SVA MA Design Research

SVA MA Design Research, Writing & Criticism1 is a one-year graduate program2
devoted to the study of design, its contexts & consequences.
Our graduates have gone on to pursue research-related careers in publishing, education, museums, institutes, design practice, entrepreneurship, & more.3

  1. Formerly known as D-Crit
  2. About the program
  3. Applications accepted on a rolling basis. All successful candidates awarded a significant scholarship!
SVA MA Design Research

136 W 21st St, 2nd Floor

New York, NY 10011





(212) 592-2228

Bookshelf. – SVA MA Design Research

Paul Olmer



“If you want to go to a party Saturday, throw it.”

– Mom




There is something comforting and specific — and there is something frustrating and unaccommodating — about a custom shelf that will only hold one thing reliably.


My mother was born in Miami (pronounced by southerners as My-am-a in that place and time) and moved to Baltimore when she was very young. She lived with her father and mother above an office on a busy street, at 4507 Harford Road. The office was an architectural firm, Maguolo & Quick. My Grandfather was an architect and the manager for this satellite office; the main office was in Boston, Massachusetts. The room had four drafting tables where men drafted and worked on the details of the projects at hand.


This was not a prestigious firm, but a good one that produced workmanlike, practical, buildings for clients who appreciated their ability to work on time and on budget. Their clients included Catholic nuns and the US Navy. The designs, to my eye, especially when I was studying architecture, were bleak. I remember a lot of cinderblock.


The only place my Grandfather designed that I’ve physically been in is a duplex cottage on a hill overlooking a small town in Southwestern Virginia, which I visit several times a year. The only objects I have any memory of are bookshelves.


The cottage is charming. The rooms are lined (floors, walls, and ceiling) with tongue and groove Florida Cyprus that he had brought to rural Virginia by train car. When you light a fire inside a wood burning stove in the cottage, you feel like you are in the belly of a gentle bear. A warm glow envelopes you. You fall asleep quickly in these rooms.


The bookshelves are solid wood. Not oak, or pine. They may be maple. They are shallow. They have a honeyed warmth. They look oily, but are dry to the touch. This patina is something that only smoke, dirt, layers of oil, and time can make. Along the front edge of one of the cabinets there are two roughly one inch cigarette burns. You can imagine someone’s hand resting a lit cigarette there, looking for a book, absentmindedly forgetting the cigarette, and then picking it up, too late to avoid the scar, cursing under their breath, almost certainly my Mother. The piece is heavier than you would think. I do not remember any evidence of screws or nails or joinery. I have no idea of how they were built. The cabinet is built with shelves precisely designed to hold bound National Geographic magazines.


My mother recalls the time in Baltimore, when they lived on Harford Road, as the happiest of her childhood. She could do her homework sitting near her father at a drafting table in the evenings. She would bring him a sandwich when he worked late. They had time together. They were usually quiet, it was almost always when he was working, but they were together, alone.


That would no longer be the case later when they moved, supposedly to a better house in a better neighborhood. He then worked at an office, or travelled, or was just absent, coming home to “eat lima beans and mow the lawn every Saturday, if it needed it or not” in my Mother’s words. It sounded like he was gone, and she knew it.


My grandmother was unbearable.


He could leave; my Mother could not. In those days, there was no potential for a divorce and they stayed married. He was working. He was busy. When he died, several other women, some with children, arrived discretely at the funeral. He, too, had satellites. My Mother hated him for it, but was also sympathetic. It is complicated. The details are fuzzy.


My Mother would spend slivers of time with my Grandfather looking in bookstores for issues of National Geographic in better condition than the ones he already had. He wanted to get the best possible collection before committing to having them bound together, six issues in each binding. This time would include quiet wandering in used bookstores in Baltimore and New York on the rare trips they made together.


He had every issue from Sept. 22, 1888 until shortly before his death in 1970.


Grandfather had a garage behind the office on Harford Road that he used as his woodshop for carpentry projects. He did not build complicated objects, but he built things well. He was a fan of the modern, but did not get to reflect that in his day-to-day work. His furniture has both a Shaker-like simplicity and a modernity, even today. They are nothing special, but also just so. There is a balance and proportion that is immediately pleasing to your eye from afar and to your body when you are near them. They are purposefully simple, not simple because he could not do more as a craftsman. This is a difference I know. He built the two bookshelves for his National Geographic there in his shop on nights and weekends.


He eventually made another set of two bookshelves for my mother, with adjustable shelves. They are more useful. Their flexibility nudges them towards the banal. They are just bookshelves. My Mother has them in her apartment in Tucson, Arizona. She has a view of the mountains.