Worldwide Shipping

Your cart

Your cart is empty

Lloyd Kahn

Building a Life: Lloyd Kahn's Desire to Share

Lloyd Kahn is drawn to interesting people who do unique things. And, when he discovers something that excites him, his first instinct is to share it with the world.

He is the founder of Shelter Publications and the former Shelter editor of the Whole Earth Catalog. His book Shelter (1973), about DIY architecture, has sold more than 250,000 copies and is one of my most cherished books. Lloyd is the author of at least 12 books and has published multiple other titles, including Bob Anderson's Stretching, which has sold three million copies and is available in 31 languages.

I like to imagine Lloyd as my long-lost cool Californian counter-culture uncle. The ultimate dropout, an ex-insurance broker turned 'hippie builder,' Lloyd has been on a journey since 1965 through building and journalism. Picture him as part Doc Brown from Back to the Future, part Jack Kerouac, with a touch of Leonardo da Vinci. He started skateboarding at age 65 and continued well into his late 80s. Now, at 89, he's taking it a bit easier—but not much. Earlier this year Lloyd undertook a solo road trip around Baja California, Mexico, in his early 2000s 4x4 Toyota Tacoma.

I've admired Lloyd's work for decades. I first came across his book "Shelter" in my early 20's. The book felt empowering and inspiring. From the moment I picked it up it felt like an invitation. In "Shelter" Lloyd shares photographs and drawings of hand made buildings that real people had built for themselves, and somehow I always felt like he was saying, "You could do this too."

A few months ago, I sat down with Lloyd over Zoom. I was very excited to speak with him and get a better sense of who he is. Lloyd was in his home in Bolinas, just outside San Francisco, and I was in our studio in County Mayo, Ireland.

Gearoid: To introduce yourself to our readers, how would you refer to yourself in terms of your career or your profession? What do you normally say?

Lloyd: Well, I call myself a publisher. What I do is work as an editor, photographer, writer, and designer—I do my layouts! But, above all, I think of myself as a communicator. I have always had a desire to communicate. My main source of income has always been publishing books, but nowadays I also have Instagram and a Substack.

Looking back, I think this all started in a high school journalism class. Then, later on when I got out of college, I had to go into the Air Force, and I ended up running a newspaper on an air base in Germany for two years. It was called the Sembach Jet Gazette. My job also included managing the photo lab, so I got experience doing that as well. Then, from 1960 to 1965, I was an insurance broker.

And what happened next?

Then, I started smoking marijuana and looking around at what was going on in the world and wanting to drop out of it all. I took a trip hitchhiking across the country and when I came back, in 1965, I quit my job in insurance.

I got back into communicating by working on the Whole Earth Catalog. That taught me how to make books. The first book I did was in 1970—that was the book on dome building. I’ve been publishing for over 50 years now. And it has gotten more difficult to stay afloat.

 

"Ever since I was two years old, I've wanted to tell people about what I see. I was always like, “Hey mom! Look at this butterfly!” 

 

Can you describe some more about your drive to communicate what you see?

Ever since I was two years old, I've wanted to tell people about what I see. I was always like, “Hey mom! Look at this butterfly!”  I'm always thinking about how I would like to show people things. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm actually seeing something or if I'm jumping too quickly to the idea of telling others about it. But that's what I do in my life now—in varied ways, I communicate what I run into across the world"

You have a unique way of explaining and showing things in a very visual, practical, and also slightly magical way. 

What I like about sharing what I see is that it's kind of like… I'm taking you along with me, riding shotgun.

I've always been fascinated by what you've shown me because of your focus on materials. My background is in craft design and making. I appreciate understanding how things are made. There is such generosity in your approach. When you help people to understand how things are made, it makes the object or building so much more accessible. 

 

"What I like about sharing what I see is that it's kind of like… I'm taking you along with me, riding shotgun."

 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You know, I tell people, your computer's not going to build a house for you. You still need two hands, a hammer, and a saw. It's kind of comforting to me in the digital era to know that some things, like home-cooked meals and buildings, have to be done the old way. So I've done a lot of work in showing people how to build, how to create their own space, their shelter.

Then the other thing that I did for about 20 years was I published books on fitness. (Stretching has sold over 3 million copies and is in 31 languages). The fitness books have paid for the building books.

 

 Lloyd at the age of 39 in 1974, while working on the Whole Earth Catalogue.

 

I have the stretching book too! - though I need to start using it more. Tell me about your time at The Whole Earth Catalog and what you learned there.

The Whole Earth Catalog was huge. I went to work on it after the first edition as a “shelter editor.” I worked on it for several years. The catalog was sold for $5 and it covered all the things that we were all interested in at the time, like building your own house, organic gardening, and communication with dolphins.

Stewart Brand was the chief editor and he brought in different people for the different sections. Mine was shelter and Richard and Rosemary were gardening. Peter Warshall was land use. So he probably had six or eight different editors.

 

"The Whole Earth Catalogue covered all the things that we were all interested in at the time, like building your own house, organic gardening, and communication with dolphins"

 [True to form, Lloyd begins to enthusiastically share with me the revolution of printing techniques and methods during his time at the Whole Earth Catalog. I sit back, listen and soak it in.]

It's really interesting to just understand the history of printing… Stewart did the first Whole Earth Catalog (in 1968) all printed using linotype—which was what had been used at the newspaper that I worked at in the Air Force in Germany. Linotype was made from hot lead. To make it, a guy sat at the keyboard with eye shades on, keyboarding the text. It came out in lead slugs that were put into a box and eventually used to print the book or the newspaper.

By the time I got to the Whole Earth Catalog in the sixties, linotype had been replaced the IBM Selectric Composer. And so then I learned that technique from Stewart. But even then with the Selectric Composer if you wanted to go from Roman to Italic font, you had to change the ball in the typewriter. It was a $10,000 typewriter! From there, it went for a short period to phototypesetting. And then along came the Macintosh and that, of course, revolutionised things.


"It's kind of comforting to me in the digital era to know that some things, like home-cooked meals and buildings, have to be done the old way. So I've done a lot of work in showing people how to build, how to create their own space, their shelter."

 

And so you were the Shelter editor at The Whole Earth Catalog. This is where the Shelter books came from?

Yes—Stewart had the production facility where he had the IBM composer and a Polaroid camera. And from time to time he would turn that over to us. For maybe two weeks, I would run the facility, set the type, paste it down, and do the photos. And so I learned how to make books that way. The first two books I did were on dome building and he loaned me the Whole Earth production facilities to make them. And so, I became a publisher.

So you must have been so excited to watch how technology has evolved today and how it allows people to self-publish—to share what they see.

You know, Steve Jobs once gave a commencement speech at Stanford where he said that when he was in high school, there was this great book called The Whole Earth Catalog by a guy named Stewart Brand. He said it was the Google of its time. And it kind of, I mean, in a way it's kind of like the Whole Earth Catalog led Steve Jobs into founding Apple and the Apple computer....

 

 

More about Lloyd: 

Lloyd's Substack: Live from California with Lloyd Kahn.

Lloyd's Instagram: Lloyd.Kahn

Lloyd's Blog: www.lloydkahn.com

Shelter Publications: Publications

Shelter Publications Blog: Blog

 

Next Week: 

Building a Life: Lloyd Kahn's Search for Freedom through Self-Building

“I ran a program at a hippie high school in the mountains on 40 acres. We built 17 domes and tried all kinds of experimental things. I wrote two books on dome building.The books were selling really well but then... I realized that domes didn't work. I called my agent—and said, 'Don, I'm going to take the book out of print.' He said, 'Are you crazy?' I replied, 'No, I don't want any more domes on my karma.'

So, I took the book out of print and traveled with my cameras. With $200 roundtrip flights to Shannon, I traveled around Ireland and England with two cameras studying buildings…”

 

Image Credits:
Lead image courtesy of The Last Straw 
B+W image of Lloyd courtesy of  www.doorofperception.com

B+W Portrait courtesy of www.outsidersstore.com

Previous post
Next post