The Still Room of Quiet

I like to think of the 1950s and early 60s as some kind of wonderful “Pleasantville” experience. I imagine I’d wear my letterman’s jacket, do well in school, and come home in time for cookies, milk, and an early bedtime. It would all be so well ordered and clear. Recently, I found a box of slides at my grandparents’ house. I sent it out to be digitized and was rather alarmed when I looked at them on screen. They must have been taken around 1963. There is an image of President Kennedy’s funeral on the television. Some of the photos are at my great grandparents’ anniversary party. Others are at an unknown social event.

The upside is the television tray usage. I still have those TV trays. I use them at home, but didn’t realize they were appropriate for a party. Now I see how handy they can be. The downside is the subtext in every image of restrained frustration. Nobody looks comfortable. Everyone looks like they could use a stiff martini. I imagine the polite chatter, “Bob, how’s your golf game these days,” “Betty, I loved the coffee cake,” “Could you be more proud of Sherman, valedictorian?” But I’ve seen enough movies to know that everyone goes home drinks too much, cries, and screams. I hope. Otherwise there’s a whole lot o’ suppressed issues here.

This is a glimpse into the reality of the late 1950s. There was no room for differences or individuality. God forbid someone was African-American, Asian, gay, or just a little odd. Somehow this seems obvious on an episode of American Experience, but these slides made it real for me. It clarified why, several years later, my parents dropped out and moved to the Haight. And why there was so much tension between my parents and my grandparents, and I was somewhere in the middle.


Making Something Wonderful from Nothing

The amazing MJB peacock, LaPrele Adams, 1965

My grandparents passed away two years ago, and I think about them every day. Of course, at Thanksgiving, we still honor them in some way. My grandmother was like me. She was unable to sit still, and was constantly doing something productive. She had a remarkable talent visually and put that talent to good use, making amazing objects. Being a product of her time and place, she didn’t consider being a designer, which is unfortunate. Her sense of color was unique and always worked.

This peacock is one of two. My brother, Ian, has the other one at his house. At first glance, it seems like a nice piece of metal sculpture from the mid 1960s. That’s what it is. But it’s more. My grandmother made it from MJB coffee tins. The damned thing has tons of sharp edges, and I always cut myself when I move it. So I don’t know how she managed to cut and twist the coffee cans to make this without slicing off a finger. This goes far beyond felt animals with sequins.

I had a well-known editor of a major design magazine at my house for a dinner party a few years ago. When she saw my grandmother’s peacock on the wall, she looked at it condescendingly, and said, “Sean, what a remarkable collection of kitsch you have.” She has not been invited back.



MJB cofee tin

Russell and LaPrele Adams, 50th Anniversary, 1989