Taking a Page (or Two)
from Eudora Welty Books
“Why don’t you design a chair, Saxon?” My normal response to the question, posed by the inimitable Tamara Matthews Stephenson, would have been, “Pshaw; I’m no designer!” This means the only explanation I have for the insanity that caused the words “Why not?” to cheerfully slide from between my smiling lips is that I was caught up in the jet-wash of Toma Clark Haines’ and Justin Shaulis’ enthusiasm as they agreed to participate the #TakeASeat charity auction benefitting the New York Chapter of the International Furnishings and Design Association (IFDA). Or was it the now famous phrase uttered by fellow southerner Eudora Welty?
“Why was I not even vaguely aware this was sheer foolishness at the time?” I asked myself upon waking the next morning as the full impact of the crazy move hit me. “I’m a writer, not a designer or artist; what the heck was I thinking?”
Don’t Be Like the Rest of Them, Darling!
Thankfully, the cogs kept turning long enough for me to realize my gal pal Pryor Callaway would be the perfect collaborator, not only because she is an artist and Pratt-educated industrial designer; she’s also a fellow southerner, which gave us some serious south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line shorthand to tap into as we discussed our initial ideas.
As we talked about lifelong inspirations, an obvious choice came springing to mind—that southern writer (and Pryor’s fellow Mississippian) Eudora Welty. The caveat I now think I should blame my participation on? “Don’t be like the rest of them, darling.” Since this pretty much sums up our personalities and the way we live our lives, we knew we’d hit pay dirt.
The sexy chair that would serve as her design double was so quickly and easily nabbed from a midtown street (thanks ever so much for your wicked sharp eye, Scott Switzer!), the project seemed to take on a life of its own. The most delicious part of the effort for me was having an excuse to reread one of my favorite Eudora Welty books, One Writer’s Beginnings, which contains three lectures the author gave at Harvard University in 1983.
In the talks, she presents beautiful narratives about her childhood and the signs that proved she was developing the patterns of a writer, which she delineated as “Listening,” “Learning to See” and “Finding a Voice.” Though I read it in 1984, the book remains deeply important for me because it was one of a handful that inspired the writer’s notebook discipline I have maintained since.
In the chapter “Finding a Voice,” her description of a train trip she took with her father when she was a girl is as remarkable a depiction of experiential narrative I’d ever read, inspiring me to record a number of memories I might never have put down on paper, including a Sunday afternoon excursion I took with my family when I was twelve.
The soupy Tennessee humidity comes rushing back as I write this—an irrefutable oppressiveness even while the wind pummeled me through the half-lowered windows of the candy apple-red Forty Ford my dad had spent months restoring. The roll-tucked vinyl upholstery of the back seat the size of a deep-cushioned sofa stuck to the skin on the backs of my legs as Hang On Sloopy thumped a plunky beat from the eight-track player dad had installed in the glossy burl walnut dashboard he’d created from scratch.
The Descriptive Powers of Eudora Welty
My favorite piece of Welty’s story was her description of the sleeping compartment to which she and her father would retire as the train trundled through the darkened countryside:
“The swaying porter would be making ready our berths for the night, pulling the shade down just so, drawing the green fishnet hammock across the window so the clothes you took off could ride along beside you, turning down the tight-made bed, standing up the two snowy pillows as high as they were wide, switching on the eye of the reading lamp, starting the tiny electric fan—you suddenly saw its blades turn into gauze and heard its insect murmur; and drawing across it all the pair of thick green theaterlike curtains—billowing, smelling of cigar smoke—between which you would crawl or dive headfirst to button them together with yourself inside, to be seen no more that night.”
I asked Pryor how Eudora had first inspired her and she told me Welty’s descriptions wowed her just as strongly as they had stirred me: “She could create conversation that made you feel like you were sitting on the porch with the characters, the same ‘glow’ of sweat on your brow as had popped out on theirs.
She had a talent for capturing life in the small southern town and revealing it as if she was peeling back the layers of an onion. Southerners speak in a sort of code sometimes, with a politeness that is much louder if you know the language, and Eudora knew the language.”
Pryor’s descriptions of her childhood experiences could have been culled from the pages of a Welty story: “I grew up playing Old Maids with my grandmother after school until cocktail hour rolled around. Once the drinks came out, my brother and I would catch lighting bugs in Mason jars around the water oak tree while the adult members of the family enjoyed their libations on the deck. I guess you could say her stories of a southern life hit home.”
There were geographical ties between the two, as well. Eudora attended college in Pryor’s hometown of Columbus, Mississippi, and Pryor went to Millsaps College in Jackson where Welty was born and lived most of her life: “When I was at Millsaps, I lived three or four blocks from Miss Welty and I could shoot myself that I never knocked on her door!”
I asked Pryor if covering the chair with Welty’s fiction had made her feel any differently about the author’s stories, and she answered, “I don’t think the chair has made me feel differently but the process certainly did. As we were laminating the non-consecutive pages from her 13 short stories onto the seat and back of the chair, I was looking for a line or two to highlight on the pages and I was just amazed that not even knowing the context of the story or characters, every page I picked up contained a little piece of art that made my southern heart smile. In fact, many of them actually made me laugh out loud!”
Given the authenticity and creativity this project inspired in us, it’s going to be a bit tough for us to say goodbye to our Miss Welty but we will be happy if she brings the IFDA NY and the Habitat for Humanity some beneficial funds during the auction, which will take place this coming Wednesday, May 14, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Room & Board (105 Wooster Street in the NYC Soho neighborhood).
The vivacious Libby Langdon will be the auctioneer during the event, which is also sponsored by New York Cottages and Gardens. I hope you’ll buy tickets online and join us because this will be an incredible evening benefitting a seriously good cause. In case you’re wondering how I feel about my foray into the decorative arts now that the deed is done, I’m happy to report I’m thrilled I participated.
To be honest, and to my tremendous relief, it has been a remarkably fun project from concept to execution thanks to Pryor’s fearlessness with machine tools and finicky substances I wouldn’t have dreamed of being in the same room with much less using! Here’s to girl power of all stripes (and with a gamut of tools, including the almighty pen), right Miss Welty?
Drumroll, please: our lovely little lady, Miss Welty!
Footnote: Pryor and I would like to thank architectural photographer Paul Clemence for photographing Miss Welty. In case you will attend the Venice Biennale and would like to go, the panel takes place on June 4 at 4 p.m. at the Istituto Europeo di Design, located at the historic Palazzo Franchetti on the Grand Canal, definitely a fitting venue for a discussion on time and architecture. If the panel is even half as inspiring as the book, it’s worth a plane ticket and the jet lag. Here’s to the legacy the intrepid architectural aficionado will leave!
The Modern Salonnière and this DesignLabs entry Taking a Page (or Two) from Eudora Welty Books © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, poet and strategist. Books include Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise and Four Florida Moderns.