The House that Straight Line Designs Built: Remembering Judson Beaumont

In the summer of 2002, a veritable circus rolled into town and onto the Princeton campus. Swaddled in bubble wrap like so many baby elephants were the trunk pieces of a giant bonsai tree, way-larger-than-life animal topiary, and a colossal book – just to name a few of the outsized and outstanding features that would become our Cotsen Bookscape. The installation was long and physically demanding (the exhibit cases alone took six men to move into place) but what we remember was the sound of the sweaty workers laughing at the constant patter of jokes and humorous encouragement by the man whose motto was “take a crazy idea and make it happen.”  That was Judson Beaumont, founder of Straight Line Designs, a company in Vancouver that creates one-of-a-kind furniture pieces and commissions.

In 2001 Jud was charged with transforming a picture-book landscape envisioned by Bryn Mawr architect Jim Bradberry into wood and Corian and re-assembling all its parts in the gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library. How did we find him? An internet search using the key words whimsical, unusual and furnishings. And a bit of serendipity: Jud was completing the installation for a children’s hospital waiting room in Newark, NJ when we inquired if there were examples of his work that we could visit locally. The rest is Cotsen history.

The installation Jud created transformed the gallery into a landscape that was airy, open, and wonder-inducing, filled with little nooks where children are welcome to inhabit their own worlds. The payoff of an open office in the curatorial suite is being able at any given moment to look away from the screen and see the happy kids running around exploring Jud’s space. And we love overhearing the excited and amazed “Oohs” and “Aahs” from visitors entering the colorful gallery for the first time.

The installation has withstood plenty of hard use as the fanciful setting for the Cotsen’s weekly book-inspired programs for school children or a retreat for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a book off the shelves inside the giant bonsai.  Bookscape today is as beautiful as when it opened to the public 18 years ago, testimony to Jud’s superb craftsmanship.

Jud with a prototype of a whacky flying machine.

There have been a few additions to the gallery along the way. We commissioned Jud to design a puppet stage, with built-in storage concealed behind and underneath the proscenium. When Cotsen received the gift of a giant grandfather clock designed by Maurice Sendak for a Glyneborne Opera production, who but Jud could build a stunning display case of bent plexiglass and wood? A bare wall adjacent to the Wall of Books was turned into a sky filled with high-flying kites.So it is with a combination of grief and gratitude that we pass on the heartbreaking news that Judson Beaumont, that whirlwind of energy, has died.  Jud the magician filled space with playful installations, extraordinary structures, and zany furniture, but he was also a great mentor and friend.  We treasure our time with him, whether it was building scaffolding, making supply runs to Lowe’s, mulling over drawings, enjoying well-deserved beers at Triumph after a long day, or tagging along with him to exhibitions after the project wrapped.  It was a privilege to know someone who would take on the challenge of remodeling Hogwarts without blinking…  The world will be more ordinary without him.

With special thanks to Cotsen emeriti Bonnie Bernstein, Ian Dooley, and Eric Johnson.