Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: Have Sketchbook, Will Travel

Posted inCreative Voices

In 2001, I read The Flâneur, Edmund White’s poetic tribute to the hidden places in Paris. In this gem of a book, White welcomes the reader to join him on a stroll along one rue after another as he points out marvels of French culture. This book’s title aptly describes my passion for travel, and has been used as my license plate for years. When someone asked me what the word means, I translate it as “one who wanders and wonders.”

When I was growing up, I envied families who could afford summer travels to beautiful destinations here and abroad, as such expenses were not part of my upbringing. Then, while in design school, I was thrilled to win a scholarship to attend the 1972 Aspen Design Conference. I was 19 at the time, and this trip would not only be the furthest I’d even been from my home of Philadelphia, but my maiden voyage in an airplane. I then realized that a design career could be my passport to the world.

Much of my foreign travel has been for business, but I’ve always found time for “flâneuring” during these trips. I enjoy the freedom and spontaneity of personal discovery while capturing memories in my journal. After attending an international design summit in Helsinki, Finland in 2007, I joined a group of designers for a four-hour train trip to St. Petersburg, Russia. After a harrowing experience at a military checkpoint on the Russian border, a visit to the Hermitage Museum was, in contrast, bliss. This vast collection featuring old masters’ paintings, period rooms and modern art was a highlight and inspired me to quickly sketch many remarkable works of art that I’d never seen before.

Years later, in 2013, I visited London for a design conference, where I spent a fascinating afternoon at the idiosyncratic Sir John Soane’s Museum. It uses an eclectic assortment of art, furnishings, and antiquities, to paint a portrait of the 18th-century British architect, known for his interpretations of Neoclassicism and considered one of the most inventive European practitioners of his time.

Every world capital offers a unique feast for the senses. The sights, sounds, food, language, customs, culture and people, expand one’s appreciation for ways of life different from our own. Most artists and designers I know welcome every opportunity to embrace their inquisitive nature and make the most of these excursions.

I’ve spent a good deal of time in Paris and Rome over the years, and enjoyed many of their major tourist attractions. I’m now digging into the deeper recesses of these urban wonders to find a secluded garden, new monument, historic birthplace, special restaurant, or secret bar adored by the locals.

Indonesia and Iceland are thrilling worlds I never imagined visiting. They offer transcendent experiences that are visually awe-inspiring, like Jakarta’s hypnotic wayang shadow puppet theaters, and the primal power of the glaciers near Reykjavik. Foreign travel’s destabilizing effect forces me to flex new mental muscles and test my survival instincts in unfamiliar circumstances. And it’s always helpful to learn how to say thank you in a new language.

Some of my most memorable travels have been in the United States. Destinations like Death Valley, the Great Lakes, The Rocky Mountains, and the Everglades reflect a topographic richness akin to an entire continent, not a single country. I’ve taken several extended road trips with friends where the only plan was to choose a compass point. These treks averaged 2000 miles over ten days, where serendipity was our only guide, and getting lost always led to an unexpected “wow.”

The “golden age of mobility” that began in the 20th century has undoubtedly accelerated in the new millennium. Even though international travel has fluctuated in the era of COVID-19, an average of 151,435 flights were taking place per day in February 2021, and I imagine the number has grown since then. The real dilemma for the “flâneur” is weighing the serious environmental concerns about travel, and continuing health risks with the enormous value of meaningful cultural exchange and experience.

To date, I’ve visited 30 of the 195 countries on the planet, which represents only a fraction of my travel “bucket list,” but it has enriched my life and creative being. I have not been on a plane in two years, but pandemics and climate collapse notwithstanding, I hope to be in a beautiful foreign land again very soon.

Next month: Milestones Large and Small

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of two books, including Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm, 50,000feet.