Bill Moggridge, California, and the Passage of Time

February 5, 2013

The Edible Schoolyard, Berkeley, CA 2007 (photo by Karrie Jacobs)

At last week’s memorial for Bill Moggridge, who died in September, I began thinking about the places where his  life intersected with mine, moments I’d almost forgotten.    Bill was an industrial designer, famous for designing the first portable computer back in 1979.  He was one of the founders of the well-known Palo Alto design firm IDEO, where he did his best to inject humanity into the concept of human factors.  in the last years of his life lived in New York and served as the director of the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

As I listened to those on stage at Symphony Space  — including Bill’s longtime business partner at IDEO, David Kelley, design curator Ellen Lupton, and Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton – I was thinking about how oddly pivotal Bill was in my own  life.  I met him in 1989, when I was invited to speak at the Stanford Design Conference.  Bill was, quite literally, the welcoming committee.   On the morning of my talk — the first of the conference — he arrived at my hotel on foot and walked me to the Stanford campus.  During my talk, he sat in the front row and laughed conspicuously at all my jokes.  I don’t know whether that was his job as host, or whether he was genuinely amused.  Either way, he put me at ease and made me feel tremendously welcome.  By the end of the conference, I decided that Bill, although he was born in England, represented something enviably Californian: the Happy Intellectual.

Much later , in spring of 2002, I drove down to the house Bill and his wife Karin had built into a west-facing ridge, with an unbroken view of the Pacific, somewhere south of San Francisco. By then, I was doing my best to be a Californian.  The Moggridges were having a party and had  invited me.  But I was also there to see the house.  I was the editor of Dwell back then and the house was, no surprise,  perfect for the magazine.   It was also a delightful party.  Smart, interesting people.  Good food and drink.   I drove home in my VW convertible, enjoying a profound sense of well-being, top down and  seat heater on.  I was cruising along the top of the ridge and, just below the level of the road, hung a layer of fog that had rolled in from the ocean.  I drove north,  listening to music, and feeling as though I was piloting an airplane above the clouds.

I constructed an issue around Bill and Karin’s house.  Their architects (Baum Thornley) had taken great care to respect the geology of the surrounding ridge.  The proposal included not just renderings, but little test tubes of soil samples.  The issue would be about houses and the landscape.  It would also feature a home on Vancouver Island that incorporated the property’s boulders as part of the interior, and a house in Montana that the architect believed would somehow reduce sprawl.   Unaccountably, the issue’s theme — the landscape — triggered an in-house conflict at Dwell.  It was the last in a series of disputes, the one that convinced me that my own California experience  was just about over. Clearly  I wasn’t cut out for the Happy Intellectual lifestyle.

I’m pretty sure I never told Bill about how his house — indirectly, unpredictably — triggered my departure from Dwell. In fact, I  hadn’t really thought about that connection until I was listening to the Memorial panelists reminisce.  The Memorial also made me recall one other Bill moment that I’d completely forgotten:  Sometime in the early 2000s, in the driveway of Michael and Katherine McCoy’s house in Buena Vista, Colorado, Bill was one of a trio of America’s leading industrial designers who helped reattach a rear-view mirror that I’d snapped off my rented Mustang.  As I recall, they did a splendid job, nearly invisible, using ingenuity and electricians’ tape.  I’d like to think that the all-star customization job added to the car’s value, but I neglected to mention it to the rental agency in question.

Anyway, I just noticed that there’s a website that’s collecting Bill Moggridge stories. Do take a look: http://www.billmoggridge.com/celebration/