Bruce Sterling
49 min readJan 2, 2024

The Homemade Limits of Everyday Weirdness

by Bruce Sterling

“Why did the world’s most famous kinetic artist have a Maker home?”

As soon as this question struck me, I knew that I had things wrong. Clearly, I was “back-projecting.” I was distorting history to suit my own present-day notions.

Alexander Calder (the famous artist in question) created twenty-two thousand documented artworks in his lifetime. However, he never “hacked” or “fabbed” anything. Calder died back in 1976, when the concept of “hacking” was still restricted to eccentric engineering students at MIT.

However, Calder was an eccentric engineer himself, and to my eye, there was no question that many things in his home looked Maker-style “made,” or “fabbed,” or even “hacked.” Calder performed this personal activity, with various methods, intentions and materials, for seventy years.

Even today, there still exist quite a number of these non-artistic anomalous “objects” that Calder somehow invented, or amended, or subjected to freaky alterations, pseudo-repairs, re-purposings, and upcyclings. Some “Calder Household Objects” are easily identified and can be promptly named as “ashtrays,” “soap-dishes,” “bread tins,” and “drawer-pulls.” Other “objects,” though, are more mysterious — they lack any clear identity as any everyday thing.

The wire sketch of a rooster crowing, that’s supposed to work as a household morning sundial, for instance.

These objects are always present in Calder’s homes, and performing domestic functions of some kind, but they’re not products of consumer culture. They’re not “industrial,” they’re not “designed.” They’re mostly one-off creations, often seemingly spontaneous, often made in under five minutes. They clearly lack any blueprints or any coherent plans for their construction. They often seem to have been cobbled together on some inspired impulse, from cheap, repurposed materials that Calder always had ready.

Such are the “Calder Household Objects,” as I must name them as a distinct class of things, and this rather long, prolix essay is all about the who, what, when, where, how and why of these artifacts. They’re mysterious, but with some critical analysis, I want to make them less mysterious, without also making them more mysterious, in unnecessary contemporary ways.

I do this mostly for my own purposes, because I’m very interested indeed in both kinetic art and unorthodox domestic acts of material culture. “Calder Household Objects” are some primal form of such activity, boiling at the magmatic root, there.

Calder’s not doing things that I myself like to study, for my benefit. He’s doing other things in a different historical epoch for different motivations. However, it’s so similar to my own concerns that it’s like some alternate-world parallel, or, maybe, like a steamship cruise-voyage to France.

Calder’s descendants sometimes publicly display these Calder Household Objects. They tend to half-apologize for them, because they are the great auteur’s creations, but they can’t fit into any proper museum or gallery art-world classification. They don’t even fit my own “Anti-Conventional Objects” classifications, as seen in the diagram here.

I was pretty happy about this design-school diagram of mine before I stumbled into the Calder Household Objects; now I feel that I need to vacuum it and scrub off the rust.

The “Objects” were indefinably weird, but definitely integral parts of Calder’s home-life. They were never framed, artistic showpieces, but they were (more or less) functional objects that he and his family lived and interacted with, and used in daily life. Unique. Hand-created. Never available in stores. On walls, on shelves and in cabinets, next to ceilings, in the kitchen, in the bedroom, on the breakfast table. Lots.

What was Calder doing with this practice? Alas, he’s dead, so a design journalist can’t just ask him. His response would likely be swift and dismissive, along the lines of “Oh hell, I’m just farting around!” Calder was gruff and earthy, and he disliked art theory talk; his parents were art teachers.

Legendry surrounds the guy. He’s got too much, even. I will have to tackle it headlong in this essay. I don’t begrudge Calder his legendry; any great artist naturally attracts that “Walter Benjamin Aura;” it’s part of the miasma of world-class artistic fame, and it even seems to be a professional requirement. Also, there are aspects to Calder’s creativity that I don’t expect to ever figure out; I don’t think he understood them himself.

But what the heck gives with the “objects?” Why are they so weird, and so weird in those ways? Why did he do it, and why just him and his intimates? Why doesn’t everybody do it?

Why, for instance, this artifact (in the handsome Internet jpeg that I have no rights to reproduce, but that I purloined for entirely legitimate pedagogical purposes because I’ve been known to teach in design schools).

This is an outsized kitchen soup ladle that’s made from a single sheet of formerly-flat, but deftly folded, tin-plate. That’s what it physically is; an archaeologist who dug it up would call it that.

Now, to speak as a design critic, I can easily list all kinds of formal objections to this “object.” First, it can’t function well in any kitchen. It’s not finger-friendly; the sharp edges could hurt. This ladle will conduct kitchen heat unnecessarily, so it’s not much good for stirring or serving large amounts of hot stew.

Also, there’s no rational “need” to make this thing. Even in the 1930s during a Depression, or even during a World War with metal shortages, a properly made, safe, clean, handy kitchen ladle would be easy and cheap to acquire.

Also, there’s something beautiful and marvelous about this Calder ladle-object. Calder himself caused it to exist, and unlike some millions of other ninety-year-old kitchen ladles, Calder’s unique ladle-object still exists, and will likely be around in many years. It’s got aura, that’s for sure.

It’s unique, but with that said, why is it unique? Why is there just one, only one? It’s so simple! Obviously, this inventive “object” of Calder’s would be trivial to mass-produce. These ladles could be stamped out of some proper, kitchen-friendly metal substrate, in one single, automated factory-machine fold-and-punch.

These mass-produced non-Calder ladles would also be “pretty,” as it is pretty, sort of — but even if they cost next to nothing, I don’t think anyone would buy them. Much less, use them.

I’m not sure they’d be purchased even if they were Calder-licensed by Calder’s family foundation, and offered in a museum store as certified Calder mementos. Without the Calder aura, they’re dead on arrival as “products;” and even with Calder aura piled deep on them by the conventional art-world, they still wouldn’t work in a kitchen.

So, did Calder himself use this big awkward spoon, did his wife use it? Yeah. I think they did indeed use it. They had their reasons. I plan to get to those.

This ladle-object shares the innate mystery of many other Calder objects. They’re not particularly fun, useful, helpful, safe or nice. They’re somewhat ingenious — (if you study them with care, and envision the clever processes Calder chose to make them) — but they’re unfit for purpose, they lack clear definition, and they often provoke vague unease. There’s even something repulsive about them.

The genuinely weird Calder ladle-object is by no means the same class-of-thing as, say, a big, hand-whittled wooden camp spoon. Hand-made spoons are pretty common in backwoods hunting camps. The Victorinox company even publicizes their camping knives and their nifty ability to quickly make wooden spoons. Wooden camp spoons are wilderness hacks, they’re social-media Maker things on Youtube. Like Calder’s metal spoon, they’ve got some major design problems: they’re ugly, awkward, unsafe for food, they don’t work well, you could get a wooden splinter or nick yourself with your Swiss Army Knife, etc.

These campfire maker-objects are physically quite similar to Calder’s ladle-Object, but they completely lack the affect, or the lasting value of the Calder ladle-Object. Why is that?

Well, the answer’s not to be found within the two different spoons. That’s no use. The answer is in Calder. Alexander Calder’s not exactly “camping in his house.” But he is exploring it.

I don’t claim Calder’s metal spoon is somehow “better” than the wooden spoon. I would mention in passing that although I have long been very aware of Alexander Calder — (he’s the world’s most famous kinetic artist, even the seminal figure there, and I quite enjoy kinetic art) — there’s a lot of Calder I do not like at all. I dislike it in much the way that I dislike the music of Edgard Varese (another Modernist zealot, and a pal of Calder’s).

I get what Edgard Varese is up to, I appreciate the approach and the effort, I’m not surprised that his sound-constructions have lasted; I just don’t want his recordings around. Varese’s welcome to play that sort-of-music in his own house, I don’t want it in mine. Similarly, there’s certified, much-admired Calder artwork I don’t want to ever see more than once.

Sometimes Calder’s deliberately getting quite out-there with the abstract formulations, and I find that too demanding and tiresome. There’s even stuff that Calder considered cute and family friendly that I prefer not to witness, like, say, way-too-linear Calder housecat drawings.

And, well, the cowboy thing. Calder actually lived with American cowboys for a while, so he knew what they really looked like; a fan of “cowboy art” will find this image hard to endure.

So with that established, I am a Calder devotee, but I’m not in awe of some ashtray he clipped from a sardine tin. Instead, I tend to fret about him. Would I attend a big, boozy party at Calder’s colorful and eccentric house? Yeah, that would be fun! Would I like to try to prepare a meal in Calder’s one-off, extensively hacked kitchens — with their dangling kettles and their bizarre shelving constructions? No, not really. Blood might spurt.

Calder’s work is inventive and adventurous, but it’s also the “Unpopular Front,” as they used to describe twentieth-century Abstract Modernism. Calder performed it — he made strange objects from his childhood, and other Modernists encouraged him and they lit his footsteps — but not everybody could endure doing that, living with it, or even trying the effort. It breaks the weirdness limit. It’s un-recuperable.

Similarly, why doesn’t our modern-day world appreciate Maker-style interventions? Maker Faires have long been rather popular, but Maker department-stores are unheard of. Why has the “Maker Movement” never come up with any massive product-hit? For instance, some jigsawed plywood knick-knack that everybody in the world has to have, some “object” more beloved than a “Pet Rock”?

With “Calder Objects” and also Maker objects, I do not marvel and gawk with an unalloyed pleasure. Instead, I’m concerned about the sterile avant-gardism here. There are some “weird” successes here that normal people don’t understand, but also “weird” treacherous failures that nobody ever seems able to escape or transcend. It’s hard to distinguish the two — even when you know them both, and know them well.

For a few years, I spent much time inside a deliberately unusual domestic “maker space” — “Casa Jasmina,” a structure inside a renovated car-factory in Turin. This structure was never intended to be an “art project,” but it was commonly understood as one. Also, there’s never been more than one Casa Jasmina, even though it was open-source, and there was nothing secret about the goings-on in there.

When I look at the too-unusual Calder homes, I’m seeing what seems to me to be a closely related phenomenon. “Anybody could do it” — next-to-nobody chooses to. What are the historic lessons here? It’s not about the cost of the house. It’s not even the abrasive “weirdness” of the house, because people can get used to living inside most any form of peculiar shelter, desert tents, convents, barracks, squats, submarines, trenches in war-time with scrimshaw art. Somehow, it’s more the gesamtkunstwerk of the house, the challenging alienness of its entire expressive affect.

To grasp the mysteries of the Calder house, we must come to grips with Calder. To begin with Calder is necessarily to begin with the very young Calder. Calder’s Object history begins with Calder as a child of eight. His chosen everyday playthings are hammers, saws, and especially pliers.

At age eight, Calder is already busily altering his childish dwelling-space.

The little-kid Calder looms quite large in the Calder legendry. People who knew Calder as a child were especially taken with this handy explanation for his weird adult behavior. The secret is: our Sandy’s just a little kid who never grew up! Sandy’s got a permanent childish gusto for messing around! He makes a big spoon out of scrap metal — because any kid would! He yanks off functional drawer-pulls, and he replaces them with hand-hammered bronze spirals, because that’s the decor that a four-year-old would like! Sandy has never internalized the rules of adult behavior, so he turns his surroundings into his private playtime fairyland. And, since he’s boyishly good-natured about it, it’s charming. Sandy’s a fun guy, he does it for the sheer joy of it! It’s delightful to try to cook with awkward tin ladles that are hazardous and semi-functional!

I understand why people would want to say all this — it’s a kind of Whig version of Calder, where he’s destined from his boyhood to invent radical sculptural forms. I myself don’t buy this glib explanation, though. It’s way too neat and cozy. I’d like to offer another, less-perky version, where Calder is a too-bright little kid verging an autism. He has serious conceptual issues with three-dimensional space.

Little Calder has unspoken but long-lasting issues with rooms and spaces, with volumes and relationships and motions. When he hacks his bedroom, that’s not a boyish act of gusto. It’s a differently-abled kid learning to cope, and, maybe, aiming to transcend.

Sandy’s big artistic gift is also his affliction. It’s mysterious, like his mysterious life-long speech defect, not so much a “stammer” as a kind of weird word-swallowing that seemed to wax and wane for no particular physical reason.

A lot of little boys are feverish inventors who might whittle big wooden spoons, while little Calder age eight fills his environment with wire. He likes to tug wires and activate windows from his bed, and turn the lights on and off. Obviously there’s a childish sense of command-and-control here — “young Sandy Calder, the little engineer.” This is also a kid who’s strangely disturbed by the cosmic fact that things can be far away. Or too near. It’s not okay to him that space can behave like that.

Especially, ceilings affront him a lot — ceilings, “the deadest space in architecture.” At his parents’ home, Sandy is commonly down in the cellar, privately busy with his construction tools. All that dead empty space overhead — it seems to weigh on his mind.

Little Calder doesn’t merely want to yank his wire puppet-strings, and to make distant things happen. He wants spatiality to become more immediate. Things should be more connected to things.

I’m in deep water here, but I’d go deeper yet. I’d say that everyday spatial reality, boring old height-depth-and-width, is not in concurrence with the connections that the little boy privately senses. He’s trying to repair the disconnections. He somehow wants and needs the moving things to move the moving things. So he’s not “a little kid who doesn’t grow up.” He’s a growing kid at the edge of the bell-curve, and he’s grasping at straws.

This little Calder also has the persistent habit of collecting and assembling debris. This activity seems like a mere chaos of weird rubbish to other people, but the little Calder has some spatial eidetic memory for these elements he picks up and picks out. He immediately notices and resents it, if any small thing is disturbed in his room or in his basement workshop.

So both nature and nurture are contributing to Calder’s issues, or his gifts. His father’s a sculptor, his mother’s a painter, and Calder is surrounded from the cradle by 3D art objects. I don’t cruelly accuse Calder of any particular mental illness, mind you. He wasn’t “mad,” he was never arrested or confined, he had considerable sociable charm and savoir-faire, and in the long run he did very well for himself. But this is who Calder really is — this is the Calder in, and of, the Calder environment. Even utterly alone in a small room he’s very active and preoccupied — not just with his toys, but with the space.

His parents are not weird pack-rats like Calder. Calder’s parents are two natty, well-dressed Belle Epoque Arts-and-Crafts aesthetes who teach art theory. But their messy younger child — who never in his lifetime seems able to comb his hair — seems to have deep issues with the value of objects, and where and why they fit into spaces. Their boy can’t “grow out” of that condition. He’ll never grow out of it. What he can do is sublimate it and artistically express it.

There are also some, perhaps significant, traumatic upheavals during the Calder childhood. The father (known to history as “Stirling Calder” athough he’s also an Alexander Calder) catches tuberculosis. Then the afflicted, poverty-stricken, fine-arts family has to relocate to the healthier air of rural Arizona.

Arizona has not yet become an American state. So Calder and his family are well-nigh penniless and they are suddenly living on a wide-open, frontier, cowboy hacienda, dwelling in tents.

This is quite a severe transition, and a stark level of material deprivation, for a big-town Philadelphia kid once-surrounded by cultured Mom and Dad’s artsy bric-a-brac. Yanked from his workshop basement, Calder has to mentally cope with vast wide-open horizons.

Calder’s father survives his grave illness, but he dreads the White Plague back in Philadelphia. The family relocates to newly-founded Pasadena, California. In this brand-new railroad town, turn-of-the-century “Arroyo Culture” has a fierce William Morris vogue for building your own home. The Calder family’s rental-home furniture is made from carefully painted, upholstered, repurposed California orange crates.

In San Francisco, dad finds a big break for some new sculpture work. San Francisco is still in a condition of extensive, post-earthquake ruin, an American metropolis that’s a heap of burnt junk. Among these ruins, Calder’s family is heavily involved in patching together a World’s Fair where everything is made of lath and plaster and it all flies up and then disappears.

These are the weird Calder formative experiences with homes and spaces. These are the weird sources of Calder’s weird later attitudes toward materiality. This is what family life in a family home looks and feels like to him — it’s very artistically cultivated, but radically unsettled. You truly need to adapt and make-do.

When the family returns to the settled and placid East Coast, dad’s health is fine, and he’s even reasonably famous. Civilization envelops them. However, that’s not the world that Sandy Calder has grown up in. The parents are upset and guilty about the exigencies of their artistic life. They really didn’t expect to live so close to the bone for so long, and under such traumatic domestic circumstances. So they urge high-school Calder to get a sound college education and find a solid career that can support him well. A predictable life of propriety.

So Calder, who has an excellent work ethic, dutifully does his college paperwork and earns a degree in mechanical engineering. He lands some office jobs — but the work doesn’t suit him.

He leaves the family home, but at this point in his life, he seems to fall off the edge of the table. He’s got no fixed address, and he’s aimlessly joining the merchant marine and signing on to long trips in the rusty holds of tramp steamers. He takes shelter with his married sister in the Pacific Northwest and he works in a frontier lumberjack camp. In his twenties, there’s something very Jack London blue-collar tramp about Calder. An educated East Coast college guy should have a career, a wife, kids and a house with a mortgage. By contrast, Calder’s living out of a duffelbag and is something of a lost soul.

While drifting somewhere off the coast of Guatemala, Calder undergoes a famous mystical experience. He sees the sun and moon in the dawning sky and realizes their cosmic spatial connection. The legendry speaks of this episode as his birth as an artist.

I think this was indeed a genuine event, and I also think it was a burst of curative mental health from Calder. It was his orientation. He succeeded in understanding where he was in the universe, with a lasting sense of conviction, too. This did not mean that he was fated to become an artist, though. He might well have succumbed to cosmic despair instead of finding cosmic elation. He might have seen the Sun and Moon in their weirdly terrifying Blaise Pascal infinity, and then jumped over the guardrail to vanish and drown. Nobody would have been much surprised at this. History would never have noticed his absence. Calder’s “bed” is a coil of nautical rope, at this point in his life. He’s spiritually ecstatic, but he’s also close to rock-bottom.

Also, this mystical revelation has no immediate upbeat effect for Calder. He is still goal-less and poor, and lives with his parents again. He attends a New York art school and he draws some newspaper cartoons. There’s no financial living in this. He’s still a penniless drifter, and he decides to work his way across the ocean and become a penniless drifter in Paris.

Luckily his parents, being elite artists with Parisian educations themselves, don’t mind this prospect one bit. They even kindly encourage his Paris sojourn with some spare cash they’ve scraped up.

Calder then joins the 1920s art horde in Montparnasse. Montparnasse is a seedy, vice-riddled Parisian neighborhood that also has the greatest collection of hard-working artists since the Italian Renaissance. In these foreign material surroundings, Calder almost instantly becomes quite a different man.

He can’t speak French, he’s very oddly dressed and he’s living in a seventh-floor walk-up garret with no furniture. This situation doesn’t bother him. He buys a few art supplies, he lives entirely inside the studio and he invents all the “furniture.” He even uses the studio as a cramped public-entertainment space, where he crouches and sprawls on the floor, surrounded by entertaining wire-toys that perform wiry circus-tricks, for audiences of maybe a dozen. The French show up and watch. They’re impressed.

In Paris, Calder masters wire. He can find plenty of scrap wire in the busy streets of Paris for no money, and no other artist has ever made much use of wire as an expressive artistic material. Calder finds that wire can distinguish him from the many other Lost Generation American art students infesting Paris.

The experience of exile has blown-out many of Calder’s interior constraints. Instead of being a mumbling blue-collar drifter inside the engine room, he becomes a drinker, a dancer, a boisterous extrovert surrounded by wacky Montparnasse chicks. The many Americans in Montparnasse — the “Lost Generation” — they put up with Calder, for he doesn’t seem special to them. But the French in Montparnasse adore him. Some quality about him — his sense of invention, maybe — seems to energize them. The French really like having Calder around. He gets the kind of unpredictable but hospitable French welcome that Josephine Baker enjoyed. He’s become a Montparnasse artist standing on his own two feet.

So, after this historico-biographical recital, we’re to a point where we can directly approach Calder’s house-hacking habits and his artifacts. “Who, what, when, where, how” — now, we’ve got those basic questions handled. Calder’s got a place to take a stand, he’s got tools, techniques, materials, time to work and a promising career, but he’s consistently, persistently messing with “Objects” that aren’t art, they’re not popular, and he can’t sell them.

Big question: Why?

Why the reflective candles and ashtray ensembles?

Why the near useless forks, repeated with various methods?

Why the genuinely bizarre, awkward, alarming, and most definitely hazardous red-hot naked wire “bread toaster” (one of a series of at least five similar electrical gadgets of Calder’s)?

Why, eventually, does Mrs. Calder — (the former Louisa James, from the distinguished American family of novelist Henry James and philosopher William James) — why does Louisa peaceably hand-knead French bread in that home kitchen with that bizarre ceiling-mounted shelving system?

And then there were Calder’s semi-domestic studios — always sited near to the home spaces. These workshops look genuinely maddening with their radical spatial disorder — but there are eye-witness accounts of Calder working in his spaces at great ease, grabbing his tools unerringly, and never misplacing his materials.

I could go on — I do have other documented examples to offer elsewhere.

These aren’t mere jokes or freakish oddities. This is the genuine home-life of one of the most influential, respected, and (eventually) wealthy artistic couples of the 20th century. They genuinely lived within these Calder-object environments, in France and the USA, for almost fifty years.

In their early married life, Louisa James — a toney Bostonian lass given to pearls and fur — even moved directly into Calder’s Montparnasse studio, a “newlywed home” with no conventional furniture whatsoever.

So what is going on with these weird Objects? There can be no one simple reason for a multiplex process which goes on in multiple places for many decades. However, I can summarize it. I can draw the general outlines of it. It makes sense once you get inside the means, motives and opportunities.

The primary reason Calder does it is that he’s mentally propelled toward doing that from his childhood. It’s his habit, his metier.

He’s always been itchy, out of place and also uprooted. But then, the opportunity arises that conclusively turns his deficit into an asset. When confined in a cruddy, empty, unfurnished Montparnasse flat, he’s got a great deal to offer — not despite that, but even because of that.

Here is the Montparnasse Calder sitting on his found crates with the walls festooned with his found wire — there’s not one single conventional housing product in that space, not even a pillow, but Calder looks completely pleased with himself — a young Montparnasse lion in his den, even.

He’s confidently poised for the camera while he’s sleeping on his cot with the bedbugs. He’s in there, but all of Paris is out there, the City of Light. They’re friendly and supportive neighbors.

Also, Calder simply can’t afford anything conventionally domestic. The second reason for his habits is more universal; it’s just his poverty. If you want furniture made from packing crates, you don’t need to search that out in the Louvre. Hacked, second-hand, patched and jumbled furniture is the native furniture of slums, squats and favelas. And also earthquake ruins. And fairgrounds. And a frontier sanitarium in Arizona. And a lumberjack camp. Calder can manage those places; he might not even notice the domestic problem.

Even at a quick glance, Calder’s strange and radical domestic art-studio/kitchen/bedroom/theater is by no means in “good taste.” A concrete-block bookcase with some packing-crate shelves is sort-of usable, but it’s built to be quickly abandoned. This is “furniture” you won’t miss when you hotfoot it out the door.

Slum furniture is not artistically mysterious, not at all. Instead, it’s deprived, tasteless and depraved; it’s sinister and Dickensian even, like the pawn-shop vultures picking over the bedroom of the deceased Ebenezer Scrooge. All that stuff the dead miser used to own, that’s heading straight for the hands of the down-and-outs. It’s dropout reality, the street finding uses for things.

Paris is a huge capital city; it’s got metric tons of street reality. So Calder, the penniless emigre artist and former little-boy pack-rat, is making do. He’s not shamed or demeaned by the scrounging; he’s even confidently in his element about it. He can scrounge and hack all day, every day. And indeed he does.

Such is the bohemian Calder, an inventive twenty-something adept at make-do in his weird room. Then a miracle occurs, and elite members of the Paris art world decide that he’s a major creative figure.

Calder can scarcely speak French, and he also has a speech defect. Also, Calder has no impressive body of creative work that ought to command the respect of the likes of Pablo Picasso or Andre Breton. His fellow Americans in Paris are unimpressed with him; he’s not a genius to them, he’s a goofy vagabond. As far as I can figure, his primary social skill in France is playing funny art tricks with steel wire at parties.

But nevertheless, the French art elite intuit that he’s one of their own, and so he promptly becomes one. The likes of Joan Miro, Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian and even the ultra-radical Marcel Duchamp take Calder with enormous, sustained seriousness. They do not resent him as a Yankee hick with a parochial art education. On the contrary, they eagerly share their best ideas with him. They make consistent efforts to help him.

This is the third major aspect of his Object habits: the strong influence on Calder of masters like Marcel Duchamp. The Duchamp connection has some plausibility. Duchamp is a practiced art-world talent scout, and he’s quite well-acquainted with the USA and its people. Duchamp’s longtime mistress is Mary Reynolds, “the Queen of American Montparnasse.” He’s also on excellent terms with Man Ray, the only American Surrealist, the Paris emigre who is one of Duchamp’s most devoted, lifelong cronies.

Marcel Duchamp does all kinds of art-guru favors for Calder. His single biggest boon to Calder is that Duchamp serenely legitimates Calder’s trash-picker, pack-rat habits. Somehow, Duchamp gets Calder to understand that repurposed urinals are major-league sculptural interventions. They’re artistic successes: they will upset the straights for decades on end. The Duchamp “found object” is potentially subversive, explosive.

The Duchampian adept must cultivate the mental habit of making no distinction between the high-priced, precious art relics and the alleged trash. Because, to the adept of Objects, it’s all the same stuff. Clumps of atoms in space-and-time. Congelations of the fourth dimension as the nude walks the staircase. If there’s a price-tag on it, it’s placed there for the suckers. That’s weird, but that’s how it is.

This is a liberatory gospel for Calder; he not only grasps this wisdom from the fountain of Duchamp, he fully comprehends it and he acts on it relentlessly. He even earns his living by it, because Calder “jewelry,” which he can manage to sell with some regularity, is never actual jewelry. It’s never sold in jewelry stores, has no gems or precious metals, and has no fine polish or finish. So Calder “jewelry” objects are Calder Objects. They’re one-off, wearable Calder creations, complete with many plier scars and hammer marks. They’re “Objects” that he builds for the spaces on a woman’s body. French women like them anyway, maybe because of that; they’ve got off-the-wall Montparnasse chic.

Calder “jewels” are luxury objects transmuted quite directly from street-junk, which is a practice you can serenely get away with, once Marcel Duchamp is your drinking buddy.

Later, Duchamp does Calder a further, extreme, life-changing favor. Duchamp’s American girlfriend, Mary Reynolds, brings Duchamp to Calder’s studio, in order for them to help Calder. Calder has just built some new Objects that have motors installed, and they move some colored abstract shapes. These nameless, kinetic Calder objects are akin to paintings, but they’re also something like theater sets, and also like dancing puppets, and also like sculptures, and, so, they’re weird and problematic, and they just don’t fit into any standard artistic classification whatsoever.

Duchamp looks these gizmos over, and when Calder asks what to call them, Duchamp names them “mobiles” in French. This conceptual breakthrough immediately allows Calder to make mobiles by the ton. He successfully and permanently labels his Calder Objects as Calder Mobiles, radical, innovative sculptures unlike any known-to-mankind before.

Mind you, Duchamp’s other American friend/disciple almost does the same thing in Montparnasse. Man Ray invents a dangling, mobile congelation titled “Obstruction.” It looks quite like a Calder mobile, well before any Calder mobiles exist. However, “Obstruction,” although it can indeed move, is not classifiable as a “mobile sculpture.” Instead, Man Ray’s artwork is classifiable as a “Surrealist intervention.”

“Obstruction” is a coat hanger, that can hang coat hangers, that hang coat hangers. It’s a weird mash-up of cheap household objects — ie, mass-produced everyday coat-hangers — whose artistic purpose is the surreal brain-pop of: “Whoa! Wow! what is coat-hanger reality?”

Marcel Duchamp can bless the work of Calder with the neologism “mobile,” while the similar-looking, similar-acting “Obstruction,” with the same Marcel Duchamp looking at it, gets no such blessing. But that’s how it goes with Duchamp, that ascended master of the paradigmatic shift. That great gray-eminence of capital-A Conceptual Art. If Marcel declares it, it stays done, and if you take him seriously, reality just melts.

To return to our central issue, then, I can assert that a lot of Calder’s domestic Objects are Duchampian concept art. He does this because Marcel has given him mental and moral permission to do it. It’s even a cause which Calder feels obliged to advance. Not just in big, public ways. In *all* ways.

I’ll illustrate how this works with one of the seemingly minor Calder hacks, which is a set of dual coffee cups. These Objects are habitually used by both Sandy Calder and Louisa Calder to share their morning coffee in their eerie Connecticut breakfast nook.

These two vessels are Chinese teacups, which lack handles and become uncomfortably hot to the fingers with freshly brewed coffee. These cups are designed for steeped tea, a different beverage. So Calder designs two similar, but not identical, wire handles that latch on to the teacups.

So why this Rube Goldberg intervention, just for some coffee? Why not just hand-build some coffee mugs, or buy two proper, commercial coffee mugs, or obtain ultra-cheap second-hand mugs from the flea market?

You might argue, as Calder’s American intimates often did, “Oh heck, Sandy’s just a big kid! He’s having fun with the teacups!” Or, you might claim that he’s spontaneously invented something like a “beer coozy,” which is that foam rubber wrapper that protects your fingers from ice-cold beer. These “coozy” products exist in millions nowadays, and are very cheap, and throwaway trash, even. Beer coozies are often printed with some cute or funny joke. Americans like them.

But these aren’t handy, popular “coozies,” or boyish larks, either. They’re not even adornments. What Calder is actually doing is demonstrating the Duchampian fact that all cups are cups. If they can handle fluid, the maestro doesn’t care how somebody else (the Chinese for instance), conceptually framed them or sold them.

The cups exist so that both Calder and the wife, first thing in the morning, can jointly celebrate that they get it about this. So they’re Duchampian objects, but also domestic routine. Their cups becomes a shared habit, but it’s a suggestive habit and it frames their day. They’re a coffee-swilling couple (they have collections of French metal coffee-pots), and they’re preparing to be, think and act Duchampian, all day.

No one but he and she can have such cups. Calder could easily make a similar handle for somebody else in maybe forty seconds. His ever-handy Bernard pliers are always in reach, and he measures his wire-supplies by the mile. However, Calder would not choose to build such cups for anyone else in any other house. Because, although the wire handle mimics an “improvement,” it’s not actually an improvement. It’s not any handy shortcut, it’s a deliberate detour. It exists as a “detournement;” it subverts a perfectly normal Chinese teacup into the alien condition of serving as a French coffeecup to an American art couple.

Also, the cups look funny. They’re comical, but it’s the fact that the straights don’t get it, and can’t ever get it, that is the funniest thing about them. They’re dual cups of marital unity; we’re pulling a fast one on the world, and we know that. Here’s to us! Freedom!

The kid-hacker element was important, but Calder did not stay a kid. The poverty element was also important, but his poverty passed. The Duchampian element is genuinely lasting and profound. It’s something like a personal crusade. You don’t go on crusade for the convenience.

These are the larger motivations for Calder house-hacking, but there are some other smaller ones.

For instance, number four, the heritage issue. Eventually Calder’s widowed Mom comes to move into the domestic Calder home, or rather, into her own little house, on the same property. Mom is a strident William Morris-style Arts and Crafts zealot (although Mom happens to be Jewish, and from Milwaukee). So Mom’s into the Ruskinian artsy tradition of “have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Calder doesn’t actually do this himself; he’s not a Ruskinian whatsoever, he’s a committed Modernist abstract artist. However, he’s willing to allow some Art Nouveau grace notes into the domestic hacks. Grandma has a role in the home. She belongs.

For instance, there’s this hacked creamer. It’s not well-photographed, but this creamer is rather a Calder’s-Mother Object.

Somebody broke off the ceramic handle of this conventionally-pretty jug (there were a lot of drunken parties at Chez Calder). Calder rescues Mom’s corny creamer by putting a little metal band around it with two pretty spirals that represent splashes of cream into the coffee. That’s weird (because the creamer’s hard to hold), but it’s quite sweet and feminine, in a very Art Nouveau, whiplash-line, art inspired by nature, fashion.

He also made Mom a rude and wacky toilet-paper holder, because Mom’s artsy prissiness gets on his nerves. Have a seat, Grandma, welcome to Duchampian modernism.

Calder was rigorously hacking his dwellings long before he ever met Louisa James Calder, but many post-marriage Calder Objects in the Calder Home are very Louisa Calder. In a twentieth-century marriage, the domestic area is properly the woman’s sphere.

A lot of these mysterious Calder Household Objects have Louisa Calder as the user-base. They are for her, or about her, or gifts for her, or tributes to her, or husbandly acts of mollification. She is the mistress of the Calder home, and, more to the point, without Louisa James, Sandy Calder doesn’t much want or need any “home” at all. Calder is perfectly capable of living until his death inside a garage. Even with Louisa as his devoted home-making spouse, Calder still has the associated garage workshop. He can’t manage his life without such a space. It’s his own space outside the house, where Louisa does not interfere.

But — after briefly enduring married life in one of Calder’s cramped, bug-infested Montparnasse studios — Louisa is forever all about the Calder house and home. Calder domestic hacks are in service to her domestic purposes.

For instance, there’s a unique “scissor guard,” a long wire coil that locks scissors shut.

This Calder object exists because Louisa has complained about their daughters “running with scissors” — a motherly complaint from time immemorial. Calder responds to this fearful lament by locking the scissors. That’s not very practical, but it alleviates the complaining. Now Mom can devote her mental energy to worrying about something else, such as, which of their five different French coffeepots to use.

In the documented kitchen areas, you can almost hear Louisa Calder issuing her orders. “I need a space for my French cookbooks.” Up they go, onto scrap-lumber shelves, up in a remote, dusty corner, over the door-jamb. “I broke this cutting-board.” Five new cutting-boards promptly appear, all shapes and sizes, derived from actual boards. Louisa might decide on the best board and throw the others back into Calder’s studio scrap-heap, but she rather likes having all five. The array of options feels liberating.

The hospitable Calders like having outdoor grill-parties when the weather’s nice, so he just bangs a bunch of barbecue grills together. They’re big, ungainly objects, hard to store, so they hang against the kitchen wall from ceiling hooks. Colossal straw-covered wine-jugs are handy, because Louisa’s grandfather was a raging alcoholic, and Louisa herself finds some relaxation in her French-centric wine-mom lifestyle. Bohemian artists drink a whole lot. Their code allows this.

Staying fruitfully busy at the home, Louisa gardens, harvests and cooks. Her older sister is an aristocrat married to a millionaire, and she has a servantry, so the relatives are often surprised that the once-posh Miss Louisa James would choose such an apparently meek, peasant farm-wife way of living (including an extensive stint of home-life in a decrepit French cottage that lacks even electricity or running water). However, they miss the Modernist crusader aspects of Louisa, her engagement in performing this domestic feat. There’s something Thoreauvian, and Brook Farm intellectual dropout about her. The decision to abandon art-center apartments in Paris and New York, and to dwell in big, semi-rural barns, that was never Louisa’s submission to humility and poverty. That was Louisa’s own preference.

Life in the Calder home is an adventure — guided by Louisa. Once he achieved this marital and spatial situation, the husband Calder, father of two, changed quite a lot. He built Objects on much bigger scales, often outdoors. Under her aegis, he adopted the lifelong Calder working uniform of a red LL Bean shirt and blue jeans. The Montparnasse Calder admired stage costumes, and he even wore tuxedos. However, the Louisa-spouse Calder is Whitmanesque, in his standardized, iconic, sawdust-proofed, paint-resistant Man of the People garb.

The red-shirt and blue jeans is also a costume — Calder’s famous for it, and he always wears it in public — but it’s Louisa’s chosen costume for him. She’s the one washing it. It is sensible, functional, studio work-gear — (sort of) — but it’s also “Husband of Louisa Calder” gear. She is protecting Calder from the possible distracting compulsion to hack his own clothing. She has freed him from that occupational hazard, because he simply wears the same thing every day. Also, if he rips his clothes, or covers them in glue and sawdust, in ungentlemanly fashion, there’s no problem in the Calder household. Louisa has cabinets, there’s lots more.

Long-married couples tend to effortlessly coincide in their tastes; they pursue and own “things that are us.” This is typical of the Calder couple, who like to go flea-marketing — they obtain domestic collections. Too many handwoven French baskets — “We need some of those.” “How many?” “Get ten.”

These are not Calder-created Objects, but these are Calder objets trouvés, and often French, too. The Calders find the objects that speak to them, and those things tend to get stockpiled.

Louisa James is the “muse” of the Calder Objects, but she’s also pushing the process. “She’s a nice, sweet girl, she’ll do him a lot of good,” assessed Stirling Calder, and that proved true: Louisa James is the major, crucial difference between “Sandy Calder,” that down-at-heels toymaker and newspaper cartoonist, and “Alexander Calder,” the steam-rolling, globally famous, monumental sculptor. Although Louisa was a leftist peacenik — her father was a political crank — she never chose to glamorously swan around in the art world. She’s very bohemian, and also pretty, but she’s like the polar opposite of Kiki de Montparnasse.

If Sandy Calder is “forever just the big kid!” then Louisa James is the adult woman with the heartfelt need to protect him. Those run-down country houses, with all the strange “Objects” inside them, are really Louisa James Household-Objects. They are large, ambitious Louisa James schemes to protect Sandy Calder. These are not mansions that Louisa commissioned or designed — these are junk places that she found. She’s pulled him into these found-houses, off the streets and out of the slums, and into roomy, lofty spaces where he can think bigger, feel bigger and work bigger. There, he can become truly productive. And he can stay out of trouble. And she can watch over him. Because she’s there all the time. Constantly. Not underfoot in his workshop next to his power-grinder, but always very close. Right in the next building. With a Calder Object bell to ring, to fetch him.

Strange tributes exist, to the power of Louisa’s protective influence. For instance, when Andre Breton was forced to flee Nazi-occupied France, he left his only child, his daughter Aube, in the charge of Louisa Calder, in her Connecticut home. Breton placed his own little girl into that strange house with all the “Objects.” There Louisa sheltered this little French girl, and fed her, and probably made her some new clothes. Later, the child’s mother settled near Louisa in the USA, with a new husband.

During the second world war, Louisa Calder volunteered as a nurse at a military mental hospital. This was also a job that Andre Breton was famous for doing, back in the Great War. I doubt that was any coincidence. Louisa James was not some mere housemaid and nanny for Andre Breton, she was his peer, another Surrealist guru and sometime psychoanalyst.

It takes some steely determination to diligently nurse the mentally war-wounded, but Louisa never flinched. She never made any big deal of performing this dutiful, nurturing activity outside her home; she just publicly agitated for peace, whenever she had the chance.

When her children left her home, Louisa became engrossed in creating huge home-made rugs. These vivid rugs creep in at floor-level in years of photographs, and eventually they dominate the Calder house. They resemble no other rugs, some are alarmingly garish and large, and they are hand-crafted “Louisa Calder Objects.”

After Calder’s death, Louisa James became an almost-stereotypical Artist’s Rich Widow. She owned a colossal stockpile of highly variegated Calder artifacts, one of the biggest artistic treasure-troves ever made by one single artist. The widowed Louisa Calder even regally donated a Calder mobile, free of price, to the fledgling “modern art” museum in Turin. Why? Because if those Italians think they’re ‘Modern Art,’ then they’re gonna need a mobile.

This Louisa gift is the Calder artwork that I know best. I’ve spent a lot of time with that mobile — hours on end — commonly sitting on the floor in the corner of its Turinese museum room, with a laptop. The Italian museum functionaries are cool with this act of communion. They probably think that I’m writing something about the mobile. I’m not, but I’ve written a lot in there, and been delighted with its presence.

Louisa was generous with the Calder artworks, and I’m grateful, but I do not know what Louisa did with all the weird “Objects,” once Calder was no longer around. I’d quite like to know that. Did she tidy them up — like Mom, tenderly removing the four-year-old’s crayon sketches from the kitchen fridge? No one seems to have publicly queried her on the subject. She lived another twenty years.

There’s another aspect to the general matter — “Calder Objects” as displays for the family’s guests to admire, or to be weirdly boggled by. Alexander Calder and Louisa James were married for 47 years. At first, their married life was materially haphazard, and busy with children, but eventually their situation matured. Then people would appear at the house as guests, and they would be overwhelmed by its unique, enchanting atmosphere and its uncategorizable objects. When they toured Calder’s workshop (quite a famous pilgrimage) they would be simply wonderstruck.

There was just — so much. Nobody else lived like that. It was a lifestyle beyond all purchase, almost beyond comprehension — a kind of serene bohemian revenge. A Rockefeller could walk into the place (the lordly Rockefellers were big Modern Art fans) and yet they could never possess such a lifestyle.

Of course the most striking Objects in the late Calder home were the Calders’ own fine-art collection. Commonly these precious artworks had been simple gifts to them, for Calder was a generous, warm-hearted guy, and so some drinking buddy would just give him some painting. “Wait — is that a genuine Picasso?! You could buy a yacht with that!”

In the Chez Calder, the artwork was not glamorously framed or lit, it was just festooning their everyday walls. It had once been some weird “modern artwork” that nobody understood, and that most everybody hated, but decades later, yeah, of course a kid could go through college with the auction-price of that canvas. “Those who worship the Muses end up in the Museum,” and the elderly Calders lived in a cultural treasure-house.

Surely it’s alarming that blue-chip art investments should be hovering over a crooked sink with hand-riveted forks. But “respectability does not so much beckon, as embrace,” and this was one fruit of their long dedication.

Calder’s grandfather and father were both sculptors. Unlike him, they ended their lives as forgotten artists. The elderly Sandy Calder enjoyed the blooming late-life career of an elderly architect.

Calder personally knew many elderly architects — he was considered the A-OK art-adornment guy for Modernist ultra-structure mavens. Commissioning a Calder public monument was like buying IBM; nobody could get fired for doing it. In later life, Calder would venture out to oversee bolted emplacements 60 feet high, whose undersides could contain urban crowds. Then he’d go home to his den with the copper sink-strainers.

These activities were intimately related. It’s not that one is the weird hobby, while the other is the millionaire payoff. The seemingly weird hobby is what provides the distinction that enables the millionaire payoff.

“Stirling Calder” would never have willingly hacked his elegant houses, and Stirling’s own father, who was yet another Alexander Calder, wouldn’t have hacked his house, either. These two craftsmen might have physically done it, but they would have recognized it as inappropriate, goofy, weird — beyond the pale.

But the “pale” is a spatial boundary that exists because someone else put it there. “Outside the pale,” that’s where the giant orange Stegosaurus, shaped like origami steel, can live.

Then, finally, there’s the famous Mondrian studio episode, or rather, this core, central aspect of Calder legend, with its nested set of anecdotes. This is a rather typical yarn of thunderstruck artistic inspiration, but the legend doesn’t explain very much — myths are mystical.

The actual events, though, when teased apart, provide some intriguing insight into my original burning question in this essay, “Why did a famous kinetic artist have a Maker home?”

My question turned out to be framed quite badly, and my “explanation” won’t satisfy everyone, either. Calder himself could never have answered that question. He never restricted himself to the role of “kinetic artist,” and he never knew what a “Maker home” might become.

However, the Mondrian legend demonstrates that “kinetic art” and weird “maker homes” were not separate categories. That’s the real answer. They arose as the very same thing. Same place. Same time.

This fateful place-and-time was the showplace-studio of another Calder friend/ally/guru in Montparnasse in Paris, the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian.

Here’s how things went. Imagine Calder, tinkering with wire in his “studio” — he sleeps and eats there, it’s his den. He hears some hot rumors about Mondrian’s much-better studio. Mondrian sleeps and eats quite near his own studio, which is a weird five-sided nook in Montparnasse.

However, Mondrian has radically re-made his own space. Mondrian has applied his lofty, minimalist, conceptual, abstract-art theories, not just to the canvases that he is painting inside the studio, but, crucially, *to the entire studio space.*

Piet Mondrian has diligently re-designed, re-painted and re-lit his entire Montparnasse atelier, so that it can become more “abstract” and “plastic,” as he puts it. His so-called “studio” feels more like a theater experience. Mondrian’s studio is immersive, a total work of abstract spatial art.

Calder has also been remaking his own studio into a makeshift theater, where he manipulates wire marionettes in a “circus” that he’s invented on the floor. So the news of another painter’s studio-theater is of keen interest to Calder, and he wangles a studio invite from Mondrian, who is cordial to him.

Calder enters Mondrian’s five-sided studio and is promptly mind-blown. Spatially, Mondrian’s creation is about the size of his own cruddy studio, but the space has been radically altered, upgraded and completely re-thought. It even features a theatrical sound system (a Victrola, because Mondrian is a jazz freak) but the record player has been painted white so as to vanish within the space.

Calder has never seen an artist working space so cool, thought-through, and radically impressive. Also, with his innate over-sensivity to space, he can’t distinguish the artwork from the walls. Mondrian has firm, novel ideas about how colors should fit together into abstract spatial relationships — mostly primary colors, rectangles of them, assembled in grids. That’s Mondrian.

However, since the Mondrian studio has five walls, the rectangular grids just don’t fit. Colored shapes seem to drift, almost in optical-illusion fashion. Mondrian has built detachable panels of sharp color, and he can move them from one wall to the other. By doing this, Mondrian can demonstrate that the placement of abstract colors can create a strong aesthetic affect on the viewer. They’re not representational “drawings” or “pictures” of any particular “thing,” but these abstracts do convey a distinct frisson. It’s potent. It hits.

This immersive-interaction-installation affects Calder deeply. American that he is, he tries his best to help Mondrian. He suggests that it might be even better if the moving, abstract color panels were motorized. Then the colors could could oscillate in the space, maybe vibrate, while they moved around mechanically.

This is rather a hip, with-it response from Calder — it’s very of-the-moment, it’s very Sigfried Giedion “Mechanization Takes Command.”

However, Mondrian is cool to this dorky Yankee high-tech notion. The two artists part, and Calder goes back to his own work-space. He’s had a breakthrough. He’s on to something. Now he knows that studios can become demonstrative, dramatic spaces. Abstract things can move around in there.

The legend says that Calder promptly applies some engineering to Mondrian’s paintings. Then, presto: automated Mondrians become Calder mobiles! But this over-simplifies historical events. Actually, Calder’s engineering skills had next to nothing to do with what happened. Calder went back to his studio and he immediately began painting abstract art canvases. The abstraction itself was fresh and new to Calder, he’d never before been an “abstractionist.” So he painted collections of potential, abstracted shapes that might possibly oscillate or vibrate — just as he’d recommended to Mondrian.

In these abstract painted experiments, there were no engineered gadgets. Calder’s first rehearsals for mobiles were many painted works. Calder commonly began his work-day with some painting; the act of painting eased him into his flow.

The process of inventing mobiles was long and intuitive. There were no deadlines, blueprints, physics calculations, weights, measurements, or design plans. Instead, there were many explorations of arcane art-world concepts. Calder did it all from-the-shoulder; he was following the process at hand.

Calder’s process went something like this. He tinkers persistently. He doesn’t engineer it, but he feels his way into it. If painted colors should oscillate in space, how might they do it? Well, that answer’s at hand — they move on wires.

He might paint his wire figurines — because they can move well — but puppets aren’t abstract enough. The puppets do move and dance — but he needs to *abstract the movements* from the puppets, and then deploy abstract movements throughout the whole space.

Calder also realizes that his cute little floor-crawling wire toys don’t scale up. They’re just little wire-circus puppets — they can decorate the space, they don’t dominate the space. They need to become art that’s ‘about space’ in the way that Mondrian’s diagram-like paintings, leaking all over the Mondrian studio, are about space. The whole effort needs to become more architectural — a kinetic art that’s about the room.

After hacking around, intuitively but diligently, Calder realizes that he is no longer drawing line figures with his wires — (for this was Calder’s most-effective earlier good idea, when he realized that a wire can behave like a ball-point pen line). Instead of *drawing on* space with the wires, he should be *sculpting through* space with the wires, and with their elements.

Each understanding slowly builds on the last. Iron wires and rods are sturdy. They can occupy a whole studio. The wire contraption inside the studio can infiltrate the entire space that contains it. The kinetic art is also the house. Viewers can step right into the wire sculpture and push the wires around!

These original, yet-unnamed, private experiments at “mobiles” are not yet delicately balanced decorations hung from a ceiling and admired from an artistic distance. The original mobiles are attempts at immersive, interactive experiences inside a space. They’re wire-animated studios. They’re puppet strings where the puppets are made abstract, melted away into primal blobs of primary color, and it’s the strings which are valorized. The wires stretch through the space, connected by wire-loops, and they’re sculptural outlines turned into cascades of levers.

This Calder notion works, more or less — as long as the master of the wire-circus is present inside the space, with his pliers, to continuously maintain and fix the wires. However, a “wired studio,” unlike Mondrian’s fancy painted studio, has big problems. If the wires are too stout and heavy, somebody gets hurt. If they’re too delicate, the artwork warps or breaks, right away. Also, the wire circus-master has to stay inside the space-of-the-room with the wire-circus. Because it’s way too weird for anyone else to manage.

Calder never gets over the original urge to inhabit the mobiles. Whenever he’s building them, he usually steps inside them to create them. He doesn’t mind the mobiles banging, clashing, tangling — but as formal sculptures available for public display or private collection, this is a fatal drawback. Calder knows that he can’t always be there to manage the circus. In his bigger studios, later, there’s commonly a dozen mobiles dangling around him, while he’s cheerfully whacking and banging them, tinkering, hacking, upgrading, repairing. But alas, this experience is private. He can’t place that in public. You can only see it done at his house.

Calder’s road toward classic mobiles is incremental and crooked. He obtains some useful help. When he puts on a modest show of his first, motorized mobiles, Piet Mondrian kindly drops by. He’s glad that Calder is using primary colors — he warned Calder that abstract visual relationships have to be vivid. However, Mondrian doesn’t like the motors at all. The motorized movements are either too fast or too slow, and also, they’re very monotonous. They work, but they work the nerves.

Calder’s not upset by this scolding from Mondrian — he even appreciates the feedback. He refines his chosen shapes, settling on Joan Miro biomorphic abstract shapes, adorned in primary Calder colors. Abstract Miro shapes — which look like they’re attempting to do something, but never successfully performing it — are especially effective when they’re mobile. Also, Calder refines the movements. A bunch of paintings attached to the arms of a machine are just a display carousel. But abstract shapes on sculpted wires can scale up, they can fill spaces of any size.

Calder gets rid of the motors. A mechanized, repetitive, horsepowered mobile gets boring, irritating, and they’re loud, they break, they smell, they malfunction, they run out of fuel. However, a wind-powered, hesitant, flinchy, ambient, bright-but-barely there mobile has intense, can’t-look-away, eye-candy appeal.

Eventually, Calder, as a wise artist, understands what works best as mobile art. It’s not what Calder himself likes about it. What Calder really likes about mobiles is that they are spatial; they are microcosms. They are 3d-animated Mondrian paintings that are space-filling systems of subtly linked objects. It’s the roomy contraption-ness that’s the nature of the breakthrough. It’s the weird gizmo factor and the space-slicing space-mastery. That’s what Calder has invented and enjoys: but what is “weird” is not what is “great”.

What is great is what the wife and kids like about it. They wouldn’t presume to tell Calder what to do, but he can see it in their eyes.

A mature Calder mobile needs no wall-plaque critical explanations. The viewer need to know nothing — zero — about minimalism, abstract dynamism, biomorphic shapes, statuary reduced until it is mostly air — none of that. The viewers doesn’t even need to know the name of Alexander Calder.

The little mobiles are dainty and pretty. The big mobiles are big and grand. Sculptors from ancient Greece would have stopped dead and stared at them. Existential philosophers are amazed. Art viewers worldwide, seven-to-seventy, they all get it. The mobiles say nothing, represent nothing but themselves, and they’ve got it going on.

It’s about the disparity of colored elements, the delicacy of the balance, the interactions of subsystems, the variety of vertical and horizontal elements, and, also, the visual lines drawn by the wires and the spatial shapes implied as they move. That’s what makes a great Calder mobile.

Also — through diligent effort and prolonged attention to materials — Calder figured this out in a rather complete way. He’s the guy who invented mobiles, and it’s universally agreed that he’s the guy who built the best mobiles ever made. Mobiles are rather easy objects to construct, and there are lots of others, but none have ever “improved on” Calder. It’s a form of sculpture that seems to be unimprovable.

I find that a problem.

I would assert that Alexander Calder made mobile-objects in his studio, and he made Calder-Objects in his home, because these were, to him, aspects of the very same activity. Yes, it’s weird, but it comes easily to him, it’s natural to him. The entire space and all the objects within the space, he feels all right with their conceptual unity; that the parts imply the whole and the whole generates the parts, he’s a great artist, he’s internalized all that and he found peace with it. Also, Alexander Calder can paint-from-the-shoulder with wire. He’s extremely experienced with wire and also with flat metal, so if he sees something, anything, anywhere, in the space-of-the-house where wire-and/or-tin might make some interesting difference, then he just has at it.

Conventional assumptions of what’s proper, those can’t touch him. The wife gets this about him. She’s very aware, early on, that he perceives spatial details, and bits of scrap, that other people just don’t see. She’s granted him her loving permission to do Calder Objects, attic, basement, kitchen, Grandma’s bathroom, it’s all fine; she knows it’s good for him.

This is plenty weird, but it’s never some grave misfortune, it’s not obsessive-compulsion. Alexander Calder never does this to other people’s houses. In fact, he’s quite conventionally handy inside other people’s houses, he can deftly fix your sink or door-hinge in next-to-no time. He doesn’t do Calder Objects everywhere — but he does do Objects. He’ll do it to the family car. He’ll do it to a barn that he owns. Once, he duplicated the Calder Object fire-irons and gave them to a local neighbor who admired them.

But no one ever went over to Sandy’s house, and joined the Calder Object club, and made other Calder Objects. They seem pretty easy to make, most of them — but it seems that no one has ever dared.

Worse yet, no kinetic art critic has ever written a better kinetic-art essay than Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, about a Calder mobile, way back in 1947. You see, in Paris, Sandy Calder kindly gave Jean-Paul Sartre a mobile that he’d made out of beat-up, recycled Connecticut license plates (Sartre didn’t know about the source of the materials). He also gave the Sartre girlfriend (some Paris beatnik chick named Simone de Beauvoir), a rather nice sample of Calder “wearable art jewelry.” Simone was quite happy to have that. Back in 1947, Alexander Calder could really raise the morale of the war-battered French. They were truly thrilled to have him around. The French were very loyal in their fondness for him. From the get-go, they somehow had him figured-out as a titan-for-the-ages. The French can be picky about their visitors, but they can do that for people, sometimes.

I have read that Sartre essay about mobiles many times, and I wish that this essay about mobiles was better. Unfortunately, it’s not. My essay is about weird household gizmos. It’s a lesser topic. Also, the passage of time since 1947 doesn’t seem to have helped much.

In conclusion, I’d like to be able to helpfully suggest what should happen next. Obviously, this is what Calder himself would like his legacy to be; not confinement in some vitrine in a dusty museum, but the ongoing, cultural vitality of radical invention in the fine art of sculpture. Calder was a democratic progressive. Even in old age, he leaned somewhat toward starry-eyed Space Age visionary. If he was weird in the home in his day, then now, he’d want to be weird in the home in a more advanced way.

But if Calder’s ideals and impulses were triumphant, we’d have Calder Household Objects all over the place. Cadres of people would discuss them, and make them. They’d be a common practice for people involved with arts or crafts. That is simply not so; Calder Household Objects are persistently weird and peculiar, really, truly, lastingly unusual. So much so, that when I saw one in a video, I had to stop and re-run it.

I have witnessed some weird household things that are relatively new and have novelty in their weirdness, but are somewhat, vaguely, suggestive of Calder Objects. If you happen to own and use a 3DPrinter, then Calder Objects can seem somewhat less alien. A molten-plastic 3DPrinter can’t output steel wire, but it does output plastic wire. So a 3DPrinter can ooze out oddly-shaped pieces of relatively-sturdy plastic that can be jammed hither and yon into various domestic nooks and crannies.

If you owned a 3DPrinter and got very nimble with it, you might imitate Calder, maybe even faster and at less cost. Calder was a hand-craftsman, expressive with manually-shaped wire, but you could pull a John Henry on him — if he puts a brass wire handle on a teacup, then go ahead, one-up him with digital technology! Put a plastic printed handle on the teacup. Embed a whole plastic action-figure into your hacked coffeecup, that’s just as easy. Would that make your home life happy and fulfilling? Maybe. What is missing in this digital-to-analog substitution? Way too much. Everything that matters, maybe.

I can offer one interesting anecdote of hope — it’s about families who have owned Calder mobiles in their own homes for decades, for entire generations. Their homes contain time-tested Calder Objects, which are likely worth a cool half-million at an art auction. That’s not the news, though. What’s really interesting is that some of these quite elderly mobiles seem to *manifest new behavior* after quietly wobbling around for eighty years.

They’re entropic, but they’re not fossilized. They’re very gently decaying, rusting, corroding; the little wire loops and hooks are slightly changing shape. So the internal leverage is changing. They don’t rot or collapse, nothing sad or traumatic — they just perform new spatial behavior, like an aging wine cask manifesting new flavor. There’s something grand about that, like live volcanoes slumbering under their ash.

I don’t want to stuff Calder into a dusty corner, although he’s indeed somewhat stuck there nowadays. I do suspect that his domestic activities have some modern lessons that are little-appreciated and might be useful, illuminating, inspirational — but you don’t see me volunteering to follow him, beating a drum. I don’t design homemade inventions and interventions. I have no particular knack for doing that, and also, I don’t like to get in the way of gifted people who are actually good at product design of functional objects. I would much prefer to praise somebody else’s chair — (or instance, a Nils Diffrient Freedom Chair, those are excellent) than to cook up some plywood-and-plastic maker-chair all on my own. If Calder’s on crusade, I’m not part of it.

But the “do-it-yourself” scene is not entirely about yourself. The great moral lesson about Calder is that he’s inside a genius art scene — Montparnasse. In Montparnasse, the renewed Calder, the true Calder, appears on the scene, because other people are helping him with his self-actualization.

Even when Calder is in top form as Calder — whenever he’s friendless, when he’s isolated by wartime, just alone on his homestead with all his nutty gadgets and a lot of spare time, he doesn’t burn with his usual hard, lambent flame. All alone to do-it-entirely-himself, he seems in rather bad, sad shape. Calder puts in the hours, he does some good work, but he’s at a creative loss without his friends and colleagues. Calder doesn’t thrive, he does not gleefully innovate, while his wife’s on duty at the mental hospital. When that strange little French girl in his home needs her onion soup.

He gives away a great many of his “Objects,” Calder. Because he needs the people who surround him to have them.

“When you can’t imagine how things will change, that doesn’t mean nothing will change. It means that things will change in ways that are unimaginable.” Calder did change sculpture in ways that were previously unimaginable. Today, though, Calder’s revolutionary kinetic art has some aspects of a cul-de-sac — it’s much respected, it’s not actively advancing.

However, there are other unimaginable things that might well happen tomorrow. They shouldn’t be imagined as apocalyptic, psychedelic, transcendant things; they’re not sudden bolts of Jovian lightning; no, they can be more like magma rising from the workshop of Vulcan, slowly breaking through, and transforming the landscape. They are talent, and a lot of process-centered, intuitive exploration of things and ideas that other people have overlooked or dismissed. That would be more likely to happen if we understood how, why and when that happened, and cordially encouraged it to happen.

We don’t even need to “reward” it. Often it’s enough to not to crush it or dismiss it, just to give it sufficient space and duration.

Getting by with do-it-yourself has its distinctive virtues — especially in the service of others. Personally, here in the year 2024, I still don’t “make” much stuff. I’ve come to know something about the subject, but I doubt that I ever will do much of that.

However, as the lone American currently living a European household of five, I have, indeed, somehow, become their household repair guy. Entropy abounds in my household here, and a lot of conventional stuff falls apart. The possessions of three generations; there’s a lot of variety there. Fixing a toy is certainly much appreciated. Because they’re such cheap junk, toys. Their devoted users really beat them up.

I don’t genius-hack some busted kid-toy so that future generations will stare in wonderment. I do attempt to fix the household objects, though, and it turns out, often I can really do it. I didn’t imagine that I could become so generally handy, but time passes, it can happen. I’m not particularly skillful, but I have been around. In a household world of non-weird, troubled, busted objects — I get the principles.

In my case, the effort’s mostly about cyanoacrylate glue, WD-40 spray lubricant and the Victorinox “WorkChamp” pocket tool. I sometimes do make use of pliers and wire, just like good old Calder. I’m about as good with those as Sandy Calder aged nine.

It’s not that I myself aspire to do this, just for myself — it’s that others ask me for it. The expectation of a capability provokes one; that’s a literal “confidence trick,” an obvious placebo, but it works. Any and every household needs its objects serviced, weirdly or less weirdly; better objects do mean a better home. That modest effort, it transforms me somewhat — modestly.

I am more capable. It’s New Years Day as I write this — this year, I’ll do better. I’ll do more.