are are limited results. And I know that to expose yourself, either aesthetically or politically, it seems kind of dangerous. There's a certain climate, like there might be some punishment for this kind of thing. But part of the educational system must concern itself with getting people who will be completely involved, who will not isolate themselves. I I point out to the students that part of the situation is identification because, for instance, in certain types of torture. And you say, "Well, okay, put a bomb there, do this," and people really don't identify with that, you know. Maybe the color of the skin is different, and they can- that helps them identify. But if you say, "Would you put a number six welding tip on a welding torch against the child's head?" This is about 8,000 degrees, you know. And whether it's white, red or black, anyone visualizing a man doing that would say that he's he's a maniac. But, you know, in other ways we say, "We'll drop a bomb, 100 million degrees in the center of the blast," something like that. But if you're involved, if you really are in love, allowing yourself to become in love with these processes, you become rather civilized. If you if you really will involve yourself with making things for society, or or involving yourself as a teacher, there's a thing there. I mean, the simplest thing is to to run the class in a neat way, and to become kind of like the father. I mean, most students are either just coming from a home, or they haven't been away enough just to establish their own discipline. And the thing for me to do is to become a father, or to become a deity. Maybe I don't speak to the students, you know, and I am very aloof, but this is not the proper atmosphere for the creative development. And I point out to the students that I have exactly the same problems they have, and the only value to having me there with them is that I've worked on these problems longer, and that I do know somewhat the pattern of the principals we should deal with. And this really is my job, and then to give them counseling, counseling as a professional. And I may tell a student that he is developing as a human being, but he still has not reached a professional level, and he must realize what the professional levels are. But the parental attitude of the teacher, to me, seems to be completely out of place in creative work. You're seeking that individual development in the student. To be a father to a class, keep it neat and tidy, you know, you use a rulebook as a club. You, for instance, I'll tell you this, this is interesting: if a student comes in late, the usual technique in academic circles is to say good afternoon, or "are you in this class?," or something of this type, you see. And then student is defensive, and then he he's a little bit rebellious, you see. But when students come in late in my class, I just say good morning, and this may go on two or three days, and they come and say, "Look, don't you care about me?" And I say, "What do you mean?" "Well, you know, I've been late and you act like that I hadn't done anything." "Well," I said, "you haven't. Now you're here. It's obvious you have a problem. Why are you late?" you see? And I told him, I said, "Look, I have a problem with my discipline, and it's your problem with yours." I said, "I'm here and the university is providing this, and if you do this long enough I'll have to find out why you are not participating." And this, Studs, this is another interesting aspect of cheating. Have you heard much talk about cheating?
John E. Walley Well, yes. I used to sit in certain faculty meetings and they would talk about cheating. Finally they asked me one day, "How do you handle this?" And I said, "I don't have the problem." They said, "You don't have a problem with cheating?" "Of course not. People only cheat when there's some advantage. So the only way people can cheat my class is not to participate, and they're cheating themselves of their development." And I said that on this level they begin to then assess what is best for their self-interest. But if I made certain games or gave snap examinations with tricky questions, look, they're inventive, people are inventive. They would get a system to get around my inventiveness on these quick examinations.
John E. Walley Yes.
John E. Walley That's right. It seems to me, Studs, that if out of these activities you do not find your philosophy, this is a waste of time. For instance, I was on a symposium with people from the technical schools, and I was talking about this approach, a foundation for a machinist, or for a welder, or for a woodworker, and I was trying to be very persuasive. And at the end of my statement, and just summing up, one gentleman said, "We don't have time for this." And I said, "My point would be that you do not have time to isolate a machinist from a woodworker." And I pointed out that when you teach a machinist how to make volume that occupies space in relation to another volume, you may call it a slip fit or a press fit, it may go inside or outside, that actually you're dealing with volumes and space. Now you might as well involve these people on the level that the great sculptors have been involved in, because I think that might be more exciting for a machinist if he saw what he was making as volumes and spaces. He usually talks about as a sleeve or a cog or something like this. And what was he doing with his senses all day in the factory? You know, we're killing the man. But if he looks at this, and visually and tactilely the guy is excited, you know?
John E. Walley Oh.
John E. Walley Well, this is the thing that I think that would enrich the lives of people that have to do what we call routine work. Of course, this is a thing, Studs, with with work, with students. I've tried many experiments. Now, for instance, the the attitude is the ideal situation is the absence of work, you know? If you can do something you don't have to work. Well, just think of the painters. The painters, many of them, have made a product that no one ordered, no one told them to do this. And they did this because they had to evolve and develop as a man, you see? Well, I point out to the students that we have peculiar attitudes, and I can get any student to take a watercolor brush and put paint on paper, and they they have no social problem with this unless it's kind of an insecure male who feels that maybe this is effeminate. You get this once in a while. And I point out to them that creativity will take more than football, you see. It takes more of a man. And if they get involved they begin to realize this. So that- I've tried various things. For instance, I used to teach in a shop where we worked with wood and get chips and sawdust. And I at noontime would put brooms around, and I started to sweep the floor. So a couple of fellows came in, they were embarrassed, they left. A couple more came, they were embarrassed and they left. And a girl, who came from Canada, economically was quite insecure, but obviously personally she wasn't, she said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm sweeping the floor." And she said, "Don't they have janitors for this?" And I said, "Yes, but they're not scheduled. And I like to sweep the floor, you know, to make- this is making order." So she said that she would help me, so she did. And later the class came back, and so I said, "Look, you know, it's none of my business, but there's a curious atmosphere here, and let's talk about it because I think there's something fundamental." So they started to talk, and one fellow said, "Well, you don't- do you know why I didn't pick up that broom?" He said, "I was an officer in the Army, and I when I think of it I was afraid people wouldn't know it if I picked up the broom." And another fellow said, "Well, you know, that's funny, I was a sergeant and I didn't pick up the broom because I thought maybe they'd think I was a sergeant, see?" And so we talked about this. Now it was socially worthwhile to put the broom to the floor. And why did they feel intimidated by this? And why would they gladly put the brush to the paper, you see, and that this was a part of what our affair was about. For them to learn why they were reacting this
Studs Terkel I may just for a moment, this is a question I want to ask connected with a man named Moholy-Nagy, with whom you are connected. You spoke of the broom and the kick you got of using the broom, making order. Remember the movie "Miracle of Milan" that De Sica directed?
John E. Walley Yes.
Studs Terkel In the very beginning, the small boy, Toto. This old lady finds him in the patch, and he's home, she's working. And one day he spills milk all over the floor and he's scared. And the old lady comes in, and her joy, I imagine much like the involvement that you seek from your students, she made an asset out of this liability. There was the milk and the trickling all over the floor, and she hopped all over it and made a game out of it, like it was a railroad tracks. Of course the boy joined her, and out of it came a great deal of happiness. So in a way it reflects-
John E. Walley Well, Moholy was Hungarian. He studied law and became involved in poetry and painting. And this eventually led him to the capitals in Europe, and through this he came in touch with the Bauhaus group. And he was a very enthusiastic man. I'm sure that many of us have created a almost a perfect image of him after his death. I like to think of the troublesome aspects of the man as well as the ideal things. He was a provocative educator, and I have often wondered if he didn't develop teachers more than students, because the teachers that went there to teach were, you know, they'd grow tremendously. I did. I mean, a great deal of my development, I feel, was in the context of the school. And that he was enthusiastic- he used to say very provocative things that would make you think. I knew the illness of preconception, where you know everything about the world, and therefore your solutions are only in within that preconception. And he would say, "You know, my real job is to advance the age of innocence, because when people have have a fixed picture of the world, they're out of gear because they-" And he felt this, he felt that you had to be in touch with the events. And one day we were coming from Ireland, I think five or six of the faculty with Moholy, and and we're walking along. it was a sunny day in spring, and here was a little kid, probably 4 years old, 5 years old. And had the ends of bottles, one was brown, one was green, and he was reflecting light on the sidewalk and mixing these colours. And some of us were talking, walked on, and Moholy stopped us and said, "Wait a minute." He said, "Look at this boy." He said, "Here's here's the real process we're trying to do. This is our business. Here is a man completely involved with light." He said, "He doesn't even hear us." And he didn't, the child didn't hear us. And this was what he meant was that this capacity, and I think all artists have this, for total involvement in the expression they're dealing with. And he demonstrated how sophistication- now, Studs, I'm not talking about untrained people when I say unsophisticated, because a man may know a great deal about photography, or about machine processes, or about printing processes, but I'm talking about his approach to problems. I'm not talking about an untrained man. As a matter of fact these people are highly trained-
John E. Walley That's
John E. Walley In the in the real emotional feeling for the thing. Moholy, some of the disturbing things about Moholy was that his enthusiasm would involve him for, you know, of 18 or 20 hours, and he thought everybody should be involved at the same intensity for the same length of time. And some people resisted this. But the people who criticized Moholy, I think, never can present material that is equal importance to the positive things that he has done in education. And frankly, Studs, I have to tell you that I thought school was a very dull place where you did everything much slower than you could do it outside, and I had no desire to be a teacher. And it was really Moholy that got me involved. He- during '39 and '40 I had a design shop with 13 of his advanced students, and we would meet to talk about the students, and I could assign problems in the area of their development. And he said to me, "You should be a teacher." And I said no, and he said, "Well, the way you are handling these people," he said, "they're learning as much here as they are in school." And I I still resisted him. But it was after the war in 1945 that he then wanted me to come to the school, and I agreed to go for one year. And at the end of one year I was so involved, and I could see my development changing, that I stayed on until 1952, and then I went to University of Illinois after that.
John E. Walley Yes. I- my feeling that to be a painter and teach so you can paint does a disservice to the student. To me, teaching is a main event, and to see people come in, to see people behave as though I'm going to be the father image, to see them take their own initiative, to become more and more competent, to have a broader understanding, and especially when they start to get involved in their their own human development. And one aspect, I can usually judge a student if he is remaining in a home environment, and he has had no disagreement, and hasn't demanded that he replan and rebuild his room, and put the colors on the wall that he wants, then I know we really haven't gotten at the guy. But when he starts to have a little friction with the family, and he wants to change the environment, well, we feel that he is on his way, you see. This is kind of a good measuring stick.
Studs Terkel Now, John I was about to ask: today we hear so much about the blandness of young people, of students, a carefull young man, we hear all those all this talk, indifference. What about this age of innocence. Do you still find it in the classes?
John E. Walley Yes, you do. I find that a great many people are able to do this. Now sometimes they may be considered off beat and out outside as a group because, as some of the students say, you know, "What's with this chick? He isn't hip," you know? "You don't do that anymore. You did it when you were 15, you know, or 12, but now we're 19, 20." Well, this is- then you have to work to break this down to show that we're not conforming, we're not getting an ideal for this group, you see. The automobile is a symbol in all of this. You know, I would go around and I see fellows daydreaming, so I, you know, ask, "Well, what's her name?" Marie, Rosalie or what. And they say no, you know, it's Corvette, Fairlane, Simca. They want the automobiles, this is a symbol. Now I kid a good deal about this because I claim that they are bleacherites, you know, and I even accuse 'em of going to movies to watch other people make love.
John E. Walley Spectators.
Studs Terkel Uh-huh.
John E. Walley And I kid them, I say, "I'm I'm sure you go to the movies, the way I've heard you talk, and you go there to watch other people make love. You know, you'd want to get involved. You know, you might have to take responsibility or or even think about marriage and things like this." And I find that this is a very serious thing, is this wanting to to watch other people do it and have people that don't want to act. You see, this this is the main thing that we try to demonstrate, that a verbal description is not enough, that there must be action. The designer or the painter, all of these people act. And this is disturbing to a lot of the students. I think that to get over this, you see what we're really doing is going against the mainstream. It's like the work image. The absence of work, you're even a much better person if you can hire some people to take care of you while you're not working, you know? And the more people you get, well, the greater status you have. Well, these students are not in a vacuum. You know, they're in our society. And we had a talk with a man from Ford Motor Company about young people stealing cars, and I- we ask if the social pressure of status to have a car wasn't involved. Also, on the negative side with delinquency, where people stole cars. And he said he didn't think the company was responsible at all for this. So I said, "Okay, why don't they steal horses and buggies?" You know in every tribe or civilization you have worthy trophies you steal, and a man that would steal a buggy today is a fool. Well, where did the student get the idea? It's from our society. So actually the the intellectual and the creative person within the bounds of the university must stand somewhat as a critic, you see, and must go somewhat against the mainstream of the, I'll call it the formalized ideas of what is good in the in the society.
Studs Terkel John, much- you're saying much the same thing that Mr. Hulo said, Jacques Tati, remember he was speaking of being- Hulo was against the mainstream. He was, as you are, uneat teacher. Uneat.
John E. Walley Yes.
John E. Walley Yeah,
Studs Terkel -interject, and perhaps you'll expound further on it, the time he was on the program he spoke of automobiles today. "They're all made the same way, and people have no joy in owning it. The only joy comes is when something goes wrong and they have to tinker with it." He says, "The man who made it seems to derive more joy than the man who uses
John E. Walley [laughs] That's right. Well, you know, this brings up a statement that Moholy used to make. You see, people looked at the work that came out of the Bauhaus and the Institute of Design, some of these things were models of principles, and they were not sculpture, they were not paintings, you see, but people looked at them as though they were art objects. Well, then the students who had come to the school, they had looked at the books and they thought this was the solution that the school wanted, and they started to repeat these. They started to formalize a process that was not formal in the beginning, you see. So Moholy could spot these students, and they were sophisticated. They knew, you see, and so they didn't have to develop. So what happened was that he would see a crude, a student who was suffering and just putting colors on in a harsh way, and building in a very awkward way, but this student was involved and was struggling. And he always told the faculty, "Look, we have a New Guinea artist, and don't spoil him. Let him alone." Because he knew that something was growing, you see. And I think this is the thing that Tati was referring to, you see, I feel that this is it. And well this, Studs, is the trouble we're having in schools, because how do you judge a man? How do you judge creativity? So what they're doing, they're using conformist methods to judge a student. And if a man is a conformist he never becomes a creative designer, because, this is oversimplified, but any architect or engineer or painter, sculptor, is trying to find the greatest number of significant elaborations on a principle that he can. Well, this is not conformity. I'm not talking of nonconformist in the sense of of what some people refer to as a bohemian action, as not conforming, and that has its value. But I'm talking about when I say nonconformist that you are not conforming to one ideal solution on a principle. And I talked to a physicist-
John E. Walley And I talked to a physicist the other day, and we were talking about the this Greek gentleman that is now the head of a project dealing with the magnetic field outside of the earth, and he's not a physicist, he's a mechanical engineer. And this physicist said, "Well, you know, many of us become so formalized in what we know about physics, and we know- we think we know the possible solutions, that many times a competent man, an imaginative man of this type outside the field saw many possibilities we didn't." And he said, "He has become competent very rapidly because he had the foundation, was a good mathematician, was an engineer." So that there's, I'll tell you, there's a subtle thing here, Studs, I would just like to mention. I know that when you seek conformity and, just like any other social habit, like the stealing of the cars and so on, when you seek nonconformity in your seeking solutions, the student who's very experimental, and in many cases very imaginative, he may then express this in wearing a beard, or not wearing a shirt, or something like this. And I think that you have to help the student understand the significant areas of nonconformist action, and the, would say the the uns- or insignificant. Because you can waste a lot of time expressing something in a nonconformist way where it has very little meaning.
John E. Walley That's right, yes. This is the thing I think you you are responsible to at least discuss and evaluate with a student, and in this way he will begin to see what he can spend on his action in a social situation, and what result he get.
Studs Terkel Again, you're everything you teach that is connected with the whole man. And John, there's one thing else I'd like to ask. I know you teach obviously more than social relationships, come out-relation of man to man, relation of man to object, too. This matter of enthusiasm about everything. Let's say here's a paper clip, or a bobbie pin. Now what do you teach, since you speak of the craftsman and the fine artist. You have your class, now you hold a bobbie pin in your hand or a paper clip. What does this mean, other than the found object?
John E. Walley We've used what we call these common objects, and the one great advantage to them is that they're inexpensive and you can get a lot of them. And students are always confronted with how much to spend on projects. We'll take a bobbie pin, the U type or the corrugation. We encourage the student to look around in his environment, and this can be the dime store, home, any place, and to find these common objects, and then to investigate their their potential for becoming parts of a system. Now that U-shaped bobbie pin, with the corrugation, many students would begin to realize that a toothpick or a medical stick was compatible within the pressure, and then he would begin to see that he could put it together in certain ways, and he would build a structure. There is another type of curler, I guess it is, that has- it's a hinged affair with a spring on the end, and some people with playing cards and pieces of plastic would involve these as fasteners, and some of these structures were fantastic. Or many times we encourage the student to take the object and join it on itself, so it wasn't a second object, such as you have a member and a connector. And what this does, it it increases the observation of the student, increases his ability for application, and then we clarify this as principle, and we show that buildings are put together with beams and columns and connectors and so on. And that this, another thing that it does, it it makes people really look at objects, and to understand them, and to appreciate their their working abilities, whether it's mechanical, whether it's just a spring or in some tension, so on. Now another thing is the the conscious relationship of objects and the effect it has on people. We've kidded about a yellow table at our house, I think you've been at this table. And people will say, "You and John have been married 24 years, you know," and I always say, "Well, how could you help it s- you know, around this sunshine table every morning?" Well, this is- there are people who have problems that could be around a yellow table and make them ill, and I was kidding about it. But it- I'm sure that our environment has influenced us, and if it if it hasn't then I'll feel badly because I created it so it would influence us, even in our way of life.
Studs Terkel John Walley, if when we wind up with this bobbie pin, this simplest of objects, from this bobbie pin you are saying, and you prove this in your daily life and teaching and relationships to artists, to all humans, that from this variations on the theme, you know, the principle, from this bobbie pin if we could draw, expand further our relationships to each other and to other objects, bigger proportion, the more significance we learn from the bobbie pin itself. Isn't this pretty much your technique?
John E. Walley No. The only warning I give, Studs, to the student is that working on our level, unless it's implemented with mathematics and physics and structural engineering, that it becomes a playful gadget or handicraft. But by implementing it with these skills, why these principles can be expressed in large scale and very significant areas.