Design, Education, Sci + Tech, Social Impact

Jay Baldwin ~ An Appreciation

Jay Baldwin, a colleague and friend of Buckminster Fuller and a beloved longtime associate of the Buckminster Institute, passed away on March 2, 2018. Born James Tennant Baldwin, he is affectionately known as Jay. He is survived by his wife, Liz Fial, son Aaron, his grandchildren and hundreds of appreciative students and colleagues to whom he was an inspiration.

Jay was endlessly inquisitive well into his 80s. His inventive mind was matched with a pragmatic, no nonsense modus operandi. He made things work so that they could make a difference. As a master of sustainability long before the term was coined, his approach to design was comprehensive, versatile and always unconventional. Early in his career he worked with geodesics and invented the first solar greenhouse, his PillowDome. He also designed and fabricated experimental camping equipment and sustainable products during the nascent stage of the solar and wind power industry. Much later he invented of a radical new breed of camper he called the Quickupcamper that “opens and closes in about a minute.” His Quickupcamper can hold its own with the new generation of “mobitecture” – tiny homes on wheels. More details here:

Jay was a brilliant reverse designer/engineer who took things apart in order to understand and discover new design principles. As a well loved professor of sustainable industrial design at a number of schools and universities, he taught almost 20 years at California College of the Arts in San Francisco (CCA). He said “One way or the other, everything I have done and continue to do is in some way teaching, even when I was a little kid. I am and was a taker-aparter.” As a writer and editor his discerning expertise informed everything he did and impacted more than a few generations.

I always admired Jay’s spunk and spirit. His signature style was a blue shirt, well worn jeans and sneakers, often looking like he was just ready to enter a machine shop. For such an accomplished man, he kept a low profile. He told many stories of his youth, how he traveled months at a time, living on the road in his station wagon building domes, camping products and even toys. He innovated constantly. In the late 1980s when I first met him as one of the seasoned elders in a community of colleagues of Buckminster Fuller, he seemed as young as the students he continually surrounded himself with.

JB still has his first childhood transport proudly displayed in his home 2015
JB still has his first childhood transport proudly displayed in his home 2015

JB inside his mobile tool shop 2015
JB inside his mobile tool shop 2015

Drill press in JB’s mobile tool shop 2015
Drill press in JB’s mobile tool shop 2015

As a dear friend and mentor, I fondly called Jay “man of a thousand stories.” Just like his own mentor, Bucky, whom he first met as a student in 1952, Jay could talk for hours, always offering his unique perspectives on how and why things worked – or not. Jay was informed by the same method as what Bucky termed “mistake mystique” – knowing the most valuable knowledge was gained through the labyrinth of trial and error. Through the course of the three decades that followed his introduction, Jay spent so much time soaking up Bucky’s way of applying synergetic principles, thinking comprehensively and doing work for the good of everyone that he considered himself one of Bucky’s “artifacts.”
And, for all of you working on your own great ideas on behalf of humanity, please note that less than one month remains to read Buckminster Fuller’s “Mistake Mystique.

Jay often talked about the critical importance of a good “talk-do” ratio, and “do,” he did! One of the projects with BFI that I know was closest to his heart was the Wichita House Project. It began in 1990 as a 2-day brainstorm where five of us convened in Ojai to map out how to launch a project to save the only full size prototype built for Bucky’s mass produced housing. By 1992 the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn Michigan had received a donation of the 1945 prototype by its owners, the Graham family and raised enough funds to fully restore and display the unique house. The museum worked closely with us at BFI to pour through primary documentation of the Wichita house so that the Dymaxion prototype could join their collection of large scale industrial artifacts that were quintessentially American.

Jay was immediately brought on board by the museum to direct the on site dismantling of the 46-year old “home” that had been landlocked into a conventional brick house near a small private lake the family of six lived in for almost 20 years. He approached the disassembly of Bucky’s prototype made of WWII era aircraft materials with vigor and determination. He was assisted by an overlapping ad hoc assemblage of BFI volunteers who would arrive in Wichita from around the country from week to week – thus, the “Dymaxion Deconstruction Crew” was born.

Led with a deft hand and a careful understanding of one of Bucky’s most storied artifacts, Jay set out to “lovingly dismantle, record, mark and crate each part bound for the Henry Ford Museum.” It was a challenge clearly made for Jay. Removing the layers of detritus that had accumulated throughout decades inside the abandoned structure, Jay and his stalwart team of volunteers dismantled the “machine for living.” They took apart 96 aluminum gores, drilled out 17,000 rivets and kept accurate records of each and every part. They ‘deconstructed’ Bucky’s prototype with enough precision that it could be fully restored with a maximum of original parts. One crew member, computer programmer Robert Orenstein, was thrilled that he learned how “to use a lot of tools – but only to take things apart.” In Jay’s words, the “deed was done” a few days short of one month in early Summer, 1992.

Read more about this project in Jay’s “Dymaxion Dwelling Machine” article in TRIMTAB V7 No1 and Dymaxion Deconstruction Photo Essay TRIMTAB V7 No2.

Jay was design and technology editor for the legendary Whole Earth Catalog, and as a writer who made hundreds of contributions to the Whole Earth Review as well as completing his first novel,Why You Can’t Fly, He also wrote a book and many magazine articles about Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car and Dymaxion House. Jay’s 1996 book, BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for today was the first – and 22 years later – is still the most accessible popular introduction to Bucky’s key artifacts and ideas. As a teacher and an expert on Bucky’s work through his experience as both student and colleague, in 1995 Jay came to the Buckminster Fuller Archives in Santa Barbara to research to finally write a book that would re-introduce Bucky to a new generation. He drove his RV to the Riviera in San Barbara where BFI was located at that time and parked it in the parking lot. He camped out in it for three weeks and spent every moment he could inside the archives. Although his book went through months of editing with his publisher after his time at BFI, Jay wrote his first draft of BuckyWorks extemporaneously until it was done, then and there.

I was delighted, as his colleague and as the archivist for the collection, to invite Jay into the new research room inside the archives. His timing was perfect – in 1995, there were many unpublished photos, letters and documents I had freshly uncovered in Bucky’s Chronofile, his photo files, clippings, flat files and manuscripts. Each set of primary materials acted as visual triggers for Jay’s memory. I would bring him a “treasure trove” of documentation around an artifact (such as the Dymaxion Car) from many sections and periods. This was not difficult in those days. With his lifetime experiment, Bucky (Guinea Pig ‘B’) had always made sure that each of his artifacts and projects were exhaustively documented. Even for his earliest experiments, records of the conceptualization, design and construction and all the correspondence and publication around a project – from a specific geodesic dome to a version of his Dymaxion map – were almost complete. Bucky’s collection was interwoven in such a way that new insights could be gained that even Bucky himself could not predict.

Equipped with the materials that met his own memories, Jay set to work, writing one chapter after the other in record time. BuckyWorks is told in Jay’s conversational style, it is a unique combination of wisdom, dry wit, humor and… exactitude. He even wrote about the breadth and size of Fuller’s lifetime experiment of documentation at 45 tons. He knew the weight because we had just moved the archives from LA to Santa Barbara and weighed the whole collection for the very first time only a year before!

Jay was another “friendly genius,” a global steward as well as his role as a local land steward for the 3,300-acre Pepperwood Nature Preserve for 10 years with his wife Liz, a horticulturist and goldsmith. Based in Northern California, Jay has been involved with the Buckminster Fuller Institute throughout its many incarnations. He had continued in recent years as a member of the advisory team for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge. With his robust, pioneering spirit, Jay was well loved and he will be greatly missed.


Bonnie DeVarco, author and curator, was research manager and archivist at the Buckminster Fuller Institute from 1989 to 1995. She has continued to work with the Fuller Collection now permanently housed at Stanford University, since 1999. Bonnie has been a founding member of the advisory committee for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for 10 years. She was a Distinguished Fellow at Stanford University’s MediaX program from 2009 to 2012 and is a Fellow of the RSA. She continues her work with a number of institutions focusing on emerging technologies in education and data visualization.