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Simplicity and Storytelling: David and Hi-Jin Hodge

--Audrey Lin, on Mar 25, 2012

"If you think you know the answer, then you close the door. You put that aside and think you’re done. I think one of the joys of not knowing the answer is waking up everyday with a question.”

For the past thirteen years, David and Hi-Jin Hodge have worked, lived, and walked down a path of simplicity and storytelling together. When asked to contribute to an exhibit celebrating the work of the Dalai Lama, the dynamic husband-wife duo authored an anthology called Impermanence: Embracing Change. They create art installations for museums. Design homes for friends. Make films that capture the essence of people or nature. And all the while, they keep a sense of openness and freedom in their work and lives.
When asked about their creative process, David and Hi-Jin note that it’s about asking questions, listening, and being open: “We kind of never know what the answer to the question is. In some sense, it just sort of evolves.”
With heartwarming reflections, this week’s Forest Call explores the Hodge’s unpredictable journey with design and film, value of storytelling, and humble experiments with simplicity and giving.

 The Shift to Simplicity            
Having designed with the likes of Steve Jobs, the Hodges have dabbled in the arenas of industrial design, architecture and engineering. But “it wasn’t satisfying, creating products for consumers,” Hi-Jin explained. “It was a lot of taking, not giving.”
“I was at a crisis point in my design career," David remembered. I felt like I was making things that were really using up resources and not delivering much value in the long-term. And that was troubling to me.”

He observed that the modern world has been in "accumulation mode," and there is a need to shift to "preservation mode". Both David and Hi-Jin felt the need to de-clutter their own lives, and give back from their work, rather than take.

“Playing the role of designer, and working for organizations that make things that are consumed—that are accumulated and then thrown away very quickly—it really didn’t fit. So, gradually, we moved into this world of storytelling, of filmmaking. It felt like a much better fit in the sense that it was giving back in a different way. It was connecting with people. It was not taking resources, but giving.”
Simplicity of Design
When you watch David and Hi-Jin’s films, you’ll immediately pick up on an elegant bareness, a graceful simplicity, of design. During the call, Rahul pointed out the “clean aesthetic” of their work and asked, “What’s the inspiration behind that?” They responded in two parts:
1. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to write you a short letter.” Sometimes, saying something in the shortest, cleanest way possible is much harder than writing a long, rambling letter. The same holds true for design.
“So for us, it’s an interesting challenge to reduce things... to bare essentials. ...We’re really trying to get things down to the core essence. I think in the end, when it’s delivered to someone, it becomes easy to take in,” David remarked.
2. Henry David Thoreau. In 1848, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “So simplify the problems of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. I would stand upon the facts.” From Thoreau’s writings and life in Walden and other works, the Hodges draw inspiration from the clarity of an “uncluttered life”.
600 Objects           
In a book called Hooked, Stephanie Kaza compiles a series of essays about greed, desire, and the urge to consume. In the introduction, Paul Hawken writes about a good friend of his who was a successful businessman. At retirement, this friend decided that he wanted to focus on giving back rather than consuming. So he got rid of all his possessions, except the bare essentials that they needed to live. It came down to about 600 objects. How much is 600 items? The Hodges wondered. So they photographed each room of their house, taking things out of drawers and cabinets. It turned into a series of 17 photos, and even became an art installation at the Frost Art Museum in Miami.

In a similar spirit, the Hodges have pared down their belongings to 937 items.

Memorable Moments
When Rahul asked, “What is a moment or person on camera that really blew you away?” the Hodges offered two stories, and life lessons.
An Open Hand: For their Impermanence project, the Hodges interviewed a Trappist monk. Hi-Jin keeps one of his stories in her back pocket: There was a beggar who had his hand open for a dime or quarter. As soon as the hand is filled with a dime or something, your instinct is to close the hand and hold onto it. But if you’re holding on to it, your hand is not open for new coins—new things in life. And you’re closed off to new opportunities. So always have the hand open. Your heart open.
Two Questions: One of David’s most memorable interview moments came from philosopher and author, Sam Keen, who they interviewed for their Legacy project. During the interview, Sam described a teacher of his, who once told him: “Sam, there’s two things in a man’s life that he has to remember. The first is: Where do you want to go? The second is: Who do you want to take with you? And if you get those in the wrong order, you’re in big trouble.” 

Stories that Connect 

At the end of the call, Bill asked about the couple's guiding philosophy, to which Hi-Jin summed up, "In whatever we tell, we try to tell a story that connects, that lasts, that could have meaning and joy. Whether it stands for a moment, or a longer period of time."

With timeless grace and an open presence, David and Hi-Jin's Forest Call graced us with a simplicity of spirit, endless heart of possibility. 

David and Hi-Jin Hodge have created art installations that have been celebrated internationally at places like the Nobel Museum. They make awesome films (including ours!) and continually inspire generosity through both their work and personal lives.