What Matters to Ken Carbone

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency. He is currently a Senior Advisor to Chicago-based strategic branding firm, 50,000feet.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?
Drawing. It is in my DNA and has profoundly shaped my life.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?
I went to Roman Catholic elementary school, where art was the last class of every week, Friday at 2:00. One December, in second grade, Sister Rose asked, “Kenneth, can you draw a Nativity scene? When I finished, she copied it on a mimeograph machine and passed it out to the rest of the class to color. My memory of this is so vivid, and I was truly honored. It was also my first printed project!
I think the only earlier memory of being creative might have been in utero. However, it was too dark to do much of anything.

What is your biggest regret?
Only one?
I regret that I’m not four inches taller.
I regret that I never learned to type.
I regret that I didn’t act on Paul Rand’s invitation to visit his studio. Duh.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?
I dip into my deep well of interests, get busy, and move on. Dwelling on the past is a drag on the future. It helps to be a musician, because playing music is so soul-soothing in tough times. When a dear friend or family member passes away, I perform a personal musical tribute in their honor. It’s how I pray.

What makes you cry?
The destruction of our beautiful planet in the age of The Anthropocene. The utter disregard modern humans have for the health of our world and the lifeforms we share it with breaks my heart. The saddest thing is that it’s difficult to imagine a viable solution that will reverse this course. I feel so fortunate that I was born in an age of countless modern miracles. Now, the unintended consequences of many advances of the last century pose an existential threat to humanity. I hope that my children’s generation will rescue our world, and I apologize for leaving it to them to clean up this mess.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?
A lifetime when it comes to family and raising three great kids! Learning to play guitar at 13 still brings me joy decades later. Professionally, I’m proud of the design agency Leslie Smolan and I had for over forty years. Our peers celebrated our work, and we were blessed to collaborate with world-class clients. It was a fantastic career and a remarkable partnership.
I’m also very proud that I finally learned to swim at age 50! It was neither easy nor pretty, but I was euphoric the first time I swam a mile! This achievement is one of my “gold medals.”

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?
Not really. In the end, I’ll end up in an urn, so that’s why I live life fully each day. However, with emerging technologies exploring the composting of human remains, there may be exciting options for those looking for eternal life. If I do “return,” I want to be a massive oak tree, adored by many, and live for hundreds of years.

What do you hate most about yourself?
I have a pessimistic streak. Early family tragedies, including my father’s death when I was three years old, caused me to see life as a “glass half empty.” It’s a survival mechanism; I hope for the best, but always prepare for the worst.
However, being optimistic often results in some real rewards. I’ve won design competitions against all odds by believing in myself. I also have nothing more to prove as a designer at this point in my life, freeing me to focus on new creative expression. I’m optimistic about my return to painting full-time, since we closed our agency in 2019. This presents many new emotional challenges full of self-doubt, but I’m enjoying the journey.
P.S. My blood type is “B-POSITIVE.” It’s a helpful reminder built right into my biology.

What do you love most about yourself?
I’m curious, with a HUGE appetite for learning. Art and nature are real passions that feed me and spark both sides of my brain. This balance of the emotional and empirical has resulted in life experiences with people, places, and things full of wonder. Also, I have youthful genes that let me lie about my age.

What is your absolute favorite meal?
Pizza. Not your typical NYC slice, but an individual culinary masterpiece, like a colorful abstract painting on your plate. Delicate herbs, choice cheese, select veggies, a thin, slightly charred crust, and a savory sauce prepared by a master chef. Best eaten with a knife and fork, pizza at this level is a memorable treat for the senses. Molto delizioso!