In our second book, published last year, we talked a lot about connections between design, narrative, and place. Sometimes, the meaning in forms is implied from the start, and sometimes it is a quality granted through time and experience. With thoughtful design, we have the opportunity for both. We want to create objects derived from a meaningful place – an existing piece of history or architecture, or an inspiring material, concept, or view. But we also want to create objects that support the unfolding of new stories.
For our first blog post, I thought I would start with a story that is personal to me, but has strings connecting to universal themes central to our work: collaboration, material ethics, the importance of craft, and heirloom quality. It’s about a bill box.
Today, most of us have direct deposit and can pay our bills from our computers or cell phones, but when I was growing up, in the farming Midwest, there was a physical depository for bills, money and receipts. Spring expenses for seed and fertilizer depended on harvest sales. The community depended on trust. The bill box sat on the kitchen table, a centerpiece for discussions about planning and adapting, about who to pay, and who to call when you were beholden. From those conversations priorities were established, and, over time, a couple’s values were distilled.
My parents’ bill box, made by my father.
After I graduated from architecture school, my wife Carla and I moved to Martha’s Vineyard, a place neither of us had ever been before. It was a newlywed- and professional adventure that we thought would last for a year, maybe two. However, three decades later, it is clear that this place was destined to be our home. As we grew our family, and expanded a residential architecture practice on Martha’s Vineyard and later Cape Cod, we developed deep connections to the place – its incredible history, unique people, and the powerful presence of nature.
A sense of place is at the heart of my design practice, and it is embedded in this community, where I am constantly reminded of the connections between craft, context, narrative, and meaning. Martha’s Vineyard is home to artists of many disciplines who are called by its unique traditions and natural beauty and wish to preserve those riches while adding new chapters to the narrative.
One such artist is Frank Rapoza. A modern Renaissance man, he had a career in shipbuilding before turning to residential carpentry. A yachtsman and fisherman in his free time, Frank has a knack for harvesting treasure from the ocean. Pulling from maritime traditions like sailor’s valentines and cameo-making, Frank creates both figurative and abstract mosaic compositions from sea glass, shells, and wampum (polished quahog shells prized as trading currency in Wampanoag times). Each of the finished rectangular panels is framed with ebony – cargo washed ashore from the “Dolphin,” which wrecked off of Cuttyhunk in 1854. Frank secures the frame corners with pins carved from swordfish bill. Taking native techniques and materials and reinterpreting them, Frank creates jewel-like objects with a beauty greater than the sum of those parts. I have admired and collected his work over the years.
Our son Evan was married to Ana last year, and as my wife Carla and I considered a meaningful wedding gift, we wanted to give a piece of functional art. To date, Frank’s work had been two-dimensional, but I asked him if he would collaborate with me on a three dimensional work – a bill box crafted with materials that came from the very body of water that served as the backdrop for Evan and Ana’s wedding day.
For the box lid, Frank used a material called purple heart. This once-abundant wood, sourced from amaranth trees, is known for its qualities of toughness and endurance. In the mosaic pattern on the front of the box, one can discern an ocean wave of purple wampum, echoed below with the start of another.
Frank named it “The River of Life.” It is especially meaningful for Carla and me, and we hope for Evan and Ana, as they start their journey together. They recently purchased and are renovating their first home outside of Boston, and we hope the box (and its story) will find a place at their table for years to come.