Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: What is “Iconic”?

Posted inCreative Voices

Welcome to my column for PRINT! Once a month, I’ll share examples of the journals I’ve been keeping for over 30 years. You’ll see select stories and images from over 8,000 pages that show how and why this collection reflects my sense of wonder as a designer and artist.

It all started with Paul Gauguin’s beautiful journals. In 1989, a noted curator at the Louvre gave me a tour of the museum’s archive to show me his journals. These extraordinary accounts of Gauguin’s private life were not meant for public view, which made the experience of turning each page especially unforgettable. The “treasure” I saw in Paris that day inspired me to begin keeping my own journal.

In these books, I’ve created art, logged experiences, and chronicled the world as I see it. They’ve been a laboratory for endless experimentation and discovery that ignites my art. The topics and visual treatments are wide-ranging, which results in a continually evolving self-portrait.

If you use a journal in your work, we have much in common. If not, maybe what I share will inspire you to bring this practice into your life. I aim to entertain, ignite curiosity, and share some insights.

Here are a few samples:

I’ll share stories, show examples, and pose questions on art, design, nature, the human condition, and contemporary life in future articles.

For instance, I’m fascinated with how language has evolved for our times. Take the word “iconic.” Originally defined as a person or thing worthy of veneration, it now describes everything from a Gothic cathedral to a hip-hop dance move. In pop music, “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles and “Ocean Eyes” by Billie Eilish are ballads considered “iconic” by fans from different times and worlds. This challenges conventional thinking by reflecting the continuing democratization of language and modern attitudes.

In this month’s column, I’ve selected three spreads from my journals about people, places, and things that are iconic to me.

Bill Cunningham

The late great street photographer Bill Cunningham was an icon in New York fashion circles. In his weekly New York Times column, he reported on the fashion trends he documented while standing sentry at the crossroads of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Seventh Street.

Cunningham would nimbly follow passersby in his signature blue French chore coat. He’d pursue a woman in a brightly colored, bejeweled outfit or a dashing man with a fashionable scarf. Cunningham’s subjects would fall prey to his charm as he snapped away with his Nikon camera and commented on how “marvelous” they looked. We once met at a charity art auction and laughed because we wore the same blue coat. He then darted away to capture another fashionable New York moment. Cunningham was indeed one of a kind.


Frank Lloyd Wright built the legendary Fallingwater house for department store magnate Edgar J. Kaufman in 1939. Architects and designers love it for its audacious design and radical departure from the stylistic norms of its day. Cascading horizontal cantilever forms seem to lift this house from its natural setting over a waterfall. The house represents several firsts in design, materials, siting, and circulation. Wright used recent innovations to dramatic effect, like window details with butt joint corners and cast in place reinforced concrete balconies.

Years ago, the AIGA invited me to speak about my journaling practice at their Pittsburgh chapter. I accepted and asked if they would also arrange a tour of nearby Fallingwater

Although I had seen countless photographs of this building, its sheer beauty exceeded my expectations. I asked our tour guide about the unusually low ceiling height and he said that this was typical of Wright’s designs. He added that the architect was of average height, and low ceilings created an illusion that made him appear taller!

The Rokeby Venus

In 2009, I visited the National Gallery of Art in London and saw one of my beloved Diego Velázquez paintings, The Rokeby Venus. It is the only surviving nude he painted in his career and remains a wonder of sensuality and grace. It is a masterpiece by any measure and always attracts an admiring crowd.

After that visit, I dissected the “iconic” nature of this work by creating an abstraction made of its disjointed parts. I contend that Velázquez’s painting retains its visual resonance and can be decoded for its color and signature details. Certainly, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa could survive this test, while a contemporary scrawl by Jean-Michel Basquiat might prove more challenging. For me, this is fun experiment in perception, memory, and the power of great art.

You may notice from these journal pages the absence of stylistic consistency. When I began my journals, I freed myself from formal and material constraints, choosing a path of random abandon to enable boundless artistic expression. These books are full of “beginnings,” ideas in the rough that I use to inspire new work. They simultaneously record the past and shape the future.

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 a 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.