Mavens & Storytellers: J Michael Welton

By Regina M. Connell.
All images courtesy of Architects + Artisans.

Sometimes, kindred spirits can be found in the most unlikely locales. The recognized design capitals—New York, London, Tokyo, Berlin, Shanghai, and San Francisco—are places where we all wear a lot of black and are a little sniffy about the rest of the world. Terms like “flyover zone” may have even crept into our vocabularies when discussing the non-black wearing world.

And while Wake Forest, N.C. is most assuredly not one of those capitals of design, it does, however, happen to be the home base for Mike Welton, editor and publisher of Architects + Artisans. And from that home base, he writes not only for his own digital magazine, but for numerous design and architectural publications around the world.

Bryan Nash Gill, Master of the Woodcut

Bryan Nash Gill, Master of the Woodcut

Wake Forest is on the periphery of the Research Triangle, just down the road from Durham and its citizen-led regeneration of old tobacco warehouses, now transformed into galleries, restaurants and lofts. Nearby Chapel Hill is just about completely done over now, and even Raleigh is re-discovering its mid-century modern roots. Wake Forest, though, is an outlier—a former college town on the northeast fringe of the Triangle, currently working its way through its own quirky re-invention. As such, it may be symbolic of the ethos that Welton brings to his writing, which is less about the latest doings in Starchitect Land and more often about the soul and context of architecture and design.

Indigo tiles, via Cle

We love that you’ve worked artisans into part of the name of your magazine. Tell me about the roots of that. It seems like I’ve always written about architecture, but when it came time to create and name this magazine, I thought that one subject alone would be too confining for someone with a broad range of design interests. I also thought that something was missing in design coverage—specifically, architecture and artisanship working hand-in-glove. Once, it was so commonplace: McKim, Meade and White, for example, not only designed buildings but also detailed paneling and molding—even creating picture frames to match for paintings they selected from artists they liked. They designed all that went into their buildings, with tastes that ran as far afield as bright white rugs from polar bear skins. So I thought that looking at the work of both architects and artisans might be interesting. The result is that one day, A+A may run a post on a fleur de lis pattern in brass for a luxury shower drain, and on the next, a new Soho penthouse by architect Andrew Franz.

A light filled basement in Manhattan

Your interests are indeed eclectic. We noticed a great piece on Martin Guitars (we did a piece on Blackbird Guitar for our last print magazine.) Tell me about that. I write about what interests me. I discovered the Martin Guitar exhibit, scheduled to run through 2014 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in early January. I was interested in it because I know a fellow who bought his first Martin in 1965 and will not part with it for love or money, though he’s bought, sold, and traded many others. So there’s obviously something special about them. Most guitarists cite their distinctive, booming bass and truly magical treble—which were their earliest attributes. C. F. Martin was an Austrian artisan who arrived in New York in 1833 and mingled Italian, Spanish, and Austrian guitar-making methods to change the history and sound of American guitars. The sixth generation of Martins is still making them, in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. And [the Met exhibit] is a never-before-seen [compilation] of 35 guitars dating to 1834, including a 1939 model that Eric Clapton played on MTV’s Unplugged in the 1990s.

CF Martin and the American Guitar

You’ve got a book project coming up that sounds really intriguing. I’m working on a book called Drawing from Practice: Architects and the Meaning of Freehand. The 26 architects I’ve interviewed for it, including Peter Bohlin, Tom Kundig, and Daniel Libeskind, understand that drawing by hand connects the heart and mind with pencil and paper in a way that computers cannot—at least not yet.

Mike Welton of Architects and Artisans

What was its genesis? The book grew out of a column I wrote in 2011 that started with Stanford White, who was hired as an architect because of his drawing skills. He never attended college, never studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, never even graduated from high school. But Charles McKim brought him into his 19th century New York firm, saying he could draw like a house afire. That probably wouldn’t happen today, but the column followed up with the thoughts of a number of contemporary architects, Richard Meier and Michael Graves among them, on why the hand sketch is still so important in conceptualizing a design. You can find the column here.

Museum of the Arts and Crafts Movement, courtesy of Alberto Alfonso, AIA

We usually ask this of makers, and I have a feeling your list would be really interesting, so what five things define you? I’ve surrounded myself with some iconic items that I really care about, including my grandfather’s Mission Style drawing table, with its oak base and walnut top; my father’s chair for that table—an Eames-like, early 1950s, curved and molded plywood and stainless steel affair; a triptych of pencil landscapes my father drew as an architecture student at UVA.; a framed print of poet Arthur Rimbaud by Richmond artist David Freed; and another Freed print of the great William Faulkner. There’s a sixth item, too, that’s been quite influential. It’s a very well-read, dog-eared copy of Gatsby, and it’s always within reach.



Architects + Artisans
Twitter: @mikewelton

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