Spring 2011 Guide: Influence and Inspiration

JAN 11, 2011

Video designer Jim Findlay on Bucky and the Creative Process.

I honestly can’t recall how or where I first personally came into contact with R. Buckminster Fuller’s work and ideas. Not so unique, of course, except for the fact that I could probably carbon-date my entire design career by charting the rings of influence of different artists with particular projects. But unlike most, or perhaps all, of those other artists and writers and thinkers who have influenced and inspired my work as a theater designer, Bucky feels like he’s always just been there; a force of nature, an expression of gravity, a foundation on which I’ve always been standing even if I didn’t realize it.

When writer and director D. W. Jacobs invited me to join his already decades-long project to materialize Bucky as a theatrical force, R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE, he’d heard from those who recommended me that I was already in the midst of my own long relationship with Bucky’s ideas. It was surely one of the main reasons he was curious to talk to me about joining the project. It was true and I indeed described to Doug (the D in D. W.) that although I wouldn’t presume to call myself an expert in any way, that Bucky had been a touchstone in my work for well over a decade. The truth also was that although I had indeed been creating a body of work indebted to Bucky, I hadn’t really ever taken the time to actually study Bucky’s work in any comprehensive way. I was a dabbler. I wasn’t sure that I really understood any of Bucky, frankly. My now somewhat ragged pile of Bucky books was always my place of last resort in a design crunch: the place I went when I simply had no good ideas or just plain no ideas at all. And there was always something to find there which would set me off in a new direction, sometimes literally quoting and expanding on Bucky’s work, but more often somewhere further afield, my mind having been triggered by the beautiful and purposely naive rigor of Bucky’s drawings or ideas or inventions.

Maybe I feel like Bucky is so present in my artistic life because I grew up in the 1970s at a time when Bucky’s cultural influence was probably at its peak. I recall seeing small dome homes in the favorably temperate Florida region I grew up in. I also remember my parents teasing us kids about whether we’d like to move into a dome ourselves. Not that I ever knew who Buckminster Fuller was as a nine-year-old, but his ideas were nonetheless a big part of how many of us envisioned the future. Those ideas had a way of burrowing into our collective conscious. But it’s not just because Bucky or his designs became famous or widely known that their legacy is so important. And it’s also not because they necessarily succeeded. Bucky was a cheerful advocate of failure as
a necessary and desirable step in the design process. (Another reason artists love Bucky, the celebration of failure.)

The reason Bucky’s way of thinking feels so foundational in my design life is that his work is based on boiling down to their most essential aspects his observations about how the world and the universe actually function. To this extent, the foundation that Bucky left was so strong and elemental because it is itself based on bedrock scientific foundations of the physical laws of nature. When encountering his drawings and mathematical work on icosahedrons, the domes, the vehicles, the dymaxion towers, I find that they all echo and reflect Bucky’s grounding and faith in the facts of the world around him. And yet his ideas about the function of design are grounded firmly in his insistence on the value of the generalist over the specialist and in the synthesis of social function and science. His work doesn’t stray into the murky world of the aesthetic. There is an inherent simplicity to Bucky’s attitude toward both human life and our place in the universe that functions quite elegantly and with great utility as a model for any creative process. Define the problem. Observe and understand the factors influencing the outcome. Try to arrive at a solution that utilizes the force of those factors in more useful vectors.

Bucky didn’t believe in changing people. He believed in designing things that changed the way they interact with the world. That’s what good theater design does too. It changes and hopefully charges the way the performers interact with their world. For me, the real lesson of Bucky’s approach to design is in the approach itself.

Jim Findlay is the video designer for R. Buckminster Fuller: THE HISTORY (and Mystery) OF THE UNIVERSE

Spring 2011 Guide

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