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THE BEST KNOWN UNKNOWN U.S. ARCHITECT
(Published: 2006-10-20)

Welcome to my first issue of Trend/Countertrend, the official RW Trend newsletter. Some of you may know me as the Trendmaster. Others may know me as ‘the woman who helped put the Tarzhay into Target.’ Some of you may be visiting my web sight for the first time as the result of reading my second book, The Hummer and Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. However you got here, or wherever you come from, welcome!

If you signed up to receive this newsletter, you are undoubtedly interested in trend. Perhaps you are curious about ‘what’s new’ or looking to find out ‘what’s hot.’ Some of you may even be searching for the next big thing. I think I have something better to offer.

After 30 years in the retail world I finally left behind the holy grail search for the cool factor, got off the ‘trend for the sake of trend’ track, and decided instead to look at the world a little differently. What fascinates me today is the world of Trend/Countertrend.

I now embrace the many contradictions found in the world of paradox. I believe that paradox captures the essence of what’s really going on out there in the world, while at the same time cautioning us that things aren’t always as they appear at first glance. When you delve into opposing ideas, you’ll find that there are some pretty interesting aha’s in the middle.

Throughout history, many people have been interested in paradox. Lao Tsu, (the original Trendmaster and author of the Tao de Ching) said: “when opposites supplement each other, everything is harmonious.” In the 3rd century Plato weighed in on the subject too: “Serious things cannot be understood without laughable things, nor opposites at all without opposites.” Dr. Marty Grothe, in his book Oxymoronica, points out that “paradox is a particularly powerful device to ensnare truth because it concisely illuminates the contradictions that are at the very heart of our lives.”

That’s what fascinates me most about paradox: the way it illuminates truth. When explored with an open mind, paradoxes will help you read between the lines and reframe your perspectives. That’s why each of my forthcoming newsletters will be dedicated to the exploration of a particular paradox, whether that is a product, a person, a place, or an idea. My first newsletter is devoted to a talented woman that you’ve probably never heard of, that is one of the most famous designer/architects in U.S. history.

In The Trendmaster’s Guide the letter W is for Walk in Other Worlds. I did that this summer when I visited the Grand Canyon for the first time. It was an incredible experience, hard to describe. It’s easy, however, to understand why standing at the edge of the canyon rim one might be encouraged to view things from a different perspective.

The grandeur of nature is readily apparent as you gaze across and down into the canyon. I expected that. But I also stumbled on something I didn’t expect that fascinated me in a different and powerful way.

Have you ever heard of Mary Jane Colter? I hadn’t. Now, she’s become one of my heroes. Let me tell you a little bit about her.

Mary Elizabeth Jane Colter (1869-1958) may well be the best-known unknown architect in the United States! This instantly qualifies her as a paradox in my book. She spent virtually her entire career working for the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway as an architect and interior designer. The two companies worked together to help make the West pleasurably accessible to travelers when it was considered to be the next big thing. She was hired by the Fred Harvey Company for most of the first half of the twentieth century to design hotels, train stations, shops, restaurants, and other tourist enticements.

Her buildings at the Grand Canyon National Park—which include Indian Watchtower, Hopi House, Hermit’s Rest, and Bright Angel Lodge—are admired and enjoyed by almost five million visitors a year. She’s also remembered for her three classic hotels in the Southwest: El Navajo in Gallup, New Mexico; La Posada, in Winslow, Arizona; and La Fonda in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mary possessed a special genius for interpreting the past to create new buildings and interiors that have enchanted generations of travelers crossing the Southwest. Critics say that her works emerge effortlessly from their site and, even when new, affect a look of age through the use of authentic materials and building methods (counterfeit authenticity.)

You’re probably familiar with the current retail buzzwords ‘retail-tainment’ and ‘the experience economy.’ Mary Colter was ahead of that trend too. She designed her buildings not just to lodge, feed, or otherwise serve travelers that headed West, but also to entertain and engage them. She sought to delight the eye and stimulate the mind.

Mary loved history and had a respectful appreciation of the natural environment. As the Federal Government put aside vast acres of land and natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, a policy was created that sought minimal disturbance of the natural environment. Manmade enhancements were expected to harmonize with the land, and Mary accomplished this with particular aplomb.

In her work, Mary kept it simple by avoiding formal, over sophisticated designs. Phantom Ranch and Hermit’s Rest are small, simple and rugged buildings, constructed with local and on-site materials. A perfect example of less is more; they helped determine the guidelines for what later became known as ‘National Park Rustic Style.’

Mary Colter did not achieve any measure of fame during her lifetime. She was never recognized by the popular national publications nor by the journals and magazines of the architectural world, even though her buildings and interiors, all of them open to the public, surely entertained more visitors than those of many other big-name designers. That’s how she became the best-known unknown architect in the United States, an inspiration to me, and a paradox to boot.

To learn more about this amazing woman, I recommend the book Mary Colter, Architect of the Southwest, by Arnold Berke, from Princeton Architectural Press.



Mary Colter 1869-1958


Hopi House



Robyn Waters is president and founder of RW Trend, LLC. She is the author of The Trendmaster’s Guide: Get a Jump on What Your Customer Wants Next, and The Hummer and the Mini: Navigating the Contradictions of the New Trend Landscape. Learn more about Robyn at www.rwtrend.com. All Rights Reserved.


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