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Nick Cave and Bob Faust discuss the incredible life of creativity, courageousness and community they have built together.

Design Matters: Nick Cave & Bob Faust

Design Matters: Nick Cave & Bob Faust

ARTISTS

31.5.21

graphic design / art / performance art / Sound Suits / police violence / Cranbrook

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

Which of these vocations apply to you? Dancer, fashion designer, entrepreneur, designer, sculptor? If you answered “all of the above,” congratulations, you must be the artist Nick Cave. Nick is perhaps best known for his Sound Suits, which are fantastical, wearable fabric sculptures. Bob Faust is an artist and designer, though he has described himself as part artist, part designer, part mediator, and part therapist. So we’re going to have to investigate all of that.


Debbie Millman:

Bob runs Faust, a cultural branding and communication studio, and their work has been exhibited in places such as MASS MoCA and the Chicago Design Museum. I’m interviewing them together because they live together, they work together and they’ve even been censored together. Nick Cave and Bob Faust, welcome to Design Matters.


Nick Cave:

Hi.


Bob Faust:

Great to be here, Debbie. Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

Gentlemen, I understand that you have a very large preserved wasp nest on the rooftop of your home in Chicago. So what’s that about?


Nick Cave:

We found this building. We were looking for a building for maybe, I would say five years, maybe six years ago. We had designed the space, and sort of we’re in the process of the construction of the rehab. So in the process, in the sort of sun room, in the ceiling as they were pulling the boards away, was this hornet nest. I was out of town. They are sending me images, and I was like “build around it.” And of course they were like, “He’s crazy.” But it felt for me, it was sort of the epitome of it and everything. It was like the fact that that was built by insects, and that it was sort of natural. And it was everything that I believed in. So I wanted to preserve the authenticness of that idea.


Bob Faust:

It’s totally a designed object to the minute you like start looking up at it, you see this pattern that can’t possibly be made by a machine, and that’s the most exciting thing.


Nick Cave:

Yeah. So we sort of liked it because it was attached to the property as well as, like, in the building there’s areas as you walk through the studio where a graffiti artist had come in and marked up the building in that sort of way. We sort of held onto these elements that somehow found their way as part of the history of the property.


Debbie Millman:

Nick, let’s talk about your background first. You were born in Fulton, MO. The third of seven brothers. Your parents divorced when you were very young and you lived with your mom and brothers. Your maternal grandparents lived nearby on a farm. You credit your mother with kickstarting your career by responding so enthusiastically to your handmade birthday cards. Tell us what kinds of cards you were making. What were you making them with?


Nick Cave:

It was not only just birthday; every holiday I would make her cards. It was sort of me sort of thinking about her and how do I sort of think about her in relationship to this particular holiday, and what does that look like? What does that mean in terms of building a handmade card? So for me, it was really sort of thinking through all of that, and thinking through the last card, and how do I sort of amp up to the next one? And the thing that was amazing is that there was that sort of commitment of honoring a process that I sort of like decided that this is what I’m going to do every holiday. And just that commitment sort of paved the way for responsibility and emotion.


Nick Cave:

For me, you think about this two-dimensional sort of handmade paper assemblage and the impact that it has on one’s emotion was like unreal and yet real. I was thinking like, Wow, this makes you feel that way. It was magical because I could not really sort of identify in a tangible sense like what in this process is received in this enormous way. So that was the beginning of me sort of thinking about the impact of doing the impact of making an impression, the impact of one responding to something.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve stated that when you’re raised by a single mother with six brothers and lots of hand-me-downs, you have to figure out how to make those clothes your own.


Nick Cave:

Oh, honey. Right?


Debbie Millman:

My mother was a seamstress also, so I did a lot of that. How did you go about making these things? What did you make for yourself? How did you reconstruct some of the hand-me-downs that you were foisted upon?


Nick Cave:

My mother comes from a family of 16, and she was the first. And so I was—


Debbie Millman:

She’s the oldest of 16 siblings?


Nick Cave:

The interesting thing is that I’m surrounded by like makers. My grandmothers were quilters. My aunts were amazing seamstresses. My grandfathers were carpenters, furniture makers. So you’re just surrounded by all of this sort of making. And not that they taught me any of it, I was like this person that was like this voyeur from a distance. I was like observing and curious and interested in it. But I think I took my first sewing class in high school and weaving class in high school. So I was very much interested in this process of building—to build a cloth, to weave your own fabric, was just interesting to me.


Nick Cave:

So when you’re raised with seven brothers, hand-me-downs were part of just what happened. And to know that I could sort of remove a sleeve or I could add a pocket or I could embroider onto an existing garment was really sort of the beginning of claiming and establishing your identity through this sort of material, sort of object.


Debbie Millman:

Nick, you said that looking back at your childhood, you find it amazing that you were in the presence of so much unconditional love. And I have to say in doing this show for 16 years now, and interviewing upwards of 450 people, I’ve never come across someone that said that they were brought up with unconditional love. And it’s an extraordinary thing to realize about the way you’re brought up, and so unusual.


Nick Cave:

Well, yeah, it’s interesting because I would always hear from my friends, like, “Ah, the holidays,” and just the drama around that. I had never experienced absolutely any drama. When we would all gather, it was hugging, kissing and we somehow knew that all of that drama had to be left at the front door. It was all about respect. Even when me and my brothers would fight, we would have to say to one another “sorry,” hug and kiss, and make up.


Nick Cave:

It was never like drug out for three days. It just never was part of my upbringing. I don’t know that sort of side or that sort of behavior of rivalry. Even today, yes, I sort of like, “Oh, I gotta step out of the room, collect myself.” Because that’s just part of being able to be in this sort of space, shared space. How do we sort of embrace one another and respect one another?


Debbie Millman:

Bob, I believe you grew up in a huge Italian family.


Bob Faust:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Your grandmother was the oldest of 20 children.


Bob Faust:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

That’s got to be some sort of world record.


Bob Faust:

We put on a caveat on that because she had two sets of twin siblings. So her mom only gave birth 18 times, I guess.


Debbie Millman:

Only 18. OK. Thanks for clarifying that.


Bob Faust:

Only 18 times.


Debbie Millman:

That’s good for our listeners to know. We want to be real accurate here with the number of births.


Bob Faust:

It’s different than the number of bodies I guess. But it always kind of threw me off as a kid as to like most people have a general understanding of what an aunt looks like, how old they are, where they fit into the rankings.


Debbie Millman:

Right.


Bob Faust:

And my mom was older than many of her aunts. She babysat her aunts. So all of a sudden like an aunt doesn’t look like an aunt for me. It took me a long time to figure out kind of what that all meant because some aunts were more like cousins and some cousins were more like people you’d babysit, not peers. We’re all just like in different generations, kind of mixed up.


Debbie Millman:

As you were growing up, you said that blocks were your thing. What kinds of things were you—


Bob Faust:

Where are you finding that? Where would I ever have said that? Oh my god. They were my thing. I loved blocks. I think that was kind of the equivalent of like Nick doing this making. That was a place where you could dump out a room full of blocks all different colors and literally just like lose yourself for days. And not necessarily lose yourself for days like an architect building the perfect building, it was like building the stories. It was about proportion, but proportion is needed for this kind of thing to happen in it and this kind of thing to happen in it. So it was very much in keeping with my life today. I think it absolutely was a precursor to how I think a designer works, right?


Debbie Millman:

I love when I come across people that have that kind of background. My brother has a son who’s 13, my nephew, and he’s just super happy by himself building things, whether it be with LEGO or any sorts of things. My brother is really worried. He’s like, “Why does he just like to sit in his room all day and build things?” And I’m like, “See what can happen when you do that?” I point to people like you.


Bob Faust:

As a little kid, that’s what I did. As I got older, my parents were super cool about the idea that your room is your room. With lack of lots of friends and social life, you find really cool things to do on your own. I would repaint that room in like a thousand different ways. That’s what Saturday and Sunday might be. All of a sudden the room would be a totally different place—reorganizing the furniture, bringing like stealing stuff from the brother’s room to put into my room. But all about that.


Debbie Millman:

You said that at that time in your life if you could play sports and if you could be perfect, your life would be, as well. You stated that you got so good at being good that you believe this person you made up was actually who you actually were. I’m wondering what gave you that sense that you needed to be perfect, and that sports would be the sort of gateway to that perfection?


Bob Faust:

I think that’s just like every single influence that’s outside of you. It’s everything you see from school to, I guess, TV to magazines. I too would actually say that my family was full of love, but we didn’t touch subjects. There were subjects that were like maybe not off limits, but they ended up being off limits because of things we built up in our brains that made those associations or ideas bigger and more impermeable.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. You declared that you lived a picture-perfect life for 45 years this way, all obtained in full denial of who you were, and I can relate. I didn’t come out until I was 50, so I totally get it. But you said that these fears helped you hone your design skills. I want to know in what way?


Bob Faust:

Now, I know where you found all this and I’m trying to take myself back to that conversation.


Debbie Millman:

Aha, your diary.


Bob Faust:

But yes, I absolutely do because design is all about problem-solving for lack of a better phrase, and that means parameters. So the more parameters you have, the more inventive you need to be in order to make something that’s wonderful and special. To this day, as much as I love someone saying, “Go do whatever you want,” I love to find the parameters because that’s where the invention happens. I think that’s where I’m getting at with that. The more walls, the more you have to really think about how you live without those walls.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. When did you first realize you wanted to be a designer?


Bob Faust:

Well, I’m not 100% sure of that because I didn’t know what a designer was until college. At that time there was this thing called commercial art, I think it was called, and that meant you worked for an advertising agency. You like might draw things, is what I thought. We had to do a time capsule in grade school and it actually was sent back to you when you were 20 years old. So right after college, right? And the time capsule said that I would be a commercial artist living on a boat on the lake in Chicago with a dog.


Bob Faust:

I was a graphic designer at the time that this thing showed back up at my parents’ address, graphic designer living a block from the lake because you can’t live on the lake in a house boat in Chicago, and I had just gotten a dog.


Debbie Millman:

Wow.


Bob Faust:

So I guess I kind of always had an idea.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, talk about a 10-year plan. Nick, you attended the Kansas City Art Institute, where you continued to sew. Nick, you attended the University of Illinois and got a BA in graphic design. Bob, one of your first jobs was as a design manager for Playboy magazine. What kind of work were you doing for Playboy and what was it like working around all those naked women?


Bob Faust:

Hilarious. That job actually came because it was a brand-new position and it was called the “manager of design and production services for corporate communications.” They’d never had that position before. It was part of the company’s restructuring in order to eliminate the budget line of sending an annual report out to be done by a design firm. So as you can imagine, back in the day, those were giant budgets, and they thought, Oh, we could hire a young person to do our annual report for less money than it would cost to send that thing out, and they could do all these other things. I read it as, Oh, I get to be the next RuPaul, because I’m still a young kid. I’m like, Oh my god, the opportunity is huge.


Debbie Millman:

Absolutely.


Bob Faust:

So I took that job, and it was a really awesome job because your … not your direct report, but the second to direct report was Christie Hefner at the time.


Debbie Millman:

Wow.


Bob Faust:

Her office was literally a stone’s-throw away. And there was a lot to learn. Part of my plan was work at a boutique design firm, work at a big agency, work in-house and then figure out what you want to do. So that was my in-house kind of idea.


Debbie Millman:

Right. Nick, I understand that the first garment you made in school was a very sort of flamboyantly designed pair of pants and a shirt with a “harlequin sensibility.” What is a harlequin sensibility?


Nick Cave:

I think back then I was really sort of into Grace Jones.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, of course. Who wasn’t, right?


Nick Cave:

So I was really sort of like going through my Grace Jones drag phase. So that was really what was influencing my first sort of hand-printed garment was really sort of diving into this persona. So I was like Grace Jones doing my Grace Jones drag for a minute there. Just sort of in that space of in between androgyny and sort of exploring all of that and just sort of using the cabaret, which is the nightclub as this sort of platform. It was an extension of school. How do you bring drag into this sort of public arena.


Nick Cave:

So I would be making these wearable objects, costumes, and then presenting them in this sort of setting. So it was sort of me just, again, always sort of like outside of the studio. It’s this open canvas. So I would just be creating these spectacles on the streets. Why not? And just really just purely out of impulse and gathering friends and making something happen. It’s really just cycling through again through the opportunity of looking at space as a space to occupy, in a sense.


Debbie Millman:

You went on to get an MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. You were the only African American in your class. You’ve said that this was the first time you had to look at yourself as a Black male, and it was a struggle to find your place. How did you manage?


Nick Cave:

In Detroit.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Nick Cave:

Thank god for Detroit. I mean, I really say that in the most sort of sincere way. For me, not only Cranbrook was amazingly beautiful, but it’s also very isolated from everything. So I need that urban environment to balance my sort of self out. So Detroit was there. It provided that opportunity for me to sort of step off of the grounds of Cranbrook and to be in this urban setting to be around my people, to be engulfed in house music, the club scene, and to be able to be refueled in order to get to get back on campus and get back to work.


Nick Cave:

I think that when you … I just never had been in an educational setting where that would even ever occur to me that I could be the only … so you’re just sort of like, all of a sudden, your whole being is just in shock.


Bob Faust:

And you had never visited that campus prior to showing up.


Nick Cave:

No. I had never visited the campus prior. So it was just this sort of great awakening. It forced me to talk about that moment, that experience right now. So it was difficult to talk about or to talk about that in my work or to find its way in my work, but yet it was something that was very much in the forefront, and in order for me to move accordingly and to get past this reality, I had to sort of dive in.


Nick Cave:

I thought it was hard for me, but my colleagues it was very hard for them because they didn’t know how to talk about the work from my perspective. It was very interesting, and that was really sort of this moment where I had this awakening sort of moment that, whoa, this space that I’m occupying does exist without the sort of expansion of diversity.


Debbie Millman:

Can you talk a little bit about the impact in first seeing Barkley Hendricks’ painting Steve had on you? I know that that was a sort of one of the defining moments in your journey to being the kind of artist you are now.


Nick Cave:

When I saw that painting it was in this exhibition called “A Color,” which was the first black expo. Look, I had no money and I was like dying because I wanted this fucking painting. And I was like, “I don’t have $10,000.” I mean, back then—


Debbie Millman:

That’s all it was back then?


Nick Cave:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Oh my god.


Nick Cave:

Yeah. But you know, girl, $10,000 back then it’s like a million dollars to me because I’m like broke.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I have a similar story about Jean-Michel Basquiat. I saw a show of his drawings on paper in, I don’t know, maybe the early, early 1990s, and it was $16,000.


Nick Cave:

Right?


Debbie Millman:

I’m like, oh my God.


Nick Cave:

And you’re just trying to put it together like it was just not possible. Nothing I was imagining trying to put together a scenario that was working. I think to be able to see. No. 1, to be able to experience that expo and to be surrounded by artists of color was like a real big awakening that we’ve arrived, that we’re here and that I am not the only one that’s making art that’s an artist of color. So that was an extraordinary moment, but to be able to see Barkley’s work and to be able to see the Black male as this symbol of power, a stoic and standing with dignity was in style.


Nick Cave:

That’s when I really was able to tap into style. And the influence of dress and the impact of what that is within the community of color is a big deal. It really identifies one’s sort of stature, one’s clout. So it was really sort of interesting to be able to sort of see that in this grand gesture and to be proud in that sort of moment of clarity.


Debbie Millman:

In 1992, after the police beating of Rodney King, you were sitting on a bench in Chicago and you started to think about yourself more and more as a Black man and as someone who was discarded, devalued and viewed as less than. You saw some twigs littered on the ground in a new light. You suddenly thought that they looked forsaken. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about what happened next.


Nick Cave:

I think I had just accepted a position at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago from Cranbrook. So that’s how I arrived to Chicago. I remember when that incident happened and I was in the office, and my colleagues were … I could feel that they were avoiding me, heads were down. I could tell that they didn’t want to have this sort of discussion. And I was literally just going through it because I didn’t understand it. This is the first time we had documentation of these brutal incidents on tape.


Nick Cave:

So it was really sort of like finally, we were able to show what we have been dealing with. So for me, I was just trying to understand how to process. I could be profiled. That could be me. I’m looking at that and thinking these sort of things. Then I’m in the park just trying to find a way to connect to talk about this. I happened to look down on the ground and there was this twig. It became something insignificant, something less than devalued. But for some reason, I started collecting the twigs.


Nick Cave:

So then I went home and got a shopping cart and then started just collecting all the twigs, took them back to the studio, started to build this sculpture. I didn’t think that I could put it on. I don’t know why I wasn’t thinking that. I think I was thinking more about just building this sort of coat of armor, something that I could wrap myself in to protect my inner spirit.


Nick Cave:

Then once I realized I could put it on and I started to move, it made a sound. So that was the beginning of Sound Suits. Sound at that particular moment was protest for me. So in order to be heard, you got to speak louder. So that was the beginning of creating these sort of instruments, these suit of armors that were hiding gender, race, class, forcing you to look at something without judgment.


Nick Cave:

Because in order for us to understand something, we want to put it into categories or find its place. So it really was all of these things sort of combined into one protection. I was reading about how they described Rodney King as larger than life, worked out with prison weights, and I’m sort of like imagining, “What does that look like?” So building something larger than life, building something that could be threatening that is daunting in a sense, scary.


Nick Cave:

So that was the first time that you think your conscience is awake and you’re present and you are pretty much sort of like on top of it, but that was that moment that situation awakened my consciousness in the most profound way.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve talked about how the Sound Suits obscure race, and class, and gender. Was that something that you felt you were doing consciously, or was it only after when you realized you could actually put on the suit that it accomplished that?


Nick Cave:

I think a lot of things in that series of work all sort of came afterwards, or in the process of doing, because I think that I didn’t know what I was making. I didn’t know the power that it had until I gave birth to the first Sound Suit. And when I did and I looked at it, I knew. I knew when I saw it that my life would never be the same.


Debbie Millman:

And it wasn’t.


Nick Cave:

That was the one thing that I knew. I built this sort of body of work and I hid it in the closet. I sort of was getting attention around the works so rapidly that I as a human being was not ready. So I basically hid it in the closet for probably a decade.


Debbie Millman:

Wow.


Nick Cave:

Building, and making them, and putting them away until I knew what I was doing.


Debbie Millman:

When did you know what you were doing though? How did you come to the realization that this is the moment I know what I’m doing? “Here’s my intention.”


Nick Cave:

Because I think once you start to bring research to the work and understand how it sort of has manifested and starting to understand what it means to be shrouded in a garment of sorts, what it is to be shaman, what it is to be sort of hidden, concealed. All of these, it just takes time. And to be able to put on a Sound Suit and then to move and understand how you become something other, the idea of transformation and sort of stepping into that and surrendering to this otherness. Honey, that takes a whole bunch of time.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah.


Nick Cave:

I just wanted to give myself that in order to be able to talk about it.


Debbie Millman:

Bob, I know that you’ve said that when you put the suits on, they require a lot of you. In what way?


Bob Faust:

Just a lot in all kinds of ways. I mean, in the most basic way, physically it requires a lot, because they restrict your movement. They add considerable heat. You’re supposed to move, so you’re already building heat, and then you’re now in this little oven. So there is this thing that you have to do, and when we are working with a performers or dancers specifically, we try to acclimate them by just sit … This is your suit. Sit in front of your suit. Get to know your suit. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What might it feel like under your body? And then put it on and then sit quiet in it.


Bob Faust:

And that’s so that you don’t freak out because it is limiting your movement, but it’s also limiting your eyesight. So people who are like claustrophobic will totally understand how that takes so much of your energy, but even if you’re not claustrophobic, it’s an entirely different way of existing in the world once those parameters are shrunk. So you have to settle in it. And then when you settle and you know how you start to take little movements and then bigger movements. And suddenly you know how to operate within it.


Bob Faust:

Then you start to think, Wow, this little movement I’m making is having this gigantic effect outside of me. And all of a sudden that starts to switch the feeling. Now, you’re feeling empowered by it, right? You’re being given energy instead of that fear part, which is taking energy away. That’s when the performers become really good is when they realize that the object is not taking, it’s giving. It’s a surrender. I think that’s another big thing. Aren’t we the most empowered when we’re the most vulnerable?


Bob Faust:

That is when we have the most power. I think that that’s what they do, but it also takes somebody who wants to be there, being present and purposeful and believing and trusting in the person who made them that he wants you to be as big a part of this thing as the object. You’re not just activating them, you are them and you’re bringing yourself to them. So there’s just so much to that question.


Debbie Millman:

Nick, in 1996, you started a namesake fashion line for men and women that lasted a decade. And that is sort of how you inadvertently met Bob. Bob, I believe you first crossed paths with Nick when you happened to stop by a sample sale of Nick’s clothing designs a few years after he started his fashion line. But a bit before his art career took off. Bob, can you describe your first meeting, please?


Bob Faust:

So I was in—


Debbie Millman:

Oh, they’re both smiling, listeners. They’re both smiling.


Bob Faust:

I was invited to this apartment sale, apartment sale of sweaters. If you could imagine walking into a room where you don’t know anybody, and there’s maybe three or four people there and a rack of clothes, and that feeling of being an outsider hits you real hard. And then you’re like, everybody knows I’m in this room. And all that there is to do here is to buy sweaters.


Bob Faust:

So you now know you have to buy one of these things to get out. Oh my God, all of that stuff comes rushing over you. You’re like, all these things have to happen. Boom, boom, boom. So you approach the sweaters and you start going through them, and you’re like, This one is crazier than the last one. This one’s arm can reach the floor. This one has an extra back. If there could be an extra back …


Bob Faust:

Then you start to look at the prices, and you’re like, He’s trying to make rent. And these things are expensive. I’m trying to make rent, but now I have to buy one, so I’m like, What is the simplest one that I can manage? And I did find one that was like really me if I wasn’t so nervous and scared. So I grab it and I just want to get out of there. He comes up and he’s like, “Well, why don’t you go into my office and try that on?” And I said OK.


Bob Faust:

So I went in there. I’m putting on the sweater and in he comes with a stack that has to be 20 tall. He’s like, “You’re going to try all of these on.” So he just had me start putting these things on. What that did was it changed everything because now we’re in a separate room, talking about these things and it’s kind of funny and a bit ridiculous, and the conversation of what do you do came up. I’m like, “Well, I’m a designer and I just live around the corner.” And he’s like, “Well, I just got my first solo show with a publication budget.” I said, “So why don’t we look at doing a trade? If you like what I do, let’s do a trade.”


Bob Faust:

He came over the next day and he gave me the most amazing prompt after I think he was pretty certain I would do the project. It was the best client brief I’ve ever gotten, and it was just, “I need a book but I want an object.” I’m like, wow, that is so many parameters and so open at the same time. It goes right back to that block conversation we had—possibilities are absolutely endless but so hard and exciting to get to.


Debbie Millman:

After that, you collaborated on a project every year for the next six years and gradually became friends. But the nature of your relationship only really changed after 11 years of friendship. And Bob, you’ve said that the collaboration allowed you to know each other on a deeper level than a typical romantic relationship might allow for.


Bob Faust:

Oh, yeah. Well, remember, at this point, I’m living a totally different life.


Debbie Millman:

You were married to a woman.


Bob Faust:

I’m married. I have a 1-year-old. My life and what I believe it’s supposed to be is totally laid out exactly … and I’m going down that path. So it never entered my frame of reference that this would be anything more than a work relationship, and a friend relationship just kind of came naturally as it does with a lot of creative collaborations, right?


Bob Faust:

So that never entered my frame of reference. I think it was really lucky for us, because you don’t have any phoniness, like if you were starting a new dating scenario where you’re trying to put on your best light for that person. There was never any of that. So we got to know each other and confide in one another and worry with one another way before we ever had anything to do with each other.


Debbie Millman:

I read an interview with you about the start of your romantic relationship, where the interviewer asked you both, “who crossed the line first?” And Bob, you answered, “that’s blurry.” And Nick, you stated that the feeling was just there. We both knew it. So I have to ask, you both don’t remember who made the first move? It’s so romantic.


Bob Faust:

That’s such a perfect place to leave that question, Debbie.


Nick Cave:

Oh, we know.


Debbie Millman:

Inquiring minds want to know.


Bob Faust:

I could add a little to that. So I think the reason that all that opened up is because the year that that happened, my mom passed away. I think that that was like this linchpin thing about that was holding all that story together. And when that linchpin got loosened, and she was no longer someone that I had to worry about, and this is made up of disappointing—


Debbie Millman:

Sure, sure.


Bob Faust:

That I was able to tell myself a different story about myself, and that story explained a lot of stuff that didn’t make sense to me. So I just confided in him one day when we were together doing a project out of town. I just said, “I think that I’m gay.” And he said, “Of course you are.” And that was—


Debbie Millman:

Oh, I love that.


Nick Cave:

You were mad.


Bob Faust:

I was so mad.


Nick Cave:

But that changed everything.


Debbie Millman:

The theme of overcoming fear came up quite a lot in the preparation I did for today’s show. I thought that was a fascinating common denominator that I found this theme in individual pieces about you in my research. Bob, you’ve said that when you decided to confront your fear, it created a shitstorm. You had been married to a woman, but ended the marriage and came out. Was that something that was difficult for you?


Bob Faust:

It literally was. It was that, that’s why I used the word “shitstorm.” It was a confluence of everything and you just couldn’t get under yourself. There was amazing things that were happening and opening up, and then there was all of the things that you worried were going to happen were actually happening. And you’re like, “how do you navigate not hurt people and at the same time honor what you know will be better for everyone someday? And how long is someday?” I mean, it’s a confluence. I’ve looked up so many words trying to figure out what it was, because it wasn’t all bad, it’s just it was all hard.


Debbie Millman:

I came upon something that your therapist told you that you’ve written about, and it blew my mind. He told you that fear is not real, it is only a feeling assigned to predictions of the future. Bob, I honestly think that’s one of the most profound things I’ve ever come across in my research. I have to say it again—fear is not real, it is only a feeling assigned to predictions of the future. Right? Mic drop. That’s it. It’s like, OK, thank you very much for the most profound thing I’ve ever heard.


Nick Cave:

You’re right.


Bob Faust:

It’s everything. Every time I get nervous it comes right back up. Oh, I’m so glad you feel the same way because for me that got me through so much. You just say it over and over again. I mean, there’s nothing in reality that you can put that word on. There’s nothing.


Debbie Millman:

Nick, you’ve stated that fear is probably the most powerful thing that cripples creative people. And when asked about how to step up to fear, you’ve said that you just have to push your shoulders back, stand up stout, be bold and just go in. And then thinking about that, I really felt that it takes courage and it’s also kind of a gamble. Did you ever doubt yourself in that sort of moment where you stood up stout and moved forward? Did you ever worry about what happens if I hit a wall?


Nick Cave:

Yeah, but I think that how doubting yourself is fear. It’s that place that is sort of the most seductive for me. I think about the way in which I work now, we all stand on a foundation, period. So you’re able to fall and get back up. You’re able to fall and get back up. It’s not that it’s pitless and you don’t have that foundation. So I think that allows that comfort for me. I know what I know, but what I don’t know is what I’m more interested in. So to be able to step up to it, I know that I’m going to be OK.


Nick Cave:

So you can rely on yourself, you can just sort of like … we can always go back to what was. No matter what, however long we live. We will always be moving forward, ready or not. That’s just part of human nature. So knowing that, what do we have to lose?


Debbie Millman:

You now work and live together in a space you call Facility, which was originally an abandoned building you found on the Northwest side of Chicago, and it is where the hornets’ nest lives. I understand that when you first saw it, it was in rather rough condition. Portions of the roof were collapsing, windows were broken. The basement had water damage. What made you decide to purchase this building in that shape?


Bob Faust:

It was the only building that fit everything. When you think about everything that his studio needed to be and how it needed to function, we looked for years and years to find a place or a plate that would allow that to become the most seamless that it could be. This allowed that as well as ticked off the few boxes that were really important to me, and those were outdoor space.


Bob Faust:

So when you think about a big warehouse building, that does not come with outdoor space or the ability to live in it, generally. And this one had all these little secret nooks and opportunities to be outside, from the terrace to creating a little courtyard to this indoor/outdoor place where the hornet nest lives.


Nick Cave:

And the storefronts.


Bob Faust:

It just had everything.


Nick Cave:

It’s not like that the other buildings that we looked at were in more or less the same sort of condition, it was really, as Bob said, it really provided us with the exact kind of footprint—


Bob Faust:

And the opportunity of a possibility.


Nick Cave:

—of how we imagined these businesses functioning, to be able to have all of the studio all on one level, versus three or four levels. We can’t make this project up here because we can’t get it out of the building. It was really just about flow.


Bob Faust:

And again, to be able to be surrounded by creativity, art, your destiny, to be able to wake up to your destiny, it was everything. So it was able to provide us with all of that and more.


Debbie Millman:

After you renovated the building, you mounted an installation you titled “Love Thy Neighbor.” Can you describe what you did?


Bob Faust:

Yeah. That was the first installation in the storefronts. Again, it was a great Nick prompt, right? The prompt came from him and it was, “how do we introduce ourselves to the community?” And I love the idea that when you move somewhere, someone brings you a pie. I’m like, “OK. So that is what happens in Mayberry.” But when you’re in a big warehouse building across from a high school, “Ain’t nobody bringing us a pie.”


Debbie Millman:

Nobody has ever brought me a pie.


Bob Faust:

But instead of putting up a big sign that says, “We’re a facility. This is what we’re doing.” Kind of making a deal about staking who we are, we wanted to go the opposite direction. So we reached out to the chamber of commerce and we partnered with all the businesses in the neighborhood. We found neighborhood liaisons that were like block leads. Then we also worked with all the schools all the way through high school in the neighborhood within like a six-mile radius.


Bob Faust:

We asked them each to introduce themselves to us by taking a name tag and putting at a minimum their name on it, but they could also illustrate it or decorate it however they wanted to embellish it. Randomly, we gave out, I don’t remember what the number was, but let’s say there were 4,000 white tags, and there were 3,000 red tags. I had those worked out so that when you hung them in the window, you could use that red and that white in order to spell “love thy neighbor.”


Bob Faust:

And because it’s this macro/micro thing, these tags are only like two-inches big. Up close, it was just an installation of all these mini artworks from the community members, but across the street where the high school is, when you walk out of that door is where you see the monumental “love thy neighbor.” So it’s this dual read that is made by the actual hands that live in the neighborhood.


Nick Cave:

I think it also was the first opportunity where we were able to talk about Facility’s mission and purpose.


Bob Faust:

But in this backward way, as opposed to presenting it. We were able to say, “We’re asking you to do this. And this is who we are.”


Nick Cave:

So that kind of positioning the civic work that we strive to move ourselves forward in terms of purpose, and why are we here and what are we here to do?


Debbie Millman:

I want to talk to you about two projects that I think also really reflect those same questions of purpose. The first is an installation called Until. It really got its start in 2012 when Denise Markonish, the curator at MASS MoCA, invited you to do a show in their Gallery 5 space, which is the size of a football field. The show opened in 2016 and has since moved to several other museums and galleries. Can you talk about the concept of the show and why the name Until?


Nick Cave:

When Denise came to the studio, she came with this invitation, and she said right before she left, she goes, “there’s only one stipulation.” And I said, “What?” She said, “No Sound Suits.” And I said, “Girl, perfect.” Because I was really sort of moving, expanding and moving in a broader direction in terms of what’s next with my practice. So she goes, “I’m going to go away for a year and then I’m going to come back and sit down with you and talk about what you’ve come up with.” In a year I really wasn’t thinking about it for probably quite some time. And then Michael Brown happened.


Debbie Millman:

Yes.


Nick Cave:

That was the catalyst because as I was working in the studio, that incident happened. This idea of “is the racism in heaven” came to mind, and that was the catalyst for that show. The title Until came about because I think Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, it was just one incident after the other and yet, we are sort of hearing these stories. We are getting all of this propaganda from the news and yet these individuals are made to feel as if they’re guilty. So Until sort of like “guilty until proven innocent” or “innocent until proven guilty.”


Nick Cave:

So that was really the beginning of that. I created this crystal cloudscape that allowed the viewer to sort of … part of the installation you’re able to climb up to the top of the crystal cloud and ask yourself that question, “is the racism in heaven?” Which was this sort of landscape that was built from this sort of fabrication of just extraordinary making of objects, and about a dozen iron lawn jockeys were all holding dream catchers that were elaborate and blowing through the wind. That was really sort of the beginning of the project.


Debbie Millman:

Talk about your relationship to the found objects and how that became one of the centerpieces of this installation? Where did you find them? How did you construct them into the show so seamlessly?


Nick Cave:

I think the found object really, the beginning of that goes back to the hand-me-downs, sort of the deconstructing. That is really the beginning of that. My mother was the one that turned me on to second-hand stores, and I was just like at the age of 16 totally into all of that, this sort of retro garments and just looking at style and fashion in that way.


Nick Cave:

But I think it then led into the Sound Suits. Again, it was from twigs to bottle caps to other sort of materials. And to think about buttons, and to think about excess and surplus that’s here and that’s available to use to reclaim to identify was always part of this sort of making vocabulary. So for me, the found object I’ve always sort of viewed as the things that I was interested in were things that had the possibility of having multiple readings depending on how they were used.


Nick Cave:

I was very interested in this whole idea of reclaiming the discarded because, remember, that was the twig that was viewed last night, and giving value back to these objects. So it’s always been part of the sort of building of the work. It’s always been rooted and grounded in nostalgia, memory, which then allowed the viewer to sort of find their way into the work.


Bob Faust:

I think that’s a really critical part that memory piece. Especially when you’re asking questions like, “is there racism in heaven?” Or “what’s my role in racism?” If someone sees something from their past in that space, well, no longer are they looking at a story from an artist that they’re supposed to learn something from. All of a sudden, they’ve got to start identifying what their own role is in that story.


Nick Cave:

Yeah. So I think that memory and history and making connections and finding ways in which people can find their way into the work, because it’s really about … my work is always about me being able to invite you and take you by the hands on this journey.


Bob Faust:

Yeah. And it’s not just that invitation, but with until specifically as well as most of these newer large-scale shows. There is a real desire to use the show in its most impactful way. So if you think of where Until came from, “guilty until proven innocent” or “innocent until proven guilty,” we stripped all that other stuff away and left only the word Until. So that it was more of a space that anybody could go to and interpret as they need to. And then that also became the starting point for a platform of performances or responses to the installation itself.


Bob Faust:

So we had invitations to well over a dozen artists in their own right to do works within that about how they interpret Until, but also from a community’s perspective reached out to local organizations to use it as a gathering space or a meeting space or a presentation space. So we even had in that case two of the local police chiefs who came together to have a meeting with the community underneath that crystal cloud. Remember, they’re in a place that’s about gun violence, specifically police gun violence, and that only happens if you’re thinking about how to use it to its greatest ability. There’s lots of strategy even though that’s not written down in any kind of a way. There’s no denying the fact that every project does come with a purpose that’s bigger than itself.


Nick Cave:

And how do you create safe space for difficult conversations? How do you sort of create spaces and experiences in spite of the trauma that speaks about optimism, and hope, and enlightenment?


Debbie Millman:

Another recent project that you created together was called Truth Be Told, a large-scale text installation featuring 25-foot tall black vinyl letters covering the 160-foot-long facade of the school, a gallery in the village of Kinderhook, New York. Apparently, it created quite an unexpected ruckus in town. Bob, I was wondering if you can share what happened when you mounted that installation?


Bob Faust:

Sure. Well, Truth Be Told was originated right after the George Floyd incident as part of a series of projects that were going to go up in response to that, but it happened to be one of the last projects that we actually got to mount because of its scale and because of its complexity, and that was to put it up at Kinderhook. And the timing led to it being right before the election. As you can imagine, right before the election, with all the energy that was going on around Trump specifically, the word truthstarts with TRU, and it takes a long time to put these letters up, and that’s where they started.


Bob Faust:

So you start to see T-R-U and people are going nutty, nutty, nutty, nutty. So that was the first thing, was like, what’s this going to be? and people were up in arms about that it might be pro, that it might be con. They didn’t know what it was going to be. And then all of a sudden when truth showed up, and be toldshowed up, they all immediately interpreted that as anti-Trump. Not necessarily the case.


Bob Faust:

Of course, we’re not unhappy that that is the interpretation. But the minute that it had that interpretation by some was the minute that the village absolutely said, “No way can this be up there. It’s a sign.” We had to go through all these legal channels as to what makes a sign. It needs to have date, time, place. It needs to direct you to do something.


Bob Faust:

Truth Be Told has none of those things there, but they were not going to let that go, even though the gallery had an approval to use their building for art however they want to. So this went on for months. Months and thousands of dollars of fighting to prove that this is the only legal thing they could stand on that it’s not a sign.


Nick Cave:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

So the mayor of Kinderhook ordered the artwork to be removed because the town didn’t think it looked like art.


Nick Cave:

Yeah.


Bob Faust:

Right.


Debbie Millman:

They thought it was a sign.


Bob Faust:

That’s what they’re using as the reason to take it down. I believe that the reason that they wanted it to come down is that it felt like it was a political statement that was anti-Trump, and this needed to not be in our town.


Nick Cave:

It’s interesting how people show their faces.


Bob Faust:

But that’s how they’re able to do it, is by just calling it a sign. They weren’t going to come clean and say why they were upset about it.


Nick Cave:

And the truth comes out based on communities, neighborhoods. This is right before voter repression in Atlanta. So there was a lot of damn truth that was literally, who’s going to win the election? That was another whole thing. So there were so many layers and conflicts that was sort of built around that.


Bob Faust:

I just don’t understand how the word truth could have a problem for anybody. If you had to pick a single word—


Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy: Truth Be Told, and then you’re sort of confronted by the truth of what these people think.


Bob Faust:

Isn’t it wild?


Debbie Millman:

But you know, again, at the election it was all based on like false truth. So just that.


Bob Faust:

But if you had to pick like a single word, all of us at this table right now, if you had to pick a single word that shouldn’t be controversial, what would it be? If it’s not truth, what would it be? I guess love.


Nick Cave:

Pray.


Bob Faust:

OK.


Nick Cave:

But even that’s …


Debbie Millman:

Hope.


Bob Faust:

Hope.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, that’s true. There’s lots of interpretations. Well, in the end over 3,300 people signed a petition in support of Truth Be Told and it did stay up until its end date, so at least justice prevailed.


Bob Faust:

Yeah, justice prevailed.


Debbie Millman:

Man, oh man, you think something as beautiful as just the notion Truth Be Told, which could be anybody’s truth, really would be pretty, pretty benign.


Bob Faust:

Totally, you would think so.


Debbie Millman:

Is it going to go anywhere else?


Bob Faust:

Yeah. It’s going to be at the Brooklyn Art Museum in April. It’s going up at MASS MoCA in about two weeks.


Debbie Millman:

Wonderful. I think you should make a vinyl letters kit for people to be able to put the letters on their own homes, because I would do that in a second.


Nick Cave:

Oh my God.


Bob Faust:

I love that.


Nick Cave:

That’s divine.


Debbie Millman:

Right? I was fantasizing last night, thinking I want Truth Be Told letters on my house.


Bob Faust:

I love this idea.


Nick Cave:

That’s so cute.


Bob Faust:

OK. Let’s figure that out. If anybody’s got funding for this cool project …


Debbie Millman:

Listeners, you heard it here first on Design Matters.


Nick Cave:

Oh my God.


Debbie Millman:

Gentlemen, I have one last question for you before I let you go. One of the things that also kept coming up in my research was your love of sneakers. So I have to ask the question, because I couldn’t find the answer anywhere: How many pairs of sneakers do you both really own?


Nick Cave:

Oh, God. I don’t even know.


Bob Faust:

It’s ridiculous because they’re not just like … you can’t even go count them because they’re too deep. They’re stacked too deep.


Nick Cave:

But I think for me it’s more built around how my feet need to feel when teaching.


Bob Faust:

Oh, please.


Nick Cave:

Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute.


Debbie Millman:

I’ve read enough today that Bob is like rolling his eyes.


Bob Faust:

That’s full of BS. “How my feet need to feel while I’m teaching.”


Debbie Millman:

On create floors. I can’t wear a real hard shoe. I have to really think about, like, I’m going to be staying for eight hours in the classroom. My feet, not only do they need to look good—


Bob Faust:

The truth be told.


Nick Cave:

But it really is, really just sort of being able to have something comfortable. And sneakers today are really quite fabulous.


Bob Faust:

It’s full on all about fashion. It’s about having the right color for the right thing and the right level, height for the right thing. It’s all about fashion.


Nick Cave:

Fashion is comfort.


Bob Faust:

The sneakers you’re buying these days, they’re hard. They’re not even comfy.


Nick Cave:

No.


Bob Faust:

Looks like a pump, feels like a sneaker, is not how you live.


Debbie Millman:

Oh my goodness. Nick Cave, Bob Faust, thank you for making the world a better place with your work. Thank you so, so much for joining me today on Design Matters.


Bob Faust:

It was super fun.


Nick Cave:

It was great.


Bob Faust:

Thank you.


Nick Cave:

Thanks so much.


Debbie Millman:

Thank you. You can find out more about Bob Faust and Nick Cave at facilitychicago.org. This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters and I would like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman