Jessica Helfand | Essays

Remembering Ralph Caplan

Ralph Caplan, photographed with an Eames chair in Chair: The Current State of the Art, 1978.

The American writer Ralph Caplan died peacefully last week, at home, at the age of 95. The author of several seminal books on design, including By Design: Why There Are No Locks on the Bathroom Doors in the Hotel Louis XIV and Other Object Lessons, and Cracking the Whip, Caplan taught design criticism at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and wrote for many publications. He won the National Design Award in 2010, and the AIGA Medal in 2011.

Ralph was curious about everything, saw opportunity in everyone, and always made me laugh. He was a brilliant wordsmith with an impeccable ear for detail, who loved reminding me that my own father was a spring chicken. (My father, who died in 2018, was a year younger than he was.) Many of us were the grateful beneficiaries of Ralph's kindness, receiving letters like this one, which he sent to me several years ago following the publication of my book, Design: The Invention of Desire. Here—self-deprecating to a fault, his words cloaked in apology—he nevertheless makes a startling observation about design and the larger social fabric in which we live.

Achieving breadth and inclusiveness, he wrote, requires wisdom.

How prescient these words were then. How resonant they are for us now. We should all aspire to such wisdom, to such clarity, and to such grace.

Ralph Caplan was a national treasure. He made us laugh. He helped us see. He taught us much.

And we’ll miss him always.


May 26, 2016

Jessica dear,

Last night, I read your book. That may not strike you as much of an accomplishment, but it would if you knew how long it takes me these days to read anything, entailing as it does turning pages and performing other acts of dexterity I once did with ease.

Inevitably, the best books on design are about far more than design; the field needs something like that big tent that Republicans claim to want. But breadth and inclusiveness are easy for books and politicians to aspire to. Achieving them requires wisdom, which is harder to come by than I once hoped. I never feared growing old because, although I knew the downside of aging, I had heard that wisdom comes with the territory. Now that I know it doesn’t, I’m happy to have you to fall back on.

Thanks for teaching me so many things that I’ll never learn.


Posted in: Obituaries

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