Friday, 27 July 2012

Alphabeticalife Q + A with Jonathan Crisman

I've been very good friends with Jonathan for over a decade now and in that long period of time, I can say that he's one of the most ambitious and passionate individuals I've come across. If there was a person who perfectly embodied the term "jack of all trades", it would be him. From leading a theatre group in his younger days, conjuring beautiful narratives and images through his stories and photographs, making a difference in the lives of the less-fortunate in Bangladesh to conjuring up smart city concepts in Israel (in between editing MIT publications and travelling the world), this guy has done it all.

Looking back, Jonathan is also someone who isn't afraid of the natural evolution of personal style. From his obsession with Urban Outfitters back in high school (yes, we've known each other since we were teens) to a newfound fascination for Icelandic and Japanese fashion, he has created personal style eras for himself that complement his multi-faceted personality. However, one thing remains constant: His signature glasses. He might have gone through a couple of pairs over the years, but it is this accessory that truly defines him for me.

Last month, we had a much-needed reunion in Singapore and it was the perfect opportunity to catch up, enjoy a couple glasses (okay, a lot) of gin and red wine and do this Q&A. Enjoy!  

Hi Jon! Could you tell us a little bit about what you do?
I do a bit of everything—I'm curious by nature and I get bored easily after doing any one thing for too long, so I like to keep several different projects going at any one time to keep life interesting. Right now, I'm wrapping up two degrees in architecture and city planning at MIT, working on a couple book projects related to some design research I was involved with and I'm doing a housing research project in Los Angeles that is going up at the Hammer Museum as an exhibition. I guess I am mainly involved in design- and writing-related stuff.

Let's talk about personal style. How would you describe yours? 
Understated, never over the top? No, just kidding. I think that is someone else's personal style that I'm quite fond of. I'm fairly particular, but I don't have a really set style. I have several different themes that I tend to return to, depending on my mood in the morning when I am getting dressed: All blacks and grays with a beanie after nights I haven't slept; all blues which tend to be paired with some rustic sort of heathered socks; copious amounts of color (which is necessary to combat the never-ending blackness of the architecture world); the 80s/90s sort of glam graphic look, perhaps with a leather jacket; or on nice days, a dress shirt with the top button buttoned, with some kind of neckerchief. Much to my dismay, I get very agitated when I can really feel my clothing on me so I find it difficult to wear belts, ties, dress shoes, accessories and so on. It's really a pity because I'd like to wear those sorts of things more often, but I just can't stomach it. Oh, but I do own about ten pairs of glasses which I cycle depending on my mood. They're all plastic because I'm allergic to the nickel that's often in metal frames.

Do you think being an architecture grad student influenced your style in any way? Do you find yourself gravitating towards pieces/styles you never really bothered with before?
Definitely. I think that being constantly surrounded by designers forces you to reflect and embrace your own style in a fairly intentional way. There is also the fact that fashion often figures into architectural design and vice-versa. You can here adjectives like "architectural" for an item of clothing or hear a building described as having "seductive cosmetics." There are particular artists and designers that always come up in architectural discussions and I've definitely been influenced by them—Tara Donovan, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake. Gareth Pugh has done some really amazing stuff too. As for what I wear, I'd say that I have certainly become less concerned with what's normal and become much more interested on what seems interesting. And then, of course, there is the perennial contest in architectural circles on who can have the most iconic glasses. I've found that I pay a lot more attention to color than I used to—I used to just use color without giving it a second thought and now, everything seems to be either tempering color usage to keep things more refined or blasting a ton of color in order to spite those monochromatic powers that be.

What would we find a lot of if we go through your closet?
Old shoes. I can't throw them away! I have a lot of cheap prints—from calendars and old books and the like—that I've been meaning to frame and I haven't found the time. Or the right frames.

What's that one item in your wardrobe that best represents you?
I have this pair of bright blue Nike's that I really love. They're so interesting—they're bright, but they have so much material variation on them. They're also unbelievably comfortable, as if you're walking on clouds. They've taken on this strange patina where they generally look brand new even though they're years old, but there are certain materials along with the shoelaces which have really aged.

What are some of the things you never leave home without?
I usually carry a Muji notebook and pen, my HTC Aria phone (I love it because it's small) and of course, my wallet (the super bright three-toned Comme des Garçons one). But my one sort of cheat item is this Marimekko pouch that has elephants on it (my favorite animal). I keep everything one could ever need in it and just grab the pouch when I'm frantically stuffing things into my bag, so I don't have to think about grabbing everything. It contains eye drops, ibuprofen, chap stick, lotion and on.

You live in two cities - Los Angeles and Boston - and get the best of both coasts. What do you like about each?
Boston has this intense academic energy. It's a great place to go to school and a great place to work on interesting projects. It's cute with a lot of history, at least by American standards. However, I love Los Angeles. It has the weather, the beach, a certain sort of laid back, experimental attitude toward cultural production, which is really great when it comes to things like working in architecture. The food is also impossible to beat. There are many places where you can get amazing food around the world, but I have yet to find a place where it is so easy to get so many different kinds of food so cheaply. And all my planner friends will hate me for this, but I love driving. There is nothing like rolling down your windows, turning on some good music and having a good chat with a friend as you drive around town. Despite my love for the car, I have to say, there are a lot of really interesting and exciting things happening in Los Angeles when it comes to public transit and biking. Los Angeles' public transit beats Boston's, hands down. By the way, I should admit that when I refer to Boston, I really just mean Cambridge, which is where I spend most of my time.

And is there something you least like about either city?
For Boston, it's the weather. And people there just need to chill out a little. For Los Angeles, it can be difficult to really produce work, particularly creative work, because there are so many ways to be distracted. It's easy to float along and wonder where all the time went.

Where would we find you in Los Angeles or Boston? Where are your usual haunts?
In Boston, I am working 99.9% of the time, but there is this dynamic duo who have opened a really great group of venues: A great pizza place called Cambridge 1., a dancing place with amazing DJs called Middlesex and a couple of pub-type places with good food—one is called (appropriately close to MIT) Miracle of Science and the other one by Harvard is called Tory Row. In Los Angeles, at least for this summer, I'm working in Santa Monica literally right in between two of my favorite food spots: The most legit Italian deli, Bay Cities Deli, and the most legit tacos on the Westside, Tacos Por Favor. Elsewhere around town, I love the Hammer Museum—they put on amazing programming and have this weird building which I love and I'm totally honored to be working on an exhibition that will go up there—or any of the shops and restaurants along Abbot Kinney when I'm hanging out with my family (Joe's Restaurant and Lemonade are two of my faves). I generally love checking out new places when they open, so its hard to really have a place where I'm a regular.

You've traveled quite extensively - from Europe to Asia and across the US. Do you have a particular favourite city/cities? What is it about these places that impresses you?
This is an impossible question! It's like picking your favorite child. I'll just say Los Angeles because it's the uncool thing to say. And I'll eventually end up there, so I need people there to like me. I will say that everyone in the world ought to visit New Orleans. Chances are, you'll visit most of the other cities that I love at some point in your life, but New Orleans might require an extra push for a lot of people to get there. Just go, forget about the idea of a healthy diet and take everything in. It's amazing.

Do you look up to any architects/designers? How have they helped in shaping who you are and your sensibilities?
You know, I used to really loathe Frank Gehry, but have since come to admire him. What I love about Frank is that he just does what he wants believes in what he does. Those are two things that I think every architect ought to do. Every creative profession, in fact. Another is Craig Hodgetts because I worked for him before and his attitude has really informed the way I think as well. It's a similar sort of thing—he just has this infectious optimism because he just works on things that he loves, be it car design, science fiction inspired stuff or a really cool building detail. There is this amazing firm in London called FAT, which stands for Fashion Architecture Taste. They haven't done much recently because they're all busy teaching and being victims of the economy, but they do work that manages to be sincere and tongue-in-cheek at the same time. Really fun, interesting, pop-inspired stuff. I adore the late Philip Johnson. I think my sensibility has become this: Do away with pretension and love what you do. I don't know, it's hard to find interesting architects these days. All the buildings that are being produced these days look more and more the same. It's like they all just do what they think they are supposed to do.

What are you thankful for at the end of the day?
Same as everyone else: My family and friends. Also, my two cars: A workhorse '96 Camry that will never stop running and an '83 Mercedes for fancy days.

Thank you, holmes!

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