What Matters to Allan Chochinov

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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.

Allan Chochinov is the founding chair of the MFA in Products of Design at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, a partner of Core77, and a lifelong advocate for the power of design.

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

I love hobbies, and I adore learning how to do things with my hands. That’s my thing: from playing musical instruments, to studying calligraphy, to tatting lace, to every form of fine art, to coin magic, to Rubik’s Cubing, to a ton of other pursuits, I just love doing things that don’t matter and are done solely for their own sake. I think it’s because so much of my life is involved in design and problem solving that I relish opportunities that have no strategic objective whatsoever. It is a unique human gratification to learn how to do things with your hands (author and neurologist Frank Wilson argues that “the hand and the brain evolved together”), and in our productivity-obsessed culture, it seems an almost protest to spend time on something that has no greater goal than the joy of luxuriating in the activity itself. (Okay, well, if I crochet something, for example, then the goal is to finish the “thing”— but any true hobbyist will tell you that the completed project’s gratifications are short-lived; when you’re done with a project, all you’re really excited about is starting the next one.)

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

As a child, I was always taking things apart and putting them back together again. I have a distinct memory of taking apart a built-in stereo in my house. I also have a distinct memory of not exactly being able to put it back together. So yes— the full monty of the creation/destruction dichotomy.

What is your biggest regret?

I think it’s ridiculous when people say that they have no regrets— of course I do— but I’ve had a really lucky run in this life, and wouldn’t want to push it by rewriting its decision tree. A new friend of mine, Sara Hendren, recently remarked that, “at a certain age, some roads are closed to us,” and I don’t think I’ve gotten over that; it really did dry the ink for me on the determinism in our lives’ journeys. Our experiences are what make us— and perhaps, particularly, it may be our mistakes that make us— so I am what I am. Now, blaming myself for anything and everything that goes wrong around me (and earning a PhD in the self-attacking arts)? Well, that’s a different story. So I guess I have no “biggest life regret”— just small, hourly ones.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I’ve certainly had my heart broken in the past, but not on the epic scale of tragedy (see “lucky” and “good run” above). That said, I feel heartbreak almost constantly from an existential perspective. The cruelty and maleficence of humans-in-groups guts me, and the rising indicator dials of dire circumstance in the world right now will challenge the hearts of any reasonably sentient person. Roxane [Gay] recently said that “the problems our world is facing are indeed overwhelming, but they are not the whole of our world.” (And then, later, “the best parts of life are so inexpressibly glorious.”) I’ll be taking that one to the bank for a while.

What makes you cry?

Depression. Anxiety. The sappiest of Hollywood movies. Particularly on planes. (Which is proven out by science; it’s physiological. Specifically, the high altitude and cabin pressure reduces oxygen in the cabin, which causes dehydration. Dehydration is associated with a flurry of symptoms, including mood disturbances and fatigue, both of which can make a person more likely to feel sad or become tearful.)

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

Whoa! I did not see this question coming up when I answered it inadvertently in question #1! So, again, not long at all. But I think this is true for most people in the creative arts. It’s always really about what’s coming up. Every time I hear a novelist answer the “What’s your favorite book you’ve written?” question with the “My next one” answer, I smile.

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

Oh god, no. But wouldn’t it be nice to?

What do you hate most about yourself?

I wish I had a better sense of direction. It sounds like a silly thing, but having a poor sense of direction is a really frustrating (and sometimes very terrifying) thing. It’s also something that I cannot work on, or improve upon. (It’s way past “well, you just need to pay better attention when you’re walking or driving around.”) I pride myself on never giving up on things, but this is a fight I lost a long time ago.

What do you love most about yourself?

I love that I’m someone being asked to participate in this questionnaire! (An easy out, I know.) Okay, well, I love that I am loyal. I also like that I am ultra productive, persistent, and seldom take no for an answer. This last trait, of course, can be less than charming to others, depending on what I’m asking for.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

Three answers here (sorry), and all the absolutely most prosaic of dishes imaginable: Number one would be spaghetti & meatballs. Number two would be rye toast with butter. Number three is really the opinion of my wife Victoria Brown, who often says of me, “Allan? That guy likes a good club sandwich.” It is actually very rare that I order a club sandwich, in fact, but I am certainly charmed by them. I would like to be known for something, so it may as well be that.

Photo by Asier Alcorta, Heraldo, Spain.