At home with Leonard Koren

Leonard Koren, a maker of deceptively modest books about deceptively modest subjects, like raking leaves, defines the word “aesthetics” in his latest.

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  1. shinichi Post author


    An Idiosyncratic Designer, a Serene New Home

    by Penelope Green

    POINT REYES, Calif.

    IT is midday in Leonard Koren’s studio, a spare, white rectangle overlooking Tomales Bay, the slim finger of water that outlines the top of the San Andreas Fault. Mr. Koren, who carries the awkward job title of design philosopher, was explaining personal causalities: how a Viennese flower shop healed his broken heart, for instance, and how a disco radio station propelled him and his partner, Emilia Burchiellaro, into a happy exile on the edge of a wildlife refuge an hour north of San Francisco.

    Mr. Koren, 62, who studied architecture at the University of California at Los Angeles, has long enjoyed a kind of quiet notoriety among design lovers. He is the founder and publisher of the ’70s-era cult magazine Wet — its impish mandate, “a magazine about gourmet bathing,” came to Mr. Koren while he was taking a bath and allowed for articles on nude beaches and the drug Ecstasy, and contributions from Matt Groening, Leonard Cohen and Paul Bowles. More recently, Mr. Koren has been known as a maker of deceptively modest books about deceptively modest subjects (raking leaves, arranging objects).

    While Mr. Koren’s pursuits are idiosyncratic, the artifacts they produce — more than a dozen slim paperbacks designed (right down to the typeface) and written by Mr. Koren — have an uncanny habit of colliding with the zeitgeist. They are anti-coffee- table books for the coffee-table-book set. “Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers,” first published in 1994, presented the Japanese notion of imperfect or humble beauty — you know the look, splintered driftwood against a winter sky, or a single flower past its prime. The book became a talking point for a wasteful culture intent on penitence and a touchstone for designers of all stripes, including some makers of luxury goods. Though the work was initially designed without a bar code (in keeping with its antidigital philosophy and to the annoyance of distributors, who, Mr. Koren said, charged a 20-cent “inconvenience fee” for some years), it has been a steady earner, with over 100,000 copies sold to date.

    Since Mr. Koren is not an academic, financing his interests has been a creative act in itself. Happily, corporations reach out to him as a trend spotter and early adopter. A few years ago, General Mills asked him and other creative types to brainstorm a new product for its snack business. Swarovski, the crystal maker, flew him to Paris to interview the industrial designer Arik Levy at Mr. Levy’s request; Mr. Levy said Mr. Koren was the only design writer he could understand. And this fall, Mr. Koren will follow George Sowden, another industrial designer and a founder of the Memphis Group, who is working on producing his housewares at a more local level. The two are also collaborating on a book documenting this process.

    “Leonard is a philosopher,” Mr. Sowden said the other day. “Because he makes you think about things in a different way. But he’s not dogmatic. He’s a relativist. The books are not empty books; they are not minimalist. You have to appreciate that. If you are looking for opinions, you won’t find them. If you asked me what Leonard believes in, I would say he is a believer in not believing.”

    That point is debatable. Mr. Koren, who was dressed like a schoolboy, in a blue-striped oxford cloth shirt and blue jeans, certainly has a lot to say. He was cranky about a former neighbor, and wrung out by a legal tussle with his ex-wife. Mr. Koren’s appealingly irritable sensibility is woven through his new book, out this month and titled “which ‘aesthetics’ do you mean? ten definitions.” (The lowercase is intentional.) With it, he has waded in with the big boys to wrestle some meaning out of a word that has bedeviled him for decades, he said.

    “Every time I saw the word in print it put me in this questioning mode,” he said. “What does the author mean by it? Is it a highfalutin synonym to get a little more texture and variety in their writing?” The result — a primer with a memoir embedded in it — manages to be both high minded and very funny: “Objects scavenged from the Manhattan sewers were used to create the edgy aesthetics of Bob’s downtown loft,” writes Mr. Koren, using that sentence to demonstrate one of his 10 definitions of the “a” word.

    Mr. Koren and Ms. Burchiellaro’s aesthetic — spare, bright and modern — is not particularly edgy, but it is pricey. Their house, which is 1,200 square feet of glass and bleached-out cedar on a quarter acre, was built in 1987, and cost just over $1 million when Mr. Koren bought it as a weekend place a few years ago.

    At the time, they were living uneasily in an apartment in Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, sharing the building with a downstairs neighbor who worked at home and had a passion for disco music, which, they say, she liked to play at top volume for much of the day. At first, they tried to manage their discomfort by listening to the same radio station — said Ms. Burchiellaro, who had just arrived back at the house with Marco, their 2 ½-year old, and was picking up the loud-neighbor tale so Mr. Koren could greet his son.

    “We figured out what the station was, because we thought maybe it would be better to actually listen to the music than to absorb the vibrations passively,” Ms. Burchiellaro, a graphic designer, added. “She told us she was afraid of silence.”

    After Marco was born, things deteriorated. They tried mediation, they said, but the flummoxed mediator, a retired judge, advised: “Just get out. Sell the place and forget it.” A few weeks later, they did sell and moved full time to Point Reyes.

    “We had no intention of living full time in the country,” Mr. Koren said. But, he added, “Over the last two years we’ve begun relaxing into our fate. Although Emilia is aching to do some extensive remodeling, I’m in a happily appreciative mode. I’m grateful. No. 1, to be alive. No. 2, that I’m in a place that is conducive for working and living. If you’re a somewhat balanced person, but not necessarily a super-positive person, state of mind is extremely important. You can’t work on something about beauty — that is, beauty is irrelevant, if you’re mired in all kinds of muck.”

    POINT REYES would appear to be muck free. Their neighborhood used to be a dairy farm. It was developed in the 1970s by an architect named Virginia Eschenbach into a circle of quirky contemporary houses overlooking acres of pasture and the protected lands of Point Reyes National Seashore. There is a community garden in the middle, an artisanal cheese shop a few minutes away and, increasingly, kindly neighbors with small children. The drive from San Francisco through canyons of redwoods and pale yellow grazing lands will take your breath away.

    “Here everybody is pretty conscious of the fact that good human relations are a necessary fact of life,” Mr. Koren said. In the middle of the disco war, he was entangled in another ordeal that “nearly unhinged me,” he said. Although he had been divorced for years, there were unresolved financial issues and he was in the throes of the case, spending two days in a windowless room giving a deposition.

    Indeed, though Mr. Koren would not frame it that way, the divorce, from his wife of 18 years, has been the gift that keeps on giving. The recent legal confrontation prompted his volume on aesthetics, for one; that new work is an attempt to “upscale a bad experience into a philosophical principle,” he said. For another, when his wife left him in 2003 he found solace in a Viennese flower shop — a place that yielded another book for him.

    The flower shop was inspirational and healing, he said, not just lovely to look at (and be in) but devoted to an overall ideal of general niceness. The people who worked there did all sorts of unlikely things, like walking each customer to the door.

    Mr. Koren asked if he could just sit there for a few days. “It was very soothing,” he explained. The book that came out of Mr. Koren’s Austrian sojourn, “The Flower Shop,” published in 2005, was, in its own quiet way, stunning: it laid out the days and nights of the store cinematically and analytically — a documentary mixed into a philosophical exercise. The book’s subtitle is a bit of a manifesto for Mr. Koren: “charm, grace, beauty and tenderness in a commercial context.”

    Here in Point Reyes, Mr. Koren and Ms. Burchiellaro work side by side on their own projects, though there was some collaboration on the aesthetics book — discussions about fonts, for example, and also Ms. Burchiellaro’s successful efforts to “get me to be more diplomatic,” Mr. Koren said. “She comes from a noble European tradition” of graciousness, he added. “She helped steer me through self-inflicted damage.”

    Marco, they agreed, is their best collaboration. Though they never discussed their views on child rearing before his birth, they are in happy alignment as parents. “Though I did notice, when I first met Emilia,” Mr. Koren said, “that toward animate and inanimate objects she had a very nurturing attitude. Meaning she would talk to her car and her appliances in a very mothering, coaxing way. I thought that was nice.”

  2. Believer

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