Through the Designer’s Lens

WHY shares a portfolio of recent travel images by Don Chadwick, co-designer of the Aeron chair.

“It’s our function as designers to see things that other people don’t see,” Don Chadwick told WHY in 2012 as we filmed in his Santa Monica, California-based studio. “If you’re a curious person like I am, you’re constantly chewing away on this visual language that surrounds you.”

Naturally sorting through the visual language offered by our surroundings has long been a preoccupation of designers. In the introduction to his 1977 book How to See, George Nelson writes, “If we really want to see the physical environment within which we spend most of our time, we do have to understand something about design and the design process. In other words, seeing and design are related, just as thinking, seeing and feelings are related.”

Just as Nelson would rarely be seen in public without a 35mm camera strapped around his neck, Chadwick always has a camera—now digital—at the ready. “As I mentioned in the film, the camera is really another set of eyes. I don’t take notes, but I do take pictures,” he explains. “I go back and look at the pictures and they allow me to recollect in my mind certain situations or certain aspects that were important at that time. It’s kind of re-reading the story without having written it down…. It’s a story for me.”

Inspired by his passion for picture taking, WHY asked Chadwick to share some of his recent photography. He obligingly sent through the following collection of images captured during recent travels in Morocco and Cuba. “It’s always interesting to go into countries like these and see how the average population lives versus the so-called elite,” he explains. “You’re always aware of this dichotomy.”

Indeed, sensitivity for dichotomy appears to drive much of where Chadwick chooses to focus his lens. On the one hand there are the visual juxtapositions: contrasting elements of scale; shadow and light; monotone and color; foreground and background. Chadwick’s eye for finding an arresting visual is unsurprising given his skill as a designer. But looking deeper into the images allows for another level of content to surface. Through juxtapositions of tradition and modernity, of decay and growth, of the natural and the man-made, we begin to perceive something of the human condition. We see the unwitting outcomes of the small decisions that people make every day. We see the cumulative effect of small—almost negligible—details. We see that we shape, and are shaped, by the world we inhabit. We see the story.

Taking a picture is an elimination process—we selectively edit away the world beyond the lenses’ field of vision. What remains is simply a recording of light from a specific vantage at a specific point in time—a visual communication as concise as a word in a sentence. But reading a visual, Nelson reminds us in How to See, is not like reading this paragraph. There are no agreed-upon rules to follow, and each of us may find different meaning. “We see in the light of accumulated experiences, stored information, private interests and entrenched beliefs,” Nelson writes. “The interest of any theme does not lie in any hierarchy of subjects, but inside the reader and his ability to decode the messages.”


This was taken in the Royal Horse Stables in Meknes, Morocco. When these were built in the 17th century, they had to over-structure everything to keep it up. As it disintegrates and starts to age, some of the layers peel away. I liked how in one of these vaulted areas there was just this one light that illuminates both structure and erosion.


Atlas Door
This was taken up in the Atlas Mountains in a small village that was reminiscent of our American Indian Pueblos—for the most part the structures were made from mud or mud-brick. There’s something here in the texture and the honesty of materials and craftsmanship. This didn’t come from the local hardware store—that’s for sure.


Fes I
In Fes, I was struck by how primitive much of the typical architecture appeared. On the one hand you have these improvised wood timbers holding these things in place, and on the other, practically every building has a satellite dish poking up.


Fes II
My first impression here was that it was so monochromatic—from this vantage, everything just blends together in color and repetitive sameness in this old part of Fes. But there’s so much street life once you’re down in those alleyways. There’s also no shortage of satellite dishes.


The Souks
When you go through the souks, or bazars, these are tourist areas and you’re constantly being sold something—food, clothing, ceramics, tile, you name it. As you walk around you see these indications of “here I am—try me out.” These are just little discoveries—graphics and details—that caught my eye.


The Tannery
The tanneries in Morocco are famous and were interesting to look at because the process of the leather making is so evident. Some people thought the odor was obnoxious—they handed you mint leaves to hold next to your nose—but I actually didn't find it that disturbing at all.

There’s something here in the texture and the honesty of materials and craftsmanship. This didn’t come from the local hardware store—that’s for sure.

Don Chadwick


Hassan II Mosque
This mosque in Casablanca was truly spectacular. It’s hard to compare to a Gothic cathedral, but there is a sense of space that is equally dramatic. I was interested here in the way light penetrates this wall—and because it’s so immaculate, it just reflected perfectly off the surface of the floor.


Mosque Ceiling
I was struck by the kind of detail and craftsmanship seen here in the mosque—you just don’t see it when you’re walking around Morocco’s urban environments.


Souk Window
When you go through these souks, the structures are barely being held up—they’re decaying. But then what is being sold is brand new. Here you have this great contrast of new clothing being displayed against—or through—this ancient window.


YSL Door
Majorelle Garden in Marrakesh was designed in the 20’s and 30’s during the colonial period and was later owned by Yves Saint Laurent. It’s a tourist kind of place now, but I was struck by the amount of color. You just don’t see these colors typically.


This was taken behind a restaurant in Havana that had been converted from some other kind of building. Somehow the azure blue of the ocean set against the aqua blue of the pool—intersected by those steps—was better than a Hockney.


I was just walking around in one of Havana’s shopping areas when this sign appeared. I was really struck by it; cast-in-place; overgrown. It obviously goes back to another era—when the US had trade with Cuba. I love these graphic elements.


Escuelas Nacionales de Arte
Cuba is obviously a tropical place, and I was intrigued by the downspouts—how the designers handled the rain and protection from the weather. Graphically it was interesting to me.


Havana Shadows
I think we were in a café and I saw these fellows working on a building, doing some rehab work or something like that. They had a pail that they were using to lower down debris—and I tried to capture all of that, but I couldn’t get a decent shot. What I ended up with was this: the guy with the wheelbarrow just standing off to the side.