- Photography by Mr Bjorn Iooss
- Words by Ms Jodie Harrison, Editor, MR PORTER
You may not have heard the name Richard Saul Wurman. The majority of the folks in his stately seaside hometown of Newport, Rhode Island certainly haven't. Those that do know the razor-tongued co-founder of the TED conferences, however, seem to have been left with a bad taste in their mouths. "He's said a lot of mean stuff about the people of Newport," explains one store owner, "things like we don't know anything or we are not worth having dinner with ? he seems like a bit of a jackass."
Little do they know that this is just the kind of "compliment" Mr Wurman always hoped to elicit from the locals. "We love to piss off the WASPs in this town," he explains, as we sit in the study of his rather grand, and sprawling, 19th-century French-style country house where he lives with his wife of more than 30 years, the author Ms Gloria Nagy. The house is just a street away from Newport's famous Cliff Walk, where many of America's great industrial fortunes built Beaux Arts mansions during the Gilded Age, and where their descendants still summer. "I'm not afraid of being disliked. If people die and every obituary reads the same, I'd think they probably weren't so interesting. If you have a rich life there should be people who dislike you, people who admire you. The different opinions are really who somebody is."
If you have a rich life there should be people who dislike you, people who admire you. The different opinions are really who somebody is
Enemies aside, there's a list of things you should know about Mr Wurman. He's 79. He was born in Pennsylvania to a father who made cigars and a mother whose family were kosher butchers. After a distinguished career that included chairing the first Federal Design assembly in 1973 and authoring the pioneering graphic-based travel guide series Access, he co-founded TED in 1984 as a one-off conference event about technology, entertainment and design. Seventeen years later he sold it for a handsome sum to the Pakistan-born founder of Future Publishing, Mr Chris Anderson. (Mr Wurman hates what it's become: "Now they're just selling something. Mainly guilt," he says.) He counts the architect Mr Frank Gehry as one of his best friends. He is currently working alongside billionaire businessman and environmental scientist Mr Jack Dangermond on the Urban Observatory, an ambitious cartography exhibit that allows viewers to see, compare and contrast data from key cities around the world, boiling it down to something understandable and useful. In 2012 he won the Lifetime Achievement Award at the National Design Awards and this year he is one of three honourees (including former New York mayor Mr Michael Bloomberg and World Wide Web inventor Sir Timothy Berners-Lee) for the Washburn Award, given to those who have made an outstanding contribution towards public understanding of science. His 84th self-published book, titled 80, comprises 80 conversational stories running more than 800 pages, which he plans to release in March 2016, right before his 81st birthday. He owns not one but two Francis Bacon triptychs. And a Picasso. And more than a few Hockneys. Oh, and he likes Missoni scarves. A lot.
The three labradors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, parade the
terrace at the Wurman residence
"I don't have ties. I don't have suits. But I have hundreds of scarves. I always wear one when I give a speech," he says. Why? "Show biz. They have become my signature. Maybe it's insecurity on my part, I don't know. It was always something for me to buy when I didn't want to buy clothes, when I was bigger and they didn't fit me."
It's his honesty, his constant pursuit of the truth, that has guided this outspoken designer, cartographer and conference organiser to a career as a sort of data pioneer, or as he coined it in 1976, an "information architect". "I do different things. I'm neither one thing nor another but one thing is always at the start of it – I like to make information understandable. In order to create you have to understand what it's like not to understand." This curiosity drives him to study anything and everything, and the connections he makes between topics cements them in his memory. During a 20-minute sushi lunch with Mr Wurman he delivers a monologue that ranges from the biology of whales to charcoal's fuelling capabilities.
"My memory was always pretty good but it's gotten much better the older I've got. I have my own system of attaching important things to other things in my head," he explains as we roam around the garden he and his wife began designing when they bought the house more than 20 years ago having left New York. The previous day's torrential downpour has enlivened the grass and bushes to an almost electric shade of green. Surrealist silver balls float dreamily around the edges of their enormous semi-circular pool. A swirling Zen garden, also designed by Mr Wurman, sprawls over one side, surrounded by a row of magnificent beech trees.
All this, it still means something. I still look at what things cost in a restaurant. I still get giddy when I receive a gift
"It's nice. What can I say?" he remarks as we eye the surrounds for a good place to photograph him. "It was a lot f**king nicer until they starting building a house next door." This is just the type of jolting interaction you get used to when you spend a little time with Mr Wurman. One moment he can exhibit flashes of stinging arrogance ("I'm not normal people. We wouldn't be here if I was normal people"), the next twinges of doubt and insecurity ("I'm nobody ? I'm from nothing. I don't do anything well. There's nothing special about me"). It's an exhausting, unpredictable mix and one his wife worded perfectly when posed the question "Who does Richard think he is?" during an interview several years ago. Her answer? "Richard thinks he is a little piece of sh*t but at the centre of the universe." "That's still the best definition of me," he says before breaking into a laugh.
Love him or hate him, there can be no denying that Mr Wurman is an extraordinary force and his life story is as unexpected and dreamy as the gardens and enclaves of Newport's historic mansions. Despite making more than a few local enemies over the years (most recently his new neighbour), he has also made a lot of friends ? and important ones at that. A shelf in his converted outhouse serves as a pictorial Rolodex of some of the information age's key players: in one photograph he stands on a beach next to Google's Mr Larry Page (with whom he shares a birthday ? albeit 38 years apart), in others with Mr Bill Gates and the British co-discoverer of the DNA molecular structure, Mr Francis Crick. "I try to have people around me that are just the best," he explains, "smarter than me, more creative. I'm just in awe of my friends."
In some ways it's comforting spending time with Mr Wurman, who is a real poster-pops for the late starter. Money didn't really make its way into his pockets until after his mid-40s, when he decided to stop working in jobs he hated and start living. This later-life success has given him a charming and deep appreciation for his somewhat unforeseen lot. "All this," he says, waving a hand at his grand surroundings, "it still means something. I still look at what things cost in a restaurant. I still get giddy when I receive a gift. I go out the back at night with my wife, when the place is all lit up beautifully and say, 'My god this is amazing.'" He calls his lofty marbled hallway "The Lobby" because it still doesn't feel as if it's actually his. "Every once in a while Gloria and I will hold each other and dance around out there and say, "When do you think they're coming home?"
But they are home, and for Mr Wurman, as he charges full speed towards his 80th birthday, life has never smelt so sweet.