William Drenttel, 1953-2013

William Drenttel, 1953-2013

Nothing is more revealing than how we choose not to fit into niches, and Bill Drenttel, who died of brain cancer on December 21, was an outlier in several ways. He was a non-trained designer who played a commanding role in the design world; a non-tenured man of letters; an idea-a-minute entrepreneur whose ventures were boutique or nonprofit; a founder and later editorial director of Design Observer, a pioneering website that frequently ranged off the subject of design; and a country squire who was constantly on the road.

I met him in the mid-1990s, when I was managing editor of the graphics magazine Print, and he was best known as a founder, with Stephen Doyle and Tom Kluepfel, of Drenttel Doyle Partners, a design studio so worldly and smart it produced the look of Spy magazine. In those days, I ran into him at AIGA events (he was president of the organization from 1994 to 1996) and Cooper-Hewitt museum openings (he was a board member from 1998 to 2009).

They were a well-dressed group, those arty designers, and not a few of them had the costly, conservative duds of people who were trying to be taken seriously as business intelligences. But Bill’s polish was its own species. He had neat, handsome features and dressed like a super-sophisticated preppie. I would have cast him as F. Scott Fitzgerald even before knowing that he, too, had been born in Minnesota, done serious time in Southern California, gone to Princeton, floated on clouds of enthusiasm but also sometimes roiled with cynicism, made an ethical virtue of taste, impressed many important minds of his era, and died much too young.

In the last two years of his life, he lived around New Haven, Connecticut, but Bill is inseparable in memory from Litchfield County, where he and his wife, the designer and writer Jessica Helfand, founded their company, Winterhouse Studio, in 1997. They named the business after Ezra Winter, an early-20th-century muralist whose property in Falls Village they bought. Bill tucked his enormous rare book collection into the office they constructed out of Winter’s original painting studio and chatted with visitors on facing sofas in front of a baronial fireplace. Employees lured to the Connecticut countryside to assist them enjoyed views of maple trees and stone walls. The Drenttel children, Malcolm and Fiona, could be seen in flashes of freckles and shiny hair, while Ruby and Maud, the family’s Vizsla dogs, pushed open a door leading outside and wandered around the huge, hilly property.

I never met anyone who spent time at Winterhouse who didn’t fall under its spell. Its gentility and comfort were like wood smoke, hypnotic and indelible even from miles away. Once, while editing I.D. magazine, I received a lunch invitation: The Poetry Foundation, which had been handed an enormous bequest from the pharmaceutical heiress Ruth Lilly, and had hired Winterhouse to help reinvent the organization, was arranging for a few editors to meet in a small, private room at Gramercy Tavern. The plan was to introduce poetry to non-poetry magazines, and it had Bill’s fingerprints all over it. I found myself seated between John Barr, the Poetry Foundation’s president, and Daniel Menaker, a renowned literary editor. In a folder in front of me was a Billy Collins poem called “Design,” which I was encouraged to reprint, and later did. Billy Collins sat a few places away.

“Bill fit easily into no category,” Barr wrote recently on the Poetry Foundation’s website. “He was more than an outside consultant, and we eventually gave him a title, Creative Director, to recognize what he did for the Foundation. But that was like putting Ariel into a bottle.”

Bill challenged everyone to shape-shift. A theme of the tributes that bloomed on Design Observer after his death was his encouragement of new writers. My own early contributions to the site were articles he asked me to do about art, a topic I suspect no one else would have trusted me with. Review Christo’s Central Park Gates? Accompany the photographer Duane Michals to Edward Hopper’s former studio, now lodged at NYU’s School of Social Work? Gulp. Thanks. I’d love to.

In 2009, Bill scored a coup that took him into another new direction: He secured a $1.5 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop design strategies for social innovation. Being Bill, he proposed not one but three initiatives, which he engineered to work in concert: a conference on social design, which took place, in partnership with AIGA, at Aspen in November 2009; a series of social-design case studies developed with the Yale School of Management, where he was an adjunct faculty member; and a channel of Design Observer, called Change Observer, that served as an online platform for social-design journalism. He invited me to edit Change Observer, and it was from that vantage that I knew him best.

Together, the three initiatives allowed Bill to build a network of social-design experts from different corners of a large, undefined territory and create structures for pooling and perpetuating their knowledge. Impatient with the impractical, he insisted that the 2009 Aspen Design Summit focus on six concrete social-design problems dealing with issues from preventative health actions to childhood education. Attendees, both designers and stakeholders, were required to hammer out realistic plans for ameliorative measures that could be accomplished in the next 18 months. It was an ambitious, even impossible, goal, but Bill was determined not to lead a conference that was all talk and no action.

In 2010, he began an annual symposium that brought together social-design educators from the U.S. and abroad. That year, too, he invited international design curators to the Rockefeller Foundation’s center in Bellagio, Italy, to discuss the museum’s role in collecting, exhibiting, and fostering social design.

Applying his social-design expertise to other institutions, he co-directed the 2011 and 2012 Transform symposiums sponsored by the Mayo Clinic’s Center for Innovation. From 2008, he was vice president of communications and design for Teach for All, an outgrowth of Teach for America, which is honoring his legacy with the annual William Drenttel Award for Excellence in Design. It aptly will laud design employed for maximum impact.

It is bittersweet to grieve in the digital age. I type “Drenttel” into my email search box and hundreds of messages pop up. Because most of our work together was conducted at long distance—very long distance in 2010, the year Bill took off with his family on a world tour, checking in from Hong Kong, Cape Town, and Rome—it feels like he’s still around. Surely, if I amble into the Century Club, I’ll find him with a Stoli and tonic, shaking enthusiasm and impatience off in equal parts like a water dog that’s just bounded out of the surf.

That passionate energy. It really could change the world.