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Getting Dense with Susan Yelavich

Design scholar and critic Susan Yelavich joins us to chat about her Jersey roots, her love of mystery film and "quaking” up on the Turnpike.

Julie Langsam, Still image from documentary, to be released 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.
Image courtesy of Susan Yelavich.

Susan Yelavich is a force in the world of design. The scholar, critic and curator has made a name for herself, with a powerhouse of a resume across genres. She has taught nearly every emerging curator of design, and has overseen dozens of exhibitions and publications around the world. What motivates her is her curiosity about the “why” behind design. An avid fan of all things mystery, she’s applied her sleuthing skills to her own work, where she is currently in collaboration with designer and artist David Young, exploring the limits of AI in an analog world of textiles.

In our first edition of “Getting Dense,” our new video spotlight series, Dense asks Yelavich, an Issue 1 contributor, a series of rapid-fire questions to help you get to know her a little better. Did you know that she’s a Jersey girl? Come along as we hear from Yelavich about the NJ Turnpike, how her home state factors into who she is (or not), and since we’re in the thick of summer, what her childhood was like on the Jersey shore.

The video highlights just a few of our questions, but you can read the full interview below.


DENSE: Please introduce yourself!

SUSAN YELAVICH: Hi, I'm Susan Yelavich. I write about design, and sometimes I teach about design at Parsons where I'm Professor Emerita of Design Studies. I was born in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and I grew up in Cedar Grove. And I'm about to get dense with you. By the way, they made me say that. <laughs>

DENSE: Where are you right now?

SY: I'm in my car in Bovina Center [upstate New York], getting ready to drive back to lower Manhattan.

DENSE: Which issue of Dense are you featured in? And what's the title of a piece you contributed?

SY: I wrote a piece for the first issue of Dense called “Lore of the Turnpike,” the lore being films, poems, television, like the Sopranos songs. These are stories in which the Turnpike is as much a character as the actors. It's where the Turnpike gets its personality.

DENSE: What are you reading right now?

SY: I'm alternating between John Banville’s Athena and a mystery by someone named Derek Fee called The Corpse of the Bog, and occasionally dipping into Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob.

DENSE: What have you been listening to lately?

SY: I try to listen to things that are sort of mesmerizing and low key so I can write. Right now, I'm listening to Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' soundtrack for “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Mostly, I've been listening to a BBC podcast done by Melvin Bragg and it's called, “In Our Time.” It's kind of an encyclopedic show, and in a space of about 50 minutes, you can learn about St. Augustine's confessions or Emily Dickinson or the photon or Frederick Douglas. It's kind of amazing for an autodidact like me. <laughs>

DENSE: What song has been stuck in your head?

SY: Well, “Woke Up This Morning” by Alabama Three, the Sopranos theme song. I mean, what else? <laughs>

DENSE: Favorite pastime?

SY: It has to be gardening in the summer, and in the winter, more knitting and stitching. All the time, my favorite pastime is watching MHZ’s European television shows. They're mostly mysteries and it's a great way to travel.

DENSE: Now for a few New Jersey related questions. Taylor ham or pork roll?

SY: Taylor ham. But if we're talking about food in New Jersey, it's gotta be corn and tomatoes.

DENSE: What's your Jersey vice?

SY: I don't know if it's a vice, but I still say orange and not orange.

DENSE: Favorite boardwalk, favorite boardwalk food?

SY: Well, if you'd asked me when I was little, I would've said Point Pleasant because my grandfather built and ran a motel there. It was called the Ocean View Courts. My favorite food was Turkish taffy and of course, cotton candy.

Susan Yelavich pictured down the New Jersey shore, on Point Pleasant Beach. Images courtesy of Susan Yelavich.

But today I'm more likely to go to the more sedate Bay Head because I like Risden’s Pavilions, I like their grilled cheese. Although I just learned that Jenkinson's, which owns Point Pleasant boardwalk, has now bought Risden’s, I'm just hoping it doesn't get to be as plastic as Point Pleasant has become <laughs>.

DENSE: Do you have a story about being on the New Jersey Turnpike or other NJ highway?

SY: When we were kids and we drove back and forth to the shore [on the Garden State Parkway], my sister Chris threw up at the Cheesequake rest stop and we howled about it. We thought it was hilarious that she “quaked” there. Of course in future trips, we were prepared. I had to hold a plastic bag because she wasn't always that predictable and my dad didn't want to stop for no reason.

Cheesequake, by the way, has now become the Bon Jovi Service Area. Not sure what that says, but there you have it.

DENSE: How do you use New Jersey as a lens to see the world?

SY: I wouldn't say I see the world through the lens of New Jersey. It's more like a window onto my childhood adolescence. New Jersey's where my aunts and my uncles, my cousins - they live there. It's the land of barbecues, shopping malls, and of course, the shore.


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