“I believe that one can be an intellectual without being a nerd, provided one has a private library instead of a classroom, and spends time as an aimless (but rational) flaneur benefiting from what randomness can give us inside and outside the library. Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.” - Nassim Taleb
As an undergrad design student at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, I tried just enough to get by. As long as I kept my grades slightly above average, I could coast through. I showed up for most classes, calculated how many absences I could accrue without serious penalty and completed enough work to avoid the instructor’s scrutiny. My attention was focused on going to punk shows, girls, skateboarding and causing trouble.
Once out of college, I began looking for jobs. Because of my lackluster performance in school and an inherent distaste for the 9 to 5 lifestyle, I knew that a regular job wasn’t for me. The problem was that I wasn’t sure yet what lifestyle exactly was for me.
I had a fantasy that traveling outside what I thought of at the time as the pedestrian and parochial setting of my neighborhood would save me from a life of unfulfilling 9–5 work. It would take me away from the drugs, violence and crime that many of the friends I had grown up with were getting involved in.
I also had a serious desire to learn as much as I could about the world. I attribute this to my parents' collection of National Geographic and their refusal to subscribe to cable TV, a heavy dose of PBS and weekend trips to the public library in Center City.
Luckily a friend from college told me about a place in Treviso called Fabrica. I didn’t know where Treviso was, and I actually looked at a physical map (as opposed to Googling the location, not possible yet) to discover that it was a small town outside Venice.
Fabrica’s website described it as a communications research centre, studio and school. I could apply for a scholarship to become a researcher at the centre, and I’d be able to learn by doing and to seek out new ideas and knowledge. Best of all, Fabrica turned out to be run and created by the Benetton group, an Italian fashion and clothing brand. I was not particularly interested in fashion, but the exciting thing for me about this was the fact that Tibor Kalman, one of my favorite designers, also worked for the Benetton group at one point as the creative director for Colors magazine.
Fabrica sounded great! It wasn’t a normal job, and I’d get to learn and directly collaborate with people from different disciplines like writers, musicians and filmmakers. And it was a way out of Philadelphia. All these things seemed impossible for me if I just worked in an ordinary design studio.
I put together a portfolio of my schoolwork and some of the posters and zines and other personal work I had made. I perfect-bound it in the style of a hand made zine, and I sent it off in a big manilla envelope. I was excited to write the words “Treviso, Italy” on the front in black marker. I affixed what must have been 20 dollars worth of stamps to it.
I waited for weeks. I remember sitting in my bed and looking out into the grey cold sky outside my room in West Philadelphia, thinking about the package of my work sitting in various mailrooms and on trucks and airplanes all across the planet. I wondered why I hadn’t heard back.
More time passed and I had still heard nothing. Since there were rolling admissions, I didn’t know what to expect, or if I would even hear back at all. I decided that I should call Fabrica directly and find out for myself.
I called at 10 am on a weekday. The phone rang, and then buzzed, going through the various processes of making an international call. Eventually, I heard a woman’s voice on the line.
“Fabrica, pronto,” she said curtly.
“Hello… um. Do you speak English?” I responded, embarrassed.
“Of course, un po,” came the somewhat surprised response.
I asked her if she was the person I should talk to about finding out if my application had been accepted. She said yes, asked me what my name was, and put me on hold. “Un minuto, per favore.”
I waited a good ten or fifteen minutes. I recall that the hold music was Beethoven, 9th Symphony. The soundtrack abruptly clicked off and I could hear the secretary picked up the phone.
“Mr. Smyrski?” she said, struggling to pronounce the name.
“Yes?” I said.
“We are happy to say you are accepted,” she said matter of factly, “When are you coming?” This would be my first encounter with what I would learn is characteristic Italian nonchalance about communication and scheduling.
I was a bit shocked, and of course elated. I knew my life was going to change. I arranged to come for a one month trial period. During this time I’d decide if Fabrica was right for me, and they’d decide if I was right for them.
At Fabrica I met writers, photographers, dancers, musicians and designers from all around the world. I still keep in touch with one or two of these people today. I even somehow managed to be asked to model for a Portuguese clothing company (this is something I’m sure I’ll never be asked to do again). I had my first taste of collaborating with people from vastly different social backgrounds and that spoke many different languages. I was further exposed to different ways of thinking about, looking at, and creating art.
Unassumingly set in the small town of Treviso, a hub of creativity designed by renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando lies quietly in the north of Italy. Initiated, owned and run by Benetton group, Fabrica is in a world of its own. More here.
I ended up not staying at Fabrica for the full term. It wasn’t quite right for me. Nonetheless I was now sure that I could live a life that was different than the one set out for me if I stayed in Port Richmond. I now knew there were different ways of living, and I was determined to find out which one worked for me. This would require a lot of moving around from place to place. I needed to see different cities, different towns, different countries. I wanted to ride the subways, visit the art museums, and drink and eat in the pubs and restaurants in as many places as I could.
The experience of my trip to Fabrica built on what I had learned earlier from the small trip that I took out of Port Richmond and into Center City, only on a larger scale. Through international travel I cultivated an obsession with cities, and came to know people, cultures, music, art, theater, food, books and magazines from around the globe.
My visits to different countries, bookshops, design studios and museums sparked many new love affairs. I became fascinated with the way that the design of a magazine or book could tell an important story to a vast audience. Signage and graphics (things I had never noticed in the United States) in museums, airports and train stations around the world inspired me.
Combating domain dependence is one of the reasons I travel (or used to travel) so often. It is natural for humans to veer into a narrow way of seeing the world, to become comfortable doing things one way and in one place. But for us to have the chance to grow and to learn, we have to challenge ourselves by expanding our self imposed limitations. Not too much as to destroy ourselves, but enough that we force our bodies and minds to reach new levels that we believed to be impossible.
Slowly these experiences began to sink into my mind, and I better understood why culture, art and design mattered. I realized the world could become my classroom if I approached it the right way.