There are many things we appreciate and admire about Brian Collins' mind, but a big one is his sincerity. When time and culture can make anyone a cynic, he is thoughtful, curious, passionate and rooted. His excitement about work and life is clear in this interview. Here we chat with Collins, co-founder of COLLINS design firm, about what's been on his mind.
What’s the best compliment you received recently?
“You have your father’s face,” someone just told me.
No one had ever said that to me. But it appears I have lived my way into it.
I love my dad. He is 91. So, that is a marvelous compliment. I know my dad will live on in my memory after he is gone, but now I get to carry his face into the future, too.
That one comment opened up a new view into a longing I have always had for the future and how I find my place in it.
We are temporally-locked creatures. We are stuck in time. We live life on forward.
Unfortunately, we understand it only by looking backward.
So, here’s what I understand.
Time is a cage we’re stuck within. Fine. Now I want to explore that cage to its very limits.
And the best way to do that — and push back against the relentless ticktockticktock of the clock — is through passion. We gain absolutely everything in embracing all of the things we love.
I don’t mean “Love conquers all” or “higher power,” woo woo. I mean love as a real, permeating, fluid element, entangled and knotted up and in and through and across everything, especially time itself. Time’s significance comes from the fleeting quality of life. Love is the countervailing force to our impermanence.
So many things are changing all around us, now. But I do not think people are afraid of change. I think they are only afraid of losing the things they love.
I suppose that’s a lot from one compliment, but there it is.
What’s the last thing you read?
I’m usually in the middle of three or four books. Right now, I’ve been re-reading Bell Hooks’ edifying "Teaching to Transgress." And I just started "Labyrinth of Solitude" by Octavio Paz. I am heading back to Mexico City for a short stay, so I need to brush up.
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What book do you want to read next?
I love, love, love children’s books. Anything Oliver Jeffers does is dazzling. He recently showed me his artwork for his next one, "Meanwhile Back on Earth." I’ll be the first in line at my local bookstore. I can’t wait.
Our library in our New York office has over 5,500 books, so it is not, not, not hard to find something solid to read, here. But anything by Octavia Butler is next in line. I’m a die-hard science fictionist, and her stories are irresistible.
A quote that’s meaningful to you?
This one line from the song Anthem by Leonard Cohen.
Ring the bells
that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack,
That's how the light gets in.
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Those 25 words got me through a very dark, long winter.
Best gift you’ve ever given?
During my 30s, I got lucky and did okay in my career and stuff, so I was able to put some money away and bought a small house on Cape Cod for my mother. She never imagined such a thing was possible. She always wanted to have a cottage by the sea.
Now she has a big wraparound porch on that cottage that looks out over the Atlantic Ocean.
That is easily the best gift I will ever give.
Where do you want to travel to next?
Where we are going next.
We will be the guests of Sir Tim Smit, founder The Eden Project in Cornwall, England. It is a magical project of epic ambition. They have recreated far-flung biomes in massive geodesic domes. Some have called it The Eighth Wonder of the World. I guess I will have to reimagine my sense of everything.
My colleague Taamy Amaize and I are off to Mexico City after that to speak at the OFF Festival. That city is always an electrifying force.
What would you buy, if money weren’t an issue?
I would buy every piece of open wilderness and forest in the United States and put it into a private trust that protects it from being plundered. I would put a camp on the edge of it for everyone who works with us at COLLINS and anyone who would be interested in protecting such a place.
We are killing off all of the rich, complex, crucial, fragile ecosystems and species that sustain us because we only look at the planet as a resource to be monetized, not to be protected. It’s insane.
It is also time for all of us to bring the sad era of “human-centered” design to a close. Our existence was never human-centered, anyway. Covid-19 proved that idea to be nonsense. It’s time for an environment-centered approach.
Earth-centered. Life-centered. Where we stop creating apart from Nature but create as a part of Nature.
Single-use plastic bottles? That’s a high proof-point of human-centered design and an ecological disaster. Enough.
If you’re interested, I’ve written about more on this here, with my friend J.A. Ginsburg.
What hobby would you take up, if you had the time?
No hobbies, thank you.
Beyond working at COLLINS with my crew — and my family — I only have two other loves. Travel and books — which are just another kind of travel, really.
When I was ten, I stumbled across all of the original Wizard of Oz books in old stacks, covered with dust, inside the Duxbury Public Library. I read them all that summer and was re-born as a child of that library.
As for travel, I am writing this after driving across the top of the Andes with my colleague Eron Lutterman, far up above the clouds, in Ecuador. I am at a coffee shop in Cuenca right now because it is pouring, pouring rain outside. We just finished giving a talk here. Life is never meant to be lived in one place. Travel is like oxygen to me. Or, as my friends would say, like Oreos to me.
Oh my God, Oreos.
What’s an image or piece of art you can’t get out of your head?
Traveling through Cairo on a foggy morning and heading out to the desert with my colleagues Ben Crick and Rob Auchincloss. We watched the Great Pyramid of Cheops appear like a mountain out of a thick, morning mist. I was unprepared for their immensity.
The funniest thing you’ve seen lately?
This scene has given me the giggles since I first saw it in a film class at MassArt.
Charlie Chaplin was a genius. He loved what he did.
The best designers I know enter our profession because they love designing so much that they find ways to turn that love into their livelihood. I always find that remarkable.
Yet somewhere along the way, we can forget that our work is supposed to be…enjoyable. So we whine, moan, complain. Some of us become casual cynics.
But we get to work with smart, imaginative people on interesting, often important puzzles. We get to transform things from something that was into something that’s better. Every day as a designer I get to work with my team to rehearse and design new futures with our clients. The way I see it, that’s a gift.
I have worked as a line cook, a waiter, a retail sales clerk at Christmas (never again), a house painter, a yard worker mowing lawns and a house painter over two crazy, hot long summers. All worthy jobs.
But a job as a designer is a privilege.
If you could build an extension of your own mind, what would it look like? How would it work?
Oh dear. Ready?
It would be a punchy mix of the Aman Hotel at the Summer Palace in Beijing, Corita Kent’s classroom, the concert hall in Lucerne by Jean Nouvel, a giant geodesic dome, Honeyduke’s Sweet Shop, tea with Paul Boles in Tangier, Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio, always changing acts from Ringling Bros., Juila Child’s kitchen (at lunch), the Walt Disney Studios (during their two golden eras, around 1938 & 1990), the Apollo Theatre, Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku (at night), a landing pad for Zeppelins, a long dinner with Toni Morrison, hot chocolate at Place des Vosges in Paris, the Gay Pride Parade in Oxford, England, all the movie sets designed by Ken Adam, the Eames House, Miss Havisham’s dining room, breakfast with Jiddu Krishnamurti, a dance recital at The Black Mountain College of Art, a luau at e.e. cummings’, the Book of Kells gallery at Trinity College Library, Tomorrowland (the mad 10-day event), Jim Henson’s Muppet Workshop, Moonbase Alpha, a study filled only with Basho’s haikus, Studio 54 (in 1978) and a Dairy Queen — all with music provided by Rihanna or Sergei Rachmaninoff (and, occasionally, a surprise concert with a harpsichord).
And, when I am alone, ABBA.
In some way, I recently tried to build this place as best as I can. It’s on five acres of forest by the ocean in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. My colleagues at COLLINS are now using it all the time.
It is a place filled with books and many of the things I have picked up as I’ve traveled around the planet. Oh look, like a first edition of The Great Gatsby.
“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning ——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Thus, lots of books there.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that part of the beauty of all literature is “You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
But best of all, there’s a tiny, 1970s Dairy Queen on the way to the beach. We all go there. If you're on the Cape, you should join us. Seriously.
Summer is not summer without getting Blizzard brain freezes with your friends.