This is just a short list of the people out there who are doing great work to improve the designed world.  I turn to them all regularly for ideas and inspiration and if you like what I have to say you might enjoy following them as well.

Wendell Berry

A farmer, advocate, writer and teacher, Wendell Berry is one of the strongest voices for Agrarian values in this country.  His prolific writing (fiction, non fiction and poetry) speaks feelingly about the need to live life according to strong principles.  Check out his greatest hits: The Unsettling of America, Home Economics, the Citizenship Papers, and his website.

Ross Chapin

A hero of mine for fighting iniquitous zoning regulations in his native Washington state, Ross Chapin is an architect with a long standing interest in Cohousing developments.   He developed the concept of a “Pocket Neighborhood” as a patch on to existing local zoning codes which wouldn’t allow him to build houses as small as he wanted.  He was able to work with zoning departments to create infill projects of small, beautifully designed houses.  He’s got a new book coming out in march but you can already find out more at his firm’s website or the site specifically devoted to Pocket Neighborhoods.

Michelle Kaufmann

Michelle Kaufmann is a California based architect who specializes in green residential design and has designed and produced a number of prefab designs.  One of them is on permanent display at the Museum of Science and Industry (known in my family, due to a childhood slip of the tongue, as the Museum of Science is Interesting) and well worth checking out if you’re in the area.  In addition to design work, she devotes a lot of time to advocacy and education and you can learn more about that at her blog here

Barbara Kingsover

Aside from being the author of my favorite book, Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver is a personal hero.  Her life and work are both devoted to maintaining an intimate connection with the land and living a life of conscience.  Her fictional works are paeans to the natural world and her collections of essays and, most particularly, her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle are active calls to arms in the battle to reclaim our lives from corporate interests. Visit her website, here, and read any or all of her books at your earliest convenience! 

Henry David Thoreau

Contrary to his modern image, Thoreau wasn’t a dilettante writer living in the woods.  He couldn’t afford to be.  He was at various times a school teacher, surveyor, manager of his family’s pencil factory and babysitter, handyman, and de facto secretary for his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson.  There is an almost creepy synchronicity between Thoreau’s time and ours.  Then, as now, town centers were being gutted by urbanization and new modes of transportation (the train rather than the car at that time).  His contemporaries also prized the house as a symbol of worldly success; that old ‘the house makes the man’ idea.   His contemporaries even had a version of a “man cave” – a little get away house outside the main living area reserved for manly pursuits.  The printing world was flooded with home décor and housekeeping magazines and books.  Thoreau went to the woods, not just to live deliberately, but to make a statement about modern life.  By writing about his time at Walden the way he did, he was trying to show that domesticity is for everyone.  We all benefit by being hand- on about our daily lives.

David Salmela

Salmela is a Minnesota based designer who does primarily residential work in a modern vernacular that tries to marry high architectural style with accessible materials and designs which can appeal to people not trained in design.  I heard him speak about his design philosophy during one of the first weeks of my architecture education.  “How do you design something that has a gable roof that architects will like?”  And vice versa – how do you design something to appeal to architects that the public can accept.  “Because if the public doesn’t like it, eventually they’re going to tear it down.  And then you’ve got no legacy.”  Check out more of his work here at his own website or check out the book written a few years ago by Tom Fisher.

Eileen Grey

I discovered Eileen Gray when I was doing research on modernist housing typology for my masters thesis.  I like both her work and her personal history.  Although she wasn’t, strictly speaking, an architect – she was more an general artist who dabbled in painting, furniture designs, interiors and the occasional building – she can serve as a female role model in the design world.   An artist and furniture designer, Gray began her study of architecture at 46.  In 1925, she designed her first house in collaboration with her architect friend Jean Badovici, very much in compliance with Le Corbusier’s Five Points of the New Architecture which was published the next year.   She was critical of modernism’s over-dependence on order.  “The poverty of modern architecture,” she wrote, “stems from the atrophy of sensuality. The dominance of reason, order and math leave a house cold and inhumane without some mediation of instinct, intuition or sense they produce unlivable space.”