Rational Beauty

Leslie Williamson

What attracts me most to Leslie Williamson’s photography is the admiration and curiosity for her subjects captured in her work. She is well-known for her book Handcrafted Modern, a personal project that emerged from her passion for art and design. The concept is elegant in its simplicity: she photographs the homes of her favorite mid-century design heroes.

The book visits the dwellings of luminaries such as studio furniture makers Wharton Esherick, George Nakashima, and J.B. Blunk; industrial designers Eva Zeisel, Russel Wright, Jens Risom, Charles and Ray Eames; and even legendary architects Albert Frey and Walter Gropius. We get to peek into how these iconoclasts lived, helping broaden the definition of modernism. Leslie’s photograph of a red dress hanging in Walter Gropius’ house reveals a warm glow within the strong lines. We have Leslie to thank for giving us another perspective, and a new way to understand modernism.

Professionally I have had the fortunate opportunity to work with Leslie on an article about Kay Sekimachi for American Craft magazine. Leslie’s photograph—a stunning still life showcasing Sekimachi’s jewelry that was made from shells and bones washed up by the sea—landed on the cover, and I couldn’t have been happier. It was my last issue as creative director and it was great to end on such a high note.

Without further ado, here’s my Q&A with Leslie.

Job description: Photographer, Writer, Blogger, Observer of the designed world, Wildly curious person. Best known for my book Handcrafted Modern: At Home with MidCentury Designers which started as a personal project of shooting my favorite design legends homes as they lived in them.

Why do you do what you do? Taking photographs has been the foremost way I figure out the world for over half my life, so at this point it doesn’t seem like there is a “why” in it. I couldn’t stop myself if I tried. I am very fortunate that I get to do what I love most for a living. In the last 5 years, through working on Handcrafted Modern and then moving on to my new projects and continuing to shoot more and more of my own ideas for others I have found an added joy in being able to talk and write about these places I shoot. It seems the marrying of my stories and images has added a deeper joy in what I do.

How do you break through a creative block? As a photographer, I don’t really have that problem very often (knock on wood). Ideas flow and I have gotten to the point where I know to trust my gut. On occasion I might get sidetracked somehow, but I catch myself pretty quickly. Sometimes my ideas are like a runaway train…I just hold on and go for it!

With writing it is a completely different thing. Writing is relatively new for me so my process is not as worked out. I have found that I need space around writing. I cannot shoot in the morning and write in the afternoon. So the most challenging “block” is finding the time and space to get to the mental space I need to be in. If I have trouble in the midst of writing I usually stop and dance a bit…lately to early Elvis Costello for some reason…Or I just go for a walk near some water—get away from the whole thing for a spell.

Education: Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA and Life…the best education of all if you pay attention!

Mentors: Paul Ender (my high school design teacher), Bill Stout (when I was working on my book he was really helpful and his bookstore is a haven for me. stoutbooks.com), Dung Ngo (my editor at Rizzoli, he is great at pushing me)…there are more I’m sure. Sometimes just one sentence from someone or a really good conversation can really push me to a new place with my work, thinking, etc.

Office chair: Most often it is the drivers seat of my old trusty RAV 4 or the rental car I happen to be driving. At my studio, an old Eames soft pad chair. It is from the late 70’s or early 80s and has the really great old leather, not like the ones now…I love that thing…

Office Soundtrack: This is SUCH an important question! Music is a key part of my life, since a lot of my time is traveling to and from places alone. Music is my travel companion and friend a lot of the time. And I also use music to manage my mood. So I have mixes for every possible mood and place—mixes for printing in the darkroom, for when I wake up, I even have a “happy” mix for when I am grouchy. And then there are the “Solid Gold” mixes which I do for myself but are rather popular with my friends. Lots of classic rock from all eras. It is a guaranteed dance party.

Download my “Happy” mix list.

Most useful tool: My eyes, heart, intuition, and imagination and of course a camera comes in very handy…preferably a Mamiya RZ67 and some film but I shoot with a PhaseOne 645 and Canon 5D as well.

Favorite space: Because I shoot spaces all the time I am constantly getting “crushes” on different places. I crush A LOT!

But my favorite spaces are ones that I get to spend more time in, that I repeatedly go back to. I love JB Blunk’s house for that reason (and many others). I originally shot it for Handcrafted Modern, but have continued to return and photograph all the artists at the artist residency there. So I have been back numerous times. Plus JB’s daughter, Mariah, is now a dear friend, so I go up and spend the afternoon and we weed the garden and make dinner. I just feel at home there and I love noticing all the little changes that occur in the house. It is a living, breathing thing.

The most sacred space for me is one that doesn’t exist anymore. My Grandmother’s house. Before we sold it (and it was subsequently torn down) I photographed it. That place is stitched into my soul. I can still hear the sound of the back door shutting in my head and it has been gone for quite awhile now. Someday that project will be a book.

Favorite design object: I have these two rocks that are covered in leather by a japanese artist (wish I had his name!). I love those two things so much…they are in the dish where I put my keys everyday.

Guilty Pleasure: I have none… I mean really…if it is a pleasure I think it should be embraced! Why feel guilty? Taylor Swift, Hallmark movies, little old men with dark socks and sandals? No guilt. Love them with abandon!

Underrated: Modesty—in people, in objects, in places…

Overrated: Bleu Cheese

What did you learn the hard way? To trust myself and my gut implicitly. A lot of detours taken to get to that all important one…but they were fun. or calamitous. or both.

Dream project: Just about to embark on that in the spring. I am photographing all the European Homes for Handcrafted Modern Europe as well as folding in all the European craftspeople for my project on the evolution of different craftsmen. Plus I am starting a new project as well…top secret! I cannot wait!!!

Where’s home? Home is where my heart is, so I feel most at home in San Francisco and New York where most of my dearest friends and family are. But if I am with someone I love—even if I just met them—I am home.

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Part of a series from the Walter Gropius house in Lincoln, Massachusetts from Handcrafted Modern

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Our last issue we designed for American Craft featured artist Kay Sekimachi photographed by Leslie. It’s one of my favorite covers.

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What an extraordinary soft color palette Leslie found in her Grandmother's undergarment drawer.

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These two rocks are Leslie’s favorite objects.

“Taking photographs has been the foremost way I figure out the world for over half my life, so at this point it doesn’t seem like there is a “why” in it.”—Leslie Williamson

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JB Blunk’s House is one of Leslie’s favorite places that she continuously photographs at different times of the year. The house was included in her book Handcrafted Modern.

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Furniture designer Paul Loebach in his studio in Brooklyn photographed by Leslie.

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Furniture designer Paul Loebach is a recent subject for Leslie’s current project about craftsmen.

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Leslie’s self portrait.