Posts in Category: in the field

The democratic design of Bill Coperthwaite

“A Question: Why is it that other cultures… had such beauty about them in their daily lives–and we have not? Is it important? I suspect that it is extremely important for ourselves, for our children, and for our friends that we seek to surround ourselves with beauty. Suspicions: I suspect that how a culture defines beauty greatly affects its success as a culture. I wish I could persuade our world to see life itself as a work of art…”- Bill Coperthwaite in A Man Apart: Bill Coperthwaite’s Radical Experiment in Living

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There is no rootsier a designer than Bill Coperthwaite, whose lifelong and stalwart commitment to the handmade, the simple and the beautiful, and to design as a way of life, set him apart from nearly everyone. Many know Bill as an innovator of wooden yurts from his life’s work adapting Mongolian round houses. Indeed he built over 300 wooden yurts around the world, often fantastical, often multi-tiered, likely no two exactly alike as he was always perfecting his designs and trying new ideas.

A new book by his friends Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow takes us deeper into Bill’s world. Painted in letters, stories, and a narrative spanning the couple’s experience building a yurt at Bill’s homestead, are Bill’s philosophy of democratic design and experiential education, his fascination with handmade craft the world over, his 50 year remote homestead on the Maine coast, and his thoughtful, if difficult, relationships with those he loved.

Human habitat, artfully rendered and free of the trappings of modern mass production, is now rare, and I seek it out whenever I can. Indigenous cultures struggle to maintain or revive their time-hewn methods under the crush of Western homogenization and occasionally, individuals also emerge here and there who are able to imagine – and build – something authentic and free. The process of creating this is what Bill Copperthwaite called “democratic design” and I have come to call “wild design.” Design that by its existence, keeps real another way of living on earth, one that puts authenticity and meaning above the banal push for profit and personal gain. One that requires relationship – between people and land, between generations, between cultures. One that demonstrates that people can create shelter that is both deeply human (expressive, artful, unique), and also natural (designed to decompose, to create conditions conducive to life, to ingeniously embody the natural patterns that structure our world).

Visiting the habitat of such wild designers is a treat! In a whimsical twist of fate, I was fortunate enough to be part of the yurt build described in A Man Apart and have included some photos of my time to compliment this nod to Peter and Helen’s excellent book. Go get the book and have a read to travel deeper: A Man Apart: Bill Coperthwaite’s Radical Experiment in Living. And then start designing. And building. The cultural impetus for democratic design has never been greater.



Bill Copperthwaite’s tri-level (plus atrium!) wooden yurt on his remote homestead on the far-flung coast of Maine near Machias. Bill built the yurt by hand, a few miles walk from the nearest road, with no access to power tools and all materials carried in by foot or canoe.  Peter and Helen relate in their book that Bill actually began by building the top two stories, and some time later, on his own and without benefit of power tools, jacked these up and built the ground floor workshop.

lindley does drawingsA view down one side of the Bill’s woodshop in the ground floor of his yurt. Hand tools and handmade chairs are ever present around Bill’s habitat.

yurt wall detail 2Bill Copperthwait’s chisel collection, displayed on the outer wall of the original yurt structure, now enclosed within the addition.

bill's bathroom 2Bill Copperthwaite’s “bathroom.” Bill lived for 50 years with no running water. He showered in an open-air stone room by the ocean, and kept a hand made basin and hand carved soap dish for his indoor washroom.

carving knivesA few of Bill’s treasured carving tools, part of the collection of hand made craft implements that he spent a lifetime gathering from all over the world. Peter details the odds and ends of joining Bill on one of his worldly sojourns in A Man Apart.

wheelbarrowA design Bill was working on near the time of his death a few years ago. He custom designed and built hand carts to make the forest walk between his home and the road an easier load.

Circular structure - Coastal MaineWorking on a “Yurt John”, a mini-version of Bill’ yurts. These have also been adapted by others to become small meditation spaces, as at Peter and Helen’s farm in Vermont, or by design/builder Aaron Westgate.


Bill’s yurt sometimes are built with a temporary tripod holding up a circle, in this case a bike wheel, that the roof is constructed around.

Bill believed the confluence of experiential education and hand made craft presented a great antidote to the despair of industrialized versions of both. He earned a PhD in Education from Harvard, teaching design/build through the construction of a wooden yurt on the Harvard campus that would serve as his classroom in the 1960s.

Here I am, receiving instruction from Bill on how to build this fantastical design.


Checking out Bill’s bedroom of 5 decades.billsbath

Bill’s bathroom with a meadow view.billsbooks

Bill’s library, complete with hundreds of books on education, craft, handmade tools, indigenous cultures, as well as a few of his handmade chairs.


Bill demonstrating how to make a wooden bowl with a mounted carving knife.


The yurt john design, in Bills characteristic detailed hand rendering. Bill engineered hundreds of atypical, round buildings without the use of a single CAD or design program.


Bill’s shower, overlooking the ocean.


Another angle on Bill’s shower.


A guest yurt on Bill’s land in Maine, complete with a ladder, re-imagined.


Since the 1960s, Bill made his designs available to others through poster instructions that you could get through written order. He liked to provide just enough information to get a new yurt-builder going, but also require her to think!

Got a link to one of Bill’s yurts you’d like to share? I’m happy to post them here…

Photos by Malena Marvin or the talented and beautiful Lindley Brainerd.

Field-based design studies – Vermont

In the summer of 2013, the Nature of Design collaborated with Yestermorrow Design/Build School by leading it’s Semester Program students on an orientation wilderness design immersion in Vermont’s Green Mountains.


Students hiked from shelter to shelter along a high ridge, stopping to participate in a number of design exercises along the way, with nature as studio.


Students would go on to spend a semester working intensively together to design and build an entire house, so we wanted them to have an opportunity to get to know one another, and learn to communicate and work together.


The course invited students to shift into deep observation mode, to quiet their minds, and practice following nature’s forms.


Students speculated on the function of the structures they encountered, and how these might be taken as design inspiration.


Everywhere, constantly, natural forms presented themselves for closer study.


Students worked in teams to create installations using natural media. People got the feel of working in a studio with no furniture, walls, computers, and definitely no fluorescent lights. How does constant, dynamic physical movement change brain activity, and thus learning and the creative process?


Though students ranged in age from 19 to 43, emphasis was on interaction with the natural world, on inquiry, and on play.


Not only were students constantly surrounded by opportunities for visual design studies, but with several days’ walk separating them from most sounds and smells of civilization, quiet minds and absence of constant electronic distraction allowed for extended focus and attention


The only textbooks we brought were field guides.


The result was a lot of spontaneous laughter, comfort with curiosity, willingness to try new things.


There was time for small details and acknowledgment of other species’ serious design skills.


There was also time for individual reflection, unstructured conversation on the trail, and just being.

Students shared their work, and offered feedback.

Projects were intended to bring nature into the design process, and to stimulate leaps between disciplines.

Students connected what they saw with information from other studies.


Because the students would go on to design and build a tiny house as a collaborative process, we wanted to practice talking things through, to play with how to build a group aesthetic, and explore the iterative process of executing a collaborative design.


We loved experiencing what the students created, but the emphasis was on process.


Yestermorrow’s Semester Program in Sustainable Design/Build draws students from all over the US and the world. This diversity made for lively discussion, and dynamic interplay of ideas.


Heading back to Yestermorrow’s campus down in the Mad River Valley, there was time for a cleansing swim in the Mad River.


The Mad River offered ample opportunity to observe the endless forms water creates in itself, on rock, and around our bodies.


Our hope was also to invite students to re-examine their role as humans, and human designers, working between nature and culture.

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A big thank you to Kate Stephenson and the Semester Program instructors at Yestermorrow for supporting the Nature of Design Project! Learn more about Yestermorrow and see the house the students built at



And  of course a big thank you to our living laboratory, the windswept subalpine ridges of the Green Mountains.