Unleashed: Jeff Goodby Paints a Poem

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This summer, Jeff Goodby decided to do some house painting. But this wasn't your typical home makeover. In his spare time, the co-chairman, co-founder of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, makes non-commercial art as well, and for his latest installation, Poem House, he decided to turn a typical home improvement chore into an opportunity to explore the interplay between words and a familiar symbol of domesticity.

The agency honcho covered the outside of his 1892 Victorian with a series of curious words, set in Baskerville typeface. The home, on Oak Avenue in St. Helena, Napa Valley, was built by a German family in the era of poets like Virginia Woolf, Alfred Lord Tennyson, George Eliot and others.

So Jeff, what was the inspiration behind Poem House?
This house, which is a block off Main Street in St. Helena, California, in a tree-lined neighborhood, was built by a German family in 1892. The house was about to be painted, and I started thinking about what could be done with it in the interim. I wanted to do something that would commemorate the histories of the people who had lived inside.

How does this project fit in with the other works you've done, and your overall goals as an artist?
My main goal in this project was not to get arrested by the Planning Department in St. Helena. They've taken it pretty well. Most of the things I've done have combined elements that aren't usually seen together. I have a working knowledge of traditional forms like painting and etching and type design and it's interesting to challenge our perceptions of such things.

What were the biggest challenges in creating the installation?
Well, most of the people who hand paint words on things are either dead or too old to go up ladders. I was told that laser-cut vinyl letters were the state of the art now. They're like massive rub down type, and you can spec exact faces, sizes, and Pantone colors.

Why did you choose the Baskerville font?
I tried using other faces—even multiple faces and colors—but Baskerville seemed to complement the house in a nice Harry Potter sort of way. It's a real stopper in person and it's fun to just sit on the porch and watch people's reactions. The mail carrier stopped in her tracks: "That's fucking awesome!"

What did you learn about yourself as an artist from this project? Did you feel that this was a successful piece?
I learned that I should stay off 30 foot ladders. I also learned how quickly an idea can be passed around these days. The response to this has been rather amazing.

Until when will this be up?
I thought the neighbors would want the thing down yesterday. But even the most conservative of them seem to like it. I told my rather straight-laced next door neighbor that I'd remove it in a week or two. "Why?" he said. "I was worried about it at first, but the way you did it, I think it looks kind of elegant."

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