What Matters: Mark Kingsley On Living Fully and Crying Your Eyes Out

Posted inWhat Matters

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.

Mark Kingsley is a designer, creative director, and strategist with a wide range of experience and recognition—including positions at Collins, Landor, and Ogilvy’s Brand Innovation Group (BIG). He co-hosts the BrandBox podcast, founded the creative lab Malcontent (malcontent.com), and is currently the endowed Melbert B. Cary Professor in Graphic Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

I’m finding it harder and harder to compartmentalize life in that manner. We live in the blur, the fuzzy, the slippery, the atmospheric. 

“Bad things” give shape and contrast to the “good.” Everything is changing and in the process of becoming something else. The things I might dislike contain aspects of the things I like. That’s why I love cold, cold weather—I can feel all parts of my body. That’s why I’m fascinated with arguments—I can sense the emotion between us. That’s why I accept getting older—it sharpens my sense of life and time.

We are in this world, amongst others, engaged with others, entwined in others’ lives. I like the totality of it all. And anything that I’m about to do will either be awesome or eventually become a story. It’s up to me to frame it either way.

So in that configuration, to compartmentalize life into things you like to do versus things you hate seems to be disconnected from the totality of it all. And isn’t that the definition of a psychopath?

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

It’s a toss-up. I used to take empty tissue boxes and toilet paper rolls and construct imaginary space stations. And on hot days, I used to lay in front of a box fan and intone (sing?) into the blades. That was before every house had air conditioning. 

What is your biggest regret?

Like most people, there have been moments in my youth when I wasn’t grateful for the things in my life. I would polarize things as “against me” or “for me,” when in reality, it was more my perception at work than outside forces. 

Often, such things had nothing to do with me at all. So I guess the regret is mistaking the unimportant as important, and vice versa.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

By crying my eyes out. By letting it flow(er). By walking the streets of New York City—in tears—and looking into the eyes of random passers-by. 

Repressing such strong feelings is unhealthy. Accept your emotional state and act accordingly. Consciously. Acknowledge, and move on.

What makes you cry?

Inflection moments. Seeing someone have a profound realization. Witnessing someone’s artistry reach new levels. Hearing musicians finding “that” moment in a performance. Watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt and realizing that I’m beholding a fucking masterpiece. 

I’ve had the privilege to design a couple of packages for Ravi Coltrane. Once, at a record-release party attended by the full range of music executives, Ravi began a piece with several minutes of solo abstract saxophone playing. The sequence went on for almost an uncomfortable amount of time with an occasional two or three note phrase that sounded like a fragment of something. 

Eventually, the phrases became slightly familiar. I thought, “I might know this. Wait, is it…?” And then, boom, the band kicked in, and they were playing “Giant Steps,” a jazz standard composed by his father, John Coltrane. 

Ravi had achieved the impossible. An anti-Oedipal reconstruction, a coming-to-terms with the looming shadow of his father’s influence. And whenever I tell this story, I always find myself in tears. Such a profound moment of personal affirmation, historical resolution, and artistic achievement.

Since then, I’m in Ravi’s audience every chance I can. He’s a personal hero.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Both no time and forever. The initial thrill fades quickly. But the accumulation of experience and accomplishment, of awesomeness and “stories,” of laughter and tears, well, that’s something to be constantly proud of.

Have a cool job? Make a bit of money? Who cares?

Lived an interesting life? Have a point of view built from that life? Then sit next to me and tell your story. 

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I think that to believe in an afterlife is to pass on living as full a life as possible. The fact that everyone dies is what gives poetry and meaning to life. To act otherwise is a sin, regardless of whether there is an afterlife or not.

Also, since there’s no evidence, pro or con, I guess the closest we can do to prepare for an “afterlife” is to leave behind some stories and exemplify a life well-lived.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I’ve lived such an interesting life so far…met such amazing, accomplished people…eaten, drunk, touched, seen, and heard some of the best that the world has to offer…had extremes of emotion…can remember the smell of lower Manhattan after September 11…licked a Jasper Johns painting…pissed in Jackson Pollock’s toilet…pissed on a Richard Serra sculpture…kissed Sonja Braga…glug-glugged Merce Cunningham’s wine…saw John Cage and Sun Ra perform together in a sideshow on the Coney Island boardwalk…had Isabella Rossellini save me from total embarrassment…shown my work in Soho…lost people to death, disease, and drugs…had amazing work situations…been fired from the best work situations…betrayed by total assholes…redeemed by the kindest souls… stumbled into magic. And I did it as fully engaged as I could have.

Who can hate anything about that?

What do you love most about yourself?

See above.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

I call it the Church of the Brunch. It’s loosely defined as any time with friends, family, or loved ones, around a table, without time limitations, slightly drunk, where we feel comfortable touching or putting our arms around each other. And where (this is important) we speak truthfully with food prepared with good ingredients and conscious intent. That’s the stuff. And that’s my church.

It doesn’t have to be complex. I once had a meal in Paris where the dessert was a strawberry (a single, fresh, red, fragrant strawberry—not the factory-farmed poor excuse for a strawberry we accept here in the States) rolled in fennel seeds. And I was transformed.

Or it could be an heirloom tomato (a squishy one, not the factory-farmed solid-to-the-touch horror show that passes for “heirloom” tomatoes these days) over fresh (again, not the mass-produced stuff) mozzarella, drizzled with good olive oil, sprinkled with fleur de sel, and a chiffonade of basil. 

I love cooking for the people in my life, and I love eating with them. Food should be an opportunity to share a unique moment of existence—as mediated by what’s on the plate, who we’re with, and where we are. 

And COVID has made these moments even more special. Every post-pandemic Church of the Brunch has been a joy.