Twenty Over Eighty. Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design

Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design
Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design

Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith have interviewed 20 of the greatest in 20th-century design for their new book that covers the waterfront – from graphic design to architecture to advertising to furniture. They spoke with Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Denise Scott Brown, and the late Michael Graves, among others.

Milton Glaser at work in New York in the 1950s.

The result – “Twenty over Eighty” – is a thorough look at designers who are still creating after six decades in the profession. “Once you enter a lifelong role as a designer, you’re always studying and always learning,” Kwun says. “There’s so much to learn still.”

Chwast, for example, has used his art to battle war since 1957. His newest project is “At War with War” – an anti-war book of 70 illustrations, is funded with a Kickstarter campaign. “It’s interesting to see how their creativity and drive continues to motivate them into their eighties,” Kwun says.

Seymour Chwast in his studio, New York 2014; Greg Preston photo

There’s Jane Thompson, who at 89 has no desire to stop her work at Thompson Design Group, a firm that specializes in the preservation and reuse of obsolete spaces. She once worked at MoMA as secretary to Philip Johnson. When curator Arthur Drexler left for Interiors magazine she stepped up to that, and then to Industrial Design magazine.

And Phyllis Lambert, who famously wrote an eight-page, single-spaced letter to her father, criticizing his plans for the Seagram Building – eventually resulting in its classic design by Mies van der Rohe. “Hers is one of the great stories that’s almost a myth – there’s clarity to hear her tell it, and then there’s the artifact itself,” Kwun says. “Having these stories retold from the person, and then seeing the document really is a best-case scenario.”

Bob Gill: Serigraph self­portrait, 2012;Courtesy of Bob Gill

A senior editor at Dwell, Kwun formerly worked at Princeton Architectural Press (PAP) before earning her MFA in design and criticism from the School of Visual Arts in New York. So she was a natural when PAP started looking around for co-authors for the book. “It’s so cool to put into practice the ideas and methodology we were trained to use and discover,” she says. “It was a learning experience, straight from the horses’ mouths.”



Regine Gilbert published a great account on Medium of an event hosted by the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where journalist Chee Pearlman interviewed Milton Glaser, Beverly Willis, and Ralph Caplan.

20 over 80. L to R: Chee Pearlman, Beverly Willis, Milton Glaser, Ralph Caplan
20 over 80. L to R: Chee Pearlman, Beverly Willis, Milton Glaser, Ralph Caplan

20/80 Stories from the past

In the spirit of looking back, on Saturday night I got the pleasure of listening to three great designers all over the age of 80. Hosted by the Guggenheim museum, the talked titled ‘The Consequence of Design: Ralph Caplan, Milton Glaser, and Beverly Willis in Conversation’.

This conversation came about in part due to a wonderful book by Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith title ‘Twenty over Eighty — Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design’. The book is a collection of interviews of twenty designers over the age of eighty.

They say with age comes wisdom. Each person got six minutes to speak about their life in design. Beverly Willis the architect went first, followed by Ralph Caplan the design critic, and Milton Glaser the graphic designer, famous for the I Love New York design.

Beverly Willis designed the San Francisco Ballet building amongst many others and was one of the first female architects to design such a building. Her firm was also one of the first to use a computer programs before there was an Apple or Microsoft. The program called CARLA was a computerized approach to residential land analysis. It was amazing to hear her tell her stories of the various projects she worked on.

What I took from Beverly’s comments of her view of design was that she looked to make her designs positive in their communication and their perception.

From my point of view, Ralph Caplan was the funniest of the three. He was a comedian in WWII so that might have something to do with it.

Ralph Caplan said he was a writer who by accident stumbled into the field of design and has been in love with it ever since. He said he felt ‘Driven by the conviction that the discipline of design is to address the most important thing in life and those things can be dressed by design.’

Milton Glaser started his six minutes by saying ‘If I knew I’d live this long, I would have taken better care of myself’. Milton Glaser is not a household name but he is well known for his I Love New York graphic design. It’s been viewed all over the world and many other cities have adopted the same design for their cities.

Milton brought a different perspective than the other two panelist. Specifically he spoke of ‘Do no harm’ design. Are our designs life enhancing or death dealing? He specifically spoke about the functionality of design and whether is brings people together and encourages commonality in the world.

A poignant question all designer must ask themselves is, ‘Are you doing harm?’

Milton also discussed what he felt are the two pieces of design: Functionality and beauty. He said that these are rare in any world. When design is done well, it it makes you feel good.

The last question asked to all of them was, ‘What’s technologies impact on design?’ their answers are summarized here.


“It expands concepts of design. You have a global audience with limited time (20/30 seconds)” Beverly Willis


“No one has any idea. Conversations are no longer the same. The effect on reality is compelling. “ Milton Glaser


“We have to wait and see. The consequences will be profound.” Ralph Caplan


To hear from these visionaries was a true gift that I will treasure and share for years to come. Sharing one’s stories is the best legacy one can leave.

It is my hope that one day I get to sit on a stage with the two amazing designers that sat next to me, James Vanié and Angela Fludd.

With each generation passing the torch to the next, I look forward to what is to come. It is only by looking back to see what has been done that we are able to build what we have today and to build a better future for tomorrow.

Regine Gilbert

Author: Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith
Title: Twenty Over Eighty: Conversations on a Lifetime in Architecture and Design
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Year: 2016
ISBN: 9781616892814