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Description

  1. Thomas Heatherwick is the wunderkind of large-scale 21st-century design. He is equally revered and resented.
  2. The writings of Alice McDermott uniquely express a particular form of Irish-American identity.
  3. For more than 4 decades, Dean Friedman has been reinventing himself creatively. But at heart, he’s still a singer-songwriter.

Segments

07:11
  • Art & Design
  • Architecture
Thomas Heatherwick’s Everyday Magic
Thomas Heatherwick is the wunderkind of large-scale 21st century design.
Season 5, Episode 11
Thomas Heatherwick’s Everyday Magic
07:23
  • Literature
Alice McDermott: Of Saints and Scholars
The writings of Alice McDermott revolve around Irish-American identity.
Season 5, Episode 11
Alice McDermott: Of Saints and Scholars
11:30
  • Music
Dean Friedman: Ariel, Fries, Synthesize
For more than four decades, Dean Friedman has been reinventing himself creatively.
Season 5, Episode 11
Dean Friedman: Ariel, Fries, Synthesize

Transcript

Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. I’m Jim Cotter, and coming up on this episode, Self Inventors. 

Thomas Heatherwick is a wunderkind of large-scale 21st century design.

Thomas Heatherwick: We now have to amplify idiosyncrasy, because the trend is towards homogeneity so much that it needs people who will dig in and fight for distinctiveness.

The writings of Alice McDermott uniquely express a particular form of Irish-American identity.

Alice McDermott: Going into this it was not, oh, I have to stand up for my people or I have to explore my heritage, or I have to dispel the stereotypes. It was just, I’m writing about human beings.

And for more than four decades, Dean Friedman has been reinventing himself creatively, but at heart, he’s still a singer-songwriter.

Dean Friedman: It starts with play, it starts with inspiration, and having fun, ’cause if it’s not fun, there’s other things that you can do to make money.

That’s all coming up on Articulate.

For the past 25 years, the British designer Thomas Heatherwick has led a studio dedicated to finding new ways to make everyday life a little less mundane. 

Thomas Heatherwick: We, as a team, try to make sure that projects have vision, at the biggest scale, but also have some, it sounds sentimental, but love, love in the detail. 

Heatherwick cares deeply about building delight into urban landscapes. As a child growing up in 1980s London, he was always disturbed by the lack of imagination he saw in the built environment. And ever since, he’s been obsessed with finding new ways to fix that, whether designing a massive, swaying, living structure for brief encounters, masterminding a new urban landmark, or engineering a symbol of global unity on behalf of his home country. Heatherwick Studio is driven by his belief that the viewer’s emotional response is an essential part of any object’s function, and that this idea should have been central to all kinds of design a long time ago. 

Heatherwick: One city is starting to be more and more similar to anywhere else you go to! And so often, I’ve traveled, and you go somewhere and think, I wish I’d come here 40 years ago, before it became homogeneously just like the place I came from. And you just think, it’s just like we value each other for our differences, we now have to amplify idiosyncrasy because the trend is towards homogeneity so much that it needs people who will dig in and fight for distinctiveness. 

Thomas Heatherwick was drawn to fantastical designs from a young age. Much of his early childhood was spent poring over his grandfather’s Edwardian Invention books, and the comic inventions of the early 20th century cartoonist W. Heath Robinson, as well as tinkering in his own bedroom workshop. The Heatherwick household was teeming with creativity. 

Heatherwick: In a sense, I’m a very obvious outcome of my upbringing. I was brought up around a father who’d studied child development, and someone very interested in lateral thought, but I was also around people who were self-employed. My mother had a jewelry business, and my grandmother was a designer, and my grandfather had been a designer as well as a writer, and were interested in engineering and pattern, color, and also art therapy, through my grandmother, so there was this side very interested in how you empathize with people and understand them. And so, in a sense, I don’t think there was any precocious anything. I could see that I was weak at all sorts of things, and that meant I didn’t think I had the answers, and that meant that when I met people who were interesting or experienced, I wanted to learn from them and over the studio’s history, I’ve been very lucky to have people who want to help me. Maybe I just look in desperate need! I think I just look needy. But people have really helped! 

One significant early champion of Heatherwick’s was the pioneering British designer Sir Terence Conran, whose Habitat stores made stylish furniture and housewares available to the average Brit. 

Heatherwick: He treated me like I was an equal with him, which was astonishing. I get genuinely inspired when I spend time with him. And you see someone who has that focus, it’s somebody who really cares, and is very indignant when things don’t achieve their potential! 

Today, age 50, Heatherwick’s enthusiasm for designing a tangibly better world has not waned. Yet for every completed project, there are other plans left unrealized. Take for instance 2017’s Garden Bridge project. This $2 million footbridge more than five years in the making was canceled when newly-elected London mayor Sadiq Khan came to power. That same year, Khan took the eco-friendly London buses Heatherwick had designed in 2010 out of production, calling them “too expensive.” Yet even with this and other setbacks, Thomas Heatherwick remains a relentless defender of the idea that design has the power to turn a place into someplace. 

Heatherwick: A lot of what we’re talking about and thinking about and have got very passionate about is the human experience, that so often, buildings are thought of from postcard view, and we discuss in London endlessly, “Oh, should tall towers be allowed?” And you just think, it doesn’t matter. The tower doesn’t matter, it’s what’s happening at the ground, where we all are. 

For Alice McDermott, there’s no greater pleasure than spinning a good yarn. 

Alice McDermott: I’m never more delighted than when I’m sunk deep into someone else’s voice and someone else’s experience. Even if that voice could be mine, it’s not. 

Indeed, the characters in McDermott’s fiction do, at least on the face of it, tend to resemble her. Irish-American Catholics dominate her narratives. But, she says, she has no agenda. 

McDermott: Going into this, it was not, oh, I have to stand up for my people or I have to explore my heritage, or I have to dispel the stereotypes. It was just, I’m writing about human beings. 

AJC: And these are the human beings I know. 

McDermott: And these are the human beings who I have readily at hand. 

AJC: Right. 

McDermott: The other advantage is, also, that they are not just Irish-American, but they’re Catholic, and that gives me language for what they would not otherwise have language for. Because I focus on characters who are not particularly emotionally articulate, they have their ritual, they have the language of the Church. That helps me as their creator get at who they are as individuals. 

(Excerpt from Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy

He sat for a few minutes in the dark hallway, a cold draft blowing across his bare feet. He wondered if Maeve would be calling in another hour or two. If he went back to bed would he go back to sleep. He thought of his father, the first and foremost (in those days) of the people he loved who had died. The very thought itself a prayer to the man in heaven, which he’d surely earned, if only by dint of flattery he had poured on God and every detail of His creation for the sixty-odd years he had lived. Or, if God required such things, by dint of the terrible pain he’d endured at the end. 

After years as a very public Catholic, Alice McDermott says that these days, she’s going to Mass less frequently, this despite being raised in a devout household. McDermott grew up in 1950s Long Island, in a family with some clearly stated values. Among them, an understanding that words have currency. 

McDermott: I heard that all the time in my home, that it was language, being able to speak well, being eloquent, read everything, listen to people who are good at language. My father was a very conservative Republican. I don’t mean Irish Republican, I mean American Republican. And when we were kids he would, if William F. Buckley was on television, as he was a lot when he ran for mayor of New York, he would call us in and sit down and listen to this man speak. 

Recording of William F. Buckley: Anything that liberates the human spirit or causes people to believe that hope is worth cherishing, is in itself a very significant human contribution. 

McDermott: “This is what gets you,” he would say, “invited to the White House in your future.” So, I think it was another version of the value of eloquence, the value of vocabulary, the beauty of our language. And I think maybe it’s in some way tied to the fact that this is not our heritage, this language, this is not the first language of our great-great-grandparents. 

AJC: Well, it’s the first language of our oppressors, right? 

McDermott: Yes, exactly, exactly, yeah. 

The English invasion of Ireland began in the mid-16th century, but the English language didn’t achieve dominance over the native tongue, Gaelic, until a couple of hundred years later. In the 1830s, the British set up a school system where Gaelic was banned. Not 15 years later, multi-year potato blights left the Irish starving. Access to food was controlled by the ruling British, and suddenly a command of the English language became a matter of life or death. Necessity bred excellence, and today, Irish writers, including Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Beckett, and Heaney are regarded as among the finest in English literature. But McDermott says that for her, this storytelling tradition comes with a certain mistrust of words. 

McDermott: You never approach anything directly. The Irish don’t talk about emotions directly, they don’t talk about troubles directly. And they don’t go through the front door in their stories. What is only hinted at, what is not said, is as substantial, and perhaps more substantial, than what we try to say about it. That there is value, it’s not all repressed and hidden and secretive, and if only you would just pour it all out, you’ll be a much happier person. It’s more a respect, an appreciation, for what can’t be said, or what can’t be said sufficiently. So, let’s not bother with that, let’s talk about this, which is to the side of it, and maybe 45 minutes later, we’ll get around and have said something about the thing we can’t really define, in a different way. 

(Excerpt from Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy

Both men sat silently for a moment, cautious, it seemed, weighing words. Neither one of them wanted to appear to be trying to say something profound. That was for the priest, of course not. Both equally feared growing sentimental. And yet something needed to be said, on a night like this. 

And so, Alice McDermott continues to say, plainly and unsentimentally, that which must be said.  

Dean Friedman is a singer-songwriter of delightful contradictions. He’s a pop and folk singer with a rebellious streak who spent decades in the wilderness after his major label contract was canceled, because he refused to change the title of one of his songs. And though chart-wise, his heyday was in the late 1970s, he still occupies a place in the hearts of his fans, who four decades in, continue to buy his records and show up to his gigs to hear his evocative, often whimsical story-songs.  

(Dean Friedman singing “Jennifer’s Baby”) 

Jennifer waited a year and a day 

She went to the doctors and they told her to pray 

She knew there was only so much they could say 

So, Jennifer decided there must be another way 

So, wake up the neighbors and break out the ale 

Jennifer’s baby just came in the mail 

She’s pink and she’s perfect in every detail 

And Jennifer’s a mommy now 

Dean Friedman has had his share of ups and downs, but today he’s still fundamentally an optimist. 

Dean Friedman: Yeah, woulda, coulda, shoulda. It becomes irrelevant at some point if you appreciate what you do have. 

What he does have is an unexpectedly wide sphere of influence for an artist who is best remembered in the U.S. for a song about adolescent infatuation in the New Jersey suburbs.  

(Dean Friedman singing “Ariel”) 

She was a Jewish girl, I fell in love with her 

She wrote her number on the back of my hand 

I called her up, I was all out of breath 

I said come hear me play in my rock and roll band 

I took a shower and I put on my best blue jeans 

I picked her up in my new VW van 

She wore a peasant blouse with nothing underneath 

I said hi, she said, Yeah, I guess I am  

Ariel 

Ariel  

“Ariel” spent 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking in the top 30, but it first had to overcome some record company jitters. 

Friedman: There’s a line, “She was a Jewish girl, “I fell in love with her.” Well, my record company insisted that I change the lyric, while at the same time recut the single down and remove the whole verse. They argued that stations in the South would refuse to play the song with a reference to a Jewish girl. 

AJC: Why was she a Jewish girl? 

Friedman: She was! She just was, that was the character. “Ariel” was sort of a composite of all these Jewish girls from suburbia that I had a crush on growin’ up as a teenager in Paramus, New Jersey, and so it was kind of a fantasy. To my great satisfaction, stations in the South refused to play the edited single version and insisted on playing the full-length album cut. 

AJC: With the Jewish girl reference. 

Friedman: With the Jewish girl reference into it. 

This was not the last time that Friedman would fight with a record company. In 1981, his song “McDonald’s Girl” was banned by the BBC for its reference to the fast food chain.

(Dean Friedman singing “McDonald’s Girl”) 

I am in love with a McDonald’s girl  

She has a smile of innocence oh so tender and warm  

He refused to rename it, and so his major record label, Epic, dumped him. Friedman decided if he was going to be punished for being seen to support McDonald’s, maybe McDonald’s should support him. 

Friedman: I actually got an appointment with the marketing people at McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, flew out there, and I went there a day early just so that I knew the lay of the land, how to get there. I didn’t want to be late. And as I’m walking around the lobby, I noticed the door to the mail room was ajar. And I had printed up a whole batch of flexi singles, those flexible discs you used to get in magazines, of “McDonald’s Girl,” and so I had a brainstorm. I’m thinkin’, oh, this’ll be a great idea. I walked into the mail room of McDonald’s corporate headquarters and I said to the guy who’s puttin’ all the letters to the corporate executives in the bins, I said, “Look, if I give you 20 bucks, would you put one of these flexi discs in every one of these mailboxes?” He said, “Sure!” And he did, and I set ’em there and he put the, and I walked away thinking, oh, this is brilliant, what a great idea, everyone at McDonald’s is gonna hear the single, they’re gonna love it. They can’t help but love it, and they’re gonna call me up at the next meeting, tomorrow, and I’ll land a major national TV radio campaign. Of course, by the time I got back to where I was staying, they had canceled the meeting. Because they took so much offense to the fact that someone had violated the sanctity of their mail room. And so, I was kinda crestfallen and I kinda went back home with my tail between my legs. 

This setback was not the end of Dean Friedman’s career, rather, the beginning of several new ones. And acquaintance of his was the U.S. distributor of a revolutionary new synthesizer, the Synclavier, and Friedman would call by his office regularly to play around with this new gadget. 

Friedman: One day, as I was up there, a phone call came in. They were looking for someone to write a book on all the new synthesizers that were coming out. And someone said, “Well, Dean seems to know a lot about synthesis, put him on the phone,” and I did, and somehow, with no education in electronics or electronic music or synthesis, talked my way into writing what became the first consumer guide to synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines!  

Friedman’s book and accompanying video series are still considered seminal tools, thanks to his straightforward approach. 

(Clip from Dean Friedman’s Intro to Synthesis

Hi everyone, I’m Dean Friedman, Director of the New York School of Synthesis. I’m here to explain everything there is to know about music synthesis, and how to make sounds on all these neat, amazing synthesizers.   

Friedman: And I get compliments from artists and musicians of every ilk, who say, “I went to audio engineering school for four years, and it wasn’t until I watched your videos that I actually understood what I was doing, trying to make a sound on a synthesizer.” 

AJC: Wow.  

Friedman: So that’s really gratifying. 

AJC: Right. 

Friedman: ‘Cause one thing is, with all the change in technology and evolution of microchips, what haven’t changed is the physics of sound. 

Soon, Friedman’s love of tinkering brought him to yet another frontier, virtual reality. For a period in the early 1990s, he was the go-to designer of VR and interactive games for theme parks and museums all over the world, as well as the children’s TV network Nickelodeon. And though he continued writing music for film and television, it would be almost two decades before he would make a new record. In 1998, Friedman released his first studio album in 17 years, Songs for Grownups.  

(Dean Friedman singing “Don’t Mourn Don’t Cry”) 

I never told you, but it’s time you learned 

The truth about your mom 

She was working for the Soviets 

When they stole the atomic bomb 

You were born in a bomb bay, in a bomb bay 

When they turned the search lights on 

And don’t, don’t cry 

All God’s children have a right to die 

And she did more living than the next guy 

In 2001, Friedman became one of the first musicians to adopt the now nearly ubiquitous model of crowdfunding. He wrote to his website subscribers making an offer. If they would help him finance his new record, they’d each get a signed copy when it was done. 

Friedman: I was a little nervous when I sent that email out, ’cause I was worried that everyone would write back and say, “Dean, why don’t you get a proper job?” 

AJC: How many subscribers did you have to your newsletter at that point? 

Friedman: Not more than a thousand. And some people did write back and say, “Why don’t you get a proper job? I work for a living, you should too,” but enough people were supportive of the idea that I was able to get the funds to upgrade the studio and pay musicians and come out with a new album! 

Friedman has since put out three more well-received albums, as well as another book. He also tours regularly and holds songwriting retreats for aspiring and seasoned musicians alike. He’s even enjoyed a satisfying epilogue to the “McDonald’s Girl” saga. In 1991, a then-unknown Canadian band called the Barenaked Ladies had their first radio hit in Toronto with a cover of “McDonald’s Girl.”  

(The Barenaked Ladies singing “McDonald’s Girl”) 

I am in love with a McDonald’s girl  

She has a smile of innocence oh so tender and warm  

I am in love with a McDonald’s girl  

She is an angel in a polyester uniform  

Then, in the early 2000s, the song got another boost from YouTube, where scores of a cappella groups posted their own versions

(a capella group singing “McDonald’s Girl”) 

Will you go out with me please  

I am in love with a McDonald’s girl  

She has a smile of innocence so soft tender and warm  

And in 2011, things came full circle when McDonald’s licensed the song for a national ad campaign.  

(“McDonald’s Girl” featured in a McDonald’s commercial) 

She has a smile of innocence oh so tender and warm  

I am in love with a McDonald’s girl hey yeah  

She is an angel in a golden arches uniform  

Today, Dean Friedman continues to approach everything he does with wisdom, craft, and humor. 

Friedman: It starts with play, it starts with inspiration, and having fun, ’cause if it’s not fun, there’s other things that you can do to make money.