It was 1979 when I first learned the concept of “charette.” It was orientation at my first semester at Parsons, and we were scared straight by the department chair about what design school would be like. All-nighters would be a regular thing, some of us would graduate to make big bucks, most of us would make a living, some of us would struggle. The term “charette” was used at the Beaux Arts to describe this frantic rush to meet a deadline for a “crit” (critique, when they’d tear your work apart in front of everyone). The word apparently means “on the cart,” evoking an image of working while running towards the studio to pin up your drawings. We were told that although this would be physically demanding, it was imperative that, as designers of the environment, we should remain “awake” and focused, no matter how blurry our minds from the sleep deprivation.
After the lecture from the chair, a group of us got into the elevator, and the chair accompanied us. No one pressed the button, and he admonished us that “if we were awake, we would have known to press the button.” This guy was harsh, no doubt about it, but this concept of being awake and aware of the details stuck with me. It kind of gave a purpose to my usual racing thoughts and unending stream of consciousness of seemingly disjointed ideas that always seemed to add up to something, but I wasn’t really sure.
The chair didn’t lie. The next three years were a bit of a blur running all over Manhattan for the late Sunday-night supplies at Sam Flax. Surrounded by tourists with subway maps and kids, you’d be on the R train on a Sunday morning not having slept the night before, heading to Canal street to buy some model plastic and solvent glue, wondering what the parallel universe of “recreation” must be like. I wondered if my life would always find me trudging through crowded trains not having showered that day, with wooden building models,hoping they don’t break on my way to a presentation, hoping my blueprints wouldn’t delaminate from the poster board, hoping that I could afford to pay for the the contact negatives of my pencil drawings.
I wistfully now go through another charette. I’m walking around with that ashy-skin look, dark circles, messy hair, laundry to the ceiling, no spare emotional parts. Back to 4-5 hours per sleep per night (hey, I’ve got little kids, and I’m 52 and that’s as close to an all-nighter as I can get), I’m again in that parallel universe where I watch other folks “go to lunch” or the gym, and it feels like a million years since I’ve done anything remotely resembling that.
There are no more building models, plastic, solvent glue, ammonia-riddled blueprints — I carry only a laptop these days. But the worries, and the process, are the same. Iterate, iterate, iterate through every detail, back up to the concept, back down to the details, like you’re swimming the butterfly stroke to the finish with your eyes open all the way.