In 2005, photographer Leslie Williamson made a wish list of all the houses that she hoped to visit in her lifetime. The homes belonged mostly to her favorite architects and designers, who had offered her creative inspiration throughout her career as a photographer. She was curious to learn what inspired them in their home and studio environments, and since there was no book containing images of these spaces, she decided to take on the project herself. The result was 2010’s Handcrafted Modern: At Home with Midcentury Designers. Her book’s success surprised Williamson and showed her that she was not alone in her curiosity about environment and inspiration. She then set out to create a “library of these designers and how they lived for future generations”.
Her recent follow up, Modern Originals: At Home with Midcentury European Designers, is another beautifully photographed book featuring the private spaces of European architects and designers. The book—funded in part with a gorgeous Kickstarter film—provides an intimate look into the at-home design choices of notable creative minds, showing not only their design and architecture choices, but also illuminating some aspects of their lives. Williamson writes that she felt she was “meeting these people as human beings through being in their homes and learning about their everyday life.”
I’ve been lucky enough to meet Leslie on several occasions and she won my heart in so many ways. In a recent email, she wrote, “I just love the South.” Seems like the perfect place to start.
AC: I knew I felt a kindred spirit in you—tell me what you love most about the South?
LW: Oh goodness, where to start…there are the obvious things—the food, music—and then there is the next layer of deeper things—the kindness and manners that are still deeply ingrained and important, the traditions that seem to be so respected in the South…but I think what I love most is the palpable history and emotional undercurrent that seems to exude from everywhere—places and buildings in particular. It is a land rich with stories.
AC: I find these sorts of questions and answers rather difficult as the interviewer AND the interviewee; however, I love to read them. What’s the hardest/most provocative question you’ve ever been posed?
LW: I agree they are challenging and for the life of me I cannot recall the hardest question I have been asked. I am drawing a complete blank, so I am thinking this question may be it!
What I can say is the most challenging thing for me is that there are certain basic questions that I get asked regularly and they are important to answer but I also don’t want to sound like a broken record. So trying to think about the same questions and answer them in an original, fresh way is something I work at.
AC: I find such a strong and beautiful sense of design about your photographs (above and beyond the subject matter). Do you have a design background?
LW: Wow, what a lovely compliment. Thank you!
Looking back now, I think I was always an artistic kid, but I really did not think of myself like that then. I was more into the performing arts (music and dance) than the visual arts until high school. I took a course in graphic design in high school, though, and that really started me off. I followed that with a foundation year at art school (you know—color, composition, life drawing, etc.). When I was 22 I went to Art Center College of Design and got a BFA in Photography, but my sense of composition and color has always been really strong and consistent throughout all media I have worked in. As far as the historical knowledge, beyond one course in Art History, most of that has been self-motivated and self-guided—that includes all of my design and architecture history. I feel like doing my work and making my books is my design education.
AC: As a child, I didn’t really understand that there was a person who had a job title of “designer.” When I first heard the word, it seemed incredible to me that a person could make a career of envisioning and realizing “things.” Do you remember the first time you realized the full implications of the word design?
LW: I knew about the role of “designer” pretty early on because my Mom had aspired to be a theatrical costume designer. She ended up being a teacher, but I was always aware of costume design and fashion design as a profession. But the role of design and its vast implications is something that I am still learning about and realizing to this day. The implications are growing and evolving constantly.
AC: Your first camera?
LW: A 35mm Ricoh that my Dad bought for me at Sears. I used it up through when I was going to Art Center College of Design. It was kind of cheap, but because of that it had a great lens aberration that I loved. It distorted things in a beautiful way.
AC: Your favorite camera now?
LW: I still love shooting with my Mamiya RZ 67 and 120 film and my Grandfather’s Rollei 126. I have a stash of the film still even though 126 film has not been made since the late 90’s and the Rollei makes the best shutter sound ever…a solid “kathunk”. I love the sound of it so much…
AC: What was the strangest thing you encountered on all your travels through these homes?
LW: I cannot think of anything particularly strange, but I have seen stuff that no one gets to see. Certain things always catch my eye, and they are usually tucked away somewhere, so not on display really. Like in Achille Castiglioni’s studio in Milan, I got to look at their archived glass negatives that were tucked in a forgotten corner of the prototype room.
I did run across Bruno Mathsson’s old passport while looking for a knife in his kitchen during my lunch break while shooting there. I guess that was a bit odd.
AC: Was there one textile or object that stood out above all?
LW: I always love the personal mementos the most. Like the little portrait/sculpture that Alexander Calder made of Alvar Aalto, or the wooden spoon that Carlo Mollino made for his mother when he was just a young boy. Those personal objects are just so dear and rare.
AC: I love the idea of your American Craftsman (Global Craftsperson). Is this still something that you are working on?
LW: Thank you, I really love that project as well. I have put it on hold right now but it is still something I want to come back to. Its scope and direction will definitely be different from the original focus, though. I was hoping to focus on the Mid-Twentieth Century Crafts movement in America. The idea was to find craftspeople and artists from that time and then find a craftsperson working now that was informed by the mid twentieth century artists work. But I found that many of the artists working now did not have that frame of historical reference. Anyhow, the idea is growing and changing, but I will come back to it soon when I have more clarity about its new direction. I have definitely decided to expand it to a worldwide view, so that is exciting.
AC: Will you please come for a visit soon?
LW: I’m already plotting my return!
Pick up a copy of both books to gain insight into how the best creative minds live and work, and be inspired to consider how your own environment influences your work.