Andrew Romano writes about politics as a National Correspondent for Yahoo News and you can imagine the intensity of his life the past four years, and especially the last few months. That's what pays the bills.
He's also written for Apartamento, Monocle, and T magazine and I'm fairly certain if writing about design (particularly houses, particularly modernist ones from the last century) could add up financially he'd opt to do that full-time. "Design" is what first put him on my radar years ago, and it's his pictures and words about the subject (especially, again, when about mid-century houses) which he regularly posts on IG which have made him a VIF (very important follow) for me. I’m hoping some enterprising publisher sees this interview and gets him a multi-book deal with the idea he mentions...
There are no additional questions and/or comments from me in this week's interview, as Andrew gave such lovely little stand-alone jewels-of-answers, along with multiple links, that you barely need even read the questions. Nothing additional from me now as well so you, too, can (and will) enjoy Andrew. -Wes Del Val
WDV: What are your current thoughts and feelings on physical books in your life compared to at any other time in the past?
AR: Sadly, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve objectified books.
As a kid I cottoned to language: reading at the dinner table, pretending to be a poet, majoring in American literature. I never really cared what my books looked like. I cared what was in them.
But the technology that took off after I was a teenager in the ‘90s has of course liberated words from the printed page, and that in turn has forced books to justify their physicality. Like, why can’t this be a site or a feed or a post or a podcast or whatever? Why does it have to be a thing?
That trend has certainly paralleled and probably influenced my own relationship with books. The books I have around me now are all essentially physical—visual or beautiful or collectible in some way.
I’m not particularly happy about this, because ultimately Middlemarch matters more to me than my favorite design monograph. I think I fetishize books too much, and read too little.
Which critics (of any subject) do you read and find yourself agreeing with most often?
I’m suspicious whenever I “agree” too much with a critic. I worry it’s just vanity—me searching for someone to validate what I already think. It’s more interesting when a writer leads you out beyond your own limitations—beyond the scope of your own knowledge, the comfort of your own opinions, the confines of your own perspective (and privilege, in my case)—and reveals something that rings true.
For me, Wesley Morris of the New York Times has been the essential critic of this catastrophic year. I say “this year” because it feels like that—more than TV or music or film—has been his subject lately: America’s political myths, its pandemic fiasco, its racial reckoning. Morris is no secret; I mean, he won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his film criticism. But at the Times he’s doing something even deeper. He’s using culture to make sense of our senseless moment.
Read Morris on the mustache he grew during quarantine and what it taught him about his own Blackness. Read Morris on Patti LaBelle’s live 1985 cover of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” as a prescient expression of the “ultimatum now being laid down in the streets of this country.” Read Morris on how “alarm was central to the Little Richard experience”—including “alarm about how robbed he was,” and by extension how robbed all Black Americans have been. Read it all. And be sure to listen to Morris and Jenna Wortham’s loose, illuminating podcast, too.
Other favorites: Louisa Thomas on sports, Doreen St. Felix on television, Leah Ollman on visual art, Lily Loofbourow on the culture of politics, Rebecca Traister on women and politics, and Alexandra Lange on design and architecture.
What are the best interviews you’ve ever read, ones which you wished were double, triple, quadruple the length? Basically they could have gone on and on for you.
It’s much easier to find bad interviews these days. The form is everywhere—quick clickbait content, default podcast material, artisanal magazine filler. I guess it’s because interviewing someone seems easier than, you know, writing something? But it’s not! I’ve published dozens of interviews over the course of my career and I’m only proud of three: one with the producer Rick Rubin (my first assignment for Newsweek after moving from New York to Los Angeles in 2013); one with Maurice Sendak at his house in Connecticut; one with the sculptor Ricky Swallow for Apartamento. And they’re all basically about the same thing: creativity.
In that vein, I don’t think anyone has ever beat (or will beat) the classic Paris Review interviews about writers at work. I have the four-volume set of paperbacks they collected and published back in 2007-2008—somewhere, I think they’re buried in a moving box right now—and I remember compulsively reading them cover-to-cover and then leaving them around the house for years to revisit at random.
The roster alone is dizzying: Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bishop, Joan Didion, Billy Wilder, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Evelyn Waugh, E.B. White, John Ashberry, V.S. Naipaul, Stephen Sondheim. And on and on and on. But it’s not star power, per se, that makes these conversations click. It’s that interviewer and interviewee actually collaborated on each interview, honing questions and answers over time until their back-and-forth became a kind of literature of its own. So while the dialogue isn’t exactly spontaneous, it is endlessly revealing—even when people like Nabokov aren’t being entirely frank about their “process.”
That’s what interests me most: people who make things talking about how they make things. Circling that unsolvable mystery, searching for clues. Others in this genre: the very raw Lennon Remembers interviews for Rolling Stone (John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jann Wenner, 1970); Paul Zollo’s Songwriters on Songwriting (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, etc.); Pierluigi Serraino’s The Creative Architect, which is about a long-lost 1959 UC-Berkeley psychological study that tried to pinpoint the source of creativity by probing modernist designers such as Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, Philip Johnson, Louis Kahn and Richard Neutra.
If you could spend a month in any house and could only bring along books for enjoyment, what house and which books?
After what feels like eternity in quarantine with two young kids and both my wife and I struggling to work full-time from home, a month alone with books sounds like a dream. It almost doesn’t matter what house I’m in, as long as no one else is around.
But since you asked, let’s say Frank Lloyd Wright’s beach cottage for Della Brooks Walker. Walker’s first letter to Wright sets the scene. “I own a rocky point of land in Carmel, Calif. extending into the Pacific Ocean,” Walker wrote in 1945. “The surface is flat, it is located at the end of a white sand beach… I am a woman living alone—I wish protection from the wind and privacy from the road and a house as enduring as the rocks but as transparent and charming as the waves and as delicate as a seashore. You are the only man who can do this—will you help me?”
By 1951 the house was finished: a 1,200-square-foot arrow that rests atop triangular Carmel stone walls and culminates in a hexagonal living room framed by a head-height hearth and reverse-stepped glass panels revealing panoramic views of the rocky coastline. It’s Wright’s only beachfront Usonian—his term for a new, more organic kind of American middle-class home—and between the space itself and the sea outside, I can’t imagine it would ever get old.
For company I would bring a certain kind of book that adulthood seems to have crowded out of my life: the sweeping 19th-century novels by George Eliot (The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda), Charles Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend) and Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina, The Death of Ivan Ilyich) that I’ve always wanted to read but have never gotten around to. Eliot’s near-omniscient empathy, Dickens’s supernatural vividness, and whatever magic Tolstoy harnessed to transform his writing, as Matthew Arnold put it, into “a piece of life” rather than a “work of art”—perhaps it’s pretentious, but you’re never really alone with those three.
What are the most enjoyable, but non-specialist, design and architecture books which have greatly added to your love of both and which you’d give to ten various people with confidence that they’d do the same for them?
Two by Esther McCoy: Five California Architects and The Second Generation. McCoy came to California via Arkansas, then Kansas, then Greenwich Village, where she befriended and assisted Theodore Dreiser in the 1920s. She hung with the bohemians. She wanted to write fiction. She camped out in Malibu before Hollywood knew it existed. During World War II McCoy worked as a draftswoman at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica; discouraged from pursuing an architecture career on account of her gender, she later wandered into R.M. Schindler’s revolutionary home and studio on Kings Road and got a gig drafting there.
Eventually McCoy used her stint with Schindler to help establish herself as the first and finest chronicler of California modernist architecture. Together, Five California Architects (1960) and The Second Generation (1984) tell the story of that moment by profiling its most important practitioners, from the idiosyncratic Craftsmen Bernard Maybeck and Greene & Greene, to the proto-minimalist Irving Gill, to the competing Viennese emigres Neutra and Schindler, to all the lesser-known but no less fascinating figures who followed: J.R. Davidson, Gregory Ain, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Raphael Soriano.
McCoy’s genius is that she approached architecture not as a critic or a theorist or even a journalist but as a human being. Her style is crisp, droll and unerring, and she shows as much interest in the life and character of the designer—and the feeling of living within his design—as she shows in the intricacies of the design itself. Her New Yorker short story “The Important House” is a small satirical masterpiece. No one has ever written more accessibly about architecture and the people who make it.
Tell me a dream book series you wish existed? Who would publish, edit, what would be the subject, etc?
I sometimes call myself a design fan. But what really moves me are houses. There’s a difference. For me, the story of a good house is a lot more interesting than the theory it embodies or the trend it reifies. Who made it? How? Why? Who lived there before? Who lives there now? What do they fill it with? What does it feel like? How has it changed over time? Who changed it and why? Whenever I have time to freelance for Monocle, I try to write these stories in miniature. But I crave a book series: in-depth biographies of a bunch of good houses, one volume each.
My favorite nonfiction books preserve what used to be known as “magazine writing”; my shelves are filled with collections by Gay Talese, Joan Didion, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Wechsberg, Calvin Trillin and Nora Ephron. I even cheekily refer to myself as a “magazine writer” in my Instagram bio, despite the fact that I technically write for a website. I consider magazine writing a genre—a form that transcends format.
Magazine writing doesn’t assume prior interest or knowledge. It is made to be stumbled across in the pages of a periodical rather than sought out in the aisles of a bookstore. It knows it is competing for attention with the stories that surround it. It knows time is short. It has to work a little harder. It has to hook you. It has to communicate. It has to connect. While magazines themselves are ephemeral, the best magazine stories are built to last. John McPhee calls it “the literature of fact.”
I would like to read a book-length, New Yorker-caliber profile of, say, the 200-year-old samurai dwelling that Isamu Noguchi moved to a stonecutter’s village called Mure and then reshaped as he would a sculpture (among many other houses). Beautifully photographed and designed, of course—but there are plenty of pretty books being published these days. Here, the writing and the story would come first. That’s rarer.
The same thing could work with songs. Or even collectors and their collections!
You get to drive around LA for a weekend with three other living writers. Who would you want to join you in the car and what would be essential stops?
Joan Didion is a given. I might gingerly suggest we follow the geographical arc of the The White Album and see what’s left of her apocalyptic 1960s in contemporary Los Angeles—but honestly, I would follow Joan wherever she wants to go.
Who else? This is like hosting a dinner party or something, which I really don’t have the brain for. Maybe Carolina Miranda, who writes passionately and polymathically about art, architecture, urban design and the culture of Los Angeles for the LA Times? Miranda’s work charts how the arts intersect with politics, gender, race and development, so it would be a kick to check out the construction site of Peter Zumthor’s controversial new LACMA with her, then visit Boyle Heights, where young anti-gentrification activists have been chasing gallerists away.
For my final passenger, I would say the ghost of Jonathan Gold, but you asked for “living writers,” so I suppose he’s disqualified. I might invite Tejal Rao, the New York Times’s California restaurant critic, who in that strange role doesn’t seem to write enough, but who always nails it when she does. Or I’d go in a different direction and corral a songwriter instead: maybe Kendrick Lamar, or Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas. Los Angeles is many cities in one, and I’m far more intrigued by theirs than mine.
What are your reliable methods which point you in the right direction when you want to start reading about a new subject which you don’t know much about?
I’m a journalist because I’m curious, and I’m curious about a lot of things: politics, policy, science, crime, music, TV, movies, art, design, food. So I’m also a generalist, which means 1) I probably won’t have a day job much longer, and 2) I’m constantly learning. It’s my favorite part of the gig. (It’s certainly more fun than writing!) My method is fairly instinctive at this point, but if I had to describe it, I would say it starts as a kind of rooting around: in local news reports when I’m writing about COVID; through Instagram hashtags and Google Images when I’m clueless about some designer. Once something catches my eye, I start drilling down into more authoritative sources: those searchable uploads on Google Books; oral history transcripts and recordings; digitized museum archives; archival finding aids; online permit records; old newspaper articles; etc. US Modernist is a particularly useful site for architecture—it even includes addresses and owners’ names. Still, there’s always a point when you have to abandon the iPhone and track down out-of-print books (Biblio, eBay), old architectural magazines (Arts & Architecture, Pencil Points) and living, breathing experts. It’s mind-blowing how much information isn’t on the internet and probably never will be.
What are memorable reads which you’re surprised you ended up liking as much as you did?
Lawrence Weschler’s book about Bob Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. I knew almost nothing about conceptual art and even less about Irwin before reading this, but Weschler somehow managed to make a page-turner of Irwin’s process—how each body of work led to new questions, and how those questions led to a new body of work. Probably my favorite profile ever, and a model for the sort of book I hope to write someday.
Anything and everything by John McPhee, whose faith in facts, investment in structure and quietly virtuosic sentences have the power to transform seemingly “boring” subjects—geology, canoes, oranges—into founts of fascination. His work is a reminder that reality never runs out of marvels, and his FSG first editions are also lovely to look at and collect. Some favorites: Coming into the Country, The Crofter and the Laird and The Pine Barrens (which happens to be where I grew up). My New Jersey hero.
Artists don’t always make for the clearest or most compelling writers, but Donald Judd, Agnes Martin and Luigi Ghirri have proven to be pleasant exceptions. Judd’s Complete Writings 1959-1975 show him to be a remarkably perceptive and precise critic of others’ work (and a very fluent explainer of his own). Martin’s Writings is almost the opposite: gnomic and joyous and near-mystical. And Ghirri’s Complete Essays: 1973-1991 is somewhere in between—an allusive, eclectic and gently witty exploration of identity, time, memory, vision, representation and sense of place.
Two more, quickly. The recent portrait of Nick Drake (Remembered for a While) edited by his sister Gabrielle transcends the tired music bio genre by relying on letters, photographs, personal ephemera, intimate interviews and incisive musical analysis to help explain, as much as possible, an enigmatic artist who died far too young. And I thought the pandemic would be the last thing I’d want to read about right now, but Zadie Smith’s brief and brilliant Intimations proved me wrong.
What are the best-designed books you’ve added to your shelves in the past two years?
Japanese Flower Arrangement for Modern Homes by Margaret Preininger is probably my prized possession right now. In the 1970s, Barbara Giella, the daughter of the second owner of the Walker House, interviewed Ola Walker, the original owner, for her NYU dissertation on Schindler. I recently found Giella’s notes. In them, Walker says that her ikebana teacher was Margaret Preininger, who was one of the first Americans to master Japanese flower arranging. Preininger taught at LA City College and organized some Schindler lectures, and that’s how the Walkers encountered him. What’s really interesting is that Preininger’s drop-dead gorgeous book about ikebana in the modern home was published in December 1936, right as construction on *our* modern home was being completed. There’s a page about flower rooms, and a paragraph about tokonoma, or specialized alcoves for arrangements; our house features both. Clearly Preininger’s ideas guided Schindler’s design. She probably even consulted with Walker and Schindler, or at least they consulted her work. And if you look closely at the original Julius Shulman photographs from 1937, you can see ikebana arrangements everywhere. I wonder if Preininger was brought in to help stage the house? Either way, her book illuminates an important and previously unrecognized influence on the architecture of the Walker House and the life of the family that built it. I love discoveries like this.
Also: Tauba Auerbach’s self-designed S v Z; the new French-language Pierre Legrain monograph designed by Carole Daprey; any of the Apartamento books.
Who impresses you the most right now in the world of publishing, whether with books, magazines, newspapers, or digital?
Apartamento. I adore everything they do: the series on architectural houses (of which my book, the Walker House, was the first); the design monographs (Michael Anastassiades, Arquitectura-G); even the cookbooks. Somehow their material seems both ambitious and low-key, their designs idiosyncratic yet of-the-moment. Most of all, you sense their enthusiasms are genuine. They’re not chasing trends. They feel like fellow fans.
Indeed, they’ve created a real international circle, with your book certainly doing its part to add to the love. Thanks Andrew!