Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - June 4, 2010

A salute to 60 years

Stanford art department honors Matt Kahn's lengthy career

by Rebecca Wallace

At a recent event to honor his 60-plus years of teaching, mentoring and inspiring at Stanford University's art department, Matt Kahn drew some of the biggest accolades without saying a word.

Chuckles and applause arose from the crowd in Annenberg Auditorium when some of Kahn's most recognizable quotes were projected on a screen:

"Design is the act of bringing the mind, heart and hands closer together."

"Let the constraints be the inspiration."

"Treatment is content."

"Everything matters."

John Edmark, once a student of Kahn's and now an artist and Stanford lecturer, displayed the quotes as part of his talk, one of many tributes given last Friday. As Kahn sat smiling in the front row, Edmark paused periodically, letting the quotes speak for themselves. The crowd of students, former students and colleagues clearly appreciated the words.

Kahn began teaching at Stanford in 1949, after graduating from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. While he's now officially retired, Kahn said Friday that he plans to teach again at Stanford next winter and spring.

Over the last six decades, Kahn's career has included serving as artistic consultant in the 1950s and '60s to Eichler Homes — the creator of numerous "California Modern" houses in Palo Alto — and as director of the U.S. State Department's Craft and Development Program in Cambodia. His own art includes paintings, sculptures and furniture design. But most of Friday's crowd has known him, as Edmark put it, as a Stanford "professor extraordinaire" concentrating on design.

There were accolades aplenty from the podium. Richard Vinograd, chair of Stanford's department of art and art history, spoke of this "remarkable man and remarkable career." Referring to his own specialization in Chinese art, he added, "If this were imperial China, I'm pretty sure Matt would have a shrine."

Unsurprisingly, many of the tributes were visual. Former students of Kahn's displayed images of buildings and other projects they had created after being inspired by their professor.

Michael Duncan, a director at the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, took many Kahn classes while a Stanford engineering student. He recalled several classroom problems, then displayed projects he later worked on in the real world that dealt with similar issues. Lessons learned.

One assignment was to create a project wedded to illumination. Duncan's example was the University of California at Merced's Kolligian Library, which he worked on. On Friday, he showed photos of the library with the sun filtering through wall panels. The site once housed a barn, and inspiration came from seeing sunlight slip between the slats, Duncan said.

Ultimately, he said, the library is "all about light, getting light into the building and keeping heat out."

As chairman and CEO at WET Design, Mark Fuller has worked on projects including the fountains at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. He recalled being chastised after his firm made an early "screw-up" on the fountains. He didn't take it as hard as he might, he said. "I had learned from Matt that you critique the work and not the person."

But that doesn't mean design isn't personal, he said. Kahn designed his wedding ring.

Over the years, Kahn has also welcomed many students into his Stanford home for seminars, and enlisted many to carve Halloween pumpkins for his huge annual display.

In his speech, Edmark showed photos of the "gloriously glowing ghouldom" carved with remarkable artistry. Pumpkins boasting myriad shapes, patterns and creatures — not one predictable — lined the house's front pathway. "It was a potent lesson ... on the rich potential of holidays," Edmark said.

Edmark then displayed this Kahn quote: "Beat tradition at its own game."

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