A World Domination Communication

A mass-communication came along last week inviting me to a new group, and as I was headed off to work, I didn’t look at the contents right away. But the name made me chuckle. It was the Crystal Weaver World Domination Group. I thought, “well, I don’t know what she’s up to, but that sounds fitting.” I repeated it out loud to my husband, and he got the same twinkle in his eye that I was feeling as we felt the echo of a piece of our lives that was left behind over 15 years ago, but somehow still with us. Crystal Weaver. You just have to smile.

Crystal Weaver. This is not a person you can simply sum up with World Domination. That is a given. It’s the many facets of how she dominates the world that are actually remarkable.

I could write a list of professional accolades that wouldn’t touch her professionalism. I could point out any number of teaching methods and strategies but it would fail to capture the woman’s passion, and enthusiasm, and innate ability to inspire. I could tell you about the high bar she set for a generation of designers, but you wouldn’t see the intense energy of studio after studio of students at 2am, 3am, 4am, jacked up on coffee and nicotine, trying to reach that bar. Trying not to let her down.

I came to Savannah with a studio art degree, looking to change my direction in my masters, but not sure I would make a good designer. Very quickly, through provisional coursework (studios for those whose undergraduate degree was in something else), I was hooked. I loved the five hour studios, staying up until all hours overdoing the details. I got a lot of compliments in my early courses about the training I had clearly received in perspective and drawing, and my professors worked with me to hone my artistic skills to better fit the architectural rendering style. I absorbed as much as possible, bolstered by their praise, and felt I was ready for anything.

Anything except Studio III. The last of my provisional classes was a dark cloud looming on the horizon. Its reputation preceded it: it was impossible. It was Crystal Weaver. Cue the Imperial March.

I can’t believe I dreaded this, but yes, let’s put that out there. Crystal Weaver was larger than life. For every person who had a great story, there were two that said they were hated, ignored, or flunked. The work load was unbearable, her standards were un-meetable, she hated everyone no matter what they did. So, dread it I did.

I have never laughed so hard or so frequently at someone I was afraid of, but there you have it. She was not a tyrant or un-personable, she wasn’t hard or unfeeling, she just knew what she wanted, and let you know. She was clear about her expectations, and if you did what she’d asked, she had something to work with, so you got back from her what you had put in, and then some, because she had the voice of experience.

Crystal loved every face to face opportunity she had with students so much that she was downright exuberant to talk about everything from exit signage to minor details of product specifications. From the moment she would walk into the classroom with her file basket brimming with papers (which you knew you’d be hole-punching and highlighting for the rest of the night), she was 100% focused on the time she had with you in that classroom, that moment. Your questions, your concerns, your projects, your developing skill sets. Of course, she’d start with a story or two about Trouble, her 18-year-old cat, or what happens if you microwave your Easter Peeps, or the time she fell out of the baby seat as an infant, but then she’d magically segue into something about electrical symbols, and damned if you weren’t learning something without meaning to. Hanging on every word.

The actual act of teaching, whether lecturing or running a studio critique, was Crystal’s true passion, so it came as no surprise to me when she said, upon taking over as the Dean of the School of Design at SCAD, that she would only take the job if she could still teach. Not everyone is a born teacher, and as it was her true gift, it touched so many. Which is not to say it wasn’t intimidating to pin something up on her wall.

An art critique is a blend of the viewer’s personal taste, knowledge of historical context, and the artist’s vision, ability, composition, and quality of the materials, among other things, but also seeks to measure the immeasurable: the artist’s ability to express an idea or emotion. A design critique adds the component of problem solving to all of that, so the idea the artist is expressing isn’t one of his or her own but the solution to a set problem. An analytical answer from the mind and the heart together. Now, produce a high quality visual (or several), conforming to an accepted set of standards, to convey that solution that is both academic and a raw piece of your soul. Good luck! If pinning up is going down the scary slide, pinning up for Crystal was skydiving.

If you tried to cut corners, she called you out. She met excuses with reasons why you would have just lost a job if she were the client. She prepared you for the possibility of that response by telling you exactly that in the project outline. If you tested that, she was happy to deliver, but if that thought put the fear of God in you and you did the work, your reward was a honest, straightforward evaluation and a kick in the pants with a smile. (But only if you needed one, and then just hard enough to keep you traveling in the right direction.)

You worked hard for round one, revised and integrated corrections and suggestions for round two, and so on. Whatever you put on the paper, she would work with, but she wouldn’t respond to something you didn’t take the time to show. She was teaching us new language; to convey our ideas visually so someone could have a response, the design equivalent of your Spanish teacher telling you “En Espanol, por favor.” You had to make your idea clear or someone couldn’t say “Yes, I want that!” and get it done. It changed how we thought about our critiques. If before we’d been nervous to put anything up there, now we were afraid to leave anything out.

The first project I had for Crystal’s class was a doctor’s office. I sweated the details of that design in every possible stage. The space plan had to work on every level – doctors, staff, patients. Way-finding, work flow, privacy. Every line I over-crossed had to be fixed, letters that weren’t my best architectural penmanship were carefully scratched off the vellum and redrawn. Ceiling and floor tiles were centered to the inch. By hand.

Then. Ugh, materials. How did I know what she was going to like? I finally knew how to convey my design ideas the way she wanted them, and I’d made the design work, what was I doing now? Choosing materials was a stab in the dark. How should I dress this thing? There was no mid-stream pin-up for this, it was make or break, and I was stuck. I was wasting time stressing out over this last detail, and suddenly realizing that it – the colors, textures, patterns – had the power to unify or destroy the design by giving it harmony or discord. It wasn’t a last detail, it was how people would experience the space and decide whether or not they liked it! And I’d left it all for last! Panic ensued.

Internal monologue: Help, God, I am going to ruin the world with upholstery.

Real lessons from the materials library: I looked up, and there was Crystal, trying to figure out why half of her class had disappeared. (I wasn’t alone in there.) This was not the answer to my prayers that I had expected. She glanced over my shoulder at my palette, grabbed the upholstery, said simply, “No, boring.” and walked away. Quickly, she came back, threw a new sample on my pile, and said, “There.” So many thoughts exploded in my mind: one, I’ve been standing there trying to match the palette the entire time with the materials touching each other, and she finds something that matches from across the room after looking at my palette for two seconds? Two, and she claims to be color blind?? Three, but am I supposed to use it? Does that count as me doing the work? Four, but if I don’t use it, will I get marked down? Because this upholstery is certifiably ugly.

I’d had professors in my fine arts background that would say to me, “Don’t be so precious about every little line.” I spent years learning and unlearning and relearning based on different expectations of different instructors, but that seemed to be a common theme. Overall composition meant more than any one line or component. “And don’t be stingy,” they’d said – draw through an object so you can find the back of it. Draw, draw again, keep drawing even if it’s over the same line. You’ll understand the weight, the depth, the relationship in the still life if you keep searching, and leave a visible trail of your search. In interior design, I had been learning that every line had to translated into something build-able, so unlearning and relearning was continuing – this time, I was learning that every line was indeed precious, and why, and how. To save the sketching, searching lines, and softness for ideation and perspectives. But in the switching of that upholstery, and Crystal’s three words, I relearned a lesson: don’t be so precious about every little detail. Don’t get hung up on a color or fabric.

Voice in my head I was scared to accept: Because you know your design is good.

Growing understanding: Otherwise, this would be decorating.

And obvious to those in the industry: This is so not decorating.

I used the fabric.

I didn’t love the fabric, but I brought up some of the other colors to match its intensity, and it worked. And I learned that you don’t have to live in a room with that fabric. Or be married to that furniture. How freeing. Later, that translated into not being married to any one design idea, project, or job. Don’t sit there and guess what will make someone else happy like it’s personal. Yes, the quality of your work should be personal. So find something that works, and if it isn’t right, find something else. Don’t be so precious about every detail. Details can change. Just do good work.

Presentation day, there we were, all dressed up (because you dress like you want the job, said Crystal, so we did). Every one of us showered and did our hair even if we hadn’t slept. Anything that required a printer or color copier had been done in advance (because you can’t count on the printer not running out of paper or ink, said Crystal, and you wouldn’t get credit, or the job, with excuses about a printer, said Crystal, so we printed early). Lots of us had note cards and were studying what we wanted to say (because you want your presentation to be organized and logical, said Crystal, so we organized.) And one by one, we presented and defended our work.

I can now appreciate what a true critique is. We don’t grow when our classmates and friends say, “Good job!”, or “I like it.” We grow when someone says, “I see where you were going here, but next time try this to make it clearer,” or “Did you use this design element just to use it? Or did you want to relate it to something? How about repeating it here so there’s a connection.” Or someone calling you out for an omission or legitimate mistake. In the moment, those critiques feel deadly, but they inform everything you do later. They make you better.

Those were Crystal’s critiques. Certainly most of the “problem areas” of a design were going to be sponged out in the working process in the studio, so there wouldn’t be a lot of surprises in the final presentation. End of project presentations were the glossy boards, final drafts, explanations of how you solved the design problem, and the quality with which you could visually tie the work together. There was something both exhilarating and scary about knowing that your over-arching design idea was on the chopping block, and you were defending the whole quarter’s worth of your work. Of your life. (Because let’s face it, there wasn’t much life outside of studio.)

There I was, in my most professional-looking outfit. I had even ironed, which my dearest of friends will tell you is not my gift. I was proud of my work, I felt good about everything, and then…. I flaked on word recall. I forgot how I wanted to explain my choice of furniture. It was very specific and intentional. I’d gone with a very traditional look to bring comfort to an aging patient population in a historic town. But as I stumbled in explaining it, what came out was something like, “If there’s one thing people here really dig, it’s their antiques.”

I’d like to say it was maybe a bit better than that, but I’m guessing it was probably worse. All I know is that I definitely used the word “dig.” And I don’t know if I have ever, in any other circumstances, used the word “dig” to indicate approval. Sandbox, garden, construction site? – yes. Definitely appropriate uses of the word “dig.” Fan of something? – no.

Internal monologue: Oh my god, I just did that. In front of Crystal Weaver. No, not “in front of” Crystal Weaver, presenting FOR Crystal Weaver. She is going to eat me alive. After I worked so hard!

Real lessons from a real critique: she never mentioned the “dig.” She did mention that I had gone past the requests of my client to consider the comfort and experience of the patients, and praised my ability to think beyond my own tastes and design sensibilities to what would make the design better for its function. She also didn’t mention much about the color palette, certainly not “her” upholstery. And as was her way, she found suggestions to make, praise to give, and ways to bring laughter to it all.

And just like that, I went into healthcare design.

That process was not without its hiccups. For a short while, I worked for the college. They offered me a job while I was still a student. It was teaching professors how to convert their traditional course content into digital material for online learning. I cried. Serious, convulsive bawling. I was studying interior design, and if I took the job, I might never practice. I’d be letting myself down. I’d be letting Crystal down. Wasn’t she preparing me for, as it turns out, World Domination in Interior Design?

I went to see Crystal about this. I don’t know why. She was probably only used to crying from students who needed to get their grades up by end of term. I don’t think she expected me to come looking for emotional support or personal approval. She almost looked uncomfortable. But I think she also looked proud. Proud that I cared that much about getting out there as a designer? Proud that I would take an opportunity to work and learn and consider whether it was an obstacle or a stepping stone? Proud that she had taken me from scared to pin up, to presenting to a room of professors? Maybe? Proud to have put her time and effort into the person I was becoming? God, looking back, I hope so. I hope she knew all of those things, through my blubbering.

I stayed a very brief time – time when she treated me as more of an equal than I deserved, befriended my husband, and gave me continued professional perspective and honesty – before I took a job in Interior Design back in New England, but today I am the one who is proud. Proud that for an ever-so-brief blip on the radar of history, I could consider Crystal Weaver a colleague.

Crystal laughed because for the first few months of my design career, I emailed her constantly to tell her what I was doing. “I’m designing a plaid floor, Crystal, no joke! For a science lab!” or, “I am here long after hours, Crystal, drawing details for this project. This feels just like studio!” Her response was always, “Why are you emailing me? Get back to work.” She wanted me to move on. But darn it all, I still wanted her approval, and to know that I’d succeeded in doing what she’d tasked me with.

The years went by and I stayed in design until my kids were born, then part time for a while, and then took a job teaching at a college nearby. I taught Interior Design for eight years, and I’m sure you can guess where I set my bar, how I ran my critiques, what sorts of expectations I had. I figured, if I had to strive, then these kids do too. They have to know: anyone can decorate, design is work. A few times I wrote to Crystal to ask her advice, to check in about whether my expectations were really that far off base when I was in periods of frustration. Her advice: Hold on to your standards because it doesn’t do you or the students any good to compromise them. And focus on what you love.

Those could be the best lessons for life anyone was ever kind enough to lay out for me.

It is bittersweet for me to say that today, I’m not working in design anymore, at least not in the same way. The other love of my life was dance, a passion I couldn’t seem to quit and had kept working on, on the side. When the college where I was teaching dropped their Interior Design program, I increased my work at the dance studio to become the artistic director of the ballet program, and I have now been doing that for seven years. It is a different dream come true. But it is one that is hard to explain. It is design, but with temporary, moving parts. For those who knew me in the office environment, I’m sure they imagine me twirling around like a fairy, not doing real work. For those who knew me as a professor, it’s easy to imagine the teaching part, but hard to think of it in a theater or in a leotard. And for myself, there are times when, faced with the expectations of what I thought I would someday become, I wonder if I failed at something because I didn’t do what I once worked so hard for. I second-guess all the time whether this is any sort of success. Not because I don’t love every second, but because I wonder what people think. I need to stop that.

I wonder if there isn’t still a small piece of me that doesn’t want to let down Crystal Weaver. Maybe that’s it. That by doing something else, I am somehow saying that the gift of that time she gave me was somehow a waste. Let me assure you, it was not – not one minute wasted. I had to take that path, and I am so much better for it, and here’s why: I know how to dream something up and pour my heart into it – logic and schedules and creative vision and all – and not stop working until I see it happen; it just happens on stage now. I know how to get my ideas across visually, and I make t-shirt and poster designs that sell an idea, and props, costumes, set pieces, and all kinds of things that I know how to do largely because of my time in studios. (Sometimes I even make something beautiful out of ugly upholstery. It’s true!) I know how to think about people in space – but instead of people moving around furniture and walls, these people are the stillness and the motion, the mass and the void, the visual rhythm, the symmetry and balance; they create these beautiful forms… and then it’s over. I don’t get to finish a punch list, turn over the keys, or go back and visit. It’s temporary and fleeting, but it is just as lovely.

There’s just something about the built environment though, that is so nice and permanent, am I right? So you know you’ve been here? Done something? Made a difference?

Teachers make a difference, and that’s why we can all think of exceptional ones we’ve had, like Crystal. I hear this all the time as a teacher. I see kids change and thrive, and I know it is worth it. Sometimes you know, and other times you have no clue who you made an impression on until much later, if at all. But I could not have conveyed to Crystal at the time I was her student how much I was changing and growing, because I barely knew myself. I didn’t just learn a visual language, how to be a designer, or just the material. From watching her, passionate about every answer, honest with every critique, uncompromising in every expectation, I learned through example exactly what she summed up for me so much later in her advice about teaching: lowering expectations isn’t going to serve anyone. Do what you love. And by God, have fun while you are here.

Sometimes, what you’ve actually built, is invisible.

She gave the keys to building her world out liberally to everyone she was ever in contact with, as far as I know. She just poured it out into the universe, and to some of us, it stuck. I don’t know if she had favorites, I don’t know if she was as able to let go as easily as it seemed she did, but I do know she missed us. When we came back to visit, she said, “Oh, my possums are home!” And to this day, when I think of possums, I think of Crystal. Of being one of her possums. Of the way her words just stick to you and don’t let you go. The lessons in them, and the weight of them. One that says, Don’t get stuck on a detail. One that says, Follow your gut if you know you’re right. One that says, You can do it. One that says, Life is funny, people are funny – laugh. One that says, Don’t look back. And one that says, You were loved. I wear those words around every day, under my skin. You can’t see them, they’re part of the invisible legacy Crystal built, but they’re part of me. I struggle with the one about not looking back. Especially today, knowing that Crystal’s time here is drawing shorter due to her battle with MSA, multiple system atrophy.

Enter World Domination.

In glancing down the posts in the World Domination group page, I am struck by the far flung locations and age range of the lives Crystal has touched through the years. I smile to think that in each of our communities, we bring a little more “Do what you love,” to where we are because of what Crystal has meant to us. That we push a little harder for something because we saw what it was to meet a standard we thought was impossible. That we are uncompromising because we had her example. We have this invisible strength because we knew her.

World Domination, to my mind, is this: get over whatever your hangup is, keep going, keep striving. Do what you love with passion, with determination, and with laughter, because that’s the only way to live. And know that whatever happens, it won’t be because you didn’t care enough.

Thank you, Crystal Weaver, for teaching that to so many of us.

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