One day in 2004 I sat in the auditorium of the Walter B. Ford building at Detroit’s College For Creative Studies watching a video on the electronic waste epidemic in China. Presented to students by the college’s Dean, Imre Molnar, the video showed the horrific results of our disposable culture; mounds of computers, cell phones and appliances of all kinds being dumped in villages and fields under the auspices of ‘recycling’. As the video ended, Imre proposed that the environmental and human costs of consumption and obsolescence were responsibilities of the industrial designer to mitigate. At this point a philistine in the audience bluntly asserted that it was someone else’s problem. Now in my mind Imre’s response to this was simply “bullshit”, but what he actually said in as many words was that designers were entirely accountable, and must be conscientious and outspoken participants instead of mindless cogs in a machine. I was halfway through my own degree in industrial design and these moments had an absolutely profound effect.
It was no accident I was sitting there that day. In fact it’s hard to find anything accidental, coincidental or otherwise random about the path that took me from Australia to Detroit, because Imre had been a part of my family since before I was born. Although our stories are intertwined, it’s not my entirely my story to tell.
In 1977 my father, Bryon, was a senior faculty member of the Canberra College of Advanced Education. Having pioneered an industrial design curriculum as a student in Brisbane, Australia, he had gone on to work in high profile positions in Germany, Denmark, and the UK, and had taught in the U.S. To have been back in Australia – and in Canberra of all places which was more like Tatooine than Tokyo at the time – doesn’t seem make a whole lot of sense. Yet it was here that an energetic Mr. Molnar applied for a teaching position. Still in his twenties, Imre had studied industrial design at Sydney’s National Art School and had already had significant industry experience. My father recognized that Imre’s skill, youth and intensity would be an invaluable asset to the department, by inspiring the tenured designosaurs whilst also being able to relate to the students. Having the utmost confidence in Imre’s value, he subtly hinted that choosing any of the other less-than-enthralling applicants would lead to his own departure from the college. Imre was subsequently hired.
What followed next was more than just a friendship or collaboration, it was a legendary team-up the likes of which you’d find in a comic book or fable. Taking advantage of the fact that the Australian design industry was in its infancy, Imre and Bryon wrote their own ticket, and had fun doing it. In 1984 Imre found sponsorship and organized a traveling workshop called ‘The Drawing Machine’, aptly named as it put on display my father’s ability to sketch and render with mechanical speed and precision. Imre’s vision and ability to implement was a defining attribute of his personality and his career. To his unstoppable force there were seemingly very few immovable objects, though I’m sure he’d say otherwise. It was this drive that lead him to become a State Director of the Design Council of Australia, and to also set up his own design practice all at a very young age. This kind of energy proved to be uncontainable within Australian shores and in the following years Imre would set his sights on Europe and the U.S.
Somewhere amidst these adventures I was born. I never remember meeting Imre, his name seemed to always float around, ever present. But if he was in a room, you knew it; there was something undeniably palpable about his energy. Imre and my father’s complementing skill-sets and collaborations went on to produce some of the world’s best design talent from Art Center College of Design’s campuses in Vevey, Switzerland and Pasadena, California. In 2001, Imre was appointed Dean of Students at the College for Creative Studies (CCS). After having served as director of education at Art Center, operations director at the industrial design firm Hauser, and design director for the clothing label Patagonia, taking on such a large responsibility at CCS was a natural progression. Imre soon after recommended my father for a temporary 6-month stint as Chair of the Industrial Design department, a position which came to last 6 years…and so their adventures continued. Imre served as dean of CCS for 11 years and in that time propelled it forward as a center of excellence for not just automotive design, but for all the creative industries. In 2012 he was promoted to the position of Provost, an honor never before bestowed on anyone in the college’s history.
Australia to Rhode Island, Switzerland to California, Detroit, Chicago and beyond, my life would not be what it is without the friendship between Imre and my father. Detroit, a paradoxically positive and energetic city became the home I never had. My experiences there as a student and the resulting lifelong friendships have been invaluably grounding.
That day in 2004, as the potential impact of my career came to light, I began to see that the price to pay for being a conscious creative would likely be high. As my own path began to unfold in unexpected ways, I knew that seeing things holistically was the only way forward. There is an immense amount of responsibility that comes with being a designer whose end product is a mass-produced object of some kind. The repercussions are social, environmental, and moral. But to see this you have to give yourself more credit beyond just being that mindless cog. I learned from Imre to not limit myself to the conditioning of my surrounding environment. That lesson was reinforced over the years the more I learned about the faults of my industry. In a broader sense it’s the entire creative process we have to respect; the beginning, middle and end, and I truly believe that’s how Imre lived his life. It was why he was such an inspiration in everything he did, from being a designer and illustrator, to teacher, leader, friend and father.
Imre died of a heart attack on December 28th, 2012, while riding his bike in the desert in California. He was 61. On December 29th, my birthday, I received a phone call from my father telling me what had happened. Experiencing the loss of someone we can’t imagine the world without, we’re given a sudden glimpse of what the term ‘forever’ means. The finite helps us better perceive the infinite. The empty space left by Imre isn’t just a void, but a vacuum. It has gravity.
Whilst at his memorial in Detroit, attended by over 800 people, I met family, friends, ex-students and colleagues who had come from all over the world. I’d always felt such a personal impact from Imre’s friendship, but there seemed no end to the amount of people he’d influenced, propelled, and changed in some way. The resolve I sensed behind their grief, the bittersweet drive to somehow continue Imre’s legacy, was easily recognizable because it was the same thing I felt myself. It was here I realized that my part in Imre’s story was just that – a part of a bigger puzzle – and that I’d never really know the full story. But I find comfort now in knowing his story is alive in so many others, especially his wife Felicia, and children Max and Isabelle.
The loss experienced by Imre’s family is immeasurable. CCS has lost its champion as has Detroit, a city that truly benefited from Imre’s leadership and magnetism. My father has lost his best friend and partner in crime, who he could never have thought he’d outlive. Australia has lost a true ambassador for not just the design industry but in many ways a country itself that is so often disregarded and misunderstood.
Though we can pass life events off as being coincidental or circumstantial, we choose our own paths – but we don’t choose them alone. We never really do anything alone though it so often seems that way. We choose what to believe in, what to make a part of ourselves and what we want to pass on to others, but it’s through human interaction that we develop this insight. The most excellent humans are the ones who never have any intent to manipulate, preach or impose their opinion as truth. Semantics and etymology aside, it’s the difference between lecturing and teaching. The former is done by prescribing and the latter is done by guiding, revealing, and encouraging. Imre saw talent and vision within others, and knew how to catalyze it. Without exaggeration he has changed the world.
At Imre’s memorial my father chose David Bowie’s song ‘Heroes’ to be played in honor of his friend. I couldn’t put into words how apt a choice it was.
Imre Molnar, 1951-2012