Designing Things, Places, and the World: Agnes Bourne
Designing Things, Places, and the World: Agnes Bourne
By: Emma Keinath-Lopez
February 28, 2023
Art Association of Jackson Hole board member Agnes Bourne was three years old when she designed her very first home. I haven’t seen this design, but through Bourne’s vivid descriptions, it easily became my favorite of her work. Complete with an entry room, hallway, community room, and a bedroom, all the essentials were there. There was no need for a bathroom, and the only light came from a single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Lastly, this home did not stretch much wider than six square feet. What kind of person lives in a house such as this? No person at all, rather a four legged friend named Casco. The doghouse had a sloped roof that would hinge to open and close, allowing easy access to vacuum the wall to wall carpeting. Casco was not allowed inside the house, so Bourne wanted her dog to have a cozy place to live. This thoughtfulness, consideration of all others, and attention to detail, is what Bourne brings to all of her artistic pursuits.
From the beginning of my conversation with Agnes Bourne, she emphasized that she wanted to serve as a voice of encouragement and that her story wasn’t what was important. I discovered quite quickly that the most fascinating and helpful information came from the stories of her past, the revelations of her present, and the mindset of her future.
Agnes Bourne is a designer located in Jackson, WY, who has been working on her craft for over 60 years – the same length of time that the Art Association of Jackson Hole has been offering art education. Bourne’s impact in the design world is concentrated in Jackson, San Francisco, and New York. The breadth of her skills spans wide, as she has done work in historical restoration, set design, product design, residential and commercial interiors, and designing her own line of furniture called the “Agnes Bourne Collection.” She is a nationally recognized lecturer and design juror, published in multiple books, founder of the architecture and design department at SFMOMA, and awarded multiple medals of distinction from a variety of organizations, including the Smithsonian Institution. Bourne’s resume is impressive, and I thought that I would be quite nervous sitting in front of her. On the contrary, I felt at great ease, like I had been chatting with a friend. Her resounding vision for her art shines true in everything that she touches, and that vision is based on a sound morality that leaves one feeling hopeful and inspired.
“Design is a means to maintaining an inspired community and creating a sustainable quality of life. Art is expression. Teamwork is the strategy,” Bourne says.
This idea of a sustainable quality of life has a duality to understanding. Bourne wishes to make the designed space comfortable and livable. When Bourne was eight years old, she designed a chicken coop to house a dozen hens on her property. She recognized that they had a need just like any human to be comfortable, especially when they were gifting her with fresh eggs for breakfast. She asked herself, “How do we feed these chickens, keep them safe, and keep their house clean?”
She set to work designing a roost, egg laying station, scratching area, fruit crates for resting, a straw bed, and metal that extended underground for protection from digging animals. By focusing on safety, comfort, and cleanliness, she was able to give these hens a better life.
Another way to understand sustainability is through the environment. As humans, we create a lot of textile, plastic, and additional wastes. When focused on “fast fashion,” the design industry can be quite harmful to the environment. Bourne is a lover of the natural world who follows through on being sustainable in her design practices. “Living green” is a concept she weaves into much of her work. She uses materials that are able to be recycled, and sources wood from forests managed sustainably. In one of her designs, she transported back in time to 1955 and got her hands on some reclaimed materials from automobiles from that era. She lights up as she talks about the magic of bringing back the energy from that time period through her designs.
Bourne’s process for designing client’s spaces is incredibly unique and empathetic. Empathy is not the first word I would use when thinking about designing a living space, but I learned that it is vital to the process, and serves as a powerful example of how to work with others even outside of the creative process.
Not one chair color is chosen before the “Building Better” interview is had. This is an interview that Bourne gives to every member of the household. During this process, she gets a feel for the personal identity of each member and what their needs are. I find it unique and powerful that not just the “head of the household” gets a say. “All voices need to be heard, all stakeholders, every family member needs the opportunity to be heard,” Bourne says. If dogs could talk, I highly suspect that she would interview them as well. Each family member writes down their answers, then reads the answers out loud together as a group. This process is incredibly important because it determines whether “they are leading a life that is someone else’s and not theirs,” Bourne reveals. She urges clients to “get in touch with where you are at now and if you want to bring where you came from to the present day.” In this process, verbalizing and sharing what is on one’s mind not only enlightens others to where you are at, but also acts as a moment of reflection for the individual as well.
Bourne’s act of reflection during the design process is where her minor in Psychology shines through. She recognizes the power of identity and the importance of coming together to share. She believes that art is divided into two parts. One is what we show to ourselves, and the other is what we show to the world. By presenting to the world we are also able to see what we are revealing about ourselves. From there, we see if we are being honest with ourselves about who we are.
Art can be quite vulnerable. When it comes to sharing creations, it can be a scary endeavor. However, Bourne emphasizes that art must be shared if you want to see change in the world. She explains how it is an opportunity for the artist and the viewer to grow and have revelations. She quotes her grandfather, “You can’t say you’re something if you don’t have a paper on the wall verifying it.” I at first was taken aback by this statement. Isn’t there value in an individual creating art for their own understanding, growth, and enjoyment? Bourne says yes, of course. Both private and public art have their important place. However, she also claims that if you want to step out and be a leader and have a voice in the public sphere, one must contribute to the field by sharing their work with others. Bourne compares an artist not sharing their work to a chef not cooking for other people. As I considered this, I thought about how if Agnes Bourne had not shared her designs and been so active in the field, I would not be sitting with her today and gaining such insight into not only the world of art, but life.
When Bourne was younger she worked in a department store for $1 an hour in the design department. A woman came into the store, and after talking with Bourne, she asked her to design her house. Bourne did not have any professional design experience at that point, yet this person trusted something in her. Bourne says that she got this job because she “had knowledge and knew how to ask questions.” At such a young age she was aware of one of the most important aspects of communication that doesn’t involve speaking at all – listening. “Know how to listen. Listen to the client, self, and the world around you. Pay attention to what you’re doing,” says Bourne.
Bourne has been on her path of artistic design since she could remember. When asked if children are born with natural talents, she exclaims, “All children are born as discovery machines with the ability to go out there and figure out what they got.” Bourne is on the board of the Art Association of Jackson Hole because she truly believes in the importance of art education. Bourne fondly remembers when she brought her grandchildren into the Art Association’s studio for a ceramics class during the holiday season. She attests, “I highly recommend family events in the studios. Classes give us the opportunity to have group experiences with family and friends which is life-giving. It takes people places they can’t go by themselves.” This goes back to Bourne’s mission statement that involves the concepts of teamwork and community. These themes seem to be solidifying at this stage in her career.
One theme and inspiration remains steady, and that is nature. Bourne views the natural world as one large interconnected community. Biomimicry, (the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes,) is a concept that fascinates her. The intersectionality of everything in connection with the natural world is an idea that she continuously circles back to. Bourne’s environmentalism and love for all living things is apparent from the very beginning. She reflects back on her earliest designing days as a child, “It wasn’t about me. It was about how my idea could help. How could I make a better world for my chickens, or my dog.”
Bourne utilizes art to help all beings, as well as the environment. Whether it’s creating a space for a business person to be an efficient worker, or a structure to make a dog’s life a little better, she listens to the being and uses her creativity to make a positive change.
Bourne exclaims that she is coming to the “last quarter of her life,” and her priorities are exploration, adventure, and pondering the intersectionality of everything in the natural world, including humans. As I listen to this, I find it beautiful. When I think about young Agnes Bourne giving such care and consideration to her dog and chickens, I see a young girl who already feels connectedness and is expressing it through creation. Through the sharing of her creativity, she makes numerous lives better.
Today, Bourne is still designing, but has shifted her focus to pictures, poetry, and prose. Continually looking for the blurred lines between mediums, Bourne is excited about this new adventure. Her parents had always wanted her to join the family passion of publishing, but Bourne’s natural inclinations and identity moved her away from words and towards making sense of the world through colors, textures, and materials. Dyslexia was a barrier that dissuaded Bourne from publishing, but Bourne is now entering the world of publishing with great freedom, as she is finding the beauty of prose and poetry and the pairing with thought-provoking imagery. She has published two books, Moments and Potpourri. Each is a unique collection of words and imagery, meant to inspire any person at any moment. The imagery captures the magic in the seemingly mundane, inspiring people to pause and appreciate the small and large scale wonders around them. Bourne explains how these books were created from her design process that remains constant throughout all of her creative endeavors. “When you have an idea, bring it forward,” Bourne emphasizes. “If you just open up your eyes and open up your mind, everything you need is right there in front of you.” Bourne believes this with all her heart, and wants to instill this mindset in everyone. As we sit in the art studio, Bourne points out various details that delight her during our conversation, from the paint drippings dried on the trash can to the light casting onto the looming mountain out the window.
Expression through art is an incredible tool for navigating one’s life. Bourne reaffirmed the idea that art can heal on a personal and global scale. Creation gives us tools for life, not just in art. The Art Association of Jackson Hole creates a space for creativity to thrive, while also providing guidance and community that is beneficial during all stages of one’s life. It’s never the wrong time to start turning on your “discovery machine” and exploring the connection between all beings and the world around us.