Architectural bookstores used to be the places I went to for design inspiration. Their carefully curated selections of gorgeous monographs were like portals to other worlds. But I rarely go to bookstores anymore. Increasingly, I find inspiration from outside the field of design. Novels, places, and exhibits all provide rich sources of ideas.
One novel in particular, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, recently shocked me into reconsidering the essential character of an artist. In it the narrator says, “My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”
Offill’s book is a story of love, marriage, and motherhood shaped into a literary work of art – not out of the folding of umbrellas or licking of stamps, but the equally banal acts of shopping at Rite Aid and feeding a baby. Reframing domestic life is a familiar subject for art, from Jan Vermeer’s Woman with Scales, to Jan Vermeer’s Woman with Scales, to Ramiro Gomez’s depictions of immigrant laborers. What is new and challenging about Offill’s book is that the author is not just a sympathetic observer of the domestic and mundane, but a participant.
I still keep monographs on my bookshelf, and I have imagined the people who created such enviable works as monsters that can’t be bothered with making their own bed or mending broken relationships, individuals exempt from the gravity of everyday life. What Offill’s brilliant work of fiction has reminded me is that art is always created within the context of everyday life, and the creators are possibly no more monstrous than I am.