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For someone who spent 55 years in the professional world of architecture, design, art, and intentional space, you would think the transition to a new housing community would be a long, arduous process. For Walker Methodist resident Max Steele who made Minneapolis his home in the summer of 2019, when he made his decision, it was like honoring his own legacy in a way.

Before sitting down with Max, I did a bit of research on him. His biography on his LinkedIn page perfectly sums him up, it states,

Max Steele, visionary designer and architect, made his reputation in the commercial real estate industry by creating magical places to live, work and play. Today, Max is focusing his abundant creativity, talent and passion in the world of fine art photography and printmaking.

Max has a unique way of seeing beauty in the ordinary objects and events that surround us everyday. He has won several distinguished awards from his five decades as an architectural designer. Now as a fine art photographer, Max’s artistic work is being exhibited at galleries around the Northwest and California.

Max's portfolio is on Cargo,
and can be accessed here.

max steele and alison schroeder

A Place Called Home

“I love being at Walker Place because I love telling my friends that I live at Walker Center and they think I’m talking about the art center. Sorry. I didn’t mean it.” Max Steele slowly laughs, his eyes bright behind his dark eyeglass frames. He’s good-humored and a calm individual, someone who clearly has spent most of his life studying functionality and form and appreciating every last detail.

I’m sitting in Max’s well-lit apartment in Walker Methodist’s Place building. The walls are covered in Max’s art and inspiration; each piece meticulously and artfully hung with precision. The natural light makes an incredible backdrop for his belongings and displays. That individuality and uniqueness are what makes Walker such a vibrant, incredible community; one step inside any apartment from the unassuming hallway and you’re suddenly transported to another space, a whole new place.

Max explains his take on it.

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“Walker is a place for me. It’s just like my design work that I do, where I think the goal is to establish a real sense of place. A place that has some character, and has the people who are interesting to you. It’s a great place and I’ve found many friends here. I don’t know how many people live here, but there’s a lot of people here, and they all come together in this one spot we call home. I’m always able to go down to the living room or over to the dining room and run into people,” he said.

I mention to Max how neat it is that his new residence is aptly called Place — after spending a lifetime creating places for other people.

“Yeah, that’s true,” he says. “But what I love is making sure that I connect with people, and I’ve gotten to know just about everyone here, and I’m very happy with that.”

He continued. “The work that I’ve done has been focused mainly on creating places. Places for people, places for doing exciting things, live things. And I’ve spent most of my time involved in creating visions of places that don’t exist and creating something from nothing — that is what I love doing. It’s a fantastic experience when you go through that and you see people getting really something out of a place you created.

All of a sudden, it takes it away from being something subjective and makes it a place that anybody would like to be in. So I enjoy that part of it. And I realize there’s no distinction in my mind between graphic design, architecture, interior design, landscape. It’s all the same design, same process, the same effort, and the same end goal. I like to break down the barriers between all of those disciplines and create a holistic approach to design.”

I Have Lived All Over The Country, All Over The World, In Fact.

Pacific Northwest to Middle America

Max relocated to Minneapolis from Seattle after spending 15 years in the Emerald City.

Why Minnesota? I asked him, assuming I knew the answer. Usually moves in senior living that involve state lines have to do with family and other people our residents love. Max concurred. “I moved to Minneapolis to be at Walker through the advice of my daughter, who’s a student in MCAD here [in Minneapolis]. My sister also lives here with her husband and their family, and so it was kind of a natural place for me to return to after being in Seattle for the last 15 years. I have lived all over the country, all over the world, in fact. I’ve lived in lots of places at different times and I’m now retired.”

I asked Max to tell me about his profession. “I’m retired from being an architect, and I’m now focusing my work, shifting a little bit to art and photography.” As I glance again at his walls and get lost in the captivating work his vision has produced, I wonder how much Max’s definition of “shifting a little bit” is being downplayed. I ask him to start at the beginning.

Building a Career

“My career has been very … how can you say it? Wacko, in some ways. It’s circuitous. I’ve been all over the country and world doing different things, but I started as an architect. I have been an architect for 55 years. I started in Illinois where I grew up and went to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and then went to graduate school in Seattle at the University of Washington.

And that was a taste of how beautiful that place is. And if I had not left Seattle that year, I probably would’ve still been there the whole 55 years. But I decided I wanted to really move around and see other places. And so I said, I want to go work for the best architect in the country or that I can find. Mitchell Giurgola was my target. They were a design office that won the competition to do the A.I.A. headquarters building in Washington, D.C., and they had just been published.

So, I said, that’s where I want to work. And I drove back with my new wife to Illinois to see my parents and tell them the plan that I had. Giurgola said, “Great, come on out, but we can’t hire you until you come out and interview.” So, we drove in from Seattle all the way to Philadelphia.

Giurgola was a business person. He asked me what kind of work I had done and I brought the work out and I showed it to him and he said, are you really kidding me? This is not really the kind of work we do. He said, but I really like you and I like your work. It’s good design work. So I got the job. It was an eight-person firm at the time and that firm grew to 180 people within two years after that because of the new work that they had just received. So I spent my early years in Philadelphia, studying and becoming an architect for the first time, which was interesting.”

MAX

It wasn’t very long, about three years, it took me to realize that I did not like being an architect. Meaning the real science of being an architect, drawing up bathrooms and stair towers and lots of complicated [details] and managing people, managing the projects, was more business than I wanted to do.

I wanted to be the designer.

Max Steele

The Next Right Step

So I approached some friends and we talked about lots of things and realized that I wanted the chance to be a teacher. So I applied for schools around the country. I got interviews at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Florida in Gainesville, LSU in Louisiana, and Colorado, the University of Colorado in Boulder. And you wouldn’t probably guess this but that’s where I ended up because it was pretty spectacular. They didn’t offer me the same money, but they offered a real good situation because they were creating a new program, a new program called environmental design and it was to take the old architecture five-year program, make it a four-year program with the additional two years later. And I was one of four people who were selected to create that new curriculum, basically starts from scratch and create a design program that was also environmentally focused and based its work on problem-solving.

So now there was an opportunity to use what I learned in graduate school, which was a very scientific approach to design, very different than the Illinois intuitive approach and I became much more interested in reasons why and how you do things and how things are moving forward. I was able to develop that curriculum in the summer months before the program started. It was a four-month exercise and the program was successful and I enjoyed teaching for the next 15 years.”

illustrations

 

Changing the World

“Following that, it’s another shift and another pivot as I went and decided I wanted to get away from teaching and become more reconnected to the world. I wanted to be reconnected to what was going on in the real world and I decided to become an architect again. I reached out to some people and ended up accepting a position which wasn’t quite that, but it was a position with a developing company in Baltimore with projects around the country. In fact, they owned and developed, say, close to 75, 80 shopping centers.

The firm I worked for was changing the retail environment, they were changing the urban environment, and they were buying up properties and converting them. We were changing these places back to real thriving, enterprising places, places that were exciting to be, places people love to go. I spent a good 10 years with them and all of a sudden the economy falls out and I got laid off. I thought, what’s next? This is very exciting, it’s going to be hard, so it took me a while to get my feet on the ground. A couple of years later I got hired by some designers in Colorado where I used to work and they were some of the same people who were working with the company I worked for, the development company.

I worked for them for a few years and then I felt like I was ready to do the work on my own, so I developed an office in Denver and did the same kind of work. It was basically environmental graphic design. I did brand identities for shopping center developments and that was very exciting because I could make the connection between a good design and making money. I thought that was fantastic. To be able to make that connection.

I learned that through my retail experiences, a good design made sense, not only made sense but it was a very profitable venture and made that case. You know that for good design it wasn’t just looking for beauty. Now all of a sudden we could talk about beauty again, whereas before it was subjective and not wanting to be talked about, but now it’s important. Now there is a reason for it. There’s a trade-off for it. We talked about it, so that led me to do the work in my own office. I did that for about four years. One of the projects, by the way, was here in Minneapolis. It was uptown shopping, uptown center, uptown square. I developed the crown logo on top of the building on the corner there and up in Lake.

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To Be Able To Make That Connection.

The Hobbies & Vision
of a Design Man

Max said, “Following my retirement, I obviously looked into what could I do, what do I love doing? And it became very clear, I love the camera. I love working with the camera. I just couldn’t put it away. And it’s always with me. Everywhere I go, I capture the items that are not real clear; simple, ordinary objects. The more mundane an object is, the better. A leaf on the ground, a little bit of water that piles up in the rainstorm. Lots of simple items become really important, and you capture those, and you develop photography as a way of seeing this way, of capturing those, and way of presenting them to other people so they can see something in a different way. Something that looks like it’s not very much, it’s not very interesting, but yet becomes very exciting and other-worldly.

“What do I do when I transition out of architecture, and I’m looking for the next thing to do because I can’t stop my creative process? Everything. Everything for me is being interesting, creative, and creating new, different approaches, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. And I find I’m able to do that with the camera a lot. I use a camera to see things, to observe things. And I think as a teacher, I always would talk about the process of seeing and how really, that is important.

And one way to really see, I mean really see, is to get down deep into things, by using a camera to capture these moments, capture the happening. But also how to find that thing, how to find that place where the light hits something or where the colors are just right, where the themes are right. Whether you find the light hitting something in the right way, you close in, you crop in, and you get close into it. You start to see even more things and you start to see a story that’s there, and you don’t see it if you just kind of walk by. That’s really important to give it an opportunity. And these are very mundane, very simple and also very complex.”

The More Mundane An Object Is, The Better.

Behind the Lens

Max is showing me some of his photographs, explaining his vision and execution. He said, “The way I took these pictures, and how I selected the pictures is part of it, but making a print of those pictures is what makes it yet another world. They become alive, and then once I did a few of these, I started to think, what can I do to distinguish? Because walking around to different galleries, where I’d like to get my work visible, a lot of comments were, ‘Well, these are great photos, but there are a lot of great photos out. What can you do to set yourself apart and distinguish what you do?’

I took some of my photographs and started looking at them very closely and realized that the better photographs were pictures that weren’t so good, and took them and got deeper into each of those and started to print them. I got a printer and started to create real paintings with the photographs. The paintings then turned into complex prints. Later on, I started adding more than one image together, two and three images in the printer, not in a computer, because I prefer to do it as a sketch, as an impulse, as a visceral thing. So it’s not just overplanned or worked on too much. I wanted to have more depth to it.

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In Stillness

Max has Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that affects movement. His current symptoms are minor; a slight tremor of his hand that’s hardly noticeable. He tells me it’s affected the way he speaks and he feels quiet now, quieter than he’s ever been. I assure him I can hear him crystal-clear and find myself wondering if this man, this introspective, studious, visionary man has ever been loud. That idea doesn’t seem to fit, at least for me. I guess I assign sight to be the architect’s ultimate sense, the unyielding power of vision more so than voice, sound, or speech.

He continues, “Throughout my career, five decades, I have traveled the world and experienced a lot of different work situations and have had opportunity and gratitude, grateful for those positive opportunities to be involved in work from the architect’s viewpoint, the designer’s viewpoint, the graphic designer’s viewpoint, and the developer’s viewpoint. And teaching. In each one of these experiences, I got different feedback and it became clear to me that they were all related, they were all feeding each other, all making sense out of the total experience and I learned that good design is valuable and it is important to do it in an objective problem-solving way. And I think I’m… I’m not done doing this yet.”

Where Max Lives

Place

3701 Bryant Ave S., Minneapolis, 55409
612-827-8500
  • Independent Living
  • Assisted Living
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