“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
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.
Bill 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.
A 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.
Working 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 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.
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…