9 Minute Read

Why do I write? I write to remember. I write to understand. I write to change.

Scott Knell

This morning, as I waited for my head to clear to the sight and sound of running water in my bathroom sink, I found myself staring at a familiar object posing as the favorite faucet of my youth. I had just run a finger across the top of a mirage reflected in its polished nickel–a water spot? a cobweb? a sigh?–and for a moment, I was looking not at the surface beneath my finger but at one from another era: one where I was all of three, maybe four years old, when things like faucets and fixtures had make-believe lives of their own and maybe even souls. That by-now, bulldozed-into-nothingness relic of my childhood, also part of a bathroom sink, was secretly my favorite of the three faucets prominent inside our one-bathroom home.

I say favorite. The one attached to the kitchen sink, shiny nickel-colored, its slender neck craning down its graceful incline for several inches, I could barely get to standing on a step stool. That was alright. Its silvery water always had air in it, anyway. The third indoor faucet serviced the bathtub. Whenever I looked at it after my older sister Rebecca somehow wrapped her too-small mouth around its spout to find it stuck there for several terrifying minutes–she wanted a gulp was all–I always cringed. Until that traumatizing event, and despite the taste from the kitchen, all three faucets came with “good lines,” shapes I had liked among so many in my home and neighborhood, maybe even the planet, that, more or less, and for reasons I still can’t put my finger on, I did not.

As a boy, every object familiar to me, like languages whose nouns were either feminine or masculine, was, to my un-nuanced sensibilities, good, or it was bad. All three indoor water faucets: good. Both outdoor water faucets, their rough utility and uninspired (and uninspiring), granular, gray surfaces–were they cast-iron? Bad. All light fixtures–my father, an architect with seemingly endless access to modern furnishings; I emptied the trash from his office twice each week, saving the best samples for the huts I liked to build but never occupy–good. Eating utensils in our kitchen drawer: a panoply of good, namely the Lauffer flatware that, for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, I replaced for them, the gesture a redemptory confession of my hands-on role abetting their total loss beneath our dune-imported sandpile the day it met Tony’s cement mixer. The rest of the drawer: mostly bad. The clean beam lines traversing the living room ceiling on their beeline through the top of floor-to-ceiling plate glass to undergird an exterior ceiling protruding above and parallel to a cantilevered wooden deck: good. (My eye traced those beams them back and forth for hours.) The too-rounded-for-space-travel contours of the Buck-Rogers-grilled bathroom ceiling fan encasement: monstrously bad. The mossy-blue tiles in the shower, whose waxy surface sadly repelled water–bad (of course), especially in contrast to the olive-brown ones, their matted, porous surface able to hold just enough water to spell words with my finger, or draw two-dimensional projections of three-dimensional cubes and cylinders, for obvious reasons, good.

The bathroom tiles did not come with the original house but were an addition laid by Tony Martinez, the curly-haired mason who came back a summer later to pour cement across the top of a root cellar. Its “roof”, for reasons I could never grasp despite hours trying to stare it away, came with an inch-high lip where it abutted the adjacent patio floor. Why would Tony leave behind that single, annoying inch? Bad, bad, bad. Nobody ever descended the cellar’s ladder except my younger brother Roger and I, and then only to dare each other to spend the night on the army surplus bunks that once might have been in our bedrooms, though it was too dark down there to tell. The bed racks doubled as platforms for wooden drawers filled with rotting apples and pears. The only thing horizontal about them was their bare metal springs. We slept on the root cellar’s damp earth: not so bad. And when the entire compound was razed–house, carport, architect’s office, shed, patio, cellar, kitchen sink–I would have flown home to see that one inch of toe-stubbing concrete scraped even, before being ground to the oblivion of new construction.

Lines tell you where to look, good lines where to look next.

Lee Knell

With two exceptions, all the good lines in the home my modernist father designed ran, soared, and proscribed the world we lived in and beneath–even our roof was a single-minded, edge-to-edge plane–straight as arrows. His geometric, and in a couple of places geodesic impressions drew the eye, the mind, and eventually the body, to spaces and places only imagined in their directional arrows.

“Good design will always lead,” he would say. “It should never hold you in place or your gaze. My friends and I will argue this point. Architecture combines all art forms–visual, rhythmic, acoustic, color, sculpture, even dance. Architectural lines are never still.” Not until I learned to direct theater, to lead the eyes of an audience to an intended focal point, did I connect those dots. “Lines tell you where to look, good lines where to look next.”

His exceptions to the rule deferred to beauty, like the Lauffer curve that caught his eye at the MoMA when courting my mother. A few years ago, I came across the letters he wrote her from every port, mostly about the beautiful things he was collecting for the home they would one day cohabit. As she recounted to me how pleased he had been to find the not-a-flat-surface-anywhere-on-it flatware, she showed me how to balance a Lauffer spoon on the edge of my small index finger. After they were gone, I inherited the replacement set I gifted them and, always with fond memories–the son of an architect can be forgiven for indulging himself when it comes to design–still tease out my parents’ forks and spoons from the other bad stuff in the drawer. Their lines, not parallel, not straight, somehow traced the curve of the mouth they were drawn to feed.

The only other non-linear surface built into my father’s Japanese-style home–authentic even to the woven mats that for years hung vertically to separate our bedrooms–was the raw, tunneled, wooden sill (was-it-worm-eaten, its facade?) below the picture window in our dining room that framed the mountains to the east. I could stare at the contours of that sill for hours, running my mind and tiny fingers, even a toy dinosaur, in and out of their riddled catacombs, imagining what forces–animal, mineral, certainly not human–had carved them into the soft, unstained wood. That was until my well-meaning neighbor, a nurse who had diagnosed that my mother’s multiple hospitalizations for depression could have only have been caused by caring for so many unruly children running around in an unfinished house, smuggled in a can of chocolate brown paint and, when no one was watching, turned an inspiringly good window sill irreversibly bad.


My final undergraduate course was called Philosophy of Aesthetics. Its syllabus promised to answer what seemed to be every question I had ever asked about design. Why were some lines considered good? Why did Rembrandt command my eye but Picasso only my mind? What was it about Pinter, Becket, and Vonnegut that urged me to write from the hip? How was it no one else saw what I did in my favorite films? How come when remodeling our home every fixture Kari and I were drawn to cost three times more than the ones we didn’t? What was so special–to me at least–about a Lauffer fork or a Lee Knell home–or cabin, civic center, ice rink, ski resort, or campus he had designed?

Gary Rosine was a fascinating presenter. If I’m honest, I only remember one of his lectures but there was something about him that commanded my attention in the moment–beige, herringbone sport jacket: good. The way he paced across the proscenium: good. How he paused long enough to project contemplation, jumped to opine about something in his lecture, smiled right at you over his shoulder like a Cheshire cat: all good. But content? All bad. Except his outrageous caper at the Musée d’Orsay.

At the pinnacle of a pace-pause-and-jump lecture on something like No Matter What Kant Can’t Tell You, Beauty Is Always in the Eye of the Beholder, Rosine described a time when in Paris, he purchased an empty black art frame for something like three francs, one small enough to smuggle–inside his beige, herringbone jacket, as I pictured it–an astonishing work of art not out of, but into an impressionist art museum just downriver from the Louvre. Inside the Musée d’Orsay, are perennially displayed works of some of the most important French impressionists–Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne. But for the briefest moment of time, probably sometime in the 1960s, there was to be seen in the halls of that museum, if you knew what you were looking for, and at: a one-of-a-kind masterpiece by the American artist Gary Rosine. Using the heel of his shoe as a hammer, he drove a nail into an unoccupied, eye-level spot on a random, limestone wall of the converted 19th-century Beaux-Arts railway station, and hung there his empty, three-franc, black, blank picture frame. Pause. Jump. “Mesdames et Messieurs de l’Académie Francaise, I give you Art!” Gary Rosine’s very own philosophy of aesthetics.

What’s an aesthetic, anyway? In our common vernacular, I could be forgiven for saying, “I paid good money for the answer to that question and all I got was a no-longer framed square of limestone at a Paris museum. Years later, when Kari and I visited the Musée d’Orsay for the first time, I had no idea–Kant must not have mentioned it–that in contrast to its sister museum upriver on the Seine, the d’Orsay was, as our Louvre guide sniped, “the closet where cette grande musée ships its impressionist surplus.” I wonder to what moth-balled warehouse the d’Orsay shipped Gary’s surplus picture frame. His object d’art, the wall behind it undoubtedly over-painted several times since, is certainly still on display.


Before university, my high school theatre director Ray Jones cast me in one of his state-wide, high school competition-winning one-act plays alongside veteran senior class actor Tim Slover, who would win best actor for the performance I’m about to describe. The play was called Picture. (I don’t recall the playwright). In its climactic moment, Tim’s character wrestles mine to the ground and, sitting on my chest like the rider of a horse’s underbelly, attempts to knock out my character’s teeth–and my own, I might add–with the heel of his shoe. He had earlier recounted how he had used the same shoe to knock out his girlfriend’s teeth, “every other one across the front. Every other one! I’ve got a picture; would you like to see?” At that moment, Jones directed Tim to hold up a head-size, empty, black picture frame, through which the audience could see an image of their own making–the battered girl, my character getting pummeled with Tim’s shoe, the audience themselves–as though looking into a mirror. As I replay that final scene my mind while writing this, I find myself wondering whether Gary, on whose university’s stage the competition was playing out, had looked into Tim’s picture-less, black frame.

When I was all of three, maybe four years old, learning to trust modernist instincts inherited from a man whose most obvious instinct was to hasten the future, I would have glanced toward that old faucet and instinctively thought of a single-minded word. Bad.

By the time I got to Oxford, I had been living not in a Lee Knell original whose future-leaning lines revealed to me an escape route from the harshness of the desert I grew up in, but under the colonial roofs of unlined homes in Maryland and Massachusetts to which I had fled. Knowing that I would one day look back on the City of Dreaming Spires, I sometimes wandered Oxford’s backstreets and alleyways to wallow in its architecture. One evening, exiting Cornmarket through the left-right-left of Golden Cross on my to the Open Market–my destination was Next to Nothing, my favorite T-shirt shop located (wait for it) next to a shop called Nothing–I happened upon a portal to another life. In the middle of the left-right-left alley, protruding bluntly from the lower section of a limestone wall abutting Duke’s Barbers, was a granulated-cement-colored faucet with the same bad lines of the one sticking out from the outside wall of my boyhood home. Not unlike so much of a city whose foundational architecture went back to triple-digit years, the squiggly little faucet dripped ancient water into the banged-up sheet metal sleeve of a rusting bin presently ruining the otherwise pristinely plastered wall.

What caught my eye–there were no lines leading me to this spot; this was something more direct–neatly centered between two perpendicular walls enclosing the alcove I was facing, was a scene somehow familiar to me as it stared back from its boxed-in frame. I had often pondered and still do–had done so just this morning, mesmerized as I had been by my shiny bathroom faucet–a transcendent question I sensed was at that moment about to be answered. As I focused not just my mind, but my instincts on the scene, I could see that someone–Gary Rosine? Tim Slover? Banksy himself?–someone–had pounded into that limestone wall, possibly with their very own shoe, a now rusty nail from which was suspended by a thin twisted wire, a hand-lettered sign. On a curl of paper, a poorly-drawn arrow pointed straight down at the faucet, not exclusively but to something larger, more elusive, something Foucault might have signaled to have been written sous paren–its undeclared truth not between but under parentheses. Because taken in together, the cast-iron faucet, the banged up sheet metal, the rusty nail, the twisted wire, the crooked arrow, the hand-scrawled note, everything before me except the straight, and by that point, irrelevant wall, had been framed by whatever architect had smuggled them into that alcove with one object in mind: to declare what for me was the now obvious answer to an urgent question, the answer itself declared on a curl of paper in the form of second urgent question:

“But is it art?”

When I was all of three, maybe four years old, learning to trust modernist instincts inherited from a man whose most obvious instinct was to hasten the future, I would have glanced toward that old faucet and instinctively thought of a single-minded word. Bad. But on that day, in that moment, 30 years after moving out of my father’s now-bulldozed, formerly modern home, forever returned to the earth that gave it life, along with its glistening, perfectly crafted impression of a really good faucet, my heart, and a tunnel within a worm-eaten catacomb riddling its way through a rusty corner of my mind, emphatically uttered, “Yes, Lee”–and Gary, and Tim, and Andrea, and even the snobby tour guide at the Louvre–”Yes, it is.”

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