Unknown Heroes: Karrie Jacobs on Breaking Popular Conceptions and Staying Interested
By Julia Gamolina, cover image by Ed Kratt
Karrie Jacobs is a professional observer of the manmade landscape. She writes regularly for Architect and Curbed, and is a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts’ MA program in Design Research, Writing, and Criticism, where she teaches students how to understand and interpret the design-rich environment all around them.
She was the founding editor-in-chief of Dwell and the founding executive editor of Benetton's Colors. She is the author of The Perfect $100,000 House (2006) and co-author of Angry Graphics (1992). In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Karrie speaks about how she came to writing about design and how she’s found the unknown heroes of architecture in the process, advising young architects to read and to observe the world around them.
JG: How did your interest in journalism first develop?
KJ: I thought I was going to be a film-maker, but I took a film class in college in the 70s, and found out in the first meeting of that class that film-making was all about money [laughs] - how much film cost, and how much film you needed compared to the film that would actually make it into the final version. I did the math and I thought, “I can’t do this! I don’t have any money.”
I was going to school at Evergreen, a hippie college in Olympia, Washington, and went up to a “Women in the Arts” festival in Seattle. I found myself in a workshop about women and writing, and the person who ran this workshop ran on and on about how women who are writers don’t take themselves seriously, and think that it’s just a hobby - all the things I had been thinking. There was an assignment in this workshop to write a note for the refrigerator door. I didn’t read mine out loud, but I listened to everybody else’s and thought, “Huh - mine is better.” Right then, I made the decision that I should be serious about writing.
How did you start to be serious about it?
My boyfriend at the time was supposed to write an article for the school newspaper about music at Lakefair, which was Olympia, Washington’s big community event. He and I somehow decided that we would have a contest and both write the article as fast as we could. He read mine, but he wouldn’t let me read his, and then he submitted my article, under my name, to the school newspaper. It was published!
Eventually a guy who took over the school newspaper hired all of his male friends to be editors. They took themselves and their writing very seriously. One of them quit, so I got called up and asked if I wanted to be an editor. It actually paid money, and I said ok! The editor in question by the way was Matt Groening, who went on to do the Simpsons.
What did you do after college?
I moved to Seattle and was going to write for the Seattle Sun, which was kind of like the Village Voice. I didn’t have any interest in architecture or urban design yet - I’m not even sure what I thought I’d be writing about. They were doing a special issue on the future of Seattle though, and I wound up with an assignment to look up all the plans that had been made for the future of the city - a plan to build escalators up the hills, and all kinds of futuristic things that never happened. I turned it in and then it wasn’t in the special issue and I was heartbroken.
Then a couple of weeks later my friends started calling and congratulating me, and it turns out that the Sun had liked the article so much that they saved it to be the front page story for another issue! That was really my first urban planning story.
Where did you go from there?
I got swept up by the people who were doing a rock-and-roll supplement to the Seattle Sun, the Rocket. I was asked to write a piece about the future of music, which really meant what music would be in the 1980s, and eventually wound up being a senior editor of a rock-and-roll magazine. A lot of the writing I did wasn’t about music though. I wrote a lot about visual culture - video games, why did PacManlook the way it did, things like that.
When did you get to New York?
I first got hired away to Phoenix to be the music editor of Phoenix New Times. My deal with them was that I would edit the music section, but I would be able to write about anything that I wanted. Some of the things that I wrote there were, by default, design stories. For instance, I wrote about neon and why neon was banned by a lot of fancier cities around Phoenix.
By the time I was done there and moved to New York, I knew I didn’t want to do anything with rock-and-roll. I decided that the thing I could do was write about advertising, and I found out that Clay Felker, who was the legendary editor that started New York Magazine, was editing Ad Week. I met with Clay, who was one of my heroes and the nicest man in the world, and I got this great gig writing all kinds of stuff for Ad Week, and some of those stories were design stories also.
How did you finally pivot fully into design?
A couple of my friends were working as art directors at Metropolis Magazine, which was fairly young, and I heard that they needed to hire a new Associate Editor. I got hired there, and wrote about graphic and industrial design, focusing on subjects like the relationship between industrial design and garbage - things that interested me but that nobody was writing about at that moment.
I had a long first round with Metropolis and toward the end of the time that I wrote for them, it was the early to mid 90s, Kurt Anderson took over New York Magazine as editor, and one of the first things he did was fire a bunch of people, including Carter Wiseman who was their architecture critic. I thought, “But they need someone to write about architecture!” I had never really done that, and I was probably not a normal choice to be an architecture critic, but I knew Kurt a little bit, and a bunch of other things happened in there, like starting Colors magazine with Tibor Kalman. I sent Kurt a letter saying that he should really have somebody writing about architecture, and that here is how I would do it, and to my surprise, he bit! I parted ways with Metropolis and started writing about architecture for New York Magazine in ‘95 or ‘96.
What was happening in the city then?
Nothing [laughs]! Nothing was happening, nobody was building anything because the economy kind of tanked in the early ‘90s. The only things going on always involved Donald Trump. Literally the first person who I interviewed, and whom I interviewed many times throughout my time at New York Magazine, was Donald Trump.
I never met him in person, although he came to a New York Magazine party that a lot of famous people were at. I thought, “Should I go over there and introduce myself, even though I don’t really want to?” I only interviewed him over the phone and he loved, and still loves, being interviewed. He talked and talked, and all in superlatives, and he never cared if I was critical. The only time he got mad at me was when I wrote about him, but didn’t interview him.[laughs].
What did you do next?
I kept working for New York Magazine until I got headhunted by this West Coast start-up, which wound up being Dwell! It was one of those things where I applied thinking it would never happen. The publisher, Lara Hedberg Deam, had consultants come up with an editorial plan and they wanted my critique. My assumption then was that this wasn’t a job I actually wanted, so I essentially wrote this “Fuck you” proposal, outlining what was wrong with what they did and what I would do, and they bit as well! I wasn’t at all trying to get the job.
Things always work out when you’re not trying…
Which is the opposite of what anyone tells you. I decided to do it, because I wasn’t really making all that much money at New York Magazine and all of these freelance things I was doing, and starting up magazines is fun. So, I moved to San Francisco, sold my Manhattan apartment - which was a really stupid idea, never sell your Manhattan apartment - got Dwell up and running, and then got deeply tired of it.
I think the turning point was probably 9/11. I was in Sweden on a tour of Swedish architecture when it happened. When I got back to San Francisco, I could tell that things were different. The first dot com boom saw its first bust, and everything just seemed so silly. It felt wrong to be in San Francisco, so by the end of 2002, I quit Dwell, drove back to New York, found a place to live, got a book deal, and started writing for Metropolis again. The whole experience really reinforced that I was a New Yorker.
You wrote about the post-9/11 development of One World Trade Center. Tell me about your article on Nicole Dosso for Fast Company - that piece is my favorite piece of journalism to date.
I was writing for Architect magazine, and I had written a piece for them earlier that year about three different women working in three different scales of architecture. The piece was driven by what happened with Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi and the women from Harvard who were pushing for her to get a retroactive Pritzker. One of the women who I considered for the piece but didn’t write about was Nicole.
At some point that year, Suzanne LaBarre, an editor at Fast Company, approached me to do some pieces for them. I did two on One World Trade, one being about 1WTC as real estate - that it stopped being this sacred, symbolic object and was being marketed as an office building - and the other was an interview with Nicole Dosso, which was great. Fast Company was the right place for that piece.
What did you learn about the field from writing about Nicole that you’d like young women to know?
What I said in the piece is that there’s this popular conception of what architecture is - one person has a concept for a building and they’re the hero architect - and it’s not the reality at all. David Childs and Daniel Libeskind had their epic battle over the design of One World Trade, somebody had to build it, and it was this woman whose job it was to say, “Ok, I’m in charge, and I’m going to deal with all of these competing forces.” She is the person that actually got it to happen, got the building built! She didn’t do beautiful renderings, she didn’t come up with great metaphors - she just made it happen.
The world is full of people like that that you’ve never heard of who just make things happen. I have loads of respect for David Childs - he’s a charming man and a good talker, and was really good at working the politics of the city and knowing how to talk to people who were in charge of things. Some part of getting anything built and approved in this city is convincing people that it’s the right thing to do. But, there is this whole other side which is really important, which is knowing what all the moving parts are. Nicole is that kind of a hero.
Where do you feel like you’re in your career today?
It’s a funny moment because the publishing business is not so great right now; even online publications are having a bunch of layoffs. I feel like I’ve been through wave after wave after wave of this in my career, so I’m actually feeling like it’s time to make another book happen. I had a book in the works about a decade ago, and then met my husband. I hadn’t been in love in a long time at that point, and I had never, and I mean never, put my personal life before my professional life, but with him I did - he was just exactly right.
What have been the biggest challenges for you?
One of the problems has been that there are two ways to write about architecture - one of them is fairly geeky and intended for a professional audience, and the other is mainstream and all about the personalities, and I don’t fit into either of those categories. I think I do better on the geeky end, but this means that there’s not often a good, lucrative outlet for what I do.
Travel+Leisure was the greatest thing, because they had wanted me to do travel pieces that had something to do with design, so my editor there would call me up and say things like, “We’re thinking of doing a piece on the city of the future - can you figure out a way to do a travel piece on the city of the future?” And I did.
What have been the biggest highlights?
Writing my architecture column for New York Magazine was really cool - after I wrote the first one and I saw that it was in the front of the book, and not in the back as a cultural column, made me really happy. Starting Dwell was also wonderful - magazines at their best are this compendium for good ideas, and you can try things. There is a bottomless copy hole that you have to fill, so there’s a lot of room to create.
What has been your general approach to your career?
Somebody gave me advice when I was still in college:, “Always do what’s interesting.” That’s really simple, and I try and do things that I find interesting. If I do the same things over and over again, I consciously make changes.
Finally, what advice do you have for those starting their careers in the built environment?
Read books - it’s really helpful to actually know things. Then, find the most interesting people that you can and talk with them. The main thing I pass on to my students at SVA is to actually get out there and look at things, and try and understand why they look the way they do. I take them to Times Square and sit them down on the Red Steps and make them l think about where they are and why it is the way it is.
That’s always really important if you’re dealing with the built environment - to immerse yourself in it and try to understand it. Designing in the abstract is also a great exercise, but if you actually want to make things that work in the world, you have to go and look. Walking around is essential. Read books and walk around.