LLOYD KAHN | SHELTER PUBLICATIONS | West Marin
Lloyd Kahn lays out his books in the same way he builds his houses: by hand. On a Thursday afternoon, I find him in the Shelter Publications Office, a small building adjacent to the house he lives in with his wife, Lesley Creed, cutting and pasting printed-out pictures onto a long sheet of paper. He marks up the pages with handwritten notes and colors in the white areas with a green marker. The green is supposed to resemble grass, which is what he wants the page background to look like. Over the past 50 years, Lloyd Kahn, who is the founder and editor-in-chief of Shelter Publications, as well as the erstwhile Shelter Editor at the venerable Whole Earth Catalog, has been advocating for starting small, even if that means cutting and pasting pictures onto paper.
Though accomplished as a builder, publisher, editor, and author who has created a rural one-plot, multi-structure sanctuary for himself in West Marin, his methodology isn’t extreme: as he suggests in his seminal 1973 book Shelter, self-sufficiency is a direction and not an attainable goal; the idea is to “do as much for yourself as possible. This doesn’t necessarily DIY-everything. Instead, he means this: do something within the context of your life as it is today. According to Lloyd, living well doesn’t have to be complex or difficult.
“From the beginning, Lloyd’s publishing logos has never centered on the advocacy of a particular lifestyle or dogma; rather, his books reveal the outlook of a dreamer who sees the possibilities of simpler and more functional living—a democratic way of living, in fact: anyone who can read a manual can also do the work.”
Lloyd was born and raised in San Francisco, near the Palace of Fine Arts. He studied economics at Stanford, served in the U.S. Air Force, and then worked as an insurance broker in the city. But on weekends, he took on part-time carpentry jobs in Mill Valley. By 1965, he had quit his office job and was working as a builder full-time. For almost his entire life, Lloyd has made his home up and down the Northern California coast: for a few years in his 30s, he lived in Big Sur, where he was a foreman (He also built his own house there). In Big Sur, he began building geodesic domes, and shortly thereafter, he was commissioned to build 17 domes at a high school in Santa Cruz mountains; in practice, he became the dome-building teacher on campus—the students were taught to build their own domes out of plywood, aluminum, and vinyl, and they subsequently lived in them. Lloyd doesn’t currently live in a dome, and if you ask him why, he’ll tell you that domes don’t make good homes—an opinion he developed after building many of them. “I’m not afraid to admit I’m wrong,” he says. In the mid 70s, after living for a year in a hand-built dome in Marin, he dissembled it and began building differently.
Such experimentation became the foundation for Shelter Publications, which has published 11 books over the past forty years—Lloyd has authored six of them. “I like to tell people what I find,” he says, whether that’s a 240-page book on stretching or the best way to maintain septic systems. When he was working for Whole Earth Catalog under Stewart Brand, the very first books he authored, Domebook One and Two, were instruction manuals, “a record of our experiences with mathematically derived structures which approximate curves … a disclosure of our successes and failures in experimental building.” From the beginning, Lloyd’s publishing logos has never centered on the advocacy of a particular lifestyle or dogma; rather, his books reveal the outlook of a dreamer who sees the possibilities of simpler and more functional living—a democratic way of living, in fact: anyone who can read a manual can also do the work.
These days, Lloyd carries a camera around with him everywhere—he has a few analog point-and-shoot cameras, but has landed on a Sony point-and-shoot that he likes very much. He loves talking gadgetry. Over the years, he’s accumulated over 15,000 photographs—enough material for several more books. “I’ve been collecting stuff for 50 years now,” he says. In a digital era of infinite marketing channels, Lloyd has an entire trove of content waiting to be exhibited—the question now is how, and which platform (a blog? Instagram? Tumblr?). While I’m in the Shelter Publications office, he asks me a stream of questions about Instagram and Squarespace—I can tell he’s interested in new technology. But I also see that he relies on what he knows best: building things step by step, by hand. After all, he’s cutting and pasting happily—and it works.