Page 8 - Shared Vision

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It took me half a century to realize that as a student in the
design department at Southern Illinois University, I had
witnessed the birth of the second American Bauhaus. I
shouldn’t be surprised. Having taught design history for
over a decade, I know that the true significance of an artist
or designer, a movement, or event is seldom clear until
years later.
When I pushed slides of the work of Peter
Behrens and the Bauhaus in Germany, I
often felt oddly nostalgic, as though I had
been there. I must have taken my students
with me, if only for a couple of hours,
judging by their questions and the topics
they chose for their research papers. When
my 15-week course got to the middle
of the 20th century, my slides showed
the work of the Bauhaus in America, of
Walter Gropius and in particular, of László
Moholy-Nagy. Moholy’s vision for his
Institute of Design in Chicago combined the
Bauhaus philosophy with robust American
industry and his own vision of design for the public good.
Some of my teachers at Southern Illinois University—
Harold Cohen, Davis Pratt, and Elsa Kula—were students
of Moholy, and after his death, taught at the Institute
of Design under Serge Chermayeff. In 1955, Harold L.
Cohen brought Moholy’s vision to Carbondale, where
he delivered it to me, among others, in the first class he
taught there.
My path to that classroom was as indirect and unlikely
as, I have since discovered, were those of most of my
classmates and the students who came after us; it was
more of a happy accident than a plan.
In the early ’50s, my father, a foreman at St. Louis
Shipbuilding and Steel, wanted me to have a better life.
And after several torrid summers working on steel boats
as a chipper and grinder of bad welds, I would have done
anything to join one of the lucky guys carrying T-squares in
the air-conditioned office I could see from the frying pan of
a deck. When I asked what they did, a welder flipped up his
hood and spit. “They’re draftsmen.”
In my junior year at East St. Louis Senior
High School, my drafting teacher often
chose my work for my understanding of
three-dimensional objects. After school
each day, I worked at the nearby Sears store
decorating windows. I also built displays
in their shop. I loved that job. One day my
boss took me aside. I had too much talent,
he said, to waste it in a department store.
I should become a commercial artist. But
having never met one, I had no idea what
he meant.
In January 1953, I graduated from high school, 1A for the
Korean War, which still had a draft running. A cousin
who was at SIU told my dad I ought to apply. There was
no talk of any other school; we could not have afforded
it. So one Saturday, with no appointment, my determined
dad and reluctant mom drove me to Carbondale. On the
leafy campus a student pointed out the Allyn Building. We
walked in. The walls were covered with abstract paintings.
Sling chairs and low coffee tables lined one wall. I could
smell oil paint. My pulse began to race. Cool jazz drifted
through an open office door. A nattily dressed man who was
smoking a pipe invited us in. Professor Robert McMillan set
his papers aside, and smiling at our naiveté, helped me fill
out the application forms, right then and there.
Al Gowan (Photo by Helene Zuckerbrod)