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Tech Kills

In 1964, white males going to Harvard legitimately expected to preside over society’s progress. And if you were a white male architecture student expecting to solve society’s problems, there was no better place to be than Harvard’s architectural Star Chamber, the Graduate School of Design (GSD).

So it’s not surprising that when GSD students Lionel Spiro and Blair Brown found it difficult to get the materials they needed to flesh out their world-class concepts, they had the confidence to believe that they could create the solution to their own quandary. They created one-stop-shopping for all the tools their academic discipline (and presumably their future careers as architects) required: They created Charrette.

If you were in the architecture or visual-arts world in the Northeast from 1970 through 2000, you loved and hated Charrette. You loved because it was so undeniably cool and cutting edge. It had the latest Letraset fonts, the newest Pantone colors, that new Rapidograph pen system, the new templates with sexy European tub outlines—so cool, but so expensive.

Like its creators’ generation of architecture students, Charrette was smart and decisively prescriptive about what was “best.” You needed Charrette more than it needed you. After all, where else could you find that amazing Mylar that never burnished through to the gloss, no matter how much your $120 electric eraser ground down on it? Names such as Zip-A-Tone, Keuffel & Esser, and Koh-I-Noor were the Apple, BIM, and AutoCAD of a generation of boomer design students.

The store promoted the newest versions of smart technology to the point where you went there not only to get chipboard but also to find out what was new and super groovy. It was virtually the era’s go-to website for design geeks, a hub of the Design Belief System.

By the mid-1990s, the 1,600-square-foot store in Cambridge had grown to an $89,000,000 business, with well over 20 locations in more than a dozen states. Then, true to their intelligence, Spiro and Brown rode out the early ’90s recession and the transition to computer-based design by paring things down, refocusing on professional sales, and eventually selling their retooled entity to Berkshire Partners. The retooling was followed by a series of additional sell-offs, further pare downs, and finally a sad demise in 2010, when the business was absorbed into another 20th-century-design brand-name, AGFA. 

Business is business, but the real murder weapon of Charrette’s demise was not academic myopia, corporate greed, or the all-too-familiar collateral damage of any given decade’s boom-bust bubble popping. Nor is the death of Charrette just a metaphor for the passage of handcraft to cybercraft.

Although all those elements may have been part of its end game, to me, the passing of Charrette is the essence of the murder-suicide pact that all fine-art practitioners have with technology. Sculptures were first chiseled by stone, and then by harder and harder metals, and then—wait! We discovered that we could effortlessly sculpt clay and cast it! Painstaking painted portraiture segued to film photography that is yet sliding into fully digitized hyper-reality.

Art and craft done by hand and human effort alone has trended toward systems, mechanisms, and devices made by someone else’s hands that allow the crafter’s hands to spend less time in “busy work” and more time exploring the cutting edge of technique.

But despite our freakish focus on it, technique is not, in the end, creativity. Although definitively new, cutting edge is not necessarily better, so we are ever hungry for the Magic Thing that will render our insights perfected and explosively present for all to behold.

Like the drug addict searching for a higher high, we creativists seek design experiences that vault beyond old limitations to leverage our core creative brain to achieve new platforms of expression. All that new technology just ends up aggravating the itch we can never effectively scratch: the lust for perfect expression.

Charrette was a better, more refined expression delivery system for the creativity-addicted.

Charrette had to fall because that creativity-addiction mindset triggers an unrelenting effort to seek an unobtainable height of unique ego projection. Each high we reach—like each new Apple product we buy—mocks our devotion to the last, as it cynically ensures some new development will soon make the stuff we are now using laughable.

Charrette’s protracted whittling down to nothing compared with Steve Jobs punctuated leaving at the height of Apple mania underscores the unrelenting desire for the next transformative techno-liberation of our inner genius. The drive to find The Next Thing has a life independent of its facilitators. If rumors are true, at least five new Apple postmortem product rollouts are planned, visioned by The Master but executed by his own version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Associates—Post-Jobs Apple.

Technology in the world of design is not just about the cool of the new, bragging rights, or even earnestly trying to be good professionals delivering the best product the most effectively for our clients. If all that were true, Charrette’s gold-plated branding would have allowed for a future like General Motors—and perhaps Apple—using a depth and breadth of expertise to adapt, retool, and survive.

But Charrette was created in the belly of the creativist collective psycho-beast and birthed in our midst. We fed it, nurtured it, and ultimately kept it on life support while the word changed around it. A bricks-and-mortar mechanism myopically focused on a tiny group of broke professionals was laughed out of a free-market economy.

Unlike profit-driven cultures based on economic values, the creative culture uses the thrill of expression as its currency. For creativists, the culture of technological expression is the fourth elemental necessity, joining food, shelter, and clothing—an overwhelming presence that serves as its own self-perpetuating obsession enabler.

Charrette was our version of guns and butter. It was, for a while anyway, the fusion of art and cash.

Once the next level of art is realized, it becomes but one rung on the ladder leading to the next art. We are now on the cyber rung and climbing. I am confident the next step up will be so compelling we will not look down. If we do, we may get a little scared.