Today, the Student Voice is meeting up with Dr. Austin Bealmear of the Department of Interior Design to talk about finding your guru, learning to fail, and the time he had Thelonious Monk over for a party.
Thanks for agreeing to interview today! How did you first get interested in interior design?
Well, there aren’t really any architecture schools in Tennessee, so when I was looking for teaching possibilities here, my main options were interior design programs. I’m actually a licensed architect, but I decided to look at interior design because I didn’t want to leave the Middle Tennessee area.
What encouraged you to go into architecture?
I went into architecture because it seemed like that was where you got to do more varied things than most other design jobs that I was looking at. Then in exploring architecture schools, I became really fascinated with Washington University and what their program was doing, so I decided to go there and try my hand at it. After I got into the school, I began to really fall in love with architecture as an art form.
What was your college experience like?
Well, we worked very hard–there’s an interesting tradition in architecture school that the students never go home at the end of the day. I was recently back in St. Louis for an event, and I got done around one in the morning, and I thought “I’ll just drive by and see if the kids are still in the drafting room at the architecture school.” Sure enough, the entire campus was dark except for the top floor of the architecture building, where all the lights were on! That kind of dedication is a longstanding tradition in the architecture world. We were in the drafting room from eight in the morning till two in the morning, eighteen hours a day. It was a very intense educational experience; we worked very hard, but we also played hard.
What’s one of your favorite memories from college?
Well, the architecture school sponsored a race on campus one year, where each participating group would design a car, but the car had to be solely human-powered. You could push it, pull it, and run with it, but it had to be all human energy, no engines. We marked off a racetrack on the campus sidewalk, and everybody designed and built their own car. One group attached wheels to an ironing board and put a stick on the end, and the “driver” laid down on the ironing board–with a crash helmet on–and they just pushed him through the racetrack as fast as they could! It was crazy but pretty aerodynamic. But the Japanese students were the best; they all got together and made a design that looked like it came from NASA. It was done with this lightweight steel, with giant back wheels, tiny front wheels, and a frame where the driver could sit. Needless to say, they won; they had efficiency down flat!
Another great memory was the school carnival that we had each year. They tried to have a big entertainment event at each carnival, and one year they decided that they would present a student-made movie instead of live entertainment because it would be cheaper and easier. I really liked the idea, so I volunteered to make the movie—with no clue how to actually use a movie camera! But my dad was a newspaperman in the Associated Press, so I called them up and asked whether there was a sports event that they could get me into. The idea was that I would take a movie camera and learn how to use it by shooting the event. Turns out, they actually got me into a Harlem Globetrotters game! I learned how to use a movie camera by filming the Harlem Globetrotters!
What is something you didn’t do in college that you wish you had done?
Well, in the 1960s there was a pair called Masters and Johnson, and they wrote the first clinical studies of sexual performance, which caused quite a lot of controversy. They conducted the studies by putting up advertisements for volunteers, really vague ads that just said where to show up and how much you’d get paid. They spent several years using volunteers for serious clinical studies on what actually happened, biologically and emotionally, during sex! Nobody really had any idea that they were doing this, so it was groundbreaking when the studies were released. But Masters was a doctor at Washington University, so these studies were being conducted while I was a student there, and I never had any idea! So that’s one regret from my college career, that I never got to get in on that action (laughing). I also regret that I wasn’t as involved with the jazz scene as I would’ve liked to be, but the architecture students were expected to be in the drafting room eighteen hours a day, seven days a week, so it was hard. Sometimes I’d slip out at night and go play a gig, and come straggling into the drafting room at one in the morning to finish my work. St. Louis had some great clubs though, and I was able to see some of the great names in jazz as they came through: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, people like that. I even had Thelonious Monk over to my apartment for a party one night.
How did that happen?
Our school had an excellent concert program at the time, and we found out that Monk was coming to play at the university. Just out of the blue, my roommate Don said, “Why don’t we throw a party and see if we can get Monk to come?” And we thought, why not? So we got backstage before the show began, and we met Monk’s wife Nellie. She was this tiny little lady, and just as sweet as could be! We told her we were just students who liked Monk’s music and we had an apartment nearby where we were throwing a small party, and we wondered if he would like to come. She said, “Well, he doesn’t really do that kind of thing, but I’ll talk to him.” We stayed through the concert and met her backstage again at the end. She told us they needed to go back to the hotel for a while, but she’d try to talk him into going to our party. So we followed them back to the hotel and waited in the lobby for about an hour. We were just about to give up on it and go home when all of a sudden, here comes Monk and Nellie down the stairs! They even brought the bass player along. We all went back to the apartment, this dimly-lit, linoleum-floored little place; one of our chairs was an ejection seat from an F-100 fighter plane–I don’t even know where we got that–the light fixture in the living room was a 19th-century surgical lamp, and we had painted our bathroom completely black. We thought we were so stylish (laughs), and here’s Monk in this crazy environment just hanging out with a bunch of students! He walked around the apartment with a glass of Coke in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other.
What was the best part of the night?
Probably the funniest part of the evening involved a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He’d somehow caught wind of our party, and came down to the apartment asking if he could get an interview with Monk! We said no way; we didn’t want Monk to be harassed or think that we were trying to set him up. But the reporter begged to just be let in, so eventually, we let him in with the promise that he wouldn’t try to get an interview. Well, of course, the first thing he did when he got into the party started following Monk around, trying to get him to answer questions. Monk eventually got annoyed and started firing questions back at the reporter, asking why he should agree to an interview. He said, “You don’t print the truth, you just print whatever you want to print!” The reporter kept insisting that he’d print whatever Monk said. Monk asked, “Do you really promise to print whatever I say, verbatim?” The reporter looked really eager and swore that he’d print exactly what Monk told him. Monk looked him right in the eye and told him to go eat a $%!# sandwich! Needless to say, the reporter didn’t publish that bit.
Getting back to architecture, have you designed any buildings?
Oh yes! I’ve got buildings all over the place. I worked in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, New York, Kansas City. I actually helped design a law school for Washington University, while I was working for a firm there in 1969. They have another law school building now, but the last one was designed by us in the 60’s. That year we also had the opportunity to help design an outdoor music festival. The St. Louis Symphony was looking for a summer home, a place they could play, and Southern Illinois University was looking for some kind of showpiece. They were a fairly new campus and they wanted something that would draw attention to them, so we came up with this idea for something called the Mississippi River Festival. The St. Louis Symphony played there about once a week, and then the other nights of the week would feature music acts that were the headliners for that era. We had Janis Joplin, The Who, Chicago, the Eagles, Arlo Guthrie….it became a sort of local legend! We were in charge of the actual stage design, and we developed what we think was the first tune-able stage in the United States.
What was special about this stage?
You could literally tune the stage to project a particular sound for maximum effect. As you might imagine, the Symphony needed different acoustics from The Who, so we created a shell and an overhead made out of curved panels that you could reconfigure for each performance, to make each act sound better. Do you know who John McLaughlin is? At the time of the Mississippi River Festival, he had one of the great fusion bands called the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and I knew his drummer. Well, about ten years ago, John McLaughlin came through Nashville and I got a chance to introduce myself to him and ask if he happened to remember a weird stage in the middle of a field at the Mississippi River Festival in 1971 or 1972? And he actually did. He said, “Sure, that was one of the best-sounding gigs we ever played!” It was so cool that he remembered it!
What advice would you give to students about how to succeed academically and professionally?
Do you know anything about Indian culture? They have a centuries-old education system in the Hindu tradition, and their system is that of the guru or the teacher. You apprentice yourself completely to the guru; if he tells you to jump off a wall, you jump off the wall. You don’t question it or protest that you don’t want to do it. You totally give yourself over to following that vision, and in exchange, the guru promises to send you down the path that you have chosen to go. By finding and following your guru, you can give yourself over totally to whatever you need to do. That is design education in a nutshell.
What’s your favorite class to teach?
I like the studio classes a lot; I like exploring design with the kids and opening their eyes to the creative parts. To be a designer, you really have to reprogram yourself. You can’t keep seeing the world in the way that you’ve always seen it, and you’ve got to make that change for yourself; you have to be willing to dedicate yourself to the craft to the point where it changes you. That’s the process that I like to be in on, helping the students make that change. Computer programs and such don’t really do it; you have to get into the nitty-gritty of design and creativity. For example, in some of my beginners’ classes that I used to teach, I would give students exercises such as “Go outside and draw me a tree without drawing a tree”. A lot of design education centers on giving students puzzles to solve, to make them think outside the box and push their own boundaries. They need to struggle with things a little; if you’re not struggling, you’re not learning.
If you’re interested in exploring Interior Design class options, click here to go to the department’s page.