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Sound Design

Years ago, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas won a design competition for an addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) by suggesting the entire museum be torn down and replaced. There was such an outcry over the idea of demolishing this collection of unremarkable but well-loved buildings that Ruth Seymour, the general manager of KCRW, the leading NPR station in Los Angeles, California, suggested we debate the pros and cons on a half-hour show called Politics of Culture. She asked me—a producer at KCRW and a freelance design writer—to moderate.

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I had studied architecture in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1991 to edit a local architecture publication. A year later the city was blown apart by the Rodney King riots, and KCRW created Which Way, L.A.?, a talk show about the challenges ahead. This program engaged directly with the life of the region—and, as time went on, the nation—and I was so taken by it that I quit editing to volunteer for the show, eventually becoming a producer. All the while, I continued to report on the design and architecture world. To me, architecture and design and politics and society were all connected.

When I was asked to moderate the Politics of Culture, I was no star of the airwaves. Rather, my on-air experience at that point was limited to having read a promo in my best cut-glass Queen’s English for a program about Lady Diana, and a bit of pitching during our twice-yearly pledge drives. While excited at this new opportunity, I was also utterly terrified.

The half-hour show about LACMA went by in such a blur I can barely remember what was said or who was on it, though I know Koolhaas was not (he is the design-journalism world’s most elusive quarry). I recall watching the clock in desperation as I struggled to hit time posts for intros and back announces and underwriting breaks, while verbal volleys sailed past me with such speed that the best I could do as moderator was to simply shout out the name of the person speaking at that moment. Luckily, I got that part correct.

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To my astonishment, management seemed happy with the show. (And just in case you’re wondering, Koolhaas lost the LACMA job. The museum is still there and is being expanded by the Italian architect Renzo Piano.) In fact, Ruth decided that the time was ripe for a monthly show about design and architecture, with me as host. She called it DnA (meaning “Design and Architecture” as well as “DNA,” implying the notion of design embodying a natural order), and the idea was that it would treat design as a hot debate and that every show could be full of fireworks like the LACMA show.

In April 2002 my first show was broadcast. It featured Peter Cook, one of the founders of the 1960s radical architecture group Archigram, who happened to be visiting Los Angeles that week; Herbert Muschamp, then–New York Times architecture critic; and Nicolai Ouroussoff, then–Los Angeles Times architecture critic. We prattled on in what I thought was a very interesting way about Los Angeles architecture and why it mattered; it seemed like an appropriate launch topic for a show about design based in Los Angeles. I even managed to suppress my still-gnawing stage fright to make what seemed to be a few lucid comments. The engineer and I picked theme music—a quirky tune that I thought perfectly captured the smart, original character I wanted DnA to have.

The show went on air, and I waited, nervously, for the response. Incredibly, my email in-box was bursting! The phone was ringing off the hook! I was deluged with emails and calls of congratulations. I was the bomb.

Or was I? A couple days later, Ruth—who had trustingly allowed me to go on air without giving prior approval of the show—delivered a blistering critique of the first DnA. It was elitist. It was arcane. It was comprehensible only to the cognoscenti. Simply put, in the parlance of the times, it was not hot.

But, but, but…I protested, brandishing my sheaf of laudatory letters. Every single one of them, she pointed out, was from an architect. Not entirely true—there were also responses from a firefighter and a graphic designer. But there was no denying reality: Architects had responded in droves, either because they knew me personally, or because at last somebody out there in Public Radioland cared enough to make a show about them. It didn’t matter what architects alone thought, Ruth said. DnA had to make design accessible to lots of people who were not already interested in it. The silly music could go too.

She was right, of course, and since that point I’ve worked—with the help of colleagues with excellent BS detectors—to present design in a way that is accessible while informed, serious but not earnest, and, ideally, pleasing to a cross section of listeners. Now a magazine show in format, DnA tends to focus on modern design—including architecture, product and auto design, fashion, city planning, and more. It has addressed big-picture concerns like sustainability, but most important, it is intended to enthuse, and make people feel that design, like movies or music, is for them, not just for the experts. Lacking visuals, it is also intended to bring design alive with words, which I try to do in the way radio does best, by appealing to the imagination and the heart.

By this I mean Philippe Starck talking in his zany Peter Sellers–as–Inspector Clouseau French accent about the emotional and sexual well-being of a new mother in relation to his design for a baby bottle (this was for the now-dropped line for Target, which we talked about on an early show on democratic design). Or a reflective Frank Gehry, in an interview I did with him prior to the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. I’d tried without success to pin him down at the hall, but we ended up talking as we drove home; the sound of Los Angeles freeways accompanied what became a personal conversation about the impact of fame and maturity on his life and work. There were the kids at Diamond Ranch High School, refreshingly unencumbered by preconceptions about design, giving their gut reactions to their highly unconventional public school by Thom Mayne; the researcher from the nation’s largest home-building company, bracingly unapologetic as she explained why they don’t push green design; and, one holiday show, a vox pop (collection of brief comments) of very heartfelt opinions from a bunch of California designers, including animator Brad Bird and interior designer Kelly Wearstler, about their ideal children’s toys.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to the instrument of radio: the voice, used seductively by guests like Eric Lloyd Wright when he talked to me in mellifluous, beautiful English about learning the tenets of organic architecture from his grandfather, Frank. Or actor Jodie Foster, who joined me in a segment where architecture-lovers pick their favorite building in Los Angeles. She described, with amazing soulfulness, her choice—the Loyola Chapel by Frank Gehry. I should add that this was a pretty scary interview. It’s unnerving enough talking to a Very Famous Person; imagine doing so when they seem to know more than you about your subject. Foster studied art and architectural history at Yale with the great maestro Vincent Scully; she clearly knows her stuff.

I’ve learned that the best radio guests are those who speak with passion, wit, and clarity, and without mouthfuls of jargon. Believe me, I’m still practicing. I’ve tried not to repeat duds like the live roundtable I once did with straight-from-the-lecture-hall curators and architects about a new museum; even my extremely supportive partner called that one “a soul-murdering snoozefest.” I’ve been very thankful for the editing machine after hearing myself drone on with meandering questions, or make daft mistakes, like an interview with the curator of a show about architecture and fashion in which I blithely referred to Rei Kawakubo as “him.” I’ve been struck dumb in interviews, like the time I went to talk to the Bouroullec brothers four days after I gave birth and found that in my postpartum stupor I simply could not remember which brother was which (I had to discreetly tuck a diagram under my recorder with arrows designating Ronan and Erwan). And I’ve had comedic moments like the time I interviewed Cesar Pelli at his Segerstrom Concert Hall, while it was still under construction, and the only quiet place I could find to talk was the dusty, unfinished men’s bathroom.

Despite these squirm-inducing pratfalls, I have been lucky enough to sustain an audience. When I started listening to KCRW and Which Way, L.A.?, I realized that radio was an appealing medium in its directness, technical simplicity, and intimacy. It was not then an obvious forum for my other passion, design and architecture. DnA has offered the opportunity to harness both, in a program that—despite taking place in the disembodied realm of the airwaves—makes what I hope is a concrete contribution to the conversation about how design shapes and, at best, improves our world.

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DnA airs on 89.9 FM KCRW and KCRW.com/dna

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