Mrs. K and The Meaning of Life
In the late-1960s, when I’d been out of architecture school for several years, I was not interested in having a permanent job. Instead, I spent time bouncing around among firms. One reason I could do that was that I could sketch and draw quite well; that is to say, I could give visual shape to other people’s design ideas. The other reason was that I had spent all my summer years during my university days in construction, so I did know how to put buildings together. Because of these two skills, I was never out of short-term employment. Sometimes the employment was as short as one week, sometimes as long as three months.
Early in 1969, however, I thought it would be best for me to have steady employment. I applied to Archibald + Archibald Architects, a well-known, established firm that specialized in working for large, up-market developers, and I was hired at a rank slightly above the lowest. The firm was organized in a corporate structure. Vertically, it had over six levels. From the top, the Partners were first; next, the Associates, then Office Managers, then Division Managers, and then Production and Supporting staff. I was a subordinate production staff worker. Horizontally, the firm was structured into various divisions: Large Projects, Small Projects, PR and Promotion, and Research.
One Friday I was called into the Small Project Division Manager’s office. She assigned me to take on a new small project, which she proceeded to explain. One of the firm’s major clients, a large development company, had just completed construction of a major office/retail complex downtown. The office tower was occupied, and in fact, the developers themselves occupied the top six floors. The retail area was still to be leased; however, the anchor space was already set be occupied by a well-known international women’s accessories company. The company, which still exists, bears the owner’s name and provides luxury items. It had its own international celebrity architect for the design of the anchor space. The Division Manager explained that I was not under any circumstances to refer to the retail space as a “shop”. It was a studio-gallery and showroom. My job was to assist the architect by performing small tasks such as obtaining permits from City Hall and running delivery errands. She said a meeting had been called for the following Monday at 10 am at the developers’ headquarters, and I would attend. My role was to be purely subsidiary. She impressed upon me that I was not to speak, nor to ask questions, but I was merely to take notes and make a report to her afterwards.
After the briefing, I went to the Research Department to pick up the files and background material about the client. The Division Manager had told me to read the material on my own time; I would not be paid to do that. She alleged that was the practice agreed upon by the Labour Ministry and the city’s architectural firms (I later found out that was not true). The Research Department, located on a different floor from Small Projects, was staffed by elderly ladies. They handed me several files inside a plastic box. I had to promise not to drop food on the files, not to create coffee rings, not to read the files in the bath. I duly promised.
Saturday I spent the afternoon reading the files. They were in different-coloured folders, and dealt with different aspects of Mrs. K’s company. The first one, purple, contained the information that the company was the creation of Mrs. K, and was named after her, and most importantly, that she owned it. The purple file also contained a brief statement of the company’s financial status; it was listed in the Fortune 500, with annual sales of almost $150 million.
The second file, white, gave a brief history of the creation of the company, which was intertwined with her personal history. Mrs. K was born in the 1930s (no precise date given), in a small southern California town in San Diego county. Her parents were agricultural workers for an avocado grower until root rot began to devastate crops. At the age of 16, Mrs. K worked as a salesperson in a local women’s dress shop that also sold women’s accessories. At 19 she married the son of the local banker, and two years later she acquired the shop, with help from the bank.
The third file was green. It sheltered an article that revealed how the company had become so successful. The article had been published in a marketing journal, and according to its author, Mrs. K’s genius lay in the recognition that the products were not necessarily significant in themselves; it was the brand that mattered. She had spent a lot of time developing her brand successfully. The concept of her brand was that an accessory adds meaning to the life of its owner by exhibiting luxury and enhancing the wearer’s social status.
The red file also contained an article. This one reported the dramatic change in her branding, concentrating her concept into one single sentence: The Accessory is the meaning of life. The article explained that while the first concept had implied the consumer already had a life and was adding meaning to it through the agency of an accessory, the second statement equated accessory to the meaning of life. The article claimed this declaration to be genius. I noticed that shortly after the utterance of the declaration, the company sales really took off.
The blue file offered an article about how the Harvard Business School used a case study of the company to train MBAs. Another article, written by a professor of Marketing, discussed in scholarly language the importance of changing “adds” to “is”.
The yellow file held cuttings from newspaper society pages and gossip columns. I jotted down some notes from this file. Mrs. K’s first husband died in 1963 of a sudden heart attack on the San Clemente golf course. Mrs. K remarried; the new husband was referred to in some columns as The Accessory. The last note I wrote in my notebook was from a piece of gossip that said Mrs. K was prone to “emotional outbursts”. The article didn’t mention any details about the outbursts, but did report that afterward a team of PR people went into action to smooth over the episode.
I finished the files and packed them once again in their box, making sure there were no food stains or coffee rings. Sunday afternoon I ironed my one and only suit, a white shirt, and a clean handkerchief. Then I went to see my neighbour, a retired judge, to borrow a designer tie. He insisted I should have a matching pocket “square”. I was ready.
On Monday morning, 20 minutes before 10 o’clock, I reported to the reception desk on the ground floor lobby of the building designed by our firm, where the developers had their head office. I was told to go up to the 38th floor, and when I stepped out on the 38th floor I found myself in another reception area, a large hall with a huge double door at one end. I was told to wait in the hall. One by one, middle-aged men in black suits appeared, perhaps 10 of them. I didn’t count. Luckily, I knew one of them. He was a Project Manager of Construction. Some time previously, I had delivered some construction documents to him on site. I vaguely remembered his name was George. I went over and said hello. It seemed to me he was the lowest man on the totem pole. He told me the other men were Chiefs of Departments, and it would be best for me to sit beside him.
Low murmurs came from the hall. Nobody introduced anybody, in accordance with their corporate protocol. At five minutes to 10, the double door opened. I followed everyone into the conference room. It was a huge room. In the middle of the room stood a large oval conference table. A bank of floor to ceiling windows took up one wall. Opposite the windows was a wall covered by a large tapestry, which turned out to be a photograph of a tapestry. A large curtain hung on the wall opposite the double doors, and presumably covered a screen for projections.
An elaborately carved chair stood at the end of the conference table. To the right of it about 20 conference chairs were lined up around that side of the table. On the left side of the end chair, two high-backed gold-upholstered chairs stood importantly.
The Chiefs of the Departments all sat on the conference chairs on the right, apparently in order of rank. George was the furthest from the large carved chair, and I was beyond George. Everyone seemed to know the meeting would not start on time. Mrs. K was not known for punctuality at meetings, and the assembled men appeared to be prepared to wait.
I noticed the table was unusually high. I asked George why, and he kindly explained to me that the CEO did not like his staff or anyone else to put his or her elbows on the table. The table had been commissioned to be built with extra height.
The double doors parted at last. In came Mrs. K, her husband and the CEO in that order. An image flashed through my mind from David Attenborough’s remarkable Zoo Quest series, specifically, a bird of prey landing on a rabbit. Wings spread, claws extended, Mrs. K entered in her magnificent designer outfit, wearing an enormous handbag of her own brand across her body. The CEO ushered Mrs. K to her chair, a gold-upholstered one. The husband climbed into the other gold chair. The CEO settled in his carved chair at the head of the table. He slowly reached into his jacket and produced a gold pen, with which he tapped the table. That was the signal the meeting was opened. The husband placed a pile of documents in front of Mrs. K, and discussion proceeded about various items in the documents. Since I had not seen those documents, I didn’t know what was going on, but I did put on my very best attentive manner. I showed great interest and intensity in the discussion, my upper body leaning forward slightly, eyes focused on the speakers, nodding my head once in a while, and occasionally writing in my notepad words such as “lunch” and a reminder to self to return the tie.
Suddenly I observed some open disagreement growing between Mrs. K and her husband. Voices were raised. Arms were waved. Fingers were pointed. Mrs. K and her husband both stood up and pushed back their gilded chairs. The CEO, Chiefs of Departments, George, and I also stood up. We were ready, if need arose, to separate the couple.
The husband abruptly rushed to the door and disappeared between the two great panels. We all focused on the closing door and the empty space between them left by the husband. Then we all turned our attention back to the conference table. Mrs. K was nowhere to be seen.
Horror! Horror! Horror! We all sat down and looked at the CEO. I looked at the bank of windows, and had a brief mental image of her flying down the side of the building toward the granite plaza below. Fortunately, the windows were all tightly sealed. The room was utterly quiet. We still looked expectantly at the CEO, hoping he would produce Mrs. K.
Eventually we heard a faint sobbing sound. It was coming from under the table. The CEO seemed relieved. He started to play with his gold pen, rolling it back and forth. Then a thought seemed to come to him. He pointed the gold pen directly and unmistakably towards me. Then he pointed to the table. Me! Why me? But his message was unambiguous. At first I was rather offended. Then a burning curiosity to see what was going on under the table overcame my initial affront. I got up, walked around the CEO to the other side of the conference table, and took out my newly ironed handkerchief. In view of the sobbing, I strategised privately, it could provide an opening move. Then I lowered my body and proceeded to crawl under the table.
The conference table was wide, with a set of supporting legs in the centre. Mrs. K was leaning her back on one of those legs. Her designer suit was in disarray, as was her hair. Her make-up was running down her face in black trails.
I was not totally lost in this situation. Two years earlier I had been working for a husband-and-wife architecture firm. They specialised in early childhood development educational centres. I visited several of the centres and observed them in operation. When a child threw a tantrum, I noticed that the teacher always put on a special voice, low and sympathetic. “It’s all right.” This situation definitely required a similar voice. Sympathetically cooing, I handed over my handkerchief. She took it.
A thought suddenly ran through my mind: her disappearing act had not been witnessed by anyone in the room. If her reappearance were to be witnessed by the CEO and Department Chiefs, the effect would be acute embarrassment. I crawled out from under the table and went over to the CEO. He looked very distressed. I leaned toward his ear and quietly told him that I would assist Mrs. K to come out from under the table, but he and everybody else had to leave the conference room first, and do so quietly. I could see he was very reluctant to obey my order, but I assured him that I would signal him and the rest to come back to the room at the right moment. He looked relieved at that. He stood up without a word and motioned for the Department Chiefs and George to follow him out of the room.
I went to the door to make sure it was closed, tried to lock it, discovered it had no lock, and put a chair against it. Then I went back to the table and crawled under it again. This time I did not put on a sympathetic voice, but merely suggested to Mrs. K that she would be much more comfortable out in the empty room. I helped her up, tidied her designer jacket, and ushered her to the gold-upholstered chair. She sat down and opened her huge bag, producing numerous boxes, bottles, sprays, and plastic cases of various sizes, and consigning my handkerchief to its depths. In my trade, this was a restoration project. Rather than watch it, I went to the window.
I was quite diverted as I stood looking out. I could see the new City Hall below and Chinatown nearby. I began to calculate the total of the salaries and bonuses of the Department Chiefs and CEO for that year, and estimated the sum would be about $1.2 million dollars. My income would be about $9,000 for that year. Yet at that moment, I was in sole control of the situation. I had told the CEO and Department Chiefs what to do and how to behave, not to mention telling their important client Mrs. K what to do.
In the midst of these musings, I heard the click of Mrs. K’s designer bag. I went over to her. She looked fine, the same as she had before her emotional outburst. I suggested it would be good for her to engage herself in reading the documents carefully while I went to bring back the CEO and others. She quickly grasped the strategy I was offering to account for the episode: Mrs. K had needed privacy to study the documents. I had been left behind in the room in case she might want a coffee or something.
I went to the double door and opened it a fraction. My hand signalled they could come back in. I went back to my chair and quickly became engrossed in reading documents. One by one they all slipped in, sat down, and began reading. The CEO sat down too, and pulled out his gold pen again. He announced some of the agenda items could be discussed later. Then something inspired him. He leaned toward Mrs. K and said the next meeting, in two weeks, would be a sensational event, a multimedia event, built around Mrs. K herself. The whole event would focus on Mrs. K’s announcement of a new showroom/gallery, and would be a perfect opportunity for showing off the international celebrity architect’s design. It would be a multi-screen architectural design presentation. She frowned slightly. He quickly went on to say this was merely the prelude to the announcement of the forthcoming gallery that would feature her superb accessories. Then a promotional film would screen, based on her well-known dictum: The Accessory is the meaning of life.
By this time, all the department chiefs—after sniffing the scent like a pack of dogs seeking direction—were clued into what was in the CEO’s mind. They all began talking at the same time, offering directions and vibrant visions:
“The Minister of Trade will be invited!”
“The Governor-General will be invited!”
“All the local VIPs and international stars will be invited!”
“A top New York event planner will be engaged!”
“All the media—TV, radio, newspaper—will participate!”
“A-listers, both local and international, will be invited!”
“An orchestra will play!”
“Gourmet catering will serve food!”
During this excited exchange of information, the husband slid into the room quietly. Surrounded by this happy and exuberant outpouring, the CEO put his gold pen back into his jacket. The meeting was over. He ushered Mrs. K and her husband out the double door. We packed up our brief cases and quietly left the room.
In the lobby on the ground floor, I looked at my watch and saw I had gained 30 minutes for my lunch hour. I went to my favourite hole-in-the-wall in Chinatown. After lunch, I went back to the office to prepare my report. It was entirely devoted to the forthcoming multimedia event, strongly emphasizing its PR importance, and pointing out how significant it would be for our firm, with its fantastic opportunity for published photos and stories about us. If we played it right, our Senior Partners would be able to mingle with Mrs. K, her husband, and the world-renowned celebrity architect. I made three copies of this report, and went to hand one to the Division Manager. Then I returned the box of files to the Research Department, assuring the ladies they had acquired no food or coffee stains.
Tuesday was uneventful, since no more work for Mrs. K’s project was left to be done. Wednesday morning, I was summoned to the Division Manager’s office. She and I went together to the Office Manager’s office, where I was told to begin work on a very urgent project. A supermarket in a near-by town, about an hour’s drive away, required a new shelter for shopping trollies. I was instructed to go there at once to talk to the Manager and obtain all the site information. As I walked toward the door, I asked, “What about Mrs. K’s project?”
“Don’t concern yourself with Mrs. K’s project. It’s being taken care of by one of the senior partners.”
“Right,” I said, and went out. As I was walking to my car to drive to the supermarket, I noticed I had lots of time again to have lunch. I decided to go to my favourite hole-in-the-wall. What luck! Twice in three days! But I never saw my handkerchief again.