Eye on Design: Rick Anwyl

Words by Buddy Roberts

Portrait by Gus Dugger

Visiting Rick Anwyl’s studio is an experience, and that’s by his design.

“This is where my stuff is,” he says modestly, referring to the sprawling single-story building, which is located in a quiet residential neighborhood inside Atlanta’s West Midtown district. “And there’s little here that doesn’t have a memory or a story behind it,” the pensive and philosophical raconteur continues.

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Bespectacled and seated in a horsehair-stuffed leather Parisian club chair from the 1930s, he surveyed the large room from which he operates the Center for Design Study, a nonprofit foundation aimed at fostering excellence in all disciplines of design.

There’s the jar containing the clothespins Grandma DuMont used during Rick’s 1950s childhood. The neighboring shelf is stuffed to capacity—an evening gown created from the fabric of a blue silk parachute. A copy of Collier’s World Atlas & Gazetteer from the ocean-liner era. The stuffed penguin that was once an exhibit at Rocky’s Indian Museum & Trading Post in north Florida. The sign from the Tranquility Hill Fishing Lodge (boasting of its ten air-conditioned rooms, satellite TV, and native dishes), where he would stay while bonefishing on Andros Island.

“The lodge is still there. I just had to buy them a new sign. See, everything has a story, and stories are very important. It’s how we share, it’s how we used to learn everything, and, I’d argue, it’s still how we learn today.”

An environment conducive to learning, storytelling, and creativity was what Rick, an award-winning designer, photographer, artist, and corporate communications strategist who has worked with CNN, IBM, Nabisco, and Coca-Cola, had in mind when he designed his workspace.

“It was an entire project, like any other piece of art.” The building that houses his studio had its beginnings as the General Elevator Company in the early 1900s but spent most of its existence as a distribution warehouse for Boykin Tool & Supply, which acquired the property after World War II.

Stores of hammers, nails, screws, ball bearings, gloves, hard hats, and shovels were still inside when Rick bought the property in 2005. “It had been completely abused,” he recalls, “but there were features that needed to be preserved. Renovating was an exercise in doing very little so we could allow the character of the building to come through.”

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It is in this inspiring space that, as he describes it, reality can suspend and give way to an almost transcendent experience.

“When you get into that zone creatively, you’re not thinking. It’s the opposite of thinking. You just allow it to happen. It’s a special place, and it’s not really easy to get there. When I get to that spot, really interesting things happen. Actually, that’s what I love about children’s art too. It’s pure, it’s expressive, and it comes from that same place. You can tell a kid to draw a horse, and it may have six legs. But that’s fine. It’s great. It’s an expression, and that’s really cool.”

Rick believes that design, in all its forms, should be such an expression.

“Design can be a system, a product, or an experience,” he says. “It is this great umbrella under which different disciplines reside: architecture, fashion, landscaping, interior design, fabric, furniture. It is a lens through which all things can be viewed, and the greatest teacher of all that is the unfettered simplicity of nature.”

He pauses, and one can almost see the vistas through his eyes as he recalls time spent with nature in the North American west, South America, Europe, Australia, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico.

“I am at my best in nature,” he says. “I get excited about it. All the lessons are there if we take the time to listen and watch.”

Among such lessons, he believes, is patience.

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“Learn to accept and enjoy the moment. When I talk to young artists and designers about their careers, I talk about how we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to compete or accomplish things by a certain age. Those are artificial benchmarks. The arts are a journey. Your life is a journey. Your career is a journey. There are places you’re going to stop along the road, and that’s when you need to stay in the moment. There’s no set arrival or destination. You’re going to have great successes and monumental failures, but you’re going to keep doing whatever it is you do.”

As he’s “rounding third toward 70,” Rick is often asked what he does. “I don’t even know how to answer that any more. Today, the things I really enjoy are mentoring and inspiring new talent, helping people give themselves permission to go do something—something they have a responsibility to share with others. But I can’t imagine myself not doing something. The older I become, the more precious time becomes.”

Rick grew up in Beaverdale, Iowa. “It was about as Opie Taylor an experience as it sounds.” And he finds having settled in the South agreeable to his Midwestern upbringing.

“I don’t care if you’re in Cullman, Valdosta, or in Montgomery, Alabama, our culture is the culture of the people. We share ourselves. ‘Come on in. Let’s have some lemonade or iced tea. You hungry?’ We make great whisky, we have great restaurants, and we’ve gotten off the front porch and walked out in the yard and said, ‘We’re going to tell you about the best-kept secret: how rich the South is.’ The South is so real, and it’s so unpretentious. Even when it tries to be pretentious—‘Oh, by the way, we’re grilling oysters. They’re $4 apiece’—it’s still the South.”